Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/201

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THREE generations of men have come and gone since the Marquis de Laplace stood before the Academy of France and gave his demonstration of the permanent stability of our solar system. There was one significant fault in Newton's superbly simple conception of an eternal law governing the world in which we live. The labors of mathematicians following him had shown that the planets must trace out paths in space whose form could be determined in advance with unerring certainty by the aid of Newton's law of gravitation. But they proved just as conclusively that these planetary orbits, as they are called, could not maintain indefinitely the same shapes or positions. Slow indeed might be the changes they were destined to undergo; slow, but sure, with that sureness belonging to celestial science alone. And so men asked: Has this magnificent solar system been built upon a scale so grand, been put in operation subject to a law sublime in its very simplicity, only to change and change until at length it shall lose every semblance of its former self, and end perhaps in chaos or extinction?

Laplace was able to answer confidently: No. Nor was his answer couched in the enthusiastic language of unbalanced theorists who work by the aid of imagination alone. Based upon the irrefragable logic of correct mathematical reasoning, and clad in the sober garb of mathematical formulæ, his results carried conviction to men of science the world over. So was it demonstrated that changes in our solar system are surely at work, and shall continue for nearly countless ages; yet just as surely will they be reversed at last, and the system will tend to return again to its original form and condition. The objection that the Newtonian law meant ultimate dissolution of the world was thus destroyed by Laplace. From that day forward, the law of gravitation has been accepted as holding sway over all phenomena visible within our planetary world.

The intricacies of our own solar system being thus illumined, the restless activity of the human intellect was stimulated to search beyond for new problems and new mysteries. Even more fascinating than the movements of our sun and planets are all those questions that relate to the clustered stellar congeries hanging suspended within the deep blue vault of night. Does the same law of gravitation cast its magic