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CHAP. II. PRACTICAL DIFFICULTIES.
65 merical results, to actual phenomena, as will justify him in receiving it as a true representation of nature.
(103.) Astronomical instrument-making may be justly regarded as the most refined of the mechanical arts, and that in which the nearest approach to geometrical precision is required, and has been attained. It may be thought an easy thing, by one unacquainted with the niceties required, to turn a circle in metal, to divide its circumference into 360 equal parts, and these again into smaller subdivisions, - to place it accurately on its centre, and to adjust it in a given position ; but practically it is found to be one of the most difficult. Nor will this appear extraordinary, when it is considered that, owing to the application of telescopes to the purposes of angular measurement, every imperfection of structure or division becomes magnified by the whole optical power of that instrument; and that thus, not only direct errors of workmanship, arising from unsteadiness of hand or imperfection of tools, but those inaccuracies which originate in far more uncontrollable causes, such as the unequal expansion and contraction of metallic masses, by a change of temperature, and their unavoidable flexure or bending by their own weight, become perceptible and measurable. An angle of one minute occupies, on the circumference of a circle of 10 inches in radius, only about both part of an inch, a quantity too small to be certainly dealt with without the use of magnifying glasses; yet one minute is a gross quantity in the astronomical mea. surement of an angle. With the instruments now em. ployed in observatories, a single second, or the 60th part of a minute, is rendered a distinctly visible and appreciable quantity. Now, the arc of a circle, subtended by one second, is less than the 200,000th part of the radius, so that on a circle of 6 feet in diameter it would occupy no greater linear extent than tooth part of an inch ; a quantity requiring a powerful microscope to be discerned at all. Let any one figure to himself, therefore, the difficulty of placing on the circumference of a metallic
circle of such dimensions (supposing the difficulty of its construction surmounted), 360 marks, dots, or cognizable divisions, which shall be true to their places within such minute limits; to say nothing of the subdivision of the degrees so marked off into minutes, and of these again into seconds. Such a work has probably baffled, and will probably for ever continue to baffle, the utmost stretch of human skill and industry; nor, if executed, could it endure. The ever varying fluctuations of heat and cold have a tendency to produce not merely temporary and transient, but permanent, uncompensated changes of form in all considerable masses of those metals which alone are applicable to such uses ; and their own weight, however symmetrically formed, must always be un. equally sustained, since it is impossible to apply the sustaining power to every part separately: even could this be done, at all events force must be used to move and to fix them; which can never be done without producing temporary and risking permanent change of form. It is true, by dividing them on their centres, and in the identical places they are destined to occupy, and by a thousand ingenious and delicate contrivances, wonders have been accomplished in this department of art, and a degree of perfection has been given, not merely to chefs d'ouvre, but to instruments of moderate prices and dimensions, and in ordinary use, which, on due consideration, must appear very surprising. But though we are entitled to look for wonders at the hands of scientific artists, we are not to expect miracles. The demands of the astronomer will always surpass the power of the artist ; and it must, therefore, be constantly the aim of the former to make himself, as far as possible, independent of the imperfections incident to every work the latter can place in his hands. He must, therefore, endeavour so to com. bine his observations, so to choose his opportunities, and so to familiarize himself with all the causes which may produce instrumental derangement, and with all the peculiarities of structure and material of each in.
CHAP. II. CLASSIFICATION OF SOURCES OF ERROR. 67
strument he possesses, as not to allow himself to be misled by their errors, but to extract from their indications, as far as possible, all that is true, and reject all that is erroneous. It is in this that the art of the practical astronomer consists, an art of itself of a curious and intricate nature, and of which we can here only notice some of the leading and general features.
(104.) The great aim of the practical astronomer being numerical correctness in the results of instru. mental measurement, his constant care and vigilance must be directed to the detection and compensation of errors, either by annihilating, or by taking account of, and allowing for them. Now, if we examine the sources from which errors may arise in any instrumental determination, we shall find them chiefly reducible to three principal heads :
(105.) 1st, External or incidental causes of error; comprehending such as depend on external, uncontrol. lable circumstances : such as, fluctuations of weather, which disturb the amount of refraction from its tabu. lated value, and, being reducible to no fixed law, induce uncertainty to the extent of their own possible magnitude ; such as, by varying the temperature of the air, vary also the form and position of the instruments used, by altering relative magnitude and the tension of their parts; and others of the like nature.
