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

Book 3, chapter II
The progress of modern astronomy
Asteroids, planets and satellites
Williams
The first day of the nineteenth century was fittingly signalized by the discovery of a new world. On the evening of January 1, 1801, an Italian astronomer, Piazzi, observed an apparent star of about the eighth magnitude (hence, of course, quite invisible to the unaided eye), which later on was seen to have moved, and was thus shown to be vastly nearer the earth than any true star. He at first supposed, as Herschel had done when he first saw Uranus, that the unfamiliar body was a comet; but later observation proved it a tiny planet, occupying a position in space between Mars and Jupiter. It was christened Ceres, after the tutelary goddess of Sicily.

Though unpremeditated, this discovery was not unexpected, for astronomers had long surmised the existence of a planet in the wide gap between Mars and Jupiter. Indeed, they were even preparing to make concerted search for it, despite the protests of philosophers, who argued that the planets could not possibly exceed the magic number seven, when Piazzi forestalled their efforts. But a surprise came with the sequel; for the very next year Dr. Olbers, the wonderful physician- astronomer of Bremen, while following up the course of Ceres, happened on another tiny moving star, similarly located, which soon revealed itself as planetary. Thus two planets were found where only one was expected.

The existence of the supernumerary was a puzzle, but Olbers solved it for the moment by suggesting that Ceres and Pallas, as he called his captive, might be fragments of a quondam planet, shattered by internal explosion or by the impact of a comet. Other similar fragments, he ventured to predict, would be found when searched for. William Herschel sanctioned this theory, and suggested the name asteroids for the tiny planets. The explosion theory was supported by the discovery of another asteroid, by Harding, of Lilienthal, in 1804, and it seemed clinched when Olbers himself found a fourth in 1807. The new-comers were named Juno and Vesta respectively.

There the case rested till 1845, when a Prussian amateur astronomer named Hencke found another asteroid, after long searching, and opened a new epoch of discovery. From then on the finding of asteroids became a commonplace. Latterly, with the aid of photography, the list has been extended to above four hundred, and as yet there seems no dearth in the supply, though doubtless all the larger members have been revealed. Even these are but a few hundreds of miles in diameter, while the smaller ones are too tiny for measurement. The combined bulk of these minor planets is believed to be but a fraction of that of the earth.

Olbers's explosion theory, long accepted by astronomers, has been proven open to fatal objections. The minor planets are now believed to represent a ring of cosmical matter, cast off from the solar nebula like the rings that went to form the major planets, but prevented from becoming aggregated into a single body by the perturbing mass of Jupiter.

The Discovery of Neptune.
As we have seen, the discovery of the first asteroid confirmed a conjecture; the other important planetary discovery of the nineteenth century fulfilled a prediction. Neptune was found through scientific prophecy. No one suspected the existence of a trans-Uranian planet till Uranus itself, by hair-breadth departures from its predicted orbit, gave out the secret. No one saw the disturbing planet till the pencil of the mathematician, with almost occult divination, had pointed out its place in the heavens. The general predication of a trans-Uranian planet was made by Bessel, the great Konigsberg astronomer, in 1840; the analysis that revealed its exact location was undertaken, half a decade later, by two independent workers - John Couch Adams, just graduated senior wrangler at Cambridge, England, and U. J. J. Leverrier, the leading French mathematician of his generation.

Adams's calculation was first begun and first completed. But it had one radical defect - it was the work of a young and untried man. So it found lodgment in a pigeon-hole of the desk of England's Astronomer Royal, and an opportunity was lost which English astronomers have never ceased to mourn. Had the search been made, an actual planet would have been seen shining there, close to the spot where the pencil of the mathematician had placed its hypothetical counterpart. But the search was not made, and while the prophecy of Adams gathered dust in that regrettable pigeon-hole, Leverrier's calculation was coming on, his tentative results meeting full encouragement from Arago and other French savants. At last the laborious calculations proved satisfactory, and, confident of the result, Leverrier sent to the Berlin observatory, requesting that search be made for the disturber of Uranus in a particular spot of the heavens. Dr. Galle received the request September 23, 1846. That very night he turned his telescope to the indicated region, and there, within a single degree of the suggested spot, he saw a seeming star, invisible to the unaided eye, which proved to be the long-sought planet, henceforth to be known as Neptune. To the average mind, which finds something altogether mystifying about abstract mathematics, this was a feat savoring of the miraculous.

