Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/420

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of doubtfulness is more than 1100 of the whole, although it is no more than the angle subtended by a single hair at a distance of nearly 800 feet. If we call the parallax 8.86", which is probably very near the truth, the distance of the sun will come out 92,254,000 miles, while a variation of 120 of a second either way will change it nearly half a million of miles.

When a surveyor has to find the distance of an inaccessible object, he lays off a convenient base-line, and from its extremities observes the directions of the object, considering himself very unfortunate if he cannot get a base whose length is at least 110 of the distance to be measured. But the whole diameter of the earth is less than 111000 of the distance of the sun, and the astronomer is in the predicament of a surveyor who, having to measure the distance of an object ten miles off, finds himself restricted to a base of less than five feet, and herein lies the difficulty of the problem.

Of course, it would be hopeless to attempt this problem by direct observations, such as answer perfectly in the case of the moon, whose distance is only thirty times the earth's diameter. In her case, observations taken from stations widely separated in latitude, like Berlin and the Cape of Good Hope, or Washington and Santiago, determine her parallax and distance with very satisfactory precision; but if observations of the same accuracy could be made upon the sun (which is not the case, since its heat disturbs the adjustments of an instrument), they would only show the parallax to be somewhere between 8" and 10", its distance between 126,000,000 and 82,000,000 miles.

Astronomers, therefore, have been driven to employ indirect methods based on various principles: some on observations of the nearer planets, some on calculations founded upon the irregularities—the so called perturbations—of lunar and planetary movements, and some upon observations of the velocity of light. Indeed, before the Christian era, Aristarchus of Samos had devised a method so ingenious and pretty in theory that it really deserved success, and would have attained it were the necessary observations susceptible of sufficient accuracy. Hipparchus also devised another founded on observations of lunar eclipses, which also failed for much the same reasons as the plan of Aristarchus.

The idea of Aristarchus was to observe carefully the number of hours between new moon and the first quarter, and also between the quarter and the full. The first interval should be shorter than the second, and the difference would determine how many times the distance of the sun from the earth exceeds that of the moon, as will be clear from the accompanying figure. The moon reaches its quarter, or appears as a half-moon, when it arrives at the point Q, where the lines drawn from it to the sun and earth are perpendicular to each other. Since the angle H E Q = E S Q, it will follow that H Q is the same fraction of H E as Q E is of E S; so that, if H Q can be found,