On the Magnet, by William Gilbert

Chap. iii.

On the magnetick diurnal revolution of the Earth's globe, as a probable assertion against the time-honoured opinion of a Primum Mobile.

A mong the ancients Heraclides of Pontus and Ecphantus, afterwards the Pythagoreans, as Nicetas of Syracuse and Aristarchus of Samos, and some others (as it seems), used to think that the earth moves, and that the stars set by the interposition of the earth and rose by her retirement. In fact they set the earth moving and make her revolve around her axis from west to east, like a wheel turning on its axle. Philolaus the Pythagorean242 would have the earth to be one of the stars, and believed that it turned in an oblique circle around fire, just as the sun and moon have their own courses. He was a distinguished mathematician, and a most able investigator of nature. But after Philosophy became a subject treated of by very many and was popularized, theories adapted to the vulgar intelligence or based on sophistical subtility occupied the minds of most men, and prevailed like a torrent, the multitude consenting. Thereupon many valuable discoveries of the ancients were rejected, and were dismissed to perish in banishment; or at least by not being further cultivated and developed became obsolete. So that Copernicus243 (among later discoverers, a man most deserving of literary honour) is the first who attempted to illustrate the φαινόμενα of moving bodies by new hypotheses: and these demonstrations of reasons others either follow or observe in order that they may more surely discover the phænomenal harmony of the movements; being men of the highest attainments in every kind of learning. Thus supposed and imaginary orbs of Ptolemy and others for finding the times and periods of the motions are not necessarily to be admitted to the physical inquiries of philosophers. It is then an ancient opinion and one that has come down from old times, but is now augmented by important considerations that the whole earth rotates with a daily revolution in the space of 24 hours. Well then, since we see the Sun and Moon and other planets and the glory of all the stars approach and retire within the space of one natural day, either the Earth herself must needs be set in motion with a diurnal movement from West to East, or the whole heaven and the rest of nature from East to West. But, in the first place, it is not likely that the highest heaven and all those visible splendours of the fixed stars are impelled along that most rapid and useless course. Besides, who is the Master who has ever made out that the stars which we call fixed are in one and the same sphere, or has established by reasoning that there are any real and, as it were, adamantine sphæres? No one has ever proved this as a fact; nor is there a doubt but that just as the planets are at unequal distances from the earth, 244so are those vast and multitudinous lights separated from the Earth by varying and very remote altitudes; they are not set in any sphærick frame or firmament (as is feigned), nor in any vaulted body: accordingly the intervals of some are from their unfathomable distance matter of opinion rather than of verification; others do much exceed them and are very far remote, and these being located in the heaven at varying distances, either in the thinnest æther or in that most subtile quintessence, or in the void: how are they to remain in their position during such a mighty swirl of the vast orbe of such uncertain substance. There have been observed by astronomers 1022 stars; besides these, numberless others are visible, some indeed faint to our senses, in the case of others our sense is dim and they are hardly perceived and only by exceptionally keen eyes, and there is no one gifted with excellent sight who does not when the Moon is dark and the air at its rarest, discern numbers and numbers dim and wavering with minute lights on account of the great distance: hence it is credible both that these are many and that they are never all included in any range of vision. How immeasurable then must be the space which stretches to those remotest of fixed stars! How vast and immense the depth of that imaginary sphere! How far removed from the Earth must the most widely separated stars be and at a distance transcending all sight, all skill and thought! How monstrous then such a motion would be! It is evident then that all the heavenly bodies set as if in destined places are there formed into sphæres, that they tend to their own centres, and that round them there is a confluence of all their parts. And if they have motion, that motion will rather be that of each round its own centre, as that of the Earth is; or a forward movement of the centre in an orbit, as that of the Moon: there would not be circular motion in the case of a too numerous and scattered flock. Of these stars some situate near the Æquator would seem to be borne around at a very rapid rate, others nearer the pole to have a somewhat gentler motion, others, apparently motionless, to have a slight rotation. Yet no differences in point of light, mass or colours are apparent to us: for they are as brilliant, clear, glittering and duskish toward the poles, as they are near the Æquator and the Zodiack: those which remain set in those positions do not hang, and are neither fixed, nor bound to anything of the nature of a vault. All the more insane were the circumvolution of that fictitious Primum Mobile, which is higher, deeper, and still more immeasurable. Moreover, this inconceivable Primum Mobile ought to be material and of enormous depth, far surpassing all inferior nature in size: for nohow else could it conduct from East to West so many and such vast bodies of stars, and the universe even down to the Earth: and it requires us to accept in the government