The Society for the Detection of a Missing World

The Society for the Detection of a Missing World

In Old and New Astronomy [1892] Arthur Ranyard states that in “Kepler’s day” the gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter was thought to represent the “vacant track” of a destroyed planet.

It was noticed by Copernicus, and later still more particularly by Kepler, that there is a sort of gap in the solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

It is true that the distance separating these orbits (3.679, Earth’s as 1) is less than the distance separating the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn (4.336); but there is evidence of a law of increase in the distances separating each orbit from its next outer neighbour, and this law is obviously interrupted if Jupiter is regarded as coming next to Mars.

In Kepler’s day it was thought by many a sufficient solution of the difficulty to conclude that a planet formerly travelling along this seemingly vacant track had been destroyed on account of the wickedness of its inhabitants.

And we are told that there were not wanting preachers who used the destruction of this hypothetical planet as a warning to evil-doers, who were told that if they continued in their sins they might not only bring destruction on themselves but on the world, which might burst, as had that other world, and reduce the sun’s family by yet another planet.

Planetary Distances

Chapter XII – The Zone of Asteroids
Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892


Interest in the destroyed planet theory revived when Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781.

It was not until the discovery of Uranus by Sir W. Herschel in 1781 that the speculations of Kepler attracted scientific attention.

The three laws of Kepler had been interpreted physically by Newton ; and when the empirical law of distances, for which, as it appeared, no reason in nature could be assigned, was found to be fulfilled by the new planet, astronomers could not but regard the circumstance as somewhat more than a mere coincidence.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

Herschel became interested in astronomy in 1773, and after constructing his first large telescope in 1774, he spent nine years carrying out thorough sky surveys, where his purpose was the investigation of double stars.

The resolving power of the Herschel telescopes revealed that the nebulae in the Messier catalogue were clusters of stars: catalogues of nebulae were published in 1802 (2,500 objects) and 1820 (5,000 objects).

In the course of an observation on 13 March 1781 he realized that one celestial body he had observed was not a star, but a planet, Uranus.

This was the first planet to be discovered since antiquity and Herschel became famous overnight.

This renewed interest led Baron Franz Xaver von Zach to form, in 1800, the Society for the Detection of a Missing World which was more commonly know as the Celestial Police because they were charged to “arrest” the missing planet.

A society was therefore formed chiefly through the active exertions of De Zach of Gotha to search for the missing planet.

It consisted of twenty-four astronomers under the presidency of Schroeter.

The zodiac was divided into twenty-four zones, one of which was assigned to each member of this Society for the Detection of a Missing World.

The twenty-four commenced their labours with great zeal.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

In 1800, a Hungarian baron named Franz Xavier von Zach, astronomer to the duke of Gotha and director of the Seeberg Observatory, sponsored a special search for the suspected missing planet.

The initial group of six astronomers met for a conference in Lilienthal, Germany.

Additional astronomers were invited to join until the illustrious group totaled 24:

Johann Elert Bode in Berlin…
Thomas Bugge in Copenhagen…
Johann Carl Burckhardt in Paris…
Johann Tobias Bürg in Vienna…
Ferdinand Adolf von Ende in Celle…
Johann Gildemeister in Bremen…
Karl Ludwig Harding in Lilienthal…
William Herschel in Slough…
Johann Sigismund Gottfried Huth in Frankfurt…
Georg Simon Klügel in Halle…
J. A. Koch in Danzig (Gdansk)…
Nevil Maskelyne in Greenwich…
Pierre-François-André Mechain in Paris…
Daniel Melanderhielm in Stockholm…
Charles Messier in Paris…
Heinrich Wilhelm Mattäus Olbers in Bremen…
Barnaba Oriani in Milan…
Giuseppi Piazzi in Palermo…
Johann Hieronymus Schroeter in Lilientha…
Friedrich Theodor Schubert in St. Petersburg…
Jöns Svanberg in Uppsala…
Jacques-Joseph Thulis in Marseille…
Julius Friedrich Wurm, professor at Blauebeuren, Germany…
Franz Xavier von Zach, founder of the society…

They divided the sky into 24 zones along the zodiac (recall that the constellations of the zodiac lie on the arc across the sky that the planets appear to travel, when seen from Earth, so any new, unidentified planet would be expected to travel the same path) and assigned each of the zones to an astronomer.

They named themselves the Vereinigte Astronomische Gesellschaft, commonly called the Lilienthal Society.

They came to be known more widely by the charming name Celestial Police (Himmel Polizei) because they were charged to “arrest” the missing planet.