(106.) 2dly, Errors of observation: such as arise, for example, from inexpertness, defective vision, slowness in seizing the exact instant of occurrence of a phenomenon, or precipitancy in anticipating it, &c.; from atmospheric indistinctness; insufficient optical power in the instrument, and the like. Under this head may also be classed all errors arising from momentary instrumental derangement,-slips in clamping, looseness of screws, &c.
(107.) 3dly, The third, and by far the most numerous class of errors to which astronomical measurements are liable, arise from causes which may be deemed instrumental, and which may be subdivided into two prin. cipal classes. The first comprehends those which arise from an instrument not being what it professes to be, which is error of workmanship. Thus, if a pivot or axis, instead of being, as it ought, exactly cylindrical, be slightly flattened, or elliptical, - if it be not exactly (as it is intended it should) concentric with the circle it carries ;- if this circle (so called) be in reality not exactly circular, or not in one plane ;--if its divisions, intended to be precisely equidistant, should be placed in reality at unequal intervals,—and a hundred other things of the same sort. These are not mere speculative sources of error, but practical annoyances, which every observer has to contend with.
(108.) The other subdivision of instrumental errors comprehends such as arise from an instrument not being placed in the position it ought to have; and from those of its parts, which are made purposely moveable, not being properly disposed inter se. These are errors of adjustment. Some are unavoidable, as they arise from a general unsteadiness of the soil or building in which the instruments are placed; which, though too minute to be noticed in any other way, become appreciable in delicate astronomical observations: others, again, are consequences of imperfect workmanship, as where an instrument once well adjusted will not remain so, but keeps deviating and shifting. But the most im. portant of this class of errors arise from the nonexistence of natural indications, other than those afforded by astronomical observations themselves, whether an instrument has or has not the exact position, with respect to the horizon and its cardinal points, the axis of the earth, or to other principal astronomical lines and circles, which it ought to have to fulfil properly its
(109.) Now, with respect to the first two classes of error, it must be observed, that, in so far as they cannot be reduced to known laws, and thereby become subjects of calculation and due allowance, they actually vitiate, to their full extent, the results of any observa
CHAP. II. MUTUAL DESTRUCTION OF ERRORS. 69 tions in which they subsist. Being, however, in their nature casual and accidental, their effects necessarily lie sometimes one way, sometimes the other; sometimes diminishing, sometimes tending to increase the results. Hence, by greatly multiplying observations, under varied circumstances, and taking the mean or average of their results, this class of errors may be so far subdued, by setting them to destroy one another, as no longer sensibly to vitiate any theoretical or practical conclusion. This is the great and indeed only resource against such errors, not merely to the astronomer, but to the investigator of numerical results in every department of physical research.
(110.) With regard to errors of adjustment and workmanship, not only the possibility, but the certainty, of their existence, in every imaginable form, in all instruments, must be contemplated. Human hands or machines never formed a circle, drew a straight line, or erected a perpendicular, nor ever placed an instrument in perfect adjustment, unless accidentally; and then only during an instant of time. This does not prevent, however, that a great approximation to all these desi. derata should be attained. But it is the peculiarity of astronomical observation to be the ultimate means of detection of all mechanical defects which elude by their minuteness every other mode of detection. What the eye cannot discern, nor the touch perceive, a course of astronomical observations will make distinctly evident. The imperfect products of man's hands are here tested by being brought into comparison with the perfect workmanship of nature; and there is none which will bear the trial. Now, it may seem like arguing in a vicious circle, to deduce theoretical conclusions and laws from observ. ation, and then to turn round upon the instruments with which those observations were made, accuse them of imperfection, and attempt to detect and rectify their errors by means of the very laws and theories which they have helped us to a knowledge of. A little consi