The Earth and the Heavens

A STATE of mind in which admiration mingles with disappointment is likely to be that of the thoughtful reader as he puts down Commander Peary’s book.1 So much heroism and sacrifice and pain have gone for so little! Even the undiscovered country which Peary saw a hundred miles away had previously been surmised from the set of the Arctic tides; the new coast added to the map of Grant Land amounts but to some seventy miles. Of Peary’s twenty years of Arctic work the last have been by no means the most profitable.

Inevitably one contrasts the Roosevelt with the Discovery. Both ships found a harbor farther from the equator than any before them. Each commander sighted new land which he failed to reach; and in addition, mapped with his own hand a new coast which he was the first to skirt on foot. Each, curiously, making his dash for the pole, went four and one-half degrees beyond his ship, and escaped by the skin of his teeth. Unfortunately, the resemblance ends here. The British National Expedition carried a competent scientific staff; its American rival did not. If Captain Scott2 had never gone a mile from his ship, his party would still have made worthy contributions to science. Commander Peary’s Nearest the Pole tells but too well the essential failure of his attempt. He loaded his ship with Newfoundlanders and Eskimos, and after all made no greater distance across the polar ice than Nansen and Cagni before him. It may be a trifle unheroic to fill jars with plancton and boxes with fossils, and to read a thermometer, once an hour, through an Arctic year; but half-a-dozen important sciences wait for just such commonplace facts. Polar exploration is not only a great adventure; it is also a learned profession for which breaking records is less important than keeping them.

But if other men have done better scientific work than Peary, few have played better the great game. In this respect his own too modest and somewhat colorless account does him scant justice. Possibly, in reaching forward unto the things that are before, he has already begun to forget those which are behind. Doubtless, too, his long familiarity with the region which he has made peculiarly his own makes it impossible for him to see anything with his reader’s eyes. A catalogue of miles covered, of birds seen, and beasts killed, is too apt to take the place of the little details of daily life, the shoes and clothing and meals, — or the lack of them, — the housing and the talk, the devices for keeping soul and body together, that are precisely what the traveler of the easy-chair wants to know. Put the veteran explorer fifty miles from land on the wrong side of the Big Lead, waiting until two miles of open water shall skim over and make the risk of crossing preferable to the certainty of starving to death, and his account is vivid enough. Anything much short of the prospect of sudden death is likely to be lumped in with the rest of the day’s work where it is to be read only between the lines. As it is, one gets a far better idea of what Peary has done than of what it was like in the doing.

Really to understand what Peary accomplished one should read Fiala. The livelier and more personal narrative gives one a juster idea than Peary’s own of all that Peary overcame — and the second Zeigler expedition did not.3 This did, however, bring back such a set of camera plates as to atone to the general reader for any failure of management or for any undeserved misfortune.

One gets the setting of Peary’s work from any one of three histories of Arctic research which carry their accounts up to the time of the Roosevelt’s return. G. Firth Scott’s 4 is a slight affair, milk for babes. That of J. Douglas Hoare is a more serious work,5 well provided with illustrations and maps, and thoroughly good reading. Naturally, of the three, General Greely’s6 is the most important. In method, it is strictly a “handbook,” a somewhat encyclopedic account based upon original sources, not meant for continuous reading. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating narrative. The author’s own party broke the record for farthest north; he himself went into Smith Sound with twenty-four men, and, coming out with five, brought out instruments and maps and the records of some of the best scientific work that has been done in the region. Whether, therefore, General Greely tells of the work of the Circumpolar Observation Stations, or of the hundred sailors, who, coming dowm the shore of King William Land, “ fell down and died as they walked,” he writes as one who knows about it all.

General Greely takes up, somewhat briefly, the history of discovery in the region of the South Pole. The same topic occupies also Dr. Mill,7 whose leisurely and detailed account is all that a book of the sort should be. The simplicity of Antarctic conditions makes it an easy story to follow; the absence of memorable disasters makes it a cheerful one.

