Astronomical Discovery Part 6

[Sidenote: The map used by Galle.]

The account of Le Verrier's limits by Professor Peirce, though it exhibits the error with special clearness, is a little unfair to Le Verrier in one point. If, instead of taking the limits for the date 1800, we take them for 1846 (when the search for Neptune was actually made), we shall find that they do include the actual place of the planet, as Airy found. The erroneous mean motion of Le Verrier's planet allowed of his being right at one time and wrong at another; and Airy examined the limits under favourable conditions, which explains his enthusiasm. But we can scarcely wonder that Professor Peirce came to the conclusion that the planet discovered was not the one pointed out by Le Verrier, and had been found by mere accident. And all these circ.u.mstances inevitably contribute to a general impression that the calculators had a large element of good fortune to thank for their success. Nor need we hesitate to make this admission, for there is an element of good fortune in all discoveries. To look no further than this--if a man had not been doing a particular thing at a particular time, as he might easily not have been, most discoveries would never have been made. If Sir William Herschel had not been looking at certain small stars for a totally different purpose he would never have found Ura.n.u.s; and no one need hesitate to admit the element of chance in the finding of Neptune. It is well ill.u.s.trated by a glance at the map which, as has been remarked, Galle used to compare with the sky on the night when he made the actual discovery. The planet was found down near the bottom corner of the map, and since the limits a.s.signed for its place might easily have varied a few degrees one way or the other, it might easily have been off the map; in which case, it is probable that the search would not have been successful, or at any rate that success would have been delayed.

[Ill.u.s.tration: V.--CORNER OF THE BERLIN MAP, BY THE USE OF WHICH GALLE FOUND NEPTUNE.]

[Sidenote: Every one made mistakes.]

Thus, it is a most remarkable feature of the discovery of Neptune that mistakes were made by almost every one concerned, however eminent. Airy made a mistake in regarding the question of the Radius Vector as of fundamental importance; Sir J. Herschel was wrong in describing an elementary method which he considered might have found the planet; Professor Peirce was wrong in supposing that the actual and the supposed planet were essentially different in their action on Ura.n.u.s; Le Verrier was wrong in a.s.signing limits outside which it was not necessary to look when the actual planet was outside them; Adams was more or less wrong in thinking that the eccentricity of the new planet could be found from the material already at disposal of man. Both Adams and Le Verrier gave far too much importance to Bode's Law.

To review a piece of history of this kind and note the mistakes of such men is certainly comforting, and need not in any way lessen our admiration. In the case of the investigators themselves, much may be set down to excitement in the presence of a possible discovery. Professor Sampson has provided us with a small but typical instance of this fact.

When Adams had carried through all his computations for finding Neptune, and was approaching the actual place of the planet, he, "who could carry through fabulous computations without error," for the first time wrote down a wrong figure. The mistake was corrected upon the MS., "probably as soon as made," but no doubt betrays the excitement which the great worker could not repress at this critical moment. There is a tradition that, similarly, when the mighty Newton was approaching the completion of his calculations to verify the Law of Gravitation, his excitement was so great that he was compelled to a.s.sign to a friend the task of finishing them.

Finally, we may remark how the history of the discovery of Neptune again ill.u.s.trates the difficulty of formulating any general principles for guiding scientific work. Sometimes it is well to follow the slightest clue, however imperfectly understood; at other times we shall do better to refuse such guidance. Bode's Law pointed to the existence of minor planets, and might conceivably have helped in finding Ura.n.u.s: but by trusting to it in the case of Neptune, the investigators were perilously near going astray. Sometimes it is better to follow resolutely the work in hand whatever it may be, shutting one's ears to other calls; but Airy and Challis lost their opportunities by just this course of action. The history of science is full of such contradictory experiences; and the only safe conclusion seems to be that there are no general rules of conduct for discovery.

CHAPTER III

BRADLEY'S DISCOVERIES OF THE ABERRATION OF LIGHT AND OF THE NUTATION OF THE EARTH'S AXIS

[Sidenote: Biographical method adopted.]

In examining different types of astronomical discovery, we shall find certain advantages in varying to some extent the method of presentation.

In the two previous chapters our opportunities for learning anything of the life and character of those who made the discoveries have been slight; but I propose to adopt a more directly biographical method in dealing with Bradley's discoveries, which are so bound up with the simple earnestness of his character that we could scarcely appreciate their essential features properly without some biographical study. But the record of his life apart from his astronomical work is not in any way sensational; indeed it is singularly devoid of incident. He had not even a scientific quarrel. There was scarcely a man of science of that period who had not at least one violent quarrel with some one, save only Bradley, whose gentle nature seems to have kept him clear of them all. Judged by ordinary standards his life was uneventful: and yet it may be doubted whether, to him who lived it, that life contained one dull moment. Incident came for him in his scientific work: in the preparation of apparatus, the making of observations, above all in the hard-thinking which he did to get at the clue which would explain them; and after reviewing his biography,[2] I think we shall be inclined to admit that if ever there was a happy life, albeit one of unremitting toil, it was that of James Bradley.

