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Sir Robert Ball - the Victorian Patrick Moore


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Sir Robert Ball and Victorian astronomical controversies

Sir Robert Ball - the Victorian Patrick Moore
by Stuart Williams FRAS

Mention astronomy today, to friends, family or colleagues in whatever walk of life, and ask them to name but one astronomer and the answer - in Britain, at least - will almost invariably be Patrick Moore. Knighted in 2001 in what many thought to be a long-overdue ceremony honouring his lifelong achievement, the good Dr. Moore, now Sir. Patrick, has, since the 1950's, personified popular astronomy in the United Kingdom.

His unfailing knowledge, infectious enthusiasm and wonderful English eccentricity have endeared Patrick to millions, including many in the States and on Cloudy Nights, and encouraged thousands to become either hobbyist or professional in the great science of the stars. The modern medium of television has no doubt contributed significantly to his popularity, with his regular monthly appearances on the BBC's 'The Sky at Night' since April 1957 - some two years longer than I have been alive! His reputation also rests, of course, on the remarkable flood of books which has poured from his antique typewriter over all that time, and his reputation as a speaker.

Patrick has been the cornerstone of British popular astronomy for many years, and no one can doubt his deserving of this new honour. He is, however, not the first great British populariser of astronomy - nor the first to be knighted for his services in this regard. That honour goes to a Victorian scientist, one Robert Stawell Ball (1840 - 1913), an Irishman who was to become the foremost popular astronomer of his time.

I first came across Robert Ball some fifteen or so years ago, when I took up astronomy as an active hobby. I have always been an avid collector of old books, and naturally went in search of second-hand astronomy texts to support my new hobby. Ball was one author I found it impossible to ignore, as anyone who has frequented the more science-friendly second-hand bookshops will realise. There can be few book-loving amateur astronomers in the UK and Ireland who do not have at least one of his 19th or early 20th century titles on their bookshelves, and I am no exception. Despite the dated information and occasional eccentric theories, they still make fascinating reading to anyone with an interest in the history of science, and to book-lovers in particular.

I myself own copies of Ball's works Star-Land (1889) and The Story of the Heavens (1886) amongs others, and indeed he wrote thirteen books in all on popular astronomy, including Time and Tide, The Earth's Beginning, In Starry Realms, and The Story of the Sun, two of which were still in print in the 1940's. The copy of Star-Land I have gives a printing date of 1896, and the print run of twenty-five thousand, which would be pretty good even by modern astronomical publishing standards, let alone in Victorian Britain!

However, Robert Ball was to become of particular significance to me in my work as a local historian in Walsall, West Midlands, when some years later I began research for a small volume on a local astronomer, journalist, poet and printer, William Henry Robinson, FRAS (1847-1926).

Robinson had much in common with Ball, inasmuch as he spent a great deal of his spare time popularising science in the Midlands of England. As Secretary of Walsall Literary Institute, which had some 1,100 members in 1895, he had brought a great many scientists, writers, adventurers, musicians, actors and others to lecture to the townsfolk over the years. Robinson was a keen amateur astronomer, and as a result had struck up a friendship with Robert Ball, who spent much of his time touring the country - and indeed visited the USA as well - giving public lectures.

The parallel with Patrick Moore here is striking, with the lecture hall and theatre being the Victorian and Edwardian equivalent of the television. If an astronomer was to popularise his science, it was to be in these venues, speaking to the public, that he would be found, and so it was that Ball came to Walsall, and became President of the Walsall Literary Institute and a regular visitor to the town over the next few years.

It seemed very natural for me to take an interest in this fascinating man with his local connections, hence this article. As successful as Patrick Moore has been in his broadcasting career, Ball was equally successful as a public lecturer, and he did more than anyone of his time to communicate astronomy to the public and to promote the subject as a science worthy of support on a professional basis.

Robert Ball had been a successful student at Trinity College Dublin (1857 - 61), but had not qualified as a Fellow. His own background was in dynamical mathematics, with his main area of research on specialised dynamic rotation, which he called the 'Theory of Screws', which he was still working on in the first decade of the 20th century. This work may have brought him to the attention of the mathematicians of Trinity College, on whose recommendation he was awarded the Andrews Chair of Astronomy in 1874. Prior to this, however, he had been involved in the remarkable story of the Leviathan of Parsonstown, Ireland, the largest telescope in the world.

Robert Ball had left University in 1866, and was fortunate enough to obtain a post as tutor to the three younger sons of the third Earl of Rosse at Parsonstown (now Birr). He was able to use the great telescope built and used by Rosse - the Leviathan - and went on to use it to discover several spiral nebulae. Under the patronage of Lord Rosse at Birr Castle, Ball was to meet the leading scientists of the day, and this did his career no harm at all, for after two years at Parsonstown he became Professor of Applied Mechanics and Mechanism at the newly-founded Royal College of Science in Dublin, where his duties included providing a course of evening lectures to working men. This course enabled him to develop his remarkable skills at lecturing which were to mean so much to him and his audiences in later years.

