Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/110

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

entirely through this very limited region; and, even when we have proved this, we should have only made an infinitesimal advance to a proof that gravitation is absolutely universal.

I do not for a moment assert that our ordinary statement of the law of gravitation is untrue. I merely say that it has not been proved, and we may also add that it does not seem as if it ever could be proved. Most people who have considered the matter will probably believe that gravitation is universal. Nor is this belief unnatural. If we set aside comets' tails, and perhaps one or two other slightly doubtful matters, we may assert that we always find the law of gravitation to be true whenever we have an opportunity of testing it. These opportunities are very limited, so that we have but very slender supports for the induction that gravitation is universal. But it must be admitted that an hypothesis which has practically borne every test which can be applied has very strong grounds for our acceptance: such, then, are the claims of the law of gravitation to be admitted to a place among the laws of Nature.

The wondrous series of spectroscopic researches by which Mr. Huggins has so vastly extended our knowledge should also be here referred to. Mr. Huggins has shown that many of the substances most abundant on the earth are widely spread through the universe. Take, for instance, the metal iron and the gas hydrogen. We can detect the existence of these elements in objects enormously distant. Both iron and hydrogen exist in many stars, and hydrogen has been shown, in all probability, to be an important constituent of the nebulæ. That the rest of the sidereal system should thus be composed of materials known to be to a large extent identical with the materials in the solar system is a presumption in favor of the universality of gravitation.

In what has hitherto been said, we have attempted to give an outline of the facts so far as they are certainly known to us. Into mere speculations we have no desire to enter. We may, however, sketch out a brief chapter in modern sidereal astronomy, which seems to throw a ray of light into the constituents of the vast abyss of space which lies beyond the scope of our telescopes. The ray of light is no doubt but a feeble one, but we must take whatever information we can obtain, even though it may fall far short of that which an intellectual curiosity will desire. The question now before us may be simply stated: Are we entitled to suppose that the part of the universe accessible to our telescopes is fairly typical of the other parts of the universe; or are we to believe that the system we know is altogether exceptional; that there are stars in other parts quite unlike our stars, composed of different materials, acted upon by different laws, of which we have no conception? The presumption is, that the materials of which our system is composed are representative of the materials elsewhere. This presumption is strengthened by the very important considerations now to be adduced.