Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/109

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THE BOUNDARIES OF ASTRONOMY.

the confines of the solar system. Does Sirius, for instance, attract the pole-star? We really do not know. Nor can we ever expect to know. If Sirius and the pole-star do attract each other, and if the law of their attraction be the same as the law of attraction in the solar system, it will then be easy to show that the effect of this attraction is so minute that it would he entirely outside the range of our instruments even to detect it. Observation is hopeless on such a matter. If we can not detect any attraction between a star in one constellation and a star in another, no more can we detect any attraction between our sun and the stars. Such attractions may exist, or they may not exist: we have no means of knowing. Should any one assert that there is absolutely no gravitation between two bodies more than a billion miles apart, we know no facts by which he can be contradicted.

If we know so little about the existence of gravitation in the space accessible to our telescopes, what are we to say of those distant regions of space to which our view can never penetrate? Let a vast sphere be described of such mighty dimensions that it embraces not only all the objects visible to the unaided eye, not only all the objects visible in our most powerful telescopes, but even every object that the most fertile imagination can conceive, what relation must this stupendous sphere bear to the whole of space? The mighty sphere can only be an infinitely small part of space. It must bear to the whole of space a ratio infinitely less than the water in a single dew-drop bears to the water in the Atlantic Ocean. Are we then entitled to assert that every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a force which is proportional to the product of their masses, and which varies inversely as the square of their distance? We have, indeed, but a slender basis of fact on which to rest a proposition so universal. Let us attempt to enunciate the law of gravitation so as to commit ourselves to no assertion not absolutely proved. The statement would then run somewhat as follows:

Of the whole contents of space we know nothing except within that infinitely small region which contains the bodies visible in our telescopes. Nor can we assert that gravitation pervades the entire of even this infinitely small region. It is true that in one very minute part of this infinitely small region the law of gravitation appears to reign supreme. This minute part is of course the solar system. There are also a few binary stars in this infinitely small region whose movements would admit of being explained by gravitation, though as yet they can hardly be held to absolutely prove its existence.

It must then be admitted that, when the law of gravitation is spoken of as being universal, we are using language infinitely more general than the facts absolutely warrant. At the present moment we only know that gravitation exists to a very small extent in a certain indefinitely small portion of space. Our knowledge would have to be enormously extended before we can assert that gravitation extended