Page images

rical Discourses, and apply not at all, or in a very trifling degree, to the workmanship of the justly celebrated person who has been compelled to adopt it since he succeeded to the chair. We do not see how any one could have performed with more skill a task which no degree of skill in the execution can reconcile to sound taste-a task which never should have been imposed upon this distinguished individual.

The first Discourse is in its plan nearly free from the objections which we have been stating. It is the one delivered in 1820, upon taking the chair; and is upon the present state of the society, and on the progress and prospects of science. We say nearly free, because, though the latter branch of the subject is most legitimate, and indeed highly important, and gives a fine scope for remarks tending to keep alive' (we use the admirable expressions of the prefatory advertisement) “the spirit of philoso

phical inquiry, and the love of scientific glory;' yet the former topic could not be handled by the individual just elevated to the head of the institution in the presence of its members, who had made him their chief, without either suppressing the truth, or doing some violence to feelings of propriety and decorum. The President appears to have felt the embarrassment of his situation; and he seeks relief from the awkwardness of stating the Society's present condition, in the pleasing hope of its improvement. It seems that some alarm is felt in Somerset House lest the subdivision of scientific labour should withdraw the most eminent contributors to the Philosophical Transactions, and make them bestow their papers upon the minor associations now formed both in London and in the provinces, for the prosecution of particular branches of discovery-as the Geological, the Astronomical, the Zoological, the Linnean, the Medical, the Meteorological, and so forth. The President speaks of these bodies (without naming them) in a tone of great kindness and respect; and throws out a very plain hint, which we take for granted is the very last that ever will be taken by any of them,

-a hint, indeed, more remarkable for its breadth than its colouring, and, we may add, its drapery,—for anything less decently veiled, we have seldom seen; it is no less than that as often as any peculiarly important discovery in science, or very useful application of philosophy to the arts, occurs to any of their members, they would have the goodness to send the account of the same to the Royal Society, in order to its being inserted in the Philosophical Transactions,—they being at full liberty, of course, to enrich their own Transactions with all matters of little or no interest. The following is the passage in which the President handles this matter,

Institution, and the Interest which yet attaches to its Transactions, as a striking demonstration of the preference acquired by a long established work, and retained after much of its value is gone.

All these Discourses, after the first, are delivered on the presentation of the medals; but they are almost all prefaced with a notice of the Society's Obituary for the past year; and a short praise of each person who is named. If he possessed great qualities, they are commemorated; if he had rendered useful services, they are enumerated; but though his claims to attention may have been exceedingly humble, still he is kindly mentioned; nemo ex hoc numero mihi non donatus abibit, is the rule at Somerset House on St Andrew's day. But it is the inevitable consequence of such lauding-bouts, that the little are exalted, and the great brought down to the common level; nay, sometimes it will happen that want of delicacy in handling the subject, without any partialities and prejudices, will misplace the persons altogether. We certainly, for instance, should have deemed it sufficiently high commendation of Mr Vince to speak of him as a profound mathematician; but, in the same page, to call Haüy only “a good natural philosopher,' is not in any kind of keeping with the former stroke. But in the same dicensure we find an equal length of notice allotted to Sir H. Englefield and the celebrated Berthollet; nor would any one ignorant of the subject suppose the one to be a greater man than the other, if one line did not hint that he had discovered the componition of ammonia: he is called the patriarch of modern chemistry the imbecile Lalande might be called the patriarch of mindern astronomy-is allowed to have contributed to the stabliebe • ment of that view of the combination of oxygen, which box • been called the Anti-Phlogistic syster'-to have bomba * excellent logician and good experimenter,' and ended in abandoning erroneous opinions. We had always under und that his reputation stood highest among the chemical planer phers of France, with the exception of Lavoisier; and that, a far as originality goes, he had a more unquestioned claim to the capital discovery of the composition of ammonia, than any which Lavoisier himself could make good. In another dinestre, where ample, but not unmerited praise is bestowed upon Dr Jenner, and a warm and eloquent panegyric is pronounced upon Dr Baillie, which, however, by a singular infelicity, does not seize the point of view from whence he might be seen as a man of the highest genius, namely, his extraordinary sagacity in discovering the hidden and rare maladies of his patients—the singular fineness of that learned hand which seemed to feel

through the outer coverings of the body, and inform him what was passing within. In the same discourse are praised two men, whose fame being evanescent, their merits would have required much of the tactus doctus to draw them from their dark abode' -a Dr Cartwright, who improved the pistons of steam engines, and a Mr Jordan, who, we believe, was agent of Barbadoes, and an amateur in optical matters. The habit of praising seems to be easily imbibed, and to overrun the whole composition of him who indulges in its sweets. So the discourse on delivering the medal to Mr Pond digresses into panegyrics upon his great predecessors-Halley and Bradley—which no one could have complained of, for their names stand among the highest in the annals of science; but Dr Maskelyne is associated with them—his

was a kindred spirit to that of those illustrious philosophers' -for no other reason that we can discover, except that we

remember him with so much respect and affection. The eulogy upon Mr Pond, the successor of these eminent men, is sufficiently ample, and, we make no doubt, abundantly well deserved; but it closes with an exhortation somewhat awkwardly phrased, and at much variance with what went before; for after testifying no little gratitude for his five-and-twenty years' services, and bestowing the medal in token, as it were, of " value

received,' we were naturally led to believe that the Astronomer Royal (whose appointment is avowed as the doing of the Society, and in return for his useful labours in the service) had already performed enough to establish his title as successor to the office; but the conclusion points to the future as the scene of his glory, and bids him endeavour to be worthy of having his name transmitted to future generations with those of your illustrious predecessors.

