Halley & Hevelius

The Smithsonian website has a post about the seventeenth-century, Danzig astronomer Johannes Hevelius entitled, The 17th-Century Astronomer Who Made the First Atlas of the Moon. The article is OK as far as it goes but one sentence in it disturbs me:


Johannes Hevelius, portrait by Daniel Schultz Source: Wikimedia Commons

Esteemed visitors such as Edmond Halley, whose many accomplishments include predicting the return of the comet that bears his name, came to visit and meet with Hevelius, hundreds of miles from other epicenters of astronomy in Paris and London.


Edmond Halley portrait by Thomas Murray Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now Halley did indeed go to Danzig to visit Hevelius but when he did so he was not that esteemed and still a long way from predicting the return of what is now know as Comet Halley; he was in fact only twenty-three years old and had barely begun he long and distinguished career. He was already slightly notorious having dropped out of Oxford in 1676, at the age of twenty, to travel to St. Helena to map the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, returning to England first in 1678.

In 1679 the Royal Society sent him to Danzig to settle the dispute between Hevelius, a member of the Royal Society, and Robert Hooke over the use of telescopic sights on his observing instruments; Hevelius preferred not to use them. The author mentions this dispute in their article but does not connect it with Halley’s visit:

Hevelius’s strong feelings about naked-eye astronomy led to a famous debate with famed English polymath Robert Hooke and the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. Specifically, an instrument of the day called a sextant, which measured angles between celestial objects or the horizon, had a “sight” or aiming device on each arm. Hooke and Flamsteed argued that using telescopes for sights would make measurements more accurate, while Hevelius disagreed.

However this is not the principle reason why the sentence about Halley’s visit disturbs me. As I said, in 1679 Halley was only twenty-three years old and had almost his entire career before him; even his catalogue of 341 of the stars of the southern skies, Catalogus Stellarum Australium, was first published after his return from Danzig in 1679. This meant that the young man, who turned up on Hevelius’ doorstep in Danzig was effectively a nobody and anything but an esteemed visitor. Whilst there, Halley indulged in some observing with Hevelius and both convinced himself of the very high accuracy of Hevelius’ naked-eye observations and impressed his host with his own observational skills.

My problem is one that occurs far too oft in historical articles, in my opinion, and it is the presentation of historical figures in the full glory of their lifetime achievements in historical situations where those achievements still lie in the future. The man who visited Hevelius was a young, unknown beginner in the world of Early Modern astronomy and not the famous multi-talent who became England’s second Astronomer Royal. If the author had written, “the young Edmond Halley, who would later go on to make a distinguished career in astronomy, visited Hevelius in Danzig in 1679”, I would have no problems.

Some might think that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill but I think it is important when writing history of science to introduce the participants, as they were at the time under discussion and not as they became years or even in some cases decades later. Scientific researchers are not born famous but evolve and grow over time and our descriptions and discussions of them must reflect this fact. The Halley who discussed with Hevelius in 1679 was not the Halley who twenty-six years later published the results of his long-year comet research, Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae.

This failure to acknowledge the development in a researcher’s life occurs all too often in my opinion and is one of those things that should be avoided when writing history of science. Just to mention one other example that unfortunately occurs very often. In 1697 Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, went on an incognito tour of The Netherlands and England to study the latest developments in shipbuilding and other innovations in technology and science. During his time in England he became friends with Halley and visited Isaac Newton, already famous as the author of his Principia: I’ve lost count of how many times I have read that Peter visited Sir Isaac Newton. Newton wasn’t knighted until seven years after Peter’s visit!









Filed under History of Astronomy

6 responses to “Halley & Hevelius

  1. David Pritchard

    A very small detail in yet another interesting post, but by the same token surely it was only Peter, Tsar of Russia, who went on an incognito tour in 1697? I don’t think he acquired “the Great” for a few more years (Wikipedia suggests 1721, for what that’s worth).

  2. A propos your final 3 paragraphs – which I would class as perhaps a ‘time’ quibble – I have been battling a related problem which could be thought of perhaps as a ‘numbers’ quibble.
    This is that so much biography treats its subjects as solos in a vacuum. The ‘muscular heroic’ model is used a LOT in engineering history, which is my particular interest, and although at its zenith in contemporaneous hagio/biographies of the industrial revolution period, is still in play today. This model portrays the subject as the only person responsible for an achievement and generally doesn’t so much background their team as paint them out of the picture entirely.
    An example is William Murdoch, James Watt’s employee, and an amazing innovator in his own right, to say nothing of the vast cloud of friends, colleagues and collaborators around Watt from his late teens until his death. Who now remembers Murdoch? Few, gae few, as we say here.

  3. “Newton wasn’t knighted until seven years after Peter’s visit!”
    But perhaps Newton was benighted with all sorts of bizarre beliefs in alchemical Magick at the time.

  4. Carl Vehse

    Yes, when Elizabeth Landau use “esteemed” as an adjective for “visitors,” she implied that such visitors were esteemed at the time of their visit. Using a few more electrons, Landau could have stated:

    “Visitors such as a young Edmond Halley, later esteemed for his many accomplishments such as predicting the return of the comet that bears his name, came to visit and meet with Hevelius, hundreds of miles from other epicenters of astronomy in Paris and London.”

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