A Short History of Astronomy (1898)/Chapter 10



"Through Newton theory had made a great advance and was ahead of observation; the latter now made efforts to come once more level with theory."—Bessel.

196. Newton virtually created a new department of astronomy, gravitational astronomy, as it is often called, and bequeathed to his successors the problem of deducing more fully than he had succeeded in doing the motions of the celestial bodies from their mutual gravitation.

To the solution of this problem Newton's own countrymen contributed next to nothing throughout the 18th century, and his true successors were a group of Continental mathematicians whose work began soon after his death, though not till nearly half a century after the publication of the Principia.

This failure of the British mathematicians to develop Newton's discoveries may be explained as due in part to the absence or scarcity of men of real ability, but in part also to the peculiarity of the mathematical form in which Newton presented his discoveries. The Principia is written almost entirely in the language of geometry, modified in a special way to meet the requirements of the case; nearly all subsequent progress in gravitational astronomy has been made by mathematical methods known as analysis. Although the distinction between the two methods cannot be fully appreciated except by those who have used them both, it may perhaps convey some impression of the differences between them to say that in the geometrical treatment of an astronomical problem each step of the reasoning is expressed in such a way as to be capable of being interpreted in terms of the original problem, whereas in the analytical treatment the problem is first expressed by means of algebraical symbols; these symbols are manipulated according to certain purely formal rules, no regard being paid to the interpretation of the intermediate steps, and the final algebraical result, if it can be obtained, yields on interpretation the solution of the original problem. The geometrical solution of a problem, if it can be obtained, is frequently shorter, clearer, and more elegant; but, on the other hand, each special problem has to be considered separately, whereas the analytical solution can be conducted to a great extent according to fixed rules applicable in a larger number of cases. In Newton's time modern analysis was only just coming into being, some of the most important parts of it being in fact the creation of Leibniz and himself, and although he sometimes used analysis to solve an astronomical problem, it was his practice to translate the result into geometrical language before publication; in doing so he was probably influenced to a large extent by a personal preference for the elegance of geometrical proofs, partly also by an unwillingness to increase the numerous difficulties contained in the Principia, by using mathematical methods which were comparatively unfamiliar. But though in the hands of a master like Newton geometrical methods were capable of producing astonishing results, the lesser men who followed him were scarcely ever capable of using his methods to obtain results beyond those which he himself had reached. Excessive reverence for Newton and all his ways, combined with the estrangement which long subsisted between British and foreign mathematicians, as the result of the fluxional controversy (chapter ix., § 191), prevented the former from using the analytical methods which were being rapidly perfected by Leibniz's pupils and other Continental mathematicians. Our mathematicians remained, therefore, almost isolated during the whole of the 18th century, and with the exception of some admirable work by Colin Maclaurin (1698–1746), which carried Newton's theory of the figure of the earth a stage further, nothing of importance was done in our country for nearly a century after Newton's death to develop the theory of gravitation beyond the point at which it was left in the Principia.

In other departments of astronomy, however, important progress was made both during and after Newton's lifetime, and by a curious inversion, while Newton's ideas were developed chiefly by French mathematicians, the Observatory of Paris, at which Picard and others had done such admirable work (chapter viii., §§ 160–2), produced little of real importance for nearly a century afterwards, and a large part of the best observing work of the 18th century was done by Newton's countrymen. It will be convenient to separate these two departments of astronomical work, and to deal in the next chapter with the development of the theory of gravitation.

197. The first of the great English observers was Newton's contemporary John Flamsteed, who was born near Derby in 1646 and died at Greenwich in 1720.[1] Unfortunately the character of his work was such that, marked as it was by no brilliant discoveries, it is difficult to present it in an attractive form or to give any adequate idea of its real extent and importance. He was one of those laborious and careful investigators, the results of whose work are invaluable as material for subsequent research, but are not striking in themselves.

He made some astronomical observations while quite a boy, and wrote several papers, of a technical character, on astronomical subjects, which attracted some attention. In 1675 he was appointed a member of a Committee to report on a method for finding the longitude at sea which had been offered to the Government by a certain Frenchman of the name of St. Pierre. The Committee, acting largely on Flamsteed's advice, reported unfavourably on the method in question, and memorialised Charles II. in favour of founding a national observatory, in order that better knowledge of the celestial bodies might lead to a satisfactory method of finding the longitude, a problem which the rapid increase of English shipping rendered of great practical importance. The King having agreed, Flamsteed was in the same year appointed to the new office of Astronomer Royal, with a salary of £100 a year, and the warrant for building an Observatory at Greenwich was signed on June 12th, 1675. About a year was occupied in building it, and Flamsteed took up his residence there and began work in July 1676, five years after Cassini entered upon his duties at the Observatory of Paris (chapter viii., § 160). The Greenwich Observatory was, however, on a very different scale from the magnificent sister institution. The King had, it is true, provided Flamsteed with a building and a very small salary, but furnished him neither with instruments nor with an assistant. A few instruments he possessed already, a few more were given to him by rich friends, and he gradually made at his own expense some further instrumental additions of importance. Some years after his appointment the Government provided him with "a silly, surly labourer" to help him with some of the rough work, but he was compelled to provide more skilled assistance out of his own pocket, and this necessity in turn compelled him to devote some part of his valuable time to taking pupils.

198. Flamsteed's great work was the construction of a more accurate and more extensive star catalogue than any that existed; he also made a number of observations of the moon, of the sun, and to a less extent of other bodies. Like Tycho, the author of the last great star catalogue (chapter v., § 107), he found problems continually presenting themselves in the course of his work which had to be solved before his main object could be accomplished, and we accordingly owe to him the invention of several improvements in practical astronomy, the best known being his method of finding the position of the first point of Aries (chapter ii., § 42), one of the fundamental points with reference to which all positions on the celestial sphere are defined. He was the first astronomer to use a clock systematically for the determination of one of the two fundamental quantities (the right ascension) necessary to fix the position of a star, a method which was first suggested and to some extent used by Picard (chapter viii., § 157), and, as soon as he could get the necessary instruments, he regularly used the telescopic sights of Gascoigne and Auzout (chapter viii., § 155), instead of making naked-eye observations. Thus while Hevel (chapter viii., § 153) was the last and most accurate observer of the old school, employing methods not differing essentially from those which had been in use for centuries, Flamsteed belongs to the new school, and his methods differ rather in detail than in principle from those now in vogue for similar work at Greenwich, Paris, or Washington. This adoption of new methods, together with the most scrupulous care in details, rendered Flamsteed's observations considerably more accurate than any made in his time or earlier, the first definite advance afterwards being made by Bradley (§ 218).

Flamsteed compared favourably with many observers by not merely taking and recording observations, but by performing also the tedious process known as reduction (§ 218), whereby the results of the observation are put into a form suitable for use by other astronomers; this process is usually performed in modern observatories by assistants, but in Flamsteed's case had to be done almost exclusively by the astronomer himself. From this and other causes he was extremely slow in publishing observations; we have already alluded (chapter ix., § 192) to the difficulty which Newton had in extracting lunar observations from him, and after a time a feeling that the object for which the Observatory had been founded was not being fulfilled became pretty general among astronomers. Flamsteed always suffered from bad health as well as from the pecuniary and other difficulties which have been referred to; moreover he was much more anxious that his observations should be kept back till they were as accurate as possible, than that they should be published in a less perfect form and used for the researches which he once called "Mr. Newton's crotchets"; consequently he took remonstrances about the delay in the publication of his observations in bad part. Some painful quarrels occurred between Flamsteed on the one hand and Newton and Halley on the other. The last straw was the unauthorised publication in 1712, under the editorship of Halley, of a volume of Flamsteed's observations, a proceeding to which Flamsteed not unnaturally replied by calling Halley a "malicious thief." Three, years later he succeeded in getting hold of all the unsold copies and in destroying them, but fortunately he was also stimulated to prepare for publication an authentic edition. The Historia Coelestis Britannica, as he called the book, contained an immense series of observations made both before and during his career at Greenwich, but the most important and permanently valuable part was a catalogue of the places of nearly 3,000 stars.[2]

Flamsteed himself only lived just long enough to finish the second of the three volumes; the third was edited by his assistants Abraham Sharp (1651–1742) and Joseph Crosthwait; and the whole was published in 1725. Four years later still appeared his valuable Star-Atlas, which long remained in common use.

