Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 80.djvu/453

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449
PRECESSION: AND THE PYRAMIDS

PRECESSION: AND THE PYRAMIDS
By Dr. PERCIVAL LOWELL

BOSTON, MASS.

TO be told that five thousand years ago the Southern Cross could have been seen by one standing where London stands to-day would certainly cause most people surprise. Nevertheless such was the fact. That celestial asterism to which persons who have not seen it look forward as to one of the revelations incident to voyages into the tropics and then, on beholding it, feel egregiously duped, needed then no far travel to disclose. The sad disillusioning caused by its rising could have been enjoyed without leaving home. For 3000 B.C. its center-void apology for the real thing might have been observed above the outline of the South Downs at midnight at the proper season of the year by a stargazer at the then mute and inglorious Greenwich.

If amazed at the apparition our tourist thus transported back in time turned to get his bearings from the north, not less astonished would he be to discover his old friend the pole-star unaccountably gone. Even the learned might experience a shock. Certainly to those who drink in their star-knowledge through the medium of the Dipper would it prove disconcerting to find Polaris adrift in the sky. Its fixity fled, our cynosure would indeed be difficult to detect. Just as mediocrity exalted by office sinks into plucked insignificance once its insignia are removed. Nor would he find the solace of familiarity anywhere else. For such upsettings of fundamental fact would confront him everywhere. The whole firmament would appear to be turned topsy turvy could we suddenly be canopied by the heavens of those departed days. All the constellations would seem askew even if he succeeded in making them out. Nothing new under the sun! perhaps; but a very different state of things under the midnight stars.

Such a thorough change in outlook upon the universe is certainly no mean event and serves to point the importance of a subject in astronomy well worthy of engaging general attention, the more so that it is intimately associated with man. For this revolution in the sky is brought about by what is called the precession of the equinoxes. The name is due to what first disclosed the action. Primitive man framed his calendar by the stars. Not having the benefit of an Old Farmer's Almanac with its superannuated tillage advice, the husbandman then judged his seedtime and harvest by the constellations that rose in the morning just before the sun. How long he placed implicit confidence in such chro-