Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/12
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
Evidently, then, no standards, which like our ordinary measures bear a simple or at least a conceivable relation to the dimensions of our own bodies, can help us to stretch a line in such a universe. We must seek for some magnitude which is commensurate with these immensities of space; and, in the wonderfully rapid motion of light, astronomy furnishes us with a suitable standard. By the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites the astronomers have determined that this mysterious effluence reaches us from the sun in eight minutes and a half, and therefore must travel through space with the incredible velocity—shall I dare to name it—of 186,000 miles in a second of time! Yet inconceivably rapid as this motion is, capable of girdling the earth nearly eight times in a single second, the very nearest of the fixed stars, a Centauri, is so remote that the light by which it will be seen in the southern heavens tonight, near that magnificent constellation the Southern Cross, must have started on its journey three years and a half ago. But this light comes from merely the threshold of the stellar universe; and the telescope reveals to us stars so distant that, had they been blotted out of existence when history began, the tidings of the event could not yet have reached the earth!
Compare now with these grand conceptions the popular belief of only a few centuries back. Where we look into the infinite depths, our Puritan forefathers saw only a solid dome hemming in the earth and skies, and through whose opened doors the rain descended. They regarded the sun and moon merely as great luminaries set in this firmament to rule the day and night, and to their understandings the stars served no better purpose than the spangles which glitter on the azure ceiling of many a modern church. The great work of Copernicus, "De Orbium Cœlestium Revolutionibus," which was destined, ultimately, to overthrow the crude cosmography which Christianity had inherited from Judaism, was not published until just at the close of the author's life in 1543, the date before mentioned. The telescope, which was required to fully convince the world of its previous error, was not invented until more than half a century later, and it was not until 1835 that Struve detected the parallax of a Lyræ. The measurement of this parallax, together with Bessel's determination of the parallax of 61 Cygni, and Henderson's that of a Centauri, at about the same time, gave us our first accurate knowledge of the distances of the fixed stars.
To the thought I have endeavored to express I must add another, before I can draw the lesson which I wish to teach. Great scientific truths become popularized very slowly, and, after they have been thoroughly worked out by the investigators, it is often many years before they become a part of the current knowledge of mankind. It was fully a century after Copernicus died, with his great volume—still wet from the press of Nuremburg—in his hands, before the Copernican theory was generally accepted even by the learned; and the intolerant spirit with which this work was received, and the persecution which