The catalogue was not only three times as extensive as Tycho's, which it virtually succeeded, but was also very much more accurate. It has been estimated[3] that, whereas Tycho's determinations of the positions of the stars were on the average about 1' in error, the corresponding errors in Flamsteed's case were about 10". This quantity is the apparent diameter of a shilling seen from a distance of about 500 yards; so that if two marks were made at opposite points on the edge of the coin, and it were placed at a distance of 500 yards, the two marks might be taken to represent the true direction of an average star and its direction as given in Flamsteed's catalogue. In some cases of course the error might be much greater and in others considerably less.

Flamsteed contributed to astronomy no ideas of first-rate importance; he had not the ingenuity of Picard and of Roemer in devising instrumental improvements, and he took little interest in the theoretical work of Newton;[4] but by unflagging industry and scrupulous care he succeeded in bequeathing to his successors an immense treasure of observations, executed with all the accuracy that his instrumental means permitted.

199. Flamsteed was succeeded as Astronomer Royal by Edmund Halley, whom we have already met with (chapter ix., § 176) as Newton's friend and helper.

Born in 1656, ten years after Flamsteed, he studied astronomy in his schooldays, and published a paper on the orbits of the planets as early as 1676. In the same year he set off for St. Helena (in latitude 16° S.) in order to make observations of stars which were too near the south pole to be visible in Europe. The climate turned out to be disappointing, and he was only able after his return to publish (1678) a catalogue of the places of 341 southern stars, which constituted, however, an important addition to precise knowledge of the stars. The catalogue was also remarkable as being the first based on telescopic observation, though the observations do not seem to have been taken with all the accuracy which his instruments rendered attainable. During his stay at St. Helena he also took a number of pendulum observations which confirmed the results obtained a few years before by Richer at Cayenne (chapter viii., § 161), and also observed a transit of Mercury across the sun, which occurred in November 1677.

After his return to England he took an active part in current scientific questions, particularly in those connected with astronomy, and made several small contributions to the subject. In 1684, as we have seen, he first came effectively into contact with Newton, and spent a good part of the next few years in helping him with the Principia.

200. Of his numerous contributions to astronomy, which touched almost every branch of the subject, his work on comets is the best known and probably the most important. He observed the comets of 1680 and 1682; he worked out the paths both of these and of a number of other recorded comets in accordance with Newton's principles, and contributed a good deal of the material contained in the sections of the Principia dealing with comets, particularly in the later editions. In 1705 he published a Synopsis of Cometary Astronomy in which no less than 24 cometary orbits were calculated. Struck by the resemblance between the paths described by the comets of 1531, 1607, and 1682, and by the approximate equality in the intervals between their respective appearances and that of a fourth comet seen in 1456, he was shrewd enough to conjecture that the three later comets, if not all four, were really different appearances of the same comet, which revolved round the sun in an elongated ellipse in a period of about 75 or 76 years. He explained the difference between the 76 years which separate the appearances of the comet in 1531 and 1607, and the slightly shorter period which elapsed between 1607 and 1682, as probably due to the perturbations caused by planets near which the comet had passed; and finally predicted the probable reappearance of the same comet (which now deservedly bears his name) about 76 years after its last appearance, i.e. about 1758, though he was again aware that planetary perturbation might alter the time of its appearance; and the actual appearance of the comet about the predicted time (chapter xi., § 231) marked an important era in the progress of our knowledge of these extremely troublesome and erratic bodies.

201. In 1693 Halley read before the Royal Society a paper in which he called attention to the difficulty of reconciling certain ancient eclipses with the known motion of the moon, and referred to the possibility of some slight increase in the moon's average rate of motion round the earth.

This irregularity, now known as the secular acceleration of the moon's mean motion, was subsequently more definitely established as a fact of observation; and the difficulties met with in explaining it as a result of gravitation have rendered it one of the most interesting of the moon's numerous irregularities (cf. chapter xi., § 240, and chapter xiii., § 287).

202. Halley also rendered good service to astronomy by calling attention to the importance of the expected transits of Venus across the sun in 1761 and 1769 as a means of ascertaining the distance of the sun. The method had been suggested rather vaguely by Kepler, and more definitely by James Gregory in his Optics published in 1663. The idea was first suggested to Halley by his observation of the transit of Mercury in 1677. In three papers pubhshed by the Royal Society he spoke warmly of the advantages of the method, and discussed in some detail the places and means most suitable for observing the transit of 1761. He pointed out that the desired result could be deduced from a comparison of the durations of the transit of Venus, as seen from different stations on the earth, i.e. of the intervals between the first appearance of Venus on the sun's disc and the final dis- appearance, as seen at two or more different stations. He estimated, moreover, that this interval of time, which would be several hours in length, could be measured with an error of only about two seconds, and that in consequence the method might be relied upon to give the distance of the sun to within about 1/500 part of its true value. As the current estimates of the sun's distance differed among one another by 20 or 30 per cent., the new method, expounded with Halley's customary lucidity and enthusiasm, not unnaturally stimulated astronomers to take great trouble to carry out Halley's recommendations. The results, as we shall see (§ 227), were, however, by no means equal to Halley's expectations.

203. In 1718 Halley called attention to the fact that three well-known stars, Sirius, Procyon, and Arcturus, had changed their angular distances from the ecliptic since Greek times, and that Sirius had even changed its position perceptibly since the time of Tycho Brahe. Moreover comparison of the places of other stars shewed that the changes could not satisfactorily be attributed to any motion of the ecliptic, and although he was well aware that the possible errors of observation were such as to introduce a considerable uncertainty into the amounts involved, he felt sure that such errors could not wholly account for the discrepancies noticed, but that the stars in question must have really shifted their positions in relation to the rest; and he naturally inferred that it would be possible to detect similar proper motions (as they are now called) in other so-called "fixed" stars.

204. He also devoted a good deal of time to the standing astronomical problem of improving the tables of the moon and planets, particularly the former. He made observations of the moon as early as 1683, and by means of them effected some improvement in the tables. In 1676 he had already noted defects in the existing tables of Jupiter and Saturn, and ultimately satisfied himself of the existence of certain irregularities in the motion of these two planets, suspected long ago by Horrocks (chapter viii., § 156); these irregularities he attributed correctly to the perturbations of the two planets by one another, though he was not mathematician enough to work out the theory; from observation, however, he was able to estimate the irregularities in question with fair accuracy and to improve the planetary tables by making allowance for them. But neither the lunar nor the planetary tables were ever completed in a form which Halley thought satisfactory. By 1719 they were printed, but kept back from publication, in hopes that subsequent improvements might be effected. After his appointment as Astronomer Royal in succession to Flamsteed (1720) he devoted special attention to getting fresh observations for this purpose, but he found the Observatory almost bare of instruments, those used by Flamsteed having been his private property, and having been removed as such by his heirs or creditors. Although Halley procured some instruments, and made with them a number of observations, chiefly of the moon, the age (63) at which he entered upon his office prevented him from initiating much, or from carrying out his duties with great energy, and the observations taken were in consequence only of secondary importance, while the tables for the improvement of which they were specially designed were only finally published in 1752, ten years after the death of their author. Although they thus appeared many years after the time at which they were virtually prepared and owed little to the progress of science during the interval, they at once became and for some time remained the standard tables for both the lunar and planetary motions (cf. § 226, and chapter xi., § 247).

205. Halley's remarkable versatility in scientific work is further illustrated by the labour which he expended in editing the writings of the great Greek geometer Apollonius (chapter ii., § 38) and the star catalogue of Ptolemy (chapter ii., § 50). He was also one of the first of modern astronomers to pay careful attention to the effects to be observed during a total eclipse of the sun, and in the vivid description which he wrote of the eclipse of 1755, besides referring to the mysterious corona, which Kepler and others had noticed before (chapter vii., § 145), he called attention also to "a very narrow streak of a dusky but strong Red Light," which was evidently a portion of that remarkable envelope of the sun which has been so extensively studied in modern times (chapter xiii., § 301) under the name of the chromosphere.

