« PreviousContinue »
cycle peculiarly suited for a measure of duration. It is estimated from the winter solstice, the middle of the long annual night under the north pole. 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 Egyptian year began with the heliacal rising of Sirius (N. 150), and contained only 365 days, by which they lost one year in every 1461 years, their Sothaic period, or that cycle in which the heliacal rising of Sirius passes through the whole year and takes place again on the same day. 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 day of 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 the forty-sixth year of the Julian Calendar is assumed to be the first of our era. The preceding year is called the first year before Christ by chronologists, but by astronomers it is called the year 0. The astronomical year begins on the 31st of December at noon; and the date of an observation expresses the days and hours which have actually elapsed since that time.
Since solar and sidereal time are estimated from the passage of the sun and the equinoctial point across the meridian of each place, the hours are different at different places : while it is one o'clock at one place, it is two at another, three at another, &c. ; for it is obvious that it is noon at one part of the globe at the same moment that it is midnight at another diametrically opposite to it: consequently an event which happens at one and the same instant of absolute time is recorded at different places as having happened at different times. Therefore, when observations made at different places are to be compared, they must be reduced by computation to what they would have been had they been made under the same meridian. To obviate this it was proposed by Sir John Herschel to employ mean equinoctial time, which is the same for all the world, and independent alike of local circumstances and inequalities in the sun's motion. It is the time elapsed from the instant the mean sun enters the mean vernal equinox, and is reckoned in mean solar days and parts of a day.
Some remarkable astronomical eras are determined by the position of the major axis of the solar ellipse, which depends upon the direct motion of the perigee (N. 102) and the precession of the equinoxes conjointly, the annual motion of the one being 11":8, and that of the other 50'.1. Hence the axis, moving at the rate of 61":9 annually, accomplishes a tropical revolution in 209.84 years. It coincided with the line of the equinoxes 4000 or 4089 years before the Christian era, much about the time chronologists assign for the creation of man. In 6483 the major axis will again coincide with the line of the equinoxes ; but then the solar perigee will coincide with the equinox of autumn, whereas at the creation of man it coincided with the vernal equinox. In the year 1246 the major axis was perpendicular to the line of the equinoxes ; then the solar perigee coincided with the solstice of summer, and the apogee with the
solstice of winter. According to La Place, who computed these periods from different data, the last coincidence happened in the year 1250 of our era, which induced him to propose that year as a universal epoch, the vernal equinox of the year 1250 to be the first day of the first year. These eras can only be regarded as approximate, since ancient observations are too inaccurate, and modern observations too recent, to afford data for their precise determination.
The variation in the position of the solar ellipse occasions corresponding changes in the length of the seasons. In its present position spring is shorter than summer, and autumn longer than winter; and while the solar perigee continues as it now is, between the solstice of winter and the equinox of spring, the period including spring and summer will be longer than that including autumn and winter. In this century the difference is between seven and eight days. The intervals will be equal towards the year 6483, when the perigee will coincide with the equinox of spring ; but, when it passes that point, the spring and summer taken together will be shorter than the period including the autumn and winter (N. 151). These changes will be accomplished in a tropical revolution of the major axis of the earth's orbit, which includes an interval of 20,984 years. Were the orbit circular, the seasons would be equal; their difference arises from the excentricity of the orbit, small as it is; but the changes are so trifling as to be imperceptible in the short span of human life.
No circumstance in the whole science of astronomy excites a deeper interest than its application to chronology. “Whole nations,” says La Place,“ have been swept from the earth, with their languages, arts, and sciences, leaving but confused masses of ruins to mark the place where mighty cities stood ; their history, with the exception of a few doubtful traditions, has perished ; but the perfection of their astronomical observations marks their high antiquity, fixes the periods of their existence, and proves that, even at that early time, they must have made considerable progress in science.” The ancient state of the heavens may now be computed with great accuracy; and, by comparing the results of calculation with ancient observations, the exact period at which they were made may be verified if true, or, if false, their error may be detected. If the date be accurate and the observa
tion good, it will verify the accuracy of modern tables, and will show to how many centuries they may be extended without the fear of error. A few examples will show the importance of the subject.
