History of Astronomy from the Roman Empire to the Present, Part 1
A history of the evolution of astronomy from the time of the Roman Empire up to the present day; showing it to be an amazing series of blunders founded upon an error made in the second century B.C.
By GERRARD HICKSON
In the year 1907 the author made a remarkable discovery which convinced him that the sun was very much nearer to the earth than was generally supposed. The fact he had discovered was demonstrated beyond all doubt, so that he was compelled to believe that— however improbable it might seem— astronomers had made a mistake when they estimated the distance of the sun to be ninety-three millions of miles.
He then proceeded to examine the means by which the sun’s distance had been computed, and found an astounding error in the “ Diurnal Method of Measurement by Parallax,” which had been invented by Dr. Hailey in the early part of the i%th century, and which was used by Sir David Gill in measuring the distance to the planet Mars in 1877 ; from which he deduced his solar parallax of 8.80″.
Seeing that Sir Norman Lockyer had said that the distance to and the dimensions of everything in the firmament except the moon depends upon Sir David Gill’s measurement to Mars, the author set himself the tremendous task of proving the error, tracing its consequences up to the present day, and also tracing it backwards to the source from which it sprang.
The result of that research is a most illuminating history of the evolution of astronomy from the time of the Roman Empire up to April 1922 ; which is now placed in the hands of the people in “Kings Dethroned.”
The author has taken the unusual course of submitting these new and startling theories for the consideration of the general public because the responsible scientific societies in London, Washington and Paris, failed to deal with the detailed accounts of the work which he forwarded to them in the Spring of 1920. He believes that every newly-discovered truth belongs to the whole of mankind, wherefore, i f those whose business it is to consider his work fail in their duty he does not hesitate to bring it himself direct to the people, assured of their goodwill and fair judgment.
Astronomy has ever been regarded as a study only for the few, but now all its strange terms and theories have been explained in the most lucid manner in “ Kings Dethroned,” so that everyone who reads will acquire a comprehensive knowledge of the science.
The author takes this opportunity of assuring the reader that none esteems more highly than he, himself, the illustrious pioneers who devoted their genius to the building of astronomy, for he feels that even while pointing out their errors he is but carrying on their work, striving, labouring even as they did, for the same good cause of progress in the interests of all. On the other hand, he thinks that astronomers living at the present time might have used to better purpose the greater advantages which this century provides, and done all that he himself has done by fearless reasoning, devoted labour ; and earnest seeking after truth.
WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG THREE thousand years ago men believed the earth was supported on gigantic pillars. The sun rose in the east every morning, passed overhead, and sank in the west every evening; then it was supposed to pass between the pillars under the earth during the night, to re-appear in the east again next morning.
This idea of the universe was upset by Pythagoras some five hundred years before the birth of Christ, when he began to teach that the earth was round like a ball, with the sun going round it daily from east to west; and this theory was already about four hundred years old when Hipparchus, the great Greek scientist, took it up and developed it in the second century b.c. Hipparchus may be ranked among the score or so of the greatest scientists who have ever lived. He was the inventor of the system of measuring the distance to far off objects by triangulation, or trigonometry, which is used by our surveyors at the present day, and which is the basis of all the methods of measuring distance which are used in modern astronomy. Using this method of his own invention, he measured from point to point on the surface of the earth, and so laid the foundation of our present systems of geography, scientific map-making and navigation.
It would be well for those who are disposed to under-estimate the value of new ideas to consider how much the world owes to the genius of Hipparchus, and to try to conceive how we could have made progress— as we know it— without him.
The principles of triangulation are very simple, but because it will be necessary— as I proceed— to show how modern astronomers have departed from them, I will explain them in detail.
Every figure made up of three connected lines is a tri— or three-angle, quite regardless of the length of any of its sides. The triangle differs from all other shapes or figures in this;— that the value of its three angles, when added together, admits of absolutely no variation ; they always equal 180 degrees; while — on the other hand— all other figures contain angles of 360 degrees or more. The triangle alone contains 180 degrees, and no other figure can be used for measuring distance. There is no alternative whatever, and therein lies its value.
