I. THE SUCCESSORS OF NEWTON IN ASTRONOMY
HEVELIUS AND HALLEY
STRANGELY enough, the decade immediately following Newton was one of comparative barrenness in scientific progress, the early years of the eighteenth century not being as productive of great astronomers as the later years of the seventeenth, or, for that matter, as the later years of the eighteenth century itself. Several of the prominent astronomers of the later seventeenth century lived on into the opening years of the following century, however, and the younger generation soon developed a coterie of astronomers, among whom Euler, Lagrange, Laplace, and Herschel, as we shall see, were to accomplish great things in this field before the century closed.
One of the great seventeenth-century astronomers, who died just before the close of the century, was Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687), of Dantzig, who advanced astronomy by his accurate description of the face and the spots of the moon. But he is remembered also for having retarded progress by his influence in refusing to use telescopic sights in his observations, preferring until his death the plain sights long before discarded by most other astronomers. The advantages of these telescope sights have been discussed under the article treating of Robert Hooke, but no such advantages were ever recognized by Hevelius. So great was Hevelius's reputation as an astronomer that his refusal to recognize the advantage of the telescope sights caused many astronomers to hesitate before accepting them as superior to the plain; and even the famous Halley, of whom we shall speak further in a moment, was sufficiently in doubt over the matter to pay the aged astronomer a visit to test his skill in using the old-style sights. Side by side, Hevelius and Halley made their observations, Hevelius with his old instrument and Halley with the new. The results showed slightly in the younger man's favor, but not enough to make it an entirely convincing demonstration. The explanation of this, however, did not lie in the lack of superiority of the telescopic instrument, but rather in the marvellous skill of the aged Hevelius, whose dexterity almost compensated for the defect of his instrument. What he might have accomplished could he have been induced to adopt the telescope can only be surmised.
Halley himself was by no means a tyro in matters astronomical at that time. As the only son of a wealthy soap-boiler living near London, he had been given a liberal education, and even before leaving college made such novel scientific observations as that of the change in the variation of the compass. At nineteen years of age he discovered a new method of determining the elements of the planetary orbits which was a distinct improvement over the old. The year following he sailed for the Island of St, Helena to make observations of the heavens in the southern hemisphere.
It was while in St. Helena that Halley made his famous observation of the transit of Mercury over the sun's disk, this observation being connected, indirectly at least, with his discovery of a method of determining the parallax of the planets. By parallax is meant the apparent change in the position of an object, due really to a change in the position of the observer. Thus, if we imagine two astronomers making observations of the sun from opposite sides of the earth at the same time, it is obvious that to these observers the sun will appear to be at two different points in the sky. Half the angle measuring this difference would be known as the sun's parallax. This would depend, then, upon the distance of the earth from the sun and the length of the earth's radius. Since the actual length of this radius has been determined, the parallax of any heavenly body enables the astronomer to determine its exact distance.
The parallaxes can be determined equally well, however, if two observers are separated by exactly known distances, several hundreds or thousands of miles apart. In the case of a transit of Venus across the sun's disk, for example, an observer at New York notes the image of the planet moving across the sun's disk, and notes also the exact time of this observation. In the same manner an observer at London makes similar observations. Knowing the distance between New York and London, and the different time of the passage, it is thus possible to calculate the difference of the parallaxes of the sun and a planet crossing its disk. The idea of thus determining the parallax of the planets originated, or at least was developed, by Halley, and from this phenomenon he thought it possible to conclude the dimensions of all the planetary orbits. As we shall see further on, his views were found to be correct by later astronomers.
In 1721 Halley succeeded Flamsteed as astronomer royal at the Greenwich Observatory. Although sixty- four years of age at that time his activity in astronomy continued unabated for another score of years. At Greenwich he undertook some tedious observations of the moon, and during those observations was first to detect the acceleration of mean motion. He was unable to explain this, however, and it remained for Laplace in the closing years of the century to do so, as we shall see later.
Halley's book, the Synopsis Astronomiae Cometicae, is one of the most valuable additions to astronomical literature since the time of Kepler. He was first to attempt the calculation of the orbit of a comet, having revived the ancient opinion that comets belong to the solar system, moving in eccentric orbits round the sun, and his calculation of the orbit of the comet of 1682 led him to predict correctly the return of that comet in 1758. Halley's Study of Meteors.