# II. THE PROGRESS OF MODERN ASTRONOMY

"From what has been said, it will appear that if a point is situated in a very large space where the attraction of the elements there situated acts more strongly than elsewhere, then the matter of the elementary particles scattered throughout the whole region will fall to that point. The first effect of this general fall is the formation of a body at this centre of attraction, which, so to speak, grows from an infinitely small nucleus by rapid strides; and in the proportion in which this mass increases, it also draws with greater force the surrounding particles to unite with it. When the mass of this central body has grown so great that the velocity with which it draws the particles to itself with great distances is bent sideways by the feeble degree of repulsion with which they impede one another, and when it issues in lateral movements which are capable by means of the centrifugal force of encompassing the central body in an orbit, then there are produced whirls or vortices of particles, each of which by itself describes a curved line by the composition of the attracting force and the force of revolution that had been bent sideways. These kinds of orbits all intersect one another, for which their great dispersion in this space gives place. Yet these movements are in many ways in conflict with one another, and they naturally tend to bring one another to a uniformity—that is, into a state in which one movement is as little obstructive to the other as possible. This happens in two ways: first by the particles limiting one another's movement till they all advance in one direction; and, secondly, in this way, that the particles limit their vertical movements in virtue of which they are approaching the centre of attraction, till they all move horizontally—i. e., in parallel circles round the sun as their centre, no longer intercept one another, and by the centrifugal force becoming equal with the falling force they keep themselves constantly in free circular orbits at the distance at which they move. The result, finally, is that only those particles continue to move in this region of space which have acquired by their fall a velocity, and through the resistance of the other particles a direction, by which they can continue to maintain a FREE CIRCULAR MOVEMENT....

"The view of the formation of the planets in this system has the advantage over every other possible theory in holding that the origin of the movements, and the position of the orbits in arising at that same point of time—nay, more, in showing that even the deviations from the greatest possible exactness in their determinations, as well as the accordances themselves, become clear at a glance. The planets are formed out of particles which, at the distance at which they move, have exact movements in circular orbits; and therefore the masses composed out of them will continue the same movements and at the same rate and in the same direction."[2]

It must be admitted that this explanation leaves a good deal to be desired. It is the explanation of a metaphysician rather than that of an experimental scientist. Such phrases as "matter immediately begins to strive to fashion itself," for example, have no place in the reasoning of inductive science. Nevertheless, the hypothesis of Kant is a remarkable conception; it attempts to explain along rational lines something which hitherto had for the most part been considered altogether inexplicable.

But there are various questions that at once suggest themselves which the Kantian theory leaves unanswered. How happens it, for example, that the cosmic mass which gave birth to our solar system was divided into several planetary bodies instead of remaining a single mass? Were the planets struck from the sun by the chance impact of comets, as Buffon has suggested? or thrown out by explosive volcanic action, in accordance with the theory of Dr. Darwin? or do they owe their origin to some unknown law? In any event, how chanced it that all were projected in nearly the same plane as we now find them?

LAPLACE AND THE NEBULAR HYPOTHESIS

It remained for a mathematical astronomer to solve these puzzles. The man of all others competent to take the subject in hand was the French astronomer Laplace. For a quarter of a century he had devoted his transcendent mathematical abilities to the solution of problems of motion of the heavenly bodies. Working in friendly rivalry with his countryman Lagrange, his only peer among the mathematicians of the age, he had taken up and solved one by one the problems that Newton left obscure. Largely through the efforts of these two men the last lingering doubts as to the solidarity of the Newtonian hypothesis of universal gravitation had been removed. The share of Lagrange was hardly less than that of his co-worker; but Laplace will longer be remembered, because he ultimately brought his completed labors into a system, and, incorporating with them the labors of his contemporaries, produced in the Mecanique Celeste the undisputed mathematical monument of the century, a fitting complement to the Principia of Newton, which it supplements and in a sense completes.

- 14322 reads