Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/April 1897/Sketch of Stephen J. Perry

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PSM V50 D742 Stephen Joseph Perry.jpg


THE Roman Catholic priesthood of the present century bears upon its rolls the names of several men who have distinguished themselves in scientific research; among them are those of two who were eminent in the study of solar physics. One of these was Father Secchi, of Rome; the other was Father Perry, S. J., who for several years maintained the position of Stonyhurst College and Observatory as a leading institution in the investigation of the sun spots, the aurora borealis, electric and magnetic currents, and the phenomena associated or supposed to be associated with them.

Stephen Joseph Perry was born in London, August 23, 1833, and died on the steamer Comus, of the British Eclipse Observing Expedition, near Demerara, December 27, 1889. He was taught at Gifford Hall School, and trained for the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church in the colleges at Douai and Rome. Returning to England, he became, in November, 1853, in accordance with a resolution which he had formed while in Rome, a member of the Society of Jesus, British Province. At the end of the second year of his novitiate he went to France. Returning to the seminary of Stonyhurst, at Blackburn, England, he began a course of philosophy, but, showing a marked predilection for mathematics, his studies were, with the advice and consent of his superiors in the order, turned especially in that direction. He took a high rank in mathematical honors at the University of London, attended lectures by De Morgan, and completed his mathematical studies in Paris. He was then appointed Professor of Mathematics and Director of the Observatory in Stonyhurst; taught a class there for one year; took a course in divinity at St. Bueno's College, North Wales; was ordained priest in 1866; and two years afterward resumed his professorship and the direction of the observatory at Stonyhurst, where he spent the whole of the rest of his life except when absent upon some scientific expedition.

The observatory at Stonyhurst, where good work in meteorological and magnetic observation had already been done, was chosen as one of the first-class English meteorological stations in 1867. With the new instruments that were acquired from time to time, giving the observatory an excellent equipment. Father Perry strove to make the station one of the most efficient. particularly in the study of solar physics. "His first communication to the Royal Astronomical Society," says Nature, upon whose obituary notice of Father Perry we rely for most of our material, "indicates the policy he pursued to undertake no work which was a mere duplication of that done at other places." It appears, from a summary of his solar work during the ten preceding years, given at a lecture at the Royal Institution in May, 1889, that it was carried on by means of drawings and spectroscopic observations. "For the drawings an image of the sun ten inches and a half in diameter was projected on a sheet of drawing-paper affixed to a sketch board carried by the telescope, and all markings on the sun traced. The drawing finished, the chromosphere and prominences were examined with the spectroscope. About two hundred and fifty drawings were made every year from 1880. The results of these observations were published annually in a neat little volume, and in various publications." Regular observations of Jupiter's satellites and of comets were also made, and spectroscopic observations of comets and stars. In the year 1888, for instance, the chromosphere was completely examined on eighty-four days and partly on three other days. The Rev. Aloysius L. Cortie, S. J., in his biography of Father Perry (London, Catholic Truth Society), describes the work at Stonyhurst as having included the daily drawing of the sun when possible, the measurement of the depth of the chromosphere, the heights of prominences, and observations of sun-spot spectra—a programme which was faithfully adhered to up to the time of Father Perry's death. The drawings of the sun spots, as they appeared in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, reproductions of two of which are given in Father Cortie's book, show how much can be effected by means of the pencil. The main object of making these drawings, which are of great importance and supplement the solar photographs, was to throw light upon the theories of the mode of formation of spots, and to find, if possible, the clew to the connection between terrestrial magnetism and solar activity.