Asteroids, Meteorites, and Comets – 2006 – Linda T. Elkins-Tanton – Chelsea House

The initial searches made by the members of the Society were fruitless.

When we consider that over the region of the heavens which they were to examine at least a hundred planets, well within the range of their telescopes, and probably many hundreds of smaller bodies were travelling, we may fairly wonder that they discovered nothing.

Such, however, was the result of their labours.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

Then, in 1801 Giuseppe Piazzi informed the group of a travelling “star” he had discovered.

After they had been at work a considerable time, accident revealed to an astronomer outside their society a body which was regarded for a long time as the missing planet.

Professor Piazzi, while observing stars for his catalogue, was led to examine very carefully a part of the constellation Taurus, where Wollaston had marked in a star which Piazzi could not find.

On January 1, 1801, the first day of the present century, he observed in this part of the heavens a small star, which he suspected of variability, seeing that it appeared where before no star of equal brightness had been mapped.

On January 3 he found that the star had disappeared from that place, but another, much like it, lay at a short distance to the west of the place which it had occupied.

The actual distance between the two positions was nearly a third of the moon’s apparent diameter.

On January 24 (our observer was not too impatient) he transmitted to Oriani and Bode, members of the Missing World Detection Society, an account of the movements of this star, which had travelled towards the west till January 11 or 12, and had then begun to advance.

He continued his labours till February 11, when he was seized with serious illness.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

Giuseppi Piazzi in Palermo, professor at the University of Palermo who went on to find the first asteroid without having received his invitation to join the society

Asteroids, Meteorites, and Comets – 2006 – Linda T. Elkins-Tanton – Chelsea House

This “small star” was subsequently confirmed to be a planet by the Society for the Detection of a Missing World in 1802 and Giuseppe Piazzi named the new planet Ceres.

Unfortunately, his letters to Oriani and Bode did not reach those astronomers until nearly the end of March, by which time the planet (for such it was) had become invisible, owing to the approach of the sun to the part of the heavens along which the planet was travelling.

But the planet was not lost.

In September the region occupied by the planet was again visible at night.

In the meantime Gauss had calculated from Piazzi’s observations the real path of the planet.

Throughout September, October, November, and December search was made for the missing star.

At length, on the last day of the year 1801, De Zach detected the planet, Olbers independently effecting the rediscovery on January 1, 1802.

Thus the first night of the present century was distinguished by the discovery of a new planet, and before the first year of the century had passed the planet was fairly secured.

Piazzi assigned to the newly discovered planet the name of the titular goddess of Sicily, where the discovery was made Ceres.

Ceres was found to be travelling in an orbit corresponding in the most satisfactory manner with Bode’s law.

According to that law the missing planet’s distance from the orbit of Mercury should have been 24; calling Mercury’s distance from the Sun 4, the actual distance of Ceres is 23.33.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

Giuseppe Piazzi - Ceres

Ceres is a very strong candidate for a remnant Missing World.

1. Its orbit is within 1.08% of the orbital distance predicted by the Titius-Bode law.
2. It is the largest object in the asteroid belt [950 km in diameter].
3. It is composed of rock and ice.
4. It is unambiguously rounded by “gravity”.

Ceres (minor-planet designation: 1 Ceres) is the largest object in the asteroid belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

It is composed of rock and ice, is 950 kilometers (590 miles) in diameter, and comprises approximately one third of the mass of the asteroid belt.

It is the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System and the only object in the asteroid belt known to be unambiguously rounded by its own gravity.

It was the first asteroid to be discovered, on 1 January 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi in Palermo, though at first it was considered to be a planet.

From Earth, the apparent magnitude of Ceres ranges from 6.7 to 9.3, and hence even at its brightest it is too dim to be seen with the naked eye except under extremely dark skies.

Ceres appears to be differentiated into a rocky core and icy mantle, and may harbor a remnant internal ocean of liquid water under the layer of ice.

The surface is probably a mixture of water ice and various hydrated minerals such as carbonates and clay.

In January 2014, emissions of water vapor were detected from several regions of Ceres.

1 Ceres

Ceres as seen by the Dawn spacecraft, 19 February 2015.
The bright spot seen unresolved in Hubble images is here revealed as two distinct features inside a crater. Several linear, groove-like features run towards the terminator at lower right.

The hypothesis correctly predicted the orbits of Ceres and Uranus, but failed as a predictor of Neptune’s orbit.

However, Ceres didn’t convince everyone because its small and has a large orbital inclination.

Yet astronomers were not satisfied with the new planet.

It travelled at the right mean distance from the sun; but passing over its inferiority to its neighbours, Mars and Jupiter, in size and splendour, its path was inclined to the ecliptic at an angle of more than ten degrees a thing as yet unheard of among planets.

