Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/107

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97
THE BOUNDARIES OF ASTRONOMY.

origin of the tails of comets. I do not now inquire whether the repulsion by which the tail is produced be due to the intense radiation from the sun, or to electricity, or to some other agent. It is sufficient for our present purpose to note that, even if the tails of comets do gravitate toward the sun, the attraction is obscured by a more powerful repulsive force.

The solar system is a very small object when viewed in comparison with the dimensions of the sidereal system. The planets form a group nestled up closely around the sun. This little group is separated from its nearest visible neighbors in space by the most appalling distances. A vessel in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is not more completely isolated from the shores of Europe and America than is our solar system from the stars and other bodies which surround it in space. Our knowledge of gravitation has been most entirely obtained from the study of the bodies in the solar system. Let us inquire what can be ascertained as to the existence of this law in other parts of the universe. Newton knew nothing of the existence of the law of gravitatation beyond the confines of the solar system. A little more is known now.

Our actual knowledge of the existence of gravitation in the celestial spaces outside the solar system depends entirely upon those very interesting objects known as binary stars. There are in the heavens many cases of two stars occurring quite close together. A well-known instance is presented in the star Epsilon Lyræ, where two stars are so close together that it is a fair test of good vision to be able to separate them. But there are many cases in which the two stars are so close together that they can not be seen separately without the aid of a telescope. We may take, for instance, the very celebrated double star Castor, well known as one of the Twins. Viewed by the unaided eye, the two stars look like a single star, but in a moderately good telescope it is seen that the object is really two separate stars quite close together. The question now comes as to whether the propinquity of the two stars is apparent or real. It might be explained by the supposition that the two stars were indeed close together compared with the distance by which they are separated; or it could be equally explained by supposing that the two stars, though really far apart, yet appeared so nearly in the same line of vision that when projected on the surface of the heavens they seemed close together. It can not be doubted that in the case of many of the double stars, especially those in which the components appear tolerably distant, the propinquity is only apparent, and arises from the two stars being near the same line of vision. But it is, also, undoubtedly true that in the case of very many of the double stars, especially among those belonging to the class which includes Castor, the two stars are really at about the same distance from us, and, therefore, as compared with that distance, they are really close together.