At the solstices the sun is at his greatest distance from the equator ; consequently his declination at these times is equal to the obliquity of the ecliptic (N. 152), which was formerly determined from the meridian length of the shadow of the stile of a dial on the day of a solstice. The lengths of the meridian shadow at the summer and winter solstices are recorded to have been observed at the city of Layang, in China, 1100 years before the Christian era. From these the distances of the sun from the zenith (N. 153) of the city of Layang are known. Half the sum of these zenith distances determines the latitude, and half their difference gives the obliquity of the ecliptic at the period of the observation ; and, as the law of the variation of the obliquity is
l known, both the time and place of the observations have been verified by computations from modern tables. Thus the Chinese had made some advances in the science of astronomy at that early period. Their whole chronology is founded on the observations of eclipses, which prove the existence of that empire for more than 4700 years. The epoch of the lunar tables of the Indians, supposed by Bailly to be 3000 years before the Christian era, was proved by La Place, from the acceleration of the moon, not to be more ancient than the time of Ptolemy, who lived in the second century after it. The great inequality of Jupiter and Saturn, whose cycle embraces 918 years, is peculiarly fitted for marking the civilization of a people. The Indians had determined the mean motions of these two planets in that part of their periods when the apparent mean motion of Saturn was at the slowest, and that of Jupiter the most rapid. The periods in which that happened were 3102 years before the Christian era, and the year 1491 after it. The returns of comets to their perihelia may possibly mark the present state of astronomy to
The places of the fixed stars are affected by the precession of the equinoxes; and, as the law of that variation is known, their positions at any time may be computed. Now Eudoxus, a contemporary of Plato, mentions a star situate. in the pole of the equator, and it appears from computation that « Draconis was
not very far from that place about 3000 years ago; but, as it is only about 2150 years since Eudoxus lived, he must have described an anterior state of the heavens, supposed to be the same that was mentioned by Chiron about the time of the siege of Troy. Thus every circumstance concurs in showing that astronomy was cultivated in the highest ages of antiquity.
It is possible that a knowledge of astronomy may lead to the interpretation of hieroglyphical characters. Astronomical signs are often found on the ancient Egyptian monuments, probably employed by the priests to record dates. The author had occasion to witness an instance of this most interesting application of astronomy, in ascertaining the date of a papyrus, sent from Egypt by Mr. Salt, in the hieroglyphical researches of the late Dr. Thomas Young, whose profound and varied acquirements do honour to his country, and to the age in which he lived. The manuscript was found in a mummy case; it proved to be a horoscope of the age of Ptolemy, and its date was determined from the configuration of the heavens at the time of its construction.
The form of the earth furnishes a standard of weights and measures for the ordinary purposes of life, as well as for the determination of the masses and distances of the heavenly bodies. The length of the pendulum vibrating seconds of mean solar time, in the latitude of London, forms the standard of the British measure of extension. Its approximate length oscillating in vacuo at the temperature of 62° of Fahrenheit, and reduced to the level of the sea (N. 154), was determined by Captain Kater to be 39.1393 inches. The weight of a.cubic inch of water at the temperature of 620 of Fahrenheit, barometer 30 inches, was also determined in parts of the imperial troy pound, whence a standard both of weight and capacity was deduced. The French have adopted the mètre, equal to 3.2808992 English feet, for their unit of linear measure, which is the ten-millionth part of the arc of the meridian which extends from the equator to the pole, as deduced from the measures of the separate arc extending from Formentera, the most southem of the Balearic Islands, to Dunkirk. Should the national standards of the two countries ever be lost, both may be recovered, since they are derived from natural and invariable ones. The length of the measure deduced from that of the pendulum would be found again with more