Read CHAPTER XI - ON SOME ASTRONOMICAL MYTHS. of Myths and Marvels of Astronomy , free online book, by Richard A. Proctor, on

The expression ‘astronomical myth’ has recently been used, on the title-page of a translation from the French, as synonymous with false systems of astronomy. It is not, however, in that sense that I here use it. The history of astronomy presents the records of some rather perplexing observations, not confirmed by later researches, but yet not easily to be explained away or accounted for. Such observations Humboldt described as belonging to the myths of an uncritical period; and it is in that sense that I employ the term ‘astronomical myth’ in this essay. I propose briefly to describe and comment on some of the more interesting of these observations, which, in whatever sense they are to be interpreted, will be found to afford a useful lesson.

It is hardly necessary, perhaps, to point out that the cases which I include here I regard as really cases in which astronomers have been deceived by illusory observations. Other students of astronomy may differ from me as respects some of these instances. I do not wish to dogmatise, but simply to describe the facts as I see them, and the impressions which I draw from them. Those who view the facts differently will not, I think, have to complain that I have incorrectly described them.

At the outset, let me point out that some observations which were for a long time regarded as mythical have proved to be exact. For instance, when as yet very few telescopes existed, and those very feeble, Galileo’s discovery of moons travelling round Jupiter was rejected as an illusion for which Satan received the chief share of credit. There is an amusing and yet in one aspect almost pathetic reference to this in his account of his earlier observations of Saturn. He had seen the planet apparently attended on either side by two smaller planets, as if helping old Saturn along. But on December 4, 1612, turning his telescope on the planet, he found to his infinite amazement not a trace of the companion planets could be seen; there in the field of view of his telescope was the golden-tinted disc of the planet as smoothly rounded as the disc of Mars or Jupiter. ‘What,’ he wrote, ’is to be said concerning so strange a metamorphosis? Are the two lesser stars consumed after the manner of the solar spots? Have they vanished or suddenly fled? Has Saturn, perhaps, devoured his children? Or were the appearances, indeed, illusion or fraud with which the glasses have so long deceived me as well as many others to whom I have shown them? Now, perhaps, is the time come to revive the well-nigh withered hopes of those who, guided by more profound contemplations, have discovered the fallacy of the new observations, and demonstrated the utter impossibility of the existence of those things which the telescope appears to show. I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked for, and so novel. The shortness of the time, the unexpected nature of the event, the weakness of my understanding, and the fear of being mistaken, have greatly confounded me.’ We now know that these observations, as well as those made soon after by Hevelius, though wrongly interpreted, were correct enough. Nay, we know that if either Galileo or Hevelius had been at the pains to reason out the meaning of the alternate visibility and disappearance of objects looking like attendant planets, they must have anticipated the discovery made in 1656 by Huyghens, that Saturn’s globe is girdled about by a thin flat ring so vast that, if a score of globes like our earth were set side by side, the range of that row of worlds would be less than the span of the Saturnian ring system.

There is a reference in Galileo’s letter to the solar spots; ’Are the two lesser stars,’ he says, ’consumed after the manner of the solar spots?’ When he thus wrote the spots were among the myths or fables of astronomy, and an explanation was offered, by those who did not reject them utterly, which has taken its place among forsaken doctrines, those broken toys of astronomers. It is said that when Scheiner, himself a Jesuit, communicated to the Provincial of the Jesuits his discovery of the spots on the sun, the latter, a staunch Aristotelian, cautioned him not to see these things. ’I have read Aristotle’s writings from beginning to end many times,’ he said, ’and I can assure you I have nowhere found in them anything similar to what you mention’ [amazing circumstances!] ’Go, therefore, my son, tranquillise yourself; be assured that what you take for spots on the sun are the faults of your glasses or your eyes.’ As the idea was obviously inadmissible that a celestial body could be marked by spots, the theory was started that the dark objects apparently seen on the sun’s body were in reality small planets revolving round the sun, and a contest arose for the possession of these mythical planets. Tarde maintained that they should be called Astra Borbonia, in honour of the royal family of France; but C. Malapert insisted that they should be called Sidera Austriaca. Meantime the outside world laughed at the spots, and their names, and the astronomers who were thought to have invented both. ’Fabritius puts only three spots,’ wrote Burton in his ‘Anatomy of Melancholy,’ ’and those in the sun; Apelles 15, and those without the sun, floating like the Cyanean Isles in the Euxine Sea. Tarde the Frenchman hath observed 33, and those neither spots nor clouds as Galileus supposed, but planets concentric with the sun, and not far from him, with regular motions. Christopher Schemer’ [a significant way of spelling Scheiner’s name], ’a German Suisser Jesuit, divides them in máculas et faculas, and will have them to be fixed in solis superficie and to absolve their periodical and regular motions in 27 or 28 dayes; holding withall the rotation of the sun upon his centre, and are all so confident that they have made schemes and tables of their motions. The Hollander censures all; and thus they disagree among themselves, old and new, irreconcilable in their opinions; thus Aristarchus, thus Hipparchus, thus Ptolomaeus, thus Albategnius, etc., with their followers, vary and determine of these celestial orbs and bodies; and so whilst these men contend about the sun and moon, like the philosophers in Lucian, it is to be feared the sun and moon will hide themselves, and be as much offended as she was with those, and send another message to Jupiter, by some new-fangled Icaromenippus, to make an end of all these curious controversies, and scatter them abroad.’

