1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Earth

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EARTH (a word common to Teutonic languages, cf. Ger. Erde, Dutch aarde, Swed. and Dan. jord; outside Teutonic it appears only in the Gr. ἔραζε, on the ground; it has been connected by some etymologists with the Aryan root ar-, to plough, which is seen in the Lat. arare, obsolete Eng. “ear,” and Gr. ἀροῦν, but this is now considered very doubtful; see G. Curtius, Greek Etymology, Eng. trans., i. 426; Max Müller, Lectures, 8th ed. i. 294). From early times the word “earth” has been used in several connexions—from that of soil or ground to that of the planet which we inhabit, but it is difficult to trace the exact historic sequence of the diverse usages. In the cosmogony of the Pythagoreans, Platonists and other philosophers, the term or its equivalent denoted an element or fundamental quality which conferred upon matter the character of earthiness; and in the subsequent development of theories as to the ultimate composition of matter by the alchemists, iatrochemists, and early phlogistonists an element of the same name was retained (see Element). In modern chemistry, the common term “earth” is applied to certain oxides:—the “alkaline earths” (q.v.) are the oxides of calcium (lime), barium (baryta) and strontium (strontia); the “rare earths” (q.v.) are the oxides of a certain class of rare metals.


The Earth

The terrestrial globe is a member of the Solar system, the third in distance from the Sun, and the largest within the orbit of Jupiter. In the wider sense it may be regarded as composed of a gaseous atmosphere (see Meteorology), which encircles the crust or lithosphere (see Geography), and surface waters or hydrosphere (see Ocean and Oceanography). The description of the surface features is a branch of Geography, and the discussions as to their origin and permanence belongs to Physiography (in the narrower sense), physiographical geology, or physical geography. The investigation of the crust belongs to geology and of rocks in particular to petrology.

In the present article we shall treat the subject matter of the Earth as a planet under the following headings:—(1) Figure and Size, (2) Mass and Density, (3) Astronomical Relations, (4) Evolution and Age. These subjects will be treated summarily, readers being referred to the article Astronomy and to the cross-references for details.

1. Figure and Size.—To primitive man the Earth was a flat disk with its surface diversified by mountains, rivers and seas. In many cosmogonies this disk was encircled by waters, unmeasurable by man and extending to a junction with the sky; and the disk stood as an island rising up through the waters from the floor of the universe, or was borne as an immovable ship on the surface. Of such a nature was the cosmogony of the Babylonians and Hebrews; Homer states the same idea, naming the encircling waters Ὠκεανός; and Hesiod regarded it as a disk midway between the sky and the infernal regions. The theory that the Earth extended downwards to the limit of the universe was subjected to modification when it was seen that the same sun and stars reappeared in the east after their setting in the west. But man slowly realized that the earth was isolated in space, floating freely as a balloon, and much speculation was associated about that which supported the Earth. Tunnels in the foundations to permit the passage of the sun and stars were suggested; the Greeks considered twelve columns to support the heavens, and in their mythology the god Atlas appears condemned to support the columns; while the Egyptians had the Earth supported by four elephants, which themselves stood on a tortoise swimming on a sea. Earthquakes were regarded as due to a movement of these foundations; in Japan this was considered to be due to the motion of a great spider, an animal subsequently replaced by a cat-fish; in Mongolia it is a hog; in India, a mole; in some parts of South America, a whale; and among some of the North American Indians, a giant tortoise.

The doctrine of the spherical form has been erroneously assigned to Thales; but he accepted the Semitic conception of the disk, and regarded the production of springs after earthquakes as due to the inrushing of the waters under the Earth into fissures in the surface. His pupil, Anaximander (610-547), according to Diogenes Laërtius, believed it to be spherical (see The Observatory, 1894, P. 208); and Anaximenes probably held a similar view. The spherical form is undoubtedly a discovery of Pythagoras, and was taught by the Pythagoreans and by the Eleatic Parmenides. The expositor of greatest moment was Aristotle; his arguments are those which we employ to-day:—the ship gradually disappearing from hull to mast as it recedes from the harbour to the horizon; the circular shadow cast by the Earth on the Moon during an eclipse, and the alteration in the appearance of the heavens as one passes from point to point on the Earth’s surface.[1] He records attempts made to determine the circumference; but the first scientific investigation in this direction was made 150 years later by Eratosthenes. The spherical form, however, only became generally accepted after the Earth’s circumnavigation (see Geography).