Stimulated by this success, Leverrier calculated an orbit for an interior planet from perturbations of Mercury, but though prematurely christened Vulcan, this hypothetical nursling of the sun still haunts the realm of the undiscovered, along with certain equally hypothetical trans-Neptunian planets whose existence has been suggested by "residual perturbations" of Uranus, and by the movements of comets. No other veritable additions of the sun's planetary family have been made in our century, beyond the finding of seven small moons, which chiefly attest the advance in telescopic powers. Of these, the tiny attendants of our Martian neighbor, discovered by Professor Hall with the great Washington refractor, are of greatest interest, because of their small size and extremely rapid flight. One of them is poised only six thousand miles from Mars, and whirls about him almost four times as fast as he revolves, seeming thus, as viewed by the Martian, to rise in the west and set in the east, and making the month only one-fourth as long as the day.

The Rings of Saturn.
The discovery of the inner or crape ring of Saturn, made simultaneously in 1850 by William C. Bond, at the Harvard observatory, in America, and the Rev. W. R. Dawes in England, was another interesting optical achievement; but our most important advances in knowledge of Saturn's unique system are due to the mathematician. Laplace, like his predecessors, supposed these rings to be solid, and explained their stability as due to certain irregularities of contour which Herschel bad pointed out. But about 1851 Professor Peirce, of Harvard, showed the untenability of this conclusion, proving that were the rings such as Laplace thought them they must fall of their own weight. Then Professor J. Clerk-Maxwell, of Cambridge, took the matter in hand, and his analysis reduced the puzzling rings to a cloud of meteoric particles - a "shower of brickbats" - each fragment of which circulates exactly as if it were an independent planet, though of course perturbed and jostled more or less by its fellows. Mutual perturbations, and the disturbing pulls of Saturn's orthodox satellites, as investigated by Maxwell, explain nearly all the phenomena of the rings in a manner highly satisfactory.

After elaborate mathematical calculations covering many pages of his paper entitled "On the Stability of Saturn's Rings," he summarizes his deductions as follows:

"Let us now gather together the conclusions we have been able to draw from the mathematical theory of various kinds of conceivable rings.

"We found that the stability of the motion of a solid ring depended on so delicate an adjustment, and at the same time so unsymmetrical a distribution of mass, that even if the exact conditions were fulfilled, it could scarcely last long, and, if it did, the immense preponderance of one side of the ring would be easily observed, contrary to experience. These considerations, with others derived from the mechanical structure of so vast a body, compel us to abandon any theory of solid rings.

"We next examined the motion of a ring of equal satellites, and found that if the mass of the planet is sufficient, any disturbances produced in the arrangement of the ring will be propagated around it in the form of waves, and will not introduce dangerous confusion. If the satellites are unequal, the propagations of the waves will no longer be regular, but disturbances of the ring will in this, as in the former case, produce only waves, and not growing confusion. Supposing the ring to consist, not of a single row of large satellites, but a cloud of evenly distributed unconnected particles, we found that such a cloud must have a very small density in order to be permanent, and that this is inconsistent with its outer and inner parts moving with the same angular velocity. Supposing the ring to be fluid and continuous, we found that it will be necessarily broken up into small portions.

"We conclude, therefore, that the rings must consist of disconnected particles; these must be either solid or liquid, but they must be independent. The entire system of rings must, therefore, consist either of a series of many concentric rings each moving with its own velocity and having its own system of waves, or else of a confused multitude of revolving particles not arranged in rings and continually coming into collision with one another.

"Taking the first case, we found that in an indefinite number of possible cases the mutual perturbations of two rings, stable in themselves, might mount up in time to a destructive magnitude, and that such cases must continually occur in an extensive system like that of Saturn, the only retarding cause being the irregularity of the rings.

"The result of long-continued disturbance was found to be the spreading-out of the rings in breadth, the outer rings pressing outward, while the inner rings press inward.

"The final result, therefore, of the mechanical theory is that the only system of rings which can exist is one composed of an indefinite number of unconnected particles, revolving around the planet with different velocities, according to their respective distances. These particles may be arranged in series of narrow rings, or they may move through one another irregularly. In the first case the destruction of the system will be very slow, in the second case it will be more rapid, but there may be a tendency towards arrangement in narrow rings which may retard the process.

"We are not able to ascertain by observation the constitution of the two outer divisions of the system of rings, but the inner ring is certainly transparent, for the limb of Saturn has been observed through it. It is also certain that though the space occupied by the ring is transparent, it is not through the material parts of it that the limb of Saturn is seen, for his limb was observed without distortion; which shows that there was no refraction, and, therefore, that the rays did not pass through a medium at all, but between the solar or liquid particles of which the ring is composed. Here, then, we have an optical argument in favor of the theory of independent particles as the material of the rings. The two outer rings may be of the same nature, but not so exceedingly rare that a ray of light can pass through their whole thickness without encountering one of the particles.

