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Thumbnail of Camille Flammarion (source)
Camille Flammarion
(26 Feb 1842 - 3 Jun 1925)

French astronomer who studied double and multiple stars, the moon and Mars. He wrote popular books on astronomy, as well as novels.

Flammarion The Astronomer


by R. H. Sherard

From McClure's Magazine (1894)

Paris street - drawing

[p. 569] CAMILLE FLAMMARION, the astronomer, who has done more toward popularizing the study of astronomical science than any of his contemporaries, and who is known by his writings in all parts of the world, is a man fifty-two years of age. He was born on the 26th of February, 1842, at a village in the department of Haute-Marne, of humble parents. He was a precocious lad. It is recorded that he was master of reading and writing at the age of four, and that when seven years old he was specially commended by the prefect of his department for the way he acquitted himself in an examination at his school.

“I was interested in astronomy from the very first,” said Flammarion to me, during a recent visit which I paid to him in his fifth-floor apartment in the Rue Cassini, a remote quarter of Paris, hard by the observatory, “and I shall never forget with what joy I carried home the first telescope that I was able to purchase—at a second-hand shop. It was a miserable implement, but I think that it gave me more pleasure than.any of the magnificent instruments which have since been placed at my disposal.”

At the age of ten years, Flammarion was placed in a seminary, and continued his education under the care of the Jesuits. After the removal of his family to Paris, Flammarion was transferred to another Jesuit school, in the St. Roch quarter of the capital. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to an engraver, and worked in his shop for some months. Whilst thus engaged, however, he managed to continue his studies, mastered English and the classics, and was able to pass his two examinations for the degree of bachelor, as well as his matriculation to the Polytechnic School, and at the age of sixteen to enter the Paris observatory as pupil astronomer. At that time he was already the author of a work entitled “The Cosmogony of the Universe,” which was greatly admired by Leverrier, to whose influence he principally owed his admission to the observatory. Flammarion remained four years at the observatory, where he was attached to the Bureau des Calculs, and had the good fortune to be able to make certain observations of comets which have been described as the most interesting that have been made during this century. At the same time he found time to write his next work, “The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds.”

Flammarion at his Telescope
Flammarion at his Telescope

“This book,” he told me, “at once made my reputation. It was published by Mallet-Bachelier, the printer to the observatory, at two francs the copy, and the first edition was immediately sold out. I was then approached by the publisher Didier, who offered to undertake the second edition, for which purpose I rewrote many of the chapters, and made important additions to the text. See, here is a copy of the first edition, and here is one of the second. You will see that the latter is about four times the size of [p.570] the former. The book is now in its thirty-fifth edition. The subject, I may mention, had been treated about a century before by Fontenelle, but in purely imaginary style. Fontenelle's book may be described as a novel, a piece of literature, whilst mine claimed to be a scientific work.”

At the age of twenty-two he joined the staff of a scientific magazine called “Cosmos,” in succession to Abbé Moigno, collaborating at the same time on a scientific review known as “Le Magasin Pittoresque.” In the following year he was asked by Henri Martin, the well-known historian, to contribute regularly to what was then the most important daily in Paris, the “Siècle.” In the mean time he had left his place at the Paris observatory, and had entered the Bureau des Longitudes, continuing his astronomical studies in a small private observatory which he had established in a house in the Rue Gay-Lussac, near the Luxembourg. Here he principally devoted himself to the study of the spots on the sun and the geological formations on the moon. Some months later he was appointed professor in the École Turgot, his lectures being attended by exceptionally large audiences. In the following year, that is to say, in 1867, he entered the French Aërostatic Society, of which he was created president. It was at this period that he commenced his remarkable series of ascensions, a full description of which is published in his book, “Voyages in a Balloon.” He has made twelve ascensions in all, the longest one being one in which he travelled from Paris to Cologne, which was undertaken in 1880. But the balloon expedition which he remembers with most pleasure is one which he undertook on August 28, 1874, in company with his bride, eight days after their marriage. It was perhaps the first honeymoon trip of the kind undertaken since honeymoons were.

“What more natural,” he asks, “than for an astronomer and his wife to fly away thus like birds?” The voyage lasted nearly twenty-four hours, and terminated in a descent at Spa.

