II. THE PROGRESS OF MODERN ASTRONOMY

"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.