Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/424

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In observations of this sort upon Mars or the asteroids, the position and displacement of the planet, as seen from different stations, are determined by comparing it with neighboring stars. When Venus, however, is nearest us, she can be observed only by day, so that in her case star comparisons are as a general thing out of the question. But occasionally at her inferior conjunction she passes directly across the disk of the sun, and her parallactic displacement from different stations can then be determined by making any such observations as will enable the computer to ascertain accurately her apparent distance and direction from the sun's centre at some given moment. Gregory in 1663 first pointed out the utility of such observations for ascertaining the parallax, but it was not until some fifteen years later that the attention of astronomers was secured to the subject by Halley, who discussed the matter thoroughly, and showed how the problem might be solved with accuracy by observations such as were entirely practicable even by the instruments and with the knowledge then at command. In 1761 and 1769 two transits occurred which were observed in all accessible quarters of the globe by expeditions sent out by the different governments. From different sets of these observations variously combined by different computers, values of the solar parallax were obtained ranging all the way from 7.5" to 9.2". A general discussion of all the materials afforded by the two transits was first made by Encke in 1822, and he obtained, as the most probable result, the value 8."5776, which from that time for more than thirty years was accepted by all astronomers as the best attainable approximation to the truth. In order to harmonize the results, however, he thought himself obliged to reject the observations of several stations. In 1854 Hansen, in publishing some of his results respecting the motion of the moon, announced that Encke's value of the solar parallax could not be reconciled with his investigations; within the next six or seven years several independent researches by other astronomers confirmed his conclusions, and the most recent recomputations show that the observations rejected by Encke are as trustworthy as any, and that the errors of observation were so considerable in 1769 that nothing more can be fairly deduced from that transit than that the solar parallax is probably somewhere between 8.7" and 8.9".

The method of observation then used consisted simply in noting the moment when the limb of the planet came in contact with that of the sun—an observation which is attended with much more difficulty and uncertainty than would at first be supposed. The difficulties depend in part upon the imperfections of optical instruments and the human eye, partly upon the essential nature of light, leading to what is known as diffraction, and partly upon the action of the planet's atmosphere. The two first named causes produce what is called irradiation, and operate to make the apparent diameter of the planet, as seen on the solar disk, smaller than it really is—smaller, too, by an