A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter I
The successors of Newton in astronomy
Bradley and the aberration of light
Halley was succeeded as astronomer royal by a man whose useful additions to the science were not to be recognized or appreciated fully until brought to light by the Prussian astronomer Bessel early in the nineteenth century. This was Dr. James Bradley, an ecclesiastic, who ranks as one of the most eminent astronomers of the eighteenth century. His most remarkable discovery was the explanation of a peculiar motion of the pole-star, first observed, but not explained, by Picard a century before. For many years a satisfactory explanation was sought unsuccessfully by Bradley and his fellow-astronomers, but at last he was able to demonstrate that the stary Draconis, on which he was making his observations, described, or appeared to describe, a small ellipse. If this observation was correct, it afforded a means of computing the aberration of any star at all times. The explanation of the physical cause of this aberration, as Bradley thought, and afterwards demonstrated, was the result of the combination of the motion of light with the annual motion of the earth. Bradley first formulated this theory in 1728, but it was not until 1748 - twenty years of continuous struggle and observation by him - that he was prepared to communicate the results of his efforts to the Royal Society. This remarkable paper is thought by the Frenchman, Delambre, to entitle its author to a place in science beside such astronomers as Hipparcbus and Kepler.

Bradley's studies led him to discover also the libratory motion of the earth's axis. "As this appearance of g Draconis. indicated a diminution of the inclination of the earth's axis to the plane of the ecliptic," he says; "and as several astronomers have supposed THAT inclination to diminish regularly; if this phenomenon depended upon such a cause, and amounted to 18" in nine years, the obliquity of the ecliptic would, at that rate, alter a whole minute in thirty years; which is much faster than any observations, before made, would allow. I had reason, therefore, to think that some part of this motion at the least, if not the whole, was owing to the moon's action upon the equatorial parts of the earth; which, I conceived, might cause a libratory motion of the earth's axis. But as I was unable to judge, from only nine years observations, whether the axis would entirely recover the same position that it had in the year 1727, I found it necessary to continue my observations through a whole period of the moon's nodes; at the end of which I had the satisfaction to see, that the stars, returned into the same position again; as if there had been no alteration at all in the inclination of the earth's axis; which fully convinced me that I had guessed rightly as to the cause of the phenomena. This circumstance proves likewise, that if there be a gradual diminution of the obliquity of the ecliptic, it does not arise only from an alteration in the position of the earth's axis, but rather from some change in the plane of the ecliptic itself; because the stars, at the end of the period of the moon's nodes, appeared in the same places, with respect to the equator, as they ought to have done, if the earth's axis had retained the same inclination to an invariable plane."[2]





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.