Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/286

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

How was the order of the universe understood by the ancients; for instance, by Pythagoras, Plato or Aristotle? It was either an immutable type fixed once for all, or an ideal to which the world sought to approach. Kepler himself still thought thus when, for instance, he sought whether the distances of the planets from the sun had not some relation to the five regular polyhedrons. This idea contained nothing absurd, but it was sterile, since nature is not so made. Newton has shown us that a law is only a necessary relation between the present state of the world and its immediately subsequent state. All the other laws since discovered are nothing else; they are in sum, differential equations; but it is astronomy which furnished the first model for them, without which we should doubtless long have erred.

Astronomy has also taught us to set at naught appearances. The day Copernicus proved that what was thought the most stable was in motion, that what was thought moving was fixed, he showed us how deceptive could be the infantile reasonings which spring directly from the immediate data of our senses. True, his ideas did not easily triumph, but since this triumph there is no longer a prejudice so inveterate that we can not shake it off. How can we estimate the value of the new weapon thus won?

The ancients thought everything was made for man, and this illusion must be very tenacious, since it must ever be combated. Yet it is necessary to divest oneself of it; or else one will be only an eternal myope, incapable of seeing the truth. To comprehend nature one must be able to get out of self, so to speak, and to contemplate her from many different points of view; otherwise we never shall know more than one side. Now, to get out of self is what he who refers everything to himself can not do. Who delivered us from this illusion? It was those who showed us that the earth is only one of the smallest planets of the solar system, and that the solar system itself is only an imperceptible point in the infinite spaces of the stellar universe.

At the same time astronomy taught us not to be afraid of big numbers. This was needful, not only for knowing the heavens, but to know the earth itself; and was not so easy as it seems to us to-day. Let us try to go back and picture to ourselves what a Greek would have thought if told that red light vibrates four hundred millions of millions of times per second. Without any doubt, such an assertion would have appeared to him pure madness, and he never would have lowered himself to test it. To-day an hypothesis will no longer appear absurd to us because it obliges us to imagine objects much larger or smaller than those our senses are capable of showing us, and we no longer comprehend those scruples which arrested our predecessors and prevented them from discovering certain truths simply