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Book III

Observation

Io. INSTRUMENTS OF PRECISION — Size of THE SOLAR SYSTEM

AVING now traced the progress of physical astronomy up to the time when very striking proofs of the universality of the law of gravitation convinced the most sceptical, it must still be borne in mind that, while gravitation is certainly the principal force governing the motions of the heavenly bodies, there may yet be a resisting medium in space, and there may be electric and magnetic forces to deal with. There may, further, be cases where the effects of luminous radiative repulsion become apparent, and also Crookes's vacuum-effects described as “radiant matter.” Nor is it quite certain that Laplace's proofs of the instantaneous propagation of gravity are final. And in the future, as in the past, Tycho Brahe's dictum must be maintained, that all theory shall be preceded by accurate observations. It is the pride of astronomers that their science stands above all others in the accuracy of the facts observed, as well as in the rigid logic

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of the mathematics used for interpreting these facts. It is interesting to trace historically the invention of those instruments of precision which have led to this result, and, without entering on the details required in a practical handbook, to note the guiding principles of construction in different ages. It is very probable that the Chaldaens may have made spheres, like the armillary sphere, for representing the poles of the heavens; and with rings to show the ecliptic and zodiac, as well as the equinoctial and solstitial colures; but we have no record. We only know that the tower of Belus, on an eminence, was their observatory. We have, however, distinct records of two such spheres used by the Chinese about 25oo B.c. Gnomons, or some kind of sundial, were used by the Egyptians and others; and many of the ancient nations measured the obliquity of the ecliptic by the shadows of a vertical column in summer and winter. The natural horizon was the only instrument of precision used by those who determined star positions by the directions of their risings and settings; while in those days the clepsydra, or waterclock, was the best instrument for comparing their times of rising and setting. About 300 B.C. an observatory fitted with circular instruments for star positions was set up at Alexandria, the then centre of civilisation. We know almost nothing about the instruments used by Hipparchus in preparing his star catalogues and his lunar and solar tables; but the invention of the astrolabe is attributed to him." In more modern times Nuremberg became a centre of astronomical culture. Waltherus, of that town, made really accurate observations of star altitudes, and of the distances between stars; and in 1484 A.D. he used a kind of clock. Tycho Brahe tried these, but discarded them as being inaccurate. Tycho Brahe (1546–1601 A.D.) made great improvements in armillary spheres, quadrants, sextants, and large celestial globes. With these he measured the positions of stars, or the distance of a comet from several known stars. He has left us full descriptions of them, illustrated by excellent engravings. Previous to his time such instruments were made of wood. Tycho always used metal. He paid the greatest attention to the stability of mounting, to the * In 148o Martin Behaim, of Nuremberg, produced his astrolabe for measuring the latitude, by observation of the sun, at sea. It consisted of a graduated metal circle, suspended by a ring which was passed over the thumb, and hung vertically. A pointer was fixed to a pin at the centre. This arm, called the alhidada, worked round the graduated circle, and was pointed to the sun. The altitude of the sun was thus deter

mined, and, by help of solar tables, the latitude could be found from observations made at apparent noon. orientation of his instruments, to the graduation of the arcs by the then new method of transversals, and to the aperture sight used upon his pointer. There were no telescopes in his day, and no pendulum clocks. He recognised the fact that there must be instrumental errors. He made these as small as was possible, measured their amount, and corrected his observations. His table of refractions enabled him to abolish the error due to our atmosphere so far as it could affect naked-eye observations. The azimuth circle of Tycho's largest quadrant had a diameter of nine feet, and the quadrant a radius of six feet. He introduced the mural quadrant for meridian observations." The French Jesuits at Peking, in the seventeenth century, helped the Chinese in their astronomy. In 1875 the writer saw and photographed, on that part of the wall of Peking used by the Mandarins as an observatory, the six instruments handsomely designed by Father Verbiest, copied from the instruments of Tycho Brahe, and embellished with Chinese dragons and emblems cast on the supports. He also saw there two old instruments (which he was told were Arabic) of date 1279, by Ko ShowKing, astronomer to Koblai Khan, the grandson of Chenghis Khan. One of these last is nearly identical with the armillae of Tycho; and the

* See illustration on p. 41.

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ANCIENT CHINESE INSTRUMENTs.

Including quadrant, celestial globe, and two armillae, in the Observatory at Peking. Photographed in Peking by the author in 1875, and stolen by the Germans when the Embassies were relieved by the allies in 1900.

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