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ASTRONOMY (from Gr. &arpov, a star, a...

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Originally appearing in Volume V02, Page 802 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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ASTRONOMY (from Gr. &arpov, a star, and v ,usiv, to classify or arrange). The subject matter of astronomical science, considered in its widest range, comprehends all the matter of the universe which lies outside the limit of the earth's atmosphere. The seeming anomaly of classifying as a single branch of scienceall that we know in a field so wide, while subdividing our know-ledge of things on our own planet into an indefinite number of separate sciences, finds its explanation in the impossibility of subjecting the matter of the heavens to that experimental scrutiny which yields such rich results when applied to matter which we can handle at will. Astronomy is of necessity a science of observation in the pursuit of which experiment can directly play no part. It is the most ancient of the sciences because, before the era of experiment, it was the branch of knowledge which could be most easily systematized, while the relations of its phenomena to day and night, times and seasons, made some knowledge of the subject a necessity of social life. In recent times it is among the more progressive of the sciences, because the new and improved methods of research now at command have found in its cultivation a field of practically unlimited extent, in which the lines of research may ultimately lead to a comprehension of the universe impossible of attainment before our time. The field we have defined is divisible into at least two parts, that of Astronomy proper, or " Astrometry," which treats of the motions, mutual relations and dimensions of the heavenly bodies; and that of Astrophysics (q.v.), which treats of their physical constitution. While it is true that the instruments and methods of research in these two branches are quite different in their details, there is so much in common in the fundamental principles which underlie their application, that it is unprofitable to consider them as completely distinct sciences. Speaking in the most comprehensive way, and making an exception of the ethereal medium (see AETITER), which, being capable of experimental study, is not included in the subject of astronomy, we may say that the great masses of matter which make up the universe are of two kinds:—(1) incandescent bodies, made visible to us by their own light; (2) dark bodies, revolving round them or round each other. These dark bodies are known to us in two ways: (a) by becoming visible through reflecting the light from incandescent bodies in their neighbourhood, (b) by their attraction upon such bodies. The incandescent bodies are of two classes: stars and nebulae. Among the stars our sun is to be included, as it has no properties which distinguish it from the great mass of stars except our proximity to it. The stars are supposed to be generally spherical, like the sun, in form, and to have fairly well-defined boundaries; while the nebulae are generally irregular in outline and have no well-defined limits. It is, however, probable that the one class runs into the other by imperceptible gradations. In the relation of the universe to us there is yet another separation of its bodies into two classes, one comprising the solar system, the other the remainder of the universe. The former consists of the- sun and the bodies which move round it. Considered as a part of the universe, our solar system is insignificant in extent, though, for obvious reasons, great in practical importance to us, and in the facility with which we may gain knowledge relating to it. Referring to special articles, SOLAR SYSTEM, STAR, SUN, MOON, &c. for a description of - the various parts of the universe, we confine ourselves, at present, to setting forth a few of the most general modern conceptions of the universe. As to extent, it may be said, in a general way, that while no definite limits can be set to the possible extent of the universe, or the distance of its farthest bodies, it seems probable, for reasons which will be given under STAR, that the system to which the stars that we see belong, is of finite extent. As the incandescent bodies of the universe are visible by their own light, the problem of ascertaining their existence and position is mainly one of seeing, and our facilities for attacking it have constantly increased with the improvement of our optical appliances. But such is not the 'case with the dark bodies. Such a body can be made known to us only when in the neighbourhood of an incandescent body; and even then, unless its mass or its dimensions are considerable, it will evade all the scrutiny of our science. The question of the possible number and magnitude of such bodies is therefore one that does not admit of accurate investigation. We can do no more than balance vague estimates of probability. What we do know is that these bodies vary widely in size. Those known to be revolving round certain of the stars are far larger in proportion to their central bodies than our planets are in respect to the sun; for were it otherwise we should never be able to detect their existence. At the other extreme we know that innumerable swarms of minute bodies, probably little more than particles, move round the sun in orbits. of every degree of eccentricity, making themselves known to us only in the exceptional cases when