It is well to notice how in this, as in many other instances, the very circumstance which makes scientific research trustworthy caused the unscientific to entertain doubt. If men of science were to arrange beforehand with each other what observations they should publish, how their accounts should be ended, what theories they would endeavour to establish, their results would seem far more trustworthy, their theories far more probable, than according to the method actually adopted. Science, which should be exact, seems altogether inexact, because one observer seems to obtain one result, another a different result. Scientific theories seem unworthy of reliance because scientific men entertain for a long time rival doctrines. But in another and a worthier sense than as the words are used in the ‘Critic,’ when men of science do agree their agreement is wonderful. It is wonderful, worthy of all admiration, because before it has been attained errors long entertained have had to be honestly admitted; because the taunt of inconsistency is not more pleasant to the student of science than to others, and the man who having a long time held one doctrine adopts and enforces another (one perhaps which he had long resisted), is sure to be accused by the many of inconsistency, the truly scientific nature of his procedure being only recognised by the few. The agreement of men of science ought to be regarded also as most significant in another sense. So long as there is room for refusing to admit an important theory advanced by a student of science, it is natural that other students of science should refuse to do so; for in admitting the new theory they are awarding the palm to a rival. In strict principle, of course, this consideration ought to have no influence whatever; as a matter of fact, however, men of science, being always men and not necessarily strengthened by scientific labours against the faults of humanity, the consideration has and must always have influence. Therefore, when the fellow-writers and rivals of Newton or of his followers gave in their adhesion to the Newtonian theory; when in our own time but let us leave our own time alone, in this respect when, speaking generally, a novel doctrine, or some new generalisation, or some great and startling discovery, is admitted by rival students of the branch of astronomy to which it belongs, the probability is great that the weight of evidence has been found altogether overwhelming.

Let us now, however, turn to cases in which, while many observations seem to point to some result, it has appeared that, after all, those observations must have been illusory.

A striking instance in point is found in the perplexing history of the supposed satellite of Venus.

On January 25, 1672, the celebrated astronomer, J.D. Cassini saw a crescent shaped and posited like Venus, but smaller, on the western side of the planet. More than fourteen years later, he saw a crescent east of the planet. The object continued visible in the latter case for half an hour, when the approach of daylight obliterated the planet and this phantom moon from view. The apparent distance of the moon from Venus was in both cases small, viz., only one diameter of the planet in the former case, and only three-fifths of that diameter in the latter.

Next, on October 23, 1740, old style, the optician Short, who had had considerable experience in observation, saw a small star perfectly defined but less luminous than Venus, at a distance from the planet equal to about one-third of the apparent diameter of our moon. This is a long distance, and would correspond to a distance from Venus certainly not less than the moon’s distance from the earth. Short was aware of the risk of optical illusion in such matters, and therefore observed Venus with a second telescope; he also used four eye-pieces of different magnifying power. He says that Venus was very distinct, the air very pure, insomuch that he was able to use a power of 240. The seeming moon had a diameter less than a third of Venus’s, and showed the same phase as the planet. Its disc was exceedingly well defined. He observed it several times during a period of about one hour.

Still more convincing, to all appearance, is the account of the observations made by M. Montaigne, as presented to the Academy of Sciences at Paris by M. Baudouin in 1761. The transit of Venus which was to take place on June 6 in that year led to some inquiry as to the satellite supposed to have been seen by Cassini and Short, for of course a transit would be a favourable occasion for observing the satellite. M. Montaigne, who had no faith in the existence of such an attendant, was persuaded to look for it early in 1761. On May 3 he saw a little crescent moon about twenty minutes of arc (nearly two-thirds the apparent diameter of our moon) from the planet. He repeated his observation several times that night, always seeing the small body, but not quite certain, despite its crescent shape, whether it might not be a small star. On the next evening, and again on May 7 and 10, he saw the small companion apparently somewhat farther from Venus and in a different position. He found that it could be seen when Venus was not in the field of view. The following remarks were made respecting these observations in a French work, ‘Dictionnaire de Physique,’ published in 1789: ’The year 1761 will be celebrated in astronomy in consequence of the discovery that was made on May 3 of a satellite circulating round Venus. We owe it to M. Montaigne, member of the Society of Limoges. M. Baudouin read before the Academy of Sciences at Paris a very interesting memoir, in which he gave a determination of the revolution and distance of the satellite. From the calculations of this expert astronomer we learn that the new star has a diameter about one-fourth that of Venus, is distant from Venus almost as far as the moon from our earth, has a period of nine days seven hours’ [much too short, by the way, to be true, expert though M. Baudouin is said to have been], ’and its ascending node’ but we need not trouble ourselves about its ascending node.

Three years later Roedkier, at Copenhagen, March 3 and 4, 1764, saw the satellite of Venus with a refracting telescope 38 feet long, which should have been effective if longitude has any virtue. He could not see the satellite with another telescope which he tried. But several of his friends saw it with the long telescope. Amongst others, Horrebow, Professor of Astronomy, saw the satellite on March 10 and 11, after taking several precautions to prevent optical illusion. A few days later Montbaron, at Auxerre, who had heard nothing of these observations, saw a satellite, and again on March 28 and 29 it appeared, always in a different position.

It should be added that Scheuten asserted that during the transit of 1761 Venus was accompanied by a small satellite in her motion across the sun’s face.

So confidently did many believe in this satellite of Venus that Frederick the Great, who for some reason imagined that he was entitled to dispose as he pleased of the newly discovered body, proposed to assign it away to the mathematician D’Alembert, who excused himself from accepting the questionable honour in the following terms:

’Your Majesty does me too much honour in wishing to baptize this new planet with my name. I am neither great enough to become the satellite of Venus in the heavens, nor well enough (assez bien portant) to be so on the earth, and I am too well content with the small place I occupy in this lower world to be ambitious of a place in the firmament.’

It is not at all easy to explain how this phantom satellite came to be seen. Father Hell, of Vienna the same astronomer whom Sir G. Airy suspects of falling asleep during the progress of the transit of Venus in 1769 made some experiments showing how a false image of the planet might be seen beside the true one, the false image being smaller and fainter, like the moons seen by Schort (as Hell called Short), Cassini, and the rest. And more recently Sir David Brewster stated that Wargentin ’had in his possession a good achromatic telescope, which always showed Venus with such a satellite.’ But Hell admitted that the falsehood of the unreal Venus was easily detected, and Brewster adds to his account of Wargentin’s phantom moon, that ’the deception was discovered by turning the telescope about its axis.’ As Admiral Smyth well remarks, to endeavour to explain away in this manner the observations made by Cassini and Short ’must be a mere pleasantry, for it is impossible such accurate observers could have been deceived by so gross a neglect.’ Smyth, by the way, was a believer in the moon of Venus. ’The contested satellite is perhaps extremely minute,’ he says, ’while some parts of its body may be less capable of reflecting light than others; and when the splendour of its primary and our inconvenient station for watching it are considered, it must be conceded that, however slight the hope may be, search ought not to be relinquished.’

