One of the great seventeenth-century astronomers, who died just before the close of the century, was Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687), of Dantzig, who advanced astronomy by his accurate description of the face and the spots of the moon. But he is remembered also for having retarded progress by his influence in refusing to use telescopic sights in his observations, preferring until his death the plain sights long before discarded by most other astronomers. The advantages of these telescope sights have been discussed under the article treating of Robert Hooke, but no such advantages were ever recognized by Hevelius. So great was Hevelius's reputation as an astronomer that his refusal to recognize the advantage of the telescope sights caused many astronomers to hesitate before accepting them as superior to the plain; and even the famous Halley, of whom we shall speak further in a moment, was sufficiently in doubt over the matter to pay the aged astronomer a visit to test his skill in using the old-style sights. Side by side, Hevelius and Halley made their observations, Hevelius with his old instrument and Halley with the new. The results showed slightly in the younger man's favor, but not enough to make it an entirely convincing demonstration. The explanation of this, however, did not lie in the lack of superiority of the telescopic instrument, but rather in the marvellous skill of the aged Hevelius, whose dexterity almost compensated for the defect of his instrument. What he might have accomplished could he have been induced to adopt the telescope can only be surmised.
Halley himself was by no means a tyro in matters astronomical at that time. As the only son of a wealthy soap-boiler living near London, he had been given a liberal education, and even before leaving college made such novel scientific observations as that of the change in the variation of the compass. At nineteen years of age he discovered a new method of determining the elements of the planetary orbits which was a distinct improvement over the old. The year following he sailed for the Island of St, Helena to make observations of the heavens in the southern hemisphere.
It was while in St. Helena that Halley made his famous observation of the transit of Mercury over the sun's disk, this observation being connected, indirectly at least, with his discovery of a method of determining the parallax of the planets. By parallax is meant the apparent change in the position of an object, due really to a change in the position of the observer. Thus, if we imagine two astronomers making observations of the sun from opposite sides of the earth at the same time, it is obvious that to these observers the sun will appear to be at two different points in the sky. Half the angle measuring this difference would be known as the sun's parallax. This would depend, then, upon the distance of the earth from the sun and the length of the earth's radius. Since the actual length of this radius has been determined, the parallax of any heavenly body enables the astronomer to determine its exact distance.
The parallaxes can be determined equally well, however, if two observers are separated by exactly known distances, several hundreds or thousands of miles apart. In the case of a transit of Venus across the sun's disk, for example, an observer at New York notes the image of the planet moving across the sun's disk, and notes also the exact time of this observation. In the same manner an observer at London makes similar observations. Knowing the distance between New York and London, and the different time of the passage, it is thus possible to calculate the difference of the parallaxes of the sun and a planet crossing its disk. The idea of thus determining the parallax of the planets originated, or at least was developed, by Halley, and from this phenomenon he thought it possible to conclude the dimensions of all the planetary orbits. As we shall see further on, his views were found to be correct by later astronomers.
In 1721 Halley succeeded Flamsteed as astronomer royal at the Greenwich Observatory. Although sixty- four years of age at that time his activity in astronomy continued unabated for another score of years. At Greenwich he undertook some tedious observations of the moon, and during those observations was first to detect the acceleration of mean motion. He was unable to explain this, however, and it remained for Laplace in the closing years of the century to do so, as we shall see later.
Halley's book, the Synopsis Astronomiae Cometicae, is one of the most valuable additions to astronomical literature since the time of Kepler. He was first to attempt the calculation of the orbit of a comet, having revived the ancient opinion that comets belong to the solar system, moving in eccentric orbits round the sun, and his calculation of the orbit of the comet of 1682 led him to predict correctly the return of that comet in 1758. Halley's Study of Meteors.
Like other astronomers of his time be was greatly puzzled over the well-known phenomena of shooting- stars, or meteors, making many observations himself, and examining carefully the observations of other astronomers. In 1714 he gave his views as to the origin and composition of these mysterious visitors in the earth's atmosphere. As this subject will be again referred to in a later chapter, Halley's views, representing the most advanced views of his age, are of interest.
"The theory of the air seemeth at present," he says, "to be perfectly well understood, and the differing densities thereof at all altitudes; for supposing the same air to occupy spaces reciprocally proportional to the quantity of the superior or incumbent air, I have elsewhere proved that at forty miles high the air is rarer than at the surface of the earth at three thousand times; and that the utmost height of the atmosphere, which reflects light in the Crepusculum, is not fully forty-five miles, notwithstanding which 'tis still manifest that some sort of vapors, and those in no small quantity, arise nearly to that height. An instance of this may be given in the great light the society had an account of (vide Transact. Sep., 1676) from Dr. Wallis, which was seen in very distant counties almost over all the south part of England. Of which though the doctor could not get so particular a relation as was requisite to determine the height thereof, yet from the distant places it was seen in, it could not but be very many miles high.