"Finally, the two outer rings have been observed for two hundred years, and it appears, from the careful analysis of all the observations of M. Struve, that the second ring is broader than when first observed, and that its inner edge is nearer the planet than formerly. The inner ring also is suspected to be approaching the planet ever since its discovery in 1850. These appearances seem to indicate the same slow progress of the rings towards separation which we found to be the result of theory, and the remark that the inner edge of the inner ring is more distinct seems to indicate that the approach towards the planet is less rapid near the edge, as we had reason to conjecture. As to the apparent unchangeableness of the exterior diameter of the outer ring, we must remember that the outer rings are certainly far more dense than the inner one, and that a small change in the outer rings must balance a great change in the inner one. It is possible, however, that some of the observed changes may be due to the existence of a resisting medium. If the changes already suspected should be confirmed by repeated observations with the same instruments, it will be worth while to investigate more carefully whether Saturn's rings are permanent or transitory elements of the solar system, and whether in that part of the heavens we see celestial immutability or terrestrial corruption and generation, and the old order giving place to the new before our eyes."[4]

Studies of the Moon.
But perhaps the most interesting accomplishments of mathematical astronomy - from a mundane standpoint, at any rate - are those that refer to the earth's own satellite. That seemingly staid body was long ago discovered to have a propensity to gain a little on the earth, appearing at eclipses an infinitesimal moment ahead of time. Astronomers were sorely puzzled by this act of insubordination; but at last Laplace and Lagrange explained it as due to an oscillatory change in the earth's orbit, thus fully exonerating the moon, and seeming to demonstrate the absolute stability of our planetary system, which the moon's misbehavior had appeared to threaten.

This highly satisfactory conclusion was an orthodox belief of celestial mechanics until 1853, when Professor Adams of Neptunian fame, with whom complex analyses were a pastime, reviewed Laplace's calculation, and discovered an error which, when corrected, left about half the moon's acceleration unaccounted for. This was a momentous discrepancy, which at first no one could explain. But presently Professor Helmholtz, the great German physicist, suggested that a key might be found in tidal friction, which, acting as a perpetual brake on the earth's rotation, and affecting not merely the waters but the entire substance of our planet, must in the long sweep of time have changed its rate of rotation. Thus the seeming acceleration of the moon might be accounted for as actual retardation of the earth's rotation - a lengthening of the day instead of a shortening of the month.

Again the earth was shown to be at fault, but this time the moon could not be exonerated, while the estimated stability of our system, instead of being re-established, was quite upset. For the tidal retardation is not an oscillatory change which will presently correct itself, like the orbital wobble, but a perpetual change, acting always in one direction. Unless fully counteracted by some opposing reaction, therefore (as it seems not to be), the effect must be cumulative, the ultimate consequences disastrous. The exact character of these consequences was first estimated by Professor G. H. Darwin in 1879. He showed that tidal friction, in retarding the earth, must also push the moon out from the parent planet on a spiral orbit. Plainly, then, the moon must formerly have been nearer the earth than at present. At some very remote period it must have actually touched the earth; must, in other words, have been thrown off from the then plastic mass of the earth, as a polyp buds out from its parent polyp. At that time the earth was spinning about in a day of from two to four hours.

Now the day has been lengthened to twenty-four hours, and the moon has been thrust out to a distance of a quarter-million miles; but the end is not yet. The same progress of events must continue, till, at some remote period in the future, the day has come to equal the month, lunar tidal action has ceased, and one face of the earth looks out always at the moon with that same fixed stare which even now the moon has been brought to assume towards her parent orb. Should we choose to take even greater liberties with the future, it may be made to appear (though some astronomers dissent from this prediction) that, as solar tidal action still continues, the day must finally exceed the month, and lengthen out little by little towards coincidence with the year; and that the moon meantime must pause in its outward flight, and come swinging back on a descending spiral, until finally, after the lapse of untold aeons, it ploughs and ricochets along the surface of the earth, and plunges to catastrophic destruction.

But even though imagination pause far short of this direful culmination, it still is clear that modern calculations, based on inexorable tidal friction, suffice to revolutionize the views formerly current as to the stability of the planetary system. The eighteenth-century mathematician looked upon this system as a vast celestial machine which had been in existence about six thousand years, and which was destined to run on forever. The analyst of to-day computes both the past and the future of this system in millions instead of thousands of years, yet feels well assured that the solar system offers no contradiction to those laws of growth and decay which seem everywhere to represent the immutable order of nature.


 

 

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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.