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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/June 1900/The Sun's Destination



THREE generations of men have come and gone since the Marquis de Laplace stood before the Academy of France and gave his demonstration of the permanent stability of our solar system. There was one significant fault in Newton's superbly simple conception of an eternal law governing the world in which we live. The labors of mathematicians following him had shown that the planets must trace out paths in space whose form could be determined in advance with unerring certainty by the aid of Newton's law of gravitation. But they proved just as conclusively that these planetary orbits, as they are called, could not maintain indefinitely the same shapes or positions. Slow indeed might be the changes they were destined to undergo; slow, but sure, with that sureness belonging to celestial science alone. And so men asked: Has this magnificent solar system been built upon a scale so grand, been put in operation subject to a law sublime in its very simplicity, only to change and change until at length it shall lose every semblance of its former self, and end perhaps in chaos or extinction?

Laplace was able to answer confidently: No. Nor was his answer couched in the enthusiastic language of unbalanced theorists who work by the aid of imagination alone. Based upon the irrefragable logic of correct mathematical reasoning, and clad in the sober garb of mathematical formulæ, his results carried conviction to men of science the world over. So was it demonstrated that changes in our solar system are surely at work, and shall continue for nearly countless ages; yet just as surely will they be reversed at last, and the system will tend to return again to its original form and condition. The objection that the Newtonian law meant ultimate dissolution of the world was thus destroyed by Laplace. From that day forward, the law of gravitation has been accepted as holding sway over all phenomena visible within our planetary world.

The intricacies of our own solar system being thus illumined, the restless activity of the human intellect was stimulated to search beyond for new problems and new mysteries. Even more fascinating than the movements of our sun and planets are all those questions that relate to the clustered stellar congeries hanging suspended within the deep blue vault of night. Does the same law of gravitation cast its magic spell over that hazy cloud of Pleiads, binding them, like ourselves, with bonds indissoluble? Who shall answer, yes or no? We can only say that astronomers have as yet but stepped upon the threshold of the universe, and fixed the telescope's great eye upon that which is within.

Let us then begin by reminding the reader what is meant by that Newtonian law of gravitation. It appears all things possess the remarkable property of attracting or pulling each other. Newton declared that all substances, solid, liquid or even gaseous, from the massive cliff of rock down to the invisible air—all matter can no more help pulling than it can help existing. His law further formulates certain conditions governing the manner in which this gravitational attraction is exerted; but these are mere matters of detail; interest centers about the mysterious fact of attraction itself. How can one thing pull another with no connecting link through which the pull can act? Just here we touch the point that has never yet been explained. Nature withholds from science her ultimate secrets. They that have pondered longest, that have descended farthest of all men into the clear well of knowledge, have done so but to sound the depths beyond, never touching bottom.

This inability of ours to give a good physical explanation of gravitation has led numerous paradoxers to doubt or even deny that there is any such thing. But fortunately we have a simple laboratory experiment that helps ns. Unexplained it may ever remain, but that there can be attraction between physical objects connected by no visible link is proved by the behavior of an ordinary magnet. Place a small piece of steel or iron near a magnetized bar, and it will at once be so strongly attracted that it will actually fly to the magnet. Any one who has seen this simple experiment can never again deny the possibility at least of the law of attraction as stated by Newton. Its possibility once admitted, the fact that it can predict the motions of all the planets, even shown to the minutest details, transforms the possibility of its birth into a certainty as strong as any human certainty can ever be.

But this demonstration of Newton's law is limited strictly to the solar system itself. We may indeed reason by analogy, and take for granted that a law which holds within our immediate neighborhood is extremely likely to be true also of the entire visible universe. But men of science are loath to reason thus; and hence the fascination of researches in cosmic astronomy. Analogy points out the path. The astronomer is not slow to follow; but he seeks ever to establish upon incontrovertible evidence those truths which at first only his daring imagination had led him to half suspect. If we are to extend the law of gravitation to the utmost, we must be careful to consider the law itself in its most complete form. A heavenly body like the sun is often said to govern the motions of its family of planets; but such a statement is not strictly accurate. The governing body is no despot; 'tis an abject slave of law and order, as much as the tiniest of attendant planets. The action of gravitation is mutual, and no cosmic body can attract another without being itself in turn subject to that other's gravitational action. If there were in our solar system but two bodies, sun and planet, we should find each one pursuing a path in space under the influence of the other's attraction. These two paths or orbits would be oval, and if the sun and planet were equally massive, the orbits would be exactly alike, both in shape and size. But if the sun were far larger than the planet, the orbits would still be similar in form, but the one traversed by the larger body would be small. For it is not reasonable to expect a little planet to keep the big sun moving with a velocity as great as that derived by itself from the attraction of the larger orb. Whenever the preponderance of the larger body is extremely great, its orbit will be correspondingly insignificant in size. This is in fact the case with our own sun. So massive is it in comparison with the planets, that the orbit is too small to reveal its actual existence without the aid of our most refined instruments. The path traced out by the sun's center would not fill a space as large as the sun's own bulk. Nevertheless, true orbital motion is there.

