W. L. (William Larkin) Webb.

Brief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. online

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Online LibraryW. L. (William Larkin) WebbBrief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. → online text (page 23 of 28)
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As for the final effects of progress, much improvement is
possible but not perfection. There are persons who still believe
in the flat theory of the earth, even at the present time; just as
there are some individuals of obscure mind who believe in astrol-
ogy. But these aberrations will always exist, in spite of the
great modern development of the sciences. As the Roman his-
torian Tacitus remarks of astrologers : ' ' It is a class of men which,
in our city, will always be prohibited (by decrees of the senate)


and will always exist." The wisdom of this penetrating observa-
tion is as apparent now as it was 2,000 years ago. Yet when we
speak of progress, we mean among those both capable of learning
and willing to accept the truth. It is for these that the sciences
are developed, in order that some beneficial influence may be ex-
tended by the capable over the less fortunate portion of mankind.

It may be thought by some that discoveries in pure science,
like those made by See, appeal less to the multitude than inventions
in the useful arts, or discoveries in medicine and surgery. This
may be largely, but it is not wholly, true; for it was the original
discoveries in pure science by Copernicus, Kepler and Newton
which made possible all the later developments in the useful arts
and in medicine. And here again history will repeat itself in the
future. Pure truth is a perennial spring which flows through all
generations, and as the stream descends it nourishes not only all
sorts and conditions of men famishing with thirst, but even the
dumb cattle in the vale below.

If See has proved, for example, that there are inhabited
planets revolving about all the fixed stars, and that life is a general
phenomenon of nature, as universal as the stars in space, will it
not give us a better and nobler philosophy of life on this earth?
As we behold the starry heavens on a cloudless night are we not
inspired by his proof that life exists wherever a star twinkles? And
are we not comforted by the thought that we are not alone on this
dark planet, but a part of the great order established by the Deity
from the creation of the world? Will not these discoveries give
us a nobler philosophy, more reverent views of our mission in the
world? And if so, will it not benefit even the humblest of mortals
who may be unable to make discoveries, but can yet understand
them when presented by others who have caught this Divine Mes-
sage from the Stars? See believes that his new philosophy will
be eminently useful, and it is this hope of adding something to
the nobility of our view of life that has so largely sustained and
inspired him in his great labors extending over a quarter of a


If See's efforts eventually accomplish this improvement in
our philosophy and religious thought, it will bring about a revolu-
tion not only in science, but also in philosophy and ethics, and
thus ennoble and benefit the life of the humblest citizen. Surely
this improvement of mankind must be one of the ultimate objects
of all discovery. Professor See is known to be a man of very
reverent thoughts, and ever thankful that he has been able to bring
this inspiring message to the world, even at the cost of so much
labor and sacrifice.

As a philosopher of wide experience he believes that a purely
materialistic view of the universe is not and never will be sufficient
to explain all known phenomena. There is a world of mind, largely
independent of the material universe. In his celebrated Researches
Vol. II, pp. 712-14, See has treated of the problem of Life in rela-
tion to the order of nature. Those pages are justly famous and
we quote them here in full:

4 '324. Life a General Phenomenon of Nature, and Almost
as Universal in Its Distribution as Matter Itself.

"If therefore the laws of nature are such as to form planetary
systems of the cosmical dust expelled from the stars, through pre-
cipitation, condensation and falling together under the attraction
of gravitation; while on the other hand the dust itself in a finer
condition is originally expelled from the stars, by the action of the
repulsive forces arising from high temperature, intense radiation-
pressure and powerful electric charges, it follows that there is a
cyclic process by which stars and systems arise from nebulae,
while nebulae in turn are formed from the stars. On this point
there does not seem to be the slightest doubt; and we may regard
this cyclic process as perhaps the greatest of all the laws of nature.
Indeed, it seems to operate on a stupendous scale throughout the
sidereal universe.

