W. L. (William Larkin) Webb.

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

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wise rule of conduct it is not too much to say that a true philoso-
pher cannot exist; for however advantageous the formation of
alliances may be in ordinary commerce, the interests of truth will
seldom permit such combinations in science, and never except
with individuals of exalted merit.

Funds indeed may aid struggling genius, but they will not pro-
duce genius; and even the aid will be in vain unless extended in
such a way as not to compromise the independence of the investi-
gator. It is well known that as now managed our most heavily
endowed institutions have proved to be almost a total failure.
Probably nine-tenths of the vast sums expended ostensibly for
science on observatories and other similar institutions have been
utterly wasted. Naturally any self-respecting man of science is
better off without entanglements with such institutions, but this
recognized state of affairs is a grave reflection on the conditions
of scientific life in our country.

Those who are connected with these wasteful and inefficient
institutions are not really eminent and great philosophers, but
small and narrow specialists, quite devoid of real independence
and creative power; in fact they have neither the ability nor free-
dom to attack the greater problems of the age, and thus after all
their labors come to little.*

It was the ability to search for Truth, not worldly ends, which
so greatly distinguished Newton and Herschel. No amount of
questionable patronage would have aided the genius of these great
men, though a few grants were allowed Herschel, without con-
dition, and thus aided him in building his great telescopes.

As another point of similarity between the careers of Her-

* Routine Astronomy was also cultivated by the majority of workers in the
time of Sir John Herschel, and the breadth of mind of that eminent philosopher
was appreciated by few. In 1847 Herschel had to be selected as President of the
Royal Astronomical Society, to save it from dissolution; but Captain Smyth
records that Herschel's name was the main thing desired, for in the judgment of
the members, "The President must be a man of brass (practical astronomer)
a micrometer-monger, a telescope-twiddler, a star-stringer, a planet-poker, and a
nebula-nabber. If we give bail that we won't allow him to do anything if he
would we shall be able to have him, I hope."


schel and See, it may be noted that their discoveries have been
equally revolutionary. Many persons could have built great re-
flectors before Herschel, but nobody actually did it. So also many
mathematicians now living could have carried out the work done by
See, if they had been guided by his sense for physical truth in nature;
but no one really had this deep intuition. Herschel's opportunity
lay in building telescopes and exploring the heavens; See's oppor-
tunity, on the other hand, consisted in reducing to law and order
the vast mass of observations on clusters, double stars and nebulae
accumulated by Herschel and his successors. See did not dupli-
cate, but rather extended the unfinished labors of Herschel; just
as Herschel did not duplicate, but rather extended and verified
in the heavens the theoretical conclusions of Newton.

In no age can the work of a great scientific discoverer be exactly
repeated. It must rather be extended along a new line. Thus
Kepler's discoveries were observational, but Newton's largely
mathematical, while Herschel's again were chiefly observational.
And when a great mass of data had been thus accumulated by the
exploration of the heavens, See's mathematical work became possible
in the effort to give us a theory of the development of the clusters,
double stars, nebulae and other types of the heavenly bodies. By
establishing the mutual interaction of attractive and repulsive
forces, with the resulting cyclical order of cosmical development,
where only confusion and chaos had reigned before, See thus gained
the highest rank of Creator of a New Science "The Newton of
Cosmogony." This has been recognized by the most eminent
contemporary astronomers, but more especially by such sage
philosophers as Huggins, Schiaparelli and Poincare.

As is well known Sir William Herschel was born in Hanover
in 1738, and his family of Germanic origin. His earliest known
ancestor, Hans Herschel, had two brothers. They were Protes-
tants, and, to escape from religious persecution, fled from Moravia
early in the seventeenth century, and settled near Dresden. Here
two sons were born to Hans Herschel, the one named Abraham in
1651. One of Abraham Herschel's sons, Isaac Herschel, born in


1707, was the father of Sir William Herschel. After being left an
orphan at the age of eleven, he studied music in Berlin and Pots-
dam and finally settled in Hanover, whence the migration to Eng-
land, and the rise to fame of the son, Sir William Herschel.