Father Perry's industry and strict attention to his work of observation are further attested in his contributions to Nature and other journals. In Nature, the only journal of which we have complete files at hand, we find from one to three communications each in twenty-three of the forty volumes which were published previous to his death, recording phenomena of weather, magnetism, the aurora borealis, meteors, the sun, and earthquakes. The first volume, for instance, has a communication describing the cyclone of January 13, 1870, as it prevailed at Stonyhurst. In the third volume are letters speaking of his having missed on some observation a particular faint yellow line in the chromosphere, on the November meteors, and describing minutely the successive phenomena of the earthquake of March 17, 1871. A communication in the second volume sets forth a method of magnetic surveys of limited districts in which investigators might employ themselves during their vacations, and which he had practiced satisfactorily during two successive vacations. These were probably the survey of the west of France, made in 1868 in company with Father Sidgreaves, and that of the east of France, made in 1869. A detailed account of such a survey made by him in Belgium one autumnal season was communicated to the Royal Society, with the magnetic elements of twenty stations and the secular variation. Other studies on this subject are recorded; one comparing the curves as shown by the photographs in terrestrial magnetism at Stonyhurst and Vienna, which was spoken of as remarkable in that the curves offered a striking illustration of the simultaneous action of the disturbing forces of two magnets many miles apart; and observations by him and Prof. Balfour Stewart on the regular fluctuations of declination at Stonyhurst and Kew, of which the authors remarked that "such fluctuations almost always occur as couplets or groups of couplets—a couplet meaning first a descent and then an ascent, or the reverse"; and the paper offered an explanation of the phenomena. A communication on the magnetic storm of October, 1872, calls attention to the importance of observations of such manifestations, in view of the coincidences discovered between them and other important natural phenomena.

In an address delivered in 1872 or 1873 to the Liverpool Polytechnic Society, after explaining what was known of terrestrial magnetism and remarking upon the observed coincidence of magnetic disturbances with the passing of earth currents, "their never-failing appearance at all auroral displays, their simultaneous appearance at places the most remote from each other, and their agreement in various periodic features with outbursts of sun spots," were spoken of as most powerful aids to the solution of the problems connected with them; and he suggested that it was not unreasonable "to expect that some light may be thrown upon the question, if we examine with careful attention the not impossible connection of magnetic storms with solar outbreaks, or with volcanic eruptions and violent earthquakes, with the variations of the wind, or even with the showers of fallen meteors." Further, he asked, if the connection supposed by certain students between the period of solar spots and the relative position of the planets can be maintained, "if the solar disturbances are in any way due to the combined action of the planets, and these again are found to be coincident with the great perturbations of terrestrial magnetism, shall we not be inclined to attribute a wider range to the magnetic force than is in general assigned to it? May not that which has long been allowed to rank among the most extensively diffused of Nature's agents find a home in each individual member of the solar system, causing them to act and react upon each other as well by their magnetic energy as by the force of gravity? The perfect solution of such a problem would well repay many a year of persevering observation and of assiduous study, and well will those be rewarded by whose labor the general cause of terrestrial magnetism ceases to be one of the unsolved mysteries of cosmical physics."

In connection with the eclipse of December 22, 1870, Father Perry was made chief of the expedition to watch the phenomenon at Cadiz, Spain. Unfavorable weather prevailing during most of the time of the sojourn of the party at the station, the observers were spread out as much as possible, in hopes of not failing altogether, and the results justified expectations. The clouds were not so thick as to cut off all the observations, and some fairly good views were obtained.

For the observation of the transit of Venus of 1874 Father Perry offered his services for the expedition to Kerguelen Island, and was appointed chief of the observing party, to be stationed at Christmas Harbor. Importance was attached to this expedition in British scientific circles aside from its astronomical purposes, because this lonely "island of desolation," as Father Perry afterward called it, had been but little explored, and not much was known of the region in which it was situated; and a natural history party was sent out with the transit company by the Royal Society to investigate the botany, etc., of the island. The undertaking to go on this voyage was a serious adventure with Father Perry, and illustrates as much as anything else, perhaps, his self-sacrificing devotion to his favorite science. He was peculiarly sensitive to suffering from seasickness, and was not spared on this, one of the longest and roughest voyages the ocean affords; and his sufferings on this occasion. Nature says, "were so fearful that every one wondered that he cared to venture on even the most promising trip." His patience in suffering "helped to win for him the esteem of the officers with whom he came in contact. Not one word of his discomfort is to be found in any of the journals kept by him." He was guided, as he expressed it, by a determination "that no consideration should make us flinch where the astronomical interests of the expedition were at stake." In addition to the work of the expedition, he took magnetic observations at the Cape of Good Hope, Kerguelen, Bombay, Aden, Port Said, Malta, Palermo, Rome, Naples, Florence, and Moncalieri, and lectured on the transit of Venus at the Cape and Bombay, and, on his return, at the Royal Institution. He also communicated a paper on the subject to the British Association of 1875, illustrating his remarks by diagrams of the sun and the planet as seen from various stations, and was attentively listened to. The Americans had anticipated his party and taken the position they had intended to occupy, but they found a better one; and the three British detachments and the Americans co-operated, making four stations on the island. The weather was finer than they had anticipated from the accounts of the climate of Kerguelen, and from his station they were able to get observations of the internal and external contacts at egress. He was also a member of the observing party of the transit of Venus of 1882, in Madagascar, which was selected as one of the ingress stations. In 1886 he observed the eclipse of August 29th, at Carriacou, a small island to the north of Grenada; and in 1887 the eclipse of August 19th, in Russia.