"Since therefore the starry heavens are shown to be filled
with many millions of planetary systems, and an indefinite num-
ber of habitable worlds, is it not obvious that these worlds as a


rule are also inhabited* From the uniformity of the laws of nature,
it would seem that this must be so, and, so far as one may now judge,
this is the most inspiring message yet delivered to mankind by mod-
ern science.

"Let us see on what foundation this conclusion rests: (1)
Gravitation operates according to the same laws in other parts
of the sidereal universe as upon the earth; (2) The velocity of
light, and electricity, and no doubt of other physical agencies, is
the same in all parts of space; (3) The chemical elements are the
same everywhere, whether the light involved comes from a flame
in our laboratory or from one of the stars; (4) Mechanical laws
are the same in the solar system, and among the nebulae and fixed
stars, and this makes possible the development of cosmical sys-
tems of the same general type throughout nature; (5) Elec-
tronic, atomic, molecular, gravitational and electric and other re-
pulsive forces are the same everywhere; (6) Life depends in some
way for its physical basis on electronic, atomic and molecular
forces, and as these forces and elements on which they act are the
same everywhere, and the universe is shown to be full of habitable
worlds made up of the same elements subjected to the same forces
as in the case of our own planets revolving around the sun, it fol-
lows incontestably that life is a general phenomenon of the physi-
cal universe, and almost as universal as matter itself.

"It is true that the psychical and spiritual element of life is
not yet fully understood, but whatever be its character, it can
flourish elsewhere in nature quite as well as on the planet called

* In his thoughtful address at the dedication of the Flower Observatory,
Philadelphia, Mar. 12, 1897, Professor Newcomb discusses the plurality of worlds
as follows:

"There is one question connected with these studies on which I have not
touched, and which is, nevertheless, of transcendent interest. What sort of life,
spiritual and intellectual, exists in distant worlds? We cannot for a moment sup-
pose that our own little planet is the only one throughout the whole universe on
which may be found the fruits of civilization, warm firesides, friendship, the desire
to penetrate the mysteries of creation." Again, in the article "Stars," Encyclo-
pedia Americana, he remarks that the stars in clusters may have planets revolving
around them.


the Earth in the solar system. Our sun is simply a fixed star of
very ordinary magnitude, and the Milky Way includes hundreds
of millions of such centers of planetary systems. Accordingly,
in view of the established uniformity of nature's processes through-
out the immensity of space, who can doubt that life is a general
phenomenon ordained by the Deity from the creation of the world,
and destined to develop wherever planets are forming and the
stars are shining? Whatever be the nature of life, it has as much
right to develop as planetary systems or combinations of atoms;
it is indeed the bloom of nature, the culmination of the highest
creative forces. To hold any other views than those here announced
would be to violate the doctrine of uniformity, which lies at the basis
of natural philosophy as formulated by Newton in the Principia (Lib.
Ill}; and moreover lead to the conclusion that life upon the earth was
an accident and a mistake in violation of the usual order of Nature,*
which is infinitely improbable and, in fact, impossible for a philos-
opher to admit.

"If therefore life is as universal as the stars in space, it is
evident that when we behold the starry heavens and contemplate
the glorious arch of the Milky Way on a cloudless night, we receive
from distant suns and worlds ethereal vibrations which tell us at
the same time of living beings throughout immensity. Let us,
therefore, quietly rejoice, when we survey the starry heavens in

* If life on the earth exists by a mere accident and in violation of natural laws,
is it likely that it would have shown such power of propagation and of resistance
to adverse conditions as it is known to have possessed throughout geological history?
It seems to have been a veritable spark which simply could not be extinguished,
and must therefore have been burning on and nourishing, not in violation of, but
in accordance with, natural laws. Those who believe that life is an accident and
a mistake, a noxious development flourishing in violation of the laws of nature,
may with consistency deny the existence of life throughout the universe. But
having shown that habitable planets revolve everywhere about the fixed stars, in
orbits which are nearly circular, and rotate so as to give alternation of day and
night, as on the earth, it seems to me more philosophical to follow the example of
Sir William Huggins, in regard to the chemical elements, and declare that life
exists wherever there is a sun to warm and light its attendant planets, and there-
fore wherever a star twinkles in the depths of space. The other view, that life is
an accident, leads to a reductio ad absurdum as conclusive as those employed in


all their splendor, and remember this sublime message telling us
that we are not mere dust confined to this dark planet, but a part
of the flower of the visible creation, which blooms everywhere with
the cosmic order, and is as universal as the stars which illuminate
the depths of immensity.