they strike the earth's atmosphere. They then appear to us as " shooting stars " (see METEOR). A general idea of the relation of the solar system to the universe may be gained by reflecting that the average distance between any two neighbouring stars is several thousand times the extent of the solar system. Between the orbit of Neptune and the nearest star known to us is an immense void in which no bodies are yet known to exist, except comets. But although these sometimes wander to distances considerably beyond the orbit of Neptune, it is probable that the extent of the void which separates our system from the nearest star is hundreds of times the distance of the farthest point to which a comet ever recedes. We may conclude this brief characterization of astronomy with a statement and classification of the principal lines on which astronomical researches are now pursued. The most comprehensive problem before the investigator is that of the constitution of the universe. It is known that, while infinite diversity is found among the bodies of the universe, there are also common characteristics throughout its whole extent. In a certain sense we may say that the universe now presents itself to the thinking astronomer, not as a heterogeneous collection of bodies, but as a unified whole. The number of stars is so vast that statistical methods can be applied to many of the characters which they exhibit—their spectra, their apparent and absolute luminosity, and their arrangement in space. Thus has arisen in teeent times what we may regard as a third branch of astronomical science, known as Stellar Statistics. The development of this branch has infused life and interest into what might a few years ago have been regarded as the most lifeless mass of figures possible, expressing merely the positions and motions of innumerable individual stars, as determined by generations of astronomical observers. The development of this new branch requires great additions to this mass, the product of perhaps centuries of work on the older lines of the science. To the statistician of the stars, catalogues of spectra, magnitude, position and proper motions are of the same importance that census tables are to the student of humanity. The measurement of the speed with which the individual stars are moving towards or from our system is a work of such magnitude that what has yet been done is scarcely more than a beginning. The discovery by improved optical means, and especially by photography, of new bodies of our system so small that they evaded all scrutiny in former times, is still going on, but does not at present promise any important generalization, unless we regard as such the conclusion that our solar system is a more complex organism than was formerly supposed. One characteristic of astronomy which tends to make its progress slow and continuous arises out of the general fact that, except in the case of motions to or from us, which can be deter-mined by a single observation with the spectroscope, the motion of a heavenly body can be determined only by comparing its position at two different epochs. The interval required between these two epochs depends upon the speed of the motion. In the ease of the greater number of the fixed stars this is so slow that centuries may have to elapse before motion can be deduced. Even in the case of the planets, the variations in the form and position of the orbits are so slow that long periods of observation are required for their correct determination. The process of development is also made slow and difficult by the great amount of labour involved in deriving the results of astronomical observations. When an astronomer has made an observation, it still has to be " reduced," and this commonly requires more labour than that involved in making it. But II. 26even this labour may be small compared with that of the theoretical astronomer, who, in the future, is to use the result as the raw material of his work. The computations required in such work are of extreme complexity, and the labour required is still further increased by the, fact that cases are rather exceptional in which the results reached by one generation will not have to be revised and reconstructed by another; processes which may involve the repetition of the entire work. We may, in fact, regard the fabric of astronomical science as a building in the construction of which no stone can be added without a readjustment of some of the stones on which it has to rest. Thus it comes about that the observer, the computer, and the mathematician have in astronomical science a practically unlimited field for the exercise of their powers. In treating so comprehensive a subject we may naturally distinguish between what we know of the universe and the methods and processes by which that knowledge is acquired. The former may be termed general, and the latter practical, astronomy. When we descend more minutely into details we find these two branches of the subject to be connected by certain principles, the application of which relates to both subjects. Considering as general or descriptive astronomy a description of the universe as we now understand it, the other branches of the subject generally recognized are as follows: Geometrical or Spherical Astronomy, by the principles of which the positions and the motions of the-heavenly bodies are defined. Theoretical Astronomy,which may be considered as an extension of geometrical astronomy and includes the determination of the positions and motions of the heavenly bodies. by