XII. NEWTON AND THE LAW OF GRAVITATION

{illustration caption = DIAGRAM TO ILLUSTRATE NEWTON'S LAW OF GRAVITATION (E represents the earth and A the moon. Were the earth's pull on the moon to cease, the moon's inertia would cause it to take the tangential course, AB. On the other hand, were the moon's motion to be stopped for an instant, the moon would fall directly towards the earth, along the line AD. The moon's actual orbit, resulting from these component forces, is AC. Let AC represent the actual flight of the moon in one minute. Then BC, which is obviously equal to AD, represents the distance which the moon virtually falls towards the earth in one minute. Actual computation, based on measurements of the moon's orbit, showed this distance to be about fifteen feet. Another computation showed that this is the distance that the moon would fall towards the earth under the influence of gravity, on the supposition that the force of gravity decreases inversely with the square of the distance; the basis of comparison being furnished by falling bodies at the surface of the earth. Theory and observations thus coinciding, Newton was justified in declaring that the force that pulls the moon towards the earth and keeps it in its orbit, is the familiar force of gravity, and that this varies inversely as the square of the distance.)}

It was to appear in due time that Newton's hypothesis was perfectly valid and that his method of attempted demonstration was equally so. The difficulty was that the earth's proper dimensions were not at that time known. A wrong estimate of the earth's size vitiated all the other calculations involved, since the measurement of the moon's distance depends upon the observation of the parallax, which cannot lead to a correct computation unless the length of the earth's radius is accurately known. Newton's first calculation was made as early as 1666, and it was not until 1682 that his attention was called to a new and apparently accurate measurement of a degree of the earth's meridian made by the French astronomer Picard. The new measurement made a degree of the earth's surface 69.10 miles, instead of sixty miles.

Learning of this materially altered calculation as to the earth's size, Newton was led to take up again his problem of the falling moon. As he proceeded with his computation, it became more and more certain that this time the result was to harmonize with the observed facts. As the story goes, he was so completely overwhelmed with emotion that he was forced to ask a friend to complete the simple calculation. That story may well be true, for, simple though the computation was, its result was perhaps the most wonderful demonstration hitherto achieved in the entire field of science. Now at last it was known that the force of gravitation operates at the distance of the moon, and holds that body in its elliptical orbit, and it required but a slight effort of the imagination to assume that the force which operates through such a reach of space extends its influence yet more widely. That such is really the case was demonstrated presently through calculations as to the moons of Jupiter and by similar computations regarding the orbital motions of the various planets. All results harmonizing, Newton was justified in reaching the conclusion that gravitation is a universal property of matter. It remained, as we shall see, for nineteenth-century scientists to prove that the same force actually operates upon the stars, though it should be added that this demonstration merely fortified a belief that had already found full acceptance.

Having thus epitomized Newton's discovery, we must now take up the steps of his progress somewhat in detail, and state his theories and their demonstration in his own words. Proposition IV., theorem 4, of his Principia is as follows:

"That the moon gravitates towards the earth and by the force of gravity is continually drawn off from a rectilinear motion and retained in its orbit.