Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/February 1913/French Geodesy




EVERY one understands our interest in knowing the form and dimensions of our earth; but some persons will perhaps be surprised at the exactitude sought after. Is this a useless luxury? What good are the efforts so expended by the geodesist?

Should this question be put to a congressman, I suppose he would say: "I am led to believe that geodesy is one of the most useful of the sciences; because it is one of those costing us most dear." I shall try to give you an answer a little more precise.

The great works of art, those of peace as well as those of war, are not to be undertaken without long studies which save much groping, miscalculation and useless expense. These studies can only be based upon a good map. But a map will be only a valueless phantasy if constructed without basing it upon a solid framework. As well make stand a human body minus the skeleton.

Now, this framework is given us by geodesic measurements; so, without geodesy, no good map; without a good map, no great public works.

These reasons will doubtless suffice to justify much expense; but these are arguments for practical men. It is not upon these that it is proper to insist here; there are others higher and, everything considered, more important.

So we shall put the question otherwise: can geodesy aid us the better to know nature? Does it make us understand its unity and harmony? In reality an isolated fact is of slight value, and the conquests of science are precious only if they prepare for new conquests.

If therefore a little hump were discovered on the terrestrial ellipsoid, this discovery would be by itself of no great interest. On the other hand, it would become precious if, in seeking the cause of this hump, we hoped to penetrate new secrets.

Well, when, in the eighteenth century, Maupertuis and La Condamine braved such opposite climates, it was not solely to learn the shape of our planet, it was a question of the whole world-system.

If the earth was flattened, Newton triumphed and with him the doctrine of gravitation and the whole modern celestial mechanics.

And to-day, a century and a half after the victory of the Newtonians, think you geodesy has nothing more to teach us?

We know not what is within our globe. The shafts of mines and borings have let us know a layer of 1 or 2 kilometers thickness, that is to say, the millionth part of the total mass; but what is beneath?

Of all the extraordinary journeys dreamed by Jules Verne, perhaps that to the center of the earth took us to regions least explored.

But these deep-lying rocks we can not reach exercise from afar their attraction which operates upon the pendulum and deforms the terrestrial spheroid. Geodesy can therefore weigh them from afar, so to speak, and tell us of their distribution. Thus will it make us really see those mysterious regions which Jules Verne only showed us in imagination.

This is not an empty illusion. M. Faye, comparing all the measurements, has reached a result well calculated to surprise us. Under the oceans, in the depths, are rocks of very great density; under the continents, on the contrary, are empty spaces.

New observations will modify perhaps the details of these conclusions.

In any case, our venerated dean has shown us where to search and what the geodesist may teach the geologist, desirous of knowing the interior constitution of the earth, and even the thinker wishing to speculate upon the past and the origin of this planet.

And now, why have I entitled this chapter French Geodesy? It is because, in each country, this science has taken, more than all others perhaps, a national character. It is easy to see why.

There must be rivalry. The scientific rivalries are always courteous, or at least almost always; in any case, they are necessary, because they are always fruitful.

Well, in those enterprises which require such long efforts and so many collaborators the individual is effaced, in spite of himself, of course; no one has the right to say: this is my work. Therefore it is not between men, but between nations, that rivalries go on.

So we are led to seek what has been the part of France. Her part I believe we are right to be proud of.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century long discussions arose between the Newtonians who believed the earth flattened; as the theory of gravitation requires, and Cassini, who, deceived by inexact measurements, believed our globe elongated. Only direct observation could settle the question. It was our Academy of Sciences that undertook this task, gigantic for the epoch.

While Maupertuis and Clairaut measured a degree of meridian under the polar circle, Bouguer and La Condamine went toward the Andes Mountains, in regions then under Spain which to-day are the Republic of Ecuador.

Our envoys were exposed to great hardships. Traveling was not as easy as at present.

Truly, the country where Maupertuis operated was not a desert, and he even enjoyed, it is said, among the Laplanders those sweet satisfactions of the heart that real arctic voyagers never know. It was almost the region where, in our days, comfortable steamers carry, each summer, hosts of tourists and young English people. But in those days Cook's agency did not exist and Maupertuis really believed he had made a polar expedition.

Perhaps he was not altogether wrong. The Russians and the Swedes carry out to-day analogous measurements at Spitzbergen, in a country where there is real ice-cap. But they have quite other resources, and the difference of time makes up for that of latitude.

The name of Maupertuis has reached us much scratched by the claws of Doctor Akakia; the scientist had the misfortune to displease Voltaire, who was then the king of mind. He was first praised beyond measure; but the flatteries of kings are as much to be dreaded as their displeasure, because the days after are terrible. Voltaire himself knew something of this.

Voltaire called Maupertuis, my amiable master in thinking, marquis of the polar circle, dear flattener out of the world and Cassini, and even, flattery supreme, Sir Isaac Maupertuis; he wrote him: "Only the king of Prussia do I put on a level with you; he only lacks being a geometer." But soon the scene changes, he no longer speaks of deifying him, as in days of yore the Argonauts, or of calling down from Olympus the council of the gods to contemplate his works, but of chaining him up in a madhouse. He speaks no longer of his sublime mind, but of his despotic pride, plated with very little science and much absurdity.

