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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/663

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CHAPTERS ON THE STARS.

more likely of the two. From what we know of the constitution of the stars, a change in the color of one of these bodies in so short a period of time as that embraced by history is so improbable as to require much stronger proofs than any that can be adduced from ancient writers. In addition to the possible vagueness or errors of the original writers, we have to bear in mind the possible mistakes or misinterpretations of the copyists who reproduced the manuscripts.

 
THE PARALLAXES OF THE STARS.

It needs only the most elementary conceptions of space, direction and motion to see that, as the earth makes its vast swing from one extremity of its orbit to the other, the stars, being fixed, must have an apparent swing in the opposite direction. The seeming absence of such a swing was in all ages before our own one of the great stumbling blocks of astronomy. It was the base on which Ptolemy erected his proof that the earth was immovable in the center of the celestial sphere. It was felt by Copernicus to be a great difficulty in the reception of his system. It led Tycho Brahe to suggest a grotesque combination of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, in which the earth was the center of motion, round which the sun revolved, carrying the planets with it.

With every improvement in their instruments, astronomers sought to detect the annual swing of the stars. Each time that increased accuracy in observations failed to show it, the difficulty in the way of the Copernican system was heightened. How deep the feeling on the subject is shown by the enthusiastic title, Copernicus Triumphans, given by Horrebow to the paper in which, from observations by Roemer, he claimed to have detected the swing. But, alas, critical examination showed that the supposed inequality was produced by the varying effect of the warmth of the day and the cold of the night upon the rate of the clock used by the observer, and not by the motion of the earth.

Hooke, a contemporary of Newton, published an attempt to determine the parallax of the stars, under the title of "An Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth," but his work was as great a failure as that of his predecessors. Had it not been that the proofs of the Copernican system had accumulated until they became irresistible, these repeated attempts might have led men to think that perhaps, after all, Ptolemy and the ancients were somehow in the right.

The difficulty was magnified by the philosophic views of the period. It was supposed that Nature must economize in the use of space as a farmer would in the use of valuable land. The ancient astronomers correctly placed the sphere of the stars outside that of the planets, but did not suppose it far outside. That Nature would squander her resources by leaving a vacant space hundreds of thousands of times the