A Short History of Astronomy (1898)/Chapter 11



"Astronomy, considered in the most general way, is a great problem of mechanics, the arbitrary data of which are the elements of the celestial movements; its solution depends both on the accuracy of observations and on the perfection of analysis."

Laplace, Preface to the Mécanique Céleste.

228. The solar system, as it was known at the beginning of the 18th century, contained 18 recognised members: the sun, six planets, ten satellites (one belonging to the earth, four to Jupiter, and five to Saturn), and Saturn's ring.

Comets were known to have come on many occasions into the region of space occupied by the solar system, and there were reasons to believe that one of them at least (chapter x., § 200) was a regular visitor; they were, however, scarcely regarded as belonging to the solar system, and their action (if any) on its members was ignored, a neglect which subsequent investigation has completely justified. Many thousands of fixed stars had also been observed, and their places on the celestial sphere determined; they were known to be at very great though unknown distances from the solar system, and their influence on it was regarded as insensible.

The motions of the 18 members of the solar system were tolerably well known; their actual distances from one another had been roughly estimated, while the proportions between most of the distances were known with considerable accuracy. Apart from the entirely anomalous ring of Saturn, which may for the present be left out of consideration, most of the bodies of the system were known from observation to be nearly spherical in form, and the rest were generally supposed to be so also.

Newton had shewn, with a considerable degree of probability, that these bodies attracted one another according to the law of gravitation; and there was no reason to suppose that they exerted any other important influence on one another's motions.[1]

The problem which presented itself, and which may conveniently be called Newton's problem, was therefore:—

Given these 18 bodies, and their positions and motions at any time, to deduce from their mutual gravitation by a process of mathematical calculation their positions and motions at any other time; and to shew that these agree with those actually observed.

Such a calculation would necessarily involve, among other quantities, the masses of the several bodies; it was evidently legitimate to assume these at will in such a way as to make the results of calculation agree with those of observation. If this were done successfully the masses would thereby be determined. In the same way the commonly accepted estimates of the dimensions of the solar system and of the shapes of its members might be modified in any way not actually inconsistent with direct observation.

The general problem thus formulated can fortunately be reduced to somewhat simpler ones.

Newton had shewn (chapter ix., § 182) that an ordinary sphere attracted other bodies and was attracted by them, as if its mass were concentrated at its centre; and that the effects of deviation from a spherical form became very small at a considerable distance from the body. Hence, except in special cases, the bodies of the solar system could be treated as spheres, which could again be regarded as concentrated at their respective centres. It will be convenient for the sake of brevity to assume for the future that all "bodies" referred to are of this sort, unless the contrary is stated or implied. The effects of deviations from spherical form could then be treated separately when required, as in the cases of precession and of other motions of a planet or satellite about its centre, and of the corresponding action of a non-spherical planet on its satellites; to this group of problems belongs also that of the tides and other cases of the motion of parts of a body of any form relative to the rest.

Again, the solar system happens to be so constituted that each body's motion can be treated as determined primarily by one other body only. A planet, for example, moves nearly as if no other body but the sun existed, and the moon's motion relative to the earth is roughly the same as if the other bodies of the solar system were non-existent.

The problem of the motion of two mutually gravitating spheres was completely solved by Newton, and was shewn to lead to Kepler's first two laws. Hence each body of the solar system could be regarded as moving nearly in an ellipse round some one body, but as slightly disturbed by the action of others. Moreover, by a general mathematical principle applicable in problems of motion, the effect of a number of small disturbing causes acting conjointly is nearly the same as that which results from adding together their separate effects. Hence each body could, without great error, be regarded as disturbed by one body at a time; the several disturbing effects could then be added together, and a fresh calculation could be made to further diminish the error. The kernel of Newton's problem is thus seen to be a special case of the so-called problem of three bodies, viz.:—

Given at any time the positions and motions of three mutually gravitating bodies, to determine their positions and motions at any other time.

Even this apparently simple problem in its general form entirely transcends the powers, not only of the mathematical methods of the early 18th century, but also of those that have been devised since. Certain special cases have been solved, so that it has been shewn to be possible to suppose three bodies initially moving in such a way that their future motion can be completely determined. But these cases do not occur in nature.

In the case of the solar system the problem is simplified, not only by the consideration already mentioned that one of the three bodies can always be regarded as exercising only a small influence on the relative motion of the other two, but also by the facts that the orbits of the planets and satellites do not differ much from circles, and that the planes of their orbits are in no case inclined at large angles to any one of them, such as the ecliptic; in other words, that the eccentricities and inclinations are small quantities.

Thus simplified, the problem has been found to admit of solutions of considerable accuracy by methods of approximation.[2]

In the case of the system formed by the sun, earth, and moon, the characteristic feature is the great distance of the sun, which is the disturbing body, from the other two bodies; in the case of the sun and two planets, the enormous mass of the sun as compared with the disturbing planet is the important factor. Hence the methods of treatment suitable for the two cases differ, and two substantially distinct branches of the subject, lunar theory and planetary theory, have developed. The problems presented by the motions of the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, though allied to those of the lunar theory, differ in some important respects, and are usually treated separately.

229. As we have seen, Newton made a number of important steps towards the solution of his problem, but little was done by his successors in his own country. On the Continent also progress was at first very slow. The Principia was read and admired by most of the leading mathematicians of the time, but its principles were not accepted, and Cartesianism remained the prevailing philosophy. A forward step is marked by the publication by the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1720 of a memoir written by the Chevalier de Louville (1671–1732) on the basis of Newton's principles; ten years later the Academy awarded a prize to an essay on the planetary motions written by John Bernouilli (1667–1748) on Cartesian principles, a Newtonian essay being put second. In 1732 Maupertuis (chapter x., § 221) published a treatise on the figure of the earth on Newtonian lines, and the appearance six years later of Voltaire's extremely readable Éléments de la Philosophie de Newton had a great effect in popularising the new ideas. The last official recognition of Cartesianism in France seems to have been in 1740, when the prize offered by the Academy for an essay on the tides was shared between a Cartesian and three eminent Newtonians (§ 230).

The rapid development of gravitational astronomy that ensued between this time and the beginning of the 19th century was almost entirely the work of five great Continental mathematicians, Euler, Clairaut, D'Alembert, Lagrange, and Laplace, of whom the eldest was born in 1707 and the youngest died in 1827, within a month of the centenary of Newton's death. Euler was a Swiss, Lagrange was of Italian birth but French by extraction and to a great extent by adoption, and the other three were entirely French. France therefore during nearly the whole of the 18th century reigned supreme in gravitational astronomy, and has not lost her supremacy even to-day, though during the present century America, England, Germany, Italy, and other countries have all made substantial contributions to the subject.

It is convenient to consider first the work of the three first-named astronomers, and to treat later Lagrange and Laplace, who carried gravitational astronomy to a decidedly higher stage of development than their predecessors.

