Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/March 1907/The Value of Science: Astronomy VII




Chapter VI. Astronomy.

GOVERNMENTS and parliaments must find that astronomy is one of the sciences which cost most dear: the least instrument costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, the least observatory costs millions; each eclipse carries with it supplementary appropriations. And all that for stars which are so far away, which are complete strangers to our electoral contests, and in all probability will never take any part in them. It must be that our politicians have retained a remnant of idealism, a vague instinct for what is grand; truly, I think they have been calumniated; they should be encouraged and shown that this instinct does not deceive them, that they are not dupes of that idealism.

We might indeed speak to them of navigation, of which no one can underestimate the importance, and which has need of astronomy. But this would be to take the question by its smaller side.

Astronomy is useful because it raises us above ourselves; it is useful because it is grand; that is what we should say. It shows us how small is man's body, how great his mind, since his intelligence can embrace the whole of this dazzling immensity, where his body is only an obscure point, and enjoy its silent harmony. Thus we attain the consciousness of our power, and this is something which can not cost too dear, since this consciousness makes us mightier.

But what I should wish before all to show is, to what point astronomy has facilitated the work of the other sciences, more directly useful, since it has given us a soul capable of comprehending nature.

Think how diminished humanity would be if, under heavens constantly overclouded, as Jupiter's must be, it had forever remained ignorant of the stars. Do you think that in such a world we should be what we are? I know well that under this somber vault we should have been deprived of the light of the sun, necessary to organisms like those which inhabit the earth. But if you please, we shall assume that these clouds are phosphorescent and emit a soft and constant light. Since we are making hypotheses, another will cost no more. Well! I repeat my question: Do you think that in such a world we should be what we are?

The stars send us not only that visible and gross light which strikes our bodily eyes, but from them also comes to us a light far more subtle, which illuminates our minds and whose effects I shall try to show you. You know what man was on the earth some thousands of years ago, and what he is to-day. Isolated amidst a nature where everything was a mystery to him, terrified at each unexpected manifestation of incomprehensible forces, he was incapable of seeing in the conduct of the universe anything but caprice; he attributed all phenomena to the action of a multitude of little genii, fantastic and exacting, and to act on the world he sought to conciliate them by means analogous to those employed to gain the good graces of a minister or a deputy. Even his failures did not enlighten him, any more than to-day a beggar refused is discouraged to the point of ceasing to beg.

To-day we no longer beg of nature; we command her, because we have discovered certain of her secrets and shall discover others each day. We command her in the name of laws she can not challenge because they are hers; these laws we do not madly ask her to change, we are the first to submit to them. Nature can only be governed by obeying her.

What a change must our souls have undergone to pass from the one state to the other! Does any one believe that, without the lessons of the stars, under the heavens perpetually overclouded that I have just supposed, they would have changed so quickly? Would the metamorphosis have been possible, or at least would it not have been much slower?

And first of all, astronomy it is which taught that there are laws. The Chaldeans, who were the first to observe the heavens with some attention, saw that this multitude of luminous points is not a confused crowd wandering at random, but rather a disciplined army. Doubtless the rules of this discipline escaped them, but the harmonious spectacle of the starry night sufficed to give them the impression of regularity, and that was in itself already a great thing. Besides, these rules were discerned by Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, one after another, and finally, it is needless to recall that Newton it was who enunciated the oldest, the most precise, the most simple, the most general of all natural laws.

And then, taught by this example, we have seen our little terrestrial world better and, under the apparent disorder, there also we have found again the harmony that the study of the heavens had revealed to us. It also is regular, it also obeys immutable laws, but they are more complicated, in apparent conflict one with another, and an eye untrained by other sights would have seen there only chaos and the reign of chance or caprice. If we had not known the stars, some bold spirits might perhaps have sought to foresee physical phenomena; but their failures would have been frequent, and they would have excited only the derision of the vulgar; do we not see, that even in our day the meteorologists sometimes deceive themselves, and that certain persons are inclined to laugh at them.

How often would the physicist, disheartened by so many checks, have fallen into discouragement, if they had not had, to sustain their confidence, the brilliant example of the success of the astronomers! This success showed them that nature obeys laws; it only remained to know what laws; for that they only needed patience, and they had the right to demand that the sceptics should give them credit.

This is not all: astronomy has not only taught us that there are laws, but that from these laws there is no escape, that with them there is no possible compromise. How much time should we have needed to comprehend that fact, if we had known only the terrestrial world, where each elemental force would always seem to us in conflict with other forces? Astronomy has taught us that the laws are infinitely precise, and that if those we enunciate are approximative, it is because we do not know them well. Aristotle, the most scientific mind of antiquity, still accorded a part to accident, to chance, and seemed to think that the laws of nature, at least here below, determine only the large features of phenomena. How much has the ever-increasing precision of astronomical predictions contributed to correct such an error, which would have rendered nature unintelligible!