It is worth while to notice, as an illustration of Halley's unselfish enthusiasm for science and of his power of looking to the future, that two of his most important pieces of work, by which certainly he is now best known, necessarily appeared during his lifetime as of little value, and only bore their fruit after his death (1742),for his comet only returned in 1759, when he had been dead 17 years, and the first of the pair of transits of Venus, from which he had shewn how to deduce the distance of the sun, took place two years later still (§ 227).

206. The third Astronomer Royal, James Bradley, is popularly known as the author of two memorable discoveries, viz. the aberration of light and the nutation of the earth's axis. Remarkable as these are both in themselves and on account of the ingenious and subtle reasoning and minutely accurate observations by means of which they were made, they were in fact incidents in a long and active astronomical career, which resulted in the execution of a vast mass of work of great value.

The external events of Bradley's life may be dealt with very briefly. Born in 1693,, he proceeded in due course to Oxford (B.A. 1714, M.A. 1717), but acquired his first knowledge of astronomy and his marked taste for the subject from his uncle James Pound, for many years rector of Wansted in Essex, who was one of the best observers of the time. Bradley lived with his uncle for some years after leaving Oxford, and carried out a number of observations in concert with him. The first recorded observation of Bradley's is dated 1715, and by 1718 he was sufficiently well thought of in the scientific world to receive the honour of election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. But, as his biographer[5] remarks, "it could not be foreseen that his astronomical labours would lead to any establishment in life, and it became necessary for him to embrace a profession." He accordingly took orders, and was fortunate enough to be presented almost at once to two livings, the duties attached to which do not seem to have interfered appreciably with the prosecution of his astronomical studies at Wansted.

In 1721 he was appointed Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and resigned his livings. The work of the professorship appears to have been very light, and for more than ten years he continued to reside chiefly at Wansted, even after his uncle's death in 1724. In 1732 he took a house in Oxford and set up there most of his instruments, leaving, however, at Wansted the most important of all, the "zenith-sector," with which his two famous discoveries were made. Ten years afterwards Halley's death rendered the post of Astronomer Royal vacant, and Bradley received the appointment.

The work of the Observatory had been a good deal neglected by Halley during the last few years of his life, and Bradley's first care was to effect necessary repairs in the instruments. Although the equipment of the Observatory with instruments worthy of its position and of the state of science at the time was a work of years, Bradley had some of the most important instruments in good working order within a few months of his appointment, and observations were henceforward made systematically. Although the 20 remaining years of his life (1742-1762) were chiefly spent at Greenwich in the discharge of the duties of his office and in researches connected with them, he retained his professorship at Oxford, and continued to make observations at Wansted at least up till 1747.

207. The discovery of aberration resulted from an attempt to detect the parallactic displacement of stars which should result from the annual motion of the earth. Ever since the Coppernican controversy had called attention to the importance of the problem (cf. chapter iv., § 92, and chapter vi., § 129), it had naturally exerted a fascination
Short history of astronomy-Bradley.png

[To face p. 258.

on the minds of observing astronomers, many of whom had tried to detect the motion in question, and some of whom (including the "universal claimant" Hooke) professed to have succeeded. Actually, however, all previous attempts had been failures, and Bradley was no more successful than his predecessors in this particular undertaking, but was able to deduce from his observations two results of great interest and of an entirely unexpected character.

The problem which Bradley set himself was to examine whether any star could be seen to have in the course of the year a slight motion relative to others or relative to fixed points on the celestial sphere such as the pole. It was known that such a motion, if it existed, must be very small, and it was therefore evident that extreme delicacy in instrumental adjustments and the greatest care in observation would have to be employed. Bradley worked at first in conjunction with his friend Samuel Molyneux (1689–1728), who had erected a telescope at Kew. In accordance with the method adopted in a similar investigation by Hooke, whose results it was desired to test, the telescope was fixed in a nearly vertical position, so chosen that a particular star in the Dragon (γ Draconis) would be visible through it when it crossed the meridian, and the telescope was mounted with great care so as to maintain an invariable position throughout the year. If then the star in question were to undergo any motion which altered its distance from the pole, there would be a corresponding alteration in the position in which it would be seen in the field of view of the telescope. The first observations were taken on December 14th, 1725 (N.S.), and by December 28th Bradley believed that he had already noticed a slight displacement of the star towards the south. This motion was clearly verified on January 1st, and was then observed to continue; in the following March the, star reached its extreme southern position, and then began to move northwards again. In September it once more altered its direction of motion, and by the end of the year had completed the cycle of its changes and returned to its original position, the greatest change in position amounting to nearly 40'.

The star was thus observed to go through some annual motion. It was, however, at once evident to Bradley that this motion was not the parallactic motion of which he was in search, for the position of the star was such that parallax would have made it appear farthest south in December and farthest north in June, or in each case three months earlier than was the case in the actual observations. Another explanation which suggested itself was that the earth's axis might have a to-and-fro oscillatory motion or nutation which would alter the position of the celestial pole and hence produce a corresponding alteration in the position of the star. Such a motion of the celestial pole would evidently produce opposite effects on two stars situated on opposite sides of it, as any motion which brought the pole nearer to one star of such a pair would necessarily move it away from the other. Within a fortnight of the decisive observation made on January 1st a star[6] had already been selected for the application of this test, with the result which can best be given in Bradley's own words:—

"A nutation of the earth's axis was one of the first things that offered itself upon this occasion, but it was soon found to be insufficient; for though it might have accounted for the change of declination in γ Draconis, yet it would not at the same time agree with the phaenomena in other stars; particularly in a small one almost opposite in right ascension to γ Draconis, at about the same distance from the north pole of the equator: for though this star seemed to move the same way as a nutation of the earth's axis would have made it, yet, it changing its declination but about half as much as γ Draconis in the same time, (as appeared upon comparing the observations of both made upon the same days, at different seasons of the year,) this plainly proved that the apparent motion of the stars was not occasioned by a real nutation, since, if that had been the cause, the alteration in both stars would have been near equal."

One or two other explanations were tested and found insufficient, and as the result of a series of observations extending over about two years, the phenomenon in question, although amply established, still remained quite unexplained.

By this time Bradley had mounted an instrument of his own at Wansted, so arranged that it was possible to observe through it the motions of stars other than γ Draconis.

Several stars were watched carefully throughout a year, and the observations thus obtained gave Bradley a fairly complete knowledge of the geometrical laws according to which the motions varied both from star to star and in the course of the year.

208. The true explanation of aberration, as the phenomenon in question was afterwards called, appears to have occurred to him about September, 1728, and was published to the Royal Society, after some further verification, early in the following year. According to a well-known story,[7] he noticed, while sailing on the Thames, that a vane on the masthead appeared to change its direction every time that the boat altered its course, and was informed by the sailors that this change was not due to any alteration in the wind's direction, but to that of the boat's course. In fact the apparent direction of the wind, as shewn by the vane, was not the true direction of the wind, but resulted from a combination of the motions of the wind and of the boat, being more precisely that of the motion of the wind relative to the boat. Replacing in imagination the wind by light coming from a star, and the boat shifting its course by the earth moving round the sun and continually changing its direction of motion, Bradley arrived at an explanation which, when worked out in detail, was found to account most satisfactorily for the apparent changes in the direction of a star which he had been studying. His own account of the matter is as follows:—

"At last I conjectured that all the phaenomena hitherto mentioned proceeded from the progressive motion of light and the earth's annual motion in its orbit. For I perceived that, if light was propagated in time, the apparent place of a fixed object would not be the same when the eye is at rest, as when it is moving in any other direction than that of the line passing through the eye and object; and that when the eye is moving in different directions, the apparent place of the object would be different.

