History of Astronomy From The Roman Empire To The Present, part 20
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Travelling to Mars
New Twist on Conspiracies
Conclusion of this series
“The Ruddy Planet”
There much ado about the planet MARS.
It had long been supposed that this planet was very much like the earth, but inhabited by a race of giants, probably about fifteen feet in height. Some straight lines which had been observed on the planet were thought to be irrigation canals made by men; and one could imagine fields of cabbages, cauliflowers, and spring onions growing along the banks; indeed one could imagine anything. And so, when wireless operators in various parts of the world began to hear strange noises which they could not account for (about the time of Pons-Winnecke) the rumour spread abroad that they might be wireless signals from Mars.
It was not suggested that the Martians might be sending these signals in reply to those we had thought of flashing to them in 1910, but it was supposed that the people on Mars might have been hearing things! and thought our wireless operators were tic-tacking to them. So the possibility of sending messages to the ruddy planet by wireless telegraphy came to be discussed almost as much as the comet.
Astronomers said that although the earth is about seventeen million years old. Mars is very much older; therefore it was presumed that the Martians would probably be more advanced in knowledge than we are, and might have been using wireless for goodness knows how long, and had now discovered that we had a Marconi System.
The tapping and cracklings that were heard sometimes at night were rather uncanny, and could not be understood, but this was not because the Martian’s language was different than ours ; it was because the vibrations that affected the wireless coherer were really caused by the spotting of the ice around the pole!
Spring was advancing in the northern hemisphere, and the ice-fields were melting and breaking before the warmth of the advancing sun, so that the colliding and shifting of huge bergs disturbed the normal distribution of the magnetic currents from the north Pole.
Professor Pickering might have made this discovery if he had had time to think of it; but at that period he was busy studying the weather of Mars. I don’t think he knows any more about the weather on earth than the Metrological Office, but I recollect that he told us it was snowing on that little old planet; and that was a very remarkable thing, if it was true— indeed it was remarkable whether it was true or not. Time was when it was said that water ran uphill instead of down on Mars, and in the year a .d . 1910, all sorts of schemes were proposed for signalling to the planet by means of bonfires and search-lights at night, or by using mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays by day. It was all very interesting in its way, but very nonsensical— because the sun is always shining on
that side of Mars which is presented to us, whether it is day or night on our side of the earth; and so it would be impossible for the Martians — if there were any— to see our bonfires or our mirrors, because with them it must always be daylight, and they could not even see the earth itself! . . . This is because Mars goes round the sun on a greater orbit than the earth, while we travel on the inner circle, according to the Heliocentric Theory, (as shown in diagram 30).
It is surprising that astronomers had not thought of this, but they will find that it is so, if they will only study their own astronomy.
But the time has come when all the romantic things that have been said about Mars must take their proper place among fairy tales, for if the distance to that planet is measured by two simultaneous observations, as I have advised for the measurement of the sun, it will be found to be never more than 15,000 miles from the observer, and too small altogether to be inhabited; too small even for Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday.
“ N.G.C. 7006”
Before bringing this history of the evolution of modern astronomy to a close I have yet to mention the constellation of Hercules, which Dr. Shapley at Mount Vernon recently estimated to be about 36,000 light-years distant, or 200 times further off than Betelgeuse; while we are now told that a star known as “N.G.C. 7006 ” (which is one of those myriad twinkling little things in the Milky Way) has been found to be about 200,000 light-years distant; and this surely is the limit of even an astronomer’s imagination; for it means that it is so far off that it would take an electric current— travelling at the rate of 186,000 miles every second— two hundred thousand years to go from the earth to the Milky Way!
In conclusion I quote the following from an article which was published in London as recently as April 15th, 1922
“…By other methods most bodies in the heavens have been measured, and even weighed, and the results obtained stagger imagination. One of such methods consists in watching an object through the spectroscope and making calculations from the shifting of the lines in the spectrum. In this way the mighty flames which leap from the surface of the sun have been measured. Some years ago one flame was observed to shoot out with a velocity of at least 50 miles a second, and to attain a height of 350,000 miles!…The stars in general cannot be measured; but the thing has been done in some cases, notably by Bessel, who, after three years’ observations of 61 Cygni, announced its approximate distance from the earth as not more than sixty billion miles! Yet this is one of our nearest neighbours among the distant suns. It is so close to us— comparatively— that we have learned a lot about it since Bessel made his calculations.
Scientists have shown that a difference of a mere twenty billion miles in distance from the earth is negligible, and that, though it is tearing through space at thirty miles a second, it would require about forty-thousand years to make a journey equal to its distance from the sun.”
It is difficult to tell whether the journal was joking or not; it appears to be so, but, nevertheless, the statements are those given out in all seriousness in the name of Astronomy. They are the things which are being taught in colleges and schools as scientific knowledge in this month of May, 1922; for which astronomers, the Educational Authorities, and the indifference of parents are responsible.
However, it is to be observed that— with the single exception of Alpha-Centauri— since Bessel estimated the distance of the first star to be sixty-three billion miles away, stellar distances have grown greater and greater, until at last we have this “N.G.C. 7006,” said to be twenty thousand times further than 61 Cygni! or “one million two hundred thousand billions” of miles from this earth of ours.
And this preposterous figure is the outward and visible sign of the nature of the science that has been evolved in twenty centuries through the failure of astronomers to perceive the error of Hipparchus.
This concludes our series on “History of Astronomy From The Roman Empire To The Present”