A singular parallel between the ancestry of Herschel and of
See is remarkable enough to be worthy of record. It will be re-
called that two brothers, Adam See, and Michael Frederick See,
were natives of Prussian Silesia, which joins Moravia, from which
the Herschel brothers had fled about a century before. The Sees
too were Protestants and fled likewise to escape from religious
persecution. But instead of stopping in northern Germany, like
the Herschels, they came direct to America, with the colony of
Schwenkfelders, in 1734, and settled first in Pennsylvania, and
afterwards moved to Virginia, and Missouri, where the great
astronomer was born and rose to fame as the "American Herschel."
Thus it will be seen that there is striking similarity of ancestry in
these two great men who have so profoundly revolutionized the
Science of Astronomy.

It is needless to say that See is a member of many learned
societies throughout the world. The following list is incomplete,
but sufficient for our present purposes:

Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society; Mitglied der
Astronomischen Gesellschaft; member of the London Mathe-
matical Society; American Mathematical Society; Deutsche
Mathematiker Vereinigung; Societe Mathematique de France;
Circolo Mathematico di Palermo; Calcutta Mathematical Society;
American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia; Washington
Academy of Sciences; Philosophical Society of Washington;
Academy of Sciences of St. Louis; American Physical Society;
Societe Francaise de Physique; Fellow of the American and
British Associations for the Advancement of Science; member of
the British Astronomical Association; Societe Astronomique de
France; Astronomical Society of the Pacific; California Academy
of Sciences; Seismological Society of America; National Geo-


graphical Society; Honorary Member of the Sociedad Astro-
nomica de Mexico; etc.

In this connection the question may properly be asked whether
the standard of Science is higher in Europe than in America. Per-
haps it will be no surprise to learn that some elderly gentlemen
who live in the past, and still think as they did a generation ago,
hold that it is; and that the great European learned societies are
the best judges of contemporary progress and discovery.

The opposite view is taken by Professor See, who has shown
that America is now first in purely scientific discovery as well as
in inventions. In fact the rapid progress of the past twenty years
has given America the first place in every line of human activity.
This appears to be realized by the younger workers in Science,
who keep pace with recent progress, but it is not yet appreciated
by the American public.

A kindred problem to that just considered relates to the nature
of genius. In what does genius consist? And how are discoveries
made? These questions are not easy to answer, and yet one may
say immediately that discoveries are not made by following popu-
lar habits of thought. So far from originating discoveries the great
majority of people require careful instruction before they can grasp
the results reached by individuals of clearer intuition. Besides,
the most incompetent often are in authority, and it is difficult for
the people to recognize the few grains of truth from among the
mass of error set before them by blunderers.

As Napoleon once said: "France possesses clever practical
men; the only thing necessary is to find them, and to give them
the means of reaching the proper station; such a one is at the
plough, who ought to be in the council; and such another is minis-
ter, who ought to be at the plough" (Montholon, Vol. Ill, p. 187).

After recalling the ingenious labors of the celebrated Fourier
for discovering the laws of heat, Arago exclaims in his eulogy of
that extraordinary man:

"Such is the privilege of genius; it perceives, it seizes rela-
tions where vulgar eyes see only isolated facts."


Admirably said! This seeing of mere isolated facts, without
ability to seize relations is the bane of our age, and brings about stagna-
tion in Science. Such a condition may arise from narrowness of
view, when one's knowledge is not sufficiently extensive to bring
into the vision a wide range of apparently unrelated facts; or from
mental inability to weave the threads of thought into a continuous
fabric even when the connection is noticed.

