Page:A short history of astronomy(1898).djvu/295

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§§ 188, 189]
The Shape of the Earth: Precession

(chapter ii., § 42), but had remained a complete mystery ever since.

If the earth is a perfect sphere, then its attraction on any other body is exactly the same as if its mass were all concentrated at its centre (§ 182), and so also the attraction on it of any other body such as the sun or moon is equivalent to a single force passing through the centre o of the earth; but this is no longer true if the earth is not spherical. In fact the action of the sun or moon on the spherical part of the earth, inside the dotted circle in fig. 72, is equivalent to a force through o, and has no tendency to turn the earth in any way about its centre; but the attraction on the remaining portion is of a different character, and Newton shewed that from it resulted a motion of the axis of the earth of the same general character as precession. The amount of the precession as calculated by Newton did as a matter of fact agree pretty closely with the observed amount, but this was due to the accidental compensation of two errors, arising from his imperfect knowledge of the form and construction of the earth, as well as from erroneous estimates of the distance of the sun and of the mass of the moon, neither of which quantities Newton was able to measure with any accuracy.[1] It was further pointed out that the motion in question was necessarily not quite uniform, but that, owing to the unequal effects of the sun in different positions, the earth's axis would oscillate to and fro every six months, though to a very minute extent.

189. Newton also gave a general explanation of the tides as due to the disturbing action of the moon and sun, the former being the more important. If the earth be regarded as made of a solid spherical nucleus, covered by the ocean, then the moon attracts different parts unequally, and in particular the attraction, measured by the acceleration produced, on the water nearest to the moon is greater than

  1. He estimated the annual precession due to the sun to be about 9", and that due to the moon to be about four and a half times as great, so that the total amount due to the two bodies came out about 50", which agrees within a fraction of a second with the amount shewn by observation; but we know now that the moon's share is not much more than twice that of the sun.