Conclusion, and a note on the satellites of Uranus

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


The case of Venus’ phantom satellite has traditionally been considered a mere curiosity in the annals of astronomy. A curiosity it may have been, but it was much more than that. As the present study demonstrates, the hypothesis — and it never was more than that — played a considerable role in the eighteenth century, primarily among astronomers but also in a wider context. As illustrated by figures such as Bonnet, Voltaire, d’Alembert, Kant, Herder, Martin and Frederick II of Prussia, the cultural world was acquainted with the phenomenon and found it to be of interest. At least on two occasions, enlightenment scientists (A. G. Kästner and L. A. Jungnitz) even wrote poems dedicated to the controversial satellite. From the beginning of the story, with Fontana’s observations in 1645, to the late nineteenth century, there was a rich literature on this non-existing object, and it was much richer than has traditionally been thought. Admittedly, much of this literature was repetitious, but it nonetheless indicates an interest in, and to some extent a fascination with, the satellite of Venus.


Celestial Body Interior Planet Faint Star Pulkovo Observatory Astronomical Community 
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  1. 1.
    For a couple of examples from about the turn of the century, see Plassmann 1898, p. 355, Krisch 1901, p. 532 and Vogel 1905, pp. 345–346.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Nye 1980; Ashmore 1993.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On Lowell and his disputed observations of Venus and Mars, see Sheehan 1988.Google Scholar
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    See Austin 1967 and Schaffer 1981.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For this case, see Baum 1973, pp. 126–146 and Smith and Baum 1984. Neptune does have a system of very thin rings, but this was only discovered by the Voyager spacecraft in 1989. Neither Lassell (1799–1880) nor other Earth-bound observers could possibly have seen it. Hetherington 1988 and Sheehan 1988 offer several other examples of “believing is seeing” in the history of astronomy. On the general problem of objectivity versus visual perception and representation, see Daston and Galison 2007 and the many sources cited therein.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Cited in Baum 1973, p. 141.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Sheehan 1995, p. 215. European observers were also unable to see Mars’ inner satellite, discovered in August 1877; it took about half a year until they succeeded in verifying Hall’s observation (Hall 1878, p. 208).Google Scholar
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    In his Narratio Prima of 1540, the first published work on the Copernican world system, Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574) reasoned: “What is more agreeable to God’s handiwork than that this first and most perfect work should be summed up in this first and most perfect number?” Rosen 1959, p. 147. Kepler adopted Rheticus’ reasoning (Koyr’e 1961, p. 139). On Huygens’ use of a similar argument, see section 2.1.Google Scholar
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    Dionis du Séjour 1789, p. 531, who referred to the planet as “Herschel,” a name proposed by Lalande. E. G. Fischer (1754–1831) suggested on a speculative basis — the longer away, the more satellites do the planets have — that Uranus was endowed with six moons (Fischer 1787).Google Scholar
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    Voiron 1810, pp. 22–25. Also Johann Friedrich Wurm (1760–1833), a professor of astronomy at Stuttgart, referred uncritically to Herschel’s six moons, apparently accepting them (Wurm 1802). Wurm had earlier speculated that the known satellites of Jupiter and Saturn were represented by numerical expressions of the same kind as the Titius-Bode law (see Nieto 1972, pp. 24–25).Google Scholar
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    Proctor 1896, p. 201. Emphasis added.Google Scholar

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