SMUGNESS and falseness and sequences of re-adjusting fatalities — and yet so great is the hypnotic power of astronomic science that it can outlive its "mortal" blows by the simple process of forgetting them, and, in general, simply by denying that it can make mistakes. Upon page 245, Old and New Astronomy, Richard Proctor says — "The ideas of astronomers on these questions of distance have not changed, and in the present position of astronomy, based (in such respects) on absolute demonstration, they cannot change."(1)
Sounds that have roared in the sky, and their vibrations have shaken down villages — if these be the voices of Development, commanding that opinions shall change, we shall learn what will become of the Proctors and their "absolute demonstrations." Lights that have appeared in the sky — that they are gleams upon the armament of Marching Organization. "There can only be one explanation of meteors" — I think it is that they are shining spearpoints of slayers of dogmas. I point to the sky over a little town in Perthshire, Scotland — there may be a new San Salvador — it may be a new Plymouth Rock. I point to the crater Aristarchus, of the moon — there, for more than a century, a lighthouse may have been signalling. Whether out of profound meditations, or farrago and bewilderment, I point, directly, or miscellaneously, and, if only a few of the multitude of data be accepted, unformulable perturbations rack an absolute sureness, and the coils of our little horizons relax their constrictions.
I indicate that, in these pages, which are banners in a cosmic procession, I do feel a sense of responsibility, but how to maintain any great seriousness I do not know, because still is our subject astronomical "triumphs."
Once upon a time there was a young man, aged eighteen, whose name was Jeremiah Horrox. He was no astronomer. He was interested in astronomic subjects, but it may be that we shall agree [34/35] that a young man of eighteen, who had not been heard of by one astronomer of his time, was an outsider. There was a transit of Venus in December, 1639, but not a grown-up astronomer in the world expected it, because the not always great and infallible Kepler had predicted the next transit of Venus for the year 1761. According to Kepler, Venus would pass below the sun in December, 1639. But there was another calculation: it was by the great, but sometimes not so great, Lansberg: that, in December, 1639, Venus would pass over the upper part of the sun. Jeremiah Horrox was an outsider. He was able to reason that, if Venus could not pass below the sun, and also over the upper part of the sun, she might take a middle course. Venus did pass over the middle part of the sun's disc; and Horrox reported the occurrence, having watched it.(2)
I suppose this was one of the most agreeable humiliations in the annals of busted inflations. One thinks sympathetically of the joy that went out from seventeenth-century Philistines. The story is told to this day by the Proctors and Balls and Newcombs: the way they tell this story of the boy who was able to conclude that something could not occupy two extremes might be intermediate, and thereby see something that no professional observer of the time saw, is a triumph of absorption:
That the transit of Venus, in December, 1639, was observed by Jeremiah Horrox, "the great astronomer."(3)
We shall make some discoveries as we go along, and some of them will be worse thought of than others, but there is a discovery here that may be of interest: the secret of immortality — that there is a mortal resistance to everything; but that the thing that can keep on incorporating, or assimilating within itself, its own mortal resistances, will live forever. By its absorptions, the science of astronomy perpetuates its inflations, but there have been instances of indigestion. See the New York Herald, Sept. 16, 1909.(4) Here Flammarion, who probably no longer asserts any such thing, claims Dr. Cook's "discovery of the north pole" as an "astronomical conquest." Also there are other ways. One suspects that the treatment that Dr. Lescarbault received from Flammarion illustrates other ways.
In the year 1859, it seems that Dr. Lescarbault was some- [35/36] thing of an astronomer. It seems that as far back as that he may have known a planet when he saw one, because, in an interview, he convinced Leverrier that he did know a planet when he saw one. He had at least heard of the planet Venus, because in the year 1882 he published a paper upon indications that Venus has an atmosphere.(5) Largely because of an observation, or an announcement, of his, occurred the climax of Leverrier's fiascos: prediction of an intra-Mercurial planet that did not appear when it "should" appear. My suspicion is that astronomers pardonably, but frailly, had it in for Lescarbault, and that in the year 1891 came an occurrence that one of them made an opportunity. Early in the year 1891, Dr. Lescarbault announced that, upon the night of Jan. 11, 1891, he had seen a new star.(6) At the next meeting of the French Academy, Flammarion rose, spoke briefly, and sat down without over-doing. He said that Lescarbault had "discovered" Saturn.(7)
If a navigator of at least thirty years' experience should announced that he had discovered an island, and if that island should turn out to be Bermuda, he would pair with Lescarbault — as Flammarion made Lescarbault appear. Even though I am a writer upon astronomical subjects, myself, I think that even I should know Saturn, if I should see him, at least in such a period as the year 1891, when the rings were visible. It is perhaps an incredible mistake. However, it will be agreeable to some of us to find that astronomers have committed just such almost incredible mistakes —
In Cosmos, n.s., 42-467, is a list of astronomers who reported "unknown" dark bodies that they had seen crossing the disc of the sun:(8)
La Concha ..... Montevideo ..... Nov. 5, 1789;
Keyser ........... Amsterdam ...... Nov. 9, 1802;
Fisher ............. Lisbon ............. May 5, 1832;
Houzeau ......... Brussels ........... May 8, 1845.