It looks as if the Hyperboreans will need to bestir themselves, or the South Pole will be reached first. To be sure, no ship will ever reach eighty south. But on the other hand, instead of the drifting floes and open leads that balked Peary. the traveler beyond Mount Erebus may choose between the level plateau of Victoria Land and the ice of the Great Barrier, a quarter-mile thick, that has not stirred since the Glacial Period. Antarctica remains the only dark continent more from choice than from necessity. Since Ross, in 1842, only two vessels have gone beyond seventy-five: it was only within ten years that the first of mankind waited through an Antarctic night, while thus far only a single party has left its ship and tried seriously to get south on foot. Then two sailors and a physician, all new to the dog team and the ski, went as far as Peary and his Eskimos. With Antarctic luck to offset the greater distance, it should be nip and tuck between Peary and Wellman at one end of the earth’s axis and the two projected expeditions at the other. It is a question whether, in the interests of sport, flying machines should not be barred.

There seems to be no need for either Pearys or Seotts among Mr. Lowell’s Martians. Our nearest planetary neighbors ought to know their flat and sea-less world far more completely than the children of men know theirs. In fact, even our own maps of the Martian surface have no tantalizing blank spaces at top and bottom, while, thanks to the nearly complete annual melting of its snowcaps, the poles of that other world are as familiar to the inhabitants of both as are the regions between. A mountain on Mars a quarter of the height of unknown peaks in Alaska and Antarctica or on the Root-of the World would have been seen years ago. A few miles of perpetual ice prove to be a more impassable barrier than sixty millions of empty space.

The argument for the existence of Martians is both ingenious and plausible. Ever since 1877, when Schiaparelli discovered his so-called has become increasingly clear that there are on the surface of Mars certain structures which, so far as is known, are not matched elsewhere in the solar system. On the whole, too, no explanation thus far offered hangs together so well as that of which Professor Pickering is the author and Mr. Percival Lowell the most conspicuous advocate — that the lines are the strips of verdure along narrow water-ways that are quite possibly artificial. The hypothetical Martians, it appears, are fated twice each year to see most of their available water stowed away in one or other of the polar ice-caps. They have, therefore, been forced to cover the entire surface of their planet with a network of irrigating ditches, which take the waters from the spring meltings, first at one pole then at the other, and distribute them over the desert land.

Of the two recent books8 dealing with this fascinating problem, that of Professor Morse is to be taken the less seriously. The author is a zoölogist, and a student of Japanese porcelains, not an astronomer. His book is carelessly put together, repetitious, decidedly partisan — and always lively. With the other, the case is different. Mr. Lowell is a distinguished amateur astronomer, who began his study of Mars as a boy from the roof of his father’s house. He has built and equipped an observatory for this special purpose, and with all the world before him chose Flagstaff, Arizona, where the seeing is said to be better for weeks on end than it has ever been known to be at Greenwich. To unusual natural eyesight he has added one of the best twenty-fourinch telescopes ever built.

Nevertheless, Mr. Lowell has not yet succeeded in convincing the astronomical world. Nor will he probably, in spite of the skill with which he has marshaled a considerable body of evidence, persuade all his unprofessional readers. The canals, whatever they may be, are close to the limit of visibility, where sight, always the most gullible of the senses, is prone to play strange tricks, Scientific men also are “intensely human,”and it may well be questioned whether all the Martian canals are quite so uniform in width, or quite so straight, as Schiaparelli and Lowell have drawn them. No theory in the least pretends to explain their mysterious doubling; while Mr. Lowells detailed and admirable drawings themselves show that the Martians, if such there be, have not run their thousandmile ditches at all in the way which, to the earth-born mind, would seem to be the most efficient or the most economical.

Now in addition comes the new Planetesimal Theory to cut the ground from under the assumption that a civilized race of Martians —

“ As much superior to us
As we to Cynocephalus — ”

finds itself any shorter of water to-day than it always has been. Both our authors take it for granted that because Mars is smaller than our earth, it must by so much the sooner have run through its life-history. If then there are intelligent beings on our nearest celestial neighbor, they have been doomed to see their oceans dry up, and themselves compelled to undertake engineering works upon a scale inconceivably vast, in order to keep the surface of their planet generally habitable. Yet it is by no means certain that either the earth or Mars has ever been either hotter or wetter than at the present moment.