All this time the young savant continued his literary work. In 1869 he translated Sir Humphry Davy's “Last Days of a Philosopher,” and in the following year brought out the first series of his “Scientific Contemplations,” as well as the first edition of his “Scientific Balloon Voyages.” Meteorological observations occupied him greatly at this time, and it was principally for the sake of this study that he undertook his balloon voyages. He was the first to verify the fact that the rapidity of the horizontal motion of the air increases enormously with the [p.571] altitude reached, and also that as many as five different atmospheric layers, one above the other, can move in opposite directions and at varying rates of speed. He was the first to observe, describe, and explain the optical phenomenon of the colored aureole which surrounds the shadow of a balloon cast upon the clouds beneath. Whilst pursuing these investigations, he did not neglect his astronomical researches. The Annals of the Academy of Sciences between 1866 and 1876 are full of communications made by him on various observations taken at his observatory. In 1869 he published a map of the stars of the North Pole; in 1871 he communicated a paper on the zodiacal light, a study of the planet Jupiter, and, in 1873, his first observations and drawings of Mars, which, of all the planets, has ever since interested him most.

“I have devoted special attention to Mars,” he said, “ because it is the planet about which one has most reason to hope that definite information may be obtained.”

During the war Flammarion was appointed captain of engineers, and was occupied with other astronomers in observation of the Prussian batteries at Saint Cloud and Meudon from a small observatory established by the government at Passy.

After the Commune he took up his abode in the apartment on the fifth floor of the house in the Rue Cassini, which he has never left since. “I am,” he said to me with some pride, “the only Parisian who has never changed his address.”

Camille Flammarion in his Study
Camille Flammarion in his Study

It is certainly splendidly situated, commanding views, on all sides, over Paris, and flooded with light. Outside the windows may be seen the tops of the trees of the Avenue de l'Observatoire, which is just opposite the astronomer's study. The house is situated in one of the quietest and loveliest parts of Paris. One might fancy one's self in some provincial town when in the Rue Cassini. The apartment is modestly furnished. The dining-room, which is the first room into which the visitor enters, is remarkable only for an immense window which takes up the whole side of the room, reaching from the floor to the ceiling, and arranged so as to serve as a conservatory, in which are a number of plants and flowers. The walls are decorated with astronomical maps, as well as with two views of the observatory at Juvisy. Against the wall, at the side of the tiled stove, is a bookcase which is filled with cases fashioned to represent volumes. Each case is used for the classification of the papers which the savant receives from all parts of the world, referring to various branches of astronomical study. Thus “Mars” and “Jupiter” have each their case, the other planets being disposed of in one labelled “Planets Other than Mars and Jupiter.” The leather dining-room chairs are decorated each with one of the signs of the zodiac. Over the buffet is a plate painted with the picture of Urania, which smiles down on a gigantic copper samovar beneath.

[p.572] From the dining-room access is gained to the savant's study, which is pentagonal in shape, with three windows on three sides. It is very simply furnished, with bookcases reaching from floor to ceiling all round. Against one wall is Flammarion's table, and back to back with it is a little table at which sits his wife, who acts as his secretary, and to some extent as his collaborator. Two small telescopes stand in a corner. The tables are heaped up with proofs, newspaper cuttings, brochures, and scientific reports. Amongst the books may be noticed a number of works referring to occult science, notably Colin de Plancey's “Dictionnaire Infernale.”

Madame Flammarion
Madame Flammarion

“I have always been intensely interested in the occult sciences,” said Flammarion, “and have studied them for over twenty-five years, from Alan Kardec to Rochas and Papus. My conclusion is, that there exist certain natural forces of which humanity is ignorant. Papus, the writer on occultism, is a frequent visitor to my house, and has given numerous seances here.” My question on this subject was provoked by the sight of a book by P. P. Gener, entitled “Death and the Devil.”

“You will find the result of my observations in this branch of study,” he continued, “in my book ‘Lumen.’ I cannot say that I have come to any conclusions on the subject beyond the one which 1 have just formulated, which is, that there is certainly something in the science, and that the investigations merit attention.”

