Great Astronomers

  • 作   者:

    Robert Stawell Ball

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    Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press

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The career of the famous man whose name stands at the head of this chapter is one of the most remarkable in the history of human learning. There may have been other discoverers who have done more for science than ever Ptolemy accomplished, but there never has been any other discoverer whose authority on the subject of the movements of the heavenly bodies has held sway over the minds of men for so long a period as the fourteen centuries during which his opinions reigned supreme. The doctrines he laid down in his famous book, "The Almagest," prevailed throughout those ages. No substantial addition was made in all that time to the undoubted truths which this work contained. No important correction was made of the serious errors with which Ptolemy's theories were contaminated. The authority of Ptolemy as to all things in the heavens, and as to a good many things on the earth (for the same illustrious man was also a diligent geographer), was invariably final.

Though every child may now know more of the actual truths of the celestial motions than ever Ptolemy knew, yet the fact that his work exercised such an astonishing effect on the human intellect for some sixty generations, shows that it must have been an extraordinary production. We must look into the career of this wonderful man to discover wherein lay the secret of that marvellous success which made him the unchallenged instructor of the human race for such a protracted period.


Includes detailed discussion on all of the great astronomers, including Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Flamsteed and Herschel. By the mathematician, Irish astronomer to Lord Rosse in 1865, Irish Astronomer-Royal in 1874 and writer of popular science books.

Sir Robert Stawell Ball FRS (1 July 1840 – 25 November 1913) was an Irish astronomer who founded the screw theory.

He was the son of naturalist Robert Ball and Amelia Gresley Hellicar.

Ball worked for Lord Rosse from 1865 to 1867. In 1867 he became Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. There he lectured on mechanics and published an elementary account of the science

In 1874 Ball was appointed Royal Astronomer of Ireland and Andrews Professor of Astronomy in the University of Dublin atDunsink Observatory.

Ball contributed to the science of kinematics by delineating the screw displacement:

When Ball and the screw theorists speak of screws they no longer mean actual cylindrical objects with helical threads cut into them but the possible motion of any body whatsoever, including that of the screw independently of the nut.

Ball's treatise The Theory of Screws (1876) is now in the public domain.

In 1882 Popular Science Monthly carried his article "A Glimpse through the Corridors of Time". The following year it carried his two-part article on "The Boundaries of Astronomy".

Ball expounded the tides in Time and Tide: a Romance of the Moon In 1892 he was appointed Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry at Cambridge University at the same time becoming director of the Cambridge Observatory. He was a fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

In 1900 Cambridge University Press published A Treatise on the Theory of Screws. That year he also published The Story of the Heavens. Much in the limelight, he stood as President of the Quaternion Society.

In 1908 he published A Treatise on Spherical Astronomy, which is a textbook on astronomy starting from spherical trigonometry and the celestial sphere, considering atmospheric refraction and aberration of light, and introducing basic use of a generalized instrument.

His work The Story of the Heavens is mentioned in the "Ithaka" chapter of Ulysses. His lectures, articles and books (e.g. Starland and The Story of the Heavens) were mostly popular and simple in style.

Robert Ball is buried at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge, with his wife Lady Francis Elizabeth Ball. Their children were: Frances Amelia, Robert Steele, William Valentine (later Sir), Mary Agnetta, Charles Rowan Hamilton, and Randall Gresley (later Colonel).

In those days it was often the custom for illustrious mathematicians, when they had discovered a solution for some new and striking problem, to publish that problem as a challenge to the world, while withholding their own solution. A famous instance of this is found in what is known as the Brachistochrone problem, which was solved by John Bernouilli. The nature of this problem may be mentioned. It was to find the shape of the curve along which a body would slide down from one point (A) to another point (B) in the shortest time. It might at first be thought that the straight line from A to B, as it is undoubtedly the shortest distance between the points, would also be the path of quickest descent; but this is not so. There is a curved line, down which a bead, let us say, would run on a smooth wire from A to B in a shorter time than the same bead would require to run down the straight wire. Bernouilli's problem was to find out what that curve must be. Newton solved it correctly; he showed that the curve was a part of what is termed a cycloid--that is to say, a curve like that which is described by a point on the rim of a carriage-wheel as the wheel runs along the ground. Such was Newton's geometrical insight that he was able to transmit a solution of the problem on the day after he had received it, to the President of the Royal Society.

In 1703 Newton, whose world wide fame was now established, was elected President of the Royal Society. Year after year he was re-elected to this distinguished position, and his tenure, which lasted twenty-five years, only terminated with his life. It was in discharge of his duties as President of the Royal Society that Newton was brought into contact with Prince George of Denmark. In April, 1705, the Queen paid a visit to Cambridge as the guest of Dr. Bentley, the then Master of Trinity, and in a court held at Trinity Lodge on April 15th, 1705, the honour of knighthood was conferred upon the discoverer of gravitation.

Urged by illustrious friends, who sought the promotion of knowledge, Newton gave his attention to the publication of a new edition of the "Principia." His duties at the Mint, however, added to the supreme duty of carrying on his original investigations, left him but little time for the more ordinary task of the revision. He was accordingly induced to associate with himself for this purpose a distinguished young mathematician, Roger Coates, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who had recently been appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy. On July 27th, 1713, Newton, by this time a favourite at Court, waited on the Queen, and presented her with a copy of the new edition of the "Principia."

Throughout his life Newton appears to have been greatly interested in theological studies, and he specially devoted his attention to the subject of prophecy. He left behind him a manuscript on the prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, and he also

wrote various theological papers. Many other subjects had from time to time engaged his attention. He studied the laws of heat; he experimented in pursuit of the dreams of the Alchymist; while the philosopher who had revealed the mechanism of the heavens found occasional relaxation in trying to interpret hieroglyphics. In the last few years of his life he bore with fortitude a painful ailment, and on Monday, March 20th, 1727, he died in the eighty-fifth year of his age. On Tuesday, March 28th, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Though Newton lived long enough to receive the honour that his astonishing discoveries so justly merited, and though for many years of his life his renown was much greater than that of any of his contemporaries, yet it is not too much to say that, in the years which have since elapsed, Newton's fame has been ever steadily advancing, so that it never stood higher than it does at this moment.

We hardly know whether to admire more the sublime discoveries at which he arrived, or the extraordinary character of the intellectual processes by which those discoveries were reached. Viewed from either standpoint, Newton's "Principia" is incomparably the greatest work on science that has ever yet been produced.

















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