II. THE PROGRESS OF MODERN ASTRONOMY
A NEW epoch in astronomy begins with the work of William Herschel, the Hanoverian, whom England made hers by adoption. He was a man with a positive genius for sidereal discovery. At first a mere amateur in astronomy, he snatched time from his duties as music-teacher to grind him a telescopic mirror, and began gazing at the stars. Not content with his first telescope, he made another and another, and he had such genius for the work that he soon possessed a better instrument than was ever made before. His patience in grinding the curved reflective surface was monumental. Sometimes for sixteen hours together he must walk steadily about the mirror, polishing it, without once removing his hands. Meantime his sister, always his chief lieutenant, cheered him with her presence, and from time to time put food into his mouth. The telescope completed, the astronomer turned night into day, and from sunset to sunrise, year in and year out, swept the heavens unceasingly, unless prevented by clouds or the brightness of the moon. His sister sat always at his side, recording his observations. They were in the open air, perched high at the mouth of the reflector, and sometimes it was so cold that the ink froze in the bottle in Caroline Herschel's hand; but the two enthusiasts hardly noticed a thing so common-place as terrestrial weather. They were living in distant worlds.
The results? What could they be? Such enthusiasm would move mountains. But, after all, the moving of mountains seems a liliputian task compared with what Herschel really did with those wonderful telescopes. He moved worlds, stars, a universe— even, if you please, a galaxy of universes; at least he proved that they move, which seems scarcely less wonderful; and he expanded the cosmos, as man conceives it, to thousands of times the dimensions it had before. As a mere beginning, he doubled the diameter of the solar system by observing the great outlying planet which we now call Uranus, but which he christened Georgium Sidus, in honor of his sovereign, and which his French contemporaries, not relishing that name, preferred to call Herschel.
This discovery was but a trifle compared with what Herschel did later on, but it gave him world-wide reputation none the less. Comets and moons aside, this was the first addition to the solar system that had been made within historic times, and it created a veritable furor of popular interest and enthusiasm. Incidentally King George was flattered at having a world named after him, and he smiled on the astronomer, and came with his court to have a look at his namesake. The inspection was highly satisfactory; and presently the royal favor enabled the astronomer to escape the thraldom of teaching music and to devote his entire time to the more congenial task of star-gazing.
Thus relieved from the burden of mundane embarrassments, he turned with fresh enthusiasm to the skies, and his discoveries followed one another in bewildering profusion. He found various hitherto unseen moons of our sister planets; be made special studies of Saturn, and proved that this planet, with its rings, revolves on its axis; he scanned the spots on the sun, and suggested that they influence the weather of our earth; in short, he extended the entire field of solar astronomy. But very soon this field became too small for him, and his most important researches carried him out into the regions of space compared with which the span of our solar system is a mere point. With his perfected telescopes he entered abysmal vistas which no human eve ever penetrated before, which no human mind had hitherto more than vaguely imagined. He tells us that his forty-foot reflector will bring him light from a distance of "at least eleven and three-fourths millions of millions of millions of miles"—light which left its source two million years ago. The smallest stars visible to the unaided eye are those of the sixth magnitude; this telescope, he thinks, has power to reveal stars of the 1342d magnitude.
But what did Herschel learn regarding these awful depths of space and the stars that people them? That was what the world wished to know. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, had given us a solar system, but the stars had been a mystery. What says the great reflector—are the stars points of light, as the ancients taught, and as more than one philosopher of the eighteenth century has still contended, or are they suns, as others hold? Herschel answers, they are suns, each and every one of all the millions—suns, many of them, larger than the one that is the centre of our tiny system. Not only so, but they are moving suns. Instead of being fixed in space, as has been thought, they are whirling in gigantic orbits about some common centre. Is our sun that centre? Far from it. Our sun is only a star like all the rest, circling on with its attendant satellites—our giant sun a star, no different from myriad other stars, not even so large as some; a mere insignificant spark of matter in an infinite shower of sparks.
Nor is this all. Looking beyond the few thousand stars that are visible to the naked eye, Herschel sees series after series of more distant stars, marshalled in galaxies of millions; but at last he reaches a distance beyond which the galaxies no longer increase. And yet—so he thinks—he has not reached the limits of his vision. What then? He has come to the bounds of the sidereal system—seen to the confines of the universe. He believes that he can outline this system, this universe, and prove that it has the shape of an irregular globe, oblately flattened to almost disklike proportions, and divided at one edge—a bifurcation that is revealed even to the naked eye in the forking of the Milky Way.