[Sidenote: Bradley's birth and early life.]

[Sidenote: Brief clerical career.]

He was born at Sherbourn, in Gloucestershire, in 1693. We know little of his boyhood except that he went to the Grammar School at Northleach, and that the memory of this fact was preserved at the school in 1832 when Rigaud was writing his memoir. [The school is at present shut up for want of funds to carry it on; and all inquiries I have made have failed to elicit any trace of this memory.] Similarly we know little of his undergraduate days at Oxford, except that he entered as a commoner at Balliol in 1710, took his B.A. in the regular course in 1714, and his M.A.

in 1717. As a career he chose the Church, being ordained in 1719, and presented to the vicarage of Bridstow in Monmouthshire; but he only discharged the duties of vicar for a couple of years, for in 1721 he returned to Oxford as Professor of Astronomy, an appointment which involved the resignation of his livings; and so slight was this interruption to his career as an astronomer that we may almost disregard it, and consider him as an astronomer from the first. But to guard against a possible misconception, let me say that Bradley entered on a clerical career in a thoroughly earnest spirit; to do otherwise would have been quite foreign to his nature. When vicar of Bridstow he discharged his duties faithfully towards that tiny parish, and moreover was so active in his uncle's parish of Wansted that he left the reputation of having been curate there, although he held no actual appointment. And thirty years later, when he was Astronomer Royal and resident at Greenwich, and when the valuable vicarage of Greenwich was offered to him by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he honourably refused the preferment, "because the duty of a pastor was incompatible with his other studies and necessary engagements."

[Sidenote: Learnt astronomy _not_ at Oxford, but from his uncle, James Pound.]

[Sidenote: Pound a first-rate observer.]

But now let us turn to Bradley's astronomical education. I must admit, with deep regret, that we cannot allow any of the credit of it to Oxford.

There was a great astronomer in Oxford when Bradley was an undergraduate, for Edmund Halley had been appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry in 1703, and had immediately set to work to compute the orbits of comets, which led to his immortal discovery that some of these bodies return to us again and again, especially the one which bears his name--Halley's Comet--and returns every seventy-five years, being next expected about 1910. But there is no record that Bradley came under Halley's teaching or influence as an undergraduate. In later years the two men knew each other well, and it was Halley's one desire towards the close of his life that Bradley should succeed him as Astronomer Royal at Greenwich; a desire which was fulfilled in rather melancholy fashion, for Halley died without any a.s.surance that his wish would be gratified. But Bradley got no astronomical teaching at Oxford either from Halley or others. The art of astronomical observation he learnt from his maternal uncle, the Rev. James Pound, Rector of Wansted, in Ess.e.x. He is the man to whom we owe Bradley's training and the great discoveries which came out of it. He was, I am glad to say, an Oxford man too; very much an Oxford man; for he seems to have spent some thirteen years there migrating from one Hall to another. His record indeed was such as good tutors of colleges frown upon; for it was seven years before he managed to take a degree at all; and he could not settle to anything. After ten years at Oxford he thought he would try medicine; after three years more he gave it up and went out in 1700 as chaplain to the East Indies. But he seems to have been a thoroughly lovable man, for news was brought of him four years later that he had a mind to come home, but was dissuaded by the Governor saying that "if Dr.

Pound goes, I and the rest of the Company will not stay behind." Soon afterwards the settlement was attacked in an insurrection, and Pound was one of the few who escaped with his life, losing however all the property he had gradually acquired. He returned to England in 1706, and was presented to the living of Wansted; married twice, and ended his days in peace and fair prosperity in 1724. Such are briefly the facts about Bradley's uncle, James Pound; but the most important of all remains to be told--that somehow or other he had learnt to make first-rate astronomical observations, how or when is not recorded; but in 1719 he was already so skilled that Sir Isaac Newton made him a present of fifty guineas for some observations; and repeated the gift in the following year; and even three years before this we find Halley writing to ask for certain observations from Mr. Pound.

[Sidenote: Bradley worked with him.]

