Friday, October 03, 2008

Camille Flammarion: Astronomy for Amateurs


The Science of Astronomy is sublime and beautiful. Noble, elevating, consoling, divine, it gives us wings, and bears us through Infinitude. In these ethereal regions all is pure, luminous, and splendid. Dreams of the Ideal, even of the Inaccessible, weave their subtle spells upon us. The imagination soars aloft, and aspires to the sources of Eternal Beauty.

What greater delight can be conceived, on a fine spring evening, at the hour when the crescent moon is shining in the West amid the last glimmer of twilight, than the contemplation of that grand and silent spectacle of the stars stepping forth in sequence in the vast Heavens? All sounds of life die out upon the earth, the last notes of the sleepy birds have sunk away, the Angelus of the church hard by has rung the close of day. But if life is arrested around us, we may seek it in the Heavens. These incandescing orbs are so many points of interrogation suspended above our heads in the inaccessible depths of space.... Gradually they multiply. There is Venus, the white star of the shepherd. There Mars, the little celestial world so near our own. There the giant Jupiter. The seven stars of the Great Bear seem to point out the pole, while they slowly revolve around it... What is this nebulous light that blanches the darkness of the heavens, and traverses the constellations like a celestial path? It is the Galaxy, the Milky Way, composed of millions on millions of suns!... The darkness is profound, the abyss immense... See! Yonder a shooting star glides silently across the sky, and disappears!...

Who can remain insensible to this magic spectacle of the starry Heavens? Where is the mind that is not attracted to these enigmas? The intelligence of the amateur, the feminine, no less than the more material and prosaic masculine mind, is well adapted to the consideration of astronomical problems. Women, indeed, are naturally predisposed to these contemplative studies. And the part they are called to play in the education of our children is so vast, and so important, that the elements of Astronomy might well be taught by the young mother herself to the budding minds that are curious about every issue--whose first impressions are so keen and so enduring.

Throughout the ages women have occupied themselves successfully with Astronomy, not merely in its contemplative and descriptive, but also in its mathematical aspects. Of such, the most illustrious was the beautiful and learned Hypatia of Alexandria, born in the year 375 of our era, public lecturer on geometry, algebra, and astronomy, and author ofthree works of great importance. Then, in that age of ignorance and fanaticism, she fell a victim to human stupidity and malice, was dragged from her chariot while crossing the Cathedral Square, in March, 415, stripped of her garments, stoned to death, and burned as a dishonored witch!

Among the women inspired with a passion for the Heavens may be cited St. Catherine of Alexandria, admired for her learning, her beauty and her virtue. She was martyred in the reign of Maximinus Daza, about the year 312, and has given her name to one of the lunar rings.

Another celebrated female mathematician was Madame Hortense Lepaute, born in 1723, who collaborated with Clairaut in the immense calculations by which he predicted the return of Halley's Comet. "Madame Lepaute," wrote Lalande, "gave us such immense assistance that, without her, we should never have ventured to undertake this enormous labor, in which it was necessary to calculate for every degree, and for a hundred and fifty years, the distances and forces of the planets acting by their attraction on the comet. During more than six months, we calculated from morning to night, sometimes even at table, and as the result of this forced labor I contracted an illness that has changed my constitution for life; but it was important to publish the result before the arrival of the comet."

This extract will suffice for the appreciation of the scientific ardor of Madame Lepaute. We are indebted to her for some considerable works. Her husband was clock-maker to the King. "To her intellectual talents," says one of her biographers, "were joined all the qualities of the heart. She was charming to a degree, with an elegant figure, a dainty foot, and such a beautiful hand that Voiriot, the King's painter, who had made a portrait of her, asked permission to copy it, in order to preserve a model of the best in Nature." And then we are told that learned women can not be good-looking!...

The Marquise du Châtelet was no less renowned. She was predestined to her career, if the following anecdote be credible. Gabrielle-Émilie de Breteuil, born in 1706 (who, in 1725, was to marry the Marquis du Châtelet, becoming, in 1733, the most celebrated friend of Voltaire), was four or five years old when she was given an old compass, dressed up as a doll, for a plaything. After examining this object for some time, the child began angrily and impatiently to strip off the silly draperies the toy was wrapped in, and after turning it over several times in her little hands, she divined its uses, and traced a circle with it on a sheet of paper. To her, among other things, we owe a precious, and indeed the only French, translation of Newton's great work on universal gravitation, the famous Principia, and she was, with Voltaire, an eloquent propagator of the theory of attraction, rejected at that time by the Académie des Sciences.

