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A History of Science — Volume 1 by Williams

Hipparchus is a most heroic figure


The

chief studies of Hipparchus were directed, as we have seen, towards the sun and the moon, but a phenomenon that occurred in the year 134 B.C. led him for a time to give more particular attention to the fixed stars. The phenomenon in question was the sudden outburst of a new star; a phenomenon which has been repeated now and again, but which is sufficiently rare and sufficiently mysterious to have excited the unusual attention of astronomers in all generations. Modern science offers an explanation of the phenomenon, as we shall see in due course. We do not know that Hipparchus attempted to explain it, but he was led to make a chart of the heavens, probably with the idea of guiding future observers in the observation of new stars. Here again Hipparchus was not altogether an innovator, since a chart showing the brightest stars had been made by Eratosthenes; but the new charts were much elaborated.

The studies of Hipparchus led him to observe the stars chiefly with reference to the meridian rather than with reference to their rising, as had hitherto been the custom. In making these studies of the relative position of the stars, Hipparchus was led to compare his observations with those of the Babylonians, which, it was said, Alexander had caused to be transmitted to Greece. He made use also of the observations of Aristarchus and others of his Greek precursors. The result of his comparisons proved that the sphere of the fixed stars had apparently shifted

its position in reference to the plane of the sun's orbit--that is to say, the plane of the ecliptic no longer seemed to cut the sphere of the fixed stars at precisely the point where the two coincided in former centuries. The plane of the ecliptic must therefore be conceived as slowly revolving in such a way as gradually to circumnavigate the heavens. This important phenomenon is described as the precession of the equinoxes.

It is much in question whether this phenomenon was not known to the ancient Egyptian astronomers; but in any event, Hipparchus is to be credited with demonstrating the fact and making it known to the Western world. A further service was rendered theoretical astronomy by Hipparchus through his invention of the planosphere, an instrument for the representation of the mechanism of the heavens. His computations of the properties of the spheres led him also to what was virtually a discovery of the method of trigonometry, giving him, therefore, a high position in the field of mathematics. All in all, then, Hipparchus is a most heroic figure. He may well be considered the greatest star-gazer of antiquity, though he cannot, without injustice to his great precursors, be allowed the title which is sometimes given him of "father of systematic astronomy."

CTESIBIUS AND HERO: MAGICIANS OF ALEXANDRIA

Just about the time when Hipparchus was working out at Rhodes his puzzles of celestial mechanics, there was a man in Alexandria who was exercising a strangely inventive genius over mechanical problems of another sort; a man who, following the example set by Archimedes a century before, was studying the problems of matter and putting his studies to practical application through the invention of weird devices. The man's name was Ctesibius. We know scarcely more of him than that he lived in Alexandria, probably in the first half of the second century B.C. His antecedents, the place and exact time of his birth and death, are quite unknown. Neither are we quite certain as to the precise range of his studies or the exact number of his discoveries. It appears that he had a pupil named Hero, whose personality, unfortunately, is scarcely less obscure than that of his master, but who wrote a book through which the record of the master's inventions was preserved to posterity. Hero, indeed, wrote several books, though only one of them has been preserved. The ones that are lost bear the following suggestive titles: On the Construction of Slings; On the Construction of Missiles; On the Automaton; On the Method of Lifting Heavy Bodies; On the Dioptric or Spying-tube. The work that remains is called Pneumatics, and so interesting a work it is as to make us doubly regret the loss of its companion volumes. Had these other books been preserved we should doubtless have a clearer insight than is now possible into some at least of the mechanical problems that exercised the minds of the ancient philosophers. The book that remains is chiefly concerned, as its name implies, with the study of gases, or, rather, with the study of a single gas, this being, of course, the air. But it tells us also of certain studies in the dynamics of water that are most interesting, and for the historian of science most important.


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