With this excellent man Bradley used frequently to stay. To his nephew he seems to have been more like a father than an uncle. When his nephew had smallpox in 1717, he nursed him through it; and he supplemented from his own pocket the scanty allowance which was all that Bradley's own father could afford. But what concerns us most is that he fostered, if he did not actually implant, a love of astronomical observation in his nephew. The two worked together, entering their observations one after the other on the same paper; and it was to the pair of them together, rather than to the uncle alone, that Newton made his princely presents, and Halley wrote for help in his observations. There seems to be no doubt that the uncle and nephew were about this time the best astronomical observers in the world. There was no rivalry between them, and therefore there is no need to discuss whether the partnership was one of equal merit on both sides; but it is interesting to note that it probably was. The ability of Pound was undoubted; many were keenly desirous that he, and not his nephew, should be elected to the Oxford Chair in 1721, but he felt unequal to the duties at his advanced age. On the other hand, when Bradley lost his uncle's help, there was no trace of faltering in his steps to betray previous dependence on a supporting or guiding hand. He walked erect and firm, and trod paths where even his uncle might not have been able to follow.

[Sidenote: The work done by Pound and Bradley.]

[Sidenote: Use of very long telescopes.]

[Sidenote: Reason for great length.]

A few instances will suffice to show the kind of observations made by this notable firm of Pound and Bradley. They observed the positions of the fixed stars and nebulae: these being generally the results required by Halley and Newton. They also observed the places of the planets among the stars, and especially the planet Mars, and determined its distance from the Earth by the method of parallax, thus antic.i.p.ating the modern standard method of finding the Sun's distance; and though with their imperfect instruments they did not obtain a greater accuracy than 1 in 10, still this was a great advance on what had been done before, and excited the wonder and admiration of Halley. They also paid some attention to double stars, and did a great deal of work on Jupiter's satellites. We might profitably linger over the records of these early years, which are full of interest, but we must press on to the time of the great discoveries, and we will dismiss them with brief ill.u.s.trations of three points: Bradley's a.s.siduity, his skill in calculation, and his wonderful skill in the management of instruments. Of his a.s.siduity an example is afforded by his calculations of the orbits of two comets which are still extant. One of them fills thirty-two pages of foolscap, and the other sixty; and it must be remembered that the calculations themselves were quite novel at that time. Of his _skill_ in calculation, apart from his a.s.siduity, we have a proof in a paper communicated to the Royal Society rather later (1726), where he determines the longitudes of Lisbon and New York from the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites, using observations which were not simultaneous, and had therefore to be corrected by an ingenious process which Bradley devised expressly for this purpose. And finally, his skill in the management of instruments is shown by his measuring the diameter of the planet Venus with a telescope actually 212-1/4 feet in length. It is difficult for us to realise in these days what this means; even the longest telescope of modern times does not exceed 100 feet in length, and it is mounted so conveniently with all the resources of modern engineering, in the shape of rising floors, &c., that the management of it is no more difficult than that of a 10-foot telescope. But Bradley had no engineering appliances beyond a pole to hold up one end of the telescope and his own clever fingers to work the other; and he managed to point the unwieldy weapon accurately to the planet, and measure the diameter with an exactness which would do credit to modern times. A few words of explanation may be given why such long telescopes were used at all. The reason lay in the difficulty of getting rid of coloured images, due to the composite character of white light. Whenever we use a _single_ lens to form an image, coloured fringes appear. Nowadays we know that by making two lenses of different kinds of gla.s.s and putting them together, we can practically get rid of these coloured fringes; but this discovery had not been made in Bradley's time. The only known ways of dealing with the evil then were to use a reflecting telescope like Newton and Gregory, or if a lens was used, to make one of very great focal length; and hence the primary necessity for these very long telescopes. They had another advantage in producing a large image, or they would probably have given way to the reflector. This advantage is gradually bringing them back into use, and perhaps in the eclipse of 1905 we may use a telescope as long as Bradley's; but we shall not use it as he did in any case. It will be laid comfortably flat on the ground, and the rays of light reflected into it by a coelostat.

[Sidenote: Bradley appointed at Oxford, but continues to work at Wansted.]

In 1721 Bradley was appointed to the Savilian Professorship of Astronomy at Oxford, vacant by the death of Dr. John Keill. Once it became clear that there was no chance of securing his uncle for this position, Bradley himself was supported enthusiastically by all those whose support was worth having, especially by the Earl of Macclesfield, who was then Lord Chancellor; by Martin Foulkes, who was afterwards the President of the Royal Society; and by Sir Isaac Newton himself. He was accordingly elected on October 31, 1721, and forthwith resigned his livings. His resignation of the livings was necessitated by a definite statute of the University relating to the Professorship, and not by the existence of any very onerous duties attaching to it; indeed such duties seem to have been conspicuously absent, and after Bradley's election he pa.s.sed more time than ever with his uncle in Wansted, making the astronomical observations which both loved; for there was not the vestige of an observatory in Oxford. His uncle's death in 1724 interrupted the continuity of these joint observations, and by an odd accident prepared the way for Bradley's great discovery. He was fain to seek elsewhere that companionship in his work which had become so essential to him, and his new friend gave a new bent to his observations.