" Without the sublime researches of Sir William Herschel, we
should have a very inadequate conception of the profundity to
which our telescopes can penterate into the blackness of unillum-
inated space, and thus could poorly interpret the message of the
universe. But this great astronomer showed that the stars extend
principally in the direction of the Milky Way, and light up that
region so brilliantly that we can extend our explorations to a dis-
tance which it would take the light millions of years to traverse.
Thus the Milky Way is like a great but somewhat narrow corridor
lighted up by the stars to the remotest regions to which our tele-
scopes can penetrate, with no indication of an end to the starry
stratum. To realize on good, substantial and indisputable scienti-
fic grounds that life accompanies the stars to the remotest depths
of space, and that we can look out upon such countless worlds from
our tiny abode near the sun, and thus connect the feeble life of our
globe with the universal life in the endless order of inhabited
spheres, is not the least inspiring message in the Epic Poem of
Science. It is indeed a Message from the Stars. And it seems to
me that if astronomy had achieved no other result than this, it
would more than justifly all the labors which have been bestowed
upon it from the earliest ages.

"This Message from the Stars passeth not away, but endureth
unto all generations. As ageless as the heavens from which it
comes, it will continue to travel downward with the starlight,*
and thus awaken new life and hope in the hearts of mankind. For
it is absolutely impossible for this order of mind, life and intelli-

* "Were a star quenched on high

For ages would its light.
Still traveling downward from the sky,
Shine on our mortal sight." Longfellow.


gence as widespread as the stars in space, to have been established
throughout Nature without design and abiding great and good
purpose; and therein lies the proof of the existence of the Deity.
The teachings of true science are therefore among the most sacred
which have ever been delivered, and they deserve the veneration
which is always due to Ultimate Truth."


In concluding this interesting subject it seems well to quote
the following remarkable passage from Aristotle, which is lost in
the Greek original, but has been preserved to us in Cicero's book
on the Nature of the Gods:

"If there were men whose habitations had been always under
ground, in great and commodious houses, adorned with statues
and pictures, furnished with everything which they who are re-
puted happy abound with; and if, without stirring from thence,
they should be informed of a certain divine power and majesty, and
after some time the earth should open and they should quit their
dark abode to come to us, where they should immediately behold
the earth, the seas, the heavens; should consider the vast extent
of the clouds and force of the winds; should see the sun and observe
his grandeur and beauty, and perceive that day is occasioned by
the diffusion of his light through the sky; and when night has
obscured the earth they should contemplate the heavens, bespang-
led and adorned with stars, the surprising variety of the moon in
her increase and wane, the rising and setting of all the stars and
the inviolable regularity of their courses, when, says he, 'they
should see these things, they would undoubtedly conclude that
there are gods, and that these are their mighty works/ '

The fascination of this marvelous train of thought is such
that we add another based on our knowledge in the twentieth
century, which maybe said to afford a sublime vision of the prog-
ress of science in the twenty-two centuries since the age of Aris-

* The substance of this closing inspiration is drawn by permission, from
Professor See's "Popular Cosmogony" referred to on page 224.


totle. It naturally fills us with wonder at the triumphs of the
human intellect, but the evidence that the soul is divine and inde-
pendent of what we call time, so as to be immortal, is not less

