W. L. (William Larkin) Webb.

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

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The three and a half years which Professor See spent at the
Naval Observatory were well employed, and led to beautiful and
important results, in the way of measurements with the large


telescope; but the work was done at a very considerable sacrifice
of health and strength. It was profitable intellectually, but
physically exhausting.

In addition to the work of observing with the great telescope
See investigated the orbit of the satellite of Neptune; and also
the orbits of several double stars. One double star, known as
13 Ceti, was found to be moving very rapidly. The period later
on turned out to be only 7.4 years, the second most rapid known
visual binary yet discovered.

The double star measures at Washington naturally were taken
at odd times, when the planetary observations could not be made.
They were thus of minor importance, and yet led to a number of
valuable individual results.

In addition to these several lines of work Professor See carried
out a critical investigation of the micrometer screw of the large
telescope, by an elaborate triangulation of the Pleiades. This
requires extremely delicate and accurate work, because all the
observations of the large telescope depend on the result obtained.
When the measures were all reduced they were found to be very
accordant, and ranked See as one of the most accurate of living

In the year 1901 the little planet Eros came very near the
earth, and an elaborate international campaign was entered upon
for determining the parallax of the sun. The Washington observa-
tions were made by See. When reduced in 1908, they proved to be
remarkably accurate. They were discussed by Hinks of Cam-
bridge, England, and by the Naval Observatory at Washington,
and found to give a solar parallax of 8".806, while the standard
value most used by astronomers is 8".796. It was thus accurate
within one-thousandth part of the whole. The work of the Lick
Observatory agreed almost exactly with See's work at Washington,
and seemed to indicate that after all the true value is a little larger
than 8".800.

From this survey of Professor See's researches at the Naval
Observatory, it will be apparent that he attained eminent success


in every line of inquiry undertaken. This is the real test of effi-
ciency. He who makes a first rank success in the work under-
taken, when the work itself is of high quality, is a genuine leader
in science. Other astronomers, as those at the Lick and Yerkes
observatories, had larger instruments than See; but no one of them
has done work of more classic standard. Thus more depends on
the judgement and sagacity of the astronomer in choosing his
work and devising good methods for doing it, than on mere size
of telescope. In other words it is the astronomer at the little end
of the telescope who wins the laurels of science, just as it is the
man behind the gun who wins the victory in battle.




several months after he was transferred to the Naval
Academy, Professor See was too ill for duty, but yet kept
active outdoors, hoping to wear off the tendency to sleep-
lessness. He took long walks in the country daily, and also rowed
in a boat on Chesapeake Bay. This was all of some value, but
the trouble would yield only in part. The great difficulty was that
See was afflicted with a severe internal catarrhal condition ap-
proaching a mild form of appendicitis, but even the most experi-
enced physicians were unable to discover the real nature of the
disturbance, till a violent attack occurred in 1909, and an opera-
tion gave permanent relief.

As soon as he could go on duty at the Academy, in February
1903, he was engaged in teaching the midshipmen mathematics.
This work was mainly in algebra, trigonometry and spherical pro-
jections; and proved very interesting, because of the charm of
manner of the midshipmen. It would have been perfectly delight-
ful if Professor See had not been in ailing health; so that even
three hours of instruction caused him considerable fatigue. As
it was he enjoyed the work, and formed lasting attachments to
the young officers under his instruction, many of whom are now

Pursuing a method different from most of the instructors at
the Academy, See would help the midshipmen along when they
were embarrassed and likely to fail, by hinting how they might
start to solve their problems. The result was that they made


rapid headway under him, whereas they would have been dis-
heartened under a less sympathetic teacher. And after a short
time the classes which were most deficient in mathematics were
assigned to Professor See, so that by his help they could regain
their standing. In this way he acquired a great reputation for
saving the members of the class who might otherwise have been
dropped. Naturally there was general regret at the Academy
when it was learned that he was to be transferred to the Naval
Observatory at Mare Island, California.

