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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/February 1903/The Science of Astronomy






By Professor ASAPH HALL, U.S.N. (Retired).

TAKE for the subject of my address the science of astronomy, and propose to give a brief historical sketch of it, to consider its future development, and to speak of the influence of the sciences on civilization.

The science of astronomy is so closely connected with the affairs of life, and is brought into use so continuously and in such a systematic manner, that most people never think of the long labor that has been necessary to bring this science to its present condition. In the early times it was useful to the legislator and the priest, for keeping records, the times of public ceremonies and of religious festivals. It slowly grew into the form of a science, and became able to make predictions with some certainty. This was many centuries ago; Hipparchus, who lived 150 B. C, knew the periods of the six ancient planets with considerable accuracy. His periods are:

Period. Error × 100
Mercury 87d.9698 0d.0007
Venus 224.7028 0.0009
Earth 365.2599 0.0010
Mars 686.9785 0.0002
Jupiter 4332.3192 0.0061
Saturn 10758.3222 0.0083

These results indicate that more than two thousand years ago there existed recorded observations of astronomy. Hipparchus appears to have been one of those clear-headed men who deduce results from observations with good judgment. There was a time when those ancient Greek astronomers had conceived the heliocentric motions of the planets, but this true theory was set aside by the ingenious Ptolemy, who assumed the earth as the center of motion, and explained the apparent motions of the planets by epicycles so well that his theory became the one adopted in the schools of Europe during fourteen centuries. The Ptolemaic theory flattered the egotism of men by making the earth the center of motion, and it corresponded well with old legends and myths, so that it became inwoven with the literature, art and religion of those times. Dante's construction of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise is derived from the Ptolemaic theory of the universe. His ponderous arrangement of ten divisions of Paradise, with ten Purgatories and ten Hells, is said by some critics to furnish convenient places for Dante to put away his friends and his enemies, but it is all derived from the prevailing astronomy. Similar notions will be found in Milton, but modified by the ideas of Copernicus, which Milton had learned in Italy. The Copernican theory won its way slowly, but surely, because it is the system of nature, and all discoveries in theory and practical astronomy helped to show its truth. Kepler's discoveries in astronomy, Galileo's discovery of the laws of motion and Newton's discovery of the law of gravitation, put the Copernican theory on a solid foundation. Yet it was many years before the new theories were fully accepted. Dr. Johnson thought persecution a good thing, since it weeds out false men and false theories. The Copernican and Newtonian theories have stood the test of observation and criticism, and they now form the adopted system of astronomy.

The laws of motion, together with the law of gravitation, enable the astronomer to form the equations of motion for the bodies of our solar system; it remains to solve these equations, to correct the orbits, and to form tables of the Sun, Moon and the planets. This work was begun more than a century ago, and it has been repeated for the principal planets several times, so that now we have good tables of these bodies. In the case of the principal planets the labor of determining their orbits was facilitated by the approximate orbits handed down to us by the ancient astronomers; and also by the peculiar conditions of these orbits. For the most part the orbits are nearly circular; the planets move nearly in the same plane, and their motions are in the same directions. These are the conditions Laplace used as the foundation of the nebular hypothesis. With approximate values of the periods and motions, and under the other favoring conditions, it was not difficult to form tables of the planets. However the general problem of determining an orbit from three observations, which furnish the necessary and sufficient data, was not solved until about a century ago. The orbits of comets were first calculated with some precision. Attention was called to these bodies by their threatening aspects, and by the terror they inspired among people. It was therefore a happy duty of the astronomers to show that the comets also move in orbits around the Sun, and are subject to the same laws as the planets. This work was easier because the comets move nearly in parabolas, which are the simplest of the conic sections. Still the general problem of finding the six elements of an orbit from the six data given by three observations remained to be solved. The solution was given by Gauss a century ago in a very elegant manner. His book is a model, and one of the best ever written on theoretical astronomy. No better experience can be had for a student than to come in contact with such a book and with such an author. The solution of Laplace for the orbit of a comet is general, but demands more labor of computing than the method of Olbers, as arranged by Gauss. It is said by some writers that the method of Laplace is to be preferred because more than three observations can be used. In fact this is necessary in order to get good values of the derivatives of the longitudes and latitudes with respect to the time, but it leads to long and rather uncertain computations. Moreover it employs more data than are necessary, and thus is a departure from the mathematical theory of the problem. This method is ingenious, and by means of the derivatives it gives an interesting rule for judging of the distance of a comet from the earth by the curvature of its apparent path, but a trial shows that the method of Olbers is much shorter. Good preliminary orbits can now be computed for comets and planets without much labor. This, however, is only a beginning of the work of determining their actual motions. The planets act on each other and on the comets, and it is necessary to compute the result of these forces. Here again the conditions of our solar system furnish peculiar advantages. The great mass of the sun exerts such a superior force that the attractions of the planets are relatively small, so that the first orbits, computed by neglecting this interaction, are nearly correct. But the interactions of planets become important with the lapse of time, and the labor of computing these perturbations is very great. This work has been done repeatedly, and we now have good numerical values of the theories of the principal planets, from which tables can be made. Practically, therefore, this question appears to be well toward a final solution. But the whole story has not been told.