Adjoining the study is the drawing-room, richly set with furniture tapestried in white Aubusson. On the mantelpiece is a magnificent clock representing Urania. “That clock,” said Flammarion, “gave me the idea of writing my novel ‘Uranie.’ It is one [p.573] of three. One is at Fontainebleau. The other has disappeared.” Against the wall over the sofa is a fine portrait of Flammarion by a Polish millionnaire friend, Count Minszech; and in the corner, by a book-case filled with novels and poetry, is a picture of Madame Flammarion, now a white-haired lady, but still retaining many traces of the beauty revealed by this picture.

The Drawing-Room in M. Flammarion's Paris Home
The Drawing-Room in M. Flammarion's Paris Home

“From 1873 to 1878,” he said, “my attention was almost entirely absorbed in the study of double stars. Up to 1873, although numerous observations had been made on these remote stellar systems, these observations had not been classified. In my opinion the double stars constitute one of the most important branches of sidereal astronomy. Yet at the time that I approached the subject, that is to say, during 1873, to my surprise I discovered a total absence of documents concerning them. A number of questions, which so far have been unanswered, presented themselves to my mind. How many double or multiple stars are known? What is their proportion to the number of single stars? In the total number of groups which have been discovered, how many are simply optical phenomena due only to the effect of perspective, and how many are genuine or physical systems? Which are the couples the orbital movement of which can be verified? Which are those of which the orbital movement is probable? Are there any of which the movement is not orbital? By what intrinsic movements are these systems transported into space? These are some of the questions which suggested themselves to my mind, and which it seemed to me must present themselves to the mind of every student who approached the subject. The only way to solve them was to examine, in a detailed manner, each one of the eleven thousand double stars which up till then had been discovered; to compare my observations with those previously made, amounting in all to upwards of two hundred thousand; to deduce the conclusion furnished by this examination for each group; to form a list of the couples whose constituents have remained fixed; to form another list of the stars whose movements could be verified as invariable; to identify these stars; to examine the intrinsic movements of each set; to analyze the variations which I had observed; to establish definitely which were the physical systems endowed with an orbital movement, and which were the groups which could be described as the result of an optical illusion. This is what I did. I spent more than a year over the work, being greatly assisted by the kindness of Leverrier, who, being much interested in my researches, placed at my disposal the great equatorial in the east tower of the Paris observatory. By the end of 1877 I had the materials for my [p.574] ‘Catalogue of Double Stars,’ which has since become a classic in every observatory throughout the civilized world.”

In the same year Flammarion published his “The Lands of the Sky,” and two years later he began the publication of his very successful “Popular Astronomy,” which has now reached a very large number of editions. On each copy of this book he has received one franc royalty, and calculates altogether that it has brought him in over twenty-five thousand dollars. It is published by his brother, who became a publisher at his instance; and he admits, with a smile, that no doubt his brother has made very much more out of the work than he himself. In 1881 he published a supplement to this book, under the title of “The Stars and Wonders of the Heavens.” This was followed, in 1884, by a new and enlarged edition of “The Lands of the Sky,” and two years later he took up again the subject which had tempted his pen when he was a lad of fifteen years, and published his “World Before the Creation of Man.” In 1882 he founded “The Monthly Review of Astronomy,” which, he told me, has never paid its way, but which, as the only serial publication devoted to the science of astronomy in France, he is proud to have created and is delighted to support. In 1887 he founded the French Society of [p.575] Astronomy. Speaking about his past life, Camille Flammarion says that the three achievements of which he is most proud are the creation of this monthly periodical, the founding of this society, and the establishment of his observatory at Juvisy. As to the astronomical society, he said: “Nobody before me had been able to create an astronomical society in France, though many had tried it. I remember well with what mocking laughter Admiral Mouchez, at that time director of the observatory, greeted my remark that I intended to essay this foundation, one day when he was breakfasting with us at Juvisy. He said that it had been tried over and over again, and had always failed, and that I would be wasting my time. However, I tried it, and to-day the French Society of Astronomy numbers over six hundred members. I obtained its admission to the Hotel des Sociétés Savantes, where it possesses an observatory, an excellent equatorial, and other apparatus, and a very complete library.”

The Dining-Room in M. Flammarion's Paris Home
The Dining-Room in M. Flammarion's Paris Home

In 1882, one of the admirers of Camille Flammarion, a gentleman named Meret, who was totally unknown to him, and who lived at Bordeaux, wrote to him and told him that he was much interested in his researches as described in his various publications, and he begged him to accept the fee simple of an estate known as the “Cour-deFrance,” at Juvisy, which is a village within twenty minutes' ride of Paris. Flammarion accepted, and here established his private observatory, the maintenance of which, as well as the salaries of the employees, was at once provided for by subscription amongst a number of other admirers.

