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Of all the natural sciences there is not one which offers such sublime objects to the attention of the inquirer as does the science of astronomy. From the earliest ages the study of the stars has exercised the same fascination as it possesses at the present day. Among the most primitive peoples, the movements of the sun, the moon, and the stars commanded attention from their supposed influence on human affairs.

The practical utilities of astronomy were also obvious in primeval times. Maxims of extreme antiquity show how the avocations of the husbandman are to be guided by the movements of the heavenly bodies. The positions of the stars indicated the time to plough, and the time to sow. To the mariner who was seeking a way across the trackless ocean, the heavenly bodies offered the only reliable marks by which his path could be guided. There was, accordingly, a stimulus both from intellectual curiosity and from practical necessity to follow the movements of the stars. Thus began a search for the causes of the ever-varying phenomena which the heavens display.

Many of the earliest discoveries are indeed prehistoric. The great diurnal movement of the heavens, and the annual revolution of the sun, seem to have been known in times far more ancient than those to which any human monuments can be referred. The acuteness of the early observers enabled them to single out the more important of the wanderers which we now call planets. They saw that the star-like objects, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, with the more conspicuous Venus, constituted a class of bodies wholly distinct from the fixed stars among which their movements lay, and to which they bear such a superficial resemblance. But the penetration of the early astronomers went even further, for they recognized that Mercury also belongs to the same group, though this particular object is seen so rarely. It would seem that eclipses and other phenomena were observed at Babylon from a very remote period, while the most ancient records of celestial observations that we possess are to be found in the Chinese annals.

The study of astronomy, in the sense in which we understand the word, may be said to have commenced under the reign of the Ptolemies at Alexandria. The most famous name in the science of this period is that of Hipparchus who lived and worked at Rhodes about the year 160BC. It was his splendid investigations that first wrought the observed facts into a coherent branch of knowledge. He recognized the primary obligation which lies on the student of the heavens to compile as complete an inventory as possible of the objects which are there to be found. Hipparchus accordingly commenced by undertaking, on a small scale, a task exactly similar to that on which modern astronomers, with all available appliances of meridian circles, and photographic telescopes, are constantly engaged at the present day. He compiled a catalogue of the principal fixed stars, which is of special value to astronomers, as being the earliest work of its kind which has been handed down. He also studied the movements of the sun and the moon, and framed theories to account for the incessant changes which he saw in progress. He found a much more difficult problem in his attempt to interpret satisfactorily the complicated movements of the planets. With the view of constructing a theory which should give some coherent account of the subject, he made many observations of the places of these wandering stars. How great were the advances which Hipparchus accomplished may be appreciated if we reflect that, as a preliminary task to his more purely astronomical labours, he had to invent that branch of mathematical science by which alone the problems he proposed could be solved. It was for this purpose that he devised the indispensable method of calculation which we now know so well as trigonometry. Without the aid rendered by this beautiful art it would have been impossible for any really important advance in astronomical calculation to have been effected.

But the discovery which shows, beyond all others, that Hipparchus possessed one of the master-minds of all time was the detection of that remarkable celestial movement known as the precession of the equinoxes. The inquiry which conducted to this discovery involved a most profound investigation, especially when it is remembered that in the days of Hipparchus the means of observation of the heavenly bodies were only of the rudest description, and the available observations of earlier dates were extremely scanty. We can but look with astonishment on the genius of the man who, in spite of such difficulties, was able to detect such a phenomenon as the precession, and to exhibit its actual magnitude. I shall endeavour to explain the nature of this singular celestial movement, for it may be said to offer the first instance in the history of science in which we find that combination of accurate observation with skilful interpretation, of which, in the subsequent development of astronomy, we have so many splendid examples.

The word equinox implies the condition that the night is equal to the day. To a resident on the equator the night is no doubt equal to the day at all times in the year, but to one who lives on any other part of the earth, in either hemisphere, the night and the day are not generally equal. There is, however, one occasion in spring, and another in autumn, on which the day and the night are each twelve hours at all places on the earth. When the night and day are equal in spring, the point which the sun occupies on the heavens is termed the vernal equinox. There is similarly another point in which the sun is situated at the time of the autumnal equinox. In any investigation of the celestial movements the positions of these two equinoxes on the heavens are of primary importance, and Hipparchus, with the instinct of genius, perceived their significance, and commenced to study them. It will be understood that we can always define the position of a point on the sky with reference to the surrounding stars. No doubt we do not see the stars near the sun when the sun is shining, but they are there nevertheless. The ingenuity of Hipparchus enabled him to determine the positions of each of the two equinoxes relatively to the stars which lie in its immediate vicinity. After examination of the celestial places of these points at different periods, he was led to the conclusion that each equinox was moving relatively to the stars, though that movement was so slow that twenty five thousand years would necessarily elapse before a complete circuit of the heavens was accomplished. Hipparchus traced out this phenomenon, and established it on an impregnable basis, so that all astronomers have ever since recognised the precession of the equinoxes as one of the fundamental facts of astronomy. Not until nearly two thousand years after Hipparchus had made this splendid discovery was the explanation of its cause given by Newton.

From the days of Hipparchus down to the present hour the science of astronomy has steadily grown. One great observer after another has appeared from time to time, to reveal some new phenomenon with regard to the celestial bodies or their movements, while from time to time one commanding intellect after another has arisen to explain the true import of the facts of observations. The history of astronomy thus becomes inseparable from the history of the great men to whose labours its development is due.

In the ensuing chapters we have endeavoured to sketch the lives and the work of the great philosophers, by whose labours the science of astronomy has been created. We shall commence with Ptolemy, who, after the foundations of the science had been laid by Hipparchus, gave to astronomy the form in which it was taught throughout the Middle Ages. We shall next see the mighty revolution in our conceptions of the universe which are associated with the name of Copernicus. We then pass to those periods illumined by the genius of Galileo and Newton, and afterwards we shall trace the careers of other more recent discoverers, by whose industry and genius the boundaries of human knowledge have been so greatly extended. Our history will be brought down late enough to include some of the illustrious astronomers who laboured in the generation which has just passed away.


Amateur Telescopes

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