230. Leonhard Euler was born at Basle in 1707, 14 years later than Bradley and six years earlier than Lacaille. He was the son of a Protestant minister who had studied mathematics under James Bernouilli (1654–1705), the first of a famous family of mathematicians. Leonhard Euler himself was a favourite pupil of John Bernouilli (the younger brother of James), and was an intimate friend of his two sons, one of whom, Daniel (1700–1782), was not only a distinguished mathematician like his father and uncle, but was also the first important Newtonian outside Great Britain. Like so many other astronomers, Euler began by studying theology, but was induced both by his natural tastes and by the influence of the Bernouillis to turn his attention to mathematics. Through the influence of Daniel Bernouilli, who had recently been appointed to a professorship at St. Petersburg, Euler received and accepted an invitation to join the newly created Academy of Sciences there (1727). This first appointment carried with it a stipend, and the duties were the general promotion of science; subsequently Euler undertook more definite professorial work, but most of his energy during the whole of his career was devoted to writing mathematical papers, the majority of which were published by the St. Petersburg Academy. Though he took no part in politics, Russian autocracy appears to have been oppressive to him, reared as he had been among Swiss and Protestant surroundings; and in 1741 he accepted an invitation from Frederick the Great, a despot of a less pronounced type, to come to Berlin, and assist in reorganising the Academy of Sciences there. On being reproached one day by the Queen for his taciturn and melancholy demeanour, he justified his silence on the ground that he had just come from a country where speech was liable to lead to hanging;[3] but notwithstanding this frank criticism he remained on good terms with the Russian court, and continued to draw his stipend as a member of the St. Petersburg Academy and to contribute to its Transactions. Moreover, after 25 years spent at Berlin, he accepted a pressing invitation from the Empress Catherine II. and returned to Russia (1766).

He had lost the use of one eye in 1735, a disaster which called from him the remark that he would henceforward have less to distract him from his mathematics; the second eye went soon after his return to Russia, and with the exception of a short time during which an operation restored the partial use of one eye he remained blind till the end of his life. But this disability made little difference to his astounding scientific activity; and it was only after nearly 17 years of blindness that as a result of a fit of apoplexy "he ceased to live and to calculate" (1783).

Euler was probably the most versatile as well as the most prolific of mathematicians of all time. There is scarcely any branch of modern analysis to which he was not a large contributor, and his extraordinary powers of devising and applying methods of calculation were employed by him with great success in each of the existing branches of applied mathematics; problems of abstract dynamics, of optics, of the motion of fluids, and of astronomy were all in turn subjected to his analysis and solved. The extent of his writings is shewn by the fact that, in addition to several books, he wrote about 800 papers on mathematical and physical subjects; it is estimated that a complete edition of his works would occupy 25 quarto volumes of about 600 pages each.

Euler's first contribution to astronomy was an essay on the tides which obtained a share of the Academy prize for 1740 already referred to, Daniel Bernouilli and Maclaurin (chapter x., § 196) being the other two Newtonians. The problem of the tides was, however, by no means solved by any of the three writers.

He gave two distinct solutions of the problem of three bodies in a form suitable for the lunar theory, and made a number of extremely important and suggestive though incomplete contributions to planetary theory. In both subjects his work was so closely connected with that of Clairaut and D'Alembert that it is more convenient to discuss it in connection with theirs.

231. Alexis Claude Clairaut, born at Paris in 1713, belongs to the class of precocious geniuses. He read the Infinitesimal Calculus and Conic Sections at the age of ten, presented a scientific memoir to the Academy of Sciences before he was 13, and published a book containing some important contributions to geometry when he was 18, thereby winning his admission to the Academy.

Shortly afterwards he took part in Maupertuis' expedition to Lapland (chapter x., § 221), and after publishing several papers of minor importance produced in 1743 his classical work on the figure of the earth. In this he discussed in a far more complete form than either Newton or Maclaurin the form which a rotating body like the earth assumes under the influence of the mutual gravitation of its parts, certain hypotheses of a very general nature being made as to the variations of density in the interior; and deduced formulae for the changes in different latitudes of the acceleration due to gravity, which are in satisfactory agreement with the results of pendulum experiments.

Although the subject has since been more elaborately and more generally treated by later writers, and a good many additions have been made, few if any results of fundamental importance have been added to those contained in Clairaut's book.

He next turned his attention to the problem of three bodies, obtained a solution suitable for the moon, and made some progress in planetary theory.

Halley's comet (chapter x., § 200) was "due" about

Short history of astronomy-Fig 80.png
Fig. 80.—The path of Halley's comet

1758; as the time approached Clairaut took up the task of computing the perturbations which it would probably have experienced since its last appearance, owing to the influence of the two great planets, Jupiter and Saturn, close to both of which it would have passed. An extremely laborious calculation shewed that the comet would have been retarded about 100 days by Saturn and about 518 days by Jupiter, and he accordingly announced to the Academy towards the end of 1758 that the comet might be expected to pass its perihelion (the point of its orbit nearest the sun, p in fig. 80) about April 13th of the following year, though owing to various defects in his calculation there might be an error of a month either way. The comet was anxiously watched for by the astronomical world, and was actually discovered by an amateur, George Palitzsch (1723–1788) of Saxony, on Christmas Day, 1758; it passed its perihelion just a month and a day before the time assigned by Clairaut.

Halley's brilliant conjecture was thus justified; a new member was added to the solar system, and hopes were raised—to be afterwards amply fulfilled—that in other cases also the motions of comets might be reduced to rule, and calculated according to the same principles as those of less erratic bodies. The superstitions attached to comets were of course at the same time still further shaken.

Clairaut appears to have had great personal charm and to have been a conspicuous figure in Paris society. Unfortunately his strength was not equal to the combined claims of social and scientific labours, and he died in 1765 at an age when much might still have been hoped from his extraordinary abilities.[4]

232. Jean-le-Rond D'Alembert was found in 1717 as an infant on the steps of the church of St. Jean-le-Rond in Paris, but was afterwards recognised, and to some extent provided for, by his father, though his home was with his foster-parents. After receiving a fair school education, he studied law and medicine, but then turned his attention to mathematics. He first attracted notice in mathematical circles by a paper written in 1738, and was admitted to the Academy of Sciences two years afterwards. His earliest important work was the Traité de Dynamique (1743), which contained, among other contributions to the subject, the first statement of a dynamical principle which bears his name, and which, though in one sense only a corollary from Newton's Third Law of Motion, has proved to be of immense service in nearly all general dynamical problems, astronomical or otherwise. During the next few years he made a number of contributions to mathematical physics, as well as to the problem of three bodies; and published in 1749 his work on precession and nutation, already referred to (chapter x., § 215). From this time onwards he began to give an increasing part of his energies to work outside mathematics. For some years he collaborated with Diderot in producing the famous French Encyclopaedia, which began to appear in 1751, and exercised so great an influence on contemporary political and philosophic thought. D'Alembert wrote the introduction, which was read to the Académie Française[5] in 1754 on the occasion of his admission to that distinguished body, as well as a variety of scientific and other articles. In the later part of his life, which ended in 1783, he wrote little on mathematics, but published a number of books on philosophical, literary, and political subjects;[6] as secretary of the Academy he also wrote obituary notices (éloges) of some 70 of its members. He was thus, in Carlyle's words, "of great faculty, especially of great clearness and method; famous in Mathematics; no less so, to the wonder of some, in the intellectual provinces of Literature."

