Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/July 1885/Some Self-Made Astronomers

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947687Popular Science Monthly Volume 27 July 1885 — Some Self-Made Astronomers1885Eugène Lagrange



OUR purpose is to inquire briefly, illustrating our research by a few eminent examples, how men become astronomers, or, in general, how those who achieve distinction in that profession are directed to it. No one is destined to astronomy from his childhood. No fathers in forecasting the future of their sons ever think of preparing them especially for so unpractical a business, one so far from any of the roads to fortune as the study of the skies. Some particular conditions, independent of parental views of the career their sons are to follow, outside of anything that is contemplated in arranging the course of their studies in school, must contribute to lead a youth to consecrate his life to this pursuit. How, then, we ask again, does one become an astronomer? Well, he begins by taking up some other career—that of watch-maker, for instance, or of writing-master, clergy-man, revenue officer, carpenter, bookseller, doctor, or perhaps shepherd, musician, or tradesman; and then, some day, if the thing is to be, some little incident determines it: the die is cast, and he becomes an astronomer. Nothing in particular is done; there are no parental lamentations or reproaches of friends who think you are a fool; you go your way, to the university if you can pay the cost, or straight to the observatory of which you are to become the director, to the disgust of the assiduous students who have been cramming for the examinations. This is the history of Hansen. He was watch-maker, and was called in one day to a scientific man's house to repair a clock. Having to wait a little while in the laboratory till the gentleman came in, he casually picked up a book, which proved to be a geometry. The man of science came in, and, finding him interested in the book, lent it to him. Hansen devoured it; the man lent him other books, and he gave himself up to them as a miss would to a novel she was forbidden to read. Two years after this, Hansen, at thirty years of age, was director of the observatory at Gotha, where he performed his celebrated labors on the motions of the moon.

Mädler was a writing-master till he was forty-five years old, when all at once it came into his head to make an astronomer of himself. He obtained a place at the private observatory of Beer (brother of Meyerbeer), where he drew a map of the moon. Shortly afterward, he was placed by the Russian Government at the head of the Dorpat Observatory, where he continued till his death, at the age of eighty-three years.

Brunhs, director of the Leipsic Observatory, who died a short time ago, was found by Humboldt in a locksmith's shop in Berlin, and obtained through his influence a place in the observatory.

Leverrier, who died Director of the Paris Observatory, and who occupied himself more than any other astronomer with calculations of the motions of the planets, was intended to be an engineer. He was employed in the excise, when he suddenly discovered that the science of the skies was his vocation. It is well known that astronomy owes to him the discovery of the planet Neptune, which was the result of a mathematical calculation.

Olbers, who contributed so much to the theory for determining the orbits of comets, was a practicing physician in Bremen. He was accustomed to spend his evenings at home, after the day's round of calls, in reading for pleasure works on astronomy, to which science he rendered considerable services, while as a doctor he was in no way distinguished from the host of his competitors.

Th. von Oppolzer, to whom science is indebted for some splendid labors, intended first to embrace the career of his father, who was a distinguished physician; but he had hardly got his first case, when he was seized by the demon of astronomy; and he forever abandoned his early profession to devote himself to that science.

The great Herschel was a hautboy-player in a Hanoverian regiment, and the thought of being an astronomer never occurred to him till he was forty years old. At that time he wanted to get a telescope, and, as he had no means with which to buy one, he made one himself, and with it discovered Uranus. He was then made a doctor at Oxford, and entered the service of the English Government, with whose aid he was able to build his monster telescope. He afterward explored the sky to very remote depths, discovering nebulæ, and studying double stars and clusters of stars.

The astronomers whose stories have just been told are not exceptions. It must rather be admitted, as a general rule, that all the men who have made epochs in astronomy were deserters, or persons who had left some other profession to engage in astronomy. The academicians may confront me, on this point, with the life of the great Gauss. This celebrated astronomer, one of the greatest of all time, did indeed follow the direct road, but that was only because of his having, when he was young, attracted the attention of the Duke Charles William Ferdinand of Brunswick. It is very probable that, but for this circumstance, he would have become something very different, perhaps a mason, or a fountain-builder, or an employé of the burial-office—three trades which his father carried on together. But it is quite as certain that Gauss would sooner or later have become an astronomer as that Raphael, as Lessing says, would have become a painter, even if he had lost his hands.

Frederick William Bessel, one of the most eminent astronomers of the nineteenth century, had been destined by his father to become a merchant, and the young man, who had a strong distaste for Latin and considerable fondness for mathematics, engaged in his studies with relish, but did not particularly distinguish himself in them. When fifteen years of age, on the 1st of January, 1799, he began his apprenticeship to the merchant's career in a large commercial house of Bremen, with a good-will. No one, and himself least of all, would have dreamed then of his ever becoming celebrated. He was not at all ambitious, and did not even seem to care to put himself in advance of his colleagues. The only thing to remark about him was the conscientiousness with which he did his work. After this was done, he would recreate himself by poring over old books, trying to make himself familiar with all branches of commerce, and studying particularly maritime commerce, in which he was specially interested. He was thinking about his future, and perceived early that, to make his fortune, he would have to try his lot across the sea, for he had no means wherewith to establish himself.

