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An essay by Simon Newcomb

An Astronomical Friendship

Title:     An Astronomical Friendship
Author: Simon Newcomb [More Titles by Newcomb]

There are few men with whom I would like so well to have a quiet talk as with Father Hell. I have known more important and more interesting men, but none whose acquaintance has afforded me a serener satisfaction, or imbued me with an ampler measure of a feeling that I am candid enough to call self-complacency. The ties that bind us are peculiar. When I call him my friend, I do not mean that we ever hobnobbed together. But if we are in sympathy, what matters it that he was dead long before I was born, that he lived in one century and I in another? Such differences of generation count for little in the brotherhood of astronomy, the work of whose members so extends through all time that one might well forget that he belongs to one century or to another.

Father Hell was an astronomer. Ask not whether he was a very great one, for in our science we have no infallible gauge by which we try men and measure their stature. He was a lover of science and an indefatigable worker, and he did what in him lay to advance our knowledge of the stars. Let that suffice. I love to fancy that in some other sphere, either within this universe of ours or outside of it, all who have successfully done this may some time gather and exchange greetings. Should this come about there will be a few--Hipparchus and Ptolemy, Copernicus and Newton, Galileo and Herschel--to be surrounded by admiring crowds. But these men will have as warm a grasp and as kind a word for the humblest of their followers, who has merely discovered a comet or catalogued a nebula, as for the more brilliant of their brethren.

My friend wrote the letters S. J. after his name. This would indicate that he had views and tastes which, in some points, were very different from my own. But such differences mark no dividing line in the brotherhood of astronomy. My testimony would count for nothing were I called as witness for the prosecution in a case against the order to which my friend belonged. The record would be very short: Deponent saith that he has at various times known sundry members of the said order; and that they were lovers of sound learning, devoted to the discovery and propagation of knowledge; and further deponent saith not.

If it be true that an undevout astronomer is mad, then was Father Hell the sanest of men. In his diary we find entries like these: "Benedicente Deo, I observed the Sun on the meridian to-day.... Deo quoque benedicente, I to-day got corresponding altitudes of the Sun's upper limb." How he maintained the simplicity of his faith in the true spirit of the modern investigator is shown by his proceedings during a momentous voyage along the coast of Norway, of which I shall presently speak. He and his party were passengers on a Norwegian vessel. For twelve consecutive days they had been driven about by adverse storms, threatened with shipwreck on stony cliffs, and finally compelled to take refuge in a little bay, with another ship bound in the same direction, there to wait for better weather.

Father Hell was philosopher enough to know that unusual events do not happen without cause. Perhaps he would have undergone a week of storm without its occurring to him to investigate the cause of such a bad spell of weather. But when he found the second week approaching its end and yet no sign of the sun appearing or the wind abating, he was satisfied that something must be wrong. So he went to work in the spirit of the modern physician who, when there is a sudden outbreak of typhoid fever, looks at the wells and examines their water with the microscope to find the microbes that must be lurking somewhere. He looked about, and made careful inquiries to find what wickedness captain and crew had been guilty of to bring such a punishment. Success soon rewarded his efforts. The King of Denmark had issued a regulation that no fish or oil should be sold along the coast except by the regular dealers in those articles. And the vessel had on board contraband fish and blubber, to be disposed of in violation of this law.

The astronomer took immediate and energetic measures to insure the public safety. He called the crew together, admonished them of their sin, the suffering they were bringing on themselves, and the necessity of getting back to their families. He exhorted them to throw the fish overboard, as the only measure to secure their safety. In the goodness of his heart, he even offered to pay the value of the jettison as soon as the vessel reached Drontheim.

But the descendants of the Vikings were stupid and unenlightened men--"educatione sua et professione homines crassissimi"--and would not swallow the medicine so generously offered. They claimed that, as they had bought the fish from the Russians, their proceedings were quite lawful. As for being paid to throw the fish overboard, they must have spot cash in advance or they would not do it.

After further fruitless conferences, Father Hell determined to escape the danger by transferring his party to the other vessel. They had not more than got away from the wicked crew than Heaven began to smile on their act--"factum comprobare Deus ipse videtur"--the clouds cleared away, the storm ceased to rage, and they made their voyage to Copenhagen under sunny skies. I regret to say that the narrative is silent as to the measure of storm subsequently awarded to the homines crassissimi of the forsaken vessel.

For more than a century Father Hell had been a well-known figure in astronomical history. His celebrity was not, however, of such a kind as the Royal Astronomer of Austria that he was ought to enjoy. A not unimportant element in his fame was a suspicion of his being a black sheep in the astronomical flock. He got under this cloud through engaging in a trying and worthy enterprise. On June 3, 1769, an event occurred which had for generations been anticipated with the greatest interest by the whole astronomical world. This was a transit of Venus over the disk of the sun. Our readers doubtless know that at that time such a transit afforded the most accurate method known of determining the distance of the earth from the sun. To attain this object, parties were sent to the most widely separated parts of the globe, not only over wide stretches of longitude, but as near as possible to the two poles of the earth. One of the most favorable and important regions of observation was Lapland, and the King of Denmark, to whom that country then belonged, interested himself in getting a party sent thither. After a careful survey of the field he selected Father Hell, Chief of the Observatory at Vienna, and well known as editor and publisher of an annual ephemeris, in which the movements and aspects of the heavenly bodies were predicted. The astronomer accepted the mission and undertook what was at that time a rather hazardous voyage. His station was at Vardo in the region of the North Cape. What made it most advantageous for the purpose was its being situated several degrees within the Arctic Circle, so that on the date of the transit the sun did not set. The transit began when the sun was still two or three hours from his midnight goal, and it ended nearly an equal time afterwards. The party consisted of Hell himself, his friend and associate, Father Sajnovics, one Dominus Borgrewing, of whom history, so far as I know, says nothing more, and an humble individual who in the record receives no other designation than "Familias." This implies, we may suppose, that he pitched the tent and made the coffee. If he did nothing but this we might pass him over in silence. But we learn that on the day of the transit he stood at the clock and counted the all-important seconds while the observations were going on.