[Sidenote: Samuel Molyneux.]

[Sidenote: Attempts to find stellar parallax.]

Samuel Molyneux was a gentleman of fortune much attached to science, and particularly to astronomy, who was living about this time at Kew. He was one of the few, moreover, who are not content merely to amuse themselves with a telescope, but had the ambition to do some real earnest work, and the courage to choose a problem which had baffled the human race for more than a century. The theory of Copernicus, that the earth moved round the sun, necessitated a corresponding apparent change in the places of the stars, one relatively to another; and it was a standing difficulty in the way of accepting this theory that no such change could be detected. In the old days before the telescope it was perhaps easy to understand that the change might be too small to be noticed, but the telescope had made it possible to measure changes of position at least a hundred times as small as before, and still no "parallax," as the astronomical term goes, could be found for the stars. The observations of Galileo, and the measures of Tycho Brahe, as reduced to systematic laws by Kepler, and finally by the great Newton, made it clear that the Copernican theory was _true_: but no one had succeeded in proving its truth in this particular way. Samuel Molyneux must have been a man of great courage to set himself to try to crack this hard nut; and we can understand the attraction which his enterprise must have had for Bradley, who had just lost the beloved colleague of many courageous astronomical undertakings. His co-operation seems to have been welcomed from the first; his help was invited and freely given in setting up the instrument, and he fortunately had the leisure to spend considerable time at Kew making the observations with Molyneux, just as he had been wont to observe with his uncle.

I must now briefly explain what these observations were. There is a bright star [gamma] Draconis, which pa.s.ses almost directly overhead in the lat.i.tude of London. Its position is slowly changing owing to the precession of the equinoxes, but for two centuries it has been, and is still, under constant observation by London astronomers owing to this circ.u.mstance, that it pa.s.ses directly overhead, and so its position is practically undisturbed by the refraction of our atmosphere.

[Sidenote: The instrument.]

[Sidenote: Expected results.]

It was therefore thought at the time that, there being no disturbance from refraction, the disturbance from precession being accurately known, and there being nothing else to disturb the position but "parallax" (the apparent shift due to the earth's motion which it was desirable to find), this star ought to be a specially favourable object for the determination of parallax. Indeed it had been announced many years before by Hooke that its parallax had been found; but his observations were not altogether satisfactory, and it was with a view of either confirming them or seeing what was wrong with them that Molyneux and Bradley started their search.

They set up a much more delicate piece of apparatus than Hooke had employed. It was a telescope 24 feet long pointed upwards to the star, and firmly attached to a large stack of brick chimneys within the house. The telescope was not absolutely fixed, for the lower end could be moved by a screw so as to make it point accurately to the star, and a plumb-line showed how far it was from the vertical when so pointing. Hence if the star changed its position, however slightly, the reading of this screw would show the change. Now, before setting out on the observations, the observers knew what to expect if the star had a real parallax; that is to say, they knew that the star would seem to be farthest south in December, farthest north in June, and at intermediate positions in March and September; though they did not know _how much_ farther south it would appear in December than in June--this was exactly the point to be decided.

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 2.]

[Sidenote: Unexpected results.]

The reason of this will be clear from Fig. 2. [Remark, however, that this figure and the corresponding figure 4 do not represent the case of Bradley's star, [gamma] Draconis: another star has been chosen which simplifies the diagram, though the principle is essentially the same.] Let A B C D represent the earth's...o...b..t, the earth being at A in June, at B in September, and so on, and let K represent the position of the star on the line D B. Then in March and September it will be seen from the earth in the same direction, namely, D B K; but the directions in which it is seen in June and December, viz. A K and C K, are inclined in opposite ways to this line. The farther away the star is, the less will this inclination or "parallax" be; and the star is actually so far away that the inclination can only be detected with the utmost difficulty: the lines C K and A K are sensibly parallel to D B K. But Bradley did not know this; it was just this point which he was to examine, and he expected the greatest inclination in one direction to be in December. Accordingly when a few observations had been made on December 3, 5, 11, and 12 it was thought that the star had been caught at its most southerly apparent position, and might be expected thereafter to move northwards, if at all. But when Bradley repeated the observation on December 17, he found to his great surprise that the star was still moving southwards. Here was something quite new and unexpected, and such a keen observer as Bradley was at once on the alert. He soon found that the changes in the position of the star were of a totally unexpected character. Instead of the extreme positions being occupied in June and December, they were occupied in March and September, just midway between these. And the range in position was quite large, about 40"--not a quant.i.ty which could have been detected in the days before telescopes, but one which was unmistakable with an instrument of the most moderate measuring capacity.

