Page images
PDF

A

TREATISE

ON

ASTRONOMY.

INTRODUCTION.

(1.) In entering upon any scientific pursuit, one of the student's first endeavours ought to be, to prepare his mind for the reception of truth, by dismissing, or at least loosening his hold on, all such crude and hastily adopted notions respecting the objects and relations he is about to examine as may tend to embarrass or mislead him; and to strengthen himself, by something of an effort and a resolve, for the unprejudiced admission of any conclusion which shall appear to be supported by careful observation and logical argument, even should it prove of a nature adverse to notions he may have previously formed for himself, or taken up, without examination, on the credit of others. Such an effort is, in fact, a commencement of that intellectual discipline which forms one of the most important ends of all science. It is the first movement of approach towards that state of mental purity which alone can fit us for a full and steady perception of moral beauty as well as physical adaptation. It is the "euphrasy and rue" with which we must " purge our sight" before we can receive and contemplate as they are the lineaments of truth and nature.

(2.) There is no science which, more than astronomy, Stands in need of such a preparation, or draws more largely on that intellectual liberality which is ready to adopt whatever is demonstrated, or concede whatever is rendered highly probable, however new and uncommon the points of view may be in which objects the most familiar may thereby become placed. Almost all its conclusions stand in open and striking contradiction with those of superficial and vulgar observation, and with what appears to every one, until he has understood and weighed- the proofs to the contrary, the most positive evidence of his senses. Thus, the earth on which he stands, and which has served for ages as the unshaken foundation of the firmest structures, either of art or nature, is divested by the astronomer of its attribute of fixity, and conceived by him as turning swiftly on its centre, and at the same time moving onwards through space with great rapidity. The sun and the moon, which appear to untaught eyes round bodies of no very considerable size, become enlarged in his imagination into vast globes, — the one approaching in magnitude to the earth itself, the other immensely surpassing it. The planets, which appear only as stars somewhat brighter than the rest, are to him spacious, elaborate, and habitable worlds; several of them vastly greater and far more curiously furnished than the earth he inhabits, as there are also others less so; and the stars themselves, properly so called, which to ordinary apprehension present only lucid sparks or brilliant atoms, are to him suns of various and transcendent glory — effulgent centres of life and light to myriads of unseen worlds: so that when, after dilating his thoughts to comprehend the grandeur of those ideas his calculations have called up, and exhausting his imagination and the powers of his language to devise similes and metaphors illustrative of the immensity of the scale on which his universe is constructed, he shrinks back to his native sphere; he finds it, in comparison, a mere point; so lost — even in the minute system to which it belongs — as to be invisible and unsuspected from some of its principal and remoter members.

INTRODUCTION. 3

(3.) There is hardly any thing which sets in a stronger light the inherent power of truth over the mind of man, when opposed by no motives of interest or passion, than the perfect readiness with which all these conclusions are assented to as soon as their evidence is clearly apprehended, and the tenacious hold they acquire over our belief when once admitted. In the conduct, therefore of this volume, we shall take it for granted that our reader is more desirous to learn the system which it is its object to teach as it now stands, than to raise or revive objections against it; and that, in short, he comes to the task with a willing mind; an assumption which will not only save ourselves the trouble of piling argument on argument to convince the sceptical, but will greatly facilitate his actual progress, inasmuch as he will find it at once easier and more satisfactory to pursue from the outset a straight and definite path, than to be constantly stepping aside, involving himself in perplexities and circuits, which, after all, can only terminate in finding himself compelled to adopt our road.

(4.) The method, therefore, we propose to follow is neither strictly the analytic nor the synthetic, but rather such a combination of both, with a leaning to the latter, as may best suit with a didactic composition. Our object is not to convince or refute opponents, nor to enquire, under the semblance of an assumed ignorance, for principles of which we are all the time in full possession — but simply to teach what we know. The moderate limit of a single volume, and the necessity of being on every point, within that limit, rather diffuse and copious in explanation, as well as the eminently matured and ascertained character of the science itself, render this course both practicable and eligible. Practicable, because there is now no danger of any revolution in astronomy, like those which are daily changing the features of the less advanced sciences, supervening, to destroy all our hypotheses, and throw our statements into confusion. Eligible, because the space to be bestowed, either in combating refuted systems, or in leading the reader forward by slow and measured steps from the known to the unknown, may be more advantageously devoted to such explanatory illustrations as will impress on him a familiar and, as it were, a practical sense of the sequence of phenomena, and the manner in which they are produced. We shall not, then, reject the analytic course where it leads more easily and directly to our objects, or in any way fetter ourselves by a rigid adherence to method. Writing only to be understood, and to communicate as much information in as little space as possible, consistently with its distinct and effectual communication, we can afford to make no sacrifice to system, to form, or to affectation.

(5.) We shall take for granted, from the outset, the Copernican system of the world; relying on the easy, obvious, and natural explanation it affords of all the phenomena as they come to be described, to impress the student with a sense of its truth, without either the formality of demonstration or the superfluous tedium of eulogy, calling to mind that important remark of Bacon: — " Theoriarum vires, arcta et quasi se mutuo sustinente partium adaptatione, qua, quasi in orbem coherent, firmantur *;" nor failing, however, to point out to the reader, as occasion offers, the contrast which its superior simplicity offers to the complication of other hypotheses.

(6.) The preliminary knowledge which. it is desirable that the student should possess, in order for the more advantageous perusal of the following pages, consists in the familiar practice of decimal and sexagesimal arithmetic; some moderate acquaintance with geometry and trigonometry, both plane and spherical; the elementary principles of mechanics; and enough of optics to understand the construction and use of the telescope, and some other of the simpler instruments. For the

* The confirmation of theories relies on the compact adaptation of their parts, by which, like those of an arch or dome, they mutually sustain each other, and form a coherent whole.

« PreviousContinue »