of the stars a universal power and a despotism perpetual and intensely irksome. That Primum Mobile bears no visible body, is nohow recognizable, is a fiction believed in by those people, accepted by the weak-minded folk, who wonder more at our terrestrial mass than at bodies so vast, so inconceivable, and so far separated from us. But there can be no movement of infinity and of an infinite body, and therefore no diurnal revolution of that vastest Primum Mobile. The Moon being neighbour to the Earth revolves in 27 days; Mercury and Venus have their own moderately slow motions; Mars finishes a period in two years, Jupiter in twelve years, Saturn in thirty. And those also who ascribe a motion to the fixed stars make out that it is completed in 36,000 years, according to Ptolemy, in 25,816 years, according to Copernicus' observations; so that the motion and the completion of the journey always become slower in the case of the greater circles. And would there then be a diurnal motion of that Primum Mobile which is so great and beyond them all immense and profound? 'Tis indeed a superstition and in the view of philosophy a fable now only to be believed by idiots, deserving more than ridicule from the learned: and yet in former ages, that motion, under the pressure of an importunate mob of philosophizers, was actually accepted as a basis of computations and of motions, by mathematicians. The motions of the bodies (namely planets) seem to take place eastward and following the order of the signs. The common run of mathematicians and philosophers also suppose that the fixed stars in the same manner advance with a very slow motion: and from ignorance of the truth they are forced to join to them a ninth sphære. Whereas now this first and unthinkable Primum Mobile, a fiction not comprehended by any judgment, not evidenced by any visible constellation, but devised of imagination only and mathematical hypothesis, unfortunately accepted and believed by philosophers, extended into the heaven and beyond all the stars, must needs with a contrary impulse turn about from East to West, in opposition to the inclination of all the rest of the Universe. Whatsoever in nature is moved naturally, the same is set in motion both by its own forces and by the consentient compact of other bodies. Such is the motion of parts to their whole, of all interdependent sphæres and stars in the universe: such is the circular impulse in the bodies of the planets, when they affect and incite one another's courses. But with regard to the Primum Mobile and its contrary and exceeding rapid movement, what are the bodies which incite it or propel it? What is the nature that conspires with it? Or what is that mad force beyond the Primum Mobile? Since it is in bodies themselves that acting force resides, not in spaces or intervals. But he who thinks that those bodies are at leisure and keeping holiday, while all the virtue of the universe appertains to the very orbits and sphæres, is on this point not less mad than he who, in some one else's house, thinks that the walls and floors and roof rule the family rather than the wife and thoughtful paterfamilias. Therefore not by the firmament are they borne along, or are moved, or have their position; much less are those confused crowds of stars whirled around by the Primum Mobile, nor are they torn away and huddled along by a contrary and extremely rapid movement. Ptolemy of Alexandria seems to be too timid and weak-minded in dreading the dissolution of this nether world, were the Earth to be moved round in a circle. Why does he not fear the ruin of the Universe, dissolution, confusion, conflagration, and infinite disasters celestial and super-celestial, from a motion transcending all thoughts, dreams, fables, and poetic licences, insurmountable, ineffable, and inconceivable? Wherefore we are carried along by a diurnal rotation of the earth (a motion for sure more congruous), and as a boat moves above the waters, so do we turn about with the earth, and yet seem to ourselves to be stationary, and at rest. Great and incredible it seems to some philosophers, by reason of inveterate prejudice, that the Earth's vast body should be swirled wholly round in the space of 24 hours. But it would be more incredible that the Moon should travel through her orbit, or complete an entire course in a space of 24 hours; more so the Sun or Mars; still more Jupiter and Saturn; more than marvellous would be the velocity in the case of the fixed stars and the firmament; what in the world they would have to wonder at in the case of their ninth sphere, let them imagine as they like. But to feign a Primum Mobile and to attribute to the thing thus feigned a motion to be completed in the space of 24 hours, and not to allow this motion to the Earth in the same interval of time, is absurd. For a great circle of the Earth is to the ambit of the Primum Mobile less than a furlong to the whole Earth. If the diurnal rotation of the Earth seem headlong, and not admissible in nature by reason of its rapidity, worse than insane will be the movement of the Primum Mobile both for itself and the whole universe, agreeing as it does with no other motion in any proportion or likeness. It seems to Ptolemy and the Peripateticks that nature must be disordered, and the framework and structure of this globe of ours be dissolved, by reason of so swift a terrestrial revolution. The Earth's diameter is 1718 German miles; the greatest elongation of the new Moon is 65, the least is 55 semi-diameters of the Earth: the greatest altitude of the half moon is 68, the least 52: yet it is probable that its sphære is still larger and deeper. The sun in its greatest eccentricity has a distance of 1142 semi-diameters of the Earth; Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, being slower in