Professor See had remained on duty at the Academy all
summer in 1903, and was bringing up the midshipmen who were
deficient in trigonometry and spherical projections. The weather
had been hot and enervating, and he was seriously afraid of losing
his health permanently. The prospect of such duty, without
improvement in his physical condition, was far from reassuring;
and he hoped for duty in which he could at least recover his health.
When he was told that he could have duty at Mare Island, where
the climate would be ideal, it did much to reconcile him to life on
the west coast. There his health was gradually improved, till
he had the full vigor of his early years, except that the tendency
to mild appendicitis occasionally produced some inconvenience.

As the method employed by Professor See for restoring his
health is of some interest to others, it may be related here very
briefly. Ever since settling at Washington in 1899, his sister, Mrs.
A. M. Weeks, had lived with him, and thus he had his own house-
hold, with food and cooking of the kind desired. The eminent
Dr. Franz A. R. Jung, of Washington, had been his medical ad-
viser there, and had given him the necessary instruction in the
articles of diet. Suitable bread, however, proved very difficult
to obtain, and the problem was not solved till December, 1904,
when in desperation over the internal soreness which afflicted him,
Professor See began to grind his own flour with a hand-mill. This
produced as flour a coarse product of the whole wheat, and when
baked as muffins, with egg, salt, soda and butter milk, it gave
a bread at once very delicious and very wholesome.


This bread is emphatically superior to anything heretofore
known to the medical profession, and several doctors have used
it with great benefit to their health. As soon as the new flour was
tried the first time, it was realized that at last they had found
Nature's own remedy. Professor See rapidly recovered and built
up his general strength to the ideal point, by living carefully on
this muffin bread of coarse whole wheat flour, and taking long
walks in the country, about Mare Island. Sometimes he would
go ten miles a day, and seldom less than six. During 1905, there-
fore, he was able to carry out the very long and difficult investi-
gations on the sun. Previously, just before leaving the Academy,
he had finished and published an important mathematical investi-
gation on Laplace's Invariable Plane of the solar system.

A more complete account of the several investigations made
at Mare Island will be given in the following chapters. Here it
must suffice to note the order of the work, which was as follows:

1. Researches on the Internal Constitution and Rigidity of
the Heavenly Bodies, 1904-6.

2. Researches on the Cause of Earthquakes, Mountain
Formation, and kindred phenomena connected with the Physics
of the Earth, 1906-8.

3. Researches on the Evolution of the Solar System and of
Cosmical Systems generally, 1908-9.

4. Publication of Volume II of the Researches on the Evolu-
tion of the Stellar Systems, 1910; 735 pages quarto, with fifty-seven
full page plates, and other figures in text. This laid the founda-
tion for a New Science of Cosmogony.

5. Determination of the Depth of the Milky Way, 1911.

6. Dynamical Theory of the Globular Clusters and of the
Clustering Power inferred by Herschel from the observed figures
of Sidereal Systems of high order, 1912.

A study of this order will show that the researches on the
sun and planets, in 1904-6, paved the way for those on earth-
quakes and mountain formation in 1906-8. But for his recent
work on the internal conditions of the planets See probably would


not have been able to detect the fallacy in the old theory of earth-
quakes and mountain formation. On the other hand, this out-
side work, on the physics of the earth, in 1906-8, gave a rest to
his mind, and a freshness, which enabled him to solve the problems
of Cosmogony, with rapid and unprecedented success, when they
were resumed in 1908. The correct solution of the individual prob-
lems of Cosmogony thus gave the basis for a wholly New Science
of Cosmogony. And in 1911 See was able to fathom the depth of
the Milky Way, by methods of greater certainty than those em-
ployed by Sir William Herschel. He thus found the depth of the
Galaxy about a thousand times greater than astronomers have recently

Lastly, in 1912, he triumphantly confirmed by mathematical
methods of a high order the general argument outlined by Her-
schel a century and a quarter ago to show that the star clusters
developed by the drawing together of stars formed separately
and originally at much greater distance apart. This enabled Pro-
fessor See to render the foundations of the New Science of Cos-
mogony much more secure, and in fact to base Cosmogony on a
fundamental law of the sidereal universe, of which a fuller account
will appear later in Chapter XV.