D'Alembert and Clairaut were great rivals, and almost every work of the latter was severely criticised by the former, while Clairaut retaliated though with much less zeal and vehemence. The great popular reputation acquired by Clairaut through his work on Halley's comet appears to have particularly excited D'Alembert's jealousy. The rivalry, though not a pleasant spectacle, was, however, useful in leading to the detection and subsequent improvement of various weak points in the work of each. In other respects D'Alembert's personal characteristics appear to have been extremely pleasant. He was always a poor man, but nevertheless declined magnificent offers made to him by both Catherine II. of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia, and preferred to keep his independence, though he retained the friendship of both sovereigns and accepted a small pension from the latter. He lived extremely simply, and notwithstanding his poverty was very generous to his foster-mother, to various young students, and to many others with whom he came into contact.

233. Euler, Clairaut, and D'Alembert all succeeded in obtaining independently and nearly simultaneously solutions of the problem of three bodies in a form suitable for lunar theory. Euler published in 1746 some rather imperfect Tables of the Moon, which shewed that he must have already obtained his solution. Both Clairaut and D'Alembert presented to the Academy in 1747 memoirs containing their respective solutions, with applications to the moon as well as to some planetary problems. In each of these memoirs occurred the same difficulty which Newton had met with: the calculated motion of the moon's apogee was only about half the observed result. Clairaut at first met this difficulty by assuming an alteration in the law of gravitation, and got a result which seemed to him satisfactory by assuming gravitation to vary partly as the inverse square and partly as the inverse cube of the distance.[7] Euler also had doubts as to the correctness of the inverse square. Two years later, however (1749), on going through his original calculation again, Clairaut discovered that certain terms, which had appeared unimportant at the beginning of the calculation and had therefore been omitted, became important later on. When these were taken into account, the motion of the apogee as deduced from theory agreed very nearly with that observed. This was the first of several cases in which a serious discrepancy between theory and observation has at first discredited the law of gravitation, but has subsequently been explained away, and has thereby given a new verification of its accuracy. When Clairaut had announced his discovery, Euler arrived by a fresh calculation at substantially the same result, while D'Alembert by carrying the approximation further obtained one that was slightly more accurate. A fresh calculation of the motion of the moon by Clairaut won the prize on the subject offered by the St. Petersburg Academy, and was published in 1752, with the title Théorie de la Lune. Two years later he published a set of lunar tables, and just before his death (1765) he brought out a revised edition of the Théorie de la Lune in which he embodied a new set of tables.

D'Alembert followed his paper of 1747 by a complete lunar theory (with a moderately good set of tables), which, though substantially finished in 1751, was only published in 1754 as the first volume of his Recherches sur différens points importans du système du Monde. In 1756 he published an improved set of tables, and a few months afterward a third volume of Recherches with some fresh developments of the theory. The second volume of his Opuscules Mathématiques (1762) contained another memoir on the subject with a third set of tables, which were a slight improvement on the earlier ones.

Euler's first lunar theory (Theoria Motuum Lunae) was published in 1753, though it had been sent to the St. Petersburg Academy a year or two earlier. In an appendix[8] he points out with characteristic frankness the defects from which his treatment seems to him to suffer, and suggests a new method of dealing with the subject. It was on this theory that Tobias Mayer based his tables, referred to in the preceding chapter (§ 226). Many years later Euler devised an entirely new way of attacking the subject, and after some preliminary papers dealing generally with the method and with special parts of the problem, he worked out the lunar theory in great detail, with the help of one of his sons and two other assistants, and published the whole, together with tables, in 1772. He attempted, but without success, to deal in this theory with the secular acceleration of the mean motion which Halley had detected (chapter x., § 201).

In any mathematical treatment of an astronomical problem some data have to be borrowed from observation, and of the three astronomers Clairaut seems to have been the most skilful in utilising observations, many of which he obtained from Lacaille. Hence his tables represented the actual motions of the moon far more accurately than those of D'Alembert, and were even superior in some points to those based on Euler's very much more elaborate second theory; Clairaut's last tables were seldom in error more than 11/2', and would hence serve to determine the longitude to within about 3/4°. Clairaut's tables were, however, never, much used, since Tobias Mayer's as improved by Bradley were found in practice to be a good deal more accurate; but Mayer borrowed so extensively from observation that his formulae cannot be regarded as true deductions from gravitation in the same sense in which Clairaut's were. Mathematically Euler's second theory is the most interesting and was of the greatest importance as a basis for later developments. The most modern lunar theory[9] is in some sense a return to Euler's methods.

234. Newton's lunar theory may be said to have given a qualitative account of the lunar inequalities known by observation at the time when the Principia was published, and to have indicated others which had not yet been observed. But his attempts to explain these irregularities quantitatively were only partially successful.

Euler, Clairaut, and D'Alembert threw the lunar theory into an entirely new form by using analytical methods instead of geometrical; one advantage of this was that by the expenditure of the necessary labour calculations could in general be carried further when required and lead to a higher degree of accuracy. The result of their more elaborate development was that—with one exception—the inequalities known from observation were explained with a considerable degree of accuracy quantitatively as well as qualitatively; and thus tables, such as those of Clairaut, based on theory, represented the lunar motions very closely. The one exception was the secular acceleration: we have just seen that Euler failed to explain it; D'Alembert was equally unsuccessful, and Clairaut does not appear to have considered the question.

235. The chief inequalities in planetary motion which observation had revealed up to Newton's time were the forward motion of the apses of the earth's orbit and a very slow diminution in the obliquity of the ecliptic. To these may be added the alterations in the rates of motion of Jupiter and Saturn discovered by Halley (chapter x., § 204).

Newton had shewn generally that the perturbing effect of another planet would cause displacements in the apses of any planetary orbit, and an alteration in the relative positions of the planes in which the disturbing and disturbed planet moved; but he had made no detailed calculations. Some effects of this general nature, in addition to those already known, were, however, indicated with more or less distinctness as the result of observation in various planetary tables published between the date of the Principia and the middle of the 18th century.

The irregularities in the motion of the earth, shewing themselves as irregularities in the apparent motion of the sun, and those of Jupiter and Saturn, were the most interesting and important of the planetary inequalities, and prizes for essays on one or another subject were offered several times by the Paris Academy.

The perturbations of the moon necessarily involved—by the principle of action and reaction—corresponding though smaller perturbations of the earth; these were discussed on various occasions by Clairaut and Euler, and still more fully by D'Alembert.

In Clairaut's paper of 1747 (§ 233) he made some attempt to apply his solution of the problem of three bodies to the case of the sun, earth, and Saturn, which on account of Saturn's great distance from the sun (nearly ten times that of the earth) is the planetary case most like that of the earth, moon, and sun (cf. § 228).

Ten years later he discussed in some detail the perturbations of the earth due to Venus and to the moon. This paper was remarkable as containing the first attempt to estimate masses of celestial bodies by observation of perturbations due to them. Clairaut applied this method to the moon and to Venus, by calculating perturbations in the earth's motion due to their action (which necessarily depended on their masses), and then comparing the results with Lacaille's observations of the sun. The mass of the moon was thus found to be about 1/67 and that of Venus 2/3 that of the earth; the first result was a considerable improvement on Newton's estimate from tides (chapter ix., § 189), and the second, which was entirely new, previous estimates having been merely conjectural, is in tolerably, agreement with modern measurements.[10] It is worth noticing as a good illustration of the reciprocal influence of observation and mathematical theory that, while Clairaut used Lacaille's observations for his theory, Lacaille in turn used Clairaut's calculations of the perturbations of the earth to improve his tables of the sun published in 1758.