According to the Nautical Almanac, the planet Mercury did cross the disc of the sun upon these dates.(9)
It is either that the Flammarions do so punish those who see [36/37] the new and the undesired, or that astronomers do "discover" Saturn, and do not know Mercury when they see him — and that Buckle overlooked something when he wrote that only the science of history attracts inferior minds often not fit even for clergymen.(10)
Whatever we think of Flammarion, we admire his deftness. But we shall have an English instance of the ways in which Astronomy maintains itself and controls those who say they see that which the "should" not see, which does seem beefy. One turns the not very attractive-looking pages of the English Mechanic, 1893, casually, perhaps, at any rate in no expectations of sensations — glaring at one, a sketch of such a botanico-pathologic monstrosity as a musk melon with rows of bunions on it (English Mechanic, Oct. 20, 1893).(11) The reader is told, by Andrew Barclay, F.R.A.S., Kilmarnock, Scotland, that this enormity is the planet Jupiter, according to the speculum of his Gregorian telescope.
In the next issue of the English Mechanic, Capt. Noble, F.R.A.S., writes, gently enough, that, if he had such a telescope, he would dispose of the optical parts for whatever they would bring, and make a chimney cowl of the tube.(12)
English Mechanic, 1893-2-309 — the planet Mars, by Andrew Barclay — a dark sphere, surrounded by a thick ring of lighter material; attached to it, another sphere, of half its diameter — a sketch as gross and repellent to a conventionalist as the museum-freak, in whose body the head of a dangling twin is embedded, its dwarfed body lopping out from his side.(13) There is a description by Mr. Barclay, according to whom the main body is red and the proturberance blue.
Captain Noble — "Preposterous...last straw that breaks the camel's back!"(14)
Mr. Barclay comes back with some new observations upon Jupiter's lumps, and then in the rest of the volume is not heard from again.(15) One reads on, interested in quieter matters, and gradually forgets the controversy —
English Mechanic, August 23, 1897:(16)
A gallery of monstrosities: Andrew Barclay, signing himself "F.R.A.S.," exhibiting:
The planet Jupiter, six times encircled with lumps; afflicted Mars, with his partly embedded twin reduced in size, but still a distress to all properly trained observers; the planet Saturn, shaped like a mushroom with a ring around it.
Captain Noble — "Mr. Barclay is not a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and, were the game worth the candle, might be restrained by injunction from so describing himself!"(17) And upon page 362, of this volume of the English Mechanic, Captain Noble calls the whole matter "a pseudo F. R. A. S.'s crazy hallucinations."(18)
Lists of the Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, from June, 1875, to June, 1896:
"Barclay, Andrew, Kilmarnock, Scotland; elected Feb. 8, 1856."
I cannot find the list for 1897 in the libraries. List for 1898 — Andrew Barclay's name omitted.(19) Thou shalt not see lumps on Jupiter.
Every one of Barclay's observations has something to support it. All conventional representations of Jupiter show encirclements by strings of rotundities that we are told are cloud-forms, but, in the Jour. B.A.A., Dec. 1910, is published a paper by Dr. Downing, entitled: "Is Jupiter Humpy?" suggesting that various phenomena upon Jupiter agree with the idea that there are protuberances upon the planet.(20) A common appearance, said to be an illusion, is Saturn as an oblong, if not mushroom-shaped; see any good index for observations upon the "square-shouldered aspect" of Saturn. In L'Astronomie, 1889-135, is a sketch of Mars, according to Fontana, in the year 1636 — a sphere enclosed in a ring; in the center of the sphere a great protruding body, said, by Fontana, to have looked like a vast, black cone.(21)
But, whether this or that should amuse or enrage us, should be accepted or rejected, is not to me the crux; but Andrew Barclay's own opening words are:
That, through a conventional telescope, conventional appearances are seen, and that a telescope is tested by the conventionality of its disclosures; but that there may be new optical principles, or applications, that may be, to the eye and the present telescope, what once the conventional telescope was to the eye — in times [38/39] when scientists refused to look at the preposterous, enraging, impossible moons of Jupiter.
