Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/105

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THE BOUNDARIES OF ASTRONOMY.

The doctrine to which we refer is known as the law of universal gravitation. It is customary to enunciate this law in the proposition that every particle of matter attracts every other particle with a force which varies directly as the product of the masses and inversely as the square of their distance. It is no doubt convenient to enunciate the great law in this very simple manner. It might seem awkward to have to specify all the qualifications which would be necessary if that enunciation is to assert no more than what we absolutely know. Perhaps many people believe, or think they believe, the law to be true in its general form; yet the assertion that the law of gravitation is universally true is an enormous, indeed, an infinite, exaggeration of the actual extent of our information.

To make this clear, let us contrast the law of gravitation as generally stated with the proposition which asserts that the earth rotates on its axis. No one who is capable of understanding the evidence on the question can doubt that the earth really does rotate upon its axis. I purposely set aside any difficulties of a quasi-metaphysical character, and speak merely of words in their ordinary acceptation. In stating that the earth rotates upon its axis, we assert merely a definite proposition as regards one body, all the facts which the assertion involves are present to our minds, and we know that the assertion must be true. Equally conclusive is the evidence for the statement that the earth revolves around the sun. Concrete truths of this kind could be multiplied indefinitely. We can make similar assertions with regard to the planets. We can assert that the planets rotate upon their axes, and that the planets revolve around the sun. But the law of gravitation is a proposition of quite a different nature. Let us examine briefly the evidence by which this law has been established.

The science of dynamics is founded upon certain principles known as the laws of motion. The simplest of these principles asserts that a body, once set moving in a straight line, will continue to move on uniformly forever in the same straight line, unless some force be permitted to act upon that body. For nature as we know it, this law seems to be fully proved. It has been tested in every way that we have been able to devise. All these tests have tended to confirm that law. The law is therefore believed to be true, at all events throughout the regions of space accessible to us and to our telescopes. Assuming this law and the other principles analogous to it, we can apply them to the case of the revolution of the earth around the sun. As the earth is not moving in a straight line, it must be acted upon by some force. It can be shown that this force must be directed toward the sun. It will further appear that the intensity of this force will vary inversely as the square of the distance between the earth and the sun. The movements of the planets can be made to yield the same conclusions. All these movements can be accounted for on the supposition that each planet is attracted by the sun with a force which