Page images

The path of the ray would be determined from the laws of refraction, did we know the law by which the density of the air decreases from the earth upwards. This last, however, is not known, except for a small extent near the surface of the earth, so that we appear here to be left without sufficient data for continuing the investigation. We must, therefore, either abandon the problem altogether, or resolve it hypothetically, that is, by assuming some hypothesis as to the decrease of the density of the atmosphere. Little would be gained by this last, except as an exercise in mathematical investigation, if it were not that the total quantity of the refraction for a given altitude can be accurately determined by observation. Laplace, availing himself of this consideration, begins with making a supposition concerning the law of the density, that is not very remote from the truth, (as we are assured of from the relation between the density of air and the force with which it is compressed;) and he compares the horizontal refraction, calculated on this assumption, with that which is known to be its true quantity. The first hypothesis which he assumes, is that of the density being the same throughout this gives the total refraction too small, and falls on that account to be rejected, even if it were liable to no other objection. The second hypothesis supposes a uniform temperature through the whole extent of the at

mosphere, or it supposes that the density decreases in geometrical proportion, while the distance from the earth increases in arithmetical. The refrac tion which results is too great, so that this supposi tion must also be rejected.

If we now suppose the density of the air to decrease in arithmetical progression, while the height does the same, and integrate the differential equation to the curve described by the ray; on this hypothesis, the horizontal refraction is too small, but nearer the truth than on the first hypothesis. A supposition intermediate between that which gave the refraction too great, and this which gives it too small, is therefore to be assumed as that which approaches the nearest to the truth. It is this way of limiting his conjectures by repeated trials, and of extracting from each, by means of the calculus, all the consequences involved in it, that we would recommend to experimenters, as affording one of the most valuable and legitimate uses of hypothetical reasoning. He then employs an intermediate hypothesis for the diminution of the density of the air; which it is not easy to express in words; but from which he obtains a result that agrees with the horizontal refraction, and from which, of course, he proceeds to deduce the refraction for all other altitudes. The table, so constructed, we have no doubt, will be found to contribute materially to the accuracy of astronomical observation.

The researches which immediately follow this, relate to the terrestrial refraction, and the measurement of heights by the barometer. The formula given for the latter, is more complicated than that which is usually employed with us in Britain, where this subject has been studied with great care. In one respect, it is more general than any of our formulas; it contains an allowance for the dif ference of latitude. We are not sure whether this correction is of much importance, nor have we had leisure to compare the results with those of General Roy and Sir George Shuckborough. We hardly believe, that, in point of accuracy, the two last can easily be exceeded.

The book concludes with a determination of the masses of the planets, more accurate than had been before given; and even of the satellites of Jupiter. "Of all the attempts of the Newtonian philosophy," says the late Adam Smith in his History of Astronomy, "that which would appear to be the most above the reach of human reason and experience, is the attempt to compute the weights and densities of the sun, and of the several planets." What would this philosopher have said, if he had lived to see the same balance in which the vast body of the sun had been weighed, applied to examine such minute atoms as the satellites of Jupiter?

Such is the work of Laplace, affording an example, which is yet solitary in the history of hu

man knowledge, of a theory entirely complete ; one that has not only accounted for all the phenomena that were known, but that has discovered many before unknown, which observation has since recognized. In this theory, not only the elliptic motion of the planets, relatively to the sun, but the irregularities produced by their mutual action, whether of the primary on the primary, of the primary on the secondary, or of the secondary on one another, are all deduced from the principle of gravitation, that mysterious power, which unites the most distant regions of space, and the most remote periods of duration. To this we must add the great truths brought in view and fully demonstrated, by tracing the action of the same power through all its mazes-That all the inequalities in our system are periodical; that, by a fixed appointment in nature, they are each destined to revolve in the same order, and between the same limits; that the mean distances of the planets from the sun, and the time of their revolutions round that body, are susceptible of no change whatsoever; that our system is thus secured against natural decay,-order and regularity preserved in the midst of so many disturbing causes,-and anarchy and misrule eternally proscribed.

The work where this sublime picture is delineated, does honour, not to the author only, but to the human race; and marks, undoubtedly, the

highest point to which man has yet ascended in the scale of intellectual attainment. The glory, therefore, of having produced this work, belongs, not to the author alone, but must be shared, in various proportions, among the philosophers and mathematicians of all ages. Their efforts, from the age of Euclid and Archimedes, to the time of Newton and Laplace, have all been required to the accomplishment of this great object; they have been all necessary to form one man for the author, and a few for the readers, of the work before us. Every mathematician who has extended the bounds of his science; every astronomer who has added to the number of facts, and the accuracy of observation ; every artist who has improved the construction of the instruments of astronomy-all have co-operated in preparing a state of knowledge in which such a book could exist, and in which its merit could be appreciated. They have collected the materials, sharpened the tools, or constructed the engines employed in the great edifice, founded by Newton, and completed by Laplace.

In this estimate we detract nothing from the merit of the author himself; his originality, his invention, and comprehensive views, are above all praise; nor can any man boast of a higher honour than that the genius of the human race is the only rival of his fame.

This review naturally gives rise to a great varie

« PreviousContinue »