The object of his desire at this time was to be able, as agent of one of the great houses of Bremen or Hamburg, to direct a commercial expedition to the Indies or China. With this purpose he diligently studied English and French, and then bethought himself of what else might be useful to him in the career he wished to embrace. Till this time we see in his conduct no evidence of a disposition toward astronomy. He was simply seeking to become a good merchant, and all his efforts, day and night, were directed to that end. He was in heart a merchant, and in course of becoming one, and yet we can not doubt that there was developing in him at the very time the tendency which was to lead him to the science of the sky.

In the course of the studies of which we have spoken, it occurred to him that a ship-factor, such as he was going to be, undertaking long voyages, and playing so prominent a part on the ship, ought to know a little of the way in which it was to be directed. He had heard that a new art had been discovered—that of sailing in the open sea by observation of the stars, the moon, and the sun. Although the sailors of the period cared to learn nothing of this new art, Bessel hoped that by becoming master of it he might make himself respected by his future captain. It was necessary to procure a sextant; but that was beyond the means of our clerk, so he made one for himself, and assiduously took observations of the stars with it. He determined the latitude and longitude of Bremen, as if he had been on board his vessel. Thus, at nineteen years of age, he had set foot in the astronomical field. He never left it, but delved in it more and more, though without neglecting his commercial studies. He made his astronomical recreations the occupation of his evening hours. It is with astronomy as with love—the smallest spark is enough to kindle a lasting fire, if only the subject is inflammable. This was what happened with Bessel, and the flame that was lighted in his spirit was never extinguished.

The young man had read in his new book how, from the observation of the stars, one might calculate the geographical position of the spot where he happened to he. He sought to know why this was so. For this purpose he had to study mathematics from its rudiments, and was thus led up rapidly to spherical astronomy. He had to be continually introducing the elements of the position of the sun and moon into his calculations, taking them from an astronomical calendar. He desired to calculate these elements for himself. He was thus led to study the laws of the motions of the celestial bodies. The net which astronomical science had cast over him was thus wrapping him closer every day, and in less than a year after he had begun his astronomical studies he undertook the computation of the orbit of the comet of 1607, a work that involved three hundred pages of calculations, and which a skilled astronomer might regard as the task of a year. He was not a little proud of his calculations when he had completed them, and he determined to make the acquaintance of Olbers, who was practicing medicine in Bremen, and was regarded as the first authority in everything that related to comets. Meeting the famous doctor in the street, he timidly told him he had calculated the orbit of a comet, and asked him to have the kindness to examine his work. Olbers granted the request, supposing that he was about to receive the work of an amateur, whom he must treat politely, for fear of discouraging him. But he was greatly surprised when he examined the calculations, and he immediately wrote to Bessel: "I have read your work on the comet of 1607 with very great pleasure. It gives me a very high idea of your astronomical and mathematical knowledge, and of your skill in the most difficult departments of calculation. If I should criticise you on any point, it would be only on your having given more time and care to the ancient observations than they deserve." If we place this praise of Olbers by the side of the fact that Bessel did not know a word of mathematics or astronomy a year before, or hardly that there was such a thing as the mechanics and mathematics of the sky, and if we also recollect that he was occupied from eight o'clock in the morning till night with something entirely different, we can gain a slight idea of the great energy and the rare mental constancy which he must have displayed, and which afterward carried him so far.

Bessel's fate was decided. He was recommended by Olbers to Gauss, who, in the same year, invited him to assist him in the calculations with which he was occupied. Bessel accepted the invitation with enthusiasm, and, according to his habit, made the calculations with more precision than was required. From that time Gauss and Bessel were connected in a lasting scientific friendship. Bessel was to wait another year before giving himself up entirely to astronomy, but early in 1806, warmly supported by Olbers, he was appointed inspector of a private observatory at Lilienthal. He remained there four years, till his reputation brought him a call to the direction of the new observatory at Königsberg. At twenty-six years of age, without ever having been in a university, he took rank as one of the first professors in the University of Königsberg.

We thus see that Bessel was, in the broadest sense of the word, a self-made man. But it can not be said that he was a genius. Ideas did not come to him as the manna to the children of Israel in the desert. He acquired all his knowledge solely by his excessive application and by his indomitable energy in pursuing the end he was aiming at. I do not think that his natural talent exceeded the mean which Nature has given to all. We feel, in reading Bessel, not the sense of a sudden induction—which is frequently given to the mathematician as well as to the astronomer—but rather that of a continuous labor, which draws new and exact conclusions from materials previously accumulated, and knows how to make a practical use of.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Ciel et Terre.