motion, are so proportionately further remote from the Earth. The distances of the firmament and of the fixed stars seem to the best mathematicians inconceivable. Leaving out the ninth sphære, if the convexity of the Primum Mobile be duly estimated in proportion to the rest of the sphæres, the vault of the Primum Mobile must in one hour run through as much space as is comprised in 3000 great circles of the Earth, for in the vault of the firmament it would complete more than 1800; but what iron solidity can be imagined so firm and tough as not to be disrupted and shattered to fragments by a fury so great and a velocity so ineffable. The Chaldæans indeed would have it that the heaven consists of light. In light, however, there is no so-great firmness, neither is there in Plotinus' fiery firmament, nor in the fluid or aqueous or supremely rare and transparent heaven of the divine Moses, which does not cut off from our sight the lights of the stars. We must accordingly reject the so deep-set error about this so mad and furious a celestial velocity, and the forced retardation of the rest of the heavens. Let theologians discard and wipe out with sponges those old women's tales of so rapid a spinning round of the heavens borrowed from certain inconsiderate philosophers. The sun is not propelled by the sphære of Mars (if a sphære there be) and by his motion, nor Mars by Jupiter, nor Jupiter by Saturn. The sphære, too, of the fixed stars, seems well enough regulated except so far as motions which are in the Earth are ascribed to the heavens, and bring about a certain change of phænomena. The superiors do not exercise a despotism over the inferiors; for the heaven of philosophers, as of theologians, must be gentle, happy, and tranquil, and not at all subject to changes: nor shall the force, fury, swiftness, and hurry of a Primum Mobile have dominion over it. That fury descends through all the celestial sphæres, and celestial bodies, invades the elements of our philosophers, sweeps fire along, rolls along the air, or at least draws the chief part of it, conducts the universal æther, and turns about fiery impressions (as if it were a solid and firm body, when in fact it is a most refined essence, neither resisting nor drawing), leads captive the superior. O marvellous constancy of the terrestrial globe, the only one unconquered; and yet one that is holden fast, or stationary, in its place by no bonds, no heaviness, by no contiguity with a grosser or firmer body, by no weights. The substance of the terrestrial globe withstands and sets itself against universal nature. Aristotle feigns for himself a system of philosophy founded on motions simple and compound, that the heavens revolve in a simple circle, its elements moving with a right motion, the parts of the earth seeking the earth in straight lines, falling on its surface at right angles, and tending together toward its centre, always, however, at rest therein; accordingly also the whole Earth remains immovable in its place, united and compacted together by its own weight. That cohæsion of parts and aggregation of matter exist in the Sun, in the Moon, in the planets, in the fixed stars, in fine in all those round bodies whose parts cohære together and tend each to their own centres; otherwise the heaven would fall, and that sublime ordering would be lost: yet these cœlestial bodies have a circular motion. Whence the Earth too may equally have her own motion: and this motion is not (as some deem it) unsuitable for the assembling or adverse to the generation of things. For since it is innate in the terrestrial globe, and natural to it; and since there is nothing external that can shock it, or hinder it by adverse motions, it goes round without any ill or danger, it advances without being forced, there is nothing that resists, nothing that by retiring gives way, but all is open. For while it revolves in a space void of bodies, or in the incorporeal æther, all the air, the exhalations of land and water, the clouds and pendent meteors, are impelled along with the globe circularly: that which is above the exhalations is void of bodies: the finest bodies and those which are least cohærent almost void are not impeded, are not dissolved, while passing through it. Wherefore also the whole terrestrial globe, with all its adjuncts, moves bodily along, calmly, meeting no resistance. Wherefore empty and superstitious is the fear that some weak minds have of a shock of bodies (like Lucius Lactantius, who, in the fashion of the unlettered rabble and of the most unreasonable men scoffs at an Antipodes and at the sphærick ordering of the Earth all round). So for these reasons, not only probable but manifest, does the diurnal rotation of the earth seem, since nature always acts through a few rather than through many; and it is more agreeable to reason that the Earth's one small body should make a diurnal rotation, than that the whole universe should be whirled around. I pass over the reasons of the Earth's remaining motions, for at present the only question is concerning its diurnal movement, according to which it moves round with respect to the Sun, and creates a natural day (which we call a nycthemeron245). And indeed Nature may be thought to have granted a motion very suitable to the Earth's shape, which (being sphærical) is revolved about the poles assigned it by Nature much more easily and fittingly than that the whole universe, whose limit is unknown and unknowable, should be whirled round; and than there could be imagined an orbit of the Primum Mobile, a thing not accepted by the ancients, which Aristotle even did not devise or accept as in any shape or form existing beyond the sphære of the fixed stars; which finally the sacred scriptures do not recognize any more than they do the revolution of the firmament.