Numbers of other women astronomers might be cited, all showing how accessible this highly abstract science is to the feminine intellect. President des Brosses, in his charming Voyage en Italie, tells of the visit he paid in Milan to the young Italian, Marie Agnesi, who delivered harangues in Latin, and was acquainted with seven languages, and for whom mathematics held no secrets. She was devoted to algebra and geometry, which, she said, "are the only provinces of thought wherein peace reigns." Madame de Charrière expressed herself in an aphorism of the same order: "An hour or two of mathematics sets my mind at liberty, and puts me in good spirits; I feel that I can eat and sleep better when I have seen obvious and indisputable truths. This consoles me for the obscurities of religion and metaphysics, or rather makes me forget them; I am thankful there is something positive in this world." And did not Madame de Blocqueville, last surviving daughter of Marshal Davout, who died in 1892, exclaim in her turn: "Astronomy, science of sciences! by which I am attracted, and terrified, and which I adore! By it my soul is detached from the things of this world, for it draws me to those unknown spheres that evoked from Newton the triumphant cry: 'Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei!'"

Nor must we omit Miss Caroline Herschel, sister of the greatest observer of the Heavens, the grandest discoverer of the stars, that has ever lived. Astronomy gave her a long career; she discovered no less than seven comets herself, and her patient labors preserved her to the age of ninety-eight. And Mrs. Somerville, to whom we owe the English translation of Laplace's Mécanique céleste, of whom Humboldt said, "In pure mathematics, Mrs. Somerville is absolutely superior." Like Caroline Herschel, she was almost a centenarian, appearing always much younger than her years: she died at Naples, in 1872, at the age of ninety-two. So, too, the Russian Sophie Kovalevsky, descendant of Mathias Corvinus, King of Hungary, who, an accomplished mathematician at sixteen, married at eighteen, in order to follow the curriculum at the University (then forbidden to unmarried women); arranging with her young husband to live as brother and sister until their studies should be completed. In 1888 the Prix Bordin of the Institut was conferred on her. And Maria Mitchell of the United States, for whom Le Verrier gave a fête at the Observatory of Paris, and who was exceptionally authorized by Pope Pius IX to visit the Observatory of the Roman College, at that time an ecclesiastical establishment, closed to women. And Madame Scarpellini, the Roman astronomer, renowned for her works on shooting stars, whom the author had the honor of visiting, in company with Father Secchi, Director of the Observatory mentioned above.

At the present time, Astronomy is proud to reckon among its most famous workers Miss Agnes Clerke, the learned Irishwoman, to whom we owe, inter alia, an excellent History of Astronomy in the Nineteenth Century; Mrs. Isaac Roberts, who, under the familiar name of Miss Klumpke, sat on the Council of the Astronomical Society of France, and is D. Sc. of the Faculty of Paris and head of the Bureau for measuring star photographs at the Observatory of Paris (an American who became English by her marriage with the astronomer Roberts, but is not forgotten in France); Mrs. Fleming, one of the astronomers of the Observatory at Harvard College, U.S.A., to whom we owe the discovery of a great number of variable stars by the examination of photographic records, and by spectral photography; Lady Huggins, who in England is the learned collaborator of her illustrious husband; and many others.

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The following chapters, which aim at summing up the essentials of Astronomy in twelve lessons for amateurs, will not make astronomers or mathematicians of my readers--much less prigs or pedants. They are designed to show the constitution of the Universe, in its grandeur and its beauty, so that, inhabiting this world, we may know where we are living, may realize our position in the Cosmos, appreciate Creation as it is, and enjoy it to better advantage. This sun by which we live, this succession of months and years, of days and nights, the apparent motions of the heavens, these starry skies, the divine rays of the moon, the whole totality of things, constitutes in some sort the tissue of our existence, and it is indeed extraordinary that the inhabitants of our planet should almost all have lived till now without knowing where they are, without suspecting the marvels of the Universe.

* * * * *

For the rest, my little book is dedicated to a woman, muse and goddess -- the charming enchantress Urania, fit companion of Venus, ranking even above her in the choir of celestial beauties, as purer and more noble, dominating with her clear glance the immensities of the
universe. Urania, be it noted, is feminine, and never would the poetry of the ancients have imagined a masculine symbol to personify the pageant of the heavens. Not Uranus, nor Saturn, nor Jupiter can compare with the ideal beauty of Urania.

Moreover, I have before me two delightful books, in breviary binding, dated the one from the year 1686, the other from a century later, 1786. The first was written by Fontenelle for a Marquise, and is entitled Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes. In this, banter is pleasantly married with science, the author declaring that he only demands from his fair readers the amount of application they would concede to a novel. The second is written by Lalande, and is called Astronomie des Dames. In addressing myself to both sexes, I am in honorable company with these two sponsors and esteem myself the better for it.

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