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Mean and Apparent Sidereal Time Mean and Apparent Solar Time Equation of Time English and French Subdivisions of Time Year Christian Era Equinoctial Time Remarkable Eras depending upon the Position of the Solar Perigee - Inequality of the Lengths of the Seasons in the two Hemispheres Application of Astronomy to Chronology - English and French Standards of Weights and Measures.
ASTRONOMY has been of immediate and essential use in affording invariable standards for measuring duration, distance, magnitude, and velocity. The mean sidereal day measured by the time elapsed between two consecutive transits of any star at the same meridian (N. 148), and the mean sidereal year which is the time included between two consecutive returns of the sun to the same star, are immutable units with which all great periods of time are compared; the oscillations of the isochronous pendulum measure its smaller portions. By these invariable standards alone we can judge of the slow changes that other elements of the system may have undergone. Apparent sidereal time, which is measured by the transit of the equinoctial point at the meridian of any place, is a variable quantity, from the effects of precession and nutation. Clocks showing apparent sidereal time are employed for observation, and are so regulated that they indicate Oh 0 0 at the instant the equinoctial point passes the meridian of the observatory. And as time is a measure of angular motion, the clock gives the distances of the heavenly bodies from the equinox by observing the instant at which each passes the meridian, and converting the interval into arcs at the rate of 150 to an hour.
The returns of the sun to the meridian and to the same equinox or solstice have been universally adopted as the measure of our civil days and years. The solar or astronomical day is the time that elapses between two consecutive noons or midnights. It is consequently longer than the sidereal day, on account of the proper motion of the sun during a revolution of the celestial
sphere. But, as the sun moves with greater rapidity at the winter than at the summer solstice, the astronomical day is more nearly equal to the sidereal day in summer than in winter. The obliquity of the ecliptic also affects its duration; for near the equinoxes the arc of the equator is less than the corresponding arc of the ecliptic, and in the solstices it is greater (N. 149). The astronomical day is therefore diminished in the first case, and increased in the second. If the sun moved uniformly in the equator at the rate of 59′ 8′′-33 every day, the solar days would be all equal. The time therefore which is reckoned by the arrival of an imaginary sun at the meridian, or of one which is supposed to move uniformly in the equator, is denominated mean solar time, and is given by clocks and watches in common life. When it is reckoned by the arrival of the real sun at the meridian, it is true or apparent time, and is given by dials. The difference between the time shown by a clock and a dial is the equation of time given in the Nautical Almanac, sometimes amounting to as much as sixteen minutes. The apparent and mean time coincide four times in the year; when the sun's daily motion in right ascension is equal to 59′ 8′′-33 in a mean solar day, which happens about the 16th of April, the 16th of June, the 1st of September, and the 25th of December.
The astronomical day begins at noon, but in common reckoning the day begins at midnight. In England it is divided into twenty-four hours, which are counted by twelve and twelve ; but in France astronomers, adopting the decimal division, divide the day into ten hours, the hour into one hundred minutes, and the minute into a hundred seconds, because of the facility in computation, and in conformity with their decimal system of weights and measures. This subdivision is not now used in common life, nor has it been adopted in any other country; and although some scientific writers in France still employ that division of time, the custom is beginning to wear out. At one period during the French Revolution, the clock in the gardens of the Tuileries was regulated to show decimal time. The mean length of the day, though accurately determined, is not sufficient for the purposes either of astronomy or civil life. The tropical or civil year of 365d 5h 48m 49.7, which is the time elapsed between the consecutive returns of the sun to the mean equinoxes or solstices, including all the changes of the seasons, is a natural
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