If there be men of miscroscopic minuteness dwelling on the
planet earth, as it revolves close to the star of the Milky Way
which is the center of the solar system, and while in the narrow
limits of this so-called mortal life they are told of the unspeakable
glories of the sidereal heavens as made known by the more talented
of their race in the form of natural laws that would enable them
to think the thoughts of the Deity after Him, as Kepler said thus
giving us a science of the creation of the stars, revealing both the
wonders of the Deity as they now appear in a glorious Galaxy of
sidereal systems and nebulae spread over a space which light itself
requires millions of years to traverse, and as they will appear under
creative processes, which include the effects of the ravages of time,
throughout the millions of ages to come; and they then learn also
that systems of worlds habitable and inhabited by living beings
revolve in the depths of the firmament wherever a star twinkles,
so that life appears to be as general a phenomenon in nature as the
very stars and the elements of which they are composed when
one of our so-called mortal race reflects on these marvelous things,
and finally realizes likewise that our thoughts triumph over both
space and time, so that, as Kant said, neither of these appearances
really exist, or the soul exists anywhere and forever, and hence we
are now living in the time of Socrates and Plato or with Christ and
the Apostles, or as the poet Holmes truly says:

"The souls that voyaged the azure depths before thee

Watch with thy tireless vigils all unseen
Tycho and Kepler bend benignant o'er thee
And with his toy-like tube the Florentine "

does he not perceive that this whole arrangement of the universe
is beyond mortals wonderful, and the soul divine and imperish-
able, because it constantly imitates the Deity in penetrating through
and contemplating the Creation over which He hath presided since
the origin of time?


Speaker of the National House of Representatives, and for twenty years Member of
Congress from Professor See's home district in Missouri.





World's Work for December, 1912, and January, 1913,
contains an account of "Exploring Other Worlds" by Mr.
William Bayard Hale, the well known author and recent
biographer of Woodrow Wilson, now President of the United
States. In the first account of these discoveries among the stars
Mr. Hale places Professor See "among the foremost leaders in the
development of the New Astronomy," and in the second refers to
him as "this most indefatigable and intrepid of explorers/'

At a much earlier date, in a public address delivered in the
West, the Honorable Champ Clark, Speaker of the National House
of Representatives, discussed the scientific discoveries of Professor
See, as a friend and citizen of his congressional district; and after
recalling the great significance of these researches for the advance-
ment of Astronomy in our time, predicted that Professor See would
take rank with Sir William Herschel for the unrivaled eminence
of his discoveries in the starry heavens. And quite recently
Speaker Clark has said that See is "The American Herschel, the
greatest astronomer now living."

The suggested parallel between Herschel and See is much
more appropriate than might be imagined by a superficial reader
who does not yet appreciate the significance of contemporary prog-
ress for the future exploration of the sidereal universe. This is
already realized by the people of his own State, who have known
him from childhood, and watched his triumphant progress for a


quarter of a century. His neighbors know the discoveries he has
made and they can find no parallel to them on the part of anyone
since the memorable explorations of Sir William Herschel.

It therefore is no wonder that on the occasion of a public
address to an immense audience in the Court House at Montgomery
City, Mo., in a spontaneous welcome home, May 4, 1911, the
people came from all over the surrounding country and literally
overflowed the largest auditorium in the county. Nor is it sur-
prising that after the address (which was subsequently printed in
Scientia, Milan, Italy, Jan. 1, 1912), as the people gathered around
him, some friend recalled Oliver Wendell Holmes' welcome to Dr-
Benjamin Apthorp Gould, on the latter's return from South Amer-
ica, May 6, 1885, as even more appropriate to the founder of a new
science than to the great cataloguer of the southern stars:


"Once more Orion and the sister Seven

Look on thee from the skies that hailed thy birth
How shall we welcome thee, whose home was Heaven,
From thy celestial wanderings back to earth?

"Science has kept her midnight taper burning
To greet thy coming with its vestal flame:
Friendship has murmured, 'When art thou returning?'
'Not yet! Not yet!' the answering message came.

"Thine was unstinted zeal, unchilled devotion,

While the blue realm had kingdoms to explore
Patience, like his who ploughed the unfurrowed ocean,
Till o'er its margin loomed San Salvador.