On June 18, 1907, Professor See was married to Miss Frances
Graves, daughter of the late Dr. James F. and Fannie (Jefferson)
Graves, of Montgomery City, Mo. Mrs. See's family came orig-
inally from Virginia, but they have lived in the county for some
seventy years. Her father was for thirty years one of the best
beloved and most highly respected physicians in eastern Missouri.
Her mother, who raised a family of ten children, and is one of the
most remarkable women in the United States, is the daughter of
the late Hon. Booker Jefferson, of the famous Jefferson family of

Professor and Mrs. See lead a simple home life, going but
little in society, and are both very fond of children. To their
infinite grief they had the misfortune to lose their fine infant son,
born July 28, 1909.


Mrs. See had some years' experience as a teacher both in
Missouri and in New Mexico, and was very successful. Her
education at the University of Missouri and in school work gave
her the command of exact methods and thorough knowledge of
many branches. She is fond of music, well read in literature, and
speaks Spanish fluently. Naturally taking a great deal of interest
in the scientific work of her distinguished husband, she has proved
a tower of strength to him on numerous occasions, but more es-
pecially when he was unexpectedly stricken with a violent attack
of appendicitis, January 11, 1909.

Fortunately he was in excellent health at the time, and but
for that could hardly have survived this terrible attack. For
sixteen days the operation was delayed, in the hope of reducing
the fever and obtaining more favorable conditions, but finally
it had to be made after all this illness. In consequence of the
delay the case became so grave that for many days Professor
See's life was despaired of. But it was not long after the operation
was made till the process of recovery appeared and proved to be
so rapid* and satisfactory as to surprise his physicians. Professor
See was fortunate to have had the eminent professional services
of surgeon H. E. Odell, U.S. Navy. Without very skillful surgical
treatment his recovery would not have been possible.

It is worthy of mention here that for weeks, while Professor
See lay at the point of death, with the doctors in despair, Mrs.
See nursed him, and cooked and brought from home a mile distant,
the slight liquid nourishment, which alone is allowable in such
grave illness. But for this heroic devotion it seems certain that
his life would have been cut short before his greatest discoveries
were given to the world. A touching and beautiful tribute to his
wife's devotion in this crisis is duly recorded on the last page of
the monumental Researches, Vol. II, 1910, as follows:

"But of all the persons to whom I am indebted, I owe most
to my wife, MRS. FRANCES GRAVES SEE. Without her
devotion through a dangerous illness, the author could scarcely
have survived to finish the work, and without her constant sup-

* Due to life-long habits of total abstinence from liquors or tobacco in any

MRS. T. J. J. SEE.

Daughter of the late Dr. James F. Graves of Montgomery Gity, Mo., and grand-daughter of

Hon. Booker Jefferson.







port and encouragement the steadfast labor and sacrifices required
for the development and publication of this large volume could
not have been undertaken. If it contains any important dis-
coveries I wish it always to be remembered that she contributed
in an eminent degree to their development and presentation to
the scientific world."

After Professor See's recovery the difficulty of getting the
second volume of these Researches through the press proved to be
enormous. But little of the work was in form for printing when
he left the hospital, February 18, 1909. All the work had to be
prepared and arranged as fast as the printer needed the manu-
script. This proved very difficult, but by July, 1909, Professor
See's strength was better than for many years, and this alone
enabled him to carry that great undertaking to completion.