The known rule of the Royal Society, which we have inscribed on every part of every volume of its Transactions, and to which,

(says the half-yearly notice,) they will always adhere,' is, never to give their opinion as a body upon any subject, either 6 of nature or art, that comes before them. The Council, which is the executive power, we may well suppose still less presumes to sit in judgment on any scientific subject, except in the necessary discharge of its duties, the selection of papers for publication, and the awarding of prizes. We therefore regard the statement in the following passage as a strong proof of the Council's entire satisfaction with the accuracy of the observations at Greenwich, since the accession of the present distinguished Astronomer Royal. Nothing could have tempted the Council to depart from its wonted caution, and commit itself, if we may so speak, by vouching for the correctness of the present observers, but a most implicit trust in their merits as observers, a trust, of course, grounded, not, like their opinion of Dr Maskelyne's spirit being akin to Halley's and Bradley's, upon feelings of personal respect and affection ;' but upon actual verification in a number of instances—for surely, it is no mere matter of empty eulogy, or even of philosophic speculation, to avouch the accuracy of observations which are of such immense practical importance as those carried on at Greenwich. The Council must, therefore, have been aware that some such testimony was called for, possibly by rumours of errors in the nautical tables, which had gone forth. Such rumours must now be held as utterly groundless. •I now present to you this 6 medal as a token of the respect of the Society, and of the confidence of the Council in the great accuracy of your Observa. tions:'-(p. 76.) Nor let it be said that this applies only to the observations last made by the Astronomer Royal on the Parallax question; for the medal is expressly adjudged to him,

for his various papers and observations communicated to the * Royal Society;' (p. 66.) according to the modern practice of lumping together a number of Essays, when it is wished to give the medal to a person who has never produced any one of merit sufficiently prominent to deserve it-making bulk in some sort supply the place of value. But indeed, it should seem that the observations on the parallax controversy are rather excluded from the number of those to which the remarkable passage cited can apply; for it is expressly stated, (p. 70.) that,

in awarding the medal, the Council do not at all mean to ex. press an opinion on this subject; when two such astronomers *(Dr Brinkley and Mr Pond) differ, it would be presumptuous, • and almost impossible for them to decide ; it is, however, • highly satisfactory to know, that the question is now reduced (within such very small limits, the difference between the • Greenwich and Dublin observations generally amounting to « less than a second ;' and the same medal is, the very next year, awarded to Dr Brinkley, the antagonist observer, for his - various communications, printed in the Philosophical Transactions.' (p. 82.) So that the whole question being one of accuracy in the two observers and their instruments, the Council, in professing to hold the scales quite even between them, professes also not to decide in favour of the accuracy of Mr Pond's observations, as far as regards this controversy; therefore the marked expression of confidence in the great accuracy 6 of Mr Pond's observations,' above cited, cannot possibly apply to his late observations connected with the parallax of the fixed stars. We are the more anxious to set this matter on its right footing, because the testimony of the Council, if given to support the general correctness of the Greenwich observations, ought to have great weight, supposing always that body to be of competent ability and experience, and of unsuspected impartiality in its decisions ; it is, or at least it ought to be, an authority from which there could hardly be an appeal; it ought to set at rest all cavil and allay all doubts. If, on the other hand, the decision has been hastily come to, for the purpose of putting down (as the late President would have said) all opposition or if the Council are a less learned, a less purely scientific, a more political body than they were wont to be in olden times, then the point is possibly not yet determined, although the decision has been pronounced. At all events, the Astronomer Royal is no longer singly answerable to the public; he is primarily responsible, no doubt, as the observer, but he has good sureties; his bondsmen are the Council of the Royal Society, and they, having volunteered their liability, must stand or fall by the result.

In awarding the prize of the following year to Dr Brinkley, the President enters somewhat at length, and with much propriety and great distinctness of statement, into the controversy more than once alluded to in this article. Our scientific readers are aware that Dr Brinkley, as far back as 1810, communicated to the Royal Society a very short notice of his observations upon the star a Lyre; they were made with the eight feet circle of the Dublin observatory, and were 47 in number, 22 being made in opposition, and 25 in conjunction; and all these comparisons between the direction of the instrument at opposite points of the earth's orbit, agreed in showing a want of parallelism, and the mean angle, or the parallax, was found to be 2.52.-Philosophical Transactions, 1810, p. 204. This certainly indicated a much smaller distance than had been assumed or suspected by astronomers for any of the fixed stars. Dr Bradley satisfied himself by many observations, that the annual parallax of y Draconis was not equal to 1", (Philosophical Transactions, 1728, p. 637 ;) and Mr Michell thought Sirius himself, the nearest of them, in all probability, not more than l'.(Philosophical Transactions, 1767, p. 234.) Accordingly, Dr Brinkley's parallax has been doubted by other astronomers, and Mr Pond has denied it altogether. His argument is, that in proportion to the inaccuracy of the instruments employed, astronomers have been always led to believe they had discovered a parallax ;

« PreviousContinue »