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SPHERICAL]
801
ASTRONOMY

balance vague estimates of probability. What we do know is that these bodies vary widely in size. Those known to be revolving round certain of the stars are far larger in proportion to their central bodies than our planets are in respect to the sun; for were it otherwise we should never be able to detect their existence. At the other extreme we know that innumerable swarms of minute bodies, probably little more than particles, move round the sun in orbits of every degree of eccentricity, making themselves known to us only in the exceptional cases when they strike the earth’s atmosphere. They then appear to us as “shooting stars” (see Meteor).

A general idea of the relation of the solar system to the universe may be gained by reflecting that the average distance between any two neighbouring stars is several thousand times the extent of the solar system. Between the orbit of Neptune and the nearest star known to us is an immense void in which no bodies are yet known to exist, except comets. But although these sometimes wander to distances considerably beyond the orbit of Neptune, it is probable that the extent of the void which separates our system from the nearest star is hundreds of times the distance of the farthest point to which a comet ever recedes.

We may conclude this brief characterization of astronomy with a statement and classification of the principal lines on which astronomical researches are now pursued. The most comprehensive problem before the investigator is that of the constitution of the universe. It is known that, while infinite diversity is found among the bodies of the universe, there are also common characteristics throughout its whole extent. In a certain sense we may say that the universe now presents itself to the thinking astronomer, not as a heterogeneous collection of bodies, but as a unified whole. The number of stars is so vast that statistical methods can be applied to many of the characters which they exhibit—their spectra, their apparent and absolute luminosity, and their arrangement in space. Thus has arisen in recent times what we may regard as a third branch of astronomical science, known as Stellar Statistics. The development of this branch has infused life and interest into what might a few years ago have been regarded as the most lifeless mass of figures possible, expressing merely the positions and motions of innumerable individual stars, as determined by generations of astronomical observers. The development of this new branch requires great additions to this mass, the product of perhaps centuries of work on the older lines of the science. To the statistician of the stars, catalogues of spectra, magnitude, position and proper motions are of the same importance that census tables are to the student of humanity. The measurement of the speed with which the individual stars are moving towards or from our system is a work of such magnitude that what has yet been done is scarcely more than a beginning. The discovery by improved optical means, and especially by photography, of new bodies of our system so small that they evaded all scrutiny in former times, is still going on, but does not at present promise any important generalization, unless we regard as such the conclusion that our solar system is a more complex organism than was formerly supposed.

One characteristic of astronomy which tends to make its progress slow and continuous arises out of the general fact that, except in the case of motions to or from us, which can be determined by a single observation with the spectroscope, the motion of a heavenly body can be determined only by comparing its position at two different epochs. The interval required between these two epochs depends upon the speed of the motion. In the case of the greater number of the fixed stars this is so slow that centuries may have to elapse before motion can be deduced. Even in the case of the planets, the variations in the form and position of the orbits are so slow that long periods of observation are required for their correct determination.

The process of development is also made slow and difficult by the great amount of labour involved in deriving the results of astronomical observations. When an astronomer has made an observation, it still has to be “reduced,” and this commonly requires more labour than that involved in making it. But even this labour may be small compared with that of the theoretical astronomer, who, in the future, is to use the result as the raw material of his work. The computations required in such work are of extreme complexity, and the labour required is still further increased by the fact that cases are rather exceptional in which the results reached by one generation will not have to be revised and reconstructed by another; processes which may involve the repetition of the entire work. We may, in fact, regard the fabric of astronomical science as a building in the construction of which no stone can be added without a readjustment of some of the stones on which it has to rest. Thus it comes about that the observer, the computer, and the mathematician have in astronomical science a practically unlimited field for the exercise of their powers.

In treating so comprehensive a subject we may naturally distinguish between what we know of the universe and the methods and processes by which that knowledge is acquired. The former may be termed general, and the latter practical, astronomy. When we descend more minutely into details we find these two branches of the subject to be connected by certain principles, the application of which relates to both subjects. Considering as general or descriptive astronomy a description of the universe as we now understand it, the other branches of the subject generally recognized are as follows:—

Geometrical or Spherical Astronomy, by the principles of which the positions and the motions of the heavenly bodies are defined.

Theoretical Astronomy, which may be considered as an extension of geometrical astronomy and includes the determination of the positions and motions of the heavenly bodies by combining mathematical theory with observation. Modern theoretical astronomy, taken in the most limited sense, is based upon Celestial Mechanics, the science by which, using purely deductive mechanical methods, the laws of motion of the heavenly bodies are derived by deductive methods from their mutual gravitation towards each other.

Practical Astronomy, which comprises a description of the instruments used in astronomical observation, and of the principles and methods underlying their application.


Spherical or Geometrical Astronomy.

In astronomy, as in analytical geometry, the position of a point is defined by stating its distance and its direction from a point of reference taken as known. The numerical quantities by which the distance and direction, and therefore the position, are defined, are termed co-ordinates of the point. The latter are measured or defined with regard to a fixed system of lines and planes, which form the basis of the system.

The following are the fundamental concepts of such a system.
(a) An origin or point of reference. The points most generally taken for this purpose in astronomical practice are the following:—
(1) The position of a point of observation on the earth’s surface. We conceive its position to be that occupied by an observer. The position of a heavenly body is then defined by its direction and distance from the supposed observer.
(2) The centre of the earth. This point, though it can never be occupied by an observer, is used because the positions of the heavenly bodies in relation to it are more readily computed than they can be from a point on the earth’s surface.
(3) The centre of the sun.
(4) In addition to these three most usual points, we may, of course, take the centre of a planet or that of a star in order to define the position of bodies in their respective neighbourhoods.
Co-ordinates referred to a point of observation as the origin are termed “apparent,” those referred to the centre of the earth are “geocentric,” those referred to the centre of the sun, “heliocentric.”
(b) The next concept of the system is a fundamental plane, regarded as fixed, passing through the origin. In connexion with it is an axis perpendicular to it, also passing through the origin. We may consider the axis and the plane as a single concept, the axis determining the plane, or the plane the axis. The fundamental concepts of this class most in use are:—
(1) When a point on the earth’s surface is taken as the origin, the fundamental axis may be the direction of gravity at that point. This direction defines the vertical line. The fundamental plane which it determines is horizontal and is termed the plane of the horizon. Such a plane is realized in the surface of a liquid, a basin of quicksilver, for example.