"I considered this matter in the following manner. I imagined c a to be a ray of light, falling perpendicularly upon the line b d; then if the eye is at rest at a, the object must appear in the direction a c, whether light be propagated in time or in an instant. But if the eye is moving from b towards a, and light is propagated in time, with a velocity that is to the velocity of the eye, as c a to b a; then light moving from c to a, whilst the eye moves from b to a, that particle of it by which the object

Short history of astronomy-Fig 74.pngFig. 74.—The aberration of light. From Bradley's paper in the Phil. Trans.

will be discerned when the eye in its motion comes to a, is at c when the eye is at b. Joining the points b, c, I supposed the line c b to be a tube (inclined to the line b d in the angle d b c) of such a diameter as to admit of but one particle of light; then it was easy to conceive that the particle of light at c (by which the object must be seen when the eye, as it moves along, arrives at a) would pass through the tube b c, if it is inclined to b d in the angle d b c, and accompanies the eye in its motion from b to a; and that it could not come to the eye, placed behind such a tube, if it had any other inclination to the line b d. . . .

"Although therefore the true or real place of an object is perpendicular to the line in which the eye is moving, yet the visible place will not be so, since that, no doubt, must be in the direction of the tube; but the difference between the true and apparent place will be (caeteris paribus) greater or less, according to the different proportion between the velocity of light and that of the eye. So that if we could suppose that light was propagated in an instant, then there would be no difference between the real and visible place of an object, although the eye were in motion; for in that case, a c being infinite with respect to a b, the angle a c b (the difference between the true and visible place) vanishes. But if light be propagated in time, (which I presume will readily be allowed by most of the philosophers of this age,) then it is evident from the foregoing considerations, that there will be always a difference between the real and visible place of an object, unless the eye is moving either directly towards or from the object."

Bradley's explanation shews that the apparent position of a star is determined by the motion of the star's light relative to the earth, so that the star appears slightly nearer to the point on the celestial sphere towards which the earth is moving than would otherwise be the case. A familiar illustration of a precisely analogous effect may perhaps be of service. Any one walking on a rainy but windless day protects himself most effectually by holding his umbrella, not immediately over his head, but a little in front, exactly as he would do if he were at rest and there were a slight wind blowing in his face. In fact, if he were to ignore his own motion and pay attention only to the direction in which he found it advisable to point his umbrella, he would believe that there was a slight head-wind blowing the rain towards him.

209. The passage quoted from Bradley's paper deals only with the simple case in which the star is at right angles

Short history of astronomy-Fig 75.pngFig. 75.—The aberration of light.

to the direction of the earth's motion. He shews elsewhere that if the star is in any other direction the effect is of the same kind but less in amount. In Bradley's figure (fig. 74) the amount of the star's displacement from its true position is represented by the angle b c a, which depends on the proportion between the lines a c and a b; but if (as in fig. 75) the earth is moving (without change of speed) in the direction a b' instead of a b, so that the direction of the star is oblique to it, it is evident from the figure that the star's displacement, represented by the angle a c b', is less than before; and the amount varies according to a simple mathematical law[8] with the angle between the two directions. It follows therefore that the displacement in question is different for different stars, as Bradley's observations had already shewn, and is, moreover, different for the same star in the course of the year, so that a star appears to describe a curve which is very nearly an ellipse (fig. 76), the centre (s) corresponding to the position which the star would occupy if aberration did not exist. It is not difficult to see that, wherever a star is situated, the earth's motion is twice a year, at intervals of six months, at right angles to the direction of the star, and that at these times the star receives the greatest possible displacement from its mean position, and is consequently at the ends of the greatest axis of the ellipse which it describes, as at a and a', whereas at intermediate

Short history of astronomy-Fig 76.pngFig. 76.—The aberrational ellipse.

times it undergoes its least displacement, as at b and b'. The greatest displacement s a, or half of a a', which is the same for all stars, is known as the constant of aberration, and was fixed by Bradley at between 20" and 201/2", the value at present accepted being 20"⋅47. The least displacement, on the other hand, s b, or half of b b', was shewn to depend in a simple way upon the star's distance from the ecliptic, being greatest for stars farthest from the ecliptic.

210. The constant of aberration, which is represented by the angle a c b in fig. 74, depends only on the ratio between a c and a b, which are in turn proportional to the velocities of light and of the earth. Observations of aberration give then the ratio of these two velocities. From Bradley's value of the constant of aberration it follows by an easy calculation that the velocity of light is about 10,000 times that of the earth; Bradley also put this result into the form that light travels from the sun to the earth in 8 minutes 13 seconds. From observations of the eclipses of Jupiter's moons, Roemer and others had estimated the same interval at from 8 to 11 minutes (chapter viii., § 162); and Bradley was thus able to get a satisfactory confirmation of the truth of his discovery. Aberration being once established, the same calculation could be used to give the most accurate measure of the velocity of light in terms of the dimensions of the earth's orbit, the determination of aberration being susceptible of considerably greater accuracy than the corresponding measurements required for Roemer's method.

211. One difficulty in the theory of aberration deserves mention. Bradley's own explanation, quoted above, refers to light as a material substance shot out from the star or other luminous body. This was in accordance with the corpuscular theory of light, which was supported by the great weight of Newton's authority and was commonly accepted in the 18th century. Modern physicists, however, have entirely abandoned the corpuscular theory, and regard light as a particular form of wave-motion transmitted through ether. From this point of view Bradley's explanation and the physical illustrations given are far less convincing; the question becomes in fact one of considerable difficulty, and the most careful and elaborate of modern investigations cannot be said to be altogether satisfactory. The curious inference may be drawn that, if the more correct modern notions of the nature of light had prevailed in Bradley's time, it must have been very much more difficult, if not impracticable, for him to have thought of his explanation of the stellar motions which he was studying; and thus an erroneous theory led to a most important discovery.

212. Bradley had of course not forgotten the original object of his investigation. He satisfied himself, however, that the agreement between the observed positions of γ Draconis and those which resulted from aberration was so close that any displacement of a star due to parallax which might exist must certainly be less than 2", and probably not more than 1/2", so that the large parallax amounting to nearly 30", which Hooke claimed to have detected, must certainly be rejected as erroneous.

From the point of view of the Coppernican controversy, however Bradley's discovery was almost as good as the discovery of a parallax; since if the earth were at rest no explanation of the least plausibility could be given of aberration.

213. The close agreement thus obtained between theory and observation would have satisfied an astronomer less accurate and careful than Bradley. But in his paper on aberration (1729) we find him writing:—

"I have likewise met with some small varieties in the declination of other stars in different years which do not seem to proceed from the same cause. . . . But whether these small alterations proceed from a regular cause, or are occasioned by any change in the materials, etc., of my instrument, I am not yet able fully to determine."

The slender clue thus obtained was carefully followed up and led to a second striking discovery, which affords one of the most beautiful illustrations of the important results which can be deduced from the study of "residual phenomena." Aberration causes a star to go through a cyclical series of changes in the course of a year; if therefore at the end of a year a star is found not to have returned to its original place, some other explanation of the motion has to be sought. Precession was one known cause of such an alteration; but Bradley found, at the end of his first year's set of observations at Wansted, that the alterations in the positions of various stars differed by a minute amount (not exceeding 2") from those which would have resulted from the usual estimate of precession; and that, although an alteration in the value of precession would account for the observed motions of some of these stars, it would have increased the discrepancy in the case of others. A nutation or nodding of the earth's axis had, as we have seen (§ 207), already presented itself to him as a possibility; and although it had been shewn to be incapable of accounting for the main phenomenon due to aberration it might prove to be a satisfactory explanation of the much smaller residual motions. It soon occurred to Bradley that such a nutation might be due to the action of the moon, as both observation and the Newtonian explanation of precession indicated:—

"I suspected that the moon's action upon the equatorial parts of the earth might produce these effects: for if the precession of the equinox be, according to Sir Isaac Newton's principles, caused by the actions of the sun and moon upon those parts, the plane of the moon's orbit being at one time above ten degrees more inclined to the plane of the equator than at another, it was reasonable to conclude, that the part of the whole annual precession, which arises from her action, would in different years be varied in its quantity; whereas the plane of the ecliptic, wherein the sun appears, keeping always nearly the same inclination to the equator, that part of the precession which is owing to the sun's action may be the same every year; and from hence it would follow, that although the mean annual precession, proceeding from the joint actions of the sun and moon, were 50", yet the apparent annual precession might sometimes exceed and sometimes fall short of that mean quantity, according to the various situations of the nodes of the moon's orbit."