The planets, on account of their relative distances being great and because their figures are nearly spherical, can be considered as material particles and then the equations of motion are readily formed. In the case of n material particles acting on each other by the Newtonian law, and free from external action, we shall have 3n differential equations of motion, and 6n integrations are necessary for the complete solution. Of these only ten can be made, so that in the case of only three bodies there remain eight integrations that cannot be found. The early investigators soon obtained this result, and it is clearly stated by Lagrange and Laplace. The astronomer, therefore, is forced to have recourse to approximate methods. He begins with the problem of two bodies, the sun and a planet, and neglects the actions of the other planets. In this problem of two bodies the motions take place in a plane, and the integrations can all be made. Two constants are needed to fix the position of the plane of motion, and the four other constants pertaining to the equations in this plane are easily found. This solution is the starting point for finding the orbits of all the planets and comets. The mass of the sun is so overpowering that the solution of the problem of two bodies gives a good idea of the real orbits. Then the theory of the variation of the elements is introduced, an idea completely worked out into a practical form by Lagrange. The elements of the orbits are supposed to be continually changed by the attractions of the other planets. By means of this theory, and the mathematical machinery given by Lagrange, which can be applied to a great variety of questions, the observations of the planets can be satisfied over long intervals of time. When this theory of the motions was carried out a century ago it appeared that the great problem of planetary motion was near a complete solution. But this solution depends on the use of series, which undergo integrations that may introduce small divisors. An examination of these series by Hansen, Poincaré and others indicates that some of them are not convergent. Hence the conclusions formerly drawn about the stability of our solar system are not trustworthy, and must be held in abeyance. But looking at the construction of our system, and considering the manner in which it was probably evolved, it appears to be stable. However the mathematical proof is wanting. In finding the general integrals of the motions of n bodies, the assumption that the bodies are particles gets rid of the motions of rotation. These motions are peculiar to each body, and are left for special consideration. In the case of the earth this motion is very important, since the reckoning of time, one of our fundamental conceptions, depends on this motion. Among the ten general integrals that can be found six belong to the progressive motion of the system of bodies. They show that the center of gravity of the system moves in a right line, and with uniform velocity. Accurate observations of the stars now extend over a century and a half, and we are beginning to see this result by the motion of our sun through space. So far the motion appears to be rectilinear and uniform, or the action of the stars is without influence. This is a matter that will be developed in the future. Three of the other general integrals belong to the theory of areas, and Laplace has drawn from them his theory of the invariable plane of the system. The remaining integral gives the equation of living force. The question of relative motion remains, and is the problem of theoretical astronomy. This has given rise to many beautiful mathematical investigations, and developments into series. But the modern researches have shown that we are not sure of our theoretical results obtained in this way, and we are thrown back on empirical methods. Perhaps the theories may be improved. It is to be hoped that the treatment of the differential equations may be made more general and complete. Efforts have been made in this direction by Newcomb and others, and especially by Glydèn, but so far without much practical result.