The old Nebular Hypothesis, which Kant and Laplace put forth quite independently between the middle and the end of the eighteenth century, has been justly regarded ever since as one of the great triumphs of the scientific imagination. Nevertheless, in spite of the brilliant attempts of Lockyer, George Darwin, and others to patch up its weak places, the Nebular Theory has never really fitted all the facts, while with the progress of knowledge the discrepancy has tended to become greater rather than less. Only with the advent of the present century, however, has there been any thorough-going attempt to replace the old doctrine with a better.

During the spring of 1900, two professors in the University of Chicago, one an astronomer, the other a geologist, brought out a remarkable group of papers in which they pointed out the essential weakness of all forms of the Nebular Theory, and set forth a new and radically different explanation of the solar system. It is as yet too soon for the Planetesimal Theory to have been threshed out, and its value determined. It is, however, by no means impossible that we have here one of the two or three really important contributions that America has made to science.

With the present year, in two readable general works on their respective sciences, Professors Chamberlain and Moulton give the first accessible and unteehnical account of their new theory.9 At bottom it is a theory of spirals, in the sense that the other was a theory of rings. Laplace presupposed a spherical mass of attenuated gas, with its particles moving at random, and the whole coming in time to revolve as a solid. The new theory presupposes gaseous particles and meteorites, each revolving in its own orbit about a central mass. The one postulates as the ancestor of our present system, one of the somewhat uncommon “green” nebulæ; the other, one of the far more numerous, flat, spiral “white” nebulæ, with two long coiled arms, a central body at the middle of the disk, and numerous irregular knots, ready to become the nuclei of planets, — such a system, in short, as the great nebula of Andromeda.

Of the two accounts of the new theory, Chamberlain’s is by several times the more extended, as befits the most complete, and by general agreement the best, work on its topic; though both follow much the same method, even to employing the same diagrams. The geologist, moreover, carries his discussion far beyond the point where the history of our earth ceases to be a question of astronomy, and considers the bearing of his assumptions on the interpretation of early geologic time.

Here appears the most revolutionary portion of the new doctrine. If the solar system never was a uniformly diffused nebula, no more was this deceitful old world ever an incandescent globe, with skies of molten brass, out of which rained liquid iron. It is not fluid within, and never has been. There never was a universal ocean out of which the continents emerged, an island at a time. On the contrary, the primitive surface was universal dry land, parts of which had gradually become swamps and ponds and, finally, seas, as air and water out of interplanetary space fell in, bit by bit, on the growing world. In short, all our old notions of the early history of our planet are just about reversed, so that our cold, airless, and waterless satellite suggests not so much a state to which the earth will come as a condition through which it has already passed; and Mars to-day reproduces the young earth when life first appeared upon it.

The time has been when the man who reported a snowstorm on Mars would have been accused rather of sacrilege than of credulity, and when the host of heaven were not to be theorized about, but to be worshiped as immortal gods. To the monuments of these bygone days two veteran astronomers have turned their attention, as routine work at the telescope has passed on to younger eyes.

For most of its readers Schiaparelli’s gossipy little volume10 on that literature, which for nine men in ten is the only contact with ancient thought, will bring something of a surprise. The ancient Hebrews were a thoroughly unscientific people, who took their astronomy altogether at second hand; for that very reason, the general soundness of their knowledge testifies to the existence of a considerable body of astronomical fact and doctrine diffused throughout the ancient world. The Israelites erred in their location of Sheol; but their concern for the starry heavens above them, as for the moral law within, quite puts to shame the metropolitan of to-day.

Not our spiritual ancestors, but our fathers after the flesh, who built the prehistoric monuments of Scotland, England, and Brittany, are the study of Sir Norman Lockyer.11 Lockyer’s method is to put himself in the place of one of the old astronomer-priests, and with cromlech for observatory, horizon for graduated circle, and in place of telescope a sight-line over menhir, altar, dolmen, or tumulus, to work out the same definite astronomical problem which confronted the ancient man of science. The idea is not new. The novel element is the precision of Lockyer’s work.

