A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter IX
Greek science of the alexandrian or hellenistic period
Hipparchus, "the lover of truth"
Eratosthenes outlived most of his great contemporaries. He saw the turning of that first and greatest century of Alexandrian science, the third century before our era. He died in the year 196 B.C., having, it is said, starved himself to death to escape the miseries of blindness; - to the measurer of shadows, life without light seemed not worth the living. Eratosthenes left no immediate successor. A generation later, however, another great figure appeared in the astronomical world in the person of Hipparchus, a man who, as a technical observer, had perhaps no peer in the ancient world: one who set so high a value upon accuracy of observation as to earn the title of "the lover of truth." Hipparchus was born at Nicaea, in Bithynia, in the year 160 B.C. His life, all too short for the interests of science, ended in the year 125 B.C. The observations of the great astronomer were made chiefly, perhaps entirely, at Rhodes. A misinterpretation of Ptolemy's writings led to the idea that Hipparchus, performed his chief labors in Alexandria, but it is now admitted that there is no evidence for this. Delambre doubted, and most subsequent writers follow him here, whether Hipparchus ever so much as visited Alexandria. In any event there seems to be no question that Rhodes may claim the honor of being the chief site of his activities.

It was Hipparchus whose somewhat equivocal comment on the work of Eratosthenes we have already noted. No counter-charge in kind could be made against the critic himself; he was an astronomer pure and simple. His gift was the gift of accurate observation rather than the gift of imagination. No scientific progress is possible without scientific guessing, but Hipparchus belonged to that class of observers with whom hypothesis is held rigidly subservient to fact. It was not to be expected that his mind would be attracted by the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus. He used the facts and observations gathered by his great predecessor of Samos, but he declined to accept his theories. For him the world was central; his problem was to explain, if he could, the irregularities of motion which sun, moon, and planets showed in their seeming circuits about the earth. Hipparchus had the gnomon of Eratosthenes - doubtless in a perfected form - to aid him, and he soon proved himself a master in its use. For him, as we have said, accuracy was everything; this was the one element that led to all his great successes.

Perhaps his greatest feat was to demonstrate the eccentricity of the sun's seeming orbit. We of to-day, thanks to Keppler and his followers, know that the earth and the other planetary bodies in their circuit about the sun describe an ellipse and not a circle. But in the day of Hipparchus, though the ellipse was recognized as a geometrical figure (it had been described and named along with the parabola and hyperbola by Apollonius of Perga, the pupil of Euclid), yet it would have been the rankest heresy to suggest an elliptical course for any heavenly body. A metaphysical theory, as propounded perhaps by the Pythagoreans but ardently supported by Aristotle, declared that the circle is the perfect figure, and pronounced it inconceivable that the motions of the spheres should be other than circular. This thought dominated the mind of Hipparchus, and so when his careful measurements led him to the discovery that the northward and southward journeyings of the sun did not divide the year into four equal parts, there was nothing open to him but to either assume that the earth does not lie precisely at the centre of the sun's circular orbit or to find some alternative hypothesis.

In point of fact, the sun (reversing the point of view in accordance with modern discoveries) does lie at one focus of the earth's elliptical orbit, and therefore away from the physical centre of that orbit; in other words, the observations of Hipparchus were absolutely accurate. He was quite correct in finding that the sun spends more time on one side of the equator than on the other. When, therefore, he estimated the relative distance of the earth from the geometrical centre of the sun's supposed circular orbit, and spoke of this as the measure of the sun's eccentricity, he propounded a theory in which true data of observation were curiously mingled with a positively inverted theory. That the theory of Hipparchus was absolutely consistent with all the facts of this particular observation is the best evidence that could be given of the difficulties that stood in the way of a true explanation of the mechanism of the heavens.

