Page:A short history of astronomy(1898).djvu/299

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§ 191]
239
Comets: Reception of the Principia

the tail is formed by a stream of finely divided matter of the nature of smoke, rising up from the body of the comet, and so illuminated by the light of the sun when tolerably near it as to become visible.

191. The Principia was published, as we have seen, in 1687. Only a small edition seems to have been printed, and this was exhausted in three or four years. Newton's earlier discoveries, and the presentation to the Royal Society of the tract De Motu (§ 177), had prepared the scientific world to look for important new results in the Principia, and the book appears to have been read by the leading Continental mathematicians and astronomers, and to have been very warmly received in England. The Cartesian philosophy had, however, too firm a hold to be easily shaken; and Newton's fundamental principle, involving as it did the idea of an action between two bodies separated by an interval of empty space, seemed impossible of acceptance to thinkers who had not yet fully grasped the notion of judging a scientific theory by the extent to which its consequences agree with observed facts. Hence even so able a man as Huygens (chapter viii., §§ 154, 157, 158), regarded the idea of gravitation as "absurd," and expressed his surprise that Newton should have taken the trouble to make such a number of laborious calculations with no foundation but this principle, a remark which shewed Huygens to have had no conception that the agreement of the results of these calculations with actual facts was proof of the soundness of the principle. Personal reasons also contributed to the Continental neglect of Newton's work, as the famous quarrel between Newton and Leibniz as to their respective claims to the invention of what Newton called fluxions and Leibniz the differential method (out of which the differential and integral calculus have developed) grew in intensity and fresh combatants were drawn into it on both sides. Half a century in fact elapsed before Newton's views made any substantial progress on the Continent (cf chapter xi., § 229). In our country the case was different; not only was the Prinicipia read with admiration by the few who were capable of understanding it, but scholars like Bentley, philosophers like Locke, and courtiers like Halifax all made attempts