Gravitation - Encyclopedia

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GRAVITATION (from Lat. gravis, heavy), in physical science, that mutual action between masses of matter by virtue of which every such mass tends toward every other with a force varying directly as the product of the masses and inversely as the square of their distances apart. Although the law was first clearly and rigorously formulated by Sir Isaac Newton, the fact of the action indicated by it was more or less clearly seen by others. Even Ptolemy had a vague conception of a force tending toward the centre of the earth which not only kept bodies upon its surface, but in some way upheld the order of the universe. John Kepler inferred that the planets move in their orbits under some influence or force exerted by the sun; but the laws of motion were not then sufficiently developed, nor were Kepler's ideas of force sufficiently clear, to admit of a precise statement of the nature of the force. C. Huygens and R. Hooke, contemporaries of Newton, saw that Kepler's third law implied a force tending toward the sun which, acting on the several planets, varied inversely as the square of the distance. But two requirements necessary to generalize the theory were still wanting. One was to show that the law of the inverse square not only represented Kepler's third law, but his first two laws also. The other was to show that the gravitation of the earth, following one and the same law with that of the sun, extended to the moon. Newton's researches showed that the attraction of the earth on the moon was the same as that for bodies at the earth's surface, only reduced in the inverse square of the moon's distance from the earth's centre. He also showed that the total gravitation of the earth, assumed as spherical, on external bodies, would be the same as if the earth's mass were concentrated in the centre. This led at once to the statement of the law in its most general form.

The law of gravitation is unique among the laws of nature, not only in its wide generality, taking the whole universe in its scope, but in the fact that, so far as yet known, it is absolutely unmodified by any condition or cause whatever. All other forms of action between masses of matter, vary with circumstances. The mutual action of electrified bodies, for example, is affected by their relative or absolute motion. But no conditions to which matter has ever been subjected, or under which it has ever been observed, have been found to influence its gravitation in the slightest degree. We might conceive the rapid motions of the heavenly bodies to result in some change either in the direction or amount of their gravitation towards each other at each moment; but such is not the case, even in the most rapidly moving bodies of the solar system. The question has also been raised whether the action of gravitation is absolutely instantaneous. If not, the action would not be exactly in the line adjoining the two bodies at the instant, but would be affected by the motion of the line joining them during the time required by the force to pass from one body to the other. The result of this would be seen in the motions of the planets around the sun; but the most refined observations show no such effect. It is also conceivable that bodies might gravitate differently at different temperatures. But the most careful researches have failed to show any apparent modification produced in this way except what might be attributed to the surrounding conditions. The most recent and exhaustive experiment was that of J. H. Poynting and P. Phillips (Proc. Roy. Soc., 76A, p. 445). The result was that the change, if any, was less than - 1 1 ? of the force for one degree change of temperature, a result too minute to be established by any measures.

Another cause which might be supposed to modify the action of gravitation between two bodies would be the interposition of masses of matter between them, a cause which materially modifies the action of electrified bodies. The question whether this cause modifies gravitation admits of an easy test from observation. If it did, then a portion of the earth's mass or of that of any other planet turned away from the sun would not be subjected to the same action of the sun as if directly exposed to that action. Great masses, as those of the great planets, would not be attracted with a force proportional to the mass because of the hindrance or other effect of the interposed portions. But not the slightest modification due to this cause is shown. The general conclusion from everything we see is that a mass of matter in Australia attracts a mass in London precisely as it would if the earth were not interposed between the two masses.

We must therefore regard the law in question as the broadest and most fundamental one which nature makes known to us. It is not yet experimentally proved that variation as the inverse square is absolutely true at all distances. Astronomical observations extend over too brief a period of time to show any attraction between different stars except those in each other's neighbourhood. But this proves nothing because, in the case of distances so great, centuries or even thousands of years of accurate observation will be required to show any action. On the other hand the enigmatical motion of the perihelion of Mercury has not yet found any plausible explanation except on the hypothesis that the gravitation of the sun diminishes at a rate slightly greater than that of the inverse square - the most simple modification being to suppose that instead of the exponent of the distance being exactly - 2, it is - 2.000 000 161 2. The argument is extremely simple in form. It is certain that, in the general average, year after year, the force with which Mercury is drawn toward the sun does vary from the exact inverse square of its distance from the sun. The most plausible explanation of this is that one or more masses of matter move around the sun, whose action, whether they are inside or outside the orbit of Mercury, would produce the required modification in the force. From an investigation of all the observations upon Mercury and the other three interior planets, Simon Newcomb found it almost out of the question that any such mass of matter could exist without changing either the figure of the sun itself or the motion of the planes of the orbits of either Mercury or Venus. The qualification " almost " is necessary because so complex a system of actions comes into play, and accurate observations have extended through so short a period, that the proof cannot be regarded as absolute. But the fact that careful and repeated search for a mass of matter sufficient to produce the desired effect has been in vain, affords additional evidence of its non-existence. The most obvious test of the reality of the required modifications would be afforded by two other bodies, the motions of whose pericentres should be similarly affected. These are Mars and the moon. Newcomb found an excess of motions in the perihelion of Mars amounting to about 5" per century. But the combination of observations and theory on which this is based is not sufficient fully to establish so slight a motion. In the case of the motion of the moon around the earth, assuming the gravitation of the latter to be subject to the modification in question, the annual motion of the moon's perigee should be greater by I5" than the theoretical motion. E. W. Brown is the first investigator to determine the theoretical motions with this degree of precision; and he finds that there is no such divergence between the actual and the computed motion. There is therefore as yet no ground for regarding any deviation from the law of inverse square as more than a possibility. (S. N.)

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