Monday, December 04, 2006

Lewis Masquerier, amateur astrophysicist?

Lewis Masquerier is one of my favorite figures among the older generations of American reformers. This early essay, from The American Repertory of Arts, Sciences, and Manufactures, June, 1841, is really an exemplary piece for displaying his wide-ranging curiosity and the fearlessness (bordering at times on foolhardiness) of his speculations. What it lacks in scientific acumen, it more than makes up in character.

New Theory; suggesting the Rotary Motion of the Earth as the Cause of its Curvilinear Direction in its Orbit, and also of the Tides.

by Lewis Masquerier.

It is said in treatises upon gunnery, that if a rotary motion is given to a ball around an axis at right angles to its progressive course, it will be deflected into a curvilinear direction. If it rotates around an axis horizontal to the earth, and downwards in its fore part, it will strike under the mark; but if it rotates upwards, it will strike above. If it rotates around a vertical axis from left to right, it will hit to the right of the target; but if it revolves from right to left, it will strike to the left; and so on with every intermediate position of its axis.

Now, it seems from this uncertainty of the direction of balls shot from smooth-bore pieces, that the rifle gun has been invented, with four or five spiral grooves going round once or twice from the touchhole to the muzzle. By this ingenious device a rotary motion is given to the ball around an axis, with one of its poles pointing in the direction of the mark, by which much closer shooting is attained.

If military projectiles are thus deflected by a rotary motion, why would not the rotary motion of the earth, on the same principle, cause its curvilinear direction in its orbit, whether it moves through a plenum or a vacuum? Now, all the planets and satellites (with the exception of those of Herschel) both progress in their orbits and rotate on their axes, from west to east the very direction this theory requires. Recollect, the rotary motion is in the direction with the progressive at the night, and the contrary direction at the day meridian; and it is at right angles with it, at the morning and evening points of the earth. Hence, this rotary motion has a leverage upon the progressive.

According to this theory of deflection, the rotary motion of the earth alone, in concert with the progressive, seems to be sufficient both to sustain and to retain it in its orbit, independent of any attractive influence by the sun; which, it would seem, may impede instead of facilitating its motions. If this theory should require that the planets ought to move with an equable velocity in their progressive as well as rotary motions, it will give them circular instead of elliptical orbits; and the placing of the sun a little out of the centre of their orbits will perhaps sufficiently account for the cause of the sun being eight days longer in going through one half of its orbit than the other.

But the small rotary motion of the moon may be thought not sufficient to deflect it in its progressive course; which may be obviated by supposing that the earth and moon are at different distances from each other and the sun than computed by the Newtonians. But this difficulty cannot be greater than theirs, that the planets revolve around the sun while it is continually attracting them at right angles, without destroying their projectile velocity.

But the rotary motion of the earth may not only cause its curvilinear direction in its orbit, but it also may be the real cause of the tides. Why should the Newtonians go off to the moon and sun for the far-fetched cause of attraction for the tides, and overlook the near cause of the immense whirl of the earth? Is it possible that this great rotary and progressive motion of the earth should have no power even to undulate the ocean a little, and cause the tides? The fact that there is a general motion of the seas from east to west, contrary to the rotary motion from west to east, proves that the solid matter of the earth leaves the liquid a little behind; that is, the upper part of the ocean at the rate of 5 or 10 miles behind. With the fact, too, before their eyes that the rotary motion of the earth has thrown out its matter at the equator by its centrifugal force, so that its equatorial is 34 miles longer than its polar diameter, they seem not to have thought that these motions should also throw out the water at the meridian sides of the earth, and cause the high tides; and at the morning and evening points, the low tides; that is, if the whole surface of the earth was covered with water of an equal depth. But in consequence of the large continents extending north and south, and causing the water to rebound, it is retarded about three-quarters of an hour every day; and thus they modify the time of the tides through the 24 hours. It is well known that funnel-mouthed rivers and bays collect the waters, and raise higher tides; but about islands in the centre of large oceans, the tides only rise from 12 to 18 inches, and come on nearer the meridian; and thus prove the agency of the rotary motion in causing them.

This theory I have entertained for twelve years; but despairing of ever getting the time or means of elaborating it, I hereby submit it to the consideration of the more fortunate cultivators of the science.

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