A spurious but persistent satellite

Part of the Science Networks. Historical Studies book series (SNHS, volume 37)


Lambert’s memoir on the satellite of Venus was for a long time the last serious study of the subject. By the 1780s the satellite was on its way out of astronomy, with the majority of astronomers either dismissing it or, more commonly, ignoring it. Lalande’s mention of the subject in the Dictionnaire de physique of 1781 and later in his Astronomie of 1792, uncommitted but not clearly dismissive, was an exception. As we shall see, the rejection of the satellite of Venus did not mean that it was deemed to oblivion. This was far from the case. Still, from the point of view of the large majority of astronomers the question was no longer controversial. Whatever its mysteries (and these were many), it was agreed that Venus just could not boast of a moon.


Monthly Notice Natural Theology Ghost Image Optical Illusion Celestial Object 
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    Herschel 1912, vol. 1, p. 444. Originally published as “Observations on the planet Venus,” Philosophical Transactions 83 (1793), 201–219.Google Scholar
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    Bode 1807, p. 35. Calling the existence of the moon “still most doubtful” (noch sehr zweifelhaft) may suggest that Bode was not yet willing to write off the satellite.Google Scholar
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    Neither Haase nor Schorr is listed in Poggendorff’s Biographisch-Literarisches Handwörterbuch and they are also absent from Hockey 2007 and from Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800–1900). A Hannoverian civil servant, Haase published in 1857 and 1861 a couple of observations in the Astronomische Nachrichten.Google Scholar
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    Ende 1811, p. 394, letter dated 4 September 1811. Apart from Uranus, the “new planets” were the asteroids discovered in the early years of the nineteenth century: Ceres (1801), Pallas (1802), Juno (1804) and Vesta (1807).Google Scholar
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    Letter of 10 November 1781, reproduced in part by von Zach in his Monatliche Correspondenz (Bernoulli 1802). Baron von Zach (1754–1832) was court astronomer to Duke Ernst of Saxe-Gotha, founder and editor of the Monatliche Correspondenz and a leading figure in the search for missing planets between Mars and Jupiter (asteroids) in the early years of the nineteenth century. J. Bernoulli (1744–1807), sometimes known as Jean Bernoulli III, was the last of the famous Swiss dynasty of mathematicians.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 185. On the basis of the corpuscular theory of light, the English natural philosopher John Michell (1724–1793) had put forward the idea of dark stars in 1784, and in 1844 Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784–1846) inferred that Sirius was accompanied by a small unseen star. See, e.g., Clerke 1903, pp. 399–403. Eisenstaedt 1991 is a detailed analysis of the idea of dark stars from Newton to Laplace. For the connection to black holes, see also Israel 1987.Google Scholar
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    Webb 1876. Another lengthy and generally positive review appeared in Bertrand 1875 (see also below). T. W. Webb is best known for his publication in 1859 of Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, a classic guide for amateur astronomy for more than half a century.Google Scholar
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