Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/October 1891/Astronomical Societies and Amateur Astronomers

1196676Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 October 1891 — Astronomical Societies and Amateur Astronomers1891L. Niesten



A CURIOUS and notable fact in the history of the social condition of the present century is the disposition, amounting to a necessity, which is felt in all classes of society for organizing in groups to work in common to reach some end by the union of individual efforts which one person alone could not attain; or for forming societies. Devotees of sciences, friends of art, and patrons of letters have alike judged that, co-operating in societies, they could accomplish more and better by collecting scattered forces, and could procure in this way means for stimulating emulation and rewarding merit.

Astronomy, which has devotees and patrons in all countries, now possesses numerous societies having for their single object the progress of science, and rivaling one another in encouraging and collating the works of their neighbors, to the great advancement of knowledge of the sky.

We find the first Astronomical Society in England. Founded in 1820, it was erected into a corporation by King William IV in 1831. Sir John Herschel, son of the illustrious astronomer, undertook the preparation of the address to the friends of astronomy "It may seem strange," he said in the beginning, "that in a country like Great Britain, where science is generally carefully cultivated, and where astronomy has made great progress and drawn upon itself a large share of attention, there should exist no society occupied especially with that science; and that while chemistry, mineralogy, geology, natural history, and many other important branches of science and art are encouraged by associations which direct, by stimulating, the most energetic efforts of individual talents, astronomy, the highest branch of human knowledge, should have remained till now deprived of that powerful assistance, and have depended for its advancement only on the isolated and independent labors of individuals. Some persons may believe that astronomy has less need of this kind of assistance than other sciences, and that in the perfection which its physical theory has reached its future progress may be safely confided to the zeal of individuals and to great national establishments devoted exclusively to celestial observations, or, at all events, to those public institutions and academies which are found in all civilized nations, the object of which is the general cultivation of physical and mathematical science. For this reason it will be necessary to make known the useful objects that may be accomplished and the obstacles that may be avoided by a society devoted solely to the encouragement and advancement of astronomy."

The society organized a minute and systematic examination of the sky, dividing it into zones of moderate extent among members who had leisure and would be disposed to give particular and constant attention to those parts, in order to determine the positions and, if possible, the proper motions of all the objects, large and small, which might present themselves within their respective limits, and keep them constantly under review in such a way that not one new celestial body of cometary or planetary nature, passing their regions, should be able to escape them. The object which the new society proposed to itself was to a large extent obtained, and the progress which has been realized in astronomy during this century is intimately connected with its history. The desiderata which it indicated and to which it directed attention have been supplied; and while it has not taken a direct part in all the labors that have been performed, it has rendered a great service in making them known and in promulgating discoveries. There are now in England thirty-four public and private observatories. Most of these establishments have been created since 1820, under the beneficent influence of the Astronomical Society; and this is not one of the least services that it has rendered. In forming a center accessible to professional astronomers and amateurs alike, to higher minds and more modest ones, the Astronomical Society of London was the first in developing the taste for the science to the degree to which it has grown at the present day.[1]

The example set by the Astronomical Society of London was followed by Germany. In 1863 there was formed at Leipsic the Astronomische Gesellschaft, which, although less important than the elder society, has organized and brought to a successful conclusion some important astronomical labors. It has an international character; and one of its principal aims is to establish among the astronomers of all countries, by meetings every two years in some city of Europe, bonds of friendship and scientific confraternity.

In the General List of Observatories and Astronomers, of Astronomical Societies and Reviews,[2] of which M. Lancaster has just published a third edition, a special chapter is given to Astronomical Societies. We extract from it the facts that follow relative to the foundation and organization of societies created in later years. A society was founded at Chicago in 1862 for the purpose of furnishing the observatory—by the purchase of instruments, the payment of honorariums to astronomers, etc.—with the means of carrying on its work. Associations of spectroscopists and observers of luminous meteors were formed in Italy in 1871, for the publication of special works. A society was founded in Liverpool in 1882, the principal object of which was to cultivate the taste of amateurs for astronomical observations. A special amateur directs the observatory of the society, and verifies by its instruments the observations made by the members, assists his colleagues in their researches, and carries on special work in the name of the society. The American Astronomical Society was founded in 1887, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1889. The latter society, at the end of the first eighteen months of its existence, had three hundred members and possessed two funds; one for a medal to be awarded to discoverers of new comets, and another for the purchase of an astronomical library. Popular scientific societies have been formed in France since 1864, at Paris, Argentan, Marseilles, Lyons, Nantes, and Narbonne—to which each member brings his quota of work and intelligence. The Astronomical Society of Paris has been able, through the popularizing talent and indefatigable zeal of its director, M. J. Vinot, to create two hundred and one minor observatories, and to establish a circulating library of more than four thousand volumes.