It follows, then, that if we know the value of any two of the angles in a triangle we can readily find the value of the third, by simply adding together the two known angles and subtracting the result from 180.
The value of the third angle is necessarily the remainder. Thus in our example (diagram 2) an angle of 90 degrees plus an angle of 60 equals 150, which shows that the angle at the distant object— or apex of the triangle—must be 30.
Now if we know the length of the base-line A— B, in feet, yards, kilometres or miles, (to be ascertained by actual measurement), and also know the value of the two angles which indicate the direction of a distant object as seen from A. and B., we can readily complete the triangle and so find the length of its sides. In this way we can measure the height of a tree or church steeple from the ground level, or find the distance to a ship or lighthouse from the shore.
The reader will perceive that to obtain any measurement by triangulation it is absolutely necessary to have a base-line, and to know its length exactly. It is evident, also, that the length of the base-line must bear a reasonable proportion to the dimensions of the triangle intended; that is to say,— that the greater the distance of the object under observation the longer the base-line should be in order to secure an accurate measurement.
A little reflection will now enable the reader to realize the difficulties which confronted Hipparchus when he attempted to measure the distance to the stars.
It was before the Roman Conquest, when the geography of the earth was but little known, and there were none of the rapid means of travelling and communication which are at our disposal to-day.
Moreover, it was in the very early days of astronomy, when there were few— if any— who could have helped Hipparchus in his work, while if he was to make a successful triangulation to any of the stars it was essential that he should have a base-line thousands of miles in length, with an observer at each end; both taking observations to the same star at precisely the same second of time.
The times in which he lived did not provide the conveniences which were necessary for his undertaking, the conditions were altogether impossible, and so it is not at all surprising that he failed to get any triangulation to the stars. As a result he came to the conclusion that they must be too far off to be measured, and said “ the heavenly bodies are infinitely distant.”
Such was the extraordinary conclusion arrived at by Hipparchus, and that statement of his lies at the root of astronomy, and has led its advocates into an amazing series of blunders from that day to this.
The whole future of the science of astronomy was affected by Hipparchus when he said “the heavenly bodies are infinitely distant,” and now, when I say that it is not so, the fate of astronomy again hangs in the balance. It is a momentous issue which will be decided in due course within these pages.
The next astronomer of special note is Sosigenes, who designed the Julian Calendar in the reign of Caesar. He saw no fault in the theories of Hipparchus, but handed them on to Ptolemy, an Egyptian astronomer of very exceptional ability, who lived in the second century a.d.
Taking up the theories of his great Greek predecessor after three hundred years, Ptolemy accepted them without question as the work of a master; and developed them. Singularly gifted as he was to carry on the work of Hipparchus, his genius was of a different order, for while the Greek was the more original thinker and inventor the Egyptian was the more accomplished artist in detail; and the more skillful in the art of teaching. Undoubtedly he was eminently fitted to be the disciple of Hipparchus, and yet for that very reason he was the less likely to suspect, or to discover, any error in the master’s work.
In the most literal sense he carried on that work, built upon it, elaborated it, and established the Ptolemaic System of astronomy so ably that it stood unchallenged and undisputed for fourteen hundred years; and during all those centuries the accepted theory of the universe was that the earth was stationary, while the sun, moon, stars and planets revolved around it daily.
Having accepted the theories of Hipparchus in the bulk, it was but natural that Ptolemy should fail to discover the error I have pointed out, though even had it been otherwise it would have been as difficult for him to make a triangulation to the stars in the second century a.d., as it had been for the inventor of triangulation himself three hundred years earlier. However, it is a fact that he allowed the theory that “the heavenly bodies are infinitely distant” to remain unquestioned; and that was an error of omission which was ultimately to bring about the downfall of his own Ptolemaic system of astronomy.