In the English Mechanic, 33-327, is a letter from the astronomer, A. Stanley Williams.(22) He had written previously upon double stars, their colors an magnitudes. Another astronomer, Herbert Sadler, had pointed out some errors. Mr. Williams acknowledges the errors, saying that some were his own, and that some were from Smyth's Cycle of Celestial Objects.(23) In the English Mechanic, 33-377, Sadler says that, earnestly, he would advise Williams not to use the new edition of Smyth's Cycle, because, with the exception of vol. 40, Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, "a more disgracefully inaccurate" catalogue of double stars had never been published.(24) "If," says one astronomer to the other astronomer, "you have a copy of this miserable publication, sell it for waste paper. It is crammed with the most stupid errors."
A new character appears. He is George F. Chambers, F.R.A.S., author of a long list of astronomical works, and a tract entitled, Where Are You Going, Sunday?(25) He, too, is earnest. In this early correspondence, nothing ulterior is apparent, and we suppose that it is in the cause of Truth that he is so earnest. Says one astronomer that the other astronomer is "evidently one of those self-sufficient young men, who are nothing, if not abusive." But can Mr. Sadler have so soon forgotten what was done to him, on a former occasion, after he had slandered Admiral Smyth? Chambers challenges Sadler to publish a list of, say, fifty "stupid errors" in the book. He quotes the opinion of the Astronomer Royal: that the book was a work of "sterling merit." "Airy vs. Sadler," he says: "which is it to be?"(26)
We began not very promisingly. Few excitements seemed to lurk in such a subject as double stars, their colors and magnitudes; but slander and abuse are livelier, and now enters curiosity: we'd like to know what was done to Herbert Sadler.
Late in the year 1876, Herbert Sadler was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.(27) In Monthly Notices, R.A.S., Jan., 1879, appears his first paper that was read to the Society: Notes on the late Admiral Smyth's Cycle of Celestial Objects, [39/40] volume second, known as the Bedford Catalogue.(28) With no especial vehemence, at least according to our own standards of repression, Sadler expresses himself upon some "extraordinary mistakes" in this work.
At the meeting of the Society, May 9, 1879, there was an attack upon Sadler, and it was led by Chambers, or conducted by Chambers, who cried out that Sadler had slandered a great astronomer and demanded that Sadler should resign. In the report of this meeting, published in the Observatory, there is not a trace of anybody's endeavors to find out whether there were errors in this book or not: Chambers ignored everything but his accusation of slander, and demanded again that Sadler should resign.(29) In Monthly Notices, 39-389, the Council of the Society published regrets that it had permitted publication of Sadler's paper, "which was entirely unsupported by the citation of instances upon which his judgment was founded."(30)
We find that it was Mr. Chambers who had revised and published the new edition of Smyth's Cycle.
In the English Mechanic, Chambers challenged Sadler to publish, say, fifty "stupid errors."(31) See page 451, vol. 33, English Mechanic — Sadler lists just fifty "stupid errors."(32) He says that he could have listed, not 50, but 250, not trivial, but of the "grossest kind." He says that in one set of 167 observations, 117 were wrong.
The English Mechanic drops out of this comedy with the obvious title, but developments go on. Evidently withdrawing its "regrets," the Council permitted publication of a criticism of Chambers' edition of Smyth's Cycle, in Monthly Notices, 40-497, and the language in this criticism, by S.W. Burnham, was no less interpretable as slanderous than was Sadler's: that Smyth's data were "either roughly approximate or grossly incorrect, and so constantly recurring that it was impossible to explain that they were ordinary errors of observation."(33) Burnham lists 30 pages of errors.
Following is a paper by E.B. Knobel, who published 17 pages of instances in which, in his opinion, Mr. Burnham had been too severe.(34) Knowing of no objection by Burnham to this reduction, we have left 13 pages of stupid errors in one standard astronomical [40/41] work, which may fairly be considered as representative of astronomical work in general, inasmuch as it was, in the opinion of the Astronomer Royal, a book of "sterling merit."
I think that now we have accomplished something. After this we should all get along more familiarly and agreeably together. Thirteen pages of errors in one standard astronomical work are
reassuring; there is a likeable fallibility here that should make for better relations. If the
astronomers were what they think they are, we might as well make squeaks of disapproval against Alpine summits. As to astronomers who calculate positions of planets — of whom he
was one — Newcomb, in Reminiscences of an Astronomer, says — "The men who have done it
are therefore, in intellect, the select few of the human race, — an aristocracy above all others in the scale of being."(35) We could never get along comfortably with such awful selectness as that.
We are grateful to Mr. Sadler, in the cause of more comfortable relations.