The power to do this higher constructive work in Science is that
of genius and given to very few. To judge why this is let us recall
the sketch of the Character of Newton, given by Whewell in his
History of the Inductive Sciences, Vol. II, p. 183-5:

" It is not easy to anatomise the constitution and the opera-
tions of the mind which makes such an advance in knowledge.
Yet we may observe that there must exist in it, in an eminent
degree, the elements which compose the mathematical talent. It
must possess distinctness of intuition, tenacity and facility in
tracing logical connexion, fertility of invention, and a strong ten-
dency to generalisation. It is easy to discover indications of these
characteristics in Newton. The distinctness of his intuitions of
space, and we may add of force also, was seen in the amusements
of his youth; in his constructing clocks and mills, carts and dials,
as well as the facility with which he mastered geometry. This
fondness for handicraft employments, and for making models and
machines, appears to be a common prelude of excellence in phy-
sical science;* probably on this very account, that it arises from the
distinctness of intuitive power with which the child conceives the
shapes and the working of such material combinations. Newton's
inventive power appears in the number and variety of the mathe-
matical artifices and combinations which he devised, and of which
his books are full. If we conceive the operation of the inventive
faculty in the only way in which it appears possible to conceive
it; that while some hidden source supplies a rapid stream of
possible suggestions, the mind is on watch to seize and detain any
one of these which will suit the case in hand, allowing the rest to
pass by and be forgotten; we shall see what extraordinary fertility
*As in Galileo, Hooke, Huyghens, and others.


of mind is implied by so many successful efforts; what an innu-
merable host of thoughts must have been produced, to supply so
many that deserved to be selected. And since the selection is
performed by tracing the consequences of each suggestion, so as
to compare them with the requisite conditions, we see also what
rapidity and certainty in drawing conclusions the mind must
possess as a talent, and what watchfulness and patience as a habit.

"The hidden fountain of our unbidden thoughts is for us a
mystery; and we have, in our consciousness, no standard by which
we can measure our own talents; but our acts and habits are some-
thing of which we are conscious; and we can understand, there-
fore, how it was that Newton could not admit that there was any
difference between himself and other men, except in his possession
of such habits as we have mentioned, perseverance and vigilance.
When he was asked how he made his discoveries, he answered,
4 by always thinking about them;' and at another time, he declared
that if he had done anything, it was due to nothing but industry
and patient thought: ' I keep the subject of my inquiry constant-
ly before me, and wait till the first dawning opens gradually, by
little and little, into a full and clear light/ No better account
can be given of the nature of the mental effort which gives to the
philosopher the full benefit of his powers; but the natural powers
of men's minds are not on that account the less different. There
are many who might wait through ages of darkness without being
visited by any dawn."

These sagacious remarks on Newton apply of course equally
well to a modern philosopher. Like the illustrious Poincare, See
is a student not of single, isolated facts, but of the principles which
connect the most intricate of things into one continuous whole.
In the introduction to the Researches, Vol. II, he justly exclaims:
"One true principle gives unity and mental connection to millions
of isolated facts, and it is only by means of such principles that
the observed facts can be interpreted. Why not therefore give a
little more attention to the discovery of principles? All the im-
portant epochs in the past history of science have been made in


this way; yet this very tendency, to the development of new con-
ceptions and the introduction of new physical laws, is the one which
to-day is least encouraged. Few are supported or upheld in break-
ing away from the leading strings of tradition. Journals and
Learned Societies are nearly all ultra conservative, and very timid
about entertaining new thought. It is only daring individuals,
not aggregations of men, who have the courage to lead the way.
Under the circumstances can any one be surprised that years,
decades, and even centuries pass by without giving birth to one
grand principle, one new physical law?"

See's powers of mathematical and physical intuition have
thus enabled him to establish two new physical sciences Cos-
mogony, treating of the Origin of the Heavens; and Geogony, deal-
ing with the Origin of the Earth. The sublime Vision of the Crea-
tion, according to Nature's Laws, thus unfolded to the imagination,
never before dawned on the human mind; and as Halley said of
the discoveries in Newton's Principia, such revelations are "almost

It is by reason of men of See's type that early in the 20th
century the center of gravity of discovery was finally transferred
from Europe to America, where it is likely to remain for a long
time to come. It is well known that European science has gone
to seed in narrow specialization. Besides, the old countries of
Europe can no longer compete with the lusty vigor of this mighty
Republic, with its uniformly high type of citizenship.