The party was favored by cloudless weather, and made the required observations with entire success. They returned to Copenhagen, and there Father Hell remained to edit and publish his work. Astronomers were naturally anxious to get the results, and showed some impatience when it became known that Hell refused to announce them until they were all reduced and printed in proper form under the auspices of his royal patron. While waiting, the story got abroad that he was delaying the work until he got the results of observations made elsewhere, in order to "doctor" his own and make them fit in with the others. One went so far as to express a suspicion that Hell had not seen the transit at all, owing to clouds, and that what he pretended to publish were pure fabrications. But his book came out in a few months in such good form that this suspicion was evidently groundless. Still, the fears that the observations were not genuine were not wholly allayed, and the results derived from them were, in consequence, subject to some doubt. Hell himself considered the reflections upon his integrity too contemptible to merit a serious reply. It is said that he wrote to some one offering to exhibit his journal free from interlineations or erasures, but it does not appear that there is any sound authority for this statement. What is of some interest is that he published a determination of the parallax of the sun based on the comparison of his own observations with those made at other stations. The result was 8".70. It was then, and long after, supposed that the actual value of the parallax was about 8".50, and the deviation of Hell's result from this was considered to strengthen the doubt as to the correctness of his work. It is of interest to learn that, by the most recent researches, the number in question must be between 8".75 and 8".80, so that in reality Hell's computations came nearer the truth than those generally current during the century following his work.

Thus the matter stood for sixty years after the transit, and for a generation after Father Hell had gone to his rest. About 1830 it was found that the original journal of his voyage, containing the record of his work as first written down at the station, was still preserved at the Vienna Observatory. Littrow, then an astronomer at Vienna, made a critical examination of this record in order to determine whether it had been tampered with. His conclusions were published in a little book giving a transcript of the journal, a facsimile of the most important entries, and a very critical description of the supposed alterations made in them. He reported in substance that the original record had been so tampered with that it was impossible to decide whether the observations as published were genuine or not. The vital figures, those which told the times when Venus entered upon the sun, had been erased, and rewritten with blacker ink. This might well have been done after the party returned to Copenhagen. The case against the observer seemed so well made out that professors of astronomy gave their hearers a lesson in the value of truthfulness, by telling them how Father Hell had destroyed what might have been very good observations by trying to make them appear better than they really were.

In 1883 I paid a visit to Vienna for the purpose of examining the great telescope which had just been mounted in the observatory there by Grubb, of Dublin. The weather was so unfavorable that it was necessary to remain two weeks, waiting for an opportunity to see the stars. One evening I visited the theatre to see Edwin Booth, in his celebrated tour over the Continent, play King Lear to the applauding Viennese. But evening amusements cannot be utilized to kill time during the day. Among the works I had projected was that of rediscussing all the observations made on the transits of Venus which had occurred in 1761 and 1769, by the light of modern discovery. As I have already remarked, Hell's observations were among the most important made, if they were only genuine. So, during my almost daily visits to the observatory, I asked permission of the director to study Hell's manuscript, which was deposited in the library of the institution. Permission was freely given, and for some days I pored over the manuscript. It is a very common experience in scientific research that a subject which seems very unpromising when first examined may be found more and more interesting as one looks further into it. Such was the case here. For some time there did not seem any possibility of deciding the question whether the record was genuine. But every time I looked at it some new point came to light. I compared the pages with Littrow's published description and was struck by a seeming want of precision, especially when he spoke of the ink with which the record had been made. Erasers were doubtless unknown in those days--at least our astronomer had none on his expedition--so when he found he had written the wrong word he simply wiped the place off with, perhaps, his finger and wrote what he wanted to say. In such a case Littrow described the matter as erased and new matter written. When the ink flowed freely from the quill pen it was a little dark. Then Littrow said a different kind of ink had been used, probably after he had got back from his journey. On the other hand, there was a very singular case in which there had been a subsequent interlineation in ink of quite a different tint, which Littrow said nothing about. This seemed so curious that I wrote in my notes as follows:

"That Littrow, in arraying his proofs of Hell's forgery, should have failed to dwell upon the obvious difference between this ink and that with which the alterations were made leads me to suspect a defect in his sense of color."

The more I studied the description and the manuscript the stronger this impression became. Then it occurred to me to inquire whether perhaps such could have been the case. So I asked Director Weiss whether anything was known as to the normal character of Littrow's power of distinguishing colors. His answer was prompt and decisive. "Oh yes, Littrow was color-blind to red. He could not distinguish between the color of Aldebaran and the whitest star." No further research was necessary. For half a century the astronomical world had based an impression on the innocent but mistaken evidence of a color-blind man--respecting the tints of ink in a manuscript.

It has doubtless happened more than once that when an intimate friend has suddenly and unexpectedly passed away, the reader has ardently wished that it were possible to whisper just one word of appreciation across the dark abyss. And so it is that I have ever since felt that I would like greatly to tell Father Hell the story of my work at Vienna in 1883.

[The end]
Simon Newcomb's essay: Astronomical Friendship