The historical development of the methods for determining the figure of the Earth (by which we mean a theoretical surface in part indicated by the ocean at rest, and in other parts by the level to which water freely communicating with the oceans by canals traversing the land masses would rise) and the mathematical investigation of this problem are treated in the articles Earth, Figure of the, and Geodesy; here the results are summarized. Sir Isaac Newton deduced from the mechanical consideration of the figure of equilibrium of a mass of rotating fluid, the form of an oblate spheroid, the ellipticity of a meridian section being 1/231, and the axes in the ratio 230 : 231. Geodetic measurements by the Cassinis and other French astronomers pointed to a prolate form, but the Newtonian figure was proved to be correct by the measurement of meridional arcs in Peru and Lapland by the expeditions organized by the French Academy of Sciences. More recent work points to an elliptical equatorial section, thus making the earth pear-shaped. The position of the longer axis is somewhat uncertain; it is certainly in Africa, Clarke placing it in longitude 8° 15′ W., and Schubert in longitude 41° 4′ E.; W. J. Sollas, arguing from terrestrial symmetry, has chosen the position lat. 6° N., long. 28° E., i.e. between Clarke’s and Schubert’s positions. For the lengths of the axes and the ellipticity of the Earth, see Earth, Figure of the.

2. Mass and Density.—The earliest scientific investigation on the density and mass of the Earth (the problem is really single if the volume of the Earth be known) was made by Newton, who, mainly from astronomical considerations, suggested the limiting densities 5 and 6; it is remarkable that this prophetic guess should be realized, the mean value from subsequent researches being about 5½, which gives for the mass the value 6 × 1021 tons. The density of the Earth has been determined by several experimenters within recent years by methods described in the article Gravitation; the most probable value is there stated to be 5.527.

3. Astronomical Relations.—The grandest achievements of astronomical science are undoubtedly to be associated with the elucidation of the complex motion of our planet. The notion that the Earth was fixed and immovable at the centre of an immeasurable universe long possessed the minds of men; and we find the illustrious Ptolemy accepting this view in the 2nd century A.D., and rejecting the notion of a rotating Earth—a theory which had been proposed as early as the 5th century B.C. by Philolaus on philosophical grounds, and in the 3rd century B.C. by the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos. He argued that if the Earth rotated then points at the equator had the enormous velocity of about 1000 m. per hour, and as a consequence there should be terrific gales from the east; the fact that there were no such gales invalidated, in his opinion, the theory. The Ptolemaic theory was unchallenged until 1543, in which year the De Revolutionibus orbium Celestium of Copernicus was published. In this work it was shown that the common astronomical phenomena could be more simply explained by regarding the Earth as annually revolving about a fixed Sun, and daily rotating about itself. A clean sweep was made of the geocentric epicyclic motions of the planets which Ptolemy’s theory demanded, and in place there was substituted a procession of planets about the Sun at different distances. The development of the Copernican theory—the corner-stone of modern astronomy—by Johann Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton is treated in the article Astronomy: History; here we shall summarily discuss the motions of our planet and its relation to the solar system.

The Earth has two principal motions—revolution about the Sun, rotation about its axis; there are in addition a number of secular motions.

Revolution.—The Earth revolves about the Sun in an elliptical orbit having the Sun at one focus. The plane of the orbit is termed the ecliptic; it is inclined to the Earth’s equator at an angle termed the obliquity, and the points of intersection of the equator and ecliptic are termed the equinoctial points. The major axis of the ellipse is the line of apsides; when the Earth is nearest the Sun it is said to be in perihelion, when farthest it is in aphelion. The mean distance of the Earth from the Sun is a most important astronomical constant, since it is the unit of linear measurement; its value is about 93,000,000 m., and the difference between the perihelion and aphelion distances is about 3,000,000 m. The eccentricity of the orbit is 0.016751. A tabular comparison of the orbital constants of the Earth and the other planets is given in the article Planet. The period of revolution with regard to the Sun, or, in other words, the time taken by the Sun apparently to pass from one equinox to the same equinox, is the tropical or equinoctial year; its length is 365 d. 5 hrs. 48 m. 46 secs. It is about 20 minutes shorter than the true or sidereal year, which is the time taken for the Sun apparently to travel from one star to it again. The difference in these two years is due to the secular variation termed precession (see below). A third year is named the anomalistic year, which is the time occupied in the passage from perihelion to perihelion; it is a little longer than the sidereal.

