EVERY one understands our interest in knowing the form and dimensions of our earth; but some persons will perhaps be surprised at the exactitude sought after. Is this a useless luxury? What good are the efforts so expended by the geodesist?
Should this question be put to a congressman, I suppose he would say: "I am led to believe that geodesy is one of the most useful of the sciences; because it is one of those costing us most dear." I shall try to give you an answer a little more precise.
The great works of art, those of peace as well as those of war, are not to be undertaken without long studies which save much groping, miscalculation and useless expense. These studies can only be based upon a good map. But a map will be only a valueless phantasy if constructed without basing it upon a solid framework. As well make stand a human body minus the skeleton.
Now, this framework is given us by geodesic measurements; so, without geodesy, no good map; without a good map, no great public works.
These reasons will doubtless suffice to justify much expense; but these are arguments for practical men. It is not upon these that it is proper to insist here; there are others higher and, everything considered, more important.
So we shall put the question otherwise: can geodesy aid us the better to know nature? Does it make us understand its unity and harmony? In reality an isolated fact is of slight value, and the conquests of science are precious only if they prepare for new conquests.
If therefore a little hump were discovered on the terrestrial ellipsoid, this discovery would be by itself of no great interest. On the other hand, it would become precious if, in seeking the cause of this hump, we hoped to penetrate new secrets.
Well, when, in the eighteenth century, Maupertuis and La Condamine braved such opposite climates, it was not solely to learn the shape of our planet, it was a question of the whole world-system.
If the earth was flattened, Newton triumphed and with him the doctrine of gravitation and the whole modern celestial mechanics.
And to-day, a century and a half after the victory of the Newtonians, think you geodesy has nothing more to teach us?
We know not what is within our globe. The shafts of mines and borings have let us know a layer of 1 or 2 kilometers thickness, that is to say, the millionth part of the total mass; but what is beneath?