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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/204

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

But in general, we can not suppose that the centers of gravity in the various stellar systems are really occupied by actual physical bodies. The center may be a mere mathematical point in space, situated among the several bodies composing the system, but nevertheless endowed with the same remarkable property of relative immobility.

Having thus defined the center of gravity in its relation to the constituent parts of any cosmic system, we can pass easily to its characteristic properties in connection with the inter-relation of stellar systems with one another. It can be proved mathematically that our solar system will pull upon distant stars just as though the sun and all the planets were concentrated into one vast sphere having its center in the center of gravity of the whole. It is this property of the center of gravity which makes it preëminently important in cosmic researches. For, while we know that center to be at rest relatively to all the planets in the system, it may, nevertheless, in its quality as a sort of concentrated essence of them all, be moving swiftly through space under the pull of distant stars. In that case, the attendant bodies will go with it—but they will pursue their evolutions within the system, all unconscious that the center of gravity is carrying them on a far wider circuit.

What is the nature of that circuit? This question has been for many years the subject of earnest study by the clearest minds among astronomers. The greatest difficulty in the way is the comparatively brief period during which men have been able to make astronomical observations of precision. Space and time are two conceptions that transcend the powers of definition possessed by any man. But we can at least form a notion of how vast is the extent of time, if we remember that the period covered by man's written records is registered but as a single moment upon the great revolving dial of heaven's dome. One hundred and fifty years have elapsed since James Bradley built the foundations of sidereal astronomy upon his masterly series of star-observations at the Royal Observatory of Greenwich, in England. Yet so slowly do the movements of the stars unroll themselves upon the firmament, that even to this day no one of them has been seen by men to trace out more than an infinitesimal fraction of its destined path through the voids of space.

Travelers upon a railroad can not tell at any given moment whether they are moving in a straight line, or whether the train is turning upon some curve of huge size. The St. Gothard railway has several so-called 'corkscrew' tunnels, within which the rails make a complete turn in a spiral, the train finally emerging from the tunnel at a point almost vertically over the entrance. In this way the train is lifted to a higher level. Passengers are wont to amuse themselves while in these tunnels by watching the needle of an ordinary pocket compass. This needle,