Page:A short history of astronomy(1898).djvu/304

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.
[Ch. IX.
A Short History of Astronomy

greatest genius that ever existed, and the most fortunate, for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish," shew the immense respect for his work felt by those who were most competent to judge it.

With these magnificent eulogies it is pleasant to compare Newton's own grateful recognition of his predecessors, "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of the giants," and his modest estimate of his own performances:—

"I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

194. It is sometimes said, in explanation of the difference between Newton's achievements and those of earlier astronomers, that whereas they discovered how the celestial bodies moved, he shewed why the motions were as they were, or, in other words, that they described motions while he explained them or ascertained their cause. It is, however, doubtful whether this distinction between How and Why, though undoubtedly to some extent convenient, has any real validity. Ptolemy, for example, represented the motion of a planet by a certain combination of epicycles; his scheme was equivalent to a particular method of describing the motion; but if any one had asked him why the planet would be in a particular position at a particular time, he might legitimately have answered that it was so because the planet was connected with this particular system of epicycles, and its place could be deduced from them by a rigorous process of calculation. But if any one had gone further and asked why the planet's epicycles were as they were, Ptolemy could have given no answer. Moreover, as the system of epicycles differed in some important respects from planet to planet, Ptolemy's system left unanswered a number of questions which obviously presented themselves. Then Coppernicus gave a partial answer to some of these questions. To the question why certain of the planetary motions, corresponding to certain epicycles, existed, he would have replied that it was because of certain motions of the earth, from which