The Astronomical Society of France, which hopes to rival the great societies of England and America, was founded under the energetic impulsion of M. Flammarion. Its aim is "to bring together persons who are practically or theoretically occupied with astronomy, or who are interested in the development of that science, and the extension of its influence for the enlightenment of minds." It has now about three hundred members. The Urania Society, recently formed in Berlin, has been able by the generosity of its founders to erect a building to the purposes of Astronomy, and furnish it with the most perfect instruments. Societies of amateurs for the popularization of physical and astronomical science have been founded in Spain and Colombia, and at Nijni-Novgorod in Russia. Astronomy is no longer, in our time, the property of a few privileged persons. The public, in the whole world, has been set in the current with the facts of science by the diffusion of books written by such able popularizers as Flammarion, Guillemin, Vinot, Figuier, De Parville, and others, in France; Proctor, Ledger, and Miss Clarke, in England; and Meyer, Klein, and Wolf, in Germany; and by the announcement and familiar explanation of phenomena. At this moment, without taking account of popular scientific journals and English and American magazines, that make known the principal astronomical facts, there are twenty-nine special reviews and journals teaching astronomy to the public. There are five in Germany; six in the United States and England; four in France; and others in Belgium, Russia, Switzerland, Portugal, and Brazil.

The number of amateur astronomers is considerable, and it is safe to say that of all the sciences this is the one that can boast the most adepts among private persons. Among 1,160 astronomers now living, whose works have gained a footing in science, about half are amateurs with private observatories. In England, including official establishments and those attached to the universities, there are 34 observatories; in America, more than 80; in France, 17; in Austria, 24; in Italy, 21; in Russia, 15; and in Belgium, 5. We may say that an amateur, armed with a telescope, is to be found at every point on our planet, ready to observe a celestial phenomenon. In Chili, Honduras, Peru, New Zealand, Tunisia, and Tasmania we can meet astronomical amateurs provided with instruments, who devote their night hours to contemplating the beauties of the starry vault and to collecting observations which shall be useful for the advancement of science.

Most of the discoveries of comets, small planets, variable stars, and star-clusters are the fruit of individual researches. Were not all those amateur astronomers who, in the first ages of history, in Chaldea and Egypt, China and Mexico, drew from Nature the first explanations of celestial phenomena? From the beginning of historic time down to near our period, astronomical science has advanced only by the labors of philosophers, who pursued it as a matter of taste and not officially. Was it not as an amateur that the canon Copernicus discovered the true system of the world? As an amateur on his little estate at Woolstrop the thinker Newton discovered universal gravitation. Cavendish, who first weighed the earth, was an amateur. Belonging to a noble and wealthy English family, he devoted his whole life to the advancement of science. He was, said Biot, the wealthiest of the learned, and probably also the most learned of the rich.

Are those not also amateurs who have made the most advance in the study of the moon? Hevelius, a counselor of Dantsic, who first undertook to define the form and position of the lunar spots? To whom do we owe the details of lunar topography? To enthusiastic amateurs in astronomy—Schroeter and Lohrman in Germany, and the machinist Nasmyth in England. And now we can count by the hundred the men who give their time to observing our satellite in all its details; and a new fact is added every day to those which we already know.

The knowledge which we possess of the spots and faculæ of the sun is also derived from materials collected by amateur astronomers. We cite first Fabricius, who, living at the beginning of the seventeenth century, first observed the spots and ascertained the period of solar rotation. An amateur, also, Schwabe, of Dessau, discovered the periodicity of the solar spots, and Carrington, Warren, and De la Rue made their admirable studies on the central star of our system. Janssen found a way to observe the protuberances without being obliged to wait for the rare and brief instants of total eclipses; the musician, William Herschel, extended the frontiers of the solar republic, and radically transformed sidereal astronomy; the mathematician, Le Verrier, then a stranger to the Observatory of Paris, discovered Neptune in the depths of space, a milliard of leagues from here; and Dambouski, Burnham, and Gledhill, skilled observers of double stars, have measured the couples that move in remote parts of the sky.

We could not, if we should try, cite the names of all the amateurs who have discovered comets. It was an amateur in astronomy, Flangergues, of Viviers, who first observed the celebrated comet of 1811, the length and brightness of whose tail were the wonder of our ancestors. At seventy-one years of age this indefatigable amateur of astronomical science was so happy as to discover a second comet. Among comet-hunters, we should not forget Pons, porter of the Observatory of Marseilles, who had in France no rival as a discoverer of comets except Mersier, Director of the Observatory of Paris, whom Louis XV surnamed the "comet ferret."

