It has been rightly also remarked, that, if the great planets, Jupiter and Saturn, had moved in lower spheres, their influences

would have had much more effect as to dis

turbing the planetary motions, than they

now have. While they revolve at so great.

distances from the rest, they act almost equally on the Sun and on the inferior planets; which has nearly the same consequence as not acting at all upon either.

If it be said, that the planets might have been sent round the Sun in exact circles, in which case, no change of distance from the centre taking place, the law of variation of the attracting power, would have never come in question, one law would have served as well as another; an answer to the scheme may be drawn from the consideration of these same perturbing forces. The system retaining in other respects its present constitution, though the planets had been at first sent round in exact circular orbits, they could not have kept them : and if the law of attraction had not been what it is, or, at least, if the prevailing law had transgressed the limits above assigned, every evagation would have been fatal: the planet once drawn, as drawn it necessarily must have been, out of its course, would have wandered in endless error. (*) V. What we have seen in the law of the centripetal force, viz. a choice guided by views of utility, and a choice of one law out of thousands which might equally have taken place, we see no less in the figures of the planetary orbits. It was not enough to fix the law of the centripetal force, though by the wisest choice; for, even under that law, it was still competent to the planets to have moved in paths possessing so great a degree of eccentricity, as, in the course of every revolution, to be brought very near to the Sun, and carried away to immense distances from him. The comets actually move in orbits of this sort: and, had the planets done so, instead of going round in orbits nearly circular, the change from one extremity of temperature to another must, in ours at least, have destroyed every animal and plant upon its surface. Now, the distance from the centre at which a planet sets off, and the absolute force of attraction at that distance, being fixed, the figure of his orbit, its being a circle, or nearer to, or further off from a circle, viz. a rounder or a longer oval, depends upon two things, the velocity with which, and the direction in which, the planet is projected.


And these, in order to produce a right result, must be both brought within certain narrow limits. One, and only one, velocity, united with one, and only one, direction, will produce a perfect circle. And the velocity must be near to this velocity, and the direction also near to this direction, to produce orbits, such as the planetary orbits are, nearly circular; that is, ellipses with small eccentricities.

The velocity and the direction must both be right. If the velocity be wrong, no direction

will cure the error; if the direction be in any considerable degree oblique, no velocity will produce the orbit required. Take for example the attraction of gravity at the surface of the earth. The force of that attraction being what it is, out of all the degrees of velocity, swift and slow, with which a ball might be shot off, none would answer the purpose of which we are speaking, but what was nearly that of five miles in a second. If it were less than that, the body would not get round at all, but would come to the ground: if it were in any considerable degree more than that, the body would take one of those eccentric courses, those long ellipses, of which we have

noticed the inconveniency. If the velocity.

reached the rate of seven miles in a second,

[ocr errors]

or went beyond that, the ball would fly off from the earth, and never be heard of more.

In like manner with respect to the direction,

out of the innumerable angles in which the ball might be sent off (I mean angles formed with a line drawn to the centre), none would serve but what was nearly a right one; out of the various directions in which the cannon might be pointed, upwards and downwards, every one would fail, but what was exactly or nearly horizontal. The same thing holds true of the planets: of our own amongst the rest. We are entitled therefore to ask, and to urge the question, Why did the projectile velocity and projectile direction of the earth happen to be nearly those which would retain it in a circular form * Why not one of the infinite number of velocities, one of the infinite number of directions, which would have made it approach much nearer to, or recede much further from, the sun ? The planets going round, all in the same direction, and all nearly in the same plane, afforded to Buffon a ground for asserting, that

they had all been shivered from the sun by

the same stroke of a comet, and by that stroke projected into their present orbits. Now, beside that this is to attribute to chance the fortunate concurrence of velocity and di

rection which we have been here noticing, the hypothesis, as I apprehend, is inconsistent with the physical laws by which the heavenly motions are governed. If the planets were struck off from the surface of the sun, they

would return to the surface of the sun again.

Nor will this difficulty be got rid of, by supposing that the same violent blow which shattered the sun's surface, and separated large fragments from it, pushed the sun himself out of his place: for, the consequence of this would be, that the sun and system of shattered fragments, would have a progressive motion, which, indeed, may possibly be the case with our system ; but then each fragment would, in every revolution, return to the surface of the sun again. The hypothesis is also contradicted by the vast difference which subsists between the diameters of the planetary orbits. The distance of Saturn from the sun (to say nothing of the Georgium Sidus) is nearly five-and-twenty times that of Mercury; a disparity, which it seems im- possible to reconcile with Buffon's scheme. Bodies starting from the same place, with whatever difference of direction or velocity they set off, could not have been found at these different distances from the centre, still retaining their nearly circular orbits. They

« VorigeDoorgaan »