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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/678

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

corded many observations and measurements on the subject of refraction. To them succeeded Kepler, who, taking the results tabulated by his predecessors, applied his amazing industry to extract from them their meaning—that is to say, to discover the physical principles which lay at their root. In this attempt he was less successful than in his astronomical labors. In 1604 Kepler published his "Supplement to Vitellio," in which he virtually acknowledged his defeat, by enunciating an approximate rule, instead of an all-satisfying natural law. The discovery of such a law, which constitutes one of the chief corner-stones of optical science, was made by Willebrord Snell, about 1621.[1]

A ray of light may, for our purposes, be presented to the mind as a luminous straight line. Let such a ray be supposed to fall vertically upon a perfectly calm water-surface. The incidence, as it is called, is then perpendicular, and the ray goes through the water without deviation to the right or left. In other words, the ray in the air and the ray in the water form one continuous straight line. But the least deviation from the perpendicular causes the ray to be broken, or "refracted," at the point of incidence. What, then, is the law of refraction discovered by Snell? It is this, that no matter how the angle of incidence, and with it the angle of refraction, may vary, the relative magnitude of two lines, dependent on these angles, and called their sines, remains, for the same medium, perfectly unchanged. Measure, in other words, for various angles, each of these two lines with a scale, and divide the length of the longer one by that of the shorter; then, however the lines individually vary in length, the quotient yielded by this division remains absolutely the same. It is, in fact, what is called the index of refraction of the medium.

Science is an organic growth, and accurate measurements give coherence to the scientific organism. Were it not for the antecedent discovery of the law of sines, founded as it was on exact measurements, the rainbow could not have been explained. Again and again, moreover, the angular distance of the rainbow from the sun had been determined and found constant. In this divine remembrancer there was no variableness. A line drawn from the sun to the rainbow, and another drawn from the rainbow to the observer's eye, always inclosed an angle of 41°. Whence this steadfastness of position—this inflexible adherence to a particular angle? Newton gave to De Dominis[2] the credit of the answer; but we really owe it to the genius of Descartes. He followed with his mind's eye the rays of light impinging on a rain-drop. He saw them in part reflected from the outside surface of the drop. He saw them refracted on entering the drop, reflected

  1. Born at Leyden 1591; died 1626.
  2. Archbishop of Spalatro, and Primate of Dalmatia. Fled to England about 1616; became a Protestant, and was made Dean of Windsor. Returned to Italy and resumed his Catholicism; but was handed over to the Inquisition, and died in prison (Poggendorff's "Biographical Dictionary").