I care not to relate these comico-heroic combats; but permit me some reflections on two of Voltaire's verses. In his "Discourse on Moderation" (no question of moderation in praise and criticism), the poet has written:

You have confirmed in regions drear
What Newton discerned without going abroad.

These two verses (which replace the hyperbolic praises of the first period) are very unjust, and doubtless Voltaire was too enlightened not to know it.

Then, only those discoveries were esteemed which could be made without leaving one's house.

To-day, it would rather be theory that one would make light of.

This is to misunderstand the aim of science.

Is nature governed by caprice, or does harmony rule there? That is the question. It is when it discloses to us this harmony that science is beautiful and so worthy to be cultivated. But whence can come to us this revelation, if not from the accord of a theory with experiment? To seek whether this accord exists or if it fails, this therefore is our aim. Consequently these two terms, which we must compare, are as indispensable the one as the other. To neglect one for the other would be nonsense. Isolated, theory would be empty, experiment would be blind; each would be useless and without interest.

Maupertuis therefore deserves his share of glory. Truly, it will not equal that of Newton, who had received the spark divine; nor even that of his collaborator Clairaut. Yet it is not to be despised, because his work was necessary, and if France, outstripped by England in the seventeenth century, has so well taken her revenge in the century following, it is not alone to the genius of Clairauts, d'Alemberts, Laplaces that she owes it; it is also to the long patience of the Maupertuis and the La Condamines.

We reach what may be called the second heroic period of geodesy. France is torn within. All Europe is armed against her; it would seem that these gigantic combats might absorb all her forces. Far from it; she still has them for the service of science. The men of that time recoiled before no enterprise, they were men of faith.

Delambre and Méchain were commissioned to measure an arc going from Dunkirk to Barcelona. This time there was no going to Lapland or to Peru; the hostile squadrons had closed to us the ways thither. But, though the expeditions are less distant, the epoch is so troubled that the obstacles, the perils even, are just as great.

In France, Delambre had to fight against the ill will of suspicious municipalities. One knows that the steeples, which are visible from so far, and can be aimed at with precision, often serve as signal points to geodesists. But in the region Delambre traversed there were no longer any steeples. A certain proconsul had passed there, and boasted of knocking down all the steeples rising proudly above the humble abode of the sans-culottes. Pyramids then were built of planks and covered with white cloth to make them more visible. That was quite another thing: with white cloth! What was this rash person who, upon our heights so recently set free, dared to raise the hateful standard of the counter-revolution? It was necessary to border the white cloth with blue and red bands.

Méchain operated in Spain; the difficulties were other; but they were not less. The Spanish peasants were hostile. There steeples were not lacking: but to install oneself in them with mysterious and perhaps diabolic instruments, was it not sacrilege? The revolutionists were allies of Spain, but allies smelling a little of the stake.

"Without cease," writes Méchain, "they threaten to butcher us." Fortunately, thanks to the exhortations of the priests, to the pastoral letters of the bishops, these ferocious Spaniards contented themselves with threatening.

Some years after, Méchain made a second expedition into Spain: he proposed to prolong the meridian from Barcelona to the Balearics. This was the first time it had been attempted to make the triangulations overpass a large arm of the sea by observing signals installed upon some high mountain of a far-away isle. The enterprise was well conceived and well prepared; it failed however.

The French scientist encountered all sorts of difficulties of which he complains bitterly in his correspondence. "Hell," he writes, perhaps with some exaggeration, "hell and all the scourges it vomits upon the earth, tempests, war, the plague and black intrigues, are therefore unchained against me!"

The fact is that he encountered among his collaborators more of proud obstinacy than of good will and that a thousand accidents retarded his work. The plague was nothing, the fear of the plague was much more redoubtable; all these isles were on their guard against the neighboring isles and feared lest they should receive the scourge from them. Méchain obtained permission to disembark only after long weeks upon the condition of covering all his papers with vinegar; this was the antisepsis of that time.

Disgusted and sick, he had just asked to be recalled, when he died.

Arago and Biot it was who had the honor of taking up the unfinished work and carrying it on to completion.

Thanks to the support of the Spanish government, to the protection of several bishops and, above all, to that of a famous brigand chief, the operations went rapidly forward. They were successfully completed, and Biot had returned to France when the storm burst.

It was the moment when all Spain took up arms to defend her independence against France. Why did this stranger climb the mountains to make signals? It was evidently to call the French army. Arago was able to escape the populace only by becoming a prisoner. In his prison his only distraction was reading in the Spanish papers the account of his own execution. The papers of that time sometimes gave out news prematurely. He had at least the consolation of learning that he died with courage and like a Christian.