But it is not merely the sun which was observed to vary in the speed of its orbital progress; the moon and the planets also show curious accelerations and retardations of motion. The moon in particular received most careful attention from Hipparchus. Dominated by his conception of the perfect spheres, he could find but one explanation of the anomalous motions which he observed, and this was to assume that the various heavenly bodies do not fly on in an unvarying arc in their circuit about the earth, but describe minor circles as they go which can be likened to nothing so tangibly as to a light attached to the rim of a wagon-wheel in motion. If such an invisible wheel be imagined as carrying the sun, for example, on its rim, while its invisible hub follows unswervingly the circle of the sun's mean orbit (this wheel, be it understood, lying in the plane of the orbit, not at right- angles to it), then it must be obvious that while the hub remains always at the same distance from the earth, the circling rim will carry the sun nearer the earth, then farther away, and that while it is traversing that portion of the are which brings it towards the earth, the actual forward progress of the sun will be retarded notwithstanding the uniform motion of the hub, just as it will be accelerated in the opposite arc. Now, if we suppose our sun-bearing wheel to turn so slowly that the sun revolves but once about its imaginary hub while the wheel itself is making the entire circuit of the orbit, we shall have accounted for the observed fact that the sun passes more quickly through one-half of the orbit than through the other. Moreover, if we can visualize the process and imagine the sun to have left a visible line of fire behind him throughout the course, we shall see that in reality the two circular motions involved have really resulted in producing an elliptical orbit.

The idea is perhaps made clearer if we picture the actual progress of the lantern attached to the rim of an ordinary cart-wheel. When the cart is drawn forward the lantern is made to revolve in a circle as regards the hub of the wheel, but since that hub is constantly going forward, the actual path described by the lantern is not a circle at all but a waving line. It is precisely the same with the imagined course of the sun in its orbit, only that we view these lines just as we should view the lantern on the wheel if we looked at it from directly above and not from the side. The proof that the sun is describing this waving line, and therefore must be considered as attached to an imaginary wheel, is furnished, as it seemed to Hipparchus, by the observed fact of the sun's varying speed.

That is one way of looking at the matter. It is an hypothesis that explains the observed facts - after a fashion, and indeed a very remarkable fashion. The idea of such an explanation did not originate with Hipparchus. The germs of the thought were as old as the Pythagorean doctrine that the earth revolves about a centre that we cannot see. Eudoxus gave the conception greater tangibility, and may be considered as the father of this doctrine of wheels - epicycles, as they came to be called. Two centuries before the time of Hipparchus he conceived a doctrine of spheres which Aristotle found most interesting, and which served to explain, along the lines we have just followed, the observed motions of the heavenly bodies. Calippus, the reformer of the calendar, is said to have carried an account of this theory to Aristotle. As new irregularities of motion of the sun, moon, and planetary bodies were pointed out, new epicycles were invented. There is no limit to the number of imaginary circles that may be inscribed about an imaginary centre, and if we conceive each one of these circles to have a proper motion of its own, and each one to carry the sun in the line of that motion, except as it is diverted by the other motions - if we can visualize this complex mingling of wheels - we shall certainly be able to imagine the heavenly body which lies at the juncture of all the rims, as being carried forward in as erratic and wobbly a manner as could be desired. In other words, the theory of epicycles will account for all the facts of the observed motions of all the heavenly bodies, but in so doing it fills the universe with a most bewildering network of intersecting circles. Even in the time of Calippus fifty-five of these spheres were computed.

We may well believe that the clear-seeing Aristarchus would look askance at such a complex system of imaginary machinery. But Hipparchus, pre-eminently an observer rather than a theorizer, seems to have been content to accept the theory of epicycles as he found it, though his studies added to its complexities; and Hipparchus was the dominant scientific personality of his century. What he believed became as a law to his immediate successors. His tenets were accepted as final by their great popularizer, Ptolemy, three centuries later; and so the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus passed under a cloud almost at the hour of its dawning, there to remain obscured and forgotten for the long lapse of centuries. A thousand pities that the greatest observing astronomer of antiquity could not, like one of his great precursors, have approached astronomy from the stand-point of geography and poetry. Had he done so, perhaps he might have reflected, like Aristarchus before him, that it seems absurd for our earth to hold the giant sun in thraldom; then perhaps his imagination would have reached out to the heliocentric doctrine, and the cobweb hypothesis of epicycles, with that yet more intangible figment of the perfect circle, might have been wiped away.