Clairaut's method of solving the problem of three bodies was also applied by Joseph Jérôme Le François Lalande (1732–1807), who is chiefly known as an admirable populariser of astronomy but was also an indefatigable calculator and observer, to the perturbations of Mars by Jupiter, of Venus by the earth, and of the earth by Mars, but with only moderate success.

D'Alembert made some progress with the general treatment of planetary perturbations in the second volume of his Recherches, and applied his methods to Jupiter and Saturn.

236. Euler carried the general theory a good deal further in a series of papers beginning in 1747. He made several attempts to explain the irregularities of Jupiter and Saturn, but never succeeded in representing the observations satisfactorily. He shewed, however, that the perturbations due to the other planets would cause the earth's apse line to advance about 13" annually, and the obliquity of the ecliptic to diminish by about 48" annually, both results being in fair accordance both with observations and with more elaborate calculations made subsequently. He indicated also the existence of various other planetary irregularities, which for the most part had not previously been observed.

In an essay to which the Academy awarded a prize in 1756, but which was first published in 1771, he developed with some completeness a method of dealing with perturbations which he had indicated in his lunar theory of 1753. As this method, known as that of the variation of the elements or parameters, played a very important part in subsequent researches, it may be worth while to attempt to give a sketch of it.

If perturbations are ignored, a planet can be regarded as moving in an ellipse with the sun in one focus. The size and shape of the ellipse can be defined by the length of its axis and by the eccentricity; the plane in which the ellipse is situated is determined by the position of the line, called the line of nodes, in which it cuts a fixed plane, usually taken to be the ecliptic, and by the inclination of the two planes. When these four quantities are fixed, the ellipse may still turn about its focus in its own plane, but if the direction of the apse line is also fixed the ellipse is completely determined. If, further, the position of the planet in its ellipse at any one time is known, the motion is completely determined and its position at any other time can be calculated. There are thus six quantities known as elements which completely determine the motion of a planet not subject to perturbation.

When perturbations are taken into account, the path described by a planet in any one revolution is no longer an ellipse, though it differs very slightly from one; while in the case of the moon the deviations are a good deal greater. But if the motions of a planet at two widely different epochs are compared, though on each occasion the path described is very nearly an ellipse, the ellipses differ in some respects. For example, between the time of Ptolemy (A.D. 150) and that of Euler the direction of the apse line of the earth's orbit altered by about 5°, and some of the other elements also varied slightly. Hence in dealing with the motion of a planet through a long period of time it is convenient to introduce the idea of an elliptic path which is gradually changing its position and possibly also its size and shape. One consequence is that the actual path described in the course of a considerable number of revolutions is a curve no longer bearing much resemblance to an ellipse. If, for example, the apse line turns round uniformly while the other elements remain unchanged, the path described is like that shewn in the figure.

Euler extended this idea so as to represent any perturbation of a planet, whether experienced in the course of one revolution or in a longer time, by means of changes in an elliptic orbit. For wherever a planet may be, and whatever (within certain limits[11]) be its speed or direction of motion some ellipse can be found, having the sun in one focus, such that the planet can be regarded as moving in it for a short time. Hence as the planet describes a perturbed orbit it can be regarded as moving at any instant

Short history of astronomy-Fig 81.png
Fig 81.—A varying ellipse.

in an ellipse, which, however, is continually altering its position or other characteristics. Thus the problem of discussing the planet's motion becomes that of determining the elements of the ellipse which represents its motion at any time. Euler shewed further how, when the position of the perturbing planet was known, the corresponding rates of change of the elements of the varying ellipse could be calculated, and made some progress towards deducing from these data the actual elements; but he found the mathematical difficulties too great to be overcome except in some of the simpler cases, and it was reserved for the next generation of mathematicians, notably Lagrange, to shew the full power of the method.

237. Joseph Louis Lagrange was born at Turin in 1736, when Clairaut was just starting for Lapland and D'Alembert was still a child; he was descended from a French family three generations of which had lived in Italy. He shewed extraordinary mathematical talent, and when still a mere boy was appointed professor at the Artillery School of his native town, his pupils being older than himself. A few years afterwards he was the chief mover in the foundation of a scientific society, afterwards the Turin Academy of Sciences, which published in 1759 its first volume of Transactions, containing several mathematical articles by Lagrange, which had been written during the last few years. One of these[12] so impressed Euler, who had made a special study of the subject dealt with, that he at once obtained for Lagrange the honour of admission to the Berlin Academy.

In 1764 Lagrange won the prize offered by the Paris Academy for an essay on the libration of the moon. In this essay he not only gave the first satisfactory, though still incomplete, discussion of the librations (chapter vi., § 133) of the moon due to the non-spherical forms of both the earth and moon, but also introduced an extremely general method of treating dynamical problems,[13] which is the basis of nearly all the higher branches of dynamics which have been developed up to the present day.

Two years later (1766) Frederick II., at the suggestion of D'Alembert, asked Lagrange to succeed Euler (who had just returned to St. Petersburg) as the head of the mathematical section of the Berlin Academy, giving as a reason that the greatest king in Europe wished to have the greatest mathematician in Europe at his court.
Short history of astronomy-Lagrange.png

[To face p. 305.

Lagrange accepted this magnificently expressed invitation and spent the next 21 years at Berlin.

During this period he produced an extraordinary series of papers on astronomy, on general dynamics, and on a variety of subjects in pure mathematics. Several of the most important of the astronomical papers were sent to Paris and obtained prizes offered by the Academy; most of the other papers—about 60 in all—were published by the Berlin Academy. During this period he wrote also his great Mécanique Analytique, one of the most beautiful of all mathematical books, in which he developed fully the general dynamical ideas contained in the earlier paper on libration. Curiously enough he had great difficulty in finding a publisher for his masterpiece, and it only appeared in 1788 in Paris. A year earlier he had left Berlin in consequence of the death of Frederick, and accepted an invitation from Louis XVI. to join the Paris Academy. About this time, he suffered from one of the fits of melancholy with which he was periodically seized and which are generally supposed to have been due to overwork during his career at Turin. It is said that he never looked at the Mécanique Analytique for two years after its publication, and spent most of the time over chemistry and other branches of natural science as well as in non-scientific pursuits. In 1790 he was made president of the Commission appointed to draw up a new system of weights and measures, which resulted in the establishment of the metric system; and the scientific work connected with this undertaking gradually restored his interest in mathematics and astronomy. He always avoided politics, and passed through the Revolution uninjured, unlike his friend Lavoisier the great chemist and Bailly the historian of astronomy, both of whom were guillotined during the Terror. He was in fact held in great honour by the various governments which ruled France up to the time of his death; in 1793 he was specially exempted from a decree of banishment directed against all foreigners; subsequently he was made professor of mathematics, first at the École Normale (1795), and then at the École Polytechnique (1797), the last appointment being retained till his death in 1813. During this period of his life he published, in addition to a large number of papers on astronomy and mathematics, three important books on pure mathematics,[14] and at the time of his death had not quite finished a second edition of the Mécanique Analytique, the second volume appearing posthumously.

