Astronomical Discovery Part 1

Astronomical Discovery.

by Herbert Hall Turner.


The aim of the following pages is to ill.u.s.trate, by the study of a few examples chosen almost at random, the variety in character of astronomical discoveries. An attempt has indeed been made to arrange the half-dozen examples, once selected, into a rough sequence according to the amount of "chance" a.s.sociated with the discovery, though from this point of view Chapter IV. should come first; but I do not lay much stress upon it. There is undoubtedly an element of "luck" in most discoveries. "The biggest strokes are all luck," writes a brother astronomer who had done me the honour to glance at a few pages, "but a man must not drop his catches.

Have you ever read Montaigne's essay 'Of Glory'? It is worth reading.

Change war and glory to discovery and it is exactly the same theme. If you are looking for a motto you will find a score in it." Indeed even in cases such as those in Chapters V. and VI., where a discovery is made by turning over a heap of rubbish--declared such by experts and abandoned accordingly--we instinctively feel that the finding of something valuable was especially "fortunate." We should scarcely recommend such waste material as the best hunting ground for gems.

The chapters correspond approximately to a series of six lectures delivered at the University of Chicago in August 1904, at the hospitable invitation of President Harper. They afforded me the opportunity of seeing something of this wonderful University, only a dozen years old and yet so amazingly vigorous; and especially of its observatory (the Yerkes observatory, situated eighty miles away on Lake Geneva), which is only eight years old and yet has taken its place in the foremost rank. For these opportunities I venture here to put on record my grateful thanks.

In a portion of the first chapter it will be obvious that I am indebted to Miss Clerke's "History of Astronomy in the Nineteenth Century"; in the second to Professor R. A. Sampson's Memoir on the Adams MSS.; in the third to Rigaud's "Life of Bradley." There are other debts which I hope are duly acknowledged in the text. My grateful thanks are due to Mr. F. A. Bellamy for the care with which he has read the proofs; and I am indebted for permission to publish ill.u.s.trations to the Royal Astronomical Society, the Astronomer Royal, the editors of _The Observatory_, the Cambridge University Press, the Harvard College Observatory, the Yerkes Observatory, and the living representatives of two portraits.





URa.n.u.s AND EROS

[Sidenote: Popular view of discovery.]

Discovery is expected from an astronomer. The lay mind scarcely thinks of a naturalist nowadays discovering new animals, or of a chemist as finding new elements save on rare occasions; but it does think of the astronomer as making discoveries. The popular imagination pictures him spending the whole night in watching the skies from a high tower through a long telescope, occasionally rewarded by the finding of something new, without much mental effort. I propose to compare with this romantic picture some of the actual facts, some of the ways in which discoveries are really made; and if we find that the image and the reality differ, I hope that the romance will nevertheless not be thereby destroyed, but may adapt itself to conditions more closely resembling the facts.

[Sidenote: Keats' lines.]

The popular conception finds expression in the lines of Keats:--

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken.

Keats was born in 1795, published his first volume of poems in 1817, and died in 1821. At the time when he wrote the discovery of planets was comparatively novel in human experience. Ura.n.u.s had been found by William Herschel in 1781, and in the years 1800 to 1807 followed the first four minor planets, a number destined to remain without additions for nearly forty years. It would be absurd to read any exact allusion into the words quoted, when we remember the whole circ.u.mstances under which they were written; but perhaps I may be forgiven if I compare them especially with the actual discovery of the planet Ura.n.u.s, for the reason that this was by far the largest of the five--far larger than any other planet known except Jupiter and Saturn, while the others were far smaller--and that Keats is using throughout the poem metaphors drawn from the first glimpses of "vast expanses" of land or water. Perhaps I may reproduce the whole sonnet. His friend C. C. Clarke had put before him Chapman's "paraphrase" of Homer, and they sat up till daylight to read it, "Keats shouting with delight as some pa.s.sage of especial energy struck his imagination. At ten o'clock the next morning Mr. Clarke found the sonnet on his breakfast-table."


_On first looking into Chapman's "Homer"_

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men Look'd at each other with a wild surmise-- Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

[Sidenote: Comparison with discovery of Ura.n.u.s.]

Let us then, as our first example of the way in which astronomical discoveries are made, turn to the discovery of the planet Ura.n.u.s, and see how it corresponds with the popular conception as voiced by Keats. In one respect his words are true to the life or the letter. If ever there was a "watcher of the skies," William Herschel was ent.i.tled to the name. It was his custom to watch them the whole night through, from the earliest possible moment to daybreak; and the fruits of his labours were many and various almost beyond belief. But did the planet "swim into his ken"? Let us turn to the original announcement of his discovery as given in the Philosophical Transactions for 1781.




(Communicated by Dr. Watson, jun., of Bath, F.R.S.)

_Read April 26, 1781_

[Sidenote: Original announcement.]

"On Tuesday the 13th of March, between ten and eleven in the evening, while I was examining the small stars in the neighbourhood of H Geminorum, I perceived one that appeared visibly larger than the rest; being struck with its uncommon magnitude, I compared it to H Geminorum and the small star in the quartile between Auriga and Gemini, and finding it to be so much larger than either of them, suspected it to be a comet.