combining mathematical theory with observation. Modern theoretical astronomy, taken in the most limited sense, is based upon Celestial Mechanics, the science by which, using purely deductive mechanical methods, the laws of motion of the heavenly bodies are derived by deductive methods from their mutual gravitation towards each other. Practical Astronomy, which comprises a description of the instruments used in astronomical observation, and of the principles and methods underlying their application. Spherical at Geometrical Astronomy. In astronomy, . as in analytical geometry, the position of a point is defined by stating its distance and its direction from a point of• reference taken as known. The numerical quantities by which the 'distance and direction, and therefore the position, are defined, are termed co-ordinates of the point. The latter are measured or defined with regard to a fixed system of lines and planes, which form the basis of the system. The following are the fundamental concepts of such a system. (a) An origin or point of reference. The points most generally taken for this purpose in astronomical practice are the following: (0 The position of a point of observation on the earth's surface. We conceive its position: to be that occupied by an observer. The position of a heavenly body is then defined by its direction and distance from the supposed observer. (2) The centre of the earth. This point, though it can never be occupied by an observer, is used because the positions of the heavenly bodies in relation to it are more readily computed than they can be from a point on the earth's surface. (3) The 'centre. of the sun. (4) In addition to these three most usual points, we may, of course, take the centre of a planet or that of a star in order to define the position of bodies in their respective neighbourhoods. Co-ordinates referred to a point of observation as the origin are termed " apparent," those referred to the centre of the earth are " geocentric," those referred to the centre of the sun, " heliocentric." (b) ' The next concept of the system is a fundamental plane, regarded as fixed, passing through the origin. In connexion with it is an axis perpendicular to it, also passing through the origin. We may consider the axis and the plane as a single concept, the axis determining the plane, or the plane the axis. The fundamental concepts of this class most in use are: 0) When a point on the earth's surface is taken as the origin, the fundamental axis may be the direction of, gravity at that point. This direction defines the vertical line. The fundamental plane which it determines is horizontal and is termed the plane of the horizon. Such a plane is realized in the surface of a liquid, a basin of quicksilver, for example. u sot (2) When the centre of the earth is taken as origin, the most natural fundamental axis is that of the earth's rotation. This axis cuts the earth's surface at the North and South Poles. The fundamental plane perpendicular to it is the plane of the equator. This plane intersects the earth's surface in the terrestrial equator. Co-ordinates referred to this system are termed equatorial. A system of equatorial co-ordinates may also be used when the origin is on the earth's surface. The fundamental axis, instead of being the earth's axis itself, is then a line parallel to it, and the fundamental plane is the plane passing through the point, and parallel to the plane of the equator. (3) In the system of heliocentric co-ordinates, the plane in which the earth moves round the sun, which is the plane of the ecliptic, is taken as the fundamental one. The axis of the ecliptic is a line perpendicular to this plane. (c) The third concept necessary to complete the system is a fixed line passing through the origin, and lying in the fundamental plane. This line defines an initial direction from which other directions are mounted. The geometrical concepts just defined are shown in fig. 1. Here 0 is the origin, whatever point it may be; OZ is the fundamental axis passing through it. In order to represent in the figure the Z position of the f u nda.mental plate, we conceive a circle to be drawn round 0, lying in that plane. This circle, projected in perspective as an . ellipse, is shown in N` the figure. OX is O the fixed initial ` i line by which .'~ directions are to be defined. Now let P be any point in space, say the centre of a heavenly body. Conceive a perpendicular PQ to be dropped from this point on the fundamental plane, meeting the latter in the point Q; PQ will then be parallel to OZ. The co-ordinates of P will then be the following three gitantities: (I) The length of the line OP, or the distance of the body from the on in, which distance is called the radius vector of the body. 2) The angle XOQ which the projection of the radius vector upon the fundamental plane makes with the initial line OX. This angle is called the Longitude, Right Ascension or Azimuth of the body, in the various systems of co-ordinates. We may term it in a general way the longitudinal co-ordinate. (3) The angle QOP, which the radius vector makes with the fundamental plane. This we may call the latitudinal co-ordinate. Instead of it is frequently used the complementary angle ZOP, known as the polar distance of the body. Since ZOQ is a right angle, it follows that the sum of the polar distance and the latitudinal co-ordinates is always 90°. Either may be used for astronomical purposes. It is readily seen that the position of a heavenly body is completely defined when these