[Sidenote: Tentative explanations.]

What, then, was the cause of this quite unforeseen behaviour on the part of the star? The first thought of the observers was that something might be wrong with their instrument, and it was carefully examined, but without result. The next was that the apparent movement was in the plumb-line, the line of reference. If the whole earth, instead of carrying its axis round the sun in a constant direction, were to be executing an oscillation, then all our plumb-lines would oscillate, and when the direction of a star like [gamma] Draconis was compared with that of the plumb-line it would seem to vary, owing actually to the variation in the plumb-line. The earth might have a motion of this kind in two ways, which it will be necessary for us to distinguish, and the adopted names for them are "nutation of the axis"

and "variation of lat.i.tude" respectively. In the case of nutation the North Pole remains in the same geographical position, but points to a different part of the heavens. The "variation of lat.i.tude," on the other hand, means that the North Pole wanders about on the earth itself. We shall refer to the second phenomenon more particularly in the sixth chapter.

[Sidenote: Nutation?]

[Sidenote: Anomalous refraction.]

But it was the first kind of change, the nutation, which Bradley suspected; and very early in the series of observations he had already begun to test this hypothesis. If it was not the star, but the earth and the plumb-line, which were in motion, then other stars ought to be affected. The telescope had been deliberately restricted in its position to suit [gamma] Draconis; but since the stars circle round the Pole, if we draw a narrow belt in the heavens with the Pole as centre, and including [gamma] Draconis, the other stars included would make the same circuit, preceding or following [gamma] Draconis by a constant interval. Most of them would be too faint for observation with Bradley's telescope; but there was one bright enough to be observed, which also came within its limited range, and it was promptly put under _surveillance_ when a nutation of the earth's axis was suspected. Careful watching showed that it was not affected in the same way as [gamma] Draconis, and hence the movement could not be in the plumb-line. Was there, then, after all, some effect of the earth's atmosphere which had been overlooked? We have already remarked that since the star pa.s.ses directly overhead there should be practically no refraction; and this a.s.sumption was made by Molyneux and Bradley in choosing this particular star for observation. It follows at once, if we a.s.sume that the atmosphere surrounds the earth in spherical layers. But perhaps this was not so? Perhaps, on the contrary, the atmosphere was deformed by the motion of the earth, streaming out behind her like the smoke of a moving engine? No possibility must be overlooked if the explanation of this puzzling fact was to be got at.

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 3.]

The way in which a deformation of the atmosphere might explain the phenomenon is best seen by a diagram. First, it must be remarked that rays of light are only bent by the earth's atmosphere, or "refracted," if they enter it obliquely.

If the atmosphere were of the same density throughout, like a piece of gla.s.s, then a vertical ray of light, A B (see Fig. 3), entering the atmosphere at B would suffer no bending or refraction, and a star shining from the direction A B would be seen truly in that direction from C. But an oblique ray, D E, would be bent on entering the atmosphere at E along the path EF, and a star shining along D E would appear from F to be shining along the dotted line G E F. The atmosphere is not of the same density throughout, but thins out as we go upwards from the earth; and in consequence there is no clear-cut surface, B E, and no sudden bending of the rays as at E: they are gradually bent at an infinite succession of imaginary surfaces. But it still remains true that there is no bending at all for vertical rays; and of oblique rays those most oblique are most bent.

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 4.]

Now, suppose the atmosphere of the earth took up, owing to its revolution round the sun, an elongated shape like that indicated in diagram 4, and suppose the star to be at a great distance away to the right of the diagram. When the earth is in the position labelled "June," the light would fall vertically on the nose of the atmosphere at A, and there would be no refraction. Similarly in "December" the light would fall at C on the stern, also vertically, and there would be no refraction. [The rays from the distant star in December are to be taken as sensibly parallel to those received in June, notwithstanding that the earth is on the opposite side of the sun, as was remarked on p. 98.] But in March and September the rays would strike obliquely on the sides of the supposed figure, and thus be bent in opposite directions, as indicated by the dotted lines; and the extreme positions would thus occur in March and September, as had been observed. The explanation thus far seems satisfactory enough.

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