238. Pierre Simon Laplace, the son of a small farmer, was born at Beaumont in Normandy in 1749, being thus 13 years younger than his great rival Lagrange. Thanks to the help of well-to-do neighbours, he was first a pupil and afterwards a teacher at the Military School of his native town. When he was 18 he went to Paris with a letter of introduction to D'Alembert, and, when no notice was taken of it, wrote him a letter on the principles of mechanics which impressed D'Alembert so much that he at once took interest in the young mathematician and procured him an appointment at the Military School at Paris. From this time onwards Laplace lived continuously at Paris, holding various official positions. His first paper (on pure mathematics) was published in the Transactions of the Turin Academy for the years 1766-69, and from this time to the end of his life he produced an uninterrupted series of papers and books on astronomy and allied departments of mathematics.

Laplace's work on astronomy was to a great extent incorporated in his Mécanique Céleste, the five volumes of which appeared at intervals between 1799 and 1825. In this great treatise he aimed at summing up all that had been done in developing gravitational astronomy since the time of Newton. The only other astronomical book which he published was the Exposition du Système du Monde (1796), one of the most perfect and charmingly written popular treatises on astronomy ever published, in which the great mathematician never uses either an algebraical formula or a geometrical diagram. He published also in 1812 an elaborate treatise on the theory of probability or chance,[15] on which nearly all later developments of the subject have been based, and in 1819 a more popular Essai Philosophique on the same subject.

Short history of astronomy-Laplace.png
[To face p. 307.
Laplace's personality seems to have been less attractive than that of Lagrange. He was vain of his reputation as a mathematician and not always generous to rival discoverers. To Lagrange, however, he was always friendly, and he was also kind in helping young mathematicians of promise. While he was perfectly honest and courageous in upholding his scientific and philosophical opinions, his politics bore an undoubted resemblance to those of the Vicar of Bray, and were professed by him with great success. He was appointed a member of the Commission for Weights and Measures, and afterwards of the Bureau des Longitudes, and was made professor at the École Normale when it was founded. When Napoleon became First Consul, Laplace asked for and obtained the post of Home Secretary, but—fortunately for science—was considered quite incompetent, and had to retire after six weeks (1799)[16]; as a compensation he was made a member of the newly created Senate. The third volume of the Mécanique Céleste, published in 1802, contained a dedication to the "Heroic Pacificator of Europe," at whose hand he subsequently received various other distinctions, and by whom he was created a Count when the Empire was formed. On the restoration of the Bourbons in 1814 he tendered his services to them, and was subsequently made a Marquis. In 1816 he also received a very unusual honour for a mathematician (shared, however, by D'Alembert) by being elected one of the Forty "Immortals" of the Académie Française; this distinction he seems to have owed in great part to the literary excellence of the Système du Monde.

Notwithstanding these distractions he worked steadily at mathematics and astronomy, and even after the completion of the Mécanique Céleste wrote a supplement to it which was published after his death (1827).

His last words, "Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose, ce que nous ignorons est immense," coming as they did from one who had added so much to knowledge, shew his character in a pleasanter aspect than it sometimes presented during his career.

239. With the exception of Lagrange's paper on libration, nearly all his and Laplace's important contributions to astronomy were made when Clairaut's and D'Alembert's work was nearly finished, though Euler's activity continued for nearly 20 years more. Lagrange, however, survived him by 30 years and Laplace by more than 40; and together they carried astronomical science to a far higher stage of development than their three predecessors.

240. To the lunar theory Lagrange contributed comparatively little except general methods, applicable to this as to other problems of astronomy but Laplace devoted great attention to it. Of his special discoveries in the subject the most notable was his explanation of the secular acceleration of the moon's mean motion (chapter x., § 201), which had puzzled so many astronomers. Lagrange had attempted to explain it (1774), and had failed so completely that he was inclined to discredit the early observations on which the existence of the phenomenon was based. Laplace, after trying ordinary methods without success, attempted to explain it by supposing that gravitation was an effect not transmitted instantaneously, but that, like light, it took time to travel from the attracting body to the attracted one; but this also failed. Finally he traced it (1787) to an indirect planetary effect. For, as it happens, certain perturbations which the moon experiences owing to the action of the sun depend among other things on the eccentricity of the earth's orbit; this is one of the elements (§ 236) which is being altered by the action of the planets, and has for many centuries been very slowly decreasing; the perturbation in question is therefore being very slightly altered, and the moon's average rate of motion is in consequence very slowly increasing, or the length of the month decreasing. The whole effect is excessively minute, and only becomes perceptible in the course of a long time. Laplace's calculation shewed that the moon would, in the course of a century, or in about 1,300 complete revolutions, gain about 10" (more exactly 10"⋅2) owing to this cause, so that her place in the sky would differ by that amount from what it would be if this disturbing cause did not exist; in two centuries the angle gained would be 40", in three centuries 90", and so on. This may be otherwise expressed by saying that the length of the month diminishes by about one-thirtieth of a second in the course of a century. Moreover, as Laplace shewed (§ 245), the eccentricity of the earth's orbit will not go on diminishing indefinitely, but after an immense period to be reckoned in thousands of years will begin to increase, and the moon's motion will again become slower in consequence.

Laplace's result agreed almost exactly with that indicated by observation; and thus the last known discrepancy of importance in the solar system between theory and observation appeared to be explained away; and by a curious coincidence this was effected just a hundred years after the publication of the Principia.

Many years afterwards, however, Laplace's explanation was shewn to be far less complete than it appeared at the time (chapter xiii., § 287).

The same investigation revealed to Laplace the existence of alterations of a similar character, and due to the same cause, of other elements in the moon's orbit, which, though not previously noticed, were found to be indicated by ancient eclipse observations.

241. The third volume of the Mécanique Céleste contains a general treatment of the lunar theory, based on a method entirely different from any that had been employed before, and worked out in great detail. "My object," says Laplace, "in this book is to exhibit in the one law of universal gravitation the source of all the inequalities of the motion of the moon, and then to employ this law as a means of discovery, to perfect the theory of this motion and to deduce from it several important elements in the system of the moon." Laplace himself calculated no lunar tables, but the Viennese astronomer John Tobias Bürg (1766-1834) made considerable use of his formulae, together with an immense number of Greenwich observations, for the construction of lunar tables, which were sent to the Institute of France in 1801 (before the publication of Laplace's complete lunar theory), and published in a slightly amended form in 1806. A few years later (1812) John Charles Burckhardt (1773-1825), a German who had settled in Paris and worked under Laplace and Lalande, produced a new set of tables based directly on the formulae of the Mécanique Céleste. These were generally accepted in lieu of Bürg's, which had been in their turn an improvement on Mason's and Mayer's.

Later work on lunar theory may conveniently be regarded as belonging to a new period of astronomy (chapter xiii., § 286).

242. Observation had shewn the existence of inequalities in the planetary and lunar motions which seemed to belong to two different classes. On the one hand were inequalities, such as most of those of the moon, which went through their cycle of changes in a single revolution or a few revolutions of the disturbing body; and on the other such inequalities as the secular acceleration of the moon's mean motion or the motion of the earth's apses, in which a continuous disturbance was observed always acting in the same direction, and shewing no signs of going through a periodic cycle of changes.

The mathematical treatment of perturbations soon shewed the desirability of adopting different methods of treatment for two classes of inequalities, which corresponded roughly, though not exactly, to those just mentioned, and to which the names of periodic and secular gradually came to be attached. The distinction plays a considerable part in Euler's work (§ 236), but it was Lagrange who first recognised its full importance, particularly for planetary theory, and who made a special study of secular inequalities.

