Page images
[ocr errors]

mean density of the earth is 6.565, which is greater than that obtained by Mr. Baily by •89. While employed on the trigonometrical survey of Scotland, Colonel James determined the mean density of the earth to be 5•316, from a deviation of the plumb-line amounting to 2"', caused by the attraction of Arthur's Seat and the heights east of Edinburgh: it agrees more nearly with the density found by Mr. Baily than with that deduced from Mr. Airy's experiments. 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.

Before entering on the theory of rotation, it may not be foreign to the subject to give some idea of the methods of computing the places of the planets, and of forming astronomical tables. Astronomy is now divided into the three distinct departments of theory, observation, and computation. Since the problem of the three bodies can only be solved by approximation, the analytical astronomer determines the position of a planet in space by a series of corrections. Its place in its circular orbit is first found, then the addition or subtraction of the equation of the centre (N. 48) to or from its mean place gives its position in the ellipse. This again is corrected by the application of the principal periodic inequalities. But, as these are determined for some particular position of the three bodies, they require to be corrected to suit other relative positions. This process is continued till the corrections become less than the errors of observation, when it is obviously unnecessary to carry the approximation further. The true latitude and distance of the planet from the sun are obtained by methods similar to those employed for the longitude.

As the earth revolves equably about its axis in 24 hours, at the rate of 15° in an hour, time becomes a measure of angular motion, and the principal element in astronomy, wbere the object is to determine the exact state of the heavens and the successive changes it undergoes in all ages, past, present, and to come. Now, the longitude, latitude, and distance of a planet from the sun are given in terms of the time, by general analytical formulæ. These formulæ will consequently give the exact place of the body in the heavens, for any time assumed at pleasure, provided they can be reduced to numbers. But before the calculator begins his task the observer must furnish the necessary data, which are, obviously, the forms of the orbits, and their positions with regard to the plane of the ecliptic (N. 57). It is therefore necessary to determine by observation, for each planet, the length of the major axis of its orbit, the excentricity, the inclination of the orbit to the plane of the ecliptic, the longitudes of its perihelion and ascending node at a given time, the periodic time of the planet, and its longitude at any instant arbitrarily assumed, as an origin from whence all its subsequent and antecedent longitudes are estimated. Each of these quantities is determined from that position of the planet on which it has most influence. For example, the sum of the greatest and least distances of the planet from the sun is equal to the major axis of the orbit, and their difference is equal to twice the excentricity. The longitude of the planet, when at its least distance from the sun, is the same with the longitude of the perihelion ; the greatest latitude of the planet is equal to the inclination of the orbit: the longitude of the planet, when in the plane of the ecliptic in passing towards the north, is the longitude of the ascending node, and the periodic time is the interval between two consecutive passages of the planet through the same node, a small correction being made for the precession of the node during the revolution of the planet (N. 137). Notwithstanding the excellence of instruments and the accuracy of modern observers, unavoidable errors of observation can only be compensated by finding the value of each element from the mean of a thousand, or even many thousands of observations. For as it is probable that the errors are not all in one direction, but that some are in excess and others in defect, they will compensate each other when combined.

However, the values of the elements determined separately can only be regarded as approximate, because they are so connected that the estimation of any one independently will induce errors in the others. The excentricity depends upon the longitude of the perihelion, the mean motion depends upon the major axis, the longitude of the node upon the inclination of the orbit, and vice versá. Consequently, the place of a planet computed

with the approximate data will differ from its observed place. Then the difficulty is to ascertain what elements are most in fault, since the difference in question is the error of all; that is obviated by finding the errors of some thousands of observations, and combining them, so as to correct the elements simultaneously, and to make the sum of the squares of the errors a minimum with regard to each element (N. 138). The method of accomplishing this depends upon the Theory of Probabilities; a subject fertile in most important results in the various departments of science and of civil life, and quite indispensable in the determination of astronomical data. A series of observations continued for some years will give approximate values of the secular and periodic inequalities, which must be corrected from time to time, till theory and observation agree. And these again will give values of the masses of the bodies forming the solar system, which are important data in computing their motions. The periodic inequalities derived from a great number of observations are employed for the determination of the values of the masses till such time as the secular inequalities shall be perfectly known, which will then give them with all the necessary precision. . When all these quantities are determined in numbers, the longitude, latitude, and distance of the planet from the sun are computed for stated intervals, and formed into tables, arranged according to the time estimated from a given epoch, so that the place of the body may be determined from them by inspection alone, at any instant for perhaps a thousand years before and after that epoch. By this tedious process, tables have been computed for all the great planets, and several of the small, besides the moon and the satellites of Jupiter. In the present state of astronomy the masses and elements of the orbits are pretty well known, so that the tables only require to be corrected from time to time as observations become more accurate. Those containing the motions of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus have already been twice constructed within the last thirty years, and the tables of Jupiter and Saturn agrée almost perfectly with modern observation. The following prediction will be found in the sixth edition of this book, published in the year 1842: “Those of Uranus, however, are already defective, probably because the discovery of that planet in 1781 is too recent to admit of much precision in the determination of


