Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/February 1874/Sketch of R. A. Proctor

PSM V04 D400 Richard Anthony Proctor.jpg



IN making use of the sciences for purposes of intellectual cultivation, a distinction has been drawn between those that are fixed, or established, and those that are progressive, and it has been maintained that the former alone are to be admitted for the purposes of mental training. Foremost among these are Mathematics, Astronomy, and Molar Physics, or the laws of the motion of masses. These may be introduced as means of scientific education, while Molecular Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, from their unsettled character, are alleged to be unfit for such employment. There are no doubt reasons for this distinction, whether conclusive or not, but the classification is by no means above criticism, for within our own time Astronomy has been taken out of the category of the established or perfect sciences, and may be now cited as one of the best illustrations of a progressive science. Of course, there are established truths in Astronomy, and so there are in Chemistry and Physics, but Astronomy has now assumed a new character of progressiveness, and within the present generation it has surpassed all the other sciences in the rapidity and splendor of its advancement.

Not so many years ago it seemed as though astronomy were approaching, if it had not already reached, its final stage. The Sun and his family had been measured and weighed, the Moon tracked in all her motions, and the paths of comets determined. The younger Herschel had completed the survey of the heavens, which his father commenced, and, to all seeming, little remained to be ascertained about the universe. And yet, in the presence of the astronomy of our day, that of a few years ago looks crude and elementary. Newton made an epoch by bringing the movements of the planetary bodies under the demonstrated laws of terrestrial force; Kirchhoff and the spectroscopists have made a new era by subordinating stars, comets, and nebulae, to the laws of terrestrial chemistry. The recent physical explorations of the sun constitute one of the most thrilling chapters in all science. Nor have astronomers been content with the unquestioned acceptance of the older views respecting the planetary scheme. Not Ptolemy alone, or Hipparchus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, but even the elder and younger Herschel, would stand aghast at the change of opinion that has been wrought regarding the members of the solar system. Jupiter and Saturn, so long considered as merely large specimens of habitable worlds, have taken their place in a higher order of orbs, while satellites, formerly thought to be set as lights to illumine their primaries, have been raised almost to the dignity of planets. Even more surprising have been the discoveries made respecting comets and meteors, while modern inquiries have not stopped short of the domain of the so-called fixed stars, so that the whole scheme of the stellar universe begins to present a new aspect.

Astronomical science, in short, has been enlarged and reshaped in the nature and scope of its problems, and has entered into a new epoch in our own time which opens to us even a grander future than was disclosed either to Copernicus or to Newton.

As was quite unavoidable, this recent revolution or extension of the science has left behind the old teachers, and created a demand for new men, who can deal with the subject in its more novel and extended aspects. And, as supply follows demand in the intellectual as well as the commercial world, the expounders of the new dispensation are forthcoming as required. Eminent among these is the subject of the present sketch, who has come over from England to lecture upon astronomical subjects. Ten years ago he was unknown, but within that time he has won a prominent position both as an investigator of celestial phenomena, and as an eloquent and instructive writer upon the most modern phases of the science. Of his wonderful industry and remarkable versatility the following sketch will furnish abundant evidence, but we were hardly prepared to expect that Mr. Proctor would sustain his eminent reputation in the new field of popular lecturing, yet such is the fact. He is an easy and fluent extemporaneous speaker, enthusiastic over his themes, and wielding his large resources of knowledge with the utmost facility and readiness. Dealing with the sublimest of all subjects in its latest and most novel aspects, he carries his audience with him, and occupies their attention so completely that they lose the sense of time, and reach the close of a long lecture under the impression that it is but fairly begun.

Richard Anthony Proctor was born at Chelsea, March 23, 1837, and is consequently not yet thirty-seven years of age. He was educated in his boyhood chiefly at home, being delicate in health. He was a diligent reader, his tastes inclining to history, literature, and theology, more than to mathematics or the sciences. He showed a great liking for the construction of maps, and still regards charting not only as an important aid in scientific investigation, but as a very instructive mental exercise. At the age of twelve he began to read Euclid in school, and at once took to geometrical study. At thirteen his father died, and the boy soon after left school. He was now a ward in chancery; and it affords a good illustration of the system attacked by Dickens in "Bleak House" that, although there was not any "suit" properly so called, Mrs. Proctor was engaged for three or four years in an expensive series of legal processes, the sole object of which was to assign to her formally on behalf of her children the proceeds of a certain estate of which they were heirs.

