Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/256

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orbits of the planets are to some extent affected. The mutual actions of the planets present many problems of the highest interest, and, it should be added, of the greatest difficulty. Many of these difficulties have been overcome. It is the great glory of the French mathematicians to have invented the methods by which the nature of the solar system could be studied. The results at which they arrived are not a little remarkable. They have computed how much the planets act and react upon each other, and they have shown that in consequence of these actions the orbit of each planet gradually changes its shape and its position. But the crowning feature of these discoveries is the demonstration that these changes in the orbits of the planets are all periodic. The orbits may fluctuate, but those fluctuations are confined within very narrow limits. In the course of ages the system gradually becomes deformed, but it will gradually return again to its original position, and again depart therefrom. These changes are comparatively so small that our system may be regarded as substantially the same even when its fluctuations have attained their greatest amplitude. These splendid discoveries are founded upon the actual circumstances of the system, as we see that system to be constituted. Take, for instance, the eccentricities of the orbits of the planets around the sun. Those eccentricities can never change much; they are now small quantities, and small quantities those eccentricities must forever remain. The proof of this remarkable theorem partly depends upon the fact that the planets are all revolving around the sun in the same direction. If one of the planets we have named were revolving in an opposite direction to the rest, the mathematical theory would break down. We would have no guarantee that the eccentricities would forever remain small as they are at present. In a similar manner, the planets all move in orbits whose planes are inclined to each other at very small angles. The positions of those planes fluctuate, but these fluctuations are confined within very narrow limits. The proof of this theorem, like the proof of the corresponding theorem about the eccentricities, depends upon the actual conditions of the planetary system as we find it. If one of the planets were to be stopped, turned round, and started off again in the opposite direction, our guarantee for the preservation of the planes would be gone. It therefore follows that, if the system is to be permanently maintained, all the planets must revolve in the same direction.

In this connection it is impossible not to notice the peculiar circumstances presented by the comets. By a sort of convention, the planets have adopted, or, at all events, they possess, movements which fulfill the conditions necessary if the planets are to live and let live; but the comets do not obey any of the conditions which are imposed by the planetary convention. The orbits of the comets are not nearly circles. They are sometimes ellipses with a very high degree of eccentricity; they are often so very eccentric that we are unable to dis-