Setting aside Scheuten’s asserted recognition of a dark body near Venus during the transit of 1761, Venus has always appeared without any attendant when in transit. As no one else claimed to have seen what Scheuten saw in 1761, though the transit was observed by hundreds, of whom many used far finer telescopes than he, we must consider that he allowed his imagination to deceive him. During the transit of 1769, and again on December 8-9, 1874, Venus certainly had no companion during her transit.

What, then, was it that Cassini, Short, Montaigne, and the rest supposed they saw? The idea has been thrown out by Mr. Webb that mirage caused the illusion. But he appears to have overlooked the fact that though an image of Venus formed by mirage would be fainter than the planet, it would not be smaller. It might, according to the circumstances, be above Venus or below, or even somewhat towards either side, and it might be either a direct or an inverted image, but it could not possibly be a diminished image.

Single observations like Cassini’s or Short’s might be explained as subjective phenomena, but this explanation will not avail in the case of the Copenhagen observations.

I reject, as every student of astronomy will reject, the idea of wilful deception. Occasionally an observer may pretend to see what he has not seen, though I believe this very seldom happens. But even if Cassini and the rest had been notoriously untrustworthy persons instead of being some of them distinguished for the care and accuracy with which their observations were made and recorded, these occasional views of a phantom satellite are by no means such observations as they would have invented. No distinction was to be gained by observations which could not be confirmed by astronomers possessing more powerful telescopes. Cassini, for example, knew well that nothing but his well-earned reputation could have saved him from suspicion or ridicule when he announced that he had seen Venus attended by a satellite.

It seems to me probable that the false satellite was an optical illusion brought about in a different way from those referred to by Hell and Brewster, though among the various circumstances which in an imperfect instrument might cause such a result I do not undertake to make a selection. It is certain that Venus’s satellite has vanished with the improvement of telescopes, while it is equally certain that even with the best modern instruments illusions occasionally appear which deceive even the scientific elect. Three years have passed since I heard the eminent observer Otto Struve, of Pulkowa, give an elaborate account of a companion to the star Procyon, describing the apparent brightness, distance, and motions of this companion body, for the edification of the Astronomer-Royal and many other observers. I had visited but a few months before the Observatory at Washington, where, with a much more powerful telescope, that companion to Procyon had been systematically but fruitlessly sought for, and I entertained a very strong opinion, notwithstanding the circumstantial nature of Struve’s account and his confidence (shared in unquestioningly by the observers present), that he had been in some way deceived. But I could not then see, nor has any one yet explained, how this could be. The fact, however, that he had been deceived is now undoubted. Subsequent research has shown that the Pulkowa telescope, though a very fine instrument, possesses the undesirable quality of making a companion orb for all first-class stars in the position where O. Struve and his assistant Lindenau saw the supposed companion of Procyon.

I may as well point out, however, that theories so wild have recently been broached respecting Venus, that far more interesting explanations of the enigma than this optical one may be looked for presently. It has been gravely suggested by Mr. Jos. Brett, the artist, that Venus has a surface of metallic brilliancy, with a vitreous atmosphere, which can only be understood to signify a glass case. This stupendous theory has had its origin in an observation of considerable interest which astronomers (it is perhaps hardly necessary to say) explain somewhat differently. When Venus has made her entry in part upon the sun’s face at the beginning of transit, there is seen all round the portion of her disc which still remains outside the sun an arc of light so brilliant that it records its photographic trace during the instantaneous exposure required in solar photography. It is mathematically demonstrable that this arc of light is precisely what should be seen if Venus has an atmosphere like our earth’s. But mathematical demonstration is not sufficient (or perhaps we may say it is too much) for some minds. Therefore, to simplify matters, Venus has been provided with a mirror surface and a glass case. (See preceding essay, on Astronomical Paradoxes, for further details.)

The enigma next to be considered is of a more doubtful character than the myth relating to the satellite of Venus. Astronomers are pretty well agreed that Venus has no moon, but many, including some deservedly eminent, retain full belief in the story of the planet Vulcan.

More than seventeen years ago the astronomical world was startled by the announcement that a new planet had been discovered, under circumstances unlike any which had heretofore attended the discovery of fresh members of the solar system. At that time astronomers had already become accustomed to the discovery, year after year, of several asteroids, which are in reality planets, though small ones. In fact, no less than fifty-six of these bodies were then known, whereof fifty-one had been discovered during the years 1847-1858 inclusive, not one of these years having passed without the detection of an asteroid. But all these planets belonged to one family, and as there was every reason to believe that thousands more travel in the same region of the solar system, the detection of a few more among the number had no longer any special interest for astronomers. The discovery of the first known member of the family had indeed been full of interest, and had worthily inaugurated the present century, on the first day of which it was made. For it had been effected in pursuance of a set scheme, and astronomers had almost given up all hopes of success in that scheme when Piazzi announced his detection of little Ceres. Again the discovery of the next few members of the family had been interesting as revealing the existence of a new order of bodies in the solar system. No one had suspected the possibility that besides the large bodies which travel round the sun, either singly or attended by subordinate families of moons, there might be a ring of many planets. This was what the discovery of Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta seemed to suggest, unless still stranger thought these were but fragments of a mighty planet which had been shattered in long-past ages by some tremendous explosion. Since then, however, this startling theory has been (itself) exploded. Year after year new members of the ring of multitudinous planets are discovered, and that, not as was recently predicted, in numbers gradually decreasing, but so rapidly that more have been discovered during the last ten years than during the preceding twenty.

