Page:A short history of astronomy(1898).djvu/306

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.
244
[Ch. IX.
A Short History of Astronomy

planets are of certain sizes, at certain distances from the sun, etc., and to these questions again Newton could give no answer.

But whereas the questions left unanswered by Ptolemy, Coppernicus, and Kepler were in whole or in part answered by their successors, that is, their unexplained facts or laws were shewn to be necessary consequences of other simpler and more general laws, it happens that up to the present day no one has been able to answer, in any satisfactory way, these questions which Newton left unanswered. In this particular direction, therefore, Newton's laws mark the boundary of our present knowledge. But if any one were to succeed this year or next in shewing gravitation to be a consequence of some still more general law, this new law would still bring with it a new Why.

If, however, Newton's laws cannot be regarded as an ultimate explanation of the phenomena of the solar system, except in the historic sense that they have not yet been shewn to depend on other more fundamental laws, their success in "explaining," with fair accuracy, such an immense mass of observed results in all parts of the solar system, and their universal character, gave a powerful impetus to the idea of accounting for observed facts in other departments of science, such as chemistry and physics, in some similar way as the consequence of forces acting between bodies, and hence to the conception of the material universe as made up of a certain number of bodies, each acting on one another with definite forces in such a way that all the changes which can be observed to go on are necessary consequences of these forces, and are capable of prediction by any one who has sufficient knowledge of the forces and sufficient mathematical skill to develop their consequences.

Whether this conception of the material universe is adequate or not, it has undoubtedly exercised a very important influence on scientific discovery as well as on philosophical thought, and although it was never formulated by Newton, and parts of it would probably have been repudiated by him, there are indications that some such ideas were in his head, and those who held the conception most firmly undoubtedly derived their ideas directly or indirectly from him.