Even the prison was no longer safe; he had to escape and reach Algiers. There, he embarked for Marseilles on an Algerian vessel. This ship was captured by a Spanish corsair, and behold Arago carried back to Spain and dragged from dungeon to dungeon, in the midst of vermin and in the most shocking wretchedness.

If it had only been a question of his subjects and his guests, the dey would have said nothing. But there were on board two lions, a present from the African sovereign to Napoleon. The dey threatened war.

The vessel and the prisoners were released. The port should have been properly reached, since they had on board an astronomer; but the astronomer was seasick, and the Algerian seamen, who wished to make Marseilles, came out at Bougie. Thence Arago went to Algiers, traversing Kabylia on foot in the midst of a thousand perils. He was long detained in Africa and threatened with the convict prison. Finally he was able to get back to France; his observations, which he had preserved and safe-guarded under his shirt, and, what is still more remarkable, his instruments, had traversed unhurt these terrible adventures.

Up to this point, not only did France hold the foremost place, but she occupied the stage almost alone.

In the years which follow she has not been inactive and our staff-office map is a model. However, the new methods of observation and calculation have come to us above all from Germany and England. It is only in the last forty years that France has regained her rank. She owes it to a scientific officer, General Perrier, who has successfully executed an enterprise truly audacious, the junction of Spain and Africa. Stations were installed on four peaks upon the two sides of the Mediterranean. For long months they awaited a calm and limpid atmosphere. At last was seen the little thread of light which had traversed 300 kilometers over the sea. The undertaking had succeeded.

To-day have been conceived projects still more bold. From a mountain near Nice will be sent signals to Corsica, not now for geodesic determinations, but to measure the velocity of light. The distance is only 200 kilometers; but the ray of light is to make the journey there and return, after reflection by a mirror installed in Corsica. And it should not wander on the way, for it must return exactly to the point of departure.

Ever since, the activity of French geodesy has never slackened. We have no more such astonishing adventures to tell; but the scientific work accomplished is immense. The territory of France beyond the sea, like that of the mother country, is covered by triangles measured with precision.

We have become more and more exacting and what our fathers admired does not satisfy us to-day. But in proportion as we seek more exactitude, the difficulties greatly increase; we are surrounded by snares and must be on our guard against a thousand unsuspected causes of error. It is needful, therefore, to create instruments more and more faultless.

Here again France has not let herself be distanced. Our appliances for the measurement of bases and angles leave nothing to desire, and I may also mention the pendulum of Colonel Defforges, which enables us to determine gravity with a precision hitherto unknown.

The future of French geodesy is at present in the hands of the Geographic Service of the army, successively directed by General Bassot and General Berthaut. We can not sufficiently congratulate ourselves upon it. For success in geodesy, scientific aptitudes are not enough; it is necessary to be capable of standing long fatigues in all sorts of climates; the chief must be able to win obedience from his collaborators and to make obedient his native auxiliaries. These are military qualities. Besides, one knows that, in our army, science has always marched shoulder to shoulder with courage.

I add that a military organization assures the indispensable unity of action. It would be more difficult to reconcile the rival pretensions of scientists jealous of their independence, solicitous of what they call their fame, and who yet must work in concert, though separated by great distances. Among the geodesists of former times there were often discussions, of which some aroused long echoes. The Academy long resounded with the quarrel of Bouguer and La Condamine. I do not mean to say that soldiers are exempt from passion, but discipline imposes silence upon a too sensitive self-esteem.

Several foreign governments have called upon our officers to organize their geodesic service: this is proof that the scientific influence of France abroad has not declined.

Our hydrographic engineers contribute also to the common achievement a glorious contingent. The survey of our coasts, of our colonies, the study of the tides offer them a vast domain of research. Finally I may mention the general leveling of France which is carried out by the ingenious and precise methods of M. Lallemand.

With such men we are sure of the future. Moreover, work for them will not be lacking; our colonial empire opens for them immense expanses illy explored. That is not all: the International Geodetic Association has recognized the necessity of a new measurement of the arc of Quito, determined in days of yore by La Condamine. It is France that has been charged with this operation; she had every right to it, since our ancestors had made, so to speak, the scientific conquest of the Cordilleras. Besides, these rights have not been contested and our government has undertaken to exercise them.

Captains Maurain and Lacombe completed a first reconnaissance, and the rapidity with which they accomplished their mission, crossing the roughest regions and climbing the most precipitous summits, is worthy of all praise. It won the admiration of General Alfaro, President of the Eepublic of Ecuador, who called them "los hombres de hierro," the men of iron.

The final commission then set out under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel (then Major) Bourgeois. The results obtained have justified the hopes entertained. But our officers have encountered unforeseen difficulties due to the climate. More than once, one of them has been forced to remain several months at an altitude of 4,000 meters, in the clouds and the snow, without seeing anything of the signals he had to aim at and which refused to unmask themselves. But thanks to their perseverance and courage, there resulted from this only a delay and an increase of expense, without the exactitude of the measurements suffering therefrom.