T. J. J. See and the ‘dark bodies’ in double stars

The name of T.J.J. See is not well known nowadays but he was in his time an offbeat controversialist. He worked in the heyday of accurate astrometric measurements of double stars using large refractors like the 24 inch Alvan Clark (pictured), and may have made the first claim to have observed an extrasolar planetary body.

Our observations [of double star systems] during 1896-97 have certainly disclosed stars more difficult than any which astronomers had seen before. Among these obscure objects about half a dozen are truly wonderful, in that they seem to be dark, almost black in color, and apparently are shining by a dull reflected light. It is unlikely that they will prove to be self-luminous. If they should turn out [to be] dark bodies in fact, shining only by the reflected light of the stars around which they revolve, we should have the first case of planets – dark bodies – noticed among the fixed stars.

With regard to another binary star 70 Ophiuchi See announced

There is some dark body or other cause disturbing the regularity of its elliptical motion, but heretofore all efforts to see it with the telescope have been unsuccessful.

Quoted in The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science
by Steven J. Dick (1999) from original 1897 article by See in Atlantic Monthly.

The claim predates the better known one made by Peter van de Kamp for Barnard’s star detailed here which turned out also to be spurious. But that was not at all such a wild claim – a result of systematic errors and technology not yet up to the exacting astrometry necessary.

The Dick book is not one I’ve seen before and points out that the astrometric methods needed to detect planets were already demonstrated by Bessel in 1844, when measurements with a few arcsecond precision indirectly revealed the white dwarf companions of Procyon and Sirius. Sirius B was first seen by Clark in 1862.


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