Three great mathematicians dominate the history of lunar theory in the middle of the eighteenth century: Leonhard Euler, Alexis Clairaut, and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. Each of them made a lasting contribution to the theory of celestial mechanics and their results had a broader impact than on lunar theory alone. To name but a few examples, Euler codified the trigonometric functions and pioneered the method of variation of orbital constants; Clairaut solved the arduous problem of the motion of the lunar apogee, thereby dealing a decisive blow to the sceptics of Newton’s law of gravitation; and d’Alembert worked out an accurate theory of precession and nutation.
But during the second half of the eighteenth century, the most accurate tables of lunar motion were those of Tobias Mayer; not because he was better at solving the differential equations of motion, but because he was eager to handle large and conflicting data sets in what could nowadays be called a statistical way. He was a true pioneer in the ‘combination of observations’, which comprises the handling of observational data in order to infer from them certain quantitative aspects of the physical reality. His tables of the moon’s motion had an important application in the determination of geographical longitude at sea, by the so-called method of lunar distances.
KeywordsEighteenth Century Lunar Orbit Royal Greenwich Observatory Lunar Theory Secular Acceleration
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