Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 80.djvu/454

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nology after it became out of date we can but surmise. For that the stars and the seasons which they ruled did not continue to agree must have been early evident to the astronomer-priests who made a study of the two the basis of their calendar and of all the functions, aratral and religious, appertaining to it. So that the stellar springtime of one year was not the springtime of the next. That the zodiacal constellations were continually moving forward to meet the sun in his yearly round of the sky could hardly, one would have supposed, have escaped the observation of antiquity. Yet we find no mention of the fact; not so much as an ascription of the incongruity to the errors of predecessors.

To Hipparchus is due the honor of its discovery; a detection brought about in this wise. Besides watching the heliacal risings of the stars the ancients had another way of determining the date of the vernal equinox: this was by noting by the gnomon of a sun-dial the times when the shadows cast by the sun at noon were longest or shortest. This gave them the dates of the solstices. Hipparchus by comparing his own observations with those that had preceded him—on Spica, chiefly— found that the two methods did not agree but that the equinox as set by the sun stepped forward to meet the stars by about twenty minutes each year. As he perceived that while the longitudes of all the stars were thus changing, their latitudes remained the same, he concluded with the astuteness of genius that it was the equator that was moving, not the ecliptic; that is, the earth's tilt was shifting not the sun's.

The merit of Hipparchus in the matter was two-fold: the ability to discover the thing and then the courage to proclaim it. For in the good old times men were no quicker to recognize advance than they are to-day and were just as possessed to denounce it. In consequence Hipparchus's discovery suffered the usual fate of new truths. Some astronomers disputed his facts, others explained them away as an oscillation merely, while yet others simply ignored them. In spite of which mundane anathema the slow movement of the equinoxes went obstinately on.

This mighty revolution of the equinoxial points by which spring opens twenty minutes earlier each year Hipparchus was not able to explain. He noted the fact, which was a feat remarkable enough, considering his means. Indeed, he probably never tried to penetrate further into the mystery. The Greeks were better geometers and more discerning reasoners than we were brought up at school to believe, but in astronomical matters a great gulf lies between them and modern thought. They never conceived the principle of universal gravitation. Failing this, it is no wonder they never imagined to what precession could be due. For the realization of this result of gravity is a much more advanced step in celestial mechanics than the accounting for the circuit by the planets of the sun.

Not wholly easy at first of comprehension, appreciation of the prin-