“This curious arrangement”

A routine request . . .

I recently asked the Inter-Library Loan people — without whom this effort would have been paralysed long ago — to obtain a copy of a paper by James Challis, Director of the Observatory at Cambridge University. You may recall Challis as the fellow to whom the Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy, entrusted the search for an unknown planet predicted by John Couch Adams, at that time a young assistant tutor at Cambridge University. The planet turned out to be Neptune, and its discovery was announced by Galle at the Berlin Observatory, based on very similar calculations by the French astronomer Urbain J. J. Le Verrier.

Challis had the misfortune to have actually observed Neptune repeatedly, and even to have noted “appears to have a disc” on one occasion, without making the least effort to follow up this observation. He is infamous in the history of British astronomy for having let this grand discovery slip through his fingers; the whole miserable episode is recounted in detail on pages 92–99 in Vol. 1 of the History of the Royal Astronomical Society, edited by J.L.E.Dreyer and H.H.Turner (originally printed for the R.A.S., 1923, and reprinted by Blackwell Scientific Publications in 1987). Indeed, so notorious is Challis for his carelessness that his entry in the Index of this volume reads simply, “Challis, failed to find Neptune.”

But I digress. My interest in Challis was for his subsequent theoretical remarks on refraction in planetary atmospheres, in which he (mistakenly) at first supposed that refraction in a possible lunar atmosphere might cause a brightening of the surface of the Sun during partial solar eclipses. (In this error he was not alone; many people have subsequently made the same mistake, in the context of mirages. But that is another story.)

. . . turns into a puzzle

The volume of Monthly Notices containing Challis's paper is missing from our library; so, as I say, I asked the ILL people to get me a copy. They did, with gratifying speed. But I was surprised, on looking at the photocopy, to find it was a large, two-column page, apparently with the columns numbered, in the style of Astronomische Nachrichten. I had not been aware that M.N. had ever used such a format.

Challis's paper refers to an earlier paper by Airy, who evidently had tried to correct him; so I turned to the Catalogue of the Royal Society Library to see what other publications hight occur in this exchange. This search turned up Challis's first paper that precipitated the discussion, as well as later papers by both Airy and Challis.

Our library has the 1863 volume, to which I immediately turned. But, to my mild surprise, it did not have the double-column format. Well, so what? That meant the odd format was adopted the next year, I supposed.

I was about to ask ILL to get the other papers in the series, when I remembered that the Astronomy Department library has some of these old volumes of Monthly Notices. Could it be that the Department had the missing volumes? It could.

Which is the original?

But now I found an even greater surprise: the volume in the Department library for 1864 has the usual single-column format. In particular, it has the same article I had obtained in two-column format through ILL; but the format in the Department's copy is single-column. What's going on here?

I returned to the Inter-Library Loan department with the two versions of Challis's article in hand, and asked where the photocopy they had obtained had come from. They told me it was “Infotrieve”, an outfit that sends people into libraries to copy stuff for this sort of work. Apparently the original version was at Berkeley.

The Berkeley version looked authentic. The typeface was certainly a 19th-Century one. Had Monthly Notices been reprinted in 2-column format at some later time?

The answer, at last

After thinking about this for a while, it occurred to me that maybe the solution could be found in the History of the Royal Astronomical Society, which I actually own. Sure enough, I have found the explanation on pp. 239–240 of Vol. 1:

"... each volume of the Memoirs was described on the title-page as the quarto half-volume for the session ..., and bore the following notice on the cover: `The Octavo Half-volume, being volume ... of the Monthly Notices, ... is given to purchasers of the Quarto Half-volume, and is necessary to complete it.' But this notice disappeared after 1858, the Monthly Notices being thus recognised as a separate journal. Still the Council wished to make the journal `become an integral part of the volumes of the Memoirs.' This was done by re-imposing the type into a quarto form with double columns, thus forming an edition of the Monthly Notices which might be bound up with the Memoirs. In this way volumes 19 to 27 appeared in a double form, after which this curious arrangement was discontinued."

As you can see, Vol. 24 (the subject of my original request) falls into this strange interval in which there were two separate editions of M.N., one quarto to match the Memoirs, and the other octavo (the version I find in both our library and the Astronomy Dept. library).

So the answer really is that although the version Infotrieve produced was authentic, it was a re-publication — though apparently an immediate one, from the same type! — of the original Monthly Notices.

© 2003, 2005 – 2007 Andrew T. Young

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