Since the length of the solar year is one of the beginnings of wisdom, the first task of primitive astronomy was to fix the calendar and determine the dates for all sorts of observances and festivals. An obvious method, one followed by many ancient peoples and, in a general way, by ourselves, is to catch the sun at its farthest point north or south, and base the divisions of the year on the solstices and equinoxes. This is Lockyer’s “June year,” with its four quarterly festivals at Christmas, Easter (which, before it became a movable feast, occurred on March 22), Midsummer Day, and a festival with various names near September 23. Any one of the four may begin the year. According to Schiaparelli, the Israelites began theirs near one equinox, and then changed to the other. For a long time it has been known in a general way that the main horseshoe at Stonehenge, and the somewhat, obscure avenue which continues the vallum toward the northeast, look toward the point on the horizon where the sun rises on the longest day of the vear. Lockyer shows more precisely that the entire structure is oriented, not with respect to the present sunrise, but instead on the somewhat different point where the sun appeared on the twentyfirst day of June, B. c. 1680.

Now in 1680 B. c. the Egyptians and Chaldeans and magicians and enchanters and Wise Men of Babylon, of whom we have glimpses in the Old Testament, were also worshiping the sun, — worshiping him, moreover, with elaborate ceremonial in vast temples, which also were accurately aligned for the sunrise at the summer solstice. It is but a short step to include the Druids among the adherents of that widespread cult which, like ourselves, based the divisions of its year on the solstice and equinox. We must then, thinks Lockyer, regard the Druids as co-religionists wdth the builders of the pyramids.

For the most part, however, the stone monuments of England and Scotland, especially the older ones, are not oriented with respect to the June year. Instead, they appear to be relics of a still more ancient faith, the cult of the” May year,” which based its calendar on the four vegetal seasons, placed its quarter points midway between those of the solstitial year, celebrated May Day and Hallowe’en instead of Christmas and Midsummer Day, and aligned its sacred structures with reference to the sunrise on May 6th. Even at Stonehenge, in general a monument to the new theology of the seventeenth century before Christ, in addition to the great sandstone blocks, there is another smaller circle of ruder blue stones set for the May sunrise some three or four hundred years earlier.

Lockyer, as a modern and scientific Druid, assumes that every ancient stone or mound visible from a circle gives a sight-line on the rising or setting point of some heavenly body. And so, since many of these lines cut the horizon farther to the north than the sun ever gets, it is easy to believe that these particular lines had to do with “ clock stars,” such as are already known to have served for telling time at night in ancient Egypt, and in Europe during the Middle Ages. At any rate the assumption works out consistently. Lockyer not only picks out the particular star under observation, but in addition notes the shifting of the ancient lines as the stars changed their positions from century to century. Thus far, he has not carried his studies with any thoroughness beyond Stonehenge; how much remains to be done appears from the fact that in Cornwall alone no fewer than eleven different sight-lines are set for the single star Arcturus, with dates between 2330 and 1420 B, C. Lockyer seems to bridge time as easily as Lowell space.

  1. Nearest the Pole. By R. E. PEARY, U. S. N. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1907.
  2. The Voyage of the Discovery. By CAPTAIN ROBERT F. SCOTT, R. N. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1905.
  3. Fighting the Polar Ice. By ANTHONY FIALA. New York : Doubleday, Page & Co. 1906.
  4. The Romance of Polar Exploration. By G. FIRTH SCOTT. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co. 1906.
  5. Arctic Exploration. By J. DOUGLAS HOARE. New York : E. P. Dutton & Co. 1907.
  6. Handbook of Polar Discoveries. By A. W. GREELY, Major General, U. S. A. Boston : Little, Brown & Co. 1906.
  7. The Siege of the South Pole. By HUGH R. MILL, D. Sc., LL. D. New York : Frederick A. Stokes Co. 1905.
  8. Mars and its Mystery. By EDWARD S. MORSE. Boston ; Little. Brown & Co. 1906.
  9. Mars and its Canals. By PERCIVAL LOWELL. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1906.
  10. An Introduction to Astronomy. By FOREST RAY MOULTON, Ph. D. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1906.
  11. Geology. By THOMAS C. CHAMBERLAIN and ROLLIN D. SALISBURY. In three volumes. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1906.
  12. Astronomy in the Old Testament. By G. SCHIAPARELLI. New York: H. Froude. 1905.
  13. Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered. By SIR NORMAN LOCKYER, K. C. B., F. R. S. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1906.