Besides their activity as discoverers, amateurs have also done service to astronomical science as calculators. What a number of names we might cite of those who have given their time to the collection of observations and determining the courses which comets and the minor planets describe in space! The positions of three hundred thousand stars are now known; one third of the work of determining them has been done by volunteer astronomers. The famous catalogues of stars to which we have recourse in official observatories have been prepared in the private observatories of Wrottesley, Hartnup, and Groombridge. To produce such results, how great must have been the zeal and devotion of those amateurs who, after numerous years of watching, have been able to get together thousands of observations, with no reward except the personal satisfaction of having been serviceable to astronomy! Such labors, which are of the most ungrateful kind, and to which professional astronomers devote themselves, have no immediate result. The glory and fame which the discovery of a comet or a planet brings at once to its author are not to be found in them. They serve for the preparation of material which it is certain can not be productive for ages to come; for it is only then that these catalogues can help establish by comparison with new catalogues minute displacements of stars on the celestial vault, and can furnish the means of calculating the proper motions of these stars, and consequently of determining the direction and velocity of the movement of our solar system in space.

We need not go further in the enumeration of the various lines of progress and the discoveries that are due to private persons. We can appreciate to a certain degree the extent of the services rendered by them when we see the strongest astronomical society, that of London, distributing in fifty years more than a third of its annual medals to amateur astronomers.

Other laborers than astronomers have assisted in the advance of the science by furnishing amateurs easier means of examining the sky and bringing the greatest exactness into their observations. Among them are such men as Molyneux, Dent, Grubb, Alvan Clark, Secretan, and the clockmakers, machinists, and opticians who have placed their constructive talent at the service of astronomy. We should not forget to pay our tribute of admiration to the Dudleys, Licks, and Bishoffsheims, who have disinterestedly employed their large fortunes in constructing and furnishing observatories, and providing means to assure their existence in the future.

What emulation prevails among amateurs in astronomy! They pride themselves on cultivating the science as independent men, and spare neither time nor pains to secure a place in the legion which enrolls Copernicus and Herschel in its ranks. One can, indeed, engage with profit in those beautiful studies without making it his real profession, for means for sounding the celestial spaces are now within the reach of nearly every one. You may ask what pleasure there is in being an amateur in astronomy. I answer, Try it, and, when you have once tasted of the tree of science, you will never be able to leave it. Day and night the observer will always find subjects to study in the sky. In the daytime, the sun, its apparent motion, its dimensions, the spots on its disk indicating convulsions in its luminous atmosphere, eclipses, transits of the inferior planets, and the mysterious spectroscopic revelations of solar light offer themselves as subjects for investigation of the highest importance and the greatest interest. The hours of the night are preferred by the astronomer for his work; and he then gives himself up to his favorite occupation while others are taking their rest. A dark veil is spread over everything of active life; but above, in the sky, the curtain has risen, and a magnificient spectacle awaits the astronomer. Those thousands of stars which Newton and Galileo and Kepler and Copernicus and Ptolemy and Hipparchus contemplated, show themselves now in all their glory; they are resplendent with light, and remind us of the glory of those who discovered them or who have studied their motions. The astronomer, in view of this incomparable spectacle, is affected by a profound emotion, and feels himself growing larger before those mysteries which he has been able to sound, and he rises from his contemplation with invigorated mind.

All has changed on the earth, he says, but the sky is still the same. The plow has passed over powerful cities, extensive territories, once teeming with life and occupied by mighty nations, and the languages they spoke have been forgotten, but the stars that shone in their eyes shine for us, and the same eclipses recur, invariable in their unchanging cycles; those people observed them, and we are observing them in our turn; the same equinoxes bring the spring flowers into bloom, and the same solstices mature the harvests. The sun, moon, planets, satellites, constellations, stars, and milky way are there now as they were centuries ago, revealing their majestic beauty to the observer, and raising fold by fold the veils with which Nature has enveloped their mysteries.