its motions, or that possibly it may be subject to disturbances from some unseen planet revolving about the sun beyond the present boundaries of our system. If, after a lapse of years, the tables formed from a combination of numerous observations should be still inadequate to represent the motions of Uranus, the discrepancies may reveal the existence, nay, even the mass and orbit, of a body placed for ever beyond the sphere of vision."

That prediction has been fulfilled since the seventh edition of this book was published. Not only the existence of Neptune, revolving at the distance of three thousand millions of miles from the sun, has been discovered from his disturbing action on Uranus, but his mass, the form and position of his orbit in space, and his periodic time had been determined before the planet had been seen, and the planet itself was discovered in the very point of the beavens which had been assigned to it. It had been noticed for years that the perturbation of Uranus had increased in an unaccountable manner (N. 139). After the disturbing action of all the known planets had been determined, it was found that, between the years 1833 and 1837, the observed and computed distance of Uranus from the sun differed by 24,000 miles, which is about the mean distance of the moon from the earth, while, in 1841, the error in the geocentric longitude of the planet amounted to 96". These discrepancies were therefore attributed to the attraction of some unseen and unknown planet, consequently they gave rise to a case altogether unprecedented in the history of astronomy. Heretofore it was required to determine the disturbing action of one known planet upon another. Whereas the inverse problem had now to be solved, in which it was required to find the place of an unknown body in the heavens, at a given time, together with its mass, and the form and position of its orbit, from the disturbance it produced on the motions of another. The difficulty was extreme, because all the elements of the orbit of Uranus were erroneous from the action of Neptune, and those of Neptune's orbit were unknown. In this dilemma it was necessary to form some hypothesis with regard to the unknown planet; it was therefore assumed, according to Bode's empirical law on the mean distances of the planets, that it was revolving at twice the distance of Uranus from the sun.

* Neptune was discovered in the year 1846.

In fact, the periodic time of Uranus is about 84 years, and, as the discrepancies in his motions increased slowly and regularly, it was evident that it would require a planet with a much longer periodic time to produce them moreover, it was clear that the new planet must be exterior to Uranus, otherwise it would have disturbed the motions of Saturn.

Another circumstance tended to lessen the difficulty ; the latitude of Uranus was not much affected, therefore it was concluded that the inclination of the orbit of the unknown body must be very small, and, as that of the orbit of Uranus is only 46' 28":4, both planets were assumed to be moving in the plane of the ecliptic, and thus the elements of the orbit of the unknown planet were reduced from six to four. Having thus assumed that the unknown body was revolving in a circle in the plane of the ecliptic, the analytical expression of its action on the motion of Uranus, when in numerous points of its orbit, was compared with the observed longitude of Uranus, through a regular series of years, by means of which the faulty elements of the orbit of Uranus were eliminated, or got rid of, and there only remained a relation between the mass of the new planet and three of the elements of its orbit; and it then was necessary to assume such a value for two of them as would suit the rest. That was accomplished so dexterously, that the perturbations of Uranus were perfectly conformable to the motions of Neptune, moving in the orbit thus found, and the place of the new planet exactly agreed with observation. Subsequently its orbit and motions have been determined more accurately.

The honour of this admirable effort of genius is shared by Mr. Adams and M. Le Verrier, who, independently of each other, arrived at these wonderful results. Mr. Adams had determined the mass and apparent diameter of Neptune, with all the circumstances of its motion, eight months before M. Le Verrier had terminated his results, and had also pointed out the exact spot where the planet would be found ; but the English observers neglected to look for it till M. Leverrier made known his researches, and communicated its position to Dr. Galle, at Berlin, who found it the very first night he looked for it, and then it was evident that it would have been seen in the place Mr. Adams had assigned to it eight months before had it been looked for. So closely did the results of these two great mathematicians agree.

« PreviousContinue »