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PROFESSOR ASAPH HALL.
VICE-PRESIDENT, SECTION A.
FELLOW-MEMBERS OF THE ASSOCIATION :
ASTRONOMY, in some of its forms, reaches back to the most distant historical epochs, and the changes that it has undergone during this long lapse of time give to this science a peculiar interest. In no other branch of human knowledge have we such a long and continuous history of the search after truth, of the painful struggle through which men have passed in freeing themselves from theories approved by the wise of their own times, and in overthrowing beliefs which had become incorporated into the life and culture of those times. Perhaps the grand array of the heavens, and the vast phenomena which they display, naturally led men to the invention of complicated theories ; but these passed away at last before the test of observation, and the criticism of sceptical men; and the Copernican theory of our solar system, Kepler's laws of elliptical motion, and the Newtonian law of gravitation, gave to astronomy a real scientific character.
The discovery of the laws that govern the motions of the heavenly bodies, and the construction of the theory of these motions, demanded from practical astronomy better observations and a more accurate determination of the orbits of the planets and the moon, or of the constants that enter into the problems of celestial mechanics ; and this demand led to an improvement in the instruments, and in the art of observing. The astronomers and instrument-makers of England and France led the way in these improvements. The great national observatories of those countries were established, and in England, Flamsteed and Sharp, Bird and Bradley, were foremost in raising practical astronomy to the condition of satisfying the demands of theory. But theoretical astronomy was soon to receive a wonderful advancement. Perhaps no one contributed more powerfully to this progress than Lagrange. The writings of this man are models of simplicity and elegance; and yet so complete and general are his investigations, that they contain the fundamental theorems of celestial mechanics. By the invention and perfection of the method of the variation of the arbitrary constants of a problem, and by the establishment of the differential equations of a planetary orbit depending on the partial differential coefficients of a single function, Lagrange reduced the question of perturbations to its simplest form, and gave the means of deducing easily the most interesting conclusions on the past and future condition of our solar system. To supplement this great theorist, there was needed another kind of genius. Combining the highest mathematical skill with unequalled sagacity and common sense in its application, Ls place gathered up and presented in a complete and practical form the whole theory of celestial mechanics. Besides his numerous and brilliant discoveries in theoretical astronomy, Laplace gave us some of the finest chapters ever written on the theory of attraction, * and a complete treatise on the calculus of probability.
By such labors as these the questions of astronomy were brought into order and classified, and the attention of astronomers was directed better than ever before to the determination of the quantities which must be found from observation. Moreover, the refinement of analysis and the completion of theory brought out new and more delicate questions, not less interesting, and requiring more complete investigation and more powerful instruments. The careful examination and study of the instruments and methods of observation became necessary, as well as complete and rigorous methods of reduction; and finally there was needed a critical and satisfactory method for the discussion of observations. For these last improvements in astronomy we are indebted chiefly to the astronomers and mechanics of Germany.
*"Ein schönes Document der feinsten analytischen Kunst."— GAUSS.
Among those who contributed by means of their optical and mechanical skill to furnish astronomy with the instruments necessary for its further advancement, no one holds a more honorable place than Joseph Frauenhofer. This man began his scientific work at the age of twenty-two, and died at thirty-nine, and yet in those seventeen years he gave to astronomy great improvements in the manufacture of optical glass, driving clocks for equatorials, and telescopes and micrometers, that in the hands of Bessel and Struve gave to observations a degree of accuracy hardly thought of before. To such men as Frauenhofer and his co-workers, who have carried on and improved the construction of instruments of precision, practical astronomy owes much; and yet, after all, the principal thing in a science is the man himself. No matter how excellent the instruments may be, the question whether they shall be used for the advancement of the science, and shall contribute the full value of their peculiarities to help towards increasing the accuracy of astronomical determinations, depends wholly on the astronomer. Again, astronomy is now so completely a science, and all its operations are so closely connected with theory, that no one is fit to have charge of an extended series of astronomical observations who has not a fair amount of theoretical knowledge. Without such knowledge his labor is apt to be thrown away, and is never so effective.