Newton in his discussion of precession (chapter ix., § 188; Principia, Book III., proposition 21) had pointed out the existence of a small irregularity with a period of six months. But it is evident, on looking at this discussion of the effect of the solar and lunar attractions on the protuberant parts of the earth, that the various alterations in the positions of the sun and moon relative to the earth might be expected to produce irregularities, and that the uniform precessional motion known from observation and deduced from gravitation by Newton was, as it were, only a smoothing out of a motion of a much more complicated character. Except for the allusion referred to, Newton made no attempt to discuss these irregularities, and none of them had as yet been detected by observation.

Of the numerous irregularities of this class which are now known, and which may be referred to generally as nutation, that indicated by Bradley in the passage just quoted is by far the most important. As soon as the idea of an irregularity depending on the position of the moon's nodes occurred to him, he saw that it would be desirable to watch the motions of several stars during the whole period (about 19 years) occupied by the moon's nodes in performing the circuit of the ecliptic and returning to the same position. This inquiry was successfully carried out between 1727 and 1747 with the telescope mounted at Wansted. When the moon's nodes had performed half their revolution, i.e. after about nine years, the correspondence between the displacements of the stars and the changes in the moon's orbit was so close that Bradley was satisfied with the general correctness of his theory, and in 1737 he communicated the result privately to Maupertuis (§ 221), with whom he had had some scientific correspondence. Maupertuis appears to have told others, but Bradley himself waited patiently for the completion of the period which he regarded as necessary for the satisfactory verification of his theory, and only published his results definitely at the beginning of 1748.

214. Bradley's observations established the existence of certain alterations in the positions of various stars, which

Short history of astronomy-Fig 77.png
Fig. 77.—Precession and nutation.

could be accounted for by supposing that, on the one hand, the distance of the pole from the ecliptic fluctuated, and that, on the other, the precessional motion of the pole was not uniform, but varied slightly in speed. John Machin (? –1751), one of the best English mathematicians of the time, pointed out that these effects would be produced if the pole were supposed to describe on the celestial sphere a minute circle in a period of rather less than 19 years—being that of the revolution of the nodes of the moon's orbit—round the position which it would occupy if there were no nutation, but a uniform precession. Bradley found that this hypothesis fitted his observation's, but that it would be better to replace the circle by a slightly flattened ellipse, the greatest and least axes of which he estimated at about 18" and 16" respectively.[9] This ellipse would be about as large as a shilling placed in a slightly oblique position at a distance of 300 yards from the eye. The motion of the pole was thus shewn to be a double one; as the result of precession and nutation combined it describes round the pole of the ecliptic "a gently undulated ring," as represented in the figure, in which, however, the undulations due to nutation are enormously exaggerated.

215. Although Bradley was aware that nutation must be produced by the action of the moon, he left the theoretical investigation of its cause to more skilled mathematicians than himself.

In the following year (1749) the French mathematician D'Alembert (chapter xi., § 232) published a treatise[10] in which not only precession, but also a motion of nutation agreeing closely with that observed by Bradley, were shewn by a rigorous process of analysis to be due to the attraction of the moon on the protuberant parts of the earth round the equator (cf. chapter ix., § 187), while Newton's explanation of precession was confirmed by the same piece of work. Euler (chapter xi., § 236) published soon afterwards another investigation of the same subject; and it has been studied afresh by many mathematical astronomers since that time, with the result that Bradley's nutation is found to be only the most important of a long series of minute irregularities in the motion of the earth's axis.

216. Although aberration and nutation have been discussed first, as being the most important of Bradley's discoveries, other investigations were carried out by him before or during the same time.

The earliest important piece of work which he accomplished was in connection with Jupiter's satellites. His uncle had devoted a good deal of attention to this subject, and had drawn up some tables dealing with the motion of the first satellite, which were based on those of Domenico Cassini, but contained a good many improvements. Bradley seems for some years to have made a practice of frequently observing the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites, and of noting discrepancies between the observations and the tables; and he was thus able to detect several hitherto unnoticed peculiarities in the motions, and thereby to form improved tables. The most interesting discovery was that of a period of 437 days, after which the motions of the three inner satellites recurred with the same irregularities. Bradley, like Pound, made use of Roemer's suggestion (chapter viii., § 162) that light occupied a finite time in travelling from Jupiter to the earth, a theory which Cassini and his school long rejected. Bradley's tables of Jupiter's satellites were embodied in Halley's planetary and lunar tables, printed in 1719, but not published till more than 30 years afterwards (§ 204). Before that date the Swedish astronomer Pehr Vilhelm Wargentin (1717–1783) had independently discovered the period of 437 days, which he utilised for the construction of an extremely accurate set of tables for the satellites published in 1746.

In this case as in that of nutation Bradley knew that his mathematical powers were unequal to giving an explanation on gravitational principles of the inequalities which observation had revealed to him, though he was well aware of the importance of such an undertaking, and definitely expressed the hope "that some geometer,[11] in imitation of the great Newton, would apply himself to the investigation of these irregularities, from the certain and demonstrative principles of gravity."

On the other hand, he made in 1726 an interesting practical application of his superior knowledge of Jupiter's satellites by determining, in accordance with Galilei's method (chapter vi., § 127), but with remarkable accuracy, the longitudes of Lisbon and of New York.

217. Among Bradley's minor pieces of work may be mentioned his observations of several comets and his calculation of their respective orbits according to Newton's method; the construction of improved tables of refraction, which remained in use for nearly a century; a share in pendulum experiments carried out in England and Jamaica with the object of verifying the variation of gravity in different latitudes; a careful testing of Mayer's lunar tables (§ 226), together with improvements of them; and lastly, some work in connection with the reform of the calendar made in 1752 (cf. chapter ii., § 22).

218. It remains to give some account of the magnificent series of observations carried out during Bradley's administration of the Greenwich Observatory.

These observations fall into two chief divisions of unequal merit, those after 1749 having been made with some more accurate instruments which a grant from the government enabled him at that time to procure.

The main work of the Observatory under Bradley consisted in taking observations of fixed stars, and to a lesser extent of other bodies, as they passed the meridian, the instruments used (the "mural quadrant" and the "transit instrument") being capable of motion only in the meridian, and being therefore steadier and susceptible of greater accuracy than those with more freedom of movement. The most important observations taken during the years 1750–1762, amounting to about 60,000, were published long after Bradley's death in two large volumes which appeared in 1798 and 1805. A selection of them had been used earlier as the basis of a small star catalogue, published in the Nautical Almanac for 1773; but it was not till 1818 that the publication of Bessel's Fundamenta Astronomiae (chapter xiii., § 277), a catalogue of more than 3000 stars based on Bradley's observations, rendered these observations thoroughly available for astronomical work. One reason for this apparently excessive delay is to be found in Bradley's way of working. Allusion has already been made to a variety of causes which prevent the apparent place of a star, as seen in the telescope and noted at the time, from being a satisfactory permanent record of its position. There are various instrumental errors, and errors due to refraction; again, if a star's places at two different times are to be compared, precession must be taken into account; and Bradley himself unravelled in aberration and nutation two fresh sources of error. In order therefore to put into a form satisfactory for permanent reference a number of star observations, it is necessary to make corrections which have the effect of allowing for these various sources of error. This process of reduction, as it is technically called, involves a certain amount of rather tedious calculation, and though in modern observatories the process has been so far systematised that it can be carried out almost according to fixed rules by comparatively unskilled assistants, in Bradley's time it required more judgment, and it is doubtful if his assistants could have performed the work satisfactorily, even if their time had not been fully occupied with other duties. Bradley himself probably found the necessary calculations tedious, and preferred devoting his energies to work of a higher order. It is true that Delambre, the famous French historian of astronomy, assures his readers that he had never found the reduction of an observation tedious if performed the same day, but a glance at any of his books is enough to shew his extraordinary fondness for long calculations of a fairly elementary character, and assuredly Bradley is not the only astronomer whose tastes have in this respect differed fundamentally from Delambre's. Moreover reducing an observation is generally found to be a duty that, like answering letters, grows harder to perform the longer it is neglected; and it is not only less interesting but also much more difficult for an astronomer to deal satisfactorily with some one else's observations than with his own. It is not therefore surprising that after Bradley's death a long interval should have elapsed before an astronomer appeared with both the skill and the patience necessary for the complete reduction of Bradley's 60,000 observations.