As to its size, Sir W. Herschel, from measurements made with his powerful telescopes, estimated the new planet’s diameter at about 160 miles, so that, supposing it of the same density as our Earth, its mass is less than one 125,000th part of hers.

Thus it would take more than 1,560 such planets to make a globe as massive as our moon.

And even this probably falls far short of the truth, for our Earth owes no small part of her density to the compression produced by the attractive energy of her own substance.

Small Ceres would be very much less compressed, and, if made of the same substances, as we may well believe, would probably have a density not very much exceeding the average density of the bodies of which the Earth’s crust is composed, that is, about two and a half times the density of water.

Thus, it would probably take some quarter-million worlds like Ceres to make such a globe as our Earth, while from our moon three thousand such worlds as Ceres might be made.

It was natural that astronomers should regard with some suspicion a planet falling so far short of every known planet, and even of a mere moon, in size and mass.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

However, it should be noted:

a) Herschel underestimated the diameter of Ceres by a factor of 3.68.
b) Ranyard underestimated the volume of Ceres by a factor of 50.22.
c) The volume of the Moon is 49 times larger than Ceres.
d) The orbital inclination of Ceres is not high in relation to the Sun’s equator.


The finding of Ceres was quickly followed by the discovery of Pallas by Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers in 1802.

But presently a discovery was made which still more markedly separated Ceres from the rest of the planetary family.

Olbers, during his search for Ceres, had had occasion to study very closely the arrangement of the groups of small stars scattered along the track which Ceres might be expected to follow.

What reason he had for continuing his examination of these groups after Ceres was found does not appear.

Possibly he may have had some hope of what actually occurred.

Certain it is that in March 1802, or nearly three months after Ceres had been rediscovered, he was examining a part of the constellation Virgo, close by the spot where he had found Ceres on January 1 in the same year.

While thus at work he noticed a small star forming with two others known by him an equilateral triangle.

He felt sure this star had not been there three months before, and his first idea was that it was a variable star.

At the end of two hours, however, he perceived that it had moved slightly towards the northwest.

On the next evening it had moved still farther towards the north-west.

It was, in fact, a planet, and the study of this planet’s motion showed that its mean distance from the sun differed very little from that of Ceres.

This discovery, rightly understood, was the most surprising of any which had been made since the nature of Saturn’s ring was discovered by Huyghens in 1656.

The discovery of this second planet (to which the name Pallas was given) showed that Ceres was not travelling alone in the region which had so long been supposed untenanted.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

2 Pallas

Olbers himself was fully satisfied that other planets travel in the region between Mars and Jupiter.

He was struck by the remarkable features of the orbit of the planet he had discovered.

It was inclined more than three times as much as that of Ceres to the median plane near which lie the tracks of all the single planets.

So greatly is the path of Pallas inclined to this tract that even as seen from the sun its range on either side gave to the planetary highway a width of sixty-nine degrees, or nearly four times the width of the zodiac (as determined by the range of Venus, viewed from the Earth, on either side of the medial track).

The range of Pallas as seen from the Earth is still greater; so great, indeed, that this planet may actually be seen at times among the Polar constellations.

Moreover, the path of Pallas is remarkably eccentric, insomuch that “her greatest distance from the sun exceeds her least in the proportion of about 5 to 8.

Olbers was led by these peculiarities to the belief that Ceres and Pallas are the fragments of a planet which formerly travelled between the paths of Mars and
Jupiter, but had been shattered to pieces by a tremendous explosion

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

2 Pallas_family

This success was followed in 1804 by the discovery of Juno by Karl Ludwig Harding.

Olbers then set himself the task of carefully observing two parts of the heavens, one being the place where the tracks of Ceres and Pallas cross as seen from the sun, the other being the place directly opposite to this.

He also persuaded Harding, of Lilienthal, to pay special attention to these two regions; one near the northern wing of the Virgin, the other in the constellation of the Whale.

At length, on September 4, 1804, the search was rewarded with success; the planet called Juno being discovered by Harding in that part of the Whale which Olbers had indicated.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892
3 Juno
3 Juno clump

And in 1807 Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers discovered Vesta.

Olbers did not cease from the search, however, but continued it for thirteen months after Harding’ s success, and five years after his own discovery of Pallas.

At length, on March 28, 1807, the fifth anniversary of this discovery, Olbers detected Vesta, the only member of the family of asteroids which has ever (we believe) been seen with the naked eye.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

4 Vesta
4 Vesta family

Vesta was the final discovery of the Society for the Detection of a Missing World.

