R.T. Gould and The Planet Vulcan 1

T.T. Gould & his wife Muriel
Found - a fascinating forgotten  work Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (Allan, London 1928) by R.T. Gould. Rupert Thomas Gould (1890 – 1948), was a lieutenant Commander in the British Royal Navy noted for his contributions to horology. While in the navy in WW1 he suffered a nervous breakdown. During long recuperation, he was stationed at the Hydrographer's Department at the Admiralty, where he became an expert on various aspects of naval history, cartography, and expeditions of the polar regions. He gained permission in 1920 to restore the marine chronometers of John Harrison, and this work was completed in 1933. Jeremy Irons played him in Longitude, a dramatisation of Dava Sobel's book about John Harrison Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, which recounted in part Gould's work in restoring the chronometers.

Something of a polymath, he wrote an eclectic series of books on topics ranging from horology to the Loch Ness Monster. He was a member of the Sette of Odd Volumes (Brother Hydrographer) and the book Oddities is dedicated to the club. He was a science educator, giving a series of talks for the BBC's Children's Hour starting in January 1934 under the name "The Stargazer", and these collected talks were later published. He was a member of the BBC radio panel Brains Trust. He umpired tennis matches on the Centre Court at Wimbledon on many occasions during the 1930s. This is the first part of the chapter on the planet Vulcan (more to follow)-


  Many things, ranging from collar-studs to battleships,* are quite easy to lose. Heavenly bodies, however, are not usually regarded as included in that category. Yet for such to be lost is not an absolutely unknown occurrence. Biela's comet, for example, after circling round the sun in a regular and decorous orbit for a considerable time, was seen as two comets in 1852,† failed to return in 1859, and has not since been heard of since. Some of the minor planets, too–tiny bodies a few miles in diameter–have proved so troublesome to rediscover that an American astronomer, the late Professor J. C. Watson, endowed a Home for Lost Planets‡–that is to say, he created a special fund for the purpose of having the orbits of the twenty-two minor planets discovered by himself regularly computed and kept up to date, thus ensuring that such planets would always be "present and correct" when required.

* Some years ago, on draining a disused dock at one of the French naval yards, an old and forgotten submarine was found in it. See Punch, 3-II-09.

† One, at least, of its observers was a total abstainer.

‡ In humble imitation of this kindly act, the present writer maintains a Home of Rest for Aged Typewriters–now (1944) sheltering some seventy inmates.

The Surface of Vulcan by nethskie
  The story of the planet Vulcan, however, is not so much that of a lost Planet as of one which, although once accepted as a member of the Solar System, never existed.

  On January 2, 1860, Urbain J. J. Leverrier, at the time Director of the Observatory of Paris, and world-famous as one of the discoverers§ of Neptune, read a paper to the Académie des Sciences in which he pointed out that the observed motion of Mercury did not agree with theory. This anomaly, it may be noted, has since become one of the pillars of Einstein's theory of relativity. At the time, Leverrier proposed to explain it by assuming that matter, as yet undiscovered, existed in the sun's neighbourhood–in other words) that one or more small planets probably revolved somewhere in the space between Mercury and the sun.

§ The discovery of Neptune in 1846 was made by calculation: not, as in the case of Uranus, by direct observation. Leverrier computed its probable position and aspect from data afforded by the known perturbations of Uranus. His prediction was verified by Galle, of Berlin, the first man to see Neptune. J. C. Adams, of Cambridge, was afterwards proved to have computed its position (slightly more correctly than Leverrier) about a year earlier; but, owing to the inexplicable negligence and apathy shown by Airy (Astronomer Royal), Challis (Director of the Cambridge Observatory), and (in a lesser degree) by Adams himself, his prediction was not verified by actual observation until after the planet had been seen by Galle.

There are, of course, two planets known to revolve round the sun at a less distance than we ourselves do–Venus, the beautiful twin-sister of our own world, which we know as a morning or evening star, and Mercury, which is smaller and far more difficult to see. Outside us are Mars, the belt of minor planets, and the giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus) and Neptune, while there is some evidence that outside those again there may be one, or possibly two, not yet detected.*

* Some investigations made by Professor George Forbes, F.R.S., of Edinburgh, and based on the curious "grouping" of cometary orbits, strongly suggest the existence of at least one unknown exterior planet. A search made in 1890-92 by Dr. Isaac Roberts at Crowborough has shown that, if it exists, it must appear as of less than the 15th magnitude. It will probably be discovered, if at all, by calculation, as Neptune was–and, not improbably, it is outside the range of even the largest modern telescopes. It is certainly not identical with Pluto, the outermost known planet of our system (discovered by Tombaugh, of Flagstaff Observatory, in 1930).

  It was natural that Leverrier, who had himself added an extra-Uranian planet to the Solar System, should have felt that there was no a priori reason against the existence of an intra-Mercurial one. On the other hand, it naturally seemed rather curious that, if a planet large enough to cause the observed disturbances really existed so close to the sun, this should not have been discovered earlier. He announced his conclusion with diffidence, remarking:

  "This result naturally filled me with inquietude. Had I not allowed some error in the theory to escape me? New researches, in which every circumstance was taken into account by different methods, ended only in the conclusion that the theory was correct, but that it did not agree with observations.... Does it [the undiscovered matter near the sun] consist of one or more planets, or other more minute asteroids, or only of cosmical dust? The theory tells us nothing on this point."

  It is a singular fact that when Leverrier read this paper he had (or might have had) in his pocket a letter which he had received on December 22, 1859, from one M. Lescarbault, a doctor of Orgères, near Orleans, who was also an amateur–a very amateur–astronomer. This letter announced the discovery of an intra-Mercurial planet.

