Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/257

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THE BOUNDARIES OF ASTRONOMY.

tinguish the parts of their orbits which we see from actual parabolas. Nor do the directions iu which the comets move exhibit any uniformity; some move round the sun in one direction, some move in the opposite direction. Even the planes which contain the orbits of the comets are totally different from each other. Instead of being inclined at only a very few degrees to their mean position, the planes of the comets hardly follow any common law; they are inclined at all sorts of directions. In no respect do the comets obey those principles which are necessary to prevent constitutional disorder in the planetary system. The consequences of this are obvious, and unfortunate in the highest degree—for the comets. A comet possesses no security for the undisturbed enjoyment of its orbit. Not to mention the risk of actual collision with the planets, there are other ways in which the path of a comet may experience enormously great changes by the disturbances which the planets are capable of producing. How is it that the system has been able to tolerate the vagaries of comets for so many ages? Solely because the comets, though capable of suffering from perturbations, are practically incapable of producing any perturbations on the planets. The efficiency of a body in producing perturbations depends upon the mass of the body. Now, all we have hitherto seen with regard to comets tends to show that the masses of comets are extremely small. Attempts have been made to measure the masses of comets. Those attempts have always failed. They have failed because the scales in which we have attempted to weigh the comets have been too coarse to weigh anything of the almost spiritual texture of a comet. It is unnecessary to go as far as some have done, and to say that the weight of a large comet may be only a few pounds or a few ounces. It might be more reasonable to suppose that the weight of a large comet was thousands of tons, though even thousands of tons would be far too small a weight to admit of being measured by the very coarse balance which is at our disposal.

The enduring stability of the planetary system is thus seen to be compatible with the existence of comets solely because comets fulfill the condition of being almost imponderable in comparison with the mighty masses of the planetary system. The very existence of our planetary system is a proof of the doctrine that the masses of the comets are but small. Indeed, to those who will duly weigh the matter, it will probably appear that this negative evidence as to the mass of the comets is more satisfactory than the results of any of the more direct attempts to place the comets in the weighing-scales. If we restate the circumstances of the solar system, and if we include the comets in our view, it will appear how seriously the existence of the comets affects the validity of the argument in favor of the nebular hypothesis which is derived from the uniformity in the directions of the planetary movements. If we include the whole host of minor planets, we have for the population of the solar system something