Rotation.—The Earth rotates about an axis terminating at the north and south geographical poles, and perpendicular to the equator; the period of rotation is termed the day (q.v.), of which several kinds are distinguished according to the body or point of reference. The rotation is performed from west to east; this daily rotation occasions the diurnal motion of the celestial sphere, the rising of the Sun and stars in the east and their setting in the west, and also the phenomena of day and night. The inclination of the axis to the ecliptic brings about the presentation of places in different latitudes to the more direct rays of the sun; this is revealed in the variation in the length of daylight with the time of the year, and the phenomena of seasons.

Although the rotation of the Earth was an accepted fact soon after its suggestion by Copernicus, an experimental proof was wanting until 1851, when Foucault performed his celebrated pendulum experiment at the Pantheon, Paris. A pendulum about 200 ft. long, composed of a flexible wire carrying a heavy iron bob, was suspended so as to be free to oscillate in any direction. The bob was provided with a style which passed over a table strewn with fine sand, so that the style traced the direction in which the bob was swinging. It was found that the oscillating pendulum never retraced its path, but at each swing it was apparently deviated to the right, and moreover the deviations in equal times were themselves equal. This means that the floor of the Pantheon was moving, and therefore the Earth was rotating. If the pendulum were swung in the southern hemisphere, the deviation would be to the left; if at the equator it would not deviate, while at the poles the plane of oscillation would traverse a complete circle in 24 hours.

The rotation of the Earth appears to be perfectly uniform, comparisons of the times of transits, eclipses, &c., point to a variation of less than 1100th of a second since the time of Ptolemy. Theoretical investigations on the phenomena of tidal friction point, however, to a retardation, which may to some extent be diminished by the accelerations occasioned by the shrinkage of the globe, and some other factors difficult to evaluate (see Tide).

We now proceed to the secular variations.

Precession.—The axis of the earth does not preserve an invariable direction in space, but in a certain time it describes a cone, in much the same manner as the axis of a top spinning out of the vertical. The equator, which preserves approximately the same inclination to the ecliptic (there is a slight variation in the obliquity which we shall mention later), must move so that its intersections with the ecliptic, or equinoctial points, pass in a retrograde direction, i.e. opposite to that of the Earth. This motion is termed the precession of the equinoxes, and was observed by Hipparchus in the 2nd century B.C.; Ptolemy corrected the catalogue of Hipparchus for precession by adding 2° 40′ to the longitudes, the latitudes being unaltered by this motion, which at the present time is 50.26″ annually, the complete circuit being made in about 26,000 years. Owing to precession the signs of the zodiac are traversing paths through the constellations, or, in other words, the constellations are continually shifting with regard to the equinoctial points; at one time the vernal equinox Aries was in the constellations of that name; it is now in Pisces, and will then pass into Aquarius. The pole star, i.e. the star towards which the Earth’s axis points, is also shifting owing to precession; in about 2700 B.C. the Chinese observed α Draconis as the pole star (at present α Ursae minoris occupies this position and will do so until 3500); in 13600 Vega (α Lyrae) the brightest star in the Northern hemisphere, will be nearest.

Precession is the result of the Sun and the Moon’s attraction on the Earth not being a single force through its centre of gravity. If the Earth were a homogeneous sphere the attractions would act through the centre, and such forces would have no effect upon the rotation about the centre of gravity, but the Earth being spheroidal the equatorial band which stands up as it were beyond the surface of a sphere is more strongly attracted, with the result that the axis undergoes a tilting. The precession due to the Sun is termed the solar precession and that due to the Moon the lunar precession; the joint effect (two-thirds of which is due to the Moon) is the luni-solar precession. Solar precession is greatest at the solstices and zero at the equinoxes; the part of luni-solar precession due to the Moon varies with the position of the Moon in its orbit. The obliquity is unchanged by precession (see Precession of the Equinoxes).