In 1854 young Proctor obtained a clerkship in a bank to aid him in getting the means of going to the university, as he was designed for a clergyman in the English Church. But little time was allowed for study; but when, in 1855, he went to King's College, London, he succeeded in taking first place in seven subjects—classics, mathematics, history, literature, divinity, French, and German. In 1856 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself in mathematics. In 1857 he lost his mother, for whose sake alone he had valued college successes; and he no longer pursued his mathematical studies, though he remained at Cambridge, and took the degree of B. A. in 1860.

Although he went into the Cambridge Senate House for examination, after two years of mathematical idleness, and without any acquaintance with the higher and more important branches of mathematical reading, Mr. Proctor is reported as standing high in the university among the "wranglers." We have wranglers in this country, and keep a whole Congress of them for public exhibition, as gladiators were exhibited at the Roman shows. But in the English universities this term is applied to a limited group of first-class students or honor-men who go in on the final scramble for the highest places in a numerical gradation. He who beats all the rest is called "senior wrangler." This is the highest position of university honor, and the struggle to reach it is so long and severe that it is said to "use up" the successful candidate, so that the "senior wrangler" is rarely heard of in afterlife. Then come second, third, and fourth wrangler, and so on, and even tenth wrangler is regarded as a highly-honorable rank, as in fact it is to be a wrangler at all. Fortunately for astronomy and American lecturing, Proctor did not win the headship in the wrangle of his year, but he is quoted as being close on the heels of the leaders.

Mr. Proctor's first literary effort, a nine-page article on "Double Stars," appeared in the Cornhill Magazine for December, 1863, ten years ago. His next attempt was an "Essay on the Rings of Saturn," which was declined, as not sufficiently popular for the readers of the Cornhill Magazine. This led to the writing of his first book, "Saturn and its System," a work chiefly remarkable for the fullness of the relations presented by a single planet, which are discussed in almost every conceivable aspect. The construction of maps to illustrate Saturn led Mr. Proctor to form his "Gnomonic Star Atlas," planned on an altogether original system. The sphere is supposed to be inclosed in a dodecahedron, on whose twelve pentagonal faces the stars are projected. A third work, called "The Handbook of the Stars," was also ready for the press in 1866. In this year an event occurred which rendered literary and scientific labor, hitherto pursued as an amusement, a necessity of existence. The bank in which he had all his fortune broke and left him worse than bankrupt, for he was liable for many thousand pounds, and from this liability he has but very recently obtained release. The three years following were marked with struggles, difficulties, and severe domestic bereavements, which interrupted literary work. In 1867 "Constellation-Seasons" (now out of print), and "Sun Views of the Earth," were produced, as well as charts of the planetary orbits, projections of Mars, and other maps. In 1868 appeared "Half-Hours with the Telescope," and in 1869 "Half-Hours with the Stars." But the chief occupation of Mr. Proctor's time for the three years consisted in essay-writing for the magazines, and in the preparation of works which publishers rejected at the time, but which have since met with a success altogether unusual in scientific literature.

In 1868 Mr. Proctor commenced writing popular science essays for the London Daily News, and has continued to do so until the present time. In 1870 appeared "Other Worlds than Ours," which had a prompt and remarkable success, and in the same year his large "Star Atlas" was published. Early in 1871 "The Sun" was printed, and was also well received. In the same year appeared "Elementary Lessons in Astronomy," and the first series of "Light Science for Leisure Hours;" in 1872 the "School Atlas of Astronomy," "Essays on Astronomy," "Orbs around Us," and "Elementary Lessons in Physical Geography." Much of his time this year was devoted to the construction of a chart, showing all the stars visible in the northern heavens with the telescopes 234 inches in aperture—in all, 324,198 stars. This chart exhibits relations having an important bearing on our ideas respecting the constitution of the heavens. During the past year Mr. Proctor has published the second series of "Light Science," "The Moon," "The Border-land of Science," "The Expanse of Heaven;" and a new work, entitled "The Universe and the Coming Transits," is now passing through the press.

