Two souls

benjamin gould

There was a time I had plans to write a biography of the astronomer Benjamin Gould, but for some reason never got around to fleshing it out. Revisiting the notes again this afternoon over a cup of tea (every now and then I go over old notes to remind myself life has continuity, just as others flip through old photos) some duality troubled me about his trajectory, something I wanted to understand. Perhaps beginning to write this will help me puzzle it out.

While looking at the notes I remembered something I once read somewhere, that every man has two battling impulses within him. Two souls, one might say. One is that of the entrepreneur, the man who seeks to travel, take risks and begin new enterprises. The other is that of the comfortable man, who seeks to remain where he is, calculate what he already has and enjoy it. These dual tendencies both further his bourgeois well-being, but are in conflict. Because of them modern man experiences a constant restlessness or dissatisfaction. When he is still he would like to move, and when he moves he would like to be still.

Little is known about Gould. Facts abound related to the external events of his life, to be sure. But the real life of any person is what happens in his mind, the interpretation he gives to things, and this is what we do not know. He kept no private diary. We must invent, or presume. There is something fitting about this, since his inner life seemed to be clamoring for its own negation, for dissolution in a world beyond itself. Within Gould were the two souls, the one that strove to calculate the world and the one that yearned to launch into the unknown.

Gould was born in 1824, attended school at Harvard and traveled a period in Europe, before gaining a reputation with his Astrophysical Journal and work involving telegraph cables for the United States Coast Survey longitude department. In 1870 he arrived in Argentina, invited by President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento to found an observatory in Córdoba. There he compiled his famous Uranometría Argentina, which when published in 1879 became the first major catalogue of the southern stars. He also did important work creating a general atlas of the sky, writing about stars’ different colors and identifying the ring of O- and B- type stars of the Milky Way located 3000 light years away, now referred to as the “Gould Belt”.

But he also faced a constant series of institutional delays and challenges. His team of assistants was tiny, and he had to wait two years before the meridian circle, the special telescope required to view the transit of Venus, was assembled. Other challenges emerged: “Two principle difficulties presented themselves, although they were both quickly overcome. My excessive near-sightedness impeded me from making any observations with my naked eye, or those in which the eye must direct a hand telescope unaided in order to carry out the meticulous appraisal of magnitudes. War, which was then taking place in Europe, along with other unfortunate circumstances, delayed the arrival of my boxes of astronomical books, with the result that there was no way to get hold of any star catalogues beyond those which I had fortunately brought in my luggage.”

And another obstacle presented itself. When mapping stars to the seventh magnitude, Gould’s measurements grew uncertain. He noted the impossibility of taking accurate measurements given the presence of clouds, a constant threat. His concerns regarding his own capabilities for vision, both through his “naked eye” and through the artificial eye of the telescope, continued. In the Uranometría Gould mentions several areas he was forced to leave incomplete. One was determining the exact quantity of light emitted by certain typical stars. Another was defining the limits of his studies on magnitude, which required an analysis of the laws of variation of variables.

“It has been my aim to include those stars that are situated so near to brighter ones as to affect estimates of their magnitude, made without the employment of a telescope,” he wrote. “To carry out this plan with absolute completeness is of course out of the question, but no pains have been spared in the endeavor. Thus estimates of magnitude have been made for the components of double stars, and for those individual members of clusters that seem appreciably to contribute to the general effect when viewed by the naked eye, or through a hand-glass of low power. Such estimates must necessarily be crude, and no attempt has been made at securing greater precision than to the nearest quarter of a unit.”

What should one do at moments when certainty shades into doubt? The precise boundary at which this happens, and the reaction to doubt when it does, are influenced by society. Gould was one of several foreigners invited by Sarmiento to strengthen the country’s scientific profile. These also included D’Orbigny, Burmeister, Bonpland, Bravard, and Azara. The precise classification of fossils, plants, amphibians, stars and language was of interest not just for its own sake but as a way of helping define Argentina as a nation. It was the golden age of botanical gardens and museum planning.

In that sense doubts about the limits of human perception also suggested doubts about the national project in general. The exact point where knowledge of the brightness of a star gave way to uncertainty mirrored new doubts regarding the efficiency of positivistic science. Human uncertainty and the limitations of calculation had to be incorporated into the work. If we ‘reverse-engineer’ the Uranometria, seeking the reason for which it was written, we can say it was drafted to solve the problem of the position of the southern stars. But this in turn created a new problem: What did one do with the new questions raised by the information, the unresolvable gaps in the data?

In some respects the problem has deeper roots. Many figures in Argentine history have picked up a hermetic tradition that thinks of the world in terms of metaphor and analogy, instead of positivistic development. Doubts have abounded regarding the efficacy of humans in calculating their surroundings from the Catholic church as much as from poetic minds. Half a century later H.A. Murena, an Argentine author, would write that “poets have rediscovered a tradition as old as man himself, which transmitted by Renaissance Neoplatonism and the hermetic and occult currents of the 16th and 17th centuries, crossed the 18th, entered the 19th and arrives at our days. I refer to the analogy, to the vision of the universe as a system of correspondences and to the vision of language as the double of the universe”. Perhaps Gould, working at the end of the 19th century, felt his North American rationalism being challenged, and felt dizzy as he peered into his telescope up at the stars. His only option at that moment was an acceptance of the limits of his knowledge.

In that position many men cede to the temptations of mysticism, hedonism or selfishness, seeking to consolidate their gains and enjoy the bounties they have already reaped on this earth, until another opportunity to launch out into the world appears again. By all accounts Gould remained an impeccable researcher at his post. He eventually chose to return to his own country, and was praised by Sarmiento for his “disinterested” work and discoveries. His work was continued by his assistant John Macon Thome, and afterward by Charles Dillon Perrine, both of them also from the United States. But what went through Gould’s mind between the completion of the Uranometría in 1874 and his return in 1885? An eleven year gap in the record, eleven years to muse on the limitations of his techniques for calculating the stars, the futility of attempting to map the universe, an infinity of unknowns…

Now I think I know what troubles me. Gould traveled far from home in the attempt to discover new opportunities for calculation. He went from a place where the sky was mapped, North America, to a place it was not, the austral limits of the planet. Yet the calculations he performed did not simplify matters. Soon he came up against the bounds of uncertainty. His calculations created new enigmas, not geographical but epistemological. A nice cycle was created… and isn’t it true this personal struggle, these two souls in one man, is mirrored in the two souls of civilization?

Science creates new strategies to expand knowledge, and this in turn creates new questions demanding new strategies. Through complementary reverses society moves forward, and meanwhile our own souls agonize between acceptance of the given state of things and the desire for risk-taking enterprise. Two souls in each man, two souls in progress. Ah, you ask, so now we have four souls? I would speculate further on this relationship, but perhaps it is better to lay down my pen now before the multiplications increase.

Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.

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