Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 80.djvu/455

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PRECESSION: AND THE PYRAMIDS

ciple which underlies it will be found well to repay the trouble it costs. For to master it is to put one's self in possession of a celestial time-piece one hour of which is 25,700 years and whose minute hand traces out the lapse of centuries upon the dial of the sky. Not only as a clock is it a possibility, but as we shall see it has been actually so used unconsciously by man in days gone by, and his readings of it recorded in lithographs still legible to-day.

To understand its working we must in thought get off the earth and see that body from without. We should then perceive our globe as a mammoth top spinning in the sky as it moves along in its orbit. The spin gives us our days, and as the equator is tilted to the path the pull of the sun is all the time trying to bring the one to coincidence with the other. If the earth were perfectly round there would be nothing for the sun to grasp and the spin would remain unchanged both in amount and in direction. The earth, however, is not round, but spheroidal, bulging at the equator. There is thus a handle, two handles in fact, which may be used for turning it. Now suppose the earth in the position of its summer solstice when its axis is tilted away from the sun in a plane containing the sun and a perpendicular to its orbit. The attraction of the sun tends to rotate it in this plane. Meanwhile the earth is spinning round its own polar axis at right angles to that direction. We have then to compound two spins about axes perpendicular to one another. Curious as it may seem, the result is not to pull the bulge down into the orbit plane, but to make it back bodily along the ecliptic. It is as if the earth resented the sun's attempt to right it and with almost human perversity went the other way. Indeed one may feel the obstinacy of the thing by appropriately pressing on a gyroscope, when instead of yielding it will promptly buck against you with a force suggestive of intent. The greater your shove the faster its opposing speed. Now with the earth the pull of the sun is feeble compared with the great moment of momentum of the earth, and in consequence the motion of the earth's pole is most leisurely. The backing of the equinoxes to meet the sun is but 50″.23 a year and the time it takes to complete the circuit of the zodiac 25,700 years.

The figure of the earth exposing it to such action, any body may set it spinning and all do. The amount and direction of the spin depend on the position, of the disturber. Because the greatest, by precession is usually meant the luni-solar precession, caused by the combined action of the sun and moon. In this the moon is about two and one eighth times as effective as the sun in spite of its relative insignificance because of being so much nearer. The amount of the precession depends among other factors upon the cosine of the obliquity of the ecliptic. The greater the obliquity, therefore, the less the precession. At the present moment the obliquity is diminishing and the precession increasing. This will continue to be the case for several thousand years.