Gassendi's Transit

Excerpt from an address delivered before Section A of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on August 23, 1882, by Prof. Win. Harkness, Chairman of the Section, and Vice President of the Association. Taken from Nature v.27, 1882-1883, pages 114-115. Edited by Norman Lockyer. Image from Opera Omnia, Volume 4, Pierre Gassendi modified by J.Sant. Source: Google Books.

Gassendi's Transit of Mercury

When Kepler had finished his Rudolphine tables they furnished the means of predicting the places of the planets with some approach to accuracy ; and in 1627 he announced that Mercury would cross the face of the Sun on November 7, 1631, and Venus on December 6 of the same year. The intense interest with which Gassendi prepared to observe these transits can be imagined when it is remembered that hitherto no such phenomena had ever greeted mortal eyes. He was destitute of what would now be regarded as the commonest instruments. The invention of telescopes was only twenty years old, and a reasonably good clock had never been constructed. His observatory was situated in Paris, and its appliances were of the most primitive kind. By admitting the solar rays into a darkened room through a small round hole, an image of the Sun nine or ten inches in diameter was obtained upon a white screen. For the measurement of position angles a carefully divided circle was traced upon this screen, and the whole was so arranged that the circle could be made to coincide accurately with the image of the Sun. To determine the times of ingress and egress, an assistant was stationed outside with a large quadrant, and he was instructed to observe the altitude of the sun whenever Gassendi stamped upon the floor. Modern astronomical predictions can be trusted within a minute or two, but so great did the uncertainty of Kepler's tables seem to Gassendi that he began to watch for the expected transit of Mercury two whole days before the time set for its occurrence. On the 5th of November it rained, and on the 6th clouds covered the sky almost all day. The morning of the 7th broke, and yet there was no respite from the gloomy pall. Gassendi continued his weary watch with sickening dread that the transit might already be over. A little before eight o'clock the sun began to struggle through the clouds, but mist prevented any satisfactory observation for nearly another hour. Towards nine the sun became distinctly visible, and turning to its image on the screen, the astronomer observed a small black spot upon it. It was not half as large as he expected, and he could not believe it was Mercury. He took it fora sun-spot, and carefully estimated its position at nine o'clock, so that he might use it as a point of reference for the planet, if indeed he should be fortunate enough to witness the transit. A little later he was surprised to see the spot had moved. Although the motion was too rapid for an ordinary sun-spot, the small size of the object seemed to forbid the idea that it was Mercury. Besides, the predicted time of the transit had not yet arrived. Gassendi was still uncertain respecting the true nature of the phenomenon when the sun again burst through the clouds and it was apparent that the spot was steadily moving from its original position. All doubt vanished, and recognizing that the transit, so patiently watched for, was actually in progress, he stamped upon the floor as a signal for his assistant to note the sun's altitude. That faithless man, whose name has been forgotten by history, had deserted his post, and Gassendi continued his observations alone. Fortunately the assistant returned soon enough to aid in determining the instant of egress, and thus an important addition was made to our knowledge of the motions of the innermost planet of the solar system.

Copyright Joseph Sant (2017).
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