When the perturbations of one planet by another are being studied, it becomes necessary to obtain a mathematical expression for the disturbing force which the second planet exerts. This expression depends in general both on the elements of the two orbits, and on the positions of the planets at the time considered. It can, however, be divided up into two parts, one of which depends on the positions of the planets (as well as on the elements), while the other depends only on the elements of the two orbits, and is independent of the positions in their paths which the planets may happen to be occupying at the time. Since the positions of planets in their orbits change rapidly, the former part of the disturbing force changes rapidly, and produces in general, at short intervals of time, effects in opposite directions, first, for example, accelerating and then retarding the motion of the disturbed planet; and the corresponding inequalities of motion are the periodic inequalities, which for the most part go through a complete cycle of changes in the course of a few revolutions of the planets, or even more rapidly. The other part of the disturbing force remains nearly unchanged for a considerable period, and gives rise to changes in the elements which, though in general very small, remain for a long time without sensible alteration, and therefore continually accumulate, becoming considerable with the lapse of time: these are the secular inequalities.

Speaking generally, we may say that the periodical inequalities are temporary and the secular inequalities permanent in their effects, or as Sir John Herschel expresses it:—

"The secular inequalities are, in fact, nothing but what remains after the mutual destruction of a much larger amount (as it very often is) of periodical. But these are in their nature transient and temporary; they disappear in short periods, and leave no trace. The planet is temporarily withdrawn from its orbit (its slowly varying orbit), but forthwith returns to it, to deviate presently as much the other way, while the varied orbit accommodates and adjusts itself to the average of these excursions on either side of it."[17]

"Temporary" and "short" are, however, relative terms. Some periodical inequalities, notably in the case of the moon, have periods of only a few days, and the majority which are of importance extend only over a few years; but some are known which last for centuries or even thousands of years, and can often be treated as secular when we only want to consider an interval of a few years. On the other hand, most of the known secular inequalities are not really permanent, but fluctuate like the periodical ones, though only in the course of immense periods of time to be reckoned usually by tens of thousands of years.

One distinction between the lunar and planetary theories is that in the former periodic inequalities are comparatively large and, especially for practical purposes such as computing the position of the moon a few months hence, of great importance; whereas the periodic inequalities of the planets are generally small and the secular inequalities are the most interesting.

The method of treating the elements of the elliptic orbits as variable is specially suitable for secular inequalities; but for periodic inequalities it is generally better to treat the body as being disturbed from an elliptic path, and to study these deviations.

"The simplest way of regarding these various perturbations consists in imagining a planet moving in accordance with the laws of elliptic motion, on an ellipse the elements of which vary by insensible degrees; and to conceive at the same time that the true planet oscillates round this fictitious planet in a very small orbit the nature of which depends on its periodic perturbations."[18]

The former method, due as we have seen in great measure to Euler, was perfected and very generally used by Lagrange, and often bears his name.

243. It was at first naturally supposed that the slow alteration in the rates of the motions of Jupiter and Saturn (§§ 235, 236, and chapter x., § 204) was a secular inequality; Lagrange in 1766 made an attempt to explain it on this basis which, though still unsuccessful, represented the observations better than Euler's work. Laplace in his first paper on secular inequalities (1773) found by the use of a more complete analysis that the secular alterations in the rates of motions of Jupiter and Saturn appeared to vanish entirely, and attempted to explain the motions by the hypothesis, so often used by astronomers when in difficulties, that a comet had been the cause.

In 1773 John Henry Lambert (1728–1777) discovered from a study of observations that, whereas Halley had found Saturn to be moving more slowly than in ancient times, it was now moving faster than in Halley's time—a conclusion which pointed to a fluctuating or periodic cause of some kind.

Finally in 1784 Laplace arrived at the true explanation. Lagrange had observed in 1776 that if the times of revolution of two planets are exactly proportional to two whole numbers, then part of the periodic disturbing force produces a secular change in their motions, acting continually in the same direction; though he pointed out that such a case did not occur in the solar system. If moreover the times of revolution are nearly proportional to two whole numbers (neither of which is very large), then part of the periodic disturbing force produces an irregularity that is not strictly secular, but has a very long period; and a disturbing force so small as to be capable of being ordinarily overlooked may, if it is of this kind, be capable of producing a considerable effect.[19] Now Jupiter and Saturn revolve round the sun in about 4,333 days and 10,759 days respectively; five times the former number is 21,665, and twice the latter is 21,518, which is very little less. Consequently the exceptional case occurs; and on working it out Laplace found an appreciable inequality with a period of about 900 years, which explained the observations satisfactorily.

The inequalities of this class, of which several others have been discovered, are known as long inequalities, and may be regarded as connecting links between secular inequalities and periodical inequalities of the usual kind.

244. The discovery that the observed inequality of Jupiter and Saturn was not secular may be regarded as the first step in a remarkable series of investigations on secular inequalities carried out by Lagrange and Laplace, for the most part between 1773 and 1784, leading to some of the most interesting and general results in the whole of gravitational astronomy. The two astronomers, though living respectively in Berlin and Paris, were in constant communication, and scarcely any important advance was made by the one which was not at once utilised and developed by the other.

The central problem was that of the secular alterations in the elements of a planet's orbit regarded as a varying ellipse. Three of these elements, the axis of the ellipse, its eccentricity, and the inclination of its plane to a fixed plane (usually the ecliptic), are of much greater importance than the other three. The first two are the elements on which the size and shape of the orbit depend, and the first also determines (by Kepler's Third Law) the period of revolution and average rate of motion of the planet;[20] the third has an important influence on the mutual relations of the two planets. The other three elements are chiefly of importance for periodical inequalities.

It should be noted moreover that the eccentricities and inclinations were in all cases (except those specially mentioned) considered as small quantities; and thus all the investigations were approximate, these quantities and the disturbing forces themselves being treated as small.

245. The basis of the whole series of investigations was a long paper published by Lagrange in 1766, in which he explained the method of variation of elements, and gave formulae connecting their rates of change with the disturbing forces.

In his paper of 1773 Laplace found that what was true of Jupiter and Saturn had a more general application, and proved that in the case of any planet, disturbed by any other, the axis was not only undergoing no secular change at the present time, but could not have altered appreciably since "the time when astronomy began to be cultivated."

In the next year Lagrange obtained an expression for the secular change in the inclination, valid for all time. When this was applied to the case of Jupiter and Saturn, which on account of their superiority in size and great distance from the other planets could be reasonably treated as forming with the sun a separate system, it appeared that the changes in the inclinations would always be of a periodic nature, so that they could never pass beyond certain fixed limits, not differing much from the existing values. The like result held for the system formed by the sun, Venus, the earth, and Mars. Lagrange noticed moreover that there were cases, which, as he said, fortunately did not appear to exist in the system of the world, in which, on the contrary, the inclinations might increase indefinitely. The distinction depended on the masses of the bodies in question; and although all the planetary masses were somewhat uncertain, and those assumed by Lagrange for Venus and Mars almost wholly conjectural, it did not appear that any reasonable alteration in the estimated masses would affect the general conclusion arrived at.

