Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 58.djvu/315

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By Professor SIMON NEWCOMB, U. S. N.


THE problem of the structure and duration of the universe is the most far-reaching with which the mind has to deal. Its solution may be regarded as the ultimate object of stellar astronomy, the possibility of reaching which has occupied the minds of thinkers since the beginning of civilization. Before our time the problem could be considered only from the imaginative or the speculative point of view. Although we can to-day attack it by scientific methods, to a limited extent, it must be admitted that we have scarcely taken more than the first step toward the actual solution. We can do little more than state the questions involved, and show what light, if any, science is able to throw upon the possible answers.

Firstly, we may inquire as to the extent of the universe of stars. Are the latter scattered through infinite space, so that those we see are merely that portion of an infinite collection which happens to be within reach of our telescopes, or are all the stars contained within a certain limited space? In the latter case, have our telescopes yet penetrated to the boundary in any direction? In other words, as, by the aid of increasing telescopic power, we see fainter and fainter stars, are these fainter stars at greater distances than those before known, or are they smaller stars contained within the same limits as those we already know? Otherwise stated, do we see stars on the boundary of the universe?

Secondly, granting the universe to be finite, what is the arrangement of the stars in space? Especially, what is the relation of the galaxy to the other stars? In what sense, if any, can the stars be said to form a permanent system? Do the stars which form the Milky Way belong to a different system from the other stars, or are the latter a part of one universal system?

Thirdly, what is the duration of the universe in time? Is it fitted to last forever in its present form, or does it contain within itself the seeds of dissolution? Must it, in the course of time, in we know not how many millions of ages, be transformed into something very different from what it now is? This question is intimately associated with the question whether the stars form a system. If they do, we may suppose that system to be permanent in its general features; if not, we must look further for our conclusion.