242 Page 214, line 26. Page 214, line 31. Philolaus Pythagoricus.

"Philolaüs a le premier dit que la terre se meut en cercle; d'autres disent que c'est Nicétas de Syracuse."

"Les uns prétendent que le terre est immobile; mais Philolaüs le pythagoricien dit qu'elle se meut circulairement autour du feu (central) et suivant un cercle oblique, comme le soleil et la lune."—(Chaignet, Pythagore et la Philosophie pythagoricienne, Paris, 1873.)

It appears that the first of these dicta is taken from Diogenes Laërt., viii. 85; and the second from Plutarch, Placit. Philos., III. 7. The latter passage may be compared with Aristotle, De Coelo, II. 13, who, referring to the followers of Pythagoras, says: "They say that the middle is fire, that the earth is a star, and that it is moved circularly about this centre; and that by this movement it produces day and night."

243 Page 214, line 34. Page 214, line 42. Copernicus.— His work is De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, libri vi. (Basil., 1566).

244 Page 215, line 27. Page 215, line 24. quæ . . . in cælo varijs distantijs collocata sunt.— This remark appears to be Gilbert's one contribution to the science of Astronomy; the stars having previously been regarded as fixed in the eighth sphere all at the same distance from the central earth, around which it revolved.

245 Page 220, line 6. Page 220, line 6. quem nycthemeron vocamus.— The 1628 and 1633 editions read nyctemoron.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gilbert/william/on-the-magnet/book6.3.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17