Skip to main content

Seeing What We Want to See: The Psychology of the Ashen Light

  • 149 Accesses

Part of the Astronomers' Universe book series (ASTRONOM)

Abstract

The fabled “canals” of Mars (Chap. 1), the claim for whose existence is traditionally ascribed to a single mistranslated Italian word and the global deference to one well-respected observer’s insistence on what he saw through the telescope eyepiece, is hardly the only instance of mass delusion in the history of astronomy. Nor is it the only case in which spurious sightings drew astronomers to conclusions, later proven wrong, that were for some length of time taken as articles of faith. One such example involved a mathematical discrepancy, undiscovered physics, and a healthy dose of wishful thinking.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

eBook
USD   19.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-030-72715-4
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   29.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Fig. 8.1
Fig. 8.2
Fig. 8.3

Notes

  1. 1.

    Royal Astronomical Society MSS W.2/1.2, 23, quoted in Miner, E., 1990, Uranus: The Planet, Rings and Satellites, New York: Ellis Horwood and Prentice-Hall, 8.

  2. 2.

    1781, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 71, 492–501.

  3. 3.

    Ibid.

  4. 4.

    Royal Astronomical Society manuscript Herschel W1/13.M, 14, quoted in Miner, 1990, 8.

  5. 5.

    Royal Astronomical Society manuscript Herschel W.1/12.M, 20, quoted in Miner, 1990, 12.

  6. 6.

    Letter to Joseph Banks, quoted in J. L. E. Dreyer, 1912, The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel, London: The Royal Society, Vol. 1, 100.

  7. 7.

    1846, Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, 16–17, 416.

  8. 8.

    Lequeux, J. 2013. Le Verrier—Magnificent and Detestable Astronomer, New York: Springer, 4.

  9. 9.

    Smart, W. M. 1989. John Couch Adams and the discovery of Neptune, Occasional Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2, 59.

  10. 10.

    Yanofsky, N.S. 2013. The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us, Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 306.

  11. 11.

    While it made no mention of Adams, in 1848 the Royal Society awarded him the Copley Medal in his own right “for his investigations relative to the disturbances of Uranus, and for his application of the inverse problem of perturbations thereto.”

  12. 12.

    1851, On the Perturbations of Uranus, Appendices to various nautical almanacs between the years 1834 and 1854, Nautical Almanac Office, London: W. Clowes and Sons, 265–293.

  13. 13.

    1946, Ciel et Terre, 62, 369.

  14. 14.

    Journal de mathématiques pures et appliquées 1 re série, 8, 273–359.

  15. 15.

    Lettre de M. Le Verrier à M. Faye sur la théorie de Mercure et sur le mouvement du périhélie de cette planète, Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences’ (Paris), 49, 379–383.

  16. 16.

    1879, The Spectator 52, 336.

  17. 17.

    Literary Record and Journal of the Linnæan Association of Pennsylvania College, 3, 131.

  18. 18.

    1878, Popular Science, 13, 733.

  19. 19.

    Ibid.

  20. 20.

    Ibid.

  21. 21.

    One possible exception is the report of Aristide Coumbary (?–1896), a French astronomer at Constantinople, who reported the transit of a small planet on May 8, 1865. See Coumbary and G. F. Chambers, 1865, Observation of a Supposed New Inferior Planet, Astronomical Register, 3, 214.

  22. 22.

    Eggen, O. 1953. Astronomical Society of the Pacific Leaflets, 6(287), 291.

  23. 23.

    Yet some people refused to give up, convinced of the reliability of eyewitness reports of “Vulcan” transits in the historical record. Among these was Henry C. Courten, of Dowling College, New York, who studied photographic plates made of the sky near the Sun during the total solar eclipse of March 7, 1970. Courten claimed the detection of several objects on the plates that seemed to be on small, Sun-centered orbits. After dismissing a few of the candidates as photographic artifacts, Courten was left with the conclusion that at least seven of the objects were real. He came to believe in the existence of at least one intra-Mercurial planet with a diameter between 130 and 180 km, orbiting the Sun at a mean distance of some 15 million kilometers. The other objects were thought to be constituents of an asteroid belt interior to Mercury. None of Courten’s claims were subsequently verified. For a detailed account, see Seargent, D., 2011, Weird Astronomy: Tales of Unusual, Bizarre, and Other Hard to Explain Observations, New York: Springer, 68.

  24. 24.

    While it’s possible, and even likely, that very small asteroids exist interior to Mercury’s orbit (‘Vulcanoids’), they must be so small as to have avoided detection to date. Searches have ruled out any such asteroids larger than about 6 km in size. See, e.g., Steffl et al., 2013, A Search for Vulcanoids with the STEREO Heliospheric Imager, Icarus, 233(1), 48–56; and Merline et al., 2016, Search for Vulcanoids and Mercury Satellites from MESSENGER, 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held March 21–25, 2016 at The Woodlands, Texas, LPI Contribution No. 1903, p. 2765.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Barentine, J.C. (2021). Seeing What We Want to See: The Psychology of the Ashen Light. In: Mystery of the Ashen Light of Venus. Astronomers' Universe. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-72715-4_8

Download citation