Saturday, 14 February 2009

The Astronomer's Drinking Song.

Some years ago Mr. De Morgan found among the papers of a much older friend, to whom he was an executor, who never lived in London, and who was not a mathematician, a song described as having been sung at a Mathematical Society in London, on the occasion of a dinner given to a solicitor named Fletcher, who had defended an action for the Society gratuitously. On application to the late Mr. Benjamin Gompertz, who was President of the Mathematical Society (founded 1717) of Spitalfields, when it merged in the Astronomical Society, it appeared that the account was correct in every particular. About 1798 the Mathematical Society has come philosophical lectures given at their rooms, with entrance at a shilling a head. They did not know the law, until they were sued by an informer for penalties on the shillings, amounting to thousands of pounds, as having opened an unlicensed public exhibition. Mr. Fletcher, a member, described by Mr. Gompertz as a very scientific person, undertook their defence as solicitor, and managed to bring them off. He would not make any charge, and the Society gave him a dinner, which Mr. Gompertz remembered attending, though he could not undertake to remember the songs or their subjects.
Whether the following song was sung as here given cannot be ascertained. The possessor above named, in whose handwriting it seems to be, was a person very likely to have augmented it. Mr. de Morgan acknowledges various conjectural restorations of lines half-effaced by age, and the addition of the verse relative to Kepler. It is tolerably certain that some such song, containing some of the verses here given, was actually sung at the dinner. The notes, of course, are by a modern scholiast.

WHOE’ER would search the starry sky,
Its secrets to divine, Sir,
Should take his glass – I mean, should try
A glass or two of wine, Sir.
True virtue lies i’ th’ golden mean,
And man must wet his clay, Sir;
Join these two maxims and ‘tis seen
He should drink he bottle a-day, Sir.

Old Archimedes, reverent sage!
By trump of fame renowned, Sir,
Deep problems solved in every page,
And the sphere’s curved surface found, Sir:
Himself he would have far outshone,
And borne a wider sway, Sir,
Had he our modern secret known,
And drunk his bottle a-day, Sir.

When Ptolemy, now long ago,
Believed the earth stood still, Sir,
He never would have blundered so,
Had he but drunk his fill, Sir:
He’d then have felt* it circulate,
And would have learned to say, Sir,
The true way to investigate
Is to drink your bottle a-day, Sir.

*When the song was communicated to Dr. Whewell, he said this was a very good idea, of which too little was made. A separate song, in which the vertiginal proof of the earth’s motion should be extolled above the pendulum and the whirligig proofs, for facility, accessibility, perceptibility, and intelligibility, would have found favour in old time. But in our age science neither drinks nor blusters –
“Projicit ampullas et sequipedalia verba.”

Copernicus, that learned wight,
The glory of his nation,
With floods of wine refreshed his sight,
And saw the earth’s rotation.
Each planet then its orb described,
The moon got under way, Sir;
These truths from nature he imbibed,
For he drank his bottle a-day, Sir.

The noble Tycho* placed the stars
Each in its due location;
He lost the nose* by spite of Mars,
But that was no privation.
Had he but lost his mouth, I grant,
He would have felt dismay, Sir,
Bless you! he knew what hw should want
To drink his bottle a-day, Sir.

*The common epithet of his rank, - nobilis Tycho, as he was a nobleman. The writer had been at history.
*He lost it in a duel with Manderupuis Pasbergius. A contemporary, J. B. Laurus, insinuates they fought to settle which was the best mathematician. This seems odd, even to us who remember that gentlemen used to decide by the bullet which was the liar; but it must be remembered that the two mathematicians tilted “in tenebris densis,” and it is a nice problem to shave off a nose in the dark, without any other harm.

Cold water makes no lucky hits;
On mysteries the head runs:
Small drink let Kepler tune his wits
On the regular polyhedrons.
He took to wine and it changed the chime;
His genius swept away, Sir,
Though area* varying as the time
At the rate of a bottle a-day, Sir.

*An allusion to Kepler’s celebrated law of planetary motion. He had previously wasted his time on analogies between the planetary orbits and the polyhedrons. This verse is a forgery, but stoutly maintained to be genuine.

Poor Galileo, forced to rat
Before the Inquisition,
E pur si muove was the pat
He gave them in addition.
He meant – Whate’er you think you prove
The earth must go its way, Sire,
Spite of your teeth I’ll make it move,
For I’ll drink my bottle a-day, Sirs.

Great Newton, who was never beat,
Whatever fools may think, Sir,
Though sometimes he forgot to each,
He never forgot to drink, Sir.
Descartes took nought but lemonade*;
To conquer him was play, Sir:
The first advance that Newton made
Was to drink his bottle a-day, Sir.

*As great a lie as ever was told. But in 1798 a compliment to Newton without a fling at Descartes would have been held a lopsided structure.

The Pascal-forger thinks, perhaps,
That Newton must sing small, Sir,
Before ten thousand little scraps,
With signatures to all, Sir.
But they’re not worth their count in pence,
As many to one I’d lay, Sir,
That Pascal never had the sense
To drink his bottle a-day Sir*.

*This verse was entirely effaced by age, but efface is here a verb of negative value. It seems to refer to the forgeries produced in 1867, in which some genuine ignoramus represented Hannah Ayscough, the mother of Isaac Newton, by re-marriage Smith, as signing herself “Miss Anne Ascough Newton” instead of “Hannah Smith.” The consequence is, in England, a very ready belief in the forgery, and the same through all the well-informed classes in France. But we are afraid that among certain of the French, especially among those who know what the Emperor will do next, there is a conviction that English ladies always sign one husband short, and that two marriages are counted spinsterhood, provided the claim be made.

D’Alembert, Euler, and Clairaut,
Though they increased our store, Sir,
Much farther had been seen to go
Had they tippled a little more, Sir.
Lagrange gets mellow with Laplace,
And both are wont to say, Sir,
The philosophe who’d not an ass
Will drink his bottle a-day, Sir!

Astronomers! what can avail
Those who calumniate us:
Experiment can never fail
With such an apparatus.
Let those who’d have their merits known
Remember what I say, Sir;
Fair science shines on him alone
Who drinks his bottle a-day, Sir.

How light we reck of those who mock
By this we’ll make t’appear, Sir,
We’ll dine by the sidereal clock,
For one more bottle a-year, Sir.
But choose which pendulum you will,
You’ll never made your way, Sir,
Unless you drink, and drink your fill,
At least a bottle a-day, Sir.

*The sidereal day is a little shorted than the solar day, and gives 366 to the year.

Daubeny, Fugitive Poems, 179-185

By Augustus De Morgan, and online here.

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