Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/205

This page has been validated.
195
THE SUN'S DESTINATION.

of course, always points to the north; and as the train turns upon its curve, the needle will make a complete revolution. But the passenger could not know without the compass that the train was not moving in a perfectly straight line. Just so we passengers on the earth are unaware of the kind of path we are traversing, until, like the compass, the astronomer's instruments shall reveal to us the truth.

But as we have seen, astronomical observations of precision have not as yet extended through a period of time corresponding to the few minutes during which the St. Gothard traveler watches the compass. We are still in the dark, and do not know as yet whether mankind shall last long enough upon the earth to see the compass needle make its revolution. We are compelled to believe that the motion in space of our sun is progressing upon a curved path; but so far as precise observations allow us to speak, we can but say that we have as yet moved through an infinitesimal element only of that mighty curve. However, we know the point upon the sky towards which this tiny element of our path is directed, and we have an approximate knowledge of the speed at which we move.

More than a century ago Sir William Herschel was able to fix roughly what we call the Apex of the sun's way in space, or the point among the stars towards which that way is for the moment directed. We say for the moment, but we mean that moment of which Bradley saw the beginning in 1750, and upon whose end no man of those now living shall ever look. Herschel found that a comparison of old stellar observations seemed to indicate that the stars in a certain part of the sky were opening out, as it were, and that the constellations in the opposite part of the heavens seemed to be drawing in, or becoming smaller. There can be but one reasonable explanation of this. We must be moving towards that part of the sky where the stars are separating. Just so a man watching a regiment of soldiers approaching, will see at first only a confused body of men. But as they come nearer the individual soldiers will seem to separate, until at length each one is seen distinct from all the others.

Herschel fixed the position of the apex at a point in the constellation Hercules. The most recent investigations of Newcomb, published only a few months ago, have, on the whole, verified Herschel's conclusions. With the intuitive power of rare genius, Herschel had been able to sift truth out of error. The observational data at his disposal would now be called rude, but they disclosed to the scrutiny of his acute understanding the germ of truth that was in them. Later investigators have increased the precision of our knowledge, until we can now say that the present direction of the solar motion is known within very narrow limits. A tiny circle might be drawn on the sky, to which an astronomer might point his hand and say: Yonder little circle