It is needless to say that the discoveries of See alone have
given America the first place in the sciences of Astronomy and
Cosmogony, and the Physics of the Earth, which embraces the
sciences of Geology, Seismology and Geodesy. The opening sentence
of the address reprinted in Chapter XIII : " We are assembled to
consider the great Law of Nature which governs the Evolution of
Worlds, and to celebrate the Founding of a New Science of the Starry
Heavens," grand and comprehensive as it is, recalls but a part of
his most significant discoveries.


The general Law of Nature established by See to the effect that all
planetary bodies are formed in the distance and afterwards near the
centers about which they revolve is indeed magnificient. This Capture
Theory, or theory of addition from without, in contrast to Laplace's
abandoned theory of throwing off, is shown to apply to the entire
sidereal universe. It is illustrated by phenomena observed in the
spiral nebulae, the planetary system, the double and multiple
stars and clusters and the star-clouds of the Milky Way. Beyond
a doubt this theory of cosmical evolution, under the mutual inter-
action of both attractive and repulsive forces, and the resisting
medium resulting from the dispersion of dust from the stars, is
the most comprehensive scientific generalization since the estab-
lishment of the law of universal gravitation by Newton in 1687.

Accordingly, the daring young American astronomer who had
the mathematical ability and the physical and philosophic intui-
tion to reduce to law and order the hopeless chaos of the nebulae,
and thus found a new science of the starry heavens which won him
the title of the Newton of cosmogony (1910), by his latest feat in
fathoming the depth of the Milky Way and developing mathe-
matically the Herschel-See theory of the globular clusters, and
thus restoring the grand ideas, after securing the republication of
the Collected Works of Sir William Herschel, has amply fulfilled
the earlier prophesy that he would become the Herschel of

After an unaccountable neglect of ninety years the works of
Sir William Herschel have just been reprinted under the auspices
of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society of London.
The movement was started by Professor See and ably seconded
by the illustrious Sir William Huggins, ex-president of the Royal
Society and founder of Astrophysics. As many persons may not
know that this whole matter of republishing Herschel's Scientific
Papers was planned by Professor See in his quiet study at Mare
Island, California, we give an account of this important move-
ment. Soon after his recovery from the critical illness early in
1909, Professor See sought access to Herschel's papers in the Philo-


Ex-President of the Royal Society, Founder of the New Science of Astrophysics, and one

of the greatest philosophers of all time. He was a steadfast friend of Professor

See, and among the first to adopt his discoveries in Cosmogony and Geogony.





It notifies Professor See that his request had been granted, and action taken by the Royal Society and Royal Astro-
nomical Society looking to the republication of the Collected Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel.


sophical Transactions, at the library of the University of California.
By courtesy of Mr. J. C. Rowell, librarian, he was enabled to
carry home with him such arm-loads of these rare volumes as his
bodily strength then permitted, and abstract the parts that would
serve immediate needs. Upon application to other prominent
astronomers, who would presumably have these papers, he found
that no one had a copy, or had ever studied Herschel's works with
care and attention. Professor See was much surprised at this
neglect of Herschel's priceless papers, and it set him thinking
about a method of restoring the great Herschel to his rightful
place in modern astronomy.

Accordingly it occurred to him to write letters to the Observa-
tory, Nature, and the British Astronomical Association, urging a
movement for the republication of Herschel's Collected Works.
In a formal letter to the council of the Royal Astronomical Society
he not only urged the republication of Herschel's Collected Works,
but himself started the movement by formally offering a sub-
scription of $100 as the first step.