The discovery of the giant planet Uranus, an orb exceeding our earth twelve and a half times in mass and seventy-four times in volume, was a matter of much greater importance, so far as the dignity of the planetary system was concerned, for it is known that the whole ring of asteroids together does not equal one-tenth part of the earth in mass, while Uranus exceeds many times in volume the entire family of terrestrial planets Mercury, Venus, the Earth, and Mars. The detection of Uranus, unlike that of Ceres, was effected by accident. Sir W. Herschel was looking for double stars of a particular kind in the constellation Gemini when by good fortune the stranger was observed.

The interest with which astronomers received the announcement of the discovery of Uranus, though great, was not to be compared with that with which they deservedly welcomed the discovery of Neptune, a larger and more massive planet, revolving at a distance one-half greater even than the mighty space which separates Uranus from the sun, a space so great that by comparison with it the range of 184,000,000 of miles, which forms the diameter of our earth’s orbit, seems quite insignificant. It was not, however, the vastness of Neptune’s mass or volume, or the awful remoteness of the path along which he pursues his gloomy course, which attracted the interest of astronomers, but the strangeness of the circumstances under which the planet had been detected. His influence had been felt for many years before astronomers thought of looking for him, and even when the idea had occurred to one or two, it was considered, and that, too, by an astronomer as deservedly eminent as Sir G. Airy, too chimerical to be reasonably entertained. All the world now knows how Leverrier, the greatest living master of physical astronomy, and Adams, then scarce known outside Cambridge, both conceived the idea of finding the planet, not by the simple method of looking for it with a telescope, but by the mathematical analysis of the planet’s disturbing influence upon known members of the solar system. All know, too, that these mathematicians succeeded in their calculations, and that the planet was found in the very region and close to the very point indicated first by Adams, and later, but independently, and (fortunately for him more publicly) by Leverrier.

None of these instances of the discovery of members of the solar system resembled in method or details the discovery announced early in the year 1859. It was not amid the star-depths and in the darkness of night that the new planet was looked for, but in broad day, and on the face of the sun himself. It was not on the outskirts of the solar system that the planet was supposed to be travelling, but within the orbit of Mercury, hitherto regarded as of all planets the nearest to the sun. It was not hoped that any calculation of the perturbations of other planets would show the place of the stranger, though certain changes in the orbit of Mercury seemed clearly enough to indicate the stranger’s existence.

Early in 1860 Leverrier had announced that the position of Mercury’s path was not precisely in agreement with calculations based on the adopted estimates of the masses of those planets which chiefly disturb the motions of Mercury. The part of the path where Mercury is nearest to the sun, and where, therefore, he travels fastest, had slightly shifted from its calculated place. This part of the path was expected to move, but it had moved more than was expected; and of course Mercury having his region of swiftest motion somewhat differently placed than was anticipated, himself moved somewhat differently.

Leverrier found that to explain this feature of Mercury’s motion either the mass of Venus must be regarded as one-tenth greater than had been supposed, or some unknown cause must be regarded as affecting the motion of Mercury. A planet as large as Mercury, about midway between Mercury and the sun, would account for the observed disturbance; but Leverrier rejected the belief that such a planet exists, simply because he could not ’believe that it would be invisible during total eclipses of the sun.’ ‘All difficulties disappear,’ he added, ’if we admit, in place of a single planet, small bodies circulating between Mercury and the sun.’ Considering their existence as not at all improbable, he advised astronomers to watch for them.

It was on January 2, 1860, that Leverrier thus wrote. On December 22, 1859, a letter had been addressed by a M. Lescarbault of Orgeres to Leverrier, through M. Vallee, hon. inspector-general of roads and bridges, announcing that on March 26, 1859, about four in the afternoon, Lescarbault had seen a round black spot on the face of the sun, and had watched it as it passed across like a planet in transit not with the slow motion of an ordinary sun-spot. The actual time during which the round spot was visible was one hour, seventeen minutes, nine seconds, the rate of motion being such that, had the spot crossed the middle of the sun’s disc, at the same rate, the transit would have lasted more than four hours. The spot thus merely skirted the sun’s disc, being at no time more than about one forty-sixth part of the sun’s apparent diameter from the edge of the sun. Lescarbault expressed his conviction that on a future day, a black spot, perfectly round and very small, will be seen passing over the sun, and ’this point will very probably be the planet whose path I observed on March 26, 1859.’ ‘I am persuaded,’ he added, ’that this body is the planet, or one of the planets, whose existence in the vicinity of the sun M. Leverrier had made known a few months ago’ (referring to the preliminary announcement of results which Leverrier published afterwards more definitely).

Leverrier, when the news of Lescarbault’s observation first reached him, was surprised that the observation should not have been announced earlier. He did not consider the delay sufficiently justified by Lescarbault’s statement that he wished to see the spot again. He therefore set out for Orgeres, accompanied by M. Vallee. ’The predominant feeling in Leverrier’s mind,’ says Abbe Moigno, ’was the wish to unmask an attempt to impose upon him, as the person more likely than any other astronomer to listen to the allegation that his prophecy had been fulfilled.’

‘One should have seen M. Lescarbault,’ says Moigno, ’so small, so simple, so modest, and so timid, in order to understand the emotion with which he was seized, when Leverrier, from his great height, and with that blunt intonation which he can command, thus addressed him: “It is then you, sir, who pretend to have observed the intra-mercurial planet, and who have committed the grave offence of keeping your observation secret for nine months. I warn you that I have come here with the intention of doing justice to your pretensions, and of demonstrating either that you have been dishonest or deceived. Tell me, then, unequivocally, what you have seen."’ This singular address did not bring the interview, as one might have expected, to an abrupt end. The lamb, as the Abbe calls the doctor, trembling, stammered out an account of what he had seen. He explained how he had timed the passage of the black spot. ‘Where is your chronometer?’ asked Leverrier. ’It is this watch, the faithful companion of my professional journeys.’ ’What! with that old watch, showing only minutes, dare you talk of estimating seconds. My suspicions are already too well confirmed.’ ’Pardon me, I have a pendulum which beats seconds.’ ‘Show it me.’ The doctor brings down a silk thread to which an ivory ball is attached. Fixing the upper end to a nail, he draws the ball a little from the vertical, counts the number of oscillations, and shows that his pendulum beats seconds; he explains also how his profession, requiring him to feel pulses and count pulsations, he has no difficulty in mentally keeping record of successive seconds.