Two years later (1775) Laplace, much struck by the method which Lagrange had used, applied it to the discussion of the secular variations of the eccentricity, and found that these were also of a periodic nature, so that the eccentricity also could not increase or decrease indefinitely.

In the next year Lagrange, in a remarkable paper of only 14 pages, proved that whether the eccentricities and inclinations were treated as small or not, and whatever the masses of the planets might be, the changes in the length of the axis of any planetary orbit were necessarily all periodic, so that for all time the length of the axis could only fluctuate between certain definite limits. This result was, however, still based on the assumption that the disturbing forces could be treated as small.

Next came a series of five papers published between 1781 and 1784 in which Lagrange summed up his earlier work, revised and improved his methods, and applied them to periodical inequalities and to various other problems.

Lastly in 1784 Laplace, in the same paper in which he explained the long inequality of Jupiter and Saturn, established by an extremely simple method two remarkable relations between the eccentricities and inclinations of the planets, or any similar set of bodies.

The first relation is:—

If the mass of each planet be multiplied by the square root of the axis of its orbit and by the square of the eccentricity, then the sum of these products for all the planets is invariable save for periodical inequalities.

The second is precisely similar, save that eccentricity is replaced by inclination.[21]

The first of these propositions establishes the existence of what may be called a stock or fund of eccentricity shared by the planets of the solar system. If the eccentricity of any one orbit increases, that of some other orbit must undergo a corresponding decrease. Also the fund can never be overdrawn. Moreover observation shews that the eccentricities of all the planetary orbits are small; consequently the whole fund is small, and the share owned at any time by any one planet must be small.[22] Consequently the eccentricity of the orbit of a planet of which the mass and distance from the sun are considerable can never increase much, and a similar conclusion holds for the inclinations of the various orbits.

One remarkable characteristic of the solar system is presupposed in these two propositions; namely, that all the planets revolve round the sun in the same direction, which to an observer supposed to be on the north side of the orbits appears to be contrary to that in which the hands of a clock move. If any planet moved in the opposite direction, the corresponding parts of the eccentricity and inclination funds would have to be subtracted instead of being added; and there would be nothing to prevent the fund from being overdrawn.

A somewhat similar restriction is involved in Laplace's earlier results as to the impossibility of permanent changes in the eccentricities, though a system might exist in which his result would still be true if one or more of its members revolved in a different direction from the rest, but in this case there would have to be certain restrictions on the proportions of the orbits not required in the other case.

Stated briefly, the results established by the two astronomers were that the changes in axis, eccentricity, and inclination of any planetary orbit are all permanently restricted within certain definite limits. The perturbations caused by the planets make all these quantities undergo fluctuations of limited extent, some of which, caused by the, periodic disturbing forces, go through their changes in comparatively short periods, while others, due to secular forces, require vast intervals of time for their completion.

It may thus be said that the stability of the solar system was established, as far as regards the particular astronomical causes taken into account.

Moreover, if we take the case of the earth, as an inhabited planet, any large alteration in the axis, that is in the average distance from the sun, would produce a more than proportional change in the amount of heat and light received from the sun; any great increase in the eccentricity would increase largely that part (at present very small) of our seasonal variations of heat and cold which are due to varying distance from the sun; while any change in position of the ecliptic, which was unaccompanied by a corresponding change of the equator, and had the effect of increasing the angle between the two, would largely increase the variations of temperature in the course of the year. The stability shewn to exist is therefore a guarantee against certain kinds of great climatic alterations which might seriously affect the habitability of the earth.

It is perhaps just worth while to point out that the results established by Lagrange and Laplace were mathematical consequences, obtained by processes involving the neglect of certain small quantities and therefore not perfectly rigorous, of certain definite hypotheses to which the actual conditions of the solar system bear a tolerably close resemblance. Apart from causes at present unforeseen, it is therefore not unreasonable to expect that for a very considerable period of time the motions of the actual bodies forming the solar system may be very nearly in accordance with these results; but there is no valid reason why certain disturbing causes, ignored or rejected by Laplace and Lagrange on account of their insignificance, should not sooner or later produce quite appreciable effects (cf. chapter xiii., § 293).

246. A few of Laplace's numerical results as to the secular variations of the elements may serve to give an idea of the magnitudes dealt with.

The line of apses of each planet moves in the same direction; the most rapid motion, occurring in the case of Saturn, amounted to about 15" per annum, or rather less than half a degree in a century. If this motion were to continue uniformly, the line of apses would require no less than 80,000 years to perform a complete circuit and return to its original position. The motion of the line of nodes (or line in which the plane of the planet's orbit meets that of the ecliptic) was in general found to be rather more rapid. The annual alteration in the inclination of any orbit to the ecliptic in no case exceeded a fraction of a second; while the change of eccentricity of Saturn's orbit, which was considerably the largest, would, if continued for four centuries, have only amounted to 1/1000.

247. The theory of the secular inequalities has been treated at some length on account of the general nature of the results obtained. For the purpose of predicting the places of the planets at moderate distances of time the periodical inequalities are, however, of greater importance. These were also discussed very fully both by Lagrange and Laplace, the detailed working out in a form suitable for numerical calculation being largely due to the latter. From the formulæ given by Laplace and collected in the Mécanique Céleste several sets of solar and planetary tables were calculated, which were in general found to represent closely the observed motions, and which superseded the earlier tables based on less developed theories.[23]

248. In addition to the lunar and planetary theories nearly all the minor problems of gravitational astronomy were rediscussed by Laplace, in many cases with the aid of methods due to Lagrange, and their solution was in all cases advanced.

The theory of Jupiter's satellites, which with Jupiter form a sort of miniature solar system but with several characteristic peculiarities, was fully dealt with; the other satellites received a less complete discussion. Some progress was also made with the theory of Saturn's ring by shewing that it could not be a uniform solid body.

Precession and nutation were treated much more completely than by D'Alembert; and the allied problems of the irregularities in the rotation of the moon and of Saturn's ring were also dealt with.

The figure of the earth was considered in a much more general way than by Clairaut, without, however, upsetting the substantial accuracy of his conclusions; and the theory of the tides was entirely reconstructed and greatly improved, though a considerable gap between theory and observation still remained.

The theory of perturbations was also modified so as to be applicable to comets, and from observation of a comet (known as Lexell's) which had appeared in 1770 and was found to have passed close to Jupiter in 1767 it was inferred that its orbit had been completely changed by the attraction of Jupiter, but that, on the other hand, it was incapable of exercising any appreciable disturbing influence on Jupiter or its satellites.

As, on the one hand, the complete calculation of the perturbations of the various bodies of the solar system presupposes a knowledge of their masses, so reciprocally if the magnitudes of these disturbances can be obtained from observation they can be used to determine or to correct the values of the several masses. In this way the masses of Mars and of Jupiter's satellites, as well as of Venus (§ 235), were estimated, and those of the moon and the other planets revised. In the case of Mercury, however, no perturbation of any other planet by it could be satisfactorily observed, and—except that it was known to be small—its mass remained for a long time a matter of conjecture. It was only some years after Laplace's death that the effect produced by it on a comet enabled its mass to be estimated (1842), and the mass is even now very uncertain.

249. By the work of the great mathematical astronomers of the 18th century, the results of which were summarised in the Mécanique Céleste, it was shewn to be possible to account for the observed motions of the bodies of the solar system with a tolerable degree of accuracy by means of the law of gravitation.