  Lescarbault stated that on March 26, 1859, he had seen a round black spot, apparently a planet in transit, moving across the upper part of the sun's face on a path which slanted upwards. It had remained in view for an hour and a quarter, during which time it had progressed for a distance rather less than a quarter of the sun's diameter.

  Very shortly after reading his paper, Leverrier went to Orgères–apparently with the intention of exposing an impostor. It must be remembered that he was a man of very peculiar temperament. Sir J. J. Thomson has told how, as a young man, he paid a scientific visit to Paris and, wishing to call on Leverrier, enquired about him from a common friend. "I do not know", was the rather startling reply, "whether M. Leverrier is actually the most detestable man in France–but I am quite certain that he is the most detested." However, he showed himself most unexpectedly amiable to his English visitor.

  He was an extreme example of a man possessing an absolutely first-class brain and almost completely devoid of ordinary human sympathy and tolerance. His manner was not only frigid but repulsive, he made no allowances for human error and frailty, and in the earlier part of his career as Director of the Paris Observatory he conducted himself towards his subordinates so tyrannically that he was removed from his position.* With all this, there can be no question of his genius as an analyst–and much can be forgiven to a man who accomplished such an amount of magnificent work, and of whom it can at least be said that he spared himself no more than he spared others.

  * He left the Observatory in 1870, but became its Director again three years later, his successor, Delaunay, having been drowned while boating–a fate which he had always dreaded. Leverrier's second tenure of office lasted until his death on September 23, 1877.

  It may be noted that methods similar to Leverrier's were once employed at Greenwich–by John Pond, the only Astronomer Royal who has been requested (i.e. compelled) to resign his appointment.

  Leverrier went down to Orgères in a state of considerable irritation. It appeared to him exceedingly unlikely–and, if true, most irregular–that anyone who had made, or believed himself to have made, so important a discovery should have neglected for nine months to communicate it to anyone–not even to the official head of the French astronomical world, Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier, Director of the Observatory of Paris, Professor of Astronomy in the Faculty of Sciences, Senator, and decorated with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, as well as a multitude of lesser distinctions. Assuming his most Rhadamanthine manner, he called at Lescarbault's house and, while declining to give any name, insisted upon seeing him immediately. I imagine that Lescarbault must have taken him for a detective, or even a "Juge d'instruction".

  The meeting has been inimitably described by R. A. Proctor.

  † The extract here given is taken from Proctor's Rough Ways Made Smooth (London, 1880, pp. 40, 41). The story is also told in several of his other books: it was one of various themes–other examples are "Oxford and Cambridge rowing-styles" and "star-distribution"–to which he often recurred.

  ". . . The interview was a strange one. Leverrier was stern and, to say the truth, exceedingly rude in his demeanour, Lescarbault singularly lamb-like. If our chief official astronomer called uninvited upon some country gentleman who had announced an astronomical discovery, and behaved as Leverrier did to Lescarbault, there would most certainly have been trouble; but Lescarbault seems to have been rather pleased than otherwise.

  " 'So you are the man,' said Leverrier, looking fiercely at the doctor, 'who pretends to have seen an intra-Mercurial planet. You have committed a grave offence in hiding your observation, supposing you really have made it, for nine months. Tell me at once and without equivocation what you have seen.'

"Lescarbault described his observation. Leverrier asked for his chronometer, and, hearing that the doctor used only his watch, the companion of his professional journeys, asked how he could pretend to estimate seconds with an old watch.* Lescarbault showed a silk pendulum 'beating seconds'–though it would have been more correct to say 'swinging seconds'. Leverrier then examined the doctor's telescope, and presently asked for the record of the observations. Lescarbault produced it, written on a piece of laudanum-stained paper which at the moment was doing service as a marker in the Connaissance de Temps.

  * It had no seconds hand. (R. T. G.)

  † An ivory hall suspended by a silk thread. (R. T. G.)

  ‡ The French equivalent of the Nautical Almanac. It has been published uninterruptedly since 1696; the Nautical Almanac, since 1767. (R. T. G.)

  "Leverrier asked Lescarbault what distance he had deduced for the new planet. The doctor replied that he had been unable to deduce any, not being a mathematician: he had made many attempts, however. Hearing this', Leverrier asked for the rough draft of these ineffective calculations.

  "'My rough draft?' said the doctor. 'Paper is rather scarce with us here. I am a joiner as well as an astronomer' (we can imagine the expression of Leverrier's face at this moment); 'I calculate in my workshop, and I write upon the boards; and when I wish to use them in new calculations, I remove the old ones by planing.' On adjourning to the carpenter's shop, however, they found the board with its lines and its numbers in chalk still unobliterated.

  "This last piece of evidence, though convincing Leverrier that Lescarbault was no mathematician) and therefore probably in his eyes no astronomer, yet satisfied him as to the good faith of the doctor of Orgères. With a grace and dignity full of kindness, which must have afforded a singular contrast to his previous manner, he congratulated Lescarbault on his important discovery. He made some enquiry also at Orgères concerning the private character of Lescarbault, and learning from the village curé, the juge de paix, and other functionaries, that he was a skilful physician, he determined to secure some reward for his labours. At Leverrier's request M. Rouland, the Minister of Public Instruction, communicated to Napoleon III the result of Leverrier's visit) and on January 25th the Emperor bestowed on the village doctor the decoration of the Legion of Honour." [to be continued...]

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