Nutation.—In treating precession we have stated that the axis of the Earth traces a cone, and it follows that the pole describes a circle (approximately) on the celestial sphere, about the pole of the ecliptic. This is not quite true. Irregularities in the attracting forces which occasion precession also cause a slight oscillation backwards and forwards over the mean precessional path of the pole, the pole tracing a wavy line or nodding. Both the Sun and Moon contribute to this effect. Solar nutation depends upon the position of the Sun on the ecliptic; its period is therefore 1 year, and in extent it is only 1.2″; lunar nutation depends upon the position of the Moon’s nodes; its period is therefore about 18.6 years, the time of revolution of the nodes, and its extent is 9.2″. There is also given to the obliquity a small oscillation to and fro. Nutation is one of the great discoveries of James Bradley (1747).

Planetary Precession.—So far we have regarded the ecliptic as absolutely fixed, and treated precession as a real motion of the equator. The ecliptic (q.v.), however, is itself subject to a motion, due to the attractions of the planets on the Earth. This effect also displaces the equinoctial points. Its annual value is 0.13″. The term General Precession in longitude is given to the displacement of the intersection of the equator with the apparent ecliptic on the latter. The standard value is 50.2453″, which prevailed in 1850, and the value at 1850 + t, i.e. the constant of precession, is 50.2453″ + 0.0002225″ t. This value is also liable to a very small change. The nutation of the obliquity at time 1850 + t is given by the formula 23° 27′ 32.0″ − 0.47″ t. Complete expressions for these functions are given in Newcomb’s Spherical Astronomy (1908), and in the Nautical Almanac.

The variation of the line of apsides is the name given to the motion of the major axis of the Earth’s orbit along the ecliptic. It is due to the general influence of the planets, and the revolution is effected in 21,000 years.

The variation of the eccentricity denotes an oscillation of the form of the Earth’s orbit between a circle and ellipse. This followed the mathematical researches of Lagrange and Leverrier. It was suggested by Sir John Herschel in 1830 that this variation might occasion great climatic changes, and James Croll developed the theory as affording a solution of the glacial periods in geology (q.v.).

Variation of Latitude.—Another secular motion of the Earth is due to the fact that the axis of rotation is not rigidly fixed within it, but its polar extremities wander in a circle of about 50 ft. diameter. This oscillation brings about a variability in terrestrial latitudes, hence the name. Euler showed mathematically that such an oscillation existed, and, making certain assumptions as to the rigidity of the Earth, deduced that its period was 305 days; S. C. Chandler, from 1890 onwards, deduced from observations of the stars a period of 428 days; and Simon Newcomb explained the deviation of these periods by pointing out that Euler’s assumption of a perfectly rigid Earth is not in accordance with fact. For details of this intricate subject see the articles Latitude and Earth, Figure of the.

4. Evolution and Age.—In its earliest history the mass now consolidated as the Earth and Moon was part of a vast nebulous aggregate, which in the course of time formed a central nucleus—our Sun—which shed its outer layers in such a manner as to form the solar system (see Nebular Theory). The moon may have been formed from the Earth in a similar manner, but the theory of tidal friction suggests the elongation of the Earth along an equatorial axis to form a pear-shaped figure, and that in the course of time the protuberance shot off to form the Moon (see Tide). The age of the Earth has been investigated from several directions, as have also associated questions related to climatic changes, internal temperature, orientation of the land and water (permanence of oceans and continents), &c. These problems are treated in the articles Geology and Geography.


  1. Aristotle regarded the Earth as having an upper inhabited half and a lower uninhabited one, and the air on the lower half as tending to flow upwards through the Earth. The obstruction of this passage brought about an accumulation of air within the Earth, and the increased pressure may occasion oscillations of the surface, which may be so intense as to cause earthquakes.