A little later it occurred to him to appeal directly to Sir Wil-
liam Huggins, ex-president of the Royal Society, to move for the
appointment of the needed joint committee of the Royal Society
and Royal Astronomical Society, to consider this great under-
taking, which would bring such high honor to these illustrious
societies. Professor See concluded his appeal to Sir William Hug-
gins by saying that if he could see his way to take the initiative in
this movement, it would be one more noble service to Science, and
a long delayed tribute to the memory of so great and good a man as

The appeal had the desired effect since Herschel's memory
is justly revered in England and on January 20, 1910, Sir Wil-
liam Huggins wrote to notify Professor See that the step he recom-
mended had been taken, as shown by the accompanying autograph
of Sir William Huggins. This was the last communication ad-
dressed to Professor See by Sir William before his lamented death,
in the eighty-seventh year of his age, May 12, 1910.


This remarkable chain of events, causes one to reflect on
what small matters, at the right time, great events depend; and
if they are not done then the opportunity passes by, and the enter-
prise may be defeated forever. The recovery of Professor See
early in 1909, after his life had been despaired of, was considered
by his physicians almost miraculous. The completion of his
Researches, Vol. II, was the immediate incentive to an examina-
tion of the neglected and forgotten works of Herschel. This led
to the movement for republishing Herschel's Collected Works,
which took shape just in time to be well started under the revered
leadership of Sir William Huggins, who was able to attend but two
meetings of the Joint Committee before he was himself called to
join Herschel of blessed and everlasting memory.

Every student of scientific truth may well be grateful that
the chain of events was fortunate enough to make possible the
re-issue of the priceless papers of Herschel. This movement could
not well have been inaugurated by anyone except the illustrious
Sir William Huggins, whose whole life was unselfishly devoted to
the advancement of truth. It is fitting that such a noble monu-
ment to Herschel will always be associated in the minds of men
with the justly revered memory of Sir William Huggins, "the
Herschel of the spectroscope."

In concluding now the work of this biography it remains to
note that eminent philosophers agree that four of See's most
brilliant achievements constitute a series of discoveries without
a parallel since the age of Newton:

1. The Establishment of the Cause of Earthquakes, Moun-
tain Formation and kindred phenomena connected with the physics
of the earth, and thus a Science of Geogony, May 21, 1906.

2. The Founding of Cosmogony as a New Science of the
Starry Heavens, thus giving us the laws of the formation of the
solar system and of cosmical systems generally. July 14, 1908.

3. The fathoming of the Milky Way to the depth of several
million light-years thereby proving that the extent of the


sidereal universe is about a thousand times greater than astrono-
mers have recently believed. November 4, 1911.

4. The development of the dynamical theory of clusters and
of the clustering power inferred by Herschel from the observed
figures of sidereal systems of high order. February 19, 1912. This
establishes forever that the Capture Theory is the great Law of
Nature, and is the latest and mathematically the profoundest of
the researches on sidereal evolution.

It is not too much to say that these unrivaled results of the
Herschel of America have shed imperishable luster upon his
country and upon his age! Posterity may well marvel over the
wonders of Nature which he alone was able to explain. This was
the attitude taken by the illustrious Poincare, himself the greatest
mathematician since Archimedes.

Our successors will witness the extension of the grand phenom-
ena whose laws he discovered, yet they will recognize in the
circularity of the paths of the planets and satellites the operation
of the nebular resisting medium which he first brought to light.
Throughout the long course of centuries the secular acceleration
of the moon will continue to bear witness to the capture of our
satellite by the earth, and astronomers of future time will look
back to this great triumph of human ingenuity. The system of
the comets will be more fully revealed to us by discoveries to be
made hereafter, but the elongated forms of their elliptic orbits
have already made it clear that these mysterious bodies are mere
survivals still coming to us from the outer shell of the ancient
nebula which formed the solar system.

Even in the remotest ages astronomers will still be gazing at

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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 24 of 28)