"Through the long nights I see thee ever waking,
Thy footstool, earth, thy roof, the hemisphere,
While with thy griefs our weaker hearts are aching,
Firm as thine equatorial's rock-based pier.

"The souls that voyaged the azure depths before thee

Watch with thy tireless vigils, all unseen
Tycho and Kepler bend benignant o'er thee,
And with his toy-like tube the Florentine


"He at whose work the orb that bore him shivered

To find her central sovereignty disowned,
While the wan lips of priest and pontiff quivered,
Their jargon stilled, their Baal disenthroned.

"Flamsteed and Newton look with brows unclouded,

Their strife forgotten with its faded scars -
(Titans, who found the world of space too crowded,
To walk in peace among its myriad stars).

"All cluster round thee seers of earliest ages,

Persians, lonians, Mizraim's learned kings,
From the dim days of Shinar's hoary sages
To his who weighed the planet's fluid rings.

"And we, for whom the northern heavens are lighted,

For whom the storm has passed, the sun has smiled,
Our clouds all scattered, all our stars united,
We claim thee, clasp thee, like a long-lost child.

"Fresh from the spangled vault's o'er-arching splendor,

Thy lonely pillar, thy revolving dome,
In heart-felt accents, proud, rejoicing, tender,
We bid thee welcome to thine earthly home."

When the Kansas City Star, shortly after this visit home,
nominated Professor See for the hall of fame, it faithfully inter-
preted the sentiments and opinions of the people of the State of

Let us now very briefly examine into the suggested parallel
between Herschel and See, and find out how far it is justified. Sir
William Herschel was gifted with great enthusiasm, and tireless
energy and boundless ambition for the exploration of the heavens.
He spent his whole life in these profound researches, and loved
his work so dearly that no effort was too great for him to make in
the hope of extending our knowledge of the sidereal universe. It
is not necessary nor desirable to recall here the long list of his
brilliant discoveries. It is more to the point to say that he was
most true and just in all the relations of life. For after his dis-
coveries proved to be so revolutionary that it was appropriately


inscribed on his tomb at Upton that "he broke through the bar-
riers of the heavens" (coelorum perrupit claustra), Arago could
still pronounce upon him the incomparable eulogy: "Good for-
tune and glory never altered in him the fund of infantine candour,
inexhaustible benevolence, and sweetness of character, with which
nature had endowed him." (Biographies of Distinguished Scien-
tific Men, by Francois Arago, translated by Smyth, Powell and
Grant, 1859.)

In all his labors Herschel showed true scientific independence,
unfaltering devotion to truth, and unfailing sympathy with those
less fortunately situated in the world. During his lifetime he had
helped his brothers Alexander and Diedrich, and his sister Caro-
line; and when the latter outlived him he provided generously,
by an annuity, for the old age of the one human being who had
done most to sustain him in the labors of his great career. Those
who have studied the life of Herschel most intimately find him
the very prince of philosophers; amid many embarrassments and
difficulties he never once failed to reflect in his life the very glory
of the heavens.

As See is still living, and a comparatively young man, the
time has not come to make any final estimate of his career, but
those who know him best recognize unmistakably the same per-
sonal and philosophic qualities which so eminently distinguished
Sir William Herschel. See is especially noted for being indepen-
dent, and remaining untrammeled in his freedom of action.* In
some cases it is said that offers of financial assistance have been
made under conditions which might place him under obligations
expressed or implied, but they have always been courteously de-
clined, and the work done at his own expense or left undone. With
George Washington, he believes in the cardinal principle of
"friendly relations with all, entangling alliances with none;" and
practices in his relations with other scientific men the rule laid
down for us, a nation, by the Father of his Country. Without this

* The reader should compare the similar independent course of Herschel, as
described by Proctor in Chapter XV p. 219 above.

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Online LibraryW. L. (William Larkin) WebbBrief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. → online text (page 23 of 28)