Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/March 1882/Sketch of Professor B. A. Gould

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 20 March 1882  (1882) 
Sketch of Professor B. A. Gould
By Erving Winslow
PSM V20 D594 Benjamin Apthorp Gould.jpg


BENJAMIN APTHORP GOULD was born in Boston, September 27, 1824. He is the son of the late Benjamin Apthorp Gould and Lucretia Dana Goddard. His childhood was marked by many precocious indications of genius, which have been laid up in the memory of a united and gifted family, in which his relations, filial, fraternal, and paternal, have been singularly loyal, honorable, and affectionate. When three years old he read easily and with sufficient expression to make it pleasant for others to hear him. At five he made a fair original version of an ode of Horace. As a lad he was very fond of botany. Starting one day with his brother in pursuit of a flower which grew at a great distance from home, the brother returned to his mother after a long absence, asking what was the matter with his companion. He said they had walked a long time, and that then his brother had fallen and was lying on the ground. He was sought in vain: and when he returned home with his specimen it was found that the persevering boy had over-taxed his strength, fainted from exhaustion, and after his recovery had still followed and accomplished his pursuit. When he was ten years old his family were summoned by written invitations to attend a lecture upon electricity which young Gould had prepared, which proved to be no mere childish play, but a well-considered discourse, illustrated by a complete and neatly constructed electrical machine entirely of his own manufacture. He prepared for college at the Boston Latin School, taking high rank, receiving at one time five prizes, among which was the Franklin, then the only gold medal awarded in the school. He graduated from Harvard University at the age of nineteen, and shortly after was appointed master of the Roxbury Latin School—an appointment made by the committee in view of his scholarship, while in ignorance of the fact that he was under twenty years of age, the regulations of the school forbidding the appointment of any one who had not attained his majority. He retained this position for a year, at the end of which time he resigned, that he might pursue his studies in European universities. These occupied about four years, during which he formed friendships with the most eminent scientists of Europe, which lasted with many of them, such as Argelander, Gauss, and Humboldt, until the close of their lives.

Dr. Gould's study of astronomy was pursued under the learned Gauss and in the scientific courses at Paris, and in the observatory there, then under the direction of Arago. On returning to America he was employed to determine astronomically the various geodetic stations of the United States Coast Survey. Dr. Gould has proved in his scientific career that he possesses in a rare degree that bold, initiative spirit which is so marked a characteristic of our countrymen. As soon as any progress has been made in any department of science, Dr. Gould has at once turned it to account in his particular domain. Thus, he was among the very first to use electricity for the purpose of determining the differences of longitude, and recording by telegraph the exchange of signals and stellar observations. He had already employed this method, no less exact than rapid, in fifteen series of determinations before its introduction into Europe. Hardly was the transatlantic cable laid, before Dr. Gould started for Valentia, Ireland, and there established the station from which the difference of longitude between Europe and America was determined, and connected the two continents by the most precise observations. The net-work of these determinations thus extended from Greenwich to New Orleans, and covered almost a quarter of the globe. Besides all this geodetic work, Dr. Gould has very largely contributed to the development of pure astronomical science. By his learning, by his publications, by the example he has set in his researches, he has done much to inspire his countrymen with that love of astronomy which is now so widely spread in the United States. Since the commencement of Dr. Gould's career, upward of twenty new observatories have sprung up, which, in the precision of their methods and the closeness of their observations, take full rank with those of Europe. Dr. Gould is not only one of the founders, he is one of the most distinguished masters of the school of American astronomy. He established and supported at his own expense from 1847 to 1861 the first astronomical journal ever published in the United States. Between 1855 and 1858 he organized the Dudley Observatory at Albany, and it was there that the normal clock, protected from atmospheric variations and furnished with barometric compensation, was first used. In his new meridian circle, also, Dr. Gould introduced many improvements of construction, which are today in use in all observatories, and it was his clock which gave the time-signals to New York.

From a student and assistant at the Dudley Observatory, a word must be said here of the extraordinary executive power and the personal magnetism which Dr. Gould exercised in his little scientific family. Such a life is always a happy one where a high purpose and unflagging zeal give the key-note, but the kind forethought in every detail of domestic arrangement, the careful insistence on methodical ways in food and sleep at whatever hours they might be sought, in the exigencies of astronomical labor, were invaluable to young men, some of whom were fresh from the safeguards of home. The midnight toils were ever lightened by kind words and encouraging example, the hours at table brightened and instructed, whatever stress was laid on the master by cares within or without; and when the Scientific Council assembled, and Dr. Gould was surrounded by Bache and Henry and Peirce and the rest, his loyal assistants found their chief still easily first in wit and learning among the brilliant band. Scattered now in the church, the naval service, college, and business, they look back with affection to those days as among the happiest of their lives, and with gratitude to him whose overwhelming anxieties never relaxed his efforts to make them so.

Dr. Gould's "Catalogue of Fundamental Stars" has been used up to a recent date, not only for the calculation of the ephemerides in the "Nautical Almanac," but also as a basis for all observations made in this country.

In view of the special value of ancient observations, Dr. Gould undertook to reduce and to publish all those which had been made at Paris by D'Agelet between 1782 and 1785. He has also reduced all the zone observations made at Washington from 1846 to 1852, in both these cases rendering great service to the cause of science.

