Page images

their intrinsic splendor, must be greatly inferior to that of the sun, because a circular portion of the sun's disc, subtending an angle of 20", would give a light equal to that of a hundred full moons, while, on the contrary, the objects in question, are hardly, if at all, visible to the naked eye. From the uniformity of the discs of the planetary nebulæ, and their want of apparent condensation, he presumes that they may be hollow shells, only emitting light from their surfaces.

The existence of every degree of ellipticity in the nebulæ from long lenticular rays to the exact circular form, and of every shade of central condensation,-from the slightest increase of density to apparently a solid nucleus -may be accounted for by supposing the general constitution of these nebula to be that of oblate spheroidal masses of every degree of flatness, from the sphere to the disc, and of every variety in their density and ellipticity towards the centre. It would be erroneous however to imagine, that the forms of these systems are maintained by forces identical with those already described, which determine the form of a fluid mass in rotation; because, if the nebulæ be only clusters of separate stars, as in the greater number of cases there is every reason to believe them to be, no pressure can be propagated through them. Consequently, since no general rotation of such a system as one mass can be supposed, it may be conceived to be a quiescent form, comprising within its limits an indefinite multitude of stars, each of which may be moving in an orbit about the common centre of the whole, in virtue of a law of internal gravitation resulting from the compound gravitation of all its parts. Sir John Herschel has proved that the existence of such a system is not inconsistent with the law of gravitation under certain conditions.

The distribution of the nebulæ over the heavens is even more irregular than that of the stars. In some places they are so crowded together as scarcely to allow one to pass through the field of the telescope before another appears, while in other parts, hours elapse without a single nebula occurring in the zone under observation. They are in general only to be seen with the very best telescopes, and are most abundant in a zone whose general direction is not far from the hour circles 0 and 12h, and which crosses the milky way nearly at right angles. Where that zone crosses the constellations Virgo, Coma Berenices, and the Great Bear, they are to be found in multitudes.

Such is a brief account of the discoveries contained in Sir John Herschel's paper, which, for sublimity of views and patient investigation, has not been surpassed in any age or country. To him and to Sir William Herschel is due almost all that is known of sidereal astronomy; and in the inimitable works of that highly gifted father and son, the reader will find this subject treated of in a style altogether worthy of it, and of them.

So numerous are the objects which meet our view in the heavens, that we cannot imagine a part of space where some light would not strike the eye;-innumerable stars, thousands of double and multiple systems, clusters in one blaze with their tens of thousands of stars, and the nebulæ amazing us by the strangeness of their forms and the incomprehensibility of their nature, till at last, from the imperfection of our senses, even these thin and airy phantoms vanish in the distance. If such remote bodies shine by reflected light, we should be unconscious of their existence; each star must then be a sun, and may

be presumed to have its system of planets, satellites, and comets, like our own; and, for aught we know, myriads of bodies may be wandering in space unseen by us, of whose nature we can form no idea, and still less of the part they perform in the economy of the universe; nor is this an unwarranted presumption; many such do come within the sphere of the earth's attraction, are ignited by the velocity with which they pass through the atmosphere, and are precipitated with great violence on the earth. The fall of meteoric stones is much more frequent than is generally believed; hardly a year passes without some instances occurring, and if it be considered that only a small part of the earth is inhabited, it may be presumed that numbers fall in the ocean or on the uninhabited part of the land, unseen by man. They are sometimes of great magnitude; the volume of several has exceeded that of the planet Ceres, which is about 70 miles in diameter. One which passed within 25 miles of us was estimated to weigh about 600000 tons, and to move with a velocity of about 20 miles in a second,-a fragment of it alone reached the earth. The obliquity of the descent of meteorites, the peculiar substances they are composed of, and the explosion accompanying their fall, show that they are foreign to our system. Luminous spots, altogether independent of the phases, have occasionally appeared on the dark part of the moon; these have been ascribed to the light arising from the eruption of volcanos; whence it has been supposed that meteorites have been projected from the moon by the inpetus of volcanic eruption. It has even been computed that, if a stone were projected from the moon in a vertical line, with an initial velocity of 10992 feet in a second,-more than four times

the velocity of a ball when first discharged from a cannon,-instead of falling back to the moon by the attraction of gravity, it would come within the sphere of the earth's attraction, and revolve about it like a satellite. These bodies, impelled either by the direction of the primitive. impulse, or by the disturbing action of the sun, might ultimately penetrate the earth's atmosphere, and arrive at its surface. But from whatever source meteoric stones may come, it seems highly probable that they have a common origin, from the uniformity-we may almost say identity of their chemical composition.


The known quantity of matter bears a very small proportion to the immensity of space. Large as the bodies. are, the distances which separate them are immeasurably greater; but as design is manifest in every part of creation, it is probable that, if the various systems in the universe had been nearer to one another, their mutual disturbances would have been inconsistent with the harmony and stability of the whole. It is clear that space is not pervaded by atmospheric air, since its resistance would, long ere this, have destroyed the velocity of the planets; neither can we affirm it to be a void, since it is replete with ether, and traversed in all directions by light, heat, gravitation, and possibly by influences whereof we can form no idea.

Whatever the laws may be that obtain in the more distant regions of creation, we are assured that one alone regulates the motions not only of our own system, but

also the binary systems of the fixed stars; and as general laws form the ultimate object of philosophical research, we cannot conclude these remarks without considering the nature of gravitation-that extraordinary power whose effects we have been endeavoring to trace through some of their mazes. It was at one time imagined that the acceleration in the moon's mean motion was occasioned by the successive transmission of the gravitating force; but it has been proved that, in order to produce this effect, its velocity must be about fifty inillions of times greater than that of light, which flies at the rate of 200000 miles in a second its action, even at the distance of the sun, may therefore be regarded as instantaneous; yet so remote are the nearest of the fixed stars, that it may be doubted whether the sun has any sensible influence on them.

The curves in which the celestial bodies move by the force of gravitation are only lines of the second order; the attraction of spheroids, according to any other law of force than that of gravitation, would be much more complicated; and as it is easy to prove that matter might have been moved according to an infinite variety of laws, it may be concluded that gravitation must have been selected by Divine Wisdom out of an infinity of others, as being the most simple, and that which gives the greatest stability to the celestial motions,

It is a singular result of the simplicity of the laws of nature, which admit only of the observation and comparison of ratios, that the gravitation and theory of the motions of the celestial bodies are independent of their absolute magnitudes and distances; consequently, if all the bodies of the solar system, their mutual distances, and their velocities, were to diminish proportionally, they would de

« PreviousContinue »