co-ordinates are given. One of the systems of co-ordinates is familiar to every one, and may be used as a general illustration of the method. It is our system of defining the position of a point on the earth's surface by its latitude and longitude. Regarding 0 (fig. I) as the centre of the earth, and P as a point on the earth's surface, a city for example, it will be seen that OZ being the earth's axis, the circle MN will be the equator. The initial line OX then passes through the foot of the perpendicular dropped from Greenwich upon the plane of the equator, and meets the surface at N. The angle QOP is the latitude of the place and the angle NOQ its longitude. The longitudes and latitudes thus defined are geocentric, and the latitude is slightly different from that, in ordinary use for geographic purposes. The difference arises from the oblateness of the earth, and need not be considered here. The conception of the co-ordinates we have defined is facilitated by introducing that of the celestial sphere. This conception, is embodied in our idea of the vault of heaven, or of the sky. Taking as origin the position of an observer, the direction of a heavenly body is defined by the point in which he sees it in the sky; that is to say, on the celestial sphere. Imagining, as we may well do, that the radius of this sphere is infinite—then every direction, whatever the origin, may be represented by a point on its surface. Take for example the vertical line which is embodied in the direction of the plumb line. This line, extended upwards, meets the celestial sphere in the zenith. The earth's axis, continued indefinitely upwards, meets the sphere in a point called the Celestial Pole. This point in our middle latitudes is between the zenith and the north horizon, near a certain star of the second magnitude familiarly known as the Pole Star. As the earth revolves from west to east the celestial sphere appears to us to revolve in the opposite direction, turning on the line joining the Celestial Poles as on a pivot. As we conceive of the sky, it does not consist of an entire sphere[SPHERICAL but only as a hemisphere bounded by the horizon. But we have no difficulty in extending the conception below the horizon, so that the earth with everything upon it is in the centre of a complete sphere. The two parts of this sphere are the visible hemisphere, which is above the horizon, and the invisible, which is below it. Then the plumb line not only defines the zenith as already shown, but in a downward direction it defines the nadir, which is the point of the sphere directly below our feet. On the side of this sphere opposite to the North Celestial is the South Pole, invisible in the Northern Terrestrial Hemisphere but visible in the Southern one. The relation of geocentric to apparent co-ordinates depends upon the latitude of the observer. The changes which the aspect of the heaven undergoes, as we travel North and South, are so well known that they need not be described in detail here; but a general statement of them will give a luminous idea of the geometrical co-ordinates we have described. Imagine an observer starting from the North Pole to travel towards the equator, carrying his zenith with him. When at the pole his zenith coincides with the celestial pole, and as the earth revolves on its' axis, the heavenly bodies perform their apparent diurnal revolutions in horizontal circles round the zenith. As he travels South, his zenith moves along the celestial sphere, and the circles of diurnal rotation become oblique to the horizon. The obliquity continually increases until the observer reaches the equator. His zenith is then in the equator and the celestial poles are in the North and South horizon respectively. The circles in which the heavenly bodies appear to revolve are then vertical. Continuing his journey towards the south, the north celestial pole sinks below the horizon; the south celestial pole rises above it; or to speak more exactly, the zenith of the observer approaches that pole. The circles of diurnal revolution again become oblique. Finally, at the south pole the circles of diurnal revolution are again apparently horizontal, but are described in a direction apparently (but not really) the reverse of that near the north pole. The reader who will trace out these successive concepts and study the results of his changing positions will readily acquire the notions which it is our subject to define. We have next to point out the relation of the co-ordinates we have described to the annual motion of the earth around the sun. In consequence of this motion the sun appears to us to describe annually a great circle, called the ecliptic, round the celestial sphere, among the stars, with a nearly uniform motion, of somewhat less than I ° in a day. Were the stars visible in the daytime in the immediate neighbourhood of the sun, this motion could be traced from day to day. The ecliptic intersects the celestial equator at two opposite points, the equinoxes, at an angle of 23° 27'. The vernal equinox is taken as the initial point on the sphere from which co-ordinates are measured in the equatorial and ecliptic systems. Referring to fig. I, the initial line OX is defined as directed toward the vernal equinox, at which point it intersects the celestial sphere. The following is an enumeration of the co-ordinates which we have described in the three systems:
End of Article: ASTRONOMY (from Gr. &arpov, a star, and v ,usiv, to classify or arrange)
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