Page:A short history of astronomy(1898).djvu/268

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[Ch. VIII.
A Short History of Astronomy

a little less than 93,000,000. Though not really an accurate result, this was an enormous improvement on anything that had gone before, as Ptolemy's estimate of the sun's distance, corresponding to a parallax of 3', had survived up to the earlier part of the 17th century, and although it was generally believed to be seriously wrong, most corrections of it had been purely conjectural (chapter vii., §§ 145)

162. Another famous discovery associated with the early days of the Paris Observatory was that of the velocity of light. In 1671 Picard paid a visit to Denmark to examine what was left of Tycho Brahe's observatory at Hveen, and brought back a young Danish astronomer, Olaus Roemer (1644–1710), to help him at Paris. Roemer, in studying the motion of Jupiter's moons, observed (1675) that the intervals between successive eclipses of a moon (the eclipse being caused by the passage of the moon into Jupiter's shadow) were regularly less when Jupiter and the earth were approaching one another than when they were receding. This he saw to be readily explained by the supposition that light travels through space at a definite though very great speed. Thus if Jupiter is approaching the earth, the time which the light from one of his moons takes to reach the earth is gradually decreasing, and consequently the interval between successive eclipses as seen by us is apparently diminished. From the difference of the intervals thus observed and the known rates of motion of Jupiter and of the earth, it was thus possible to form a rough estimate of the rate at which light travels. Roemer also made a number of instrumental improvements of importance, but they are of too technical a character to be discussed here.

163. One great name belonging to the period dealt with in this chapter remains to be mentioned, that of René Descartes[1] (1596–1650). Although he ranks as a great philosopher, and also made some extremely important advances in pure mathematics, his astronomical writings were of little value and in many respects positively harmful. In his Principles of Philosophy (1644) he gave, among some wholly erroneous propositions, a fuller and more

  1. Also frequently referred to by the Latin name Cartesius.