But it was not to be. With Aristarchus the scientific imagination had reached its highest flight; but with Hipparchus it was beginning to settle back into regions of foggier atmosphere and narrower horizons. For what, after all, does it matter that Hipparchus should go on to measure the precise length of the year and the apparent size of the moon's disk; that he should make a chart of the heavens showing the place of 1080 stars; even that he should discover the precession of the equinox; - what, after all, is the significance of these details as against the all-essential fact that the greatest scientific authority of his century - the one truly heroic scientific figure of his epoch - should have lent all the forces of his commanding influence to the old, false theory of cosmology, when the true theory had been propounded and when he, perhaps, was the only man in the world who might have substantiated and vitalized that theory? It is easy to overestimate the influence of any single man, and, contrariwise, to underestimate the power of the Zeitgeist. But when we reflect that the doctrines of Hipparchus, as promulgated by Ptolemy, became, as it were, the last word of astronomical science for both the Eastern and Western worlds, and so continued after a thousand years, it is perhaps not too much to say that Hipparchus, "the lover of truth," missed one of the greatest opportunities for the promulgation of truth ever vouchsafed to a devotee of pure science.

But all this, of course, detracts nothing from the merits of Hipparchus as an observing astronomer. A few words more must be said as to his specific discoveries in this field. According to his measurement, the tropic year consists of 365 days, 5 hours, and 49 minutes, varying thus only 12 seconds from the true year, as the modern astronomer estimates it. Yet more remarkable, because of the greater difficulties involved, was Hipparchus's attempt to measure the actual distance of the moon. Aristarchus had made a similar attempt before him. Hipparchus based his computations on studies of the moon in eclipse, and he reached the conclusion that the distance of the moon is equal to 59 radii of the earth (in reality it is 60.27 radii). Here, then, was the measure of the base-line of that famous triangle with which Aristarchus had measured the distance of the sun. Hipparchus must have known of that measurement, since he quotes the work of Aristarchus in other fields. Had he now but repeated the experiment of Aristarchus, with his perfected instruments and his perhaps greater observational skill, he was in position to compute the actual distance of the sun in terms not merely of the moon's distance but of the earth's radius. And now there was the experiment of Eratosthenes to give the length of that radius in precise terms. In other words, Hipparchus might have measured the distance of the sun in stadia. But if he had made the attempt - and, indeed, it is more than likely that he did so - the elements of error in his measurements would still have kept him wide of the true figures.

The chief studies of Hipparchus were directed, as we have seen, towards the sun and the moon, but a phenomenon that occurred in the year 134 B.C. led him for a time to give more particular attention to the fixed stars. The phenomenon in question was the sudden outburst of a new star; a phenomenon which has been repeated now and again, but which is sufficiently rare and sufficiently mysterious to have excited the unusual attention of astronomers in all generations. Modern science offers an explanation of the phenomenon, as we shall see in due course. We do not know that Hipparchus attempted to explain it, but he was led to make a chart of the heavens, probably with the idea of guiding future observers in the observation of new stars. Here again Hipparchus was not altogether an innovator, since a chart showing the brightest stars had been made by Eratosthenes; but the new charts were much elaborated.

The studies of Hipparchus led him to observe the stars chiefly with reference to the meridian rather than with reference to their rising, as had hitherto been the custom. In making these studies of the relative position of the stars, Hipparchus was led to compare his observations with those of the Babylonians, which, it was said, Alexander had caused to be transmitted to Greece. He made use also of the observations of Aristarchus and others of his Greek precursors. The result of his comparisons proved that the sphere of the fixed stars had apparently shifted its position in reference to the plane of the sun's orbit - that is to say, the plane of the ecliptic no longer seemed to cut the sphere of the fixed stars at precisely the point where the two coincided in former centuries. The plane of the ecliptic must therefore be conceived as slowly revolving in such a way as gradually to circumnavigate the heavens. This important phenomenon is described as the precession of the equinoxes.

It is much in question whether this phenomenon was not known to the ancient Egyptian astronomers; but in any event, Hipparchus is to be credited with demonstrating the fact and making it known to the Western world. A further service was rendered theoretical astronomy by Hipparchus through his invention of the planosphere, an instrument for the representation of the mechanism of the heavens. His computations of the properties of the spheres led him also to what was virtually a discovery of the method of trigonometry, giving him, therefore, a high position in the field of mathematics. All in all, then, Hipparchus is a most heroic figure. He may well be considered the greatest star-gazer of antiquity, though he cannot, without injustice to his great precursors, be allowed the title which is sometimes given him of "father of systematic astronomy."





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.