"I was then engaged in a series of observations on the parallax of the fixed stars, which I hope soon to have the honour of laying before the Royal Society; and those observations requiring very high powers, I had ready at hand the several magnifiers of 227, 460, 932, 1536, 2010, &c., all which I have successfully used upon that occasion. The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I knew that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers as the planets are; therefore I now put on the powers of 460 and 932, and found the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on a supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that l.u.s.tre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.

"I have reduced all my observations upon this comet to the following tables. The first contains the measures of the gradual increase of the comet's diameter. The micrometers I used, when every circ.u.mstance is favourable, will measure extremely small angles, such as do not exceed a few seconds, true to 6, 8, or 10 thirds at most; and in the worst situations true to 20 or 30 thirds; I have therefore given the measures of the comet's diameter in seconds and thirds. And the parts of my micrometer being thus reduced, I have also given all the rest of the measures in the same manner; though in large distances, such as one, two, or three minutes, so great an exactness, for several reasons, is not pretended to."

[Sidenote: Called first a comet.]

[Sidenote: Other observers would not have found it at all.]

At first sight this seems to be the wrong reference, for it speaks of a new comet, not a new planet. But it is indeed of Ura.n.u.s that Herschel is speaking; and so little did he realise the full magnitude of his discovery at once, that he announced it as that of a comet; and a comet the object was called for some months. Attempts were made to calculate its...o...b..t as a comet, and broke down; and it was only after much work of this kind had been done that the real nature of the object began to be suspected. But far more striking than this misconception is the display of skill necessary to detect any peculiarity in the object at all. Among a number of stars one seemed somewhat exceptional in size, but the difference was only just sufficient to awaken suspicion in a keen-eyed Herschel. Would any other observer have noticed the difference at all?

Certainly several good observers had looked at the object before, and looked at it with the care necessary to record its position, without noting any peculiarity. Their observations were recovered subsequently and used to fix the orbit of the new planet more accurately. I shall remind you in the next chapter that Ura.n.u.s had been observed in this way no less than seventeen times by first-rate observers without exciting their attention to anything remarkable. The first occasion was in 1690, nearly a century before Herschel's grand discovery, and these chance observations, which lay so long unnoticed as in some way erroneous, subsequently proved to be of the utmost value in fixing the orbit of the new planet. But there is even more striking testimony than this to the exceptional nature of Herschel's achievement. It is a common experience in astronomy that an observer may fail to notice in a general scrutiny some phenomenon which he can see perfectly well when his attention is directed to it: when a man has made a discovery and others are told what to look for, they often see it so easily that they are filled with amazement and chagrin that they never saw it before. Not so in the case of Ura.n.u.s. At least two great astronomers, Lalande and Messier, have left on record their astonishment that Herschel could differentiate it from an ordinary star at all; for even when instructed where to look and what to look for, they had the greatest difficulty in finding it. I give a translation of Messier's words, which Herschel records in the paper already quoted announcing the discovery:--

"Nothing was more difficult than to recognise it; and I cannot conceive how you have been able to return several times to this star or comet; for absolutely it has been necessary to observe it for several consecutive days to perceive that it was in motion."

[Sidenote: No "swimming into ken."]

We cannot, therefore, fit the facts to Keats' version of them. The planet did not majestically reveal itself to a merely pa.s.sive observer: rather did it, a.s.suming the disguise of an ordinary star, evade detection to the utmost of its power; so that the keenest eye, the most alert attention, the most determined following up of a mere hint, were all needed to unmask it. But is the romance necessarily gone? If another Keats could arise and know the facts, could he not coin a newer and a truer phrase for us which would still sound as sweetly in our ears?

[Sidenote: Though this may happen at times.]

[Sidenote: Name of new planet.]

I must guard against a possible misconception. I do not mean to convey that astronomical discoveries are not occasionally made somewhat in the manner so beautifully pictured by Keats. Three years ago a persistent "watcher of the skies," Dr. Anderson of Edinburgh, suddenly caught sight of a brilliant new star in Perseus; though here "flashed into his ken"

would perhaps be a more suitable phrase than "swam." And comets have been detected by a mere glance at the heavens without sensible effort or care on the part of the discoverer. But these may be fairly called exceptions; in the vast majority of cases hard work and a keen eye are necessary to make the discovery. The relative importance of these two factors of course varies in different cases; for the detection of Ura.n.u.s perhaps the keen eye may be put in the first place, though we must not forget the diligent watching which gave it opportunity. Other cases of planetary discovery may be attributed more completely to diligence alone, as we shall presently see. But before leaving Ura.n.u.s for them I should like to recall the circ.u.mstances attending the naming of the planet. Herschel proposed to call it _Georgium Sidus_ in honour of his patron, King George III., and as the best way of making his wishes known, wrote the following letter to the President of the Royal Society, which is printed at the beginning of the Philosophical Transactions for 1783.

_A Letter from_ WILLIAM HERSCHEL, Esq., F.R.S., _to_ Sir JOSEPH BANKS, Bart., P.R.S.

"Sir,--By the observations of the most eminent astronomers in Europe it appears that the new star, which I had the honour of pointing out to them in March 1781, is a Primary Planet of our Solar System. A body so nearly related to us by its similar condition and situation in the unbounded expanse of the starry heavens, must often be the subject of conversation, not only of astronomers, but of every lover of science in general. This consideration then makes it necessary to give it a name whereby it may be distinguished from the rest of the planets and fixed stars.

[Sidenote: _Georgium Sidus._]

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