Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/58

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
48
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

their orbits have slowly undergone slight changes. But the simple law of universal gravitation, combined, of course, with the laws of motion, not only leads to Kepler's laws as a very close approximation to the actual motions, but also accounts for those slight changes which have just been mentioned as necessary to make Kepler's laws fit observation exactly. We are inevitably led to regard the attraction of gravitation as the cause which keeps the planets in their orbits.

But it may be said, What is the difference in the two cases? Is not the law of gravitation merely a simpler mode of expressing the observed facts of the planetary motions just like the somewhat less simple laws of Kepler? What right have we to introduce the idea of causation in the one case more than in the other?

The answer to this appears to be that in the one case, that of Kepler's laws, supposing them to be true, we have merely a statement of what, on that supposition, would be a fact regarding the motions of the planets, whereas in the other case the observed motions are referred to a property of matter of the operation of which in other and perfectly different phenomena we have independent evidence.

I have purposely omitted to mention the important difference between the two cases, which lies in the circumstance that Kepler's laws require correction to make them applicable to long intervals of time, whereas the law of gravitation shows no sign of failure; because, even if the former had been perfectly exact, however long the interval of time to which they were applied, I doubt if they would have carried with them the idea of causation.

To take another simple illustration, let us think of the propulsion of a bullet in an air-gun. We speak of the motion of the bullet as being caused by the elasticity of the compressed air. And the idea of causation comes in because we refer this particular instance of motion to a property of gas, of the existence and operation of which we have evidence in perfectly independent phenomena.

It is thus that in scientific investigation we endeavor to ascend from observed phenomena to their proximate causes; but, when we have arrived at these, the question presents itself, Can we in a similar manner regard these causes in turn as themselves the consequences of some cause stretching still further back in the chain of causation? If the motion of the bullet in an air-gun be caused by the elasticity of the compressed air, can we account for the elasticity of a gas? If the retention of the planets in their orbits be due to the attraction of gravitation, can we explain how it is that two material bodies should attract one another across the intervening space?

Till a time well on in the present century, we could only take the elasticity of gases as a fact, and deduce the consequences which flow from it. But the researches of Joule and Clausius and Maxwell and Crookes and others have accumulated so much evidence in favor of the general truth of the kinetic theory of gases, that we are now dis-