It is, perhaps, of his installation at Juvisy and of his observatory there that Flammarion is proudest.

His life is an extremely busy one. Besides his work as an astronomer, he still to-day fills many public positions. He is a modest man, and does not seem to care to speak about himself. It was his wife who gave me the following particulars as to his life and character on the day on which I called upon him. “He is,” she said, “an extremely methodical man. He gets up regularly every morning at seven o'clock, and spends quite a long time over his toilet. Savants, as a rule, are not very tidy, but Flammarion is an exception to the rule. At a quarter to eight every morning he has his first breakfast, at which he always takes two eggs. From eight to twelve he works. At noon he has his déjeuner, over which he spends a long time. He is a very slow eater. From one to two he receives, and as he knows everybody in Paris, and as he is constantly being consulted on all sorts of questions by Parisian reporters, he is usually kept very busy during this hour. From two to three he dictates letters to me, and as he receives thousands of letters from all parts of the world, especially when anything new in the branch of astronomical science is occupying public attention, my time is fully occupied. At three o'clock he goes out and attends to his business as editor of the monthly magazine which he founded, and to his duties as member of various societies. He is back home again at half-past seven, when he has dinner, and spends the rest of the day in reading. He is a great reader, and tries to keep himself au courant with all that is said on the important topics of the day. At ten o'clock he goes to bed, for he is a great sleeper.”

Flammarion's Observatory at Juvisy
Flammarion's Observatory at Juvisy

“But when,” I asked, “does M. Flammarion observe the stars?”

The Museum of the Juvisy Observatory
The Museum of the Juvisy Observatory

“Oh, this is his winter programme,” said his wife, “that I have been describing. It is in the summer, when he's down at Juvisy, that he continues his studies in astronomy; that is to say, from May to November. There the programme of his daily life is somewhat different, for on fine nights he sometimes stays up at his observatory till a very early hour in the morning. But as here, so at Juvisy, he is very regular in his habits.”

“You have a good library at Juvisy?” I said, turning to M. Flammarion, who was sitting by at his table, dressed in white flannels. “Ten thousand volumes, at least,” he answered. Then rising, he added: “Let me show you a wonderful ‘Cicero’ which I have here.” He passed me the volume and said: “It was here that I [p.577] took the story of the youths of Megara and of their vision, which I described in ‘Uranie.’” Referring to “ Uranie” he added : “ I shall write no more novels. If I wrote that one, it was because my desire and ambition are to impart scientific knowledge by every means in my power. The novel is a medium in some sort. Personally I hate novels, and never read any. As to my future literary labors, my time will almost entirely be taken up, for another eight years at least, with my ‘Astronomical Encyclopaedia,’ of which I am editor, and which is to be a popular handbook to all the branches of the science. Now and then, no doubt, I shall write newspaper articles, but as few as possible, and only when something of very great interest happens.”

“And in the way of observation?”

The Library of the Juvisy Observatory
The Library of the Juvisy Observatory

“I shall continue to study Mars as much as possible, to try and find out what is going on there. Mars interests me above all the planets, because it is the planet which most closely resembles the earth. What may eventually be discovered there is indicated in my book on this planet.”

As the conversation continued, I learned that Flammarion never smokes. “It is impossible to observe the stars when one has a cigarette in one's mouth,” he said, “and it wastes time. Now, I have a veritable cultus for time.”

As to his pets, Madame Flammarion said: “He is very fond of dogs, and yet has an instinctive horror of them. Thus whenever our Newfoundland down at Juvisy, Sirius, we call him, jumps up on my husband, he turns quite pale.”

“I have always thought,” added Flammarion, “that in some previous existence I must have been bitten by a mad dog, hence my instinctive antipathy to them; though at heart I am very fond of animals of all kinds in general, and of dogs in particular. Indeed, everything in nature interests me, and my principal amusement here, during the spring, is to watch the budding of the trees outside my window.”

Text and images from McClure's Magazine (1894), Vol. 2. The images, in order above, are from pages 567, 577, 570, 571, 572, 573, 574, 574, 577 and the text is from 569-577. (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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