But are these laws not local, varying in different places, like those which men make; does not that which is truth in one corner of the universe, on our globe for instance, or in our little solar system, become error a little farther away? And then could it not be asked whether laws depending on space do not also depend upon time, whether they are not simple habitudes, transitory, therefore, and ephemeral? Again it is astronomy that answers this question. Consider the double stars; all describe conics; thus, as far as the telescope carries, it does not reach the limits of the domain which obeys Newton's law.

Even the simplicity of this law is a lesson for us; how many complicated phenomena are contained in the two lines of its enunciation; persons who do not understand celestial mechanics may form some idea of it at least from the size of the treatises devoted to this science; and then it may be hoped that the complication of physical phenomena likewise hides from us some simple cause still unknown.

It is therefore astronomy which has shown us what are the general characteristics of natural laws; but among these characteristics there is one, the most subtile and the most important of all, which I shall ask leave to stress.

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 because they were afraid of them. But why? It is because we have seen the heavens enlarging and enlarging without cease; because we know that the sun is 150 millions of kilometers from the earth and that the distances of the nearest stars are hundreds of thousands of times greater yet. Habituated to the contemplation of the infinitely great, we have become apt to comprehend the infinitely small. Thanks to the education it has received, our imagination, like the eagle's eye that the sun does not dazzle, can look truth in the face.

Was I wrong in saying that it is astronomy which has made us a soul capable of comprehending nature; that under heavens always overcast and starless, the earth itself would have been for us eternally unintelligible; that we should there have seen only caprice and disorder; and that, not knowing the world, we should never have been able to subdue it? What science could have been more useful? And in thus speaking I put myself at the point of view of those who only value practical applications. Certainly, this point of view is not mine; as for me, on the contrary, if I admire the conquests of industry, it is above all because if they free us from material cares, they will one day give to all the leisure to contemplate nature. I do not say: Science is useful, because it teaches us to construct machines. I say: Machines are useful, because in working for us, they will some day leave us more time to make science. But finally it is worth remarking that between the two points of view there is no antagonism, and that man having pursued a disinterested aim, all else has been added unto him.

Auguste Comte has said somewhere, that it would be idle to seek to know the composition of the sun, since this knowledge would be of no use to sociology. How could he be so short-sighted? Have we not just seen that it is by astronomy that, to speak his language, humanity has passed from the theological to the positive state? He found an explanation for that because it had happened. But how has he not understood that what remained to do was not less considerable and would be not less profitable? Physical astronomy, which he seems to condemn, has already begun to bear fruit, and it will give us much more, for it only dates from yesterday.

First was discovered the nature of the sun, what the founder of positivism wished to deny us, and there bodies were found which exist on the earth, but had here remained undiscovered; for example, helium, that gas almost as light as hydrogen. That already contradicted Comte. But to the spectroscope we owe a lesson precious in a quite different way; in the most distant stars, it shows us the same substances. It might have been asked whether the terrestrial elements were not due to some chance which had brought together more tenuous atoms to construct of them the more complex edifice that the chemists call atoms; whether, in other regions of the universe, other fortuitous meetings had not engendered edifices entirely different. Now we know that this is not so, that the laws of our chemistry are the general laws of nature, and that they owe nothing to the chance which caused us to be born on the earth.

But, it will be said, astronomy has given to the other sciences all it can give them, and now that the heavens have procured for us the instruments which enable us to study terrestrial nature, they could without danger veil themselves forever. After what we have just said, is there still need to answer this objection? One could have reasoned the same in Ptolemy's time; then also men thought they knew everything, and they still had almost everything to learn.

The stars are majestic laboratories, gigantic crucibles, such as no chemist could dream. There reign temperatures impossible for us to realize. Their only defect is being a little far away; but the telescope will soon bring them near to us, and then we shall see how matter acts there. What good fortune for the physicist and the chemist!

Matter will there exhibit itself to us under a thousand different states, from those rarefied gases which seem to form the nebula and which are luminous with I know not what glimmering of mysterious origin, even to the incandescent stars and to the planets so near and yet so different.

Perchance even, the stars will some day teach us something about life; that seems an insensate dream and I do not at all see how it can be realized; but, a hundred years ago, would not the chemistry of the stars have also appeared a mad dream?

But limiting our views to horizons less distant, there still will remain to us promises less contingent and yet sufficiently seductive. If the past has given us much, we may rest assured that the future will give us still more.

After all, it could scarce be believed how useful belief in astrology has been to humanity. If Kepler and Tycho Brahe made a living, it was because they sold to naive kings predictions founded on the conjunctions of the stars. If these princes had not been so credulous, we should perhaps continue to believe that nature obeys caprice, and we should still wallow in ignorance.