« PreviousContinue »
(1.) EVERY student who enters upon a scientific pursuit, especially if at a somewhat advanced period of life, will find not only that he has much to learn, but much also to unlearn. Familiar objects and events are far from presenting themselves to our senses in that aspect and with those connections under which science requires them to be viewed, and which constitute their rational explanation. There is, therefore, every reason to expect that those objects and relations which, taken together, constitute the subject he is about to enter upon will have been previously apprehended by him, at least imperfectly, because much has hitherto escaped his notice which is essential to its right understanding: and not only so, but too often also erroneously, owing to mistaken analogies, and the general prevalence of vulgar errors. As a first preparation, therefore, for the course he is about to commence, he must loosen his hold on all crude and hastily adopted notions, and must strengthen himself, by some. thing 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 much 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.
(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, I shall take it for granted that the reader is more desirous to leurn 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 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 the same road.
(4.) The method, therefore, we propose to follow in this work 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. Its object is not to convince or refute opponents, nor to inquire, under the semblance of an assumed ignorance, for principles of which we are all the time in full possession - but simply to teach what is known. The moderate limit of a single volume, to which it will be confined, 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, no sacrifice can be afforded 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, quâ quasi in orbem cobærent, firmantur';"
1" 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." This is what Dr. Whewell essi terms the consilienee of inductions.
not 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. Of course, the more of such knowledge he brings to the perusal, the easier will be his progress, and the more complete the information gained; but we shall endeavour in every case, as far as it can be done without a sacrifice of clearness, and of that useful brevity which consists in the absence of prolixity and episode, to render wbat we have to say as independent of other books as possible.
(7.) After all, I must distinctly caution such of my readers as may commence and terminate their astronomical studies with the present work (though of such, - at least in the latter predicament, - I trust the numher will be few), that its utmost pretension is to place them on the threshold of this particular wing of the temple of Science, or rather on an eminence exterior to it, whence they may obtain something like a general notion of its structure; or, at most, to give those who may wish to enter a ground-plan of its accesses, and put them in possession of the pass-word. Admission to its sanctuary, and to the privileges and feelings of a votary, is only to be gained by one means, — sound and sufficient knowledge of mathematics, the great instrument of all exact inquiry, without which no man can ever make such advances in this or any other of the higher departments of science as can entille him to form an independent opinion on any subject of discussion within their range. It is not without an effort that those who possess this knowledge can communicate on such subjects with those who do not, and adapt their language and their illustrations to the necessities of such an intercourse. Propositions which to the one are almost identical, are theorems of import and difficulty to the other; nor is their evidence presented in the same way to the mind of each. In teaching such propositions, under such circumstances, the appeal has to be made, not to the pure and abstract reason, but to the sense of analogy - to practice and experience: principles and modes of action have to be established not by direct argument from acknowledged axioms, but by continually recurring to the sources from which the axioms themselves have been drawn; viz. examples; that is to
say, by bringing forward and dwelling on simple and familiar instances in which the saine principles and the same or similar modes of action take place : thus erecting, as it were, in each particular case, a separate induction, and constructing at each step a little body of science to meet its exigencies. The difference is that of pioneering a road through an untraversed country and advancing at ease along a broad and beaten highway; that is to say, if we are determined to make ourselves distinctly understood, and will appeal to reason at all. As for the method of assertion, or a direct demand on the faith of the student (though in some complex cases indispensable, where illustrative explanation would defeat its own end by becoming tedious and burdensome to both parties), it is one which I shall neither willingly adopt nor would recommend to others.
(8.) On the other hand, although it is something new to abandon the road of mathematical demonstration in the treatment of subjects susceptible of it, and to teach any considerable branch of science entirely or chiefly by the way of illustration and familiar parallels, it is yet not impossible that those who are already well acquainted with our subject, and whose knowledge has been acquired by that confessedly higher practice which is incompatible with the avowed objects of the present work, may yet find their account in its perusal, — for this reason, that it is always of advantage to present any given body of knowledge to the mind in as great a variety of different lights as possible. It is a property of illustrations of this kind to strike no two minds in the same manner, or with the same force; because no two minds are stored with the same images, or have acquired their notions of them by similar habits. Accordingly, it may very well happen, that a proposition, even to one best acquainted with it, may be placed not merely in a new and uncommon, but in a more impressive and satisfactory light by such a course - some obscurity may be dissipated, some in ward misgivings cleared up, or even some links supplied which may lead to the perception of connections and deductions altogether unknown before. And the probability of this is increased when, as in the present instance, the illustrations chosen have not been studiously selected from books, but are such as have presented themselves freely to the author's mind as being most in harmony with his own views; by which, of course, he means to lay no claim to originality in all or any of them beyond what they may really possess.
(9.) Besides, there are cases in the application of mechanical principles with which the mathematical student is but too familiar, where, when the data are before him, and the numerical and geometrical relations of his problems all clear to his conception, when his forces are estimated and his lines measured, nay, when even he has followed up the application