Ball was appointed Andrews Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College in 1874, and it was at this time that he also became the Director of the college's Dunsink Observatory, located to the north of Dublin. In a remarkable triple honour he also acquired the title of Astronomer Royal for Ireland at this time. While still busily developing his public lecturing, Robert Ball also decided he would undertake the work of measuring stellar parallax, since the Dunsink Observatory had been equipped for positional astronomy and little work on parallax was being done at other establishments. While he subsequently proceeded to observe red stars for measurable parallax for fifteen years, he was unable to discover any, but few others had any success in this challenging field at the time.

However, in the meantime his career as a lecturer had become something of a phenomenon. His son recorded that by 1884 he had made over 700 public lectures, some with audences of more than 800, and charging substantial fees for his presence. And so it was that in 1885 his first and most successful book, The Story of the Heavens, was published to popular acclaim.

One of Robert Ball's pet theories, of which he had several, was his nebular hypothesis for the formation of the Solar System. This formed the basis of his book The Earth's Beginning as well as the theme for his 1900/1901 Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London, England. Ball's theory - and he credited this to Kant, Laplace and William Herschel - was that the sun and planets had condensed from some primordial fiery mist, similar perhaps to the Andromeda nebula and other spiral nebul-, which were known to have continuous spectra like stars but appeared to be composed of some glowing fluid. The cause of the sun's heat was gravitational contraction, as was the internal heat of the Earth. One particular difficulty with the nebular hypothesis is the fact that the satellites of Uranus and Neptune do not rotate in the same direction as do all other planets and satellites, which it would be reasonable to expect if the entire solar system had begun spinning as one body. Ball explained in his books and lectures that these satellites have not yet reached 'the general concord', though he did not make it clear as to what that was.

Ball was also interested in the controversial 'canals' of Mars, and included in The Story of the Heavens (1886) a map by the famous Italian astronomer Schiaparelli based on the latter's observations of 1881-82. In this book he discusses the 'canals' simply as geographical features proceeding from 'seas', but his comments on the apparent 'doubling' of these features in some of Shiaparelli's observations as possibly illusions indicates some ambivalence as to his opinion on the factual status of these as evidence of any kind of life. An article he wrote in 1892 relating to these observations did not rule out the presence of life on Mars but showed that he was inclined to doubt that any Martians might be intelligent. However, Ball's stance on the possibility or otherwise of life on Mars and the status of 'canals' as artefacts of intelligent life was a difficult compromise for him, due to a conflict of loyalties. Percival Lowell had been a good friend of his since 1884, when Lowell had been rather less interested in astronomy than he was in Japan. Ball appears to have supported statements by E. E. Barnard at two meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society in the mid 1890's which questioned the existence of canals, but only a year or two later Ball strongly supported Lowell's views in the 1898/99 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Interestingly, Ball's statements supporting the existence of canals seem to have been made only in non-scientific circles, and in his professional astronomy he was rather more inclined against them and in support of Barnard. In this, perhaps, he was happy to pander a little to public perceptions and excitement over the 'Martians' of whom H.G. Wells was to take such great advantage in his book The War of the Worlds, published coincidentally in 1898.

Nonetheless, whatever impact Ball's lecturing, which took him all over the country, had on the public image of science, it was enormously beneficial to his career, and enabled him to acquire status at a time when the nature of astronomy was changing from the earlier positional work of the 18th and early 19th centuries to a new field where spectroscopy and photography were coming to the fore, and the star of the professional astronomer was in the ascendant. Ball became a member of the Athenaeum Club, socialising in the company of men like George Bernard Shaw and meeting the King of Sweden and the Emperor of Brazil. He also sat as a member of Cambridge University's Council of the Senate, and turned down the opportunity to become a Member of Parliament.

He had been knighted in 1886 for "services to science and education", and in 1892 after the death of John Couch Adams, the now Sir Robert S. Ball was appointed Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry at the University of Cambridge. One year later, after some internal wrangling following his appointment, he also became the manager of the University's Observatory, in which post he spent the rest of his life, though he was to carry out little observation himself due to his poor eyesight and extensive lecturing commitments. In 1898 Ball became President of Walsall Literary Institute, where he had lectured several times before and would continue to do so, and so we return full circle to my personal interest in this remarkable man.

There is no doubt that Sir Robert Ball's lectures, presenting an optimistic and positive view of the science of his time to the general public, were a major contribution to the campaign of men of science for recognition in the nineteenth century, and made him the best-known astronomer of Victorian and Edwardian Britain and Ireland. In the mid 20th and now 21st century, Dr. Patrick Moore, the world's most famous amateur astronomer, has done as much as his illustrious and popular predecessor, if not more, with the different tools at his disposal. They have much in common, and in honouring both astronomers' uniqueness I think we can say without a shadow of a doubt that Robert Ball was, truly, the Victorian Patrick Moore. Indeed, I have no doubt that, given the chance, Sir Patrick would today still offer the same succinct advice to young astronomers that Ball did at the end of his book Star-Land:

"make a beginning of the study of the heavens, if you have not already done so. If you have the advantage of a telescope, so much the better; but, if this is impossible, make the best use of your own eyes. Do not put it off or wait till you get someone to teach you. If it be clear this very night, go out and find the Great Bear and the Pole Star, and as many of the other constellations as you can, and at once commence your career as an astronomer." And so they did.

Further reading: Reminiscences and Letters of Sir Robert Ball, 1915, ed. W. Valentine Ball.
Dunsink Observatory 1785-1985, by P.A. Wayman.

Copyright Stuart Williams


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