Sherlock Holmes' real-life nemesis U.S. astronomer said to be model for Prof. Moriarty

January 05, 1993|By Boston Globe

PHOENIX -- It's elementary, my dear Watson. The evidence appears unmistakable: The notorious Professor Moriarty, the sinister genius, scourge of London and nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, can now be unmasked.

Moriarty, it seems, was none other than the American astronomer Simon Newcomb, superintendent of the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office and the most celebrated U.S. astronomer of the 19th century. There are so many clear and unmistakable parallels between the two that according to a modern-day sleuth there can no longer be any doubt that they were, in fact, one and the same.

Bradley Schaefer of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., presented this apparent unmasking of one of literature's most famous villains yesterday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

After exhaustive research through astronomical archives, the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the celebrated fictional detective Holmes, and various critical analyses of those works, Mr. Schaefer has not only concluded that Newcomb was the model for Moriarty -- though not, presumably, for his dastardly criminal deeds -- but has also found the link through which he believes Doyle could have learned about Newcomb. And, in the process, he says, he has also identified another scurrilous member of Moriarty's gang, Col. Sebastian Moran, as a lesser-known astronomer of that era, Col. Alfred Drayson.

According to Mr. Schaefer, Drayson was a very good friend of Doyle's and would have been very familiar with Newcomb because they specialized in similar research. Mr. Schaefer says Drayson may have passed along details about Newcomb to Doyle, who then, consciously or not, incorporated them into the description of his greatest criminal creation.

The careers of Moriarty, arguably the most famous "astronomer" of all time, and the truly famous Newcomb are filled with similar details, according to Mr. Schaefer.

Moriarty and Newcomb, for example, were both mathematical geniuses who published papers on the binomial theorem at the age of 20 and later wrote about the orbits of asteroids. They were professors of mathematics at small universities until forced to resign. Their leadership was based on repeated successes, intimidating personalities and the fear of their associates.

In "The Final Problem," Doyle described Moriarty as "the celebrated author of 'The Dynamics of an Asteroid,' a book which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said that there is no man in the scientific press capable of criticizing it."

"The parallels in the careers of Moriarty/Newcomb and Moran/Drayson are too many and too close to be coincidence," said Mr. Schaefer. His paper describing his sleuthing will be published in February in a British astronomy magazine.

The first suggestion of a connection between Moriarty and Newcomb was made in 1978 by astronomer Ronald Schorn, but no one had offered detailed "proof" or made the link with Drayson as the source of the information.

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