Astronomers seem to have been satisfied with this fourth fragment of Olbers’s hypothetical planet.

Olbers’s theory that the four small planets, Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta, were the fragments of a single planet which had burst was not hopelessly untenable, so far as those four planets were concerned, for their mean distances are nearly equal, being 2.769, 2.771, 2.668, and 2.361 respectively, the Earth’s being taken as unity.

Indeed, when Gibers first suggested the theory only two of the small planets had been discovered, Ceres and Pallas, and these travel at almost the same mean distance from the sun.

In the ‘Connaissance des Temps’ for 1814 Laplace showed that with a velocity of explosion not exceeding twenty times that of a cannon-ball say twelve times that of a ball fired from one of our best modern cannon the observed range in the mean distances of these bodies might have been obtained.

It is, however, to be noticed that even for this the Pallas fragment was assumed to have been expelled directly forwards and the Vesta fragment directly backwards (with reference to the course of the planet at the moment of the catastrophe), in order that the whole effect of the change of velocity might fall on the period, lengthening to the utmost that of Pallas and shortening to the utmost that of Vesta.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

However, some thought these fragments were a new class of small “starlike” objects: asteroids.

Bode was troubled by these findings, as were other members of the scientific community, because the tiny size and number of these bodies seemed to disrupt the natural harmonious order of the planets.

Would the maker of the universe have left a gap in the order of the planets, the community wondered?

Briefly the idea arose that a planet had existed and was shattered, but a universe subject to such immense and capricious forces of nature was horrifying to those men of the enlightenment.

Within a month of the discovery of Pallas, scientists began to realize that a new class of solar system objects had been discovered.

Herschel suggested naming these small bodies asteroids, which means “starlike,” because the movement of a bright orbiting asteroid seen through a telescope was reminiscent of the tracks of stars across the night sky as the Earth turns.

(There was also a small movement to call them “planetkins.”)

In 1815, the Celestial Police finally stopped hunting for the missing planet, having concluded that only a collection of small bodies took up those orbits between Mars and Jupiter.

Asteroids, Meteorites, and Comets – 2006 – Linda T. Elkins-Tanton – Chelsea House

Furthermore, the tide of mainstream opinion began to turn [especially after 1830] as they abandoned catastrophic concepts and embraced Uniformitarianism.

Uniformitarianism is the scientific observation that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe.

It has included the gradualistic concept that “the present is the key to the past” and is functioning at the same rates.

Uniformitarianism has been a key principle of geology and virtually all fields of science, but naturalism’s modern geologists, while accepting that geology has occurred across deep time, no longer hold to a strict gradualism.

From 1830 to 1833 Charles Lyell’s multi-volume Principles of Geology was published.

The work’s subtitle was “An attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation”.

He drew his explanations from field studies conducted directly before he went to work on the founding geology text, and developed Hutton’s idea that the earth was shaped entirely by slow-moving forces still in operation today, acting over a very long period of time.

The terms uniformitarianism for this idea, and catastrophism for the opposing viewpoint, were coined by William Whewell in a review of Lyell’s book.

Principles of Geology was the most influential geological work in the middle of the 19th century.

In 1830 the search for orbiting bodies [between Mars and Jupiter] restarted and a flood of discoveries flowed from 1845 – but they were discovering asteroids – not Missing Worlds.

As ancient theologians, in the fulness of their wisdom, decided that there could not be more than four corners to the earth (whatever they understood by corners), so even in the present century the idea prevailed that an exploding world could not break up into more than four pieces.

But, twenty-three years later (or in 1830), Hencke, an amateur astronomer of Driessen, in Germany, commenced a search destined to meet with no success until more than fifteen years had elapsed.

On the evening of December 8, 1845, he observed a star of the ninth magnitude in the constellation Taurus, in a place where he felt sure, from his recollection of the region, that there had previously been no star of that degree of brightness.

He communicated the observation to Encke, of Berlin; and on December 14 they rediscovered it in the place to which by that time it had removed.

It was found to be an asteroid travelling at a distance almost midway between that of Vesta and that of Ceres.

Hencke requested Encke to name the new planet, and that astronomer selected for it the name of Astrtea.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

Asteroids Discovered


Thus any idea of a Missing World was lost [possibly drowned] in a sea of asteroids.

Fig. 373 shows that the range in the known mean distances of the asteroids has enormously increased since then, and that even in this aspect alone the explosion theory is no longer so hopeful as when Laplace held it to be barely tenable.

Path of the Asteroids

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

Additionally, in those pre-nuclear days, the mainstream could not imagine any process that was powerful enough “to shatter a planet”.

