From time to time, Spiritualist mediums have delivered messages relating to astronomy. In discussing the question whether such communications have led science forward a single step, Camille Flammarion returned a negative answer. His conclusion was based on his own automatic scripts which were signed by Galileo and contained nothing new and on the analysis of the writings of Major General A. W. Drayson (1827-1901), professor of military surveying, reconnaissance, and practical astronomy at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. Under the title The Solution of Scientific Problems by Spirits, Drayson published an article in the journal Light (1884) in which he asserted that the spirit of an astronomer, communicating through a medium at his house in 1858, had made known the true orbital movement of the satellites of Uranus.
This planet was discovered by William Herschel in 1781. He observed that its satellites, contrary to all the other satellites of the solar system, traversed their orbits from east to west. The spirit communication said on this point: "The satellites of Uranus do not move in their orbits from East to West: they circle about their planet from West to East, in the same way that the moon moves round the earth. The error comes from the fact that the South Pole of Uranus was turned towards the Earth at the moment of the discovery of this planet."
Flammarion pointed out in Mysterious Psychic Forces (1907) that the reasoning of the spirit is false. There is abundant evidence that it was really the North Pole which was at that moment turned toward the Sun and the Earth. Regarding another claim of Drayson that a medium in 1859 disclosed the facts about the two satellites of Mars 18 years before their discovery, Flammarion stated that the claim must remain doubtful as it was not published at the time. Furthermore, after Kepler pointed out the probability of their existence, this subject was discussed several times, notably by Dean Swift and Voltaire. Of Drayson's book Thirty Thousand Years of the Earth's Past History, Read by Aid of the Discovery of the Second Rotation of the Earth, which seeks to explain the glacial periods and variations of climate, Flammarion says that it is full of scientific errors unpardonable in a man versed in astronomical studies.
No mention is made by Flammarion of the book Nature's Divine Revelations by Andrew Jackson Davis which, written in March 1846, speaks of nine planets. Seven planets were known at the time. The existence of an eighth was calculated by Leverrier but was not discovered until September 1846. The statement of the Poughkeepsie seer that its density is four-fifths of water agreed with later findings. The ninth planet, Pluto, was not discovered until 1930. On the other hand, Andrew Jackson Davis only spoke of four planetoids, Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta, whereas they are now numbered in hundreds.
A further indication that psychic experiences may lead to an advance in science is furnished by the dream of Rev. Charles Tweedale of Weston, England, of a comet in the East discoverable before sunrise. He went into the laboratory and found the comet, which was invisible to the naked eye. Shortly afterward he learned that he was preceded in the discovery by Barnard and Hartwig.
Of all the astronomers who devoted time and talent to psychic research, Flammarion's name stands foremost. His interest from 1861 onward was continuous until the time of his death. Many important books testify to his keen judgment and to the importance he attributed to this branch of science.
Another famous astronomer whose name is often mentioned in Spiritualist books was Schiaparelli, director of the Milan observatory, who participated at a number of séances with Eusapia Palladino in 1892 at Milan. In a letter to Camille Flammarion he stated:
"If it had been possible entirely to exclude all suspicions of deceit one would have had to recognize in these facts the beginning of a new science pregnant with consequences of the highest importance. I cannot say that I am convinced of the reality of the things which are comprised under the ill-chosen name of Spiritualism. But neither do I believe in our right to deny everything; for in order to have a good basis for denial, it is not sufficient to suspect fraud, it is necessary to prove it. These experiments, which I have found very unsatisfactory, other experimenters of great confidence and of established reputation have been able to make in more favourable circumstances. I have not enough presumption to oppose a dogmatic and unwarranted denial to proofs in which scientists of great critical ability, such as William Crookes, Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Richet, and Oliver Lodge, have found a solid basis of fact and one worthy of their examination, to such an extent that they have given it years of study."
Schiaparelli discontinued his investigations because, as he said, "Having passed all my life in the study of nature, which is always sincere in its manifestations and logical in its processes, it is repugnant to me to turn my thoughts to the investigation of a class of truths which it seems as if a malevolent and dis-loyal power was hiding from us with an obstinacy the motive of which we cannot comprehend."
Flammarion believed the cautious reserves of Schiaparelli were exaggerated. He declared, after reading the records of the Milan sittings, "If fraud has sometimes crept in, still what has been accurately observed remains safe and sound and is an acquisition to science."
A fellow astronomer of Schiaparelli, Prof. Francesco Porro, who attended the same sittings and later a number of others, came to the following conclusion:
"The phenomena are real. They cannot be explained either by fraud or hallucination. From the idea of the unconscious muscular action of the spectators (put forth half a century ago by Faraday) to the projection of protoplasmic activity or to the temporary emanation from the body of the medium imagined by Lodge; from the psychiatric doctrine of Lombroso to the psycho-physiology of Ochorowitz; from the externalisation admitted by Rochas to the eso-psychism of Morselli; from the automatism of Pierre Janet to the duplication of personality of Alfred Binet—there was a perfect flood of explanation, having for their end the elimination of an exterior personality. It is not possible, and never will be, to have a scientific proof of the identity of beings who manifest themselves. It will always be possible to imagine an unknown mechanism by the aid of which elemental substance and power may be drawn from the medium and the sitters and combined in such a way as to produce the indicated effects. It will always be found possible to find in the special aptitudes of the medium, in the thought of the sitters, and even in their attitude of expectant attention, the cause of the human origin of the phenomena. Still I should be inclined to admit it (the spirit hypothesis), if I did not see the possibility that these phenomena might form part of a scheme of things still more vast. In fact, nothing hinders us from believing in the existence of forms of life wholly different from those we know, and of which the life of human beings before birth and after death forms only a special case, just as the organic life of man is a special case of animal life in general."
Other astronomers of renown whose names have gone down in the annals of psychical research are Arago, Marc Thury, Johann Zöllner, and Sir William Huggins. Arago made interesting experiments in 1846 with Angelique Cottin, "the electric girl"; Thury came to positive conclusions in his investigation of table-turning phenomena and admitted that there may exist in this world other wills than those of man and the animals, wills capable of acting on matter; Zöllner's experiments with Slade are still widely quoted in books on the subject. Crookes was assisted for some time, in his memorable experiments with D. D. Home, by Sir William Huggins, ex-president of the Royal Society, well known for his researches in physics and astronomy.
(See also Planetary Travels )