Having been shown the telescope with which the observation was made, the record of the observation (on a piece of paper covered with grease and laudanum, and doing service as a marker in the ‘Connaissance des Temps,’ or French Nautical Almanac), Leverrier presently inquired if Lescarbault had attempted to deduce the planet’s distance from the sun from the period of its transit. The doctor admitted that he had attempted this, but, being no mathematician, had failed to achieve success with the problem. He showed the rough draughts of his futile attempts at calculation on a board in his workshop, ‘for,’ said he naively, ’I am a joiner as well as an astronomer.’

The interview satisfied Leverrier that a new planet, travelling within the orbit of Mercury, had really been discovered. ’With a grace and dignity full of kindness,’ says a contemporary narrative of these events, ’he congratulated Lescarbault on the important discovery which he had made.’ Anxious to obtain some mark of respect for the discoverer of Vulcan, Leverrier made inquiry concerning his private character, and learned from the village cure, the juge de paix, and other functionaries, that he was a skilful physician and a worthy man. With such high recommendations, M. Leverrier requested from M. Rouland, the Minister of Public Instruction, the decoration of the Legion of Honour for M. Lescarbault. The Minister, in a brief but interesting statement of his claim, communicated this request to the Emperor, who, by a decree dated January 25, conferred upon the village astronomer the honours so justly due to him. His professional brethren in Paris were equally solicitous to testify their regard; and MM. Felix Roubaud, Legrande, and Caffè, as delegates of the scientific press, proposed to the medical body, and to the scientific world in Paris, to invite Lescarbault to a banquet in the Hotel du Louvre on January 18.

The announcement of the supposed discovery caused astronomers to re-examine records of former observations of black spots moving across the sun. Several such records existed, but they had gradually come to be regarded as of no real importance. Wolff of Zurich published a list of no fewer than twenty such observations made since 1762. Carrington added many other cases. Comparing together three of these observations, Wolff found that they would be satisfied by a planet having a period of revolution of 19 days, agreeing fairly with the period of rather more than 19-1/3 days inferred by Leverrier for Lescarbault’s planet. But the entire set of observations of black spots require that there should be at least three new planets travelling between Mercury and the sun. Many observers also set themselves the task of searching for Vulcan, as the supposed new planet was called. They have continued fruitlessly to observe the sun for this purpose until the present time.

While the excitement over Lescarbault’s discovery was at its height, another observer impugned not only the discovery but the honesty of the discoverer.

M. Liais, a French astronomer of considerable skill, formerly of the Paris Observatory, but at the time of Lescarbault’s achievement in the service of the Brazilian Government, published a paper, ’Sur la Nouvelle Planète annoncée par M. Lescarbault,’ in which he endeavoured to establish the four following points:

First, the observation of Lescarbault was never made.

Secondly, Leverrier was mistaken in considering that a planet such as
Vulcan might have escaped detection when off the sun’s face.

Thirdly, that Vulcan would certainly have been seen during total solar eclipses, if the planet had a real objective existence.

Fourthly, M. Leverrier’s reasons for believing that the planet exists are based on the supposition that astronomical observations are more precise than they really are.

Probably, Liais’s objections would have had more weight with Leverrier had the fourth point been omitted. It was rash in a former subordinate to impugn the verdict of the chief of the Paris Observatory on a matter belonging to that special department of astronomy which an observatory chief might be expected to understand thoroughly. It is thought daring in the extreme for one outside the circles of official astronomy (as Newton in Flamstead’s time, Sir W. Herschel in Maskelyne’s, and Sir J. Herschel in the present century), to advance or maintain an opinion adverse to that of some official chief, but for a subordinate (even though no longer so), to be guilty of such rash procedure ’is most tolerable and not to be endured,’ as a typical official has said. Accordingly, very little attention was paid by Leverrier to Liais’s objections.

Yet, in some respects, what M. Liais had to say was very much to the point.

At the very time when Lescarbault was watching the black spot on the sun’s face, Liais was examining the sun with a telescope of much greater magnifying power, and saw no such spot. His attention was specially directed to the edge of the sun (where Lescarbault saw the spot) because he was engaged in determining the decrease of the sun’s brightness near the edge. Moreover, he was examining the very part of the sun’s edge where Lescarbault saw the planet enter, at a time when it must have been twelve minutes in time upon the face of the sun, and well within the margin of the solar disc. The negative evidence here is strong; though it must always be remembered that negative evidence requires to be overwhelmingly strong before it can be admitted as effective against positive evidence. It seems at a first view utterly impossible that Liais, examining with a more powerful telescope the region where Lescarbault saw the spot, could have failed to see it had it been there; but experience shows that it is not impossible for an observer engaged in examining phenomena of one class to overlook a phenomenon of another class, even when glaringly obvious. All we can say is that Liais was not likely to have overlooked Lescarbault’s planet had it been there; and we must combine this probability against Vulcan’s existence with arguments derived from other considerations. There is also the possibility of an error in time. As the writer in the ‘North British Review’ remarks, ’twelve minutes is so short a time that it is just possible that the planet may not have entered upon the sun during the time that Liais observed it.’

The second and third arguments are stronger. In fact, I do not see how they can be resisted.

