fat man laughed, his flesh bounced so vigorously that Tyrion

Doubt and Doubtlove2023-12-07 12:20:40 6 46

What had become of the fragments? At that time no one positively knew. But the question was to be answered presently. It chanced that just at this period astronomers were paying much attention to a class of bodies which they had hitherto somewhat neglected, the familiar shooting-stars, or meteors. The studies of Professor Newton, of Yale, and Professor Adams, of Cambridge, with particular reference to the great meteor-shower of November, 1866, which Professor Newton had predicted and shown to be recurrent at intervals of thirty-three years, showed that meteors are not mere sporadic swarms of matter flying at random, but exist in isolated swarms, and sweep about the sun in regular elliptical orbits.

fat man laughed, his flesh bounced so vigorously that Tyrion

Presently it was shown by the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli that one of these meteor swarms moves in the orbit of a previously observed comet, and other coincidences of the kind were soon forthcoming. The conviction grew that meteor swarms are really the debris of comets; and this conviction became a practical certainty when, in November, 1872, the earth crossed the orbit of the ill-starred Biela, and a shower of meteors came whizzing into our atmosphere in lieu of the lost comet.

fat man laughed, his flesh bounced so vigorously that Tyrion

And so at last the full secret was out. The awe- inspiring comet, instead of being the planetary body it had all along been regarded, is really nothing more nor less than a great aggregation of meteoric particles, which have become clustered together out in space somewhere, and which by jostling one another or through electrical action become luminous. So widely are the individual particles separated that the cometary body as a whole has been estimated to be thousands of times less dense than the earth's atmosphere at sea- level. Hence the ease with which the comet may be dismembered and its particles strung out into streaming swarms.

fat man laughed, his flesh bounced so vigorously that Tyrion

So thickly is the space we traverse strewn with this cometary dust that the earth sweeps up, according to Professor Newcomb's estimate, a million tons of it each day. Each individual particle, perhaps no larger than a millet seed, becomes a shooting-star, or meteor, as it burns to vapor in the earth's upper atmosphere. And if one tiny planet sweeps up such masses of this cosmic matter, the amount of it in the entire stretch of our system must be beyond all estimate. What a story it tells of the myriads of cometary victims that have fallen prey to the sun since first he stretched his planetary net across the heavens!

When Biela's comet gave the inhabitants of the earth such a fright in 1832, it really did not come within fifty millions of miles of us. Even the great comet through whose filmy tail the earth passed in 1861 was itself fourteen millions of miles away. The ordinary mind, schooled to measure space by the tiny stretches of a pygmy planet, cannot grasp the import of such distances; yet these are mere units of measure compared with the vast stretches of sidereal space. Were the comet which hurtles past us at a speed of, say, a hundred miles a second to continue its mad flight unchecked straight into the void of space, it must fly on its frigid way eight thousand years before it could reach the very nearest of our neighbor stars; and even then it would have penetrated but a mere arm's-length into the vistas where lie the dozen or so of sidereal residents that are next beyond. Even to the trained mind such distances are only vaguely imaginable. Yet the astronomer of our century has reached out across this unthinkable void and brought back many a secret which our predecessors thought forever beyond human grasp.

A tentative assault upon this stronghold of the stars was being made by Herschel at the beginning of the century. In 1802 that greatest of observing astronomers announced to the Royal Society his discovery that certain double stars had changed their relative positions towards one another since he first carefully charted them twenty years before. Hitherto it had been supposed that double stars were mere optical effects. Now it became clear that some of them, at any rate, are true "binary systems," linked together presumably by gravitation and revolving about one another. Halley had shown, three-quarters of a century before, that the stars have an actual or "proper" motion in space; Herschel himself had proved that the sun shares this motion with the other stars. Here was another shift of place, hitherto quite unsuspected, to be reckoned with by the astronomer in fathoming sidereal secrets.

When John Herschel, the only son and the worthy successor of the great astronomer, began star-gazing in earnest, after graduating senior wrangler at Cambridge, and making two or three tentative professional starts in other directions to which his versatile genius impelled him, his first extended work was the observation of his father's double stars. His studies, in which at first he had the collaboration of Mr. James South, brought to light scores of hitherto unrecognized pairs, and gave fresh data for the calculation of the orbits of those longer known. So also did the independent researches of F. G. W. Struve, the enthusiastic observer of the famous Russian observatory at the university of Dorpat, and subsequently at Pulkowa. Utilizing data gathered by these observers, M. Savary, of Paris, showed, in 1827, that the observed elliptical orbits of the double stars are explicable by the ordinary laws of gravitation, thus confirming the assumption that Newton's laws apply to these sidereal bodies. Henceforth there could be no reason to doubt that the same force which holds terrestrial objects on our globe pulls at each and every particle of matter throughout the visible universe.

The pioneer explorers of the double stars early found that the systems into which the stars are linked are by no means confined to single pairs. Often three or four stars are found thus closely connected into gravitation systems; indeed, there are all gradations between binary systems and great clusters containing hundreds or even thousands of members. It is known, for example, that the familiar cluster of the Pleiades is not merely an optical grouping, as was formerly supposed, but an actual federation of associated stars, some two thousand five hundred in number, only a few of which are visible to the unaided eve. And the more carefully the motions of the stars are studied, the more evident it becomes that widely separated stars are linked together into infinitely complex systems, as yet but little understood. At the same time, all instrumental advances tend to resolve more and more seemingly single stars into close pairs and minor clusters. The two Herschels between them discovered some thousands of these close multiple systems; Struve and others increased the list to above ten thousand; and Mr. S. W. Burnham, of late years the most enthusiastic and successful of double-star pursuers, added a thousand new discoveries while he was still an amateur in astronomy, and by profession the stenographer of a Chicago court. Clearly the actual number of multiple stars is beyond all present estimate.



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