A Short History of Astronomy (1898)/Preface


I have tried to give in this book an outline of the history of astronomy from the earliest historical times to the present day, and to present it in a form which shall be intelligible to a reader who has no special knowledge of either astronomy or mathematics, and has only an ordinary educated person's power of following scientific reasoning.

In order to accomplish my object within the limits of one small volume it has been necessary to pay the strictest attention to compression; this has been effected to some extent by the omission of all but the scantiest treatment of several branches of the subject which would figure prominently in a book written on a different plan or on a different scale. I have deliberately abstained from giving any connected account of the astronomy of the Egyptians, Chaldaeans, Chinese, and others to whom the early development of astronomy is usually attributed. On the one hand, it does not appear to me possible to form an independent opinion on the subject without a first-hand knowledge of the documents and inscriptions from which our information is derived; and on the other, the various Oriental scholars who have this knowledge still differ so widely from one another in the interpretations that they give that it appears premature to embody their results in the dogmatic form of a text-book. It has also seemed advisable to lighten the book by omitting—except in a very few simple and important cases—all accounts of astronomical instruments; I do not remember ever to have derived any pleasure or profit from a written description of a scientific instrument before seeing the instrument itself, or one very similar to it, and I have abstained from attempting to give to my readers what I have never succeeded in obtaining myself. The aim of the book has also necessitated the omission of a number of important astronomical discoveries, which find their natural expression in the technical language of mathematics. I have on this account only been able to describe in the briefest and most general way the wonderful and beautiful superstructure which several generations of mathematicians have erected on the foundations laid by Newton. For the same reason I have been compelled occasionally to occupy a good deal of space in stating in ordinary English what might have been expressed much more briefly, as well as more clearly, by an algebraical formula: for the benefit of such mathematicians as may happen to read the book I have added a few mathematical footnotes; otherwise I have tried to abstain scrupulously from the use of any mathematics beyond simple arithmetic and a few technical terms which are explained in the text. A good deal of space has also been saved by the total omission of, or the briefest possible reference to, a very large number of astronomical facts which do not bear on any well-established general theory; and for similar reasons I have generally abstained from noticing speculative theories which have not yet been established or refuted. In particular, for these and for other reasons (stated more fully at the beginning of chapter xiii.), I have dealt in the briefest possible way with the immense mass of observations which modern astronomy has accumulated; it would, for example, have been easy to have filled one or more volumes with an account of observations of sun-spots made during the last half-century, and of theories based on them, but I have in fact only given a page or two to the subject.

I have given short biographical sketches of leading astronomers (other than living ones), whenever the material existed, and have attempted in this way to make their personalities and surroundings tolerably vivid; but I have tried to resist the temptation of filling up space with merely picturesque details having no real bearing on scientific progress. The trial of Kepler's mother for witchcraft is probably quite as interesting as that of Galilei before the Inquisition, but I have entirely omitted the first and given a good deal of space to the second, because, while the former appeared to be chiefly of curious interest, the latter appeared to me to be not merely a striking incident in the life of a great astronomer, but a part of the history of astronomical thought. I have also inserted a large number of dates, as they occupy very little space, and may be found useful by some readers, while they can be ignored with great ease by others; to facilitate reference the dates of birth and death (when known) of every astronomer of note mentioned in the book (other than living ones) have been put into the Index of Names.

I have not scrupled to give a good deal of space to descriptions of such obsolete theories as appeared to me to form an integral part of astronomical progress. One of the reasons why the history of a science is worth studying is that it sheds light on the processes whereby a scientific theory is formed in order to account for certain facts, and then undergoes successive modifications as new facts are gradually brought to bear on it, and is perhaps finally abandoned when its discrepancies with facts can no longer be explained or concealed. For example, no modern astronomer as such need be concerned with the Greek scheme of epicycles, but the history of its invention, of its gradual perfection as fresh observations were obtained, of its subsequent failure to stand more stringent tests, and of its final abandonment in favour of a more satisfactory theory, is, I think, a valuable and interesting object-lesson in scientific method. I have at any rate written this book with that conviction, and have decided very largely from that point of view what to omit and what to include.

The book makes no claim to be an original contribution to the subject; it is written largely from second-hand sources, of which, however, many are not very accessible to the general reader. Particulars of the authorities which have been used are given in an appendix.

It remains gratefully to acknowledge the help that I have received in my work. Mr. W. W. Rouse Ball, Tutor of Trinity College, whose great knowledge of the history of mathematics—a subject very closely connected with astronomy—has made his criticisms of special value, has been kind enough to read the proofs, and has thereby saved me from several errors; he has also given me valuable information with regard to portraits of astronomers. Miss H. M. Johnson has undertaken the laborious and tedious task of reading the whole book in manuscript as well as in proof, and of verifying the cross-references. Miss F. Hardcastle, of Girton College, has also read the proofs, and verified most of the numerical calculations, as well as the cross-references. To both I am indebted for the detection of a large number of obscurities in expression, as well as of clerical and other errors and of misprints. Miss Johnson has also saved me much time by making the Index of Names, and Miss Hardcastle has rendered me a further service of great value by drawing a considerable number of the diagrams. I am also indebted to Mr. C. E. Inglis, of this College, for fig 81; and I have to thank Mr. W. H. Wesley, of the Royal Astronomical Society, for various references to the literature of the subject, and in particular for help in obtaining access to various illustrations.

I am further indebted to the following bodies and individual astronomers for permission to reproduce photographs and drawings, and in some cases also for the gift of copies of the originals: the Council of the Royal Society, the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Director of the Lick Observatory, the Director of the Instituto Geographico-Militare of Florence, Professor Barnard, Major Darwin, Dr. Gill, M. Janssen, M. Loewy, Mr. E. W. Maunder, Mr. H. Pain, Professor E. C. Pickering, Dr Schuster, Dr. Max Wolf.


King's College, Cambridge,
September 1898.