Book: Man’s Place in the Universe
Author: Alfred Russel Wallace

Man’s Place in the Universe By Alfred Russel Wallace

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 223
Publication Date: Third Edtion, 1904

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A study of the results of scientific research in relation to the unity or plurality of worlds. Chapters include: Early Ideas As To The Universe And Its Relation To Man; Modern Ideas As To Man's Relation To The Universe; The New Astronomy; The Distribution Of The Stars; Distance Of The Stars—The Sun's Motion Through Space; The Unity And Evolution Of The Star System; Are The Stars Infinite In Number?; Our Relation To The Milky Way; The Uniformity Of Matter And Its Laws Throughout The Stellar Universe; The Essential Characters Of The Living Organism; The Physical Conditions Essential For Organic Life; The Earth In Its Relation To The Development And Maintenance Of Life; The Earth In Relation To Life: Atmospheric Conditions; The Earth Is The Only Habitable Planet In The Solar System; The Stars—Have They Planetary Systems? Are They Beneficial To Us?; and, Stability Of The Star-System: Importance Of Our Central Position: Summary And Conclusion.

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When men attained to sufficient intelligence for speculations as to their own nature and that of the earth on which they lived, they must have been profoundly impressed by the nightly pageant of the starry heavens. The intense sparkling brilliancy of Sirius and Vega, the more massive and steady luminosity of Jupiter and Venus, the strange grouping of the brighter stars into constellations to which fantastic names indicating their resemblance to various animals or terrestrial objects seemed appropriate and were soon generally adopted, together with the apparently innumerable stars of less and less brilliancy scattered broadcast over the sky, many only being visible on the clearest nights and to the acutest vision, constituted altogether a scene of marvellous and impressive splendour of which it must have seemed almost impossible to attain any real knowledge, but which afforded an endless field for the imagination of the observer.

The relation of the stars to the sun and moon in their respective motions was one of the earliest problems for the astronomer, and it was only solved by careful and continuous observation, which showed that the invisibility of the former during the day was wholly due to the blaze of light, and this is said to have been proved at an early period by the observed fact that from the bottom of very deep wells stars can be seen while the sun is shining. During total eclipses of the sun also the brighter stars become visible, and, taken in connection with the fixity of position of the pole-star, and the course of those circumpolar stars which never set in the latitudes of Greece, Egypt, and Chaldea, it soon became possible to frame a simple hypothesis which supposed the earth to be suspended in space, while at an unknown distance from it a crystal sphere revolved upon an axis indicated by the pole-star, and carried with it the whole host of heavenly bodies. This was the theory of Anaximander (540 B.C.), and it served as the starting-point for the more complex theory which continued to be held in various forms and with endless modifications down to the end of the sixteenth century.

It is believed that the early Greeks obtained some knowledge of astronomy from the Chaldeans, who appear to have been the first systematic observers of the heavenly bodies by means of instruments, and who are said to have discovered the cycle of eighteen years and ten days after which the sun and moon return to the same relative positions as seen from the earth. The Egyptians perhaps derived their knowledge from the same source, but there is no proof that they were great observers, and the accurate orientation, proportions, and angles of the Great Pyramid and its inner passages may perhaps indicate a Chaldean architect.

The very obvious dependence of the whole life of the earth upon the sun, as a giver of heat and light, sufficiently explains the origin of the belief that the latter was a mere appanage of the former; and as the moon also illuminates the night, while the stars as a whole also give a very perceptible amount of light, especially in the dry climate and clear atmosphere of the East, and when compared with the pitchy darkness of cloudy nights when the moon is below the horizon, it seemed clear that the whole of these grand luminaries—sun, moon, stars, and planets—were but parts of the terrestrial system, and existed solely for the benefit of its inhabitants.

Empedocles (444 B.C.) is said to have been the first who separated the planets from the fixed stars, by observing their very peculiar motions, while Pythagoras and his followers determined correctly the order of their succession from Mercury to Saturn. No attempt was made to explain these motions till a century later, when Eudoxus of Cnidos, a contemporary of Plato and of Aristotle, resided for some time in Egypt, where he became a skilful astronomer. He was the first who systematically worked out and explained the various motions of the heavenly bodies on the theory of circular and uniform motion round the earth as a centre, by means of a series of concentric spheres, each revolving at a different rate and on a different axis, but so united that all shared in the motion round the polar axis. The moon, for example, was supposed to be carried by three spheres, the first revolved parallel to the equator and accounted for the diurnal motion—the rising and setting—of the moon; another moved parallel to the ecliptic and explained the monthly changes of the moon; while the third revolved at the same rate but more obliquely, and explained the inclination of the moon's orbit to that of the earth. In the same way each of the five planets had four spheres, two moving like the first two of the moon, another one also moving in the ecliptic was required to explain the retrograde motion of the planets, while a fourth oblique to the ecliptic was needed to explain the diverging motions due to the different obliquity of the orbit of each planet to that of the earth. This was the celebrated Ptolemaic system in the simplest form needed to account for the more obvious motions of the heavenly bodies. But in the course of ages the Greek and Arabian astronomical observers discovered small divergences due to the various degrees of excentricity of the orbits of the moon and planets and their consequent varying rates of motion; and to explain these other spheres were added, together with smaller circles sometimes revolving excentrically, so that at length about sixty of these spheres, epicycles and excentrics were required to account for the various motions observed with the rude instruments, and the rates of motion determined by the very imperfect time-measurers of those early ages. And although a few great philosophers had at different times rejected this cumbrous system and had endeavoured to promulgate more correct ideas, their views had no influence on public opinion even among astronomers and mathematicians, and the Ptolemaic system held full sway down to the time of Copernicus, and was not finally given up till Kepler's Laws and Galileo's Dialogues compelled the adoption of simpler and more intelligible theories.