Such a rapid multiplication of books cannot of course be otherwise than unfavorable to the promotion of science by original research. This Mr. Proctor recognizes, and he has described it as one of the principal hardships occasioned by the loss of his property, that he was compelled to give but a limited portion of his time to original investigations. But, although driven to write about science for a livelihood, or to forsake it altogether for more remunerative employment, he is very far from having neglected the more serious work of research. Few know what can be accomplished by industry and perseverance. It is only necessary to look over the index of the Proceedings of the Royal Astronomical Society to see that Mr. Proctor has been a large contributor to its work. Indeed, although its pages are limited to the record of such work, from 1868 to 1873 Mr. Proctor contributed to these proceedings more freely than any fellow of the Astronomical Society. His papers have related chiefly to the stellar system, the laws of distribution of stars, their motions, the relations between stars and nebulæ, and the general constitution of the heavens. But the subject of the solar corona has occupied a considerable space among Mr. Proctor's papers, while even a larger amount of labor has been given to the investigation of the opportunities which will be presented during the transits of Venus, on December 9, 1874, and December 6, 1882.

The subject of that mysterious connection between meteors and comets which forms one of the most surprising of the results of modern observation has also been largely dealt with by Mr. Proctor. His investigation of the rotation-period of the planet Mars, resulting in a value certainly within one-tenth of a second of the true period, may also be mentioned among his original researches.

It is but just to say that Mr. Proctor has been singularly fortunate in enunciating theories which have been subsequently confirmed, und in some cases demonstrated by new observations. His confident tone respecting the solar theory of the corona in 1870 and 1871 was blamed by some and misunderstood by many, who failed to perceive his reason for urging arguments so strongly on a matter seemingly theoretical. That reason was stated by Mr. Proctor in the preface to the first edition of the "Other Worlds," where he expresses his anxiety lest doubt and confusion, prevailing as to a matter really demonstrated, might cause the opportunities presented by the great solar eclipses of 1870 and 1871 to be frittered away. Mr. Proctor's confidence on the one hand and his anxiety on the other were fully justified by the event. Every astronomer now accepts the solar theory of the corona, and few are ignorant how, at the eclipse of 1871, two-thirds of the observers were set by the chief believer in the terrestrial theory to make observations which proved nothing, and which, but for faith in that exploded theory, would never have been thought of.

The controversy respecting the transits of Venus, begun in 1869, and brought to a close quite recently, led to unpleasant relations between Mr. Proctor and the Astronomer Royal. Indeed, it must be admitted that in conducting this controversy after February, 1873, Mr. Proctor exhibited a zeal which at times seemed uncalled for. But some explanation may be found in the fact that, having remained quiescent, at the Astronomer Royal's special request, for a long time, his renewal of the discussion led immediately to the statement that it was now too late for any change of plan. Fortunately, the results of the inquiries of American, Russian, and German astronomers, as well as the nature of the schemes proposed by them, fortified Mr. Proctor's position; and, even while the Astronomer Royal was proclaiming his conviction that no other nation would adopt the same opinions as Mr. Proctor, news reached England that America, Russia, and Germany, were in accord in these matters. It cannot be wondered at that, at the Greenwich Board of Visitation, Prof. Adams proposed, and the Board unanimously voted, the point which Mr. Proctor had urged in 1869, viz., that it was desirable to apply Halley's method (respecting which Airy had said, in December, 1868, that it "failed totally"). In this matter, as in the controversy respecting the sun's corona—the only controversies in which Mr. Proctor has engaged—there was this obvious reason for pressing the discussion, that eclipses and transits will wait for no man. In his main subject of original investigation—the constitution of the heavens—Mr. Proctor has wisely avoided controversy, contenting himself with advancing and advocating his views, collecting evidence, weighing objections, and endeavoring to progress toward the solution of the difficult but interesting problems associated with the subject.