There is further an equally strong physical objection against Olbers’s theory in the circumstance that, though in a great volcanic outburst the Earth’s internal forces suffice to eject matter with velocities comparable with those required by the hypothesis, we have in these cases the energies of enormous subterranean regions exerted on relatively minute bodies.

To conceive that the energies even of the whole Earth, if all brought into action at once, could suffice to propel the whole mass of the Earth in fragments from around the centre of explosion, with velocities enormously exceeding those ever observed in any fragment ever shot out from a volcanic crater, is a very different matter indeed.

A certain charge of gunpowder will drive a cannon-ball to a distance of two or three miles, but a thousand times that charge would not scatter the fragments of the cannon (if the ball had been tightly fixed in) over a similar distance all around the place of explosion.

Nothing known about our Earth’s interior, nothing which we can infer about the interior of any other planet formed by processes such as we recognise in the development of the solar system as at present understood, suggests the possibility that a millionth part of the force necessary to shatter a planet, as Olbers’s theory requires, can ever be generated and accumulated within the planet’s interior.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

Furthermore, the “overwhelming” objection raised by the mainstream was that no common point had been identified through which “the scattered fragments must pass”.

But another objection, first dealt with by Encke, has always been held more serious, and has now become to all intents overwhelming.

Olbers and his contemporaries, as we have seen, held that whenever such an explosion occurred the new orbits of the scattered fragments must pass through the point where the explosion took place.

They found no such point common to the orbits of the four first-discovered asteroids.

Old and New Astronomy – Richard Anthony Proctor & Arthur Cowper Ranyard – 1892

This is still the mainstream position today even though the Comet Family of Jupiter has a distinct common point through which many of them pass as they orbit the Sun.

the comet family of jupiter
The Other Big Bang Theory

Perhaps, one day, the mainstream will take “one giant leap” away from Uniformitarianism.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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4 Responses to The Society for the Detection of a Missing World

  1. Tim, In order to jump from Uniformitarianism, one has to undo Charles Lyell’s contribution documented in his Principles of Geology. And one needs to understand the political philosophy that drove him and his Whig cohort. A starting point would be George Grinnell’s paper on the setting up of the London Geological Society in 1807. is one location of his paper. It means going back to James Hutton to understand what motivated his work – political or scientific?

    This is an important area of study because the foundation of Marxism was constructed on the Huttonian-Lyellian paradigms, on which Darwin proposed his evolutionary hypothesis and from which the Marxists and progressives based their progressive philosophy. It is not a trivial activity.

  2. malagabay says:

    Thanks… A very interesting read.

    It helps to explain the “slow assimilation” of the Missing World concept after 1830 so that “there was virtually nothing left to the theory” in the Asteroid Belt

    The liberal takeover of the geological society and the suppression of evidence favoring the catastrophist position did not come about overnight.
    Rather there was a slow assimilation of catastrophist data until there was virtually nothing left to the theory as a whole.
    When, in 1839, Louis Agassiz attempted to argue in favor of catastrophism with his theory of ice ages, the uniformitarians simply adopted all his evidence, but reinterpreted it in uniformitarian terms.
    Thus the data did not change, but the Gestalt by which that data was organized and given coherence was transformed from catastrophism to uniformitarianism, just as the social structure of England was changed from Tory Paternalism in which sovereignty descended from God down to the King, to the new liberalism in which sovereignty ascended up from the people through Parliament to its ministers.

    And then [nearly a 100 years later] a “descended from God” counter offensive promotes the Big Bang and we see the “slow assimilation” of any remaining Rational Thought until there was “virtually nothing left” but a belief system called Settled Science.

    Independently deriving Friedmann’s equations in 1927, Georges Lemaître, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest, proposed that the inferred recession of the nebulae was due to the expansion of the universe.

    In 1931 Lemaître went further and suggested that the evident expansion of the universe, if projected back in time, meant that the further in the past the smaller the universe was, until at some finite time in the past all the mass of the universe was concentrated into a single point, a “primeval atom” where and when the fabric of time and space came into existence

    As a description of the origin of the universe, the Big Bang has significant bearing on religion and philosophy.
    As a result, it has become one of the liveliest areas in the discourse between science and religion.
    Some believe the Big Bang implies a creator, and some see its mention in their holy books, while others argue that Big Bang cosmology makes the notion of a creator superfluous.

    Do we need a new name to describe this Clusterf***?

  3. Jim Coyle says:

    No. I think Clusterf*** does just fine. Definitely to the point.

  4. Pingback: The Magnetic Personality of Violet | MalagaBay

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