Page:A short history of astronomy(1898).djvu/305

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Explanation and Description

these (apparent) planetary motions could be deduced as necessary consequences. But the same information could also have been given as a mere descriptive statement that the earth moves in certain ways and the planets move in certain other ways. But again, if Coppernicus had been asked why the earth rotated on its axis, or why the planets revolved round the sun, he could have given no answer; still less could he have said why the planets had certain irregularities in their motions, represented by his epicycles.

Kepler again described the same motions very much more simply and shortly by means of his three laws of planetary motion; but if any one had asked why a planet's motion varied in certain ways, he might have replied that it was because all planets moved in ellipses so as to sweep out equal areas in equal times. Why this was so Kepler was unable to say, though he spent much time in speculating on the subject. This question was, however, answered by Newton, who shewed that the planetary motions were necessary consequences of his law of gravitation and his laws of motion. Moreover from these same laws, which were extremely simple in statement and few in number, followed as necessary consequences the motion of the moon and many other astronomical phenomena, and also certain familiar terrestrial phenomena, such as the behaviour of falling bodies; so that a large number of groups of observed facts, which had hitherto been disconnected from one another, were here brought into connection as necessary consequences of certain fundamental laws. But again Newton's view of the solar system might equally well be put as a mere descriptive statement that the planets, etc., move with accelerations of certain magnitudes towards one another. As, however, the actual position or rate of motion of a planet at any time can only be deduced by an extremely elaborate calculation from Newton's laws, they are not at all obviously equivalent to the observed celestial motions, and we do not therefore at all easily think of them as being merely a description.

Again Newton's laws at once suggest the question why bodies attract one another in this particular way; and this question, which Newton fully recognised as legitimate, he was unable to answer. Or again we might ask why the