A variety of circumstances combined to make Bradley's observations decidedly superior to those of his predecessors. He evidently possessed in a marked degree the personal characteristics—of eye and judgment—which make a first-rate observer; his instruments were mounted in the best known way for securing accuracy, and were constructed by the most skilful makers; he made a point of studying very carefully the defects of his instruments, and of allowing for them; his discoveries of aberration and nutation enabled him to avoid sources of error, amounting to a considerable number of seconds, which his predecessors could only have escaped imperfectly by taking the average of a number of observations; and his improved tables of refraction still further added to the correctness of his results.

Bessel estimates that the errors in Bradley's observations of the declination of stars were usually less than 4", while the corresponding errors in right ascension, a quantity which depends ultimately on a time-observation, were less than 15", or one second of time. His observations thus shewed a considerable advance in accuracy compared with those of Flamsteed (§ 198), which represented the best that had hitherto been done.

219. The next Astronomer Royal was Nathaniel Bliss (1700–1764), who died after two years. He was in turn succeeded by Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811), who carried on for nearly half a century the tradition of accurate observation which Bradley had established at Greenwich, and made some improvements in methods.

To him is also due the first serious attempt to measure the density and hence the mass of the earth. By comparing the attraction exerted by the earth with that of the sun and other bodies, Newton, as we have seen (chapter ix., § 185), had been able to connect the masses of several of the celestial bodies with that of the earth. To connect the mass of the whole earth with that of a given terrestrial body, and so express it in pounds or tons, was a problem of quite a different kind. It is of course possible to examine portions of the earth's surface and compare their density with that of, say, water; then to make some conjecture, based on rough observations in mines, etc., as to the rate at which density increases as we go from the surface towards the centre of the earth, and hence to infer the average density of the earth. Thus the mass of the whole earth is compared with that of a globe of water of the same size, and, the size being known, is expressible in pounds or tons.

By a process of this sort Newton had in fact, with extraordinary insight, estimated that the density of the earth was between five and six times as great as that of water.[12]

It was, however, clearly desirable to solve the problem in a less conjectural manner, by a direct comparison of the gravitational attraction exerted by the earth with that exerted by a known mass—a method that would at the same time afford a valuable test of Newton's theory of the gravitating properties of portions of the earth, as distinguished from the whole earth. In their Peruvian expedition (§ 221), Bouguer and La Condamine had noticed certain small deflections of the plumb-line, which indicated an attraction by Chimborazo, near which they were working; but the observations were too uncertain to be depended on. Maskelyne selected for his purpose Schehallien in Perthshire, a narrow ridge running east and west. The direction of the plumb-line was observed (1774) on each side of the ridge, and a change in direction amounting to about 12" was found to be caused by the attraction of the mountain. As the direction of the plumb-line depends on the attraction of the earth as a whole and on that of the mountain, this deflection at once led to a comparison of the two attractions. Hence an intricate calculation performed by Charles Hutton ( 1737–1823) led to a comparison of the average densities of the earth and mountain, and hence to the final conclusion (published in 1778) that the earth's density was about 41/2 times that of water. As Hutton's estimate of the density of the mountain was avowedly almost conjectural, this result was of course correspondingly uncertain.

A few years later John Michell (1724–1793) suggested, and the famous chemist and electrician Henry Cavendish (1731–1810) carried out (1798), an experiment in which the mountain was replaced by a pair of heavy balls, and their attraction on another body was compared with that of the earth, the result being that the density of the earth was found to be about 51/2 times that of water.

The Cavendish experiment, as it is often called, has since been repeated by various other experimenters in modified forms, and one or two other methods, too technical to be described here, have also been devised. All the best modern experiments give for the density numbers converging closely on 51/2, thus verifying in a most striking way both Newton's conjecture and Cavendish's original experiment.

With this value of the density the mass of the earth is a little more than 13 billion billion pounds, or more precisely 13,136,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 lbs.

220. While Greenwich was furnishing the astronomical world with a most valuable series of observations, the Paris Observatory had not fulfilled its early promise. It was in fact suffering, like English mathematics, from the evil effects of undue adherence to the methods and opinions of a distinguished man. Domenico Cassini happened to hold several erroneous opinions in important astronomical matters; he was too good a Catholic to be a genuine Coppernican, he had no behef in gravitation, he was firmly persuaded that the earth was flattened at the equator instead of at the poles, and he rejected Roemer's discovery of the velocity of light. After his death in 1712 the directorship of the Observatory passed in turn to three of his descendants, the last of whom resigned office in 1793; and several members of the Maraldi family, into which his sister had married, worked in co-operation with their cousins. Unfortunately a good deal of their energy was expended, first in defending, and afterwards in gradually withdrawing from, the errors of their distinguished head. Jacques Cassini, for example, the second of the family (1677-1756), although a Coppernican, was still a timid one, and rejected Kepler's law of areas; his son again, commonly known as Cassini de Thury (1714-1784), still defended the ancestral errors as to the form of the earth; while the fourth member of the family, Count Cassini (1748-1845), was the first of the family to accept the Newtonian idea of gravitation.

Some planetary and other observations of value were made by the Cassini-Maraldi school, but little of this work was of first-rate importance.

221. A series of important measurements of the earth, in which the Cassinis had a considerable share, were made during the 18th century, almost entirely by Frenchmen, and resulted in tolerably exact knowledge of the earth's size and shape.

The variation of the length of the seconds pendulum observed by Richer in his Cayenne expedition (chapter viii., § 161) had been the first indication of a deviation of the earth from a spherical form. Newton inferred, both from these pendulum experiments and from an independent theoretical investigation (chapter ix., § 187), that the earth was spheroidal, being flattened towards the poles; and this view was strengthened by the satisfactory explanation of precession to which it led (chapter ix., § 188).

On the other hand, a comparison of various measurements of arcs of the meridian in different latitudes gave some support to the view that the earth was elongated towards the poles and flattened towards the equator, a view championed with great ardour by the Cassini school. It was clearly important that the question should be settled by more extensive and careful earth-measurements.

The essential part of an ordinary measurement of the earth consists in ascertaining the distance in miles between two places on the same meridian, the latitudes of which differ by a known amount. From these two data the length of an arc of a meridian corresponding to a difference of latitude of 1° at once follows. The latitude of a place is the angle which the vertical at the place makes with the equator, or, expressed in a slightly different form, is the angular distance of the zenith from the celestial equator. The vertical at any place may be defined as a direction perpendicular to the surface of still water at the place in question, and may be regarded as perpendicular to the true surface of the earth, accidental irregularities in its form such as hills and valleys being ignored.[13]

The difference of latitude between two places, north and south of one another, is consequently the angle between the verticals there. Fig. 78 shews the verticals, marked by the arrowheads, at places on the same meridian in latitudes differing by 10°; so that two consecutive verticals are inclined in every case at an angle of 10°.

If, as in fig. 78, the shape of the earth is drawn in accordance with Newton's views, the figure shews at once that the arcs a a1, a1 a2, etc., each of which corresponds to 10° of latitude, steadily increase as we pass from a point a on the equator to the pole b. If the opposite hypothesis be

Short history of astronomy-Fig 78.png
Fig. 78.—The varying curvature of the earth.

adopted, which will be illustrated by the same figure if we now regard a as the pole and b as a point on the equator, then the successive arcs decrease as we pass from equator to pole. A comparison of the measurements made by Eratosthenes in Egypt (chapter ii., § 36) with some made in Europe (chapter viii., § 159) seemed to indicate that a degree of the meridian near the equator was longer than one in higher latitudes; and a similar conclusion was indicated by a comparison of different portions of an extensive French arc, about 9° in length, extending from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees, which was measured under the superintendence of the Cassinis in continuation of Picard's arc, the result being published by J. Cassini in 1720. In neither case, however, were the data sufficiently accurate to justify the conclusion; and the first decisive evidence was obtained by measurement of arcs in places differing far more widely in latitude than any that had hitherto been available. The French Academy organised an expedition to Peru, under the management of three Academicians, Pierre Bouguer (1698-1758), Charles Marie de La Condamine (1701-1774), and Louis Godin (1704-1760), with whom two Spanish naval officers also co-operated.

