Page:A short history of astronomy(1898).djvu/298

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238
[Ch. IX.
A Short History of Astronomy

then its positions when not very far from the sun would be almost the same as if it moved in an elongated ellipse (see fig. 73), and consequently it would hardly be possible to distinguish the two cases. Newton accordingly worked out the case of motion in a parabola, which is mathematically the simpler, and found that, in the case of a comet which had attracted much attention in the winter 1680-1, a parabolic path could be found, the calculated places of the comet in which agreed closely with those observed. In the later editions of the Principia the motions of a number of other comets were investigated with a similar

Short history of astronomy-Fig 73.png

Fig. 73.—An elongated ellipse and a parabola.

result. It was thus established that in many cases a comet's path is either a parabola or an elongated ellipse, and that a similar result was to be expected in other cases. This reduction to rule of the apparently arbitrary motions of comets, and their inclusion with the planets in the same class of bodies moving round the sun under the action of gravitation, may fairly be regarded as one of the most striking of the innumerable discoveries contained in the Principia.

In the same section Newton discussed also at some length the nature of comets and in particular the structure of their tails, arriving at the conclusion, which is in general agreement with modern theories (chapter xiii., § 304), that