In November, 1889, he sailed for the Isles de Salût to witness the solar eclipse of December 22d, and died soon after the observation. According to the account given of these, his last days, by Father Strickland, S. J., in The Tablet, he suffered much during the voyage from seasickness, and was in rather an exhausted condition when he reached the island. He nevertheless, intent upon his work, went ashore at once to inspect the proposed point of observation and introduce himself to the authorities. He was advised and urged to continue to live on the vessel (the Comus), going ashore only in the day. Father Strickland expressed the belief that if he had done this "his life would not have been sacrificed to the one anxious desire to do everything for the best for the success of the work confided to him." He preferred, however, to abide in the hospital, and said nothing of the illness which he felt. The road from the hospital to the observatory was steep and difficult, but he traversed it on foot four times a day. He complained the Friday before the eclipse of sickness, but worked till nearly three o'clock in the morning; lay down in a hammock in the tent to get a little rest where he was; was up again before six o'clock to take the position of the sun at rising; and superintended at half past seven a careful and successful rehearsal of the operations and duties that were to be performed in the observation of the eclipse the next morning. "Every one was surprised at Father Perry's exactitude in contributing to carry out his own orders, and his courage in facing fatigue. His readiness to sacrifice himself and his own convenience in order to save trouble to others endeared him to all who worked with him, and challenged their utmost efforts to secure success for their work in spite of the oppressive climate and surroundings." About noon on Saturday he was found much exhausted by a ship's officer who visited him, but was again at his post in the observatory at three o'clock, where an important photograph was secured. In the evening he went to the ship for dinner, but was only able to lie on one side, and took some chlorodyne. He then persisted in going ashore and to his own quarters to sleep, in a violent rain. He passed a bad night, and was very ill on the following morning, the time of the eclipse, and permitted himself to be assisted over the half mile to the observatory, but would not be carried in a stretcher. Though very much exhausted when he reached the observatory, "as the important moment approached he seemed to rally, and during the minutes of the eclipse seemed to be himself again, and showed no signs of illness or exhaustion. There were two photographic instruments in use—one, an old one, which had often been in use before; the other was the special corona graphic instrument prepared for the occasion, of which Father Perry himself took charge. He was so alert and self-possessed during the eclipse that his friends about him hoped he was not so ill, but he gave way immediately after, and with much difficulty reached his quarters in the hospital." On Sunday night the critical nature of his disease, dysentery, became evident. On Wednesday he was better, and the ship set sail for Demerara. Friday afternoon his mind began to wander, and in an hour and twenty minutes afterward he died. Before he quite lost consciousness "he thought himself again engaged in 'the supreme moment of the scientific mission which had so long filled his thoughts,' and 'began to give his orders as during the short moments of the eclipse.' "

Steps were taken a few months after Father Perry's death to establish a memorial of him, to consist of a new fifteen-inch telescope, which, with the house in which it stood, should be called the Father Perry Memorial, the works done with which should be published under his name.


A theory of "partial impact" is suggested by Prof. A. W. Bickerton, of the New Zealand University, to explain the sudden appearance and rapid disappearance of "new stars." Recognizing the fact that enormous masses of incandescent matter can not cool in a few weeks, the author observes, as quoted in Nature: "A typical new star is probably a thousand times as bright as our sun; it appears suddenly and disappears in a year. . . . The formation of such a body is difficult to explain on any theory except that of impact, but to explain its disappearance is more difficult still. It is estimated that it will take the sun ten million years to lose half of its luster. Think of a sun a thousand times as bright cooling in a year! The idea is absurd." But if we accept Mr. Lockyer's theory that some stars are not coherent bodies like our sun, but masses of meteorites which in the case of new stars and variables collide with one another, the difficulty is much less. We have no longer an enormous mass all aglow, but numerous scattered masses, vastly smaller, and capable of rapid cooling.