Sir William Rowan Hamilton, the eminent mathematician of Dublin, has, of all writers ancient and modern, most fittingly characterized the ideal science of astronomy as man's golden chain connecting the heavens to the earth, by which we "learn the language and interpret the oracles of the universe."
The oldest of the sciences, astronomy is also the broadest in its relations to human knowledge and the interests of mankind. Many are the cognate sciences upon which the noble structure of astronomy has been erected: foremost of all, geometry and the higher mathematics, which tell us of motions, magnitudes and distances; physics and chemistry, of the origin, nature, and destinies of planets, sun, and star; meteorology, of the circulation of their atmospheres; geology, of the structure of the moon's surface; mineralogy, of the constitution of meteorites; while, if we attack, even elementally, the fascinating, though perhaps forever unsolvable, problem of life in other worlds, the astronomer must invoke all the resources that his fellow biologists and their many-sided science can afford him.
The progress of astronomy from age to age has been far from uniform—rather by leaps and bounds: from the earliest epoch when man's planet earth was the center about which the stupendous cosmos wheeled, for whom it was created, and for whose edification it was maintained—down to the modern age whose discoveries have ascertained that even our stellar universe, the vast region of the solar domain, is but one of the thousands of island universes that tenant the inconceivable immensities of space.
Such results have been attainable only through the successful construction and operation of monster telescopes that bring to the eye and visualize on photographic plates the faintest of celestial objects which were the despair of astronomers only a few years ago.
But the end is not yet; astronomy to-day is but passing from infancy to youth. And with new and greater telescopes, with new photographic processes of higher sensitivity, with the help of modern invention in overcoming the obstacle of the air—that constant foe of the astronomer—who will presume to set down any limit to the leaps and bounds of astronomy in the future?
So rapid, indeed, has been the progress of astronomy in very recent years that the present is especially favorable for setting forth its salient features; and this book is an attempt to present the wide range of astronomy in readable fashion, as if a story with a definite plot, from its origin with the shepherds of ancient Chaldea down to present-day ascertainment of the actual scale of the universe, and definite measures of the huge volume of supersolar giants among the stars.