« PreviousContinue »
limits, nor the period of that grand cycle which probably embraces millions of years, yet they never will exceed what is requisite for the stability and harmony of the whole, for the preservation of which every circumstance is so beautifully and wonderfully adapted.
The plane of the ecliptic itself, though assumed to be fixed at a given epoch for the convenience of astronomical computation, is subject to a minute secular variation of 45".7, occasioned by the reciprocal action of the planets; but, as this is also periodical, and cannot exceed 3o, the terrestrial equator, which is inclined to it at an angle of about 23° 27′ 34′′.5, will never coincide with the plane of the ecliptic so there never can be perpetual spring. The rotation of the earth is uniform; therefore day and night, summer and winter, will continue their vicissitudes while the system endures, or is undisturbed by foreign causes.
Yonder starry sphere
Of planets, and of fixed, in all her wheels
Eccentric, intervolved, yet regular,
Then most, when most irregular they seem.
The stability of our system was established by La Grange: 'a discovery,' says Professor Playfair, 'that must render the name forever memorable in science, and revered by those who delight in the contemplation of whatever is excellent and sublime.' After Newton's discovery of the mechanical laws of the elliptical orbits of the planets, La Grange's discovery of their periodical inequalities is, without doubt, the noblest truth in physical astronomy; and, in respect of the doctrine of final causes, it may be regarded as the greatest of all.
Notwithstanding the permanency of our system, the sec
ular variations in the planetary orbits would have been extremely embarrassing to astronomers when it became necessary to compare observations separated by long periods. The difficulty was in part obviated, and the principle for accomplishing it established, by La Place; but it has since been extended by M. Poinsot; it appears that there exists an invariable plane passing through the centre of gravity of the system, about which the whole oscillates within very narrow limits, and that this plane will always remain parallel to itself, whatever changes time may induce in the orbits of the planets, in the plane of the ecliptic, or even in the law of gravitation; provided only that our system remains unconnected with any other. The position of the plane is determined by this property-that if each particle in the system be multiplied by the area described upon this plane in a given time, by the projection of its radius vector about the common centre of gravity of the whole, the sum of all these products will be a maximum. La Place found that the plane in question is inclined to the ecliptic at an angle of nearly 1° 35′ 31′′, and that, in passing through the sun, and about midway between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, it may be regarded as the equator of the solar system, dividing it into two parts, which balance one another in all their motions. This plane of greatest inertia, by no means peculiar to the solar system, but existing in every system of bodies submitted to their natural attractions only, always maintains a fixed position, whence the oscillations of the system may be estimated through unlimited time. Future astronomers will know, from its immutability or variation, ▸ whether the sun and his attendants are connected or not with the other system of the universe. Should there be
no link between them, it may be inferred, from the rotation of the sun, that the centre of gravity of the system situate within his mass describes a straight line in this invariable plane or great equator of the solar system, which, unaf fected by the changes of time, will maintain its stability through endless ages. But if the fixed stars, comets, or any unknown and unseen bodies, affect our sun and planets, the nodes of this plane will slowly recede on the plane of that immense orbit which the sun may describe about some most distant centre, in a period which it transcends the powers of man to determine. There is every reason to believe that this is the case; for it is more than probable that, remote as the fixed stars are, they in some degree influence our system, and that even the invariability of this plane is relative, only appearing fixed to creatures incapable of estimating its minute and slow changes during the small extent of time and space granted to the human The developement of such changes,' as M. Poinsot justly observes, 'is similar to an enormous curve, of which we see so small an arc that we imagine it to be a straight line.' If we raise our views to the whole extent of the universe, and consider the stars, together with the sun, to be wandering bodies, revolving about the common centre of creation, we may then recognise in the equatorial plane passing through the centre of gravity of the universe, the only instance of absolute and eternal repose.
All the periodic and secular inequalities deduced from the law of gravitation are so perfectly confirmed by observation, that analysis has become one of the most certain means of discovering the planetary irregularities, either when they are too small, or too long in their periods, to be detected by other methods. Jupiter and Saturn,
however, exhibit inequalities which for a long time seemed discordant with that law. All observations, from those of the Chinese and Arabs down to the present day, prove that for ages the mean motions of Jupiter and Saturn have been affected by a great inequality of a very long period, forming an apparent anomaly in the theory of the planets. It was long known by observation that five times the mean motion of Saturn is nearly equal to twice that of Jupiter; a relation which the sagacity of La Place perceived to be the cause of a periodic irregularity in the mean motion of each of these planets, which completes its period in nearly 929 years, the one being retarded while the other is accelerated; but both the magnitude and period of these quantities vary, in consequence of the secular variations in the elements of the orbits. These inequalities are strictly periódical, since they depend upon the configuration of the two planets; and the theory is perfectly confirmed by observation, which shows that, in the course of twenty centuries, Jupiter's mean motion has been accelerated by about 3° 23', and Saturn's retarded by 5o 13'.
It might be imagined that the reciprocal action of such planets as have satellites would be different from the influence of those that have none; but the distances of the satellites from their primaries are incomparably less than the distances of the planets from the sun, and from one another; so that the system of a planet and its satellites. moves nearly as if all these bodies were united in their common centre of gravity; the action of the sun however, in some degree disturbs the motion of the satellites about their primary.
The changes which take place in the planetary system are exhibited on a smaller scale by Jupiter and his satellites and, as the period requisite for the developement of the inequalities of these little moons only extends to a few centuries, it may be regarded as an epitome of that grand cycle which will not be accomplished by the planets in myriads of ages. The revolutions of the satellites about Jupiter are precisely similar to those of the planets aboutthe sun it is true they are disturbed by the sun, but his distance is so great, that their motions are nearly the same as if they were not under his influence. The satellites, like the planets, were probably projected in elliptical orbits, but the compression of Jupiter's spheroid is very great in consequence of his rapid rotation; and as the masses of the satellites are nearly 100000 times less than that of Jupiter, the immense quantity of prominent matter at his equator must soon have given the circular form observed in the orbits of the first and second satellites, which its superior attraction will always maintain. The third and and fourth satellites being farther removed from its influence, move in orbits with a very small eccentricity. The same cause occasions the orbits of the satellites to remain nearly in the plane of Jupiter's equator, on account of which they are always seen nearly in the same line; and the powerful action of that quantity of prominent matter is the reason why the motions of the nodes of these small bodies is so much more rapid than those of the planet. The nodes of the fourth satellite accomplish a tropical