The problem of three bodies was encountered by the mathematicians who followed Newton, and many efforts were made to solve it. These efforts continue, although the complete investigations of Lagrange appear to put the matter at rest. The only solutions found are of very special character. Laplace used one of these solutions to ridicule the doctrine of final causes. It was the custom to teach that the moon was made to give us light at night. Laplace showed by one of the special solutions that the actual conditions might be improved, and that we might have a full moon all the time. But his argument failed, since such a system is unstable and cannot exist in nature. But some of the efforts to obtain partial solutions have been more fruitful, and G. W. Hill has obtained elegant and useful results. These methods depend on assumed conditions that do not exist in nature, but are approximately true. The problem of two bodies is a case of this kind, and the partial solutions may illustrate, but will not overcome, the fundamental difficulty.

The arrangement of our solar system is such that the distances of the planets from one another are very great with respect to their dimensions, and this facilitates very much the determination of their motions. Should two bodies approach very near each other the disturbing force might become great, even in the case of small masses. In the case of comets this condition happens in nature, and the comet may become a satellite of a planet, and the sun a disturbing body. In this way it is probable that comets and meteoric streams have been introduced into our solar system. We have here an interesting set of problems. This question is sometimes treated as one of statics, but since the bodies are in motion it belongs to dynamics. Further study may throw light on some relations between the asteroids and the periodical comets.

The great question of astronomy is the complete and rigorous test of the Newtonian law of gravitation. This law has represented observations so well during a century and a half that it is a general belief that the law will prove true for all time, and that it will be found to govern the motions of the stars as well as those of our solar system. The proof is cumulative and strong for this generality. It will be a wonderful result if this law is found rigorously true for all time and throughout the universe. Time is sure to bring severe tests to all theories. We know that the law of gravitation is modified in the motions of the matter that forms the tails of comets. There is an anomaly in the theory of Mercury which the law does not explain, and the motion of our moon is not yet represented by theory. The lunar theory is very complicated and difficult, but it does not seem probable that the defect in Hansen's theory will be found by recomputing the periodical coefficients, that have been already computed by many mathematicians and astronomers, and with good agreement by Hansen and Delaunay, by very different methods. Hansen was a computer of great skill, but he may have forced an agreement with observations, from 1750 to 1850, by using a coefficient of long period with an erroneous value. No doubt the error of this theory will be discovered. Back of all theories, however, remains the difficulty of solving the equations of motion so that the result can be applied with certainty over long periods of time. Until this is done we shall not be able to subject our law to a crucial test.

The constants that enter the theories of the planets and moon must be found from observations. In order to compare observations made at distant epochs, the motions of the planes of reference must be known with accuracy, and also the motion of our solar system in space. As the stars are our points of reference their positions and their proper motions must be studied with great care. This department of astronomy was brought to a high degree of order by the genius of Bessel, whose work forms an epoch in modern astronomy. The recent progress made in determining the positions of the stars in all parts of the heavens will be a great help to the investigations of the future. We must have observatories where accurate and continuous observations are made. Our country is well situated to supplement the work of Europe, and we hope it will never fail to add its contribution to the annals of astronomy. American astronomers should keep pace in the improvements for increasing the ease and accuracy of making observations. The spectroscope has given a new element in the motions of the stars, not to speak of the interesting physical results obtained by its use. Photography will give great aid in determining the relative positions of the stars and in forming maps of the heavens. All new methods, however, will need examination and criticism, since they bring new sources of error. Fifty years ago it was thought the chronograph would increase very much the accuracy of right ascensions. It has not done this directly to any great extent, but it has increased the ease and rapidity of observing. We must remember that astronomical results finally depend on meridian observations, and that it is the duty of astronomers to make these continuous from generation to generation. In this way we shall gain the powerful influence of time to help control and solve our problems. There is one point where a reform may be needed from the dead weight of the large and expanding volumes sent forth by observatories and scientific institutions. The desire for publication is great, but the results should be well discussed and arranged, so that the printing may be shortened. Otherwise our publications may become burdensome, and when they are piled up in libraries some future Caliph Omar may be tempted to burn them. Even mathematics appears to labor under a similar oppression, and much of its printed matter may be destined to molder to useless dust.