As a good example of what the modern astronomer should aim to be, we may take Bessel. To this man we owe a large part of our best methods for the examination and determination of the errors of our instruments, and the introduction of complete and rigorous methods for the reduction of observations. Bessel's reduction and discussion of Bradley's observations was a master-piece of its kind, bringing out the value of Bradley's work, which had lain unnoticed for more than half a century, and forming a startingpoint for sidereal astronomy. This work was continued and perfected in his tables for the reduction of astronomical observations, published twelve years afterwards; a work that has done more than anything else to introduce order and system into practical astronomy. In the discussion of instruments and the determination of their errors, Bessel's conception of an instrument was that of a geometrical figure, and the positions of the lines and divisions of this instrument were considered with corresponding rigor. Although devoted almost entirely to astronomy, yet Bessel was an able mathematician, and of this he has left abundant proof. It seems to be necessary that a man should die and be forgotten personally before his work can be fairly estimated ; but time adjusts these matters at last, and I know of no astronomer whose work promises to endure the judgment of the future better than that of F. W. Bessel.
It has been said that for producing the most puzzling compound of metaphysics and mathematics, something which has neither height nor depth, nor length nor breadth, and which no one can understand, the German mathematician is unequalled. And at the same time it must be said that, for clearness of conception, and beauty and precision of expression, Germany has produced in Gauss a mathematician who is unsurpassed, and who is worthy a place by the side of Lagrange. Omitting all reference to the works of Gauss in theoretical astronomy and in geodesy, which are many and important, I refer here only to his method for the discussion of observations, and of deducing the most probable values of our constants. Almost the entire work of astronomy is a vast system of numerical approximation, in which the first steps are obvious and easy, but where the theory soon becomes complicated and the labor enormous. Thus the calculation of the approximate orbit of a planet or of a comet is the work of only a few hours; but the computation of the perturbations, and the correction of the elements from all the observations, may be the work of months and years. It is therefore of the highest importance that we should have a method for the discussion of observations that will give us the best result, and which will introduce order and system into this department of astronomy. Such a method is that of least squares. For the complete theory of this method, and for nearly all the arrangements and algorithms necessary for its practical application, we are indebted to Gauss. The invention and application of this method to the discussion of observations of all kinds seems to me one of the greatest improvements of modern times, and its proper use will lead to a steady progress in astronomy. We must remember, however, that this method does not undertake the improvement of the observations themselves, as some have seemed to think; but, when rightly used, it produces simply the best result we can hope for from a given series of observations. It does not, therefore, dispense with skill and judgment on the part of the astronomer, but one is tempted to say that, if he has not these prime qualities, then the next best thing for him to have is the method of least squares. The use of this method has become one of the chief characteristics of modern astronomy, and if we compare the results of its application with those of the older methods, we shall see its superiority. Thus, for example, no astronomer of to-day, who is accustomed to the modern methods of discussion, would be satisfied with the manner in which Bouvard represents in his tables the observations of Jupiter and Saturn, but would suspect at once some error in his theory of the motions of these planets.
The present condition of astronomy is the result of the continued labors of our predecessors for many generations; and to this result the lapse of time itself has largely contributed. For the full development of the secular changes of our solar system, for an accurate knowledge of the proper motions of the stars of our sidereal universe, and of the great changes of light and heat that are going on among them, the astronomer must wait until future ages. It is his present duty to prepare for that future by making the observations and investigations of his own day in the best manner possible; and to do this needs a careful consideration of the present condition of the science. Although the objects for observation have become so numerous, and the range of investigation so wide, that there is room for the most varied talent and skill, yet there is danger that there may be a waste of labor, either in duplicating work, or in doing it in an improper manner. Especially may this happen in observations of the principal planets of our system, and of the fixed stars. In the case of the planets the observations are abundant, and the orbits are already well determined, except that of Neptune, for which, on account of its slow motion, we must of necessity wait for time to develop its small peculiarities, if such there be. For all these planets the observations at one or two observatories are amply sufficient, and even then the observations ought to be confined to a short time near the opposition, or at quadrature, and so made that they may be easily combined into a single normal position, which will suffice for the theoretical astronomer. To scatter such observations over a period of several months is to throw away one's labor, and to leave to the computer the disagreeable duty of rejecting a part of the observations as useless. It seems to me, therefore, unwise for several observatories to continue heaping up observations of the four outer planets of our system, when ten observations a year of each planet will give all the data that are needed. Again, for all the principal planets, observation is now in advance of theory, except, perhaps, in the case of one or two of them.