The southern heavens being almost unexplored, and offering a vast field for investigation, Dr. Gould, in entire devotion to the interests of science, and setting aside all personal considerations, unhesitatingly responded to a call from the Argentine Republic. Thanks to his personal qualities and his scientific capacity, he soon acquired the complete confidence of the Government, under whose auspices he founded at Cordoba, between 1870 and 1872, an observatory equipped with the most admirable instruments. Here Dr. Gould, being quite independent, and no longer obliged to divide his energies among many different interests, has undertaken a series of great works of remarkable value. He has just published his new "Uranometry of the Southern Heavens," including all stars visible to the naked eye, the magnitude of each star being determined by not less than four independent observations. In the course of these researches he has found as many variable stars visible to the. naked eye as have been discovered to this day in the northern heavens. Other labors under these favorable conditions and based on scientific principles have been devoted to the reformation of the boundaries and notations of the constellations. His Uranometry is as final an authority for the southern hemisphere as that of Argelander for the northern. From the results obtained by Argelander and Heis, combined with his own observations, Dr. Gould has deduced a formula according to which the number of stars increases in proportion to the diminution of their luster, and he has suggested that our solar system is not part of the milky way, but of a stellar system to which about four hundred of the brighest fixed stars also belong, and which bisects the milky way at an angle of about 20º.

It is well known that the object of the zone observations made by Bessel and Argelander was to determine the positions of stars from the first to the ninth magnitude, between -3º and 80º in the northern hemisphere. Dr. Gould has just finished at Cordoba a series of like researches, in the course of which he has taken 106,000 observations of southern zones. Almost at the same time he was engaged in a second series of determinations of great precision, involving 110,000 meridian observations between the equator and the south pole. In this work he determines anew all the co-ordinates of the stars observed at different epochs by Lacaille, Piazzi, Brisbane, Rumker, Johnston, Taylor, Maclear, Ellery, and others. He has also made observations of other stars down to the ninth magnitude, which gave him his fundamental positions. By these three great works he has established certain bases for future research. Henceforth the position of all heavenly bodies may be referred to those of well-determined stars, and, by comparing the co-ordinates of his second catalogue with those obtained in the past by Lacaille and others, important conclusions may be arrived at as to the movements of the fixed stars. Dr. Gould has used photographic processes in the determination of star places with great success, and almost all the star-clusters of the southern heavens can be found in the two hundred plates obtained by him, several of these plates containing about two hundred stars each. This latest work is not yet published, but some of the plates obtained the highest prize at the Philadelphia Exposition.

Besides these great astronomical works, Dr. Gould has done much in quite another line, which can merely be mentioned here. The United States Sanitary Commission has published a work by him of 400 quarto pages, containing the results of physiological observations on over 30,000 men from the point of view of statistical anthropology. The same work contains the results of innumerable experiments made in the Federal army upon 1,300,000 men, with a view to determine human growth between the ages of fifteen and fifty.

The climatic conditions of South America were quite unknown in 1872. Dr. Gould has established a net-work of meteorological stations, extending on one side from the tropics to Tierra del Fuego, and on the other from the Andes to the Atlantic. Observations are now made regularly three times a day in twenty-five stations. One volume in quarto has already been published on the climate of Buenos Ayres, and others are being prepared.

On Dr. Gould's first return home for a short visit, a public reception was arranged for him in Boston in response to the following invitation:

Desirous of testifying to the honor in which your native country and city hold those great services to science, as observer and investigator, which peculiarly propitious circumstances have led you to offer to our sister republic in South America, under the administration of the distinguished President Sarmiento, as director of the Argentine National Observatory and Meteorological Office; and wishing to meet you on your return home with the friendly sympathy of fellow-citizens, and to hear from your own lips something of the results of your labors, we ask you to meet with us at Wesleyan Hall, on Monday, June 22d, at three o'clock, p. m., for this purpose.

We are your obedient servants,

Charles Francis Adams, T. W. Parsons,
James Walker, Theodore Lyman,
George T. Bigelow, Henry A. Whitney,
Henry W. Longfellow, James M. Barnard,
Richard H. Dana, Jr., George S. Hale,
Charles W. Eliot, Martin Brimmer,
George M. Lane, William Gray,
Wolcott Gibbs, W. G. Weld,
H. L. Eustis, J. H. Dix,
O. W. Holmes, Alexander Agassiz,
and others.

The late Hon. Richard H. Dana presided, introducing an eloquent address by Dr. Gould, and in his words of welcome said:

We have met to express our respect to him for his learning and abilities, and the courageous manner in which he has devoted them to this new field of investigation banished from home, and from every association which his childhood and manhood had made most dear to him. . . . We feel now that there exists a bond between that great republic of the South and our own that—she has shown the same spirit of enterprise that has caused our own advance and we rejoice that through their honored President, Sarmiento, the man of science was invited from this country, who should open some of those great fields of exploration for which her wide territory and cloudless skies present such facilities. Our sympathy and our admiration should be expressed toward the people of the Argentine Republic, and we trust that Dr. Gould will give them to understand that the citizens of his native State have a strong feeling of respect and gratitude to them for the paths they have opened and the progress they have made. It is in these regions, so little known, that Dr. Gould has been laboring for four years, a missionary of science, under strange skies, as well as on foreign soil, among a new people; and on his return to his native town we are met to give him a cordial welcome, to express our pride that he has secured this opportunity to the honor of American science, of New England and of Boston.

Dr. Gould is a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, of the French Academy of Sciences, of the Academy of St. Petersburg, as well as of the American Academy of Science, and many other learned bodies. He has given to the world works which will be classical, and in the history of his country his name will stand among those of the most illustrious savants who have contributed to the development and advancement of science.

Dr. Gould was married October 29, 1861, to Mary Apthorp Quincy, a helpmate without whom his long expatriation would have been a banishment, and without whose sympathy and active assistance his greatest labors would have been impossible.