In the not distant future stellar astronomy will become a great and interesting field of research. The data for the motions of the stars are becoming better known, but these motions are slow, and the astronomer of to-day looks with envy on the astronomer of a thousand years hence, when time will have developed these motions. Much may be done by the steady and careful work of observation and discussion, and the accumulation of accurate data. Here each one of us can add his mite. But the great steps of progress in science have come from the efforts of individuals. Schools and universities help forward knowledge by giving to many students opportunities to learn the present conditions, and from them some genius like Lagrange or Gauss may come forth to solve hard questions, and to break the paths for future progress. This is about all the schools can do. We need a body of men who can give their lives to quiet and continuous study. When the young Laplace was helped to a position where he could devote his life to research D'Alembert did more for the progress of astronomy than all the universities of Europe.

One needs only to glance at history to see how useful astronomy has been in the life of the world. It has wonderfully enlarged the universe, and widened the views of men. It shows how law and order pervade the world in which we live; and by the knowledge it has disseminated and by its predictions it has banished many superstitions and fears. The sciences will continue to grow; and they will exert the same influence. The erroneous and dogmatic assertions of men will be pushed aside. In our new country the energies of the people are devoted chiefly to commercial and political ends, but wealth is accumulating, leisure and opportunity will come, and we may look forward to a great development of scientific activity. We must be patient. Men do not change much from generation to generation. Nations that have spent centuries in robbery and pillage retain their dispositions and make it necessary for other nations to stand armed. No one knows when a specious plea for extending the area of civilization may be put forth, or when some fanatic may see the hand of God beckoning him to seize a country. The progress of science and invention will render it more difficult for such people to execute their designs. A century hence it may be impossible for brutal power, however rich and great, to destroy a resolute people. It is in this direction that we may look for international harmony and peace, simply because science will make war too dangerous and too costly.

The influence of the sciences in bringing men of different nationalities into harmony is great. This is done largely by the common languages that are formed in each science. In mathematics the language is so well formed and generally adopted that mathematicians all over the world have no trouble in understanding one another. It may be difficult to read Russian, but every one can read the formulas of Tchebitchef and Lobaschewsky. In astronomy the common language is nearly as well established, so that there is little difficulty in understanding the astronomy of different nations. A similar process is going on in chemistry, botany and in the other sciences. When men are striving for the discovery of truth in its various manifestations, they learn that is is by correcting the mistakes of preceding investigators that progress is made, and they have charity for criticism. Hence persecution for difference of opinion becomes an absurdity. The labors of scientific men are forming a great body of doctrine that can be appealed to with confidence in all countries. Such labors bring people together, and tend to break down national barriers and restrictions. The scientific creed is constantly growing and expanding, and we have no fears, but rejoice at its growth. We need no consistory of bishops, nor synod of ministers, to tell us what to believe. Everything is open to investigation and criticism.

In our country we have one of the greatest theaters for national life that the world has ever seen. Stretching three thousand miles from ocean to ocean, and covering the rich valleys of the great rivers, we have a land of immense resources. Here is a vast field for scientific work of various kinds. No doubt the men of the future will be competent to solve the problems that will arise. Let us hope that our national character will be just and humane, and that we may depart from the old custom of robbing and devouring weak peoples. Any one who saw the confusion and waste in this city in 1862 might well have despaired of the Republic; and he who saw the armies of Grant and Sherman pass through the city in 1865 felt that he need fear no foreign foe: neither French emperor, nor English nobleman nor the sneers of Carlyle. To destroy a democracy by external force the blows must be quick and hard, because its power of recuperation is great. The danger will come from internal forces produced by false political and social theories, since we offer such a great field for the action of charlatans. Our schools and colleges send forth every year many educated people, and it is sometimes disheartening to see how little influence these people have in public life. Those who are trained in the humanities and churches ought to be humane in dealing with other people, ready to meet great emergencies and powerful to control bad tendencies in national affairs. But this is rarely the case. On the other hand the most unscrupulous apologists and persecutors have been educated men, and the heroes of humanity have come from the common people. This anomaly points to something wrong in the system of education, which should disappear. The increase and teaching of scientific ideas will be the best means of establishing simple and natural rules of life. Nature, and science her interpreter, teach us to be honest and true, and they lead us to the Golden Rule.

  1. Address of the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington meeting, December 29, 1902.