After the loss of her infant son, Mrs. See herself was ill, and
long required careful attention and treatment. This naturally
added to the difficulties under which Professor See labored. Often
he would go to the office at five o'clock in the morning, when
everyone else at Mare Island was asleep, in order to be free of
interruption in writing out the chapters of the second volume of
his famous Researches. They were thus prepared between numer-
ous and pressing engagements, and yet they have all the finish
and elegance characteristic of the most perfect work of the human
intellect. It has been justly remarked that See's rapid and re-
markable development of the second volume of his Researches is
comparable only to Newton's writing of the Principia in 1685-6;
and the two intellectual triumphs equally important and unprec-

It will be seen from the list of researches mentioned above
that Professor See's activity at Mare Island is by far the most
important of his life. Not only are the individual results the
most striking, but also the most closely related one to another,
giving an unparalleled series of achievements of the very first
order. The result of this wonderful activity has been the creation
of an entirely New Science of the Starry Heavens, at an epoch so


late in the world's history that everyone believed that all the
Sciences already had been developed.*

Cosmogony naturally has been a most difficult science to
treat, because the Creative Processes are not directly visible to the
watchers of the skies, but must be inferred from the observed order
of the universe. Moreover it must harmonize many apparently
discordant phenomena, and involves mathematical knowledge
of a high order. Obviously all the reasoning must be founded on
correct premises; and it happens that these false assumptions are
the rocks on which shipwreck was most frequently experienced.

The other fact of importance is that prior to the Researches
of See there was no deep study of the subject; but in all former
efforts the premises of Laplace were assumed, without any critical
investigation to determine whether these premises were admissi-
ble. At last it is gratifying to find that all such illogical proced-
ure is altered; for a new foundation was found to be necessary,
and built up on a basis as solid as a mountain of granite. With
this new foundation once correctly laid, the resulting new science
is greatly simplified, and all the celestial phenomena easily harmo-
nized, so as to make Cosmogony the latest science of the starry

It is needless to say that Professor See's life at Mare Island
has been one of great activity. In addition to walking in the
country, for the contemplation of the beautiful scenery of the
earth, sea, and sky, and especially of the mountains, and glorious
sunsets of California, he is fond of gardening and all kinds of out-
door exercise. A recent trip to the Yosemite Valley and the Big
Trees was the joy of his life. His house is full of fine pictures,
including magnificent oil paintings of the Yosemite, Lake Tahoe,
the Sierras, and the Himalayas.

As mentioned in Chapter II his natural taste for art dates

from childhood. These fine paintings and natural scenery of the

mountains seem to inspire his imagination with the eagle-soaring

flights required for the development of new sciences of the universe.

* The New Science of Geogony was also developed at Mare Island.


It is well known that the illustrious Sir William Huggins
had a similar taste for beautiful things and delighted in the con-
templation of them in his study. Such taste was characteristic
of the Greek mind, and as Professor See is thoroughly Hellenic
in his feelings for truth and beauty in poetry and art, it may be
that Professor Fleet was more of a prophet than was believed
when he used to tell his classes that young Mr. See was like the
typical Greek.

Since his settlement at Mare Island Professor See has passed
in rapid review authoritative judgment upon many of the greatest
problems of the universe; and not only summarized the work pre-
viously done by others, but added to it capital discoveries of his
own. It has been generally remarked by eminent men of science
that in every line of research his development was amazingly
original. Without this spirit of daring, this soaring on the wings
of Pegasus, probably it would not have been possible to introduce
order into Cosmogony, where only bewilderment and chaos had
reigned before.

The small and the timid naturally would be too cowardly to
lead in this great enterprise. Fortunately, it is not so with Pro-
fessor See. He recognized no authority save that of demon-
strable truth, based in the centralizing tendency of the force of
gravitation and the dispersion of dust from the stars under re-
pulsive forces. This cyclic order in Nature rests on sound sense,
and the logic of Mathematics. And having once made sure that
he was right in his premises, like Davy Crockett, See dared to go

As the public often is unable to distinguish between a true
cloud of God's firmament, with a plentiful supply of life-giving
rain, and a mere mass of dust stirred up by the activity of the
envious, we may point out that the evil spirit of professional
jealousy is a curious thing. It is in fact nothing but an effort of
the weak to pull down the strong, in order that they may keep
afloat on the stream of time. To concede frankly the true value
of the achievements of the really great would leave the weak with-


out a raison d'etre; and naturally they like to justify their own
existence, even if they are inefficient. Accordingly whenever we
see some one very grudging in acknowledging the merits of another,
in the same line of activity, we may suspect that he is too small
to be generous, or even fair and just. The world is full of this
kind of business, and it pervades every walk of life.