Astronomy formerly held a much larger place than it does today in the attention of the people. In fact, as Houzeau has well said, our peoples have no idea of the necessity the men of the beginnings of history were under of referring constantly to the celestial movements. We are in the midst of so numerous clocks that no one need be ignorant of the time of day, and they are so well regulated by the aid of the meridian glasses of observatories that the masses hardly know that they require attention. Our weeks, months, and years are fixed invariably for us by the calendar; the rising and setting of the great lights, the phases of the moon, and even eclipses are in a certain way in everybody's hands, and the whole general movement of the stars is simplified for us. Ships arrive at their destination without having deviated from their route, and that by means of celestial observations so rapidly taken that the passenger hardly remarks them. All these operations, now become so simple, and of which the common man is unaware because they are made apart from him, were formerly the charge of every one. Before there were clocks to keep the hour and show it continuously, every person had to determine it every time he wanted to know it. Instead of taking the time of year from the almanac, he had to read it in the sky, the changes of which he was obliged to follow. In journeys, whether across inhabited countries or on the sea, only a few of the company could give an account of the road they had passed over or could decide upon that which should be followed. None of the professional services now placed in the hands of a few specialists existed then; every man, on the contrary, at every moment, had to be his own astronomer.

If necessity no longer provokes continuous astronomical studies and observations, and the astronomer has no reward but the pure pleasure that science gives, how comes it that astronomy, more than any other science, has created so many adepts? We will attempt to explain it. Astronomy, beyond every other science, offers phenomena which, while they are within the domain of the highest researches of philosophy, can both arrest the attention of persons having some scientific ideas and excite the curiosity of little-instructed observers. Chemistry, in its investigation of the constituent elements of the universe; physiology, in its delicate researches in the secrets of animal life; the transcendent logic of geometry enthusiastic over a formula that deters those who are not initiated—pass the comprehension of the vulgar. But the glories of the rising and setting sun, the serene majesty of the moon when it crosses the celestial vault, the mild luster of Venus, the splendor of the firmament on a cloudless night, the appearance of a comet with its long tail floating in the skies like a resplendent banner, are spectacles that can charm both the philosopher and the peasant, the mathematician who measures worlds and traces their routes, and the shepherd who sees only their figures. Further, if the object of all science is to enlarge and purify thought, to fill the mind with noble contemplations and give it a calm quiet, astronomy, from this point of view, is superior to all other sciences. No other science includes in itself so manifestly the abstractions that form the basis of our intelligence and so grand ideas of time, space, number, motion, and force. The durations of the movements of the planets are immense. The variations presented in the periods of the stars occur by thousands of centuries. It takes light millions of years to cross the distances that separate the stars from one another. What can be said of the immensity of those worlds as compared with which the earth is but an atom, of the prodigious multitude of the suns of space, more numerous than the grains of sand at the bottom of the sea, and of those velocities with which all the stars are carried in immense whirls across the infinite?

But you tell me astronomy is a perfect science; it has reached the height of knowledge, and there is nothing left in it for the amateur. I answer that there is always something to be reaped in the astronomical field of investigation for both the learned and the modest amateur. How many times has it not been said that all was known; and then, as the power of modern instruments was increased and new methods of investigation were invented, new conquests were made in the sidereal domain! Galileo's telescope had immense treasures to look for in the sky. In this age the improvements in the telescope have made known Uranus and Neptune and more than three hundred minor planets, with, a few years ago, the two satellites of Mars. Numerous comets and hundreds of smaller nebulae discovered every year give additional proof that a harvest is always awaiting reapers in the sky. When we consider the immensity of the universe, how could it be otherwise?

Analogy teaches us that the sun is one of the innumerable stars that spangle the firmament with their lights, and that each star is the center of a system like that to which we belong, and of which the sun is the center. Of all these suns, centers of planetary systems, only a few thousand are visible to the naked eye, while telescopes reveal millions of them. Then, if we consider the nebulæ—those little milky spots scattered in all the zones of the sky—if we remark that nearly all of them can, by the aid of strong optical powers, be resolved into thousands of luminous points, and that consequently they are presented to our eyes as immense milky ways investing distant universes, we arrive at the astounding conclusion that little vaporous nothings, which we can hardly distinguish with our strongest instruments, form, not a universe like our solar system, but that each of them is an agglomeration of myriads of universes, the extent and number of which can not be imagined.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from Ciel et Terre.

  1. The society includes now more than seven hundred members. It has published forty-nine quarto volumes of memoirs, and fifty octavo volumes of monthly notices. These two collections form one of the richest and most precious astronomical repertories.
  2. Liste générale des observatoires et des astronomes, des sociétés et des revues astronomiques, preparée par A. Lancaster, bibliothécaire de l'observatoire royal deBruselles. This collection, the several editions of which demonstrate its success and usefulness, includes a list of official and private observatories; astronomical societies; various institutions; astronomical reviews and journals; an alphabetical list, with addresses, of independent and amateur astronomers; and makers of instruments. Published by F. Hayez, printer to the Royal Academy, rue de Louvain 108, Bruxelles.