Page:A short history of astronomy(1898).djvu/256

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[Ch. VIII. § 154
A Short History of Astronomy

Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), a native of the Hague. Huygens possessed remarkable ability, both practical and theoretical, in several different directions, and his contributions to astronomy were only a small part of his services to science. Having acquired the art of grinding lenses with unusual accuracy, he was able to construct telescopes of much greater power than his predecessors. By the help of one of these instruments he discovered in 1655 a satellite of Saturn (Titan). With one of those remnants of mediaeval mysticism from which even the soberest minds of the century freed themselves with the greatest difficulty, he asserted that, as the total number of planets and satellites now reached the perfect number 12, no more remained to be discovered—a prophecy which has been abundantly falsified since (§ 160; chapter xii., §§ 253, 255; chapter xiii., §§ 289, 294, 295).

Using a still finer telescope, and aided by his acuteness in interpreting his observations, Huygens made the much more interesting discovery that the puzzling appearances seen round Saturn were due to a thin ring (fig. 64) inclined at a considerable angle (estimated by him at 31°) to the plane of the ecliptic, and therefore also to the plane in which Saturn's path round the sun lies. This result was first announced—according to the curious custom of the time—by an anagram, in the same pamphlet in which the discovery of the satellite was published, De Saturni Luna Observatio Nova (1656); and three years afterwards (1659) the larger Systema Saturnium appeared, in which the interpretation of the anagram was given, and the varying appearances seen both by himself and by earlier observers were explained with admirable lucidity and thoroughness. The ring being extremely thin is invisible either when its edge is presented to the observer or when it is presented to the sun, because in the latter position the rest of the ring catches no light. Twice in the course of Saturn's revolution round the sun (at b and d in fig. 66), i.e. at intervals of about 15 years, the plane of the ring passes for a short time through or very close both to the earth and to the sun, and at these two periods the ring is consequently invisible (fig. 65). Near these positions (as at q, r, s, t) the ring appears much foreshortened, and presents the appearance of two arms projecting from the body