It is, in the first place, clear from Lescarbault’s account that Vulcan must have a considerable diameter certainly if Vulcan’s diameter in miles were only half the diameter of Mercury, it would have been all but impossible for Lescarbault with his small telescope to see Vulcan at all, whereas he saw the black spot very distinctly. Say Vulcan has half the diameter of Mercury, and let us compare the brightness of these two planets when at their greatest apparent distances from the sun, that is, when each looks like a half-moon. The distance of Mercury exceeds the estimated distance of Vulcan from the sun as 27 exceeds 10, so that Vulcan is more strongly illuminated in the proportion of 27 times 27 to 10 times 10, or 729 to 100 say at least 7 to 1. But having a diameter but half as large the disc of Vulcan could be but about a fourth of Mercury’s at the same distance from us (and they would be at about the same distance from us when seen as half-moons). Hence Vulcan would be brighter than Mercury in the proportion of 7 to 4. Of course being so near the sun he would not be so easily seen; and we could never expect to see him at all, perhaps, with the naked eye though even this is not certain. But Mercury, when at the same apparent distance from the sun, and giving less light than at his greatest seeming distance, is quite easily seen in the telescope. Much more easily, then, should Vulcan be seen, if a telescope were rightly directed at such a time, or when Vulcan was anywhere near his greatest seeming distance from the sun. Now it is true astronomers do not know precisely when or where to look for him. But he passes from his greatest distance on one side of the sun to his greatest distance on the other in less than ten days, according to the computed period, and certainly (that is, if the planet exists) in a very short time. The astronomer has then only to examine day after day a region of small extent on either side of the sun, for ten or twelve days in succession (an hour’s observation each day would suffice), to be sure of seeing Vulcan. Yet many astronomers have made such search many times over, without seeing any trace of the planet. During total solar eclipses, again, the planet has been repeatedly looked for unsuccessfully though it should at such a time be a very conspicuous object, when favourably placed, and could scarcely fail of being very distinctly seen wherever placed.

The fourth argument of Lescarbault’s is not so effective, and in fact he gets beyond his depth in dealing with it. But it is to be noticed that a considerable portion of the discrepancy between Mercury’s observed and calculated motions has long since been accounted for by the changed estimate of the earth’s mass as compared with the sun’s, resulting from the new determination of the sun’s distance. However, the arguments depending on this consideration would not be suited to these pages.

There was one feature in Liais’s paper which was a little unfortunate. He questioned Lescarbault’s honesty. He said ’Lescarbault contradicts himself in having first asserted that he saw the planet enter upon the sun’s disc, and having afterwards admitted to Leverrier that it had been on the disc some seconds before he saw it, and that he had merely inferred the time of its entry from the rate of its motion afterwards. If this one assertion be fabricated, the whole may be so.’ ’He considers these arguments to be strengthened,’ says the ‘North British Review,’ ’by the assertion which, as we have seen, perplexed Leverrier himself, that if M. Lescarbault had actually seen a planet on the sun, he could not have kept it secret for nine months.’

This charge of dishonesty, unfortunate in itself, had the unfortunate effect of preventing Lescarbault or the Abbe Moigno from replying. The latter simply remarked that the accusation was of such a nature as to dispense him from any obligation to refute it. This was an error of judgment, I cannot but think, if an effective reply was really available.

The Remarks with which the North British Reviewer closes his account may be repeated now, so far as they relate to the force of the negative evidence, with tenfold effect. ’Since the first notice of the discovery in the beginning of January 1860 the sun has been anxiously observed by astronomers; and the limited area around him in which the planet must be, if he is not upon the sun, has doubtless been explored with equal care by telescopes of high power, and processes by which the sun’s direct light has been excluded from the tube of the telescope as well as the eye of the observer, and yet no planet has been found. This fact would entitle us to conclude that no such planet exists if its existence had been merely conjectured, or if it had been deduced from any of the laws of planetary distance, or even if Leverrier or Adams had announced it as the probable result of planetary perturbations. If the finest telescopes cannot rediscover a planet which with the small power used by Lescarbault has a visible disc, within so limited an area of which the sun is the centre, or rather within a narrow belt of that circle, we should unhesitatingly declare that no such planet exists. But the question assumes a very different aspect when it involves moral considerations. If,’ proceeds the Reviewer, writing in August 1860, ’after the severe scrutiny which the sun and its vicinity will undergo before and after and during his total eclipse in July, no planet shall be seen; and if no round black spot distinctly separable from the usual solar spots shall be seen on the solar spots’ (sic, presumably solar disc was intended), ’we will not dare to say that it does not exist. We cannot doubt the honesty of M. Lescarbault, and we can hardly believe that he was mistaken. No solar spot, no floating scoria, could maintain in its passage over the sun a circular and uniform shape, and we are confident that no other hypothesis but that of an intra-mercurial planet can explain the phenomena seen and measured by M. Lescarbault, a man of high character, possessing excellent instruments, and in every way competent to use them well, and to describe clearly and correctly the results of his observations. Time, however, tries facts as well as speculations. The phenomena observed by the French astronomer may never be again seen, and the disturbance of Mercury which rendered it probable may be otherwise explained. Should this be the case, we must refer the round spot on the sun to some of those illusions of the eye or of the brain which have sometimes disturbed the tranquillity of science.’

