II. THE PROGRESS OF MODERN ASTRONOMY
"According to our hypothesis, the comets are strangers to our planetary system. In considering them, as we have done, as minute nebulosities, wandering from solar system to solar system, and formed by the condensation of the nebulous matter everywhere existent in profusion in the universe, we see that when they come into that part of the heavens where the sun is all-powerful, he forces them to describe orbits either elliptical or hyperbolic, their paths being equally possible in all directions, and at all inclinations of the ecliptic, conformably to what has been observed. Thus the condensation of nebulous matter, by which we have at first explained the motions of the rotation and revolution of the planets and their satellites in the same direction, and in nearly approximate planes, explains also why the movements of the comets escape this general law."
The nebular hypothesis thus given detailed completion by Laplace is a worthy complement of the grand cosmologic scheme of Herschel. Whether true or false, the two conceptions stand as the final contributions of the eighteenth century to the history of man's ceaseless efforts to solve the mysteries of cosmic origin and cosmic structure. The world listened eagerly and without prejudice to the new doctrines; and that attitude tells of a marvellous intellectual growth of our race. Mark the transition. In the year 1600, Bruno was burned at the stake for teaching that our earth is not the centre of the universe. In 1700, Newton was pronounced "impious and heretical" by a large school of philosophers for declaring that the force which holds the planets in their orbits is universal gravitation. In 1800, Laplace and Herschel are honored for teaching that gravitation built up the system which it still controls; that our universe is but a minor nebula, our sun but a minor star, our earth a mere atom of matter, our race only one of myriad races peopling an infinity of worlds. Doctrines which but the span of two human lives before would have brought their enunciators to the stake were now pronounced not impious, but sublime.
ASTEROIDS AND SATELLITES
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