The expedition started in 1735, and, owing to various difficulties, the work was spread out over nearly ten years. The most important result was the measurement, with very fair accuracy, of an arc of about 3° in length, close to the equator; but a number of pendulum experiments of value were also performed, and a good many miscellaneous additions to knowledge were made.

But while the Peruvian party were still at their work a similar expedition to Lapland, under the Academician Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759), had much more rapidly (1736-7), if somewhat carelessly, effected the measurement of an arc of nearly 1° close to the arctic circle.

From these measurements it resulted that the lengths of a degree of a meridian about latitude 2° S. (Peru), about latitude 47° N. (France) and about latitude 66° N. (Lapland) were respectively 362,800 feet, 364,900 feet, and 367,100 feet.[14] There was therefore clear evidence, from a comparison of any two of these arcs, of an increase of the length of a degree of a meridian as the latitude increases; and the general correctness of Newton's views as against Cassini's was thus definitely established.

The extent to which the earth deviates from a sphere is usually expressed by a fraction known as the ellipticity, which is the difference between the lines c a, c b of fig. 78 divided by the greater of them. From comparison of the three arcs just mentioned several very different values of the ellipticity were deduced, the discrepancies being partly due to different theoretical methods of interpreting the results and partly to errors in the arcs.

A measurement, made by Jöns Svanberg (1771–1851) in 1801–3, of an arc near that of Maupertuis has in fact shewn that his estimate of the length of a degree was about 1,000 feet too large.

A large number of other arcs have been measured in different parts of the earth at various times during the 18th and 19th centuries. The details of the measurements need not be given, but to prevent recurrence to the subject it is convenient to give here the results, obtained by a comparison of these different measurements, that the ellipticity is very nearly 1/292, and the greatest radius of the earth (c a in fig. 78) a little less than 21,000,000 feet or 4,000 miles. It follows from these figures that the length of a degree in the latitude of London contains, to use Sir John Herschel's ingenious mnemonic, almost exactly as many thousand feet as the year contains days.

222. Reference has already been made to the supremacy of Greenwich during the 18th century in the domain of exact observation. France, however, produced during this period one great observing astronomer who actually accomplished much, and under more favourable external conditions might almost have rivalled Bradley.

Nicholas Louis de Lacaille was born in 1713. After he had devoted a good deal of time to theological studies with a view to an ecclesiastical career, his interests were diverted to astronomy and mathematics. He was introduced to Jacques Cassini, and appointed one of the assistants at the Paris Observatory.

In 1738 and the two following years he took an active part in the measurement of the French arc, then in process of verification. While engaged in this work he was appointed (1739) to a poorly paid professorship at the Mazarin College, at which a small observatory was erected. Here it was his regular practice to spend the whole night, if fine, in observation, while "to fill up usefully the hours of leisure which bad weather gives to observers only too often" he undertook a variety of extensive calculations and wrote innumerable scientific memoirs. It is therefore not surprising that he died comparatively early (1762) and that his death was generally attributed to overwork.

223. The monotony of Lacaille's outward life was broken by the scientific expedition to the Cape of Good Hope (1750–1754) organised by the Academy of Sciences and placed under his direction.

The most striking piece of work undertaken during this expedition was a systematic survey of the southern skies, in the course of which more than 10,000 stars were observed.

These observations, together with a carefully executed catalogue of nearly 2,000 of the stars[15] and a star-map, were published posthumously in 1763 under the title Coelum Australe Stelliferum, and entirely superseded Halley's much smaller and less accurate catalogue (§ 199). Lacaille found it necessary to make 14 new constellations (some of which have since been generally abandoned), and to restore to their original places the stars which the loyal Halley had made into King Charles's Oak. Incidentally Lacaille observed and described 42 nebulae, nebulous stars, and star-clusters, objects the systematic study of which was one of Herschel's great achievements (chapter xii., §§ 259–261).

He made a large number of pendulum experiments, at Mauritius as well as at the Cape, with the usual object of determining in a new part of the world the acceleration due to gravity, and measured an arc of the meridian extending over rather more than a degree. He made also careful observations of the positions of Mars and Venus, in order that from comparison of them with simultaneous observations in northern latitudes he might get the parallax of the sun (chapter viii., § 161). These observations of Mars compared with some made in Europe by Bradley and others, and a similar treatment of Venus, both pointed to a solar parallax slightly in excess of 10", a result less accurate than Cassini's (chapter viii., § 161), though obtained by more reliable processes.

A large number of observations of the moon, of which those made by him at the Cape formed an important part, led, after an elaborate discussion in which the spheroidal form of the earth was taken into account, to an improved value of the moon's distance, first published in 1761.

Lacaille also used his observations of fixed stars to improve our knowledge of refraction, and obtained a number of observations of the sun in that part of its orbit which it traverses in our winter months (the summer of the southern hemisphere), and in which it is therefore too near the horizon to be observed satisfactorily in Europe.

The results of this—one of the most fruitful scientific expeditions ever undertaken—were published in separate memoirs or embodied in various books published after his return to Paris.

224. In 1757, under the title Astronomiae Fundamenta, appeared a catalogue of 400 of the brightest stars, observed and reduced with the most scrupulous care, so that, not- withstanding the poverty of Lacaille's instrumental outfit, the catalogue was far superior to any of its predecessors, and was only surpassed by Bradley's observations as they were gradually published. It is characteristic of Lacaille's unselfish nature that he did not have the Fundamenta sold in the ordinary way, but distributed copies gratuitously to those interested in the subject, and earned the money necessary to pay the expenses of publication by calculating some astronomical almanacks.

Another catalogue, of rather more than 500 stars situated in the zodiac, was published posthumously.

In the following year (1758) he published an excellent set of Solar Tables, based on an immense series of observations and calculations. These were remarkable as the first in which planetary perturbations were taken into account.

Among Lacaille's minor contributions to astronomy may be mentioned: improved methods of calculating cometary orbits and the actual calculation of the orbits of a large number of recorded comets, the calculation of all eclipses visible in Europe since the year 1, a warning that the transit of Venus would be capable of far less accurate observation than Halley had expected (§ 202), observations of the actual transit of 1761 (§ 227), and a number of improvements in methods of calculation and of utilising observations.

In estimating the immense mass of work which Lacaille accomplished during an astronomical career of about 22 years, it has also to be borne in mind that he had only moderately good instruments at his observatory, and no assistant, and that a considerable part of his time had to be spent in earning the means of living and of working.

225. During the period under consideration Germany also produced one astronomer, primarily an observer, of great merit, Tobias Mayer (1723–1762). He was appointed professor of mathematics and political economy at Göttingen in 1751, apparently on the understanding that he need not lecture on the latter subject, of which indeed he seems to have professed no knowledge; three years later he was put in charge of the observatory, which had been erected 20 years before. He had at least one fine instrument,[16] and following the example of Tycho, Flamsteed, and Bradley, he made a careful study of its defects, and carried further than any of his predecessors the theory of correcting observations for instrumental errors.[17]

He improved Lacaille's tables of the sun, and made a catalogue of 998 zodiacal stars, published posthumously in 1775; by a comparison of star places recorded by Roemer (1706) with his own and Lacaille's observations he obtained evidence of a considerable number of proper motions (§ 203); and he made a number of other less interesting additions to astronomical knowledge.