It cankers the lives of statesmen, literary men, artists, poets,
and scientists alike. Only the really great rise above petty jeal-
ousy; for the sun's light is not dimmed by that of a candle. And
so it is in the world of science. Only the great feel that they can
afford to be fair, whereas as a matter of fact no one can really
afford to be unfair, but the small are so narrow that they cannot
see the unworthiness of such conduct. It is well known that Pro-
fessor See is a great comfort to his friends, in that he is never dis-
turbed by outbreaks of jealousy, but quietly pursues the assuring
even tenor of his way. Incidents which would distress less calm
individuals do not disturb him. In fact he says jealousy is a
favorable sign of progress, and advises his friends to be on the
lookout for it.

If these weaknesses of human nature are very deplorable,
See probably reasons that they do not sway the judgment of
history. Only he who is truly great will have his name chiseled
upon the sacred walls of her temple. The efforts to inscribe thereon
the names of the small and inefficient is vain and fleeting like rec-
ords written in dust, only to be washed away by the first shower
of rain that descends from the clouds of God's firmament.

It is doubly beautiful if the great in ability are also morally
great, so as to present the aspect of a really commanding and
heroic figure in history, who will shine throughout all time. Many
of the most eminent philosophers are of this grand type. Thus
the luster of Newton and Herschel grows brighter rather than
dimmer with the flight of ages. Every generation has remarked
how great were the labors they had to endure, how dear the heart's
blood they had to sacrifice! To such wonderful men the world
pays no adequate reward. They are beyond all praise and above


all price ! The very wealth of a nation, great as it is, could not buy
them, nor any process of searching for their equals replace them.
It has been justly said that great men are the chief assets of nations.
They are the crowning glory of the human race!

If it be sad to think how little the greatest men are appreci-
ated during their life time, it is yet comforting to remember that,
as was said of the dying Lincoln, they belong to the ages, and their
light does not go out with their lives. The work of the great
philosopher endureth unto all generations, as ageless as the

Some readers may not realize that the discoveries of Professor
See belong to the whole earth, and not merely his native state.
They will even outlast the Republic itself, and still be the topic of
contemplation for philosophers when many thousands of years
have elapsed; just as the works of Aristotle and Plato now belong
not to Greece but to all mankind and to all time. It would be
especially fortunate for America and her people if she is able to
appreciate her great men during their life time; for that would
show an enlightened State, and stand to her credit in history.
Such biographies as this, it is hoped, may thus be of no small public

Since genius of the highest order is wholly beneficial to the
State, and men of this type derive little or no pecuniary reward
for their efforts, they deserve and ought to have public apprecia-
tion, since this sustains them in doing the work which the Deity
intended them to do. After Newton had struggled along through
one disappointment after another, and finally accomplished his
great work, not so much by virtue of generous appreciation, as in
spite of public indifference, the poet Thomson speaks of him thus:

"Say ye who best can tell, ye happy few,
Who saw him in the softest lights of life,
All unwithheld, indulging to his friends
The vast unborrowed treasures of his mind.
Oh, speak the wondrous man! how mild, how calm,


How greatly humble, how divinely good,
How firm established on eternal truth!
Fervent in doing well, with every nerve
Still pressing on, forgetful of the past,
And panting for perfection; far above
Those little cares and visionary joys

Online LibraryW. L. (William Larkin) WebbBrief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. → online text (page 8 of 28)