The evidence which has accumulated against Vulcan in the interval since this was written is not negative only, but partly positive, as the following instance, which I take from my own narrative at the time in a weekly journal, serves to show: After more than sixteen years of fruitless watching, astronomers learned last August (1876) that in the month of April Vulcan had been seen on the sun’s disc in China. On April 4, it appeared, Herr Weber, an observer of considerable skill, stationed at Pecheli, had seen a small round spot on the sun, looking very much as a small planet might be expected to look. A few hours later he turned his telescope upon the sun, and lo! the spot had vanished, precisely as though the planet had passed away after the manner of planets in transit. He forwarded the news of his observation to Europe. The astronomer Wolff, well known for his sun-spot studies, carefully calculated the interval which had passed since Lescarbault saw Vulcan on March 26, 1859, and to his intense satisfaction was enabled to announce that this interval contained the calculated period of the planet an exact number of times. Leverrier at Paris received the announcement still more joyfully; while the Abbe Moigno, who gave Vulcan its name, and has always staunchly believed in the planet’s existence, congratulated Lescarbault warmly upon this new view of the shamefaced Vulcan. Not one of those who already believed in the planet had the least doubt as to the reality of Weber’s observations, and of these only Lescarbault himself received the news without pleasure. He, it seems, has never forgiven the Germans for destroying his observatory and library during the invasion of France in 1870, and apparently would prefer that his planet should never be seen again rather than that a German astronomer should have seen it. But the joy of the rest and Lescarbault’s sorrow were alike premature. It was found that the spot seen by Weber had not only been observed at the Madrid observatory, where careful watch is kept upon the sun, but had been photographed at Greenwich; and when the description of its appearance, as seen in a powerful telescope at one station, and its picture as photographed by a fine telescope at the other, came to be examined, it was proved unmistakably that the spot was an ordinary sun-spot (not even quite round), which had after a few hours disappeared, as even larger sun-spots have been known to do in even a shorter time.

It is clear that had not Weber’s spot been fortunately seen at Madrid and photographed at Greenwich, his observation would have been added to the list of recorded apparitions of Vulcan in transit, for it fitted in perfectly with the theory of Vulcan’s real existence. I think, indeed, for my own part, that the good fortune was Weber’s. Had it so chanced that thick weather in Madrid and at Greenwich had destroyed the evidence actually obtained to show that what Weber described he really saw, although it was not what he thought, some of the more suspicious would have questioned whether, in the euphonious language of the North British Reviewer, ‘the round spot on the sun’ was not due ’to one of those illusions of the eye or of the brain which have sometimes disturbed the tranquillity of science.’ Of course no one acquainted with M. Weber’s antecedents would imagine for a moment that he had invented the observation, even though the objective reality of his spot had not been established. But if a person who is entirely unknown, states that he has seen Vulcan, there is antecedently some degree of probability in favour of the belief that the observation is as much a myth as the planet itself. Some observations of Vulcan have certainly been invented. I have received several letters purporting to describe observations of bodies in transit over the sun’s face, either the rate of transit, the size of the body, or the path along which it was said to move, being utterly inconsistent with the theory that it was an intra-mercurial planet, while yet (herein is the suspicious circumstance of such narratives) the epoch of transit accorded in the most remarkable manner with the period assigned to Vulcan. A paradoxist in America (of Louisville, Kentucky) who had invented a theory of the weather, in which the planets, by their influence on the sun, were supposed to produce all weather-changes, the nearer planets being the most effective, found his theory wanted Vulcan very much. Accordingly, he saw Vulcan crossing the sun’s face in September, which, being half a year from March, is a month wherein, according to Lescarbault’s observation, Vulcan may be seen in transit, and by a strange coincidence the interval between our paradoxist’s observation and Lescarbault’s exactly contained a certain number of times the period calculated by Leverrier for Vulcan. This was a noble achievement on the part of our paradoxist. At one stroke it established his theory of the weather, and promised to ensure him text-book immortality as one of the observers of Vulcan. But, unfortunately, a student of science residing in St. Louis, after leaving the Louisville paradoxist full time to parade his discovery, heartlessly pointed out that an exact number of revolutions of Vulcan after Lescarbault’s March observation, must of necessity have brought the planet on that side of the sun on which the earth lies in March, so that to see Vulcan so placed on the sun’s face in September was to see Vulcan through the sun, a very remarkable achievement indeed. The paradoxist was abashed, the reader perhaps imagines. Not in the least. The planet’s period must have been wrongly calculated by Leverrier that was all: the real period was less than half as long as Leverrier had supposed; and instead of having gone a certain number of times round since Lescarbault had seen it, Vulcan had gone twice as many times round and half once round again. The circumstance that if Vulcan’s period had been thus short, the time of crossing the sun’s face would have been much less than, according to Lescarbault’s account, it actually was, had not occurred to the Louisville weather-prophet.

Leverrier’s faith in Vulcan, however, has remained unshaken. He has used all the observations of spots which, like Weber’s, have been seen only for a short time. At least he has used all which have not, like Weber’s, been proved to be only transient sun-spots. Selecting those which fit in well with Lescarbault’s observation, he has pointed out how remarkable it is that they show this accord. The possibility that some of them might be explicable as Weber’s proved to be, and that some even may have been explicable as completely, but less satisfactorily, in another way, seems to have been thought scarcely worth considering. Using the imperfect materials available, but with exquisite skill as a Phidias might model an exquisite figure of materials that would presently crumble into dust Leverrier came to the conclusion that Vulcan would cross the sun’s disc on or about March 22, 1876. ’He, therefore,’ said Sir G. Airy, addressing the Astronomical Society, ’circulated a despatch among his friends, asking them carefully to observe the sun on March 22.’ Sir G. Airy, humouring his honoured friend, sent telegrams to India, Australia, and New Zealand, requesting that observations might be made every two hours or oftener. Leverrier himself wrote to Santiago de Chili and other places, so that, including American and European observations, the sun could be watched all through the twenty-four hours on March 21, 22, and 23. ’Without saying positively that he believed or disbelieved in the existence of the planet,’ proceeds the report, ’Sir G. Airy thought, since M. Leverrier was so confident, that the opportunity ought not to be neglected by anybody who professed to take an interest in the progress of planetary astronomy.’

It is perhaps unnecessary to add that observations were made as requested. Many photographs of the sun also were taken during the hours when Vulcan, if he exists at all, might be expected to cross the sun’s face. But the ‘planet of romance,’ as Abbe Moigno has called Vulcan, failed to appear, and the opinion I had expressed last October (’English Mechanic and World of Science,’ for October 27, 1876, , that Vulcan might perhaps better be called the ‘planet of fiction’ was pro tanto confirmed. Nevertheless, I would not be understood to mean by the word ‘fiction’ aught savouring of fraud so far as Lescarbault is concerned I prefer the North Briton’s view of Lescarbault’s spot, that so to speak, it was

... the blot upon his brain,
That would show itself without.