226. But Mayer's most important work was on the moon. At the beginning of his career he made a careful study of the position of the craters and other markings, and was thereby able to get a complete geometrical explanation of the various librations of the moon (chapter vi., § 133), and to fix with accuracy the position of the axis about which the moon rotates. A map of the moon based on his observations was published with other posthumous works in 1775.

Short history of astronomy-Fig 79.png
Fig. 79.—Tobias Mayer's map of the moon.

[To face p. 282.

Much more important, however, were his lunar theory and the tables based on it. The intrinsic mathematical interest of the problem of the motion of the moon, and its practical importance for the determination of longitude, had caused a great deal of attention to be given to the subject by the astronomers of the 18th century. A further stimulus was also furnished by the prizes offered by the British Government in 1713 for a method of finding the longitude at sea, viz. £20,000 for a method reliable to within half a degree, and smaller amounts for methods of less accuracy.

All the great mathematicians of the period made attempts at deducing the moon's motions from gravitational principles. Mayer worked out a theory in accordance with methods used by Euler (chapter xi., § 233), but made a much more liberal and also more skilful use of observations to determine various numerical quantities, which pure theory gave either not at all or with considerable uncertainty. He accordingly succeeded in calculating tables of the moon (published with those of the sun in 1753) which were a notable improvement on those of any earlier writer. After making further improvements, he sent them in 1755 to England. Bradley, to whom the Admiralty submitted them for criticism, reported favourably of their accuracy; and a few years later, after making some alterations in the tables on the basis of his own observations, he recommended to the Admiralty a longitude method based on their use which he estimated to be in general capable of giving the longitude within about half a degree.

Before anything definite was done, Mayer died at the early age of 39, leaving behind him a new set of tables, which were also sent to England. Ultimately £3,000 was paid to his widow in 1765; and both his Theory of the Moon[18] and his improved Solar and Lunar Tables were published in 1770 at the expense of the Board of Longitude. A later edition, improved by Bradley's former assistant Charles Mason (1730–1787), appeared in 1787.

A prize was also given to Euler for his theoretical work; while £3,000 and subsequently £10,000 more were awarded to John Harrison for improvements in the chronometer, which rendered practicable an entirely different method of finding the longitude (chapter vi., § 127).

227. The astronomers of the 18th century had two opportunities of utilising a transit of Venus for the determination of the distance of the sun, as recommended by Halley (§ 202).

A passage or transit of Venus across the sun's disc is a phenomenon of the same nature as an eclipse of the sun by the moon, with the important difference that the apparent magnitude of the planet is too small to cause any serious diminution in the sun's light, and it merely appears as a small black dot on the bright surface of the sun.

If the path of Venus lay in the ecliptic, then at every inferior conjunction, occurring once in 584 days, she would necessarily pass between the sun and earth and would appear to transit. As, however, the paths of Venus and the earth are inclined to one another, at inferior conjunction Venus is usually far enough "above" or "below" the ecliptic for no transit to occur. With the present position of the two paths—which planetary perturbations are only very gradually changing transits of Venus occur in pairs eight years apart, while between the latter of one pair and the earlier of the next pair elapse alternately intervals of 1051/2 and of 1211/2 years. Thus transits have taken place in December 1631 and 1639, June 1761 and 1769, December 1874 and 1882, and will occur again in 2004 and 2012, 2117 and 2125, and so on.

The method of getting the distance of the sun from a transit of Venus may be said not to differ essentially from that based on observations of Mars (chapter viii., § 161).

The observer's object in both cases is to obtain the difference in direction of the planet as seen from different places on the earth. Venus, however, when at all near the earth, is usually too near the sun in the sky to be capable of minutely exact observation, but when a transit occurs the sun's disc serves as it were as a dial-plate on which the position of the planet can be noted. Moreover the measurement of minute angles, an art not yet carried to very great perfection in the 18th century, can be avoided by time-observations, as the difference in the times at which Venus enters (or leaves) the sun's disc as seen at different stations, or the difference in the durations of the transit, can be without difficulty translated into difference of direction, and the distances of Venus and the sun can be deduced.[19]

Immense trouble was taken by Governments, Academies, and private persons in arranging for the observation of the transits of 1761 and 1769. For the former observing parties were sent as far as to Tobolsk, St. Helena, the Cape of Good Hope, and India, while observations were also made by astronomers at Greenwich, Paris, Vienna, Upsala, and elsewhere in Europe. The next transit was observed on an even larger scale, the stations selected ranging from Siberia to California, from the Varanger Fjord to Otaheiti (where no less famous a person than Captain Cook was placed), and from Hudson's Bay to Madras.

The expeditions organised on this occasion by the American Philosophical Society may be regarded as the first of the contributions made by America to the science which has since owed so much to her; while the Empress Catherine bore witness to the newly acquired civilisation of her country by arranging a number of observing stations on Russian soil.

The results were far more in accordance with Lacaille's anticipations than with Halley's. A variety of causes prevented the moments of contact between the discs of Venus and the sun from being observed with the precision that had been hoped. By selecting different sets of observations, and by making different allowances for the various probable sources of error, a number of discordant results were obtained by various calculators. The values of the parallax (chapter viii., § 161) of the sun deduced from the earlier of the two transits ranged between about 8" and 10"; while those obtained in 1769, though much more consistent, still varied between about 8" and 9", corresponding to a variation of about 10,000,000 miles in the distance of the sun.

The whole set of observations were subsequently very elaborately discussed in 1822–4 and again in 1835 by Johann Franz Encke (1791–1865), who deduced a parallax of 8"⋅571, corresponding to a distance of 95,370,000 miles, a number which long remained classical. The uncertainty of the data is, however, shewn by the fact that other equally competent astronomers have deduced from the observations of 1769 parallaxes of 8"⋅8 and 8"⋅9.

No account has yet been given of William Herschel, perhaps the most famous of all observers, whose career falls mainly into the last quarter of the 18th century and the earlier part of the 19th century. As, however, his work was essentially different from that of almost all the astronomers of the 18th century, and gave a powerful impulse to a department of astronomy hitherto almost ignored, it is convenient to postpone to a later chapter (xii.) the discussion of his work.

  1. December 31st, 1719, according to the unreformed calendar (O.S.) then in use in England.
  2. The apparent number is 2,935, but 12 of these are duplicates.
  3. By Bessel (chapter xiii., § 277).
  4. The relation between the work of Flamsteed and that of Newton was expressed with more correctness than good taste by the two astronomers themselves, in the course of some quarrel about the lunar theory: "Sir Isaac worked with the ore I had dug." "If he dug the ore, I made the gold ring."
  5. Rigaud, in the memoirs prefixed to Bradley's Miscellaneous Works.
  6. A telescopic star named 37 Camelopardi in Flamsteed's catalogue.
  7. The story is given in T. Thomson's History of the Royal Society, published more than 80 years afterwards (1812), but I have not been able to find any earlier authority for it. Bradley's own account of his discovery gives a number of details, but has no allusion to this incident.
  8. It is k sin c a b, where k is the constant of aberration.
  9. His observations as a matter of fact point to a value rather greater than 18", but he preferred to use round numbers. The figures at present accepted are 18"⋅42 and 13"⋅75, so that his ellipse was decidedly less flat than it should have been.
  10. Recherches sur la précession des équinoxes et sur la nutation de l'axe de la terre.
  11. The word "geometer" was formerly used, as "geomètre" still is in French, in the wider sense in which "mathematician" is now customary.
  12. Principia, Book III., proposition 10.
  13. It is important for the purposes of this discussion to notice that the vertical is not the line drawn from the centre of the earth to the place of observation.
  14. 69 miles is 364,320 feet, so that the two northern degrees were a little more and the Peruvian are a little less than 69 miles.
  15. The remaining 8,000 stars were not "reduced" by Lacaille. The whole number were first published in the "reduced" form by the British Association in 1845.
  16. A mural quadrant.
  17. The ordinary approximate theory of the collimation error, level error, and deviation error of a transit, as given in text-books of spherical and practical astronomy, is substantially his.
  18. The title-page is dated 1767; but it is known not to have been actually published till three years later.
  19. For a more detailed discussion of the transit of Venus, see Airy's Popular Astronomy and Newcomb's Popular Astronomy.