Page:EB1911 - Volume 02.djvu/859

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

orbital relations of comets, by his conviction of their perishable nature. He supposed their tails to result from the action of solar rays, which, in traversing their mass, bore off with them some of their subtler particles to form trains directed away from the sun. And through the process of waste thus set on foot, they finally dissolved into the aether, and expired “like spinning insects.” (De Cometis; Opera, ed. Frisch, t. vii. p. 110.) This remarkable anticipation of the modern theory of light-pressure was suggested to him by his observations of the great comets of 1618.

The formal astronomy of the ancients left Kepler unsatisfied. He aimed at finding out the cause as well as the mode of the planetary revolutions; and his demonstration that the planes in which they are described all pass through the sun was an important preliminary to a physical explanation of them. But his efforts to supply such an explanation were rendered futile by his imperfect apprehension of what motion is in itself. He had, it is true, a distinct conception of a force analogous to that of gravity, by which cognate bodies tended towards union. Misled, however, into identifying it with magnetism, he imagined circulation in the solar system to be maintained through the material compulsion of fibrous emanations from the sun, carried round by his axial rotation. Ignorance regarding the inertia of matter drove him to this expedient. The persistence of movement seemed to him to imply the persistence of a moving power. He did not recognize that motion and rest are equally natural, in the sense of requiring force for their alteration. Yet his rationale of the tides in De Motibus Stellae is not only memorable as an astonishing forecast of the principle of reciprocal attraction in the proportion of mass, but for its bold extension to the earth of the lunar sphere of influence.

Galileo Galilei, Kepler’s most eminent contemporary, took a foremost part in dissipating the obscurity that still hung over the very foundations of mechanical science. He had, indeed, precursors and co-operators. Michel Varo of Geneva wrote correctly in 1584 on the composition of forces; Simon Stevin of Bruges (1548-1620) independently demonstrated the principle; and G. B. Benedetti expounded in his Speculationum Liber (Turin, 1585) perfectly clear ideas as to the nature of accelerated motion, some years in advance of Galileo’s dramatic experiments at Pisa. Yet they were never assimilated by Kepler; while, on the other hand, the laws of planetary circulation he had enounced were strangely ignored by Galileo. The two lines of inquiry remained for some time apart. Had they at once been made to coalesce, the true nature of the force controlling celestial movements should have been quickly recognized. As it was, the importance of Kepler’s generalizations was not fully appreciated until Sir Isaac Newton made them the corner-stone of his new cosmic edifice.

Galileo’s contributions to astronomy were of a different quality from Kepler’s. They were easily intelligible to the general public: in a sense, they were obvious, since they could be verified by every possessor of one of the Galileo. Dutch perspective-instruments, just then in course of wide and rapid distribution. And similar results to his were in fact independently obtained in various parts of Europe by Christopher Scheiner at Ingolstadt, by Johann Fabricius at Osteel in Friesland, and by Thomas Harriot at Syon House, Isleworth. Galileo was nevertheless by far the ablest and most versatile of these early telescopic observers. His gifts of exposition were on a par with his gifts of discernment. What he saw, he rendered conspicuous to the world. His sagacity was indeed sometimes at fault. He maintained with full conviction to the end of his life a grossly erroneous hypothesis of the tides, early adopted from Andrea Caesalpino; the “triplicate” appearance of Saturn always remained an enigma to him; and in regarding comets as atmospheric emanations he lagged far behind Tycho Brahe. Yet he unquestionably ranks as the true founder of descriptive astronomy; while his splendid presentment of the laws of projectiles in his dialogue of the “New Sciences” (Leiden, 1638) lent potent aid to the solid establishment of celestial mechanics.

The accumulation of facts does not in itself constitute science. Empirical knowledge scarcely deserves the name. Vere scire est per causas scire. Francis Bacon’s Gravitational Astronomy. prescient dream, however, of a living astronomy by which the physical laws governing terrestrial relations should be extended the highest heavens, had long to wait for realization. Kepler divined its possibility; but his thoughts, derailed (so to speak) by the false analogy of magnetism, Bacon. brought him no farther than to the rough draft of the scheme of vortices expounded in detail by René Descartes in his Principia Philosophiae (1644). And this was a Descartes. cul-de-sac. The only practicable road struck aside from it. The true foundations of a mechanical theory of the heavens were laid by Kepler’s discoveries, and by Galileo’s dynamical demonstrations; its construction was facilitated by the development of mathematical methods. The invention of logarithms, the rise of analytical geometry, and the evolution of B. Cavalieri’s “indivisibles” into the infinitesimal calculus, all accomplished during the 17th century, immeasurably widened the scope of exact astronomy. Gradually, too, the nature of the problem awaiting solution came to be apprehended. Jeremiah Horrocks had some intuition, previously to 1639, that the motion of the moon was controlled by the earth’s gravity, and disturbed by the action of the sun. Ismael Bouillaud (1605-1694) stated in 1645 the fact of planetary circulation under the sway of a sun-force decreasing as the inverse square of the distance; and the inevitableness of this same “duplicate ratio” was separately perceived by Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley Newton. and Sir Christopher Wren before Newton’s discovery had yet been made public. He was the only man of his generation who both recognized the law, and had power to demonstrate its validity. And this was only a beginning. His complete achievement had a twofold aspect. It consisted, first, in the identification, by strict numerical comparisons, of terrestrial gravity with the mutual attraction of the heavenly bodies; secondly, in the following out of its mechanical consequences throughout the solar system. Gravitation was thus shown to be the sole influence governing the movements of planets and satellites; the figure of the rotating earth was successfully explained by its action on the minuter particles of matter; tides and the procession of the equinoxes proved amenable to reasonings based on the same principle; and it satisfactorily accounted as well for some of the chief lunar and planetary inequalities. Newton’s investigations, however, were very far from being exhaustive. Colossal though his powers were, they had limits; and his work could not but remain unterminated, since it was by its nature interminable. Nor was it possible to provide it with what could properly be called a sequel. The synthetic method employed by him was too unwieldy for common use. Yet no other was just then at hand. Mathematical analysis needed half a century of cultivation before it was fully available for the arduous tasks reserved for it. They were accordingly taken up anew by a band of continental inquirers, Euler, Clairault, D’Alembert. primarily by three men of untiring energy and vivid genius, Leonhard Euler, Alexis Clairault, and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. The first of the outstanding gravitational problems with which they grappled was the unaccountably rapid advance of the lunar perigee. But the apparent anomaly disappeared under Euler’s powerful treatment in 1749, and his result was shortly afterwards still further assured by Clairault. The subject of planetary perturbations was next attacked. Euler devised in 1753 a new method, that of the “variation of parameters,” for their investigation, and applied it to unravel some of the earth’s irregularities in a memoir crowned by the French Academy in 1756; while in 1757, Clairault estimated the masses of the moon and Venus by their respective disturbing effects upon terrestrial movements. But the most striking incident in the history of the verification of Newton’s law was the return of Halley’s comet to perihelion, on the 12th of March 1759, in approximate accordance with Clairault’s calculation of the delays due to the action of Jupiter and Saturn. Visual proof