I have left small space to treat of other fancied discoveries among the orbs of heaven. Yet there are some which are not only interesting but instructive, as showing how even the most careful observers may be led astray. In this respect the mistakes into which observers of great and well deserved eminence have fallen are specially worthy of attention. With the description of three such mistakes, made by no less an astronomer than Sir W. Herschel, I shall bring this paper to a close.

When Sir W. Herschel examined the planet Uranus with his most powerful telescope he saw the planet to all appearance girt about by two rings at right angles to one another. The illusion was so complete that Herschel for several years remained in the belief that the rings were real. They were, however, mere optical illusions, due to the imperfect defining qualities of the telescope with which he observed the planet. Later he wrote that ‘the observations which tend to ascertain’ (indicate?) ’the existence of rings not being satisfactorily supported, it will be proper that surmises of them should either be given up, as ill-founded, or at least reserved till superior instruments can be provided.’

Sir W. Herschel was more completely misled by the false Uranian satellites. He had seen, as he supposed, no less than six of these bodies. As only two of these had been seen again, while two more were discovered by Lassell, the inference was that Uranus has eight satellites in all. These for a long time flourished in our text-books of astronomy; and many writers, confident in the care and skill of Sir W. Herschel, were unable for a long time to believe that he had been deceived. Thus Admiral Smyth, in his ‘Celestial Cycle,’ wrote of those who doubted the extra satellites: ’They must have but a meagre notion of Sir W. Herschel’s powerful means, his skill in their application, and his method of deliberate procedure. So far from doubting there being six satellites’ (this was before Lassell had discovered the other two) ’it is highly probable that there are still more.’ Whewell, also, in his ‘Bridgewater Treatise,’ says, ’that though it no longer appears probable that Uranus has a ring like Saturn, he has at least five satellites which are visible to us, and we believe that the astronomer will hardly deny that he’ (Uranus, not the astronomer), ’may possibly have thousands of smaller ones circulating about him.’ But in this case Sir W. Herschel, anxiously though he endeavoured to guard against the possibility of error, was certainly mistaken. Uranus may, for anything that is known to the contrary, have many small satellites circulating about him, but he certainly has not four satellites (besides those known) which could have been seen by Sir W. Herschel with the telescope he employed. For the neighbourhood of the planet has been carefully examined with telescopes of much greater power by observers who with those telescopes have seen objects far fainter than the satellites supposed to have been seen by the elder Herschel.

The third of the Herschelian myths was the lunar volcano in eruption, which he supposed he had seen in progress in that part of the moon which was not at the time illuminated by the sun’s rays. He saw a bright star-like point of light, which corresponded in position with the crater of the lunar mountain Aristarchus. He inferred that a volcano was in active eruption because the brightness of the point of light varied from time to time, and also because he did not remember to have seen it before under the same conditions. There is no doubt something very remarkable in the way in which this part of the moon’s surface shines when not illumined by the sun. If it were always bright we should conclude at once that the earth-light shining upon it rendered it visible. For it must be remembered that the part of the moon which looks dark (or seems wanting to the full disc) is illuminated by our earth, shining in the sky of the moon as a disc thirteen times as large as that of the moon we see, and with the same proportion of its disc sunlit as is dark in the moon’s disc. Thus when the moon is nearly new our earth is shining in the lunar skies as a nearly full moon thirteen times as large as ours. The light of this noble moon must illumine the moon’s surface much more brightly than a terrestrial landscape is illumined by the full moon, and if any parts of her surface are very white they will shine out from the surface around, just as the snow-covered peak of a mountain shines out upon a moonlit night from among the darker hills and dales and rocks and forests of the landscape. But Herschel considered that the occasional brightness of the crater Aristarchus could not be thus explained. The spot had been seen before the time of Herschel’s observations by Cassini and others. It has been seen since by Captain Kater, Francis Baily, and many others. Dr. Maskelyne tells us that in March 1794 it was seen by the naked eye by two persons.

Baily thus describes the appearance presented by this lunar crater on December 22, 1835: ’Directed telescope to the moon, and pointing it to the dark part in the vicinity of Aristarchus, soon saw the outline of that mountain very distinctly, formed like an irregular nebula. Nearly in the centre was a light resembling that of a star of the ninth or tenth magnitude. It appeared by glimpses, but at times was brilliant, and visible for several seconds together.’

There can be little doubt, however, that the apparent brightness of this lunar crater, or rather of its summit, is due to some peculiar quality in the surface, which may perhaps be covered by some crystalline or vitreous matter poured out in the far distant time when the crater was an active one. Prof. Shaler, who examined the crater when it was illuminated only by earthshine, with the fine 15-inch telescope of the Harvard Observatory (Cambridge U.S.), says that he has been able to recognise nearly all the craters over 15 miles in diameter in the dark part. ‘There are several degrees of brightness,’ he says, ’observable in the different objects which shine out by the earth-light. This fact probably explains the greater part of the perplexing statements concerning the illumination of certain craters. It certainly accounts for the volcanic activity which has so often been supposed to be manifested by Aristarchus. Under the illumination by the earth-light this is by far the brightest object on the dark part of the moon’s face, and is visible much longer and with poorer glasses than any other object there.’

Here my record of astronomical myths must be brought to a close. It will be noticed that in every instance either the illusion has affected the actual observations of eminent and skilful astronomers, or has caused such astronomers to put faith for a while in illusory observations. Had I cared to include the mistakes which have been made by or have misled observers of less experience, I could have filled many sheets for each page of the present article. But it has seemed to me more instructive to show how error may affect the observations even of the most careful and deservedly eminent astronomers, how even the most cautious may be for a time misled by the mistakes of inferior observers, especially when the fact supposed to have been observed accords with preconceived opinions.