Page images

as the sun; but the sun is so large, that his attractive force would cause bodies to fall through about 334.65 feet in a second; consequently, if he were habitable by human beings, they would be unable to move, since their weight would be thirty times as great as it is here. A man of moderate size would weigh about two tons at the surface of the sun, whereas, at the surface of the four new planets, he would be so light, that it would be impossible to stand steady, since he would only weigh a few pounds. All the planets and satellites appear to be of less density than the earth. The motions of Jupiter's satellites show that his density increases towards his centre: were his mass homogeneous, his equatorial and polar axes would be in the ratio of 41 to 36, whereas they are observed to be only as 41 to 38. The singular irregularities in the form of Saturn, and the great compression of Mars, prove the internal structure of these two planets to be very far from uniform.


ASTRONOMY has been of immediate and essential use in affording invariable standards for measuring duration, distance, magnitude, and velocity. The sidereal day, measured by the time elapsed between two consecutive transits of any star at the same

meridian, and the sidereal year, are immutable units with which all great periods of time are compared; the oscillations of the isochronous pendulum measure its smaller portions. By these invariable standards alone, we can judge of the slow changes that other elements of the system may have undergone in the lapse of ages.

The returns of the sun to the meridian, and to the same equinox or solstice, have been universally adopted as the measure of our civil days and years. The solar or astronomical day is the time that elapses between two consecutive noons or midnights; it is consequently longer than the sidereal day, on account of the proper motion of the sun during a revolution of the celestial sphere; but, as the sun moves with greater rapidity at the winter than at the summer solstice, the astronomical day is more nearly equal to the sidereal day in summer than in winter. The obliquity of the ecliptic also affects its duration, for in the equinoxes the arc of the equator is less than the corresponding arc of the ecliptic, and in the solstices it is greater. The astronomical day is therefore diminished in the first case, and increased in the second. If the sun moved uniformly in the equator at the rate of 59' 8" 3 every day, the solar days would be all equal; the time, therefore, which is reckoned by the arrival of an imaginary sun at


the meridian, or of one which is supposed to move uniformly in the equator, is denominated mean solar time, such as is given by clocks and watches in common life: when it is reckoned by the arrival of the real sun at the meridian, it is apparent time, such as is given by dials. The difference between the time shown by a clock and a dial is the equation of time given in the Nautical Almanac, sometimes amounting to as much as sixteen minutes. The apparent and mean time coincide four times in the year.

The astronomical day begins at noon, but in common reckoning the day begins at midnight. In England it is divided into twenty-four hours, which are counted by twelve and twelve; but in France, astronomers, adopting the decimal division, divide the day into ten hours, the hour into one hundred minutes, and the minute into a hundred seconds, because of the facility in computation, and in conformity with their system of weights and measures. This subdivision is not used in common life, nor has it been adopted in any other country; and although some scientific writers in France still employ that division of time, the custom is beginning to wear out. The mean length of the day, though accurately determined, is not sufficient for the purposes either of astronomy or civil life. The tropical or civil year of 365 242219

mean solar days, the time elapsed between the consecutive returns of the sun to the mean equinoxes or solstices, including all the changes of the seasons, is a natural cycle peculiarly suited for a measure of duration. It is estimated from the winter solstice, the middle of the long annual night under the poles. But although the length of the civil year is pointed out by nature as a measure of long periods, the incommensurability that exists between the length of the day and the revolution of the sun renders it difficult to adjust the estimation of both in whole numbers. If the revolution of the sun were accomplished in 365 days, all the years would be of precisely the same number of days, and would begin and end with the sun at the same point of the ecliptic; but as the sun's revolution includes the fraction of a day, a civil year and a revolution of the sun have not the same duration. Since the fraction is nearly the fourth of a day, in four years it is nearly equal to a revolution of the sun, so that the addition of a supernumerary day every fourth year nearly compensates the difference; but, in process of time, further correction will be necessary, because the fraction is less than the fourth of a day. In fact, if a bissextile be suppressed at the end of three out of four centuries, the year so determined will only exceed the true year by an extremely small fraction of a day;

and if, in addition to this, a bissextile be suppressed every 4000 years, the length of the year will be nearly equal to that given by observation. Were the fraction neglected, the beginning of the year would precede that of the tropical year, so that it would retrograde through the different seasons in a period of about 1507 years. The Egyptians estimated the year at 365 25 days, by which they

lost one year in every 14601-their Sothiac period. The division of the year into months is very old and almost universal; but the period of seven days, by far the most permanent division of time, and the most ancient monument of astronomical knowledge, was used by the Brahmins in India with the same denominations employed by us, and was alike found in the calendars of the Jews, Egyptians, Arabs, and Assyrians; it has survived the fall of empires, and has existed among all successive generations, a proof of their common origin.

The new moon immediately following the winter solstice in the 707th year of Rome was made the 1st of January of the first year of Julius Cæsar; the 25th of December of his forty-fifth year is considered as the date of Christ's nativity; and Cæsar's forty-sixth year is assumed to be the first of our era. The preceding year is called the first year before Christ by chronologists, but by astronomers

« PreviousContinue »