Newton's problem (§ 228) was therefore approximately solved, and the agreement between theory and observation was in most cases close enough for the practical purpose of predicting for a moderate time the places of the various celestial bodies. The outstanding discrepancies between theory and observation were for the most part so small as compared with those that had already been removed as to leave an almost universal conviction that they were capable of explanation as due to errors of observation, to want of exactness in calculation, or to some similar cause.

250. Outside the circle of professed astronomers and mathematicians Laplace is best known, not as the author of the Mécanique Céleste, but as the inventor of the Nebular Hypothesis.

This famous speculation was published (in 1796) in his popular book the Système du Monde already mentioned, and was almost certainly independent of a somewhat similar but less detailed theory which had been suggested by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1755.

Laplace was struck with certain remarkable characteristics of the solar system. The seven planets known to him when he wrote revolved round the sun in the same direction, the fourteen satellites revolved round their primaries still in the same direction,[24] and such motions of rotation of sun, planets, and satellites about their axes as were known followed the same law. There were thus some 30 or 40 motions all in the same direction. If these motions of the several bodies were regarded as the result of chance and were independent of one another, this uniformity would be a coincidence of a most extraordinary character, as unlikely as that a coin when tossed the like number of times should invariably come down with the same face uppermost.

These motions of rotation and revolution were moreover all in planes but slightly inclined to one another; and the eccentricities of all the orbits were quite small, so that they were nearly circular.

Comets, on the other hand, presented none of these peculiarities; their paths were very eccentric, they were inclined at all angles to the ecliptic, and were described in either direction.

Moreover there were no known bodies forming a connecting link in these respects between comets and planets or satellites.[25]

From these remarkable coincidences Laplace inferred that the various bodies of the solar system must have had some common origin. The hypothesis which he suggested was that they had condensed out of a body that might be regarded either as the sun with a vast atmosphere filling the space now occupied by the solar system, or as a fluid mass with a more or less condensed central part or nucleus; while at an earlier stage the central condensation might have been almost non-existent.

Observations of Herschel's (chapter xii., §§ 259—61) had recently revealed the existence of many hundreds of bodies known as nebulae, presenting very nearly such appearances as might have been expected from Laplace's primitive body. The differences in structure which they shewed, some being apparently almost structureless masses of some extremely diffused substance, while others shewed decided signs of central condensation, and others again looked like ordinary stars with a slight atmosphere round them, were also strongly suggestive of successive stages in some process of condensation.

Laplace's suggestion then was that the solar system had been formed by condensation out of a nebula; and a similar explanation would apply to the fixed stars, with the planets (if any) which surrounded them.

He then sketched, in a somewhat imaginative way, the process whereby a nebula, if once endowed with a rotatory motion, might, as it condensed, throw off a series of rings, and each of these might in turn condense into a planet with or without satellites; and gave on this hypothesis plausible reasons for many of the peculiarities of the solar system.

So little is, however, known of the behaviour of a body like Laplace's nebula when condensing and rotating that it is hardly worth while to consider the details of the scheme.

That Laplace himself, who has never been accused of underrating the importance of his own discoveries, did not take the details of his hypothesis nearly as seriously as many of its expounders, may be inferred both from the fact that he only published it in a popular book, and from his remarkable description of it as "these conjectures on the formation of the stars and of the solar system, conjectures which I present with all the distrust (défiance) which everything which is not a result of observation or of calculation ought to inspire."[26]

  1. Some other influences are known—e.g. the sun's heat causes various motions of our air and water, and has a certain minute effect on the earth's rate of rotation, and presumably produces similar effects on other bodies.
  2. The arithmetical processes of working out, figure by figure, a non-terminating decimal or a square root are simple cases of successive approximation.
  3. "C'est que je viens d'un pays où, quand on parle, on est pendu."
  4. Longevity has been a remarkable characteristic of the great mathematical astronomers: Newton died in his 85th year; Euler, Lagrange, and Laplace lived to be more than 75, and D'Alembert was almost 66 at his death.
  5. This body, which is primarily literary, has to be distinguished from the much less famous Paris Academy of Sciences, constantly referred to (often simply as the Academy) in this chapter and the preceding.
  6. E.g. Mélanges de Philosophie, de l'Hisioire, et de Littérature; Élements de Philosophie; Sur la Destruction des Jésuites.
  7. I.e. he assumed a law of attraction represented by μ/r2 + ν/r3.
  8. This appendix is memorable as giving for the first time the method of variation of parameters which Lagrange afterwards developed and used with such success.
  9. That of the distinguished American astronomer Dr. G. W. Hill (chapter xiii., § 286).
  10. They give about ⋅78 for the mass of Venus compared to that of the earth.
  11. The orbit might be a parabola or hyperbola, though this does not occur in the case of any known planet.
  12. On the Calculus of Variations.
  13. The establishment of the general equations of motion by a combination of virtual velocities and D'Alembert's principle.
  14. Théorie des Fonctions Analytiques (l797); Résolution des Équations Numériques (1798); Leçons sur le Calcul des Fonctions (1805).
  15. Théorie Analytique des Probabilites.
  16. The fact that the post was then given by Napoleon to his brother Lucien suggests some doubts as to the unprejudiced character of the verdict of incompetence pronounced by Napoleon against Laplace.
  17. Outlines of Astronomy, § 656.
  18. Laplace, Système du Monde.
  19. If , are the mean motions of the two planets, the expression for the disturbing force contains terms of the type , where , are integers, and the coefficient is of the order in the eccentricities and inclinations. If now and are such that is small, the corresponding inequality has a period , and though its coefficient is of order , it has the small factor (or its square) in the denominator and may therefore be considerable. In the case of Jupiter and Saturn, for example, in seconds of arc per annum, ; ; there is therefore an inequality of the third order, with a period (in years) .
  20. This statement requires some qualification when perturbations are taken into account. But the point is not very important, and is too technical to be discussed.
  21. e2m = c, ∑ tan2im = c', where m is the mass of any planet, a, e, i are the semi-major axis, eccentricity, and inclination of the orbit. The equation is true as far as squares of small quantities, and therefore it is indifferent whether or not tan i is replaced as in the text by i.
  22. Nearly the whole of the "eccentricity fund" and of the "inclination fund" of the solar system is shared between Jupiter and Saturn. If Jupiter were to absorb the whole of each fund, the eccentricity of its orbit would only be increased by about 25 per cent., and the inclination to the ecliptic would not be doubled.
  23. Of tables based on Laplace's work and published up to the time of his death, the chief solar ones were those of von Zach (1804) and Delambre (1806); and the chief planetary ones were those of Lalande (1771), of Lindenau for Venus, Mars, and Mercury (1810–13), and of Bouvard for Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus (1808 and 1821).
  24. The motion of the satellites of Uranus (chapter xii., §§ 253, 255) is in the opposite direction. When Laplace first published his theory their motion was doubtful, and he does not appear to have thought it worth while to notice the exception in later editions of his book.
  25. This statement again has to be modified in consequence of the discoveries, beginning on January 1st, 1801, of the minor planets (chapter xiii., § 294), many of which have orbits that are far more eccentric than those of the other planets and are inclined to the ecliptic at considerable angles.
  26. Système du Monde, Book V., chapter vi.