So we may conclude that as a necessary consequence of the law of gravitation every object within the solar system is in motion. To say that planets revolve about the sun is to neglect as unimportant the small orbit of the sun itself. This may be sufficiently accurate for ordinary purposes; but it is unquestionably necessary to neglect no factor, however small, if we propose to extend our reasoning to a consideration of the stellar universe. For we shall then have to deal with systems in which the planets are of a size comparable with the sun; and in such systems all the orbits will also be of comparatively equal importance.

Mathematical analysis has derived another fact from discussion of the law of gravitation which perhaps transcends in simple grandeur everything we have as yet mentioned. It matters not how great may be the number of massive orbs threading their countless interlacing curved paths in space, there yet must be in every cosmic system one single point immovable. This point is called the Center of Gravity. If it should so happen that in the beginning of things, some particle of matter were situated at this center, then would that atom ever remain unmoved and imperturbable throughout all the successive vicissitudes of cosmic evolution. It is doubtful whether the mind of man can form a conception of anything grander than such an immovable atom within the mysterious intricacies of cosmic motion.

But in general, we can not suppose that the centers of gravity in the various stellar systems are really occupied by actual physical bodies. The center may be a mere mathematical point in space, situated among the several bodies composing the system, but nevertheless endowed with the same remarkable property of relative immobility.

Having thus defined the center of gravity in its relation to the constituent parts of any cosmic system, we can pass easily to its characteristic properties in connection with the inter-relation of stellar systems with one another. It can be proved mathematically that our solar system will pull upon distant stars just as though the sun and all the planets were concentrated into one vast sphere having its center in the center of gravity of the whole. It is this property of the center of gravity which makes it preëminently important in cosmic researches. For, while we know that center to be at rest relatively to all the planets in the system, it may, nevertheless, in its quality as a sort of concentrated essence of them all, be moving swiftly through space under the pull of distant stars. In that case, the attendant bodies will go with it—but they will pursue their evolutions within the system, all unconscious that the center of gravity is carrying them on a far wider circuit.

What is the nature of that circuit? This question has been for many years the subject of earnest study by the clearest minds among astronomers. The greatest difficulty in the way is the comparatively brief period during which men have been able to make astronomical observations of precision. Space and time are two conceptions that transcend the powers of definition possessed by any man. But we can at least form a notion of how vast is the extent of time, if we remember that the period covered by man's written records is registered but as a single moment upon the great revolving dial of heaven's dome. One hundred and fifty years have elapsed since James Bradley built the foundations of sidereal astronomy upon his masterly series of star-observations at the Royal Observatory of Greenwich, in England. Yet so slowly do the movements of the stars unroll themselves upon the firmament, that even to this day no one of them has been seen by men to trace out more than an infinitesimal fraction of its destined path through the voids of space.

Travelers upon a railroad can not tell at any given moment whether they are moving in a straight line, or whether the train is turning upon some curve of huge size. The St. Gothard railway has several so-called 'corkscrew' tunnels, within which the rails make a complete turn in a spiral, the train finally emerging from the tunnel at a point almost vertically over the entrance. In this way the train is lifted to a higher level. Passengers are wont to amuse themselves while in these tunnels by watching the needle of an ordinary pocket compass. This needle, 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 contains the goal towards which the sun and planets are hastening to-day. Even the speed of this motion has been subjected to measurement, and found to be about ten miles per second.

The objective point and the rate of motion thus stated, exact science holds her peace. Here genuine knowledge stops; and we can proceed further only by the aid of that imagination which men of science need to curb at every moment. But let no one think that the sun will ever reach the so-called apex. To do so would mean cosmic motion upon a straight line, while every consideration of celestial mechanics points to motion upon a curve. When shall we turn sufficiently upon ill at curve to detect its bending? 'Tis a problem we must leave as a rich heritage to later generations that are to follow us. The visionary theorist's notion of a great central sun, controlling our own sun's way in space, must be dismissed as far too daring. But for such a central sun we may substitute a central center of gravity belonging to a great system of which our sun is but an insignificant member. Then we reach a conception that has lost nothing in the grandeur of its simplicity, and is yet in accord with the probabilities of sober mechanical science. We cease to be a lonely world, and stretch out the bonds of a common relationship to yonder stars within the firmament.