We now know how these difficulties can be, to a great extent, overcome, by employing for the objective a composite lens made of two pieces of glass possessing different qualities. To these achromatic object glasses, as they are called, the great development of astronomical knowledge, since Newton's time, is due. But it must be remarked that, although the theoretical possibility of constructing an achromatic lens was investigated by Newton, he certainly came to the conclusion that the difficulty could not be removed by employing a composite objective, with two different kinds of glass. In this his marvellous sagacity in the interpretation of nature seems for once to have deserted him. We can, however, hardly regret that Newton failed to discover the achromatic objective, when we observe that it was in consequence of his deeming an achromatic objective to be impossible that he was led to the invention of the reflecting telescope. Finding, as he believed, that the defects of the telescope could not be remedied by any application of the principle of refraction he was led to look in quite a different direction for the improvement of the tool on which the advancement of astronomy depended. The REFRACTION of light depended as he had found, upon the colour of the light. The laws of REFLECTION were, however, quite independent of the colour. Whether rays be red or green, blue or yellow, they are all reflected in precisely the same manner from a mirror. Accordingly, Newton perceived that if he could construct a telescope the action of which depended upon reflection, instead of upon refraction, the difficulty which had hitherto proved an insuperable obstacle to the improvement of the instrument would be evaded.
[PLATE: SIR ISAAC NEWTON'S LITTLE REFLECTOR.]
For this purpose Newton fashioned a concave mirror from a mixture of copper and tin, a combination which gives a surface with almost the lustre of silver. When the light of a star fell upon the surface, an image of the star was produced in the focus of this mirror, and then this image was examined by a magnifying eye- piece. Such is the principle of the famous reflecting telescope which bears the name of Newton. The little reflector which he constructed, represented in the adjoining figure, is still preserved as one of the treasures of the Royal Society. The telescope tube had the very modest dimension of one inch in diameter. It was, however, the precursor of a whole series of magnificent instruments, each outstripping the other in magnitude, until at last the culminating point was attained in 1845, by the construction of Lord Rosse's mammoth reflector of six feet in aperture.
Newton's discovery of the composition of light led to an embittered controversy, which caused no little worry to the great Philosopher. Some of those who attacked him enjoyed considerable and, it must be admitted, even well-merited repute in the ranks of science. They alleged, however, that the elongation of the coloured band which Newton had noticed was due to this, to that, or to the other--to anything, in fact, rather than to the true cause which Newton assigned. With characteristic patience and love of truth, Newton steadily replied to each such attack. He showed most completely how utterly his adversaries had misunderstood the subject, and how slight indeed was their acquaintance with the natural phenomenon in question. In reply to each point raised, he was ever able to cite fresh experiments and adduce fresh illustrations, until at last his opponents retired worsted from the combat.
It has been often a matter for surprise that Newton, throughout his whole career, should have taken so much trouble to expose the errors of those who attacked his views. He used even to do this when it plainly appeared that his adversaries did not understand the subject they were discussing. A philosopher might have said, "I know I am right, and whether others think I am right or not may be a matter of concern to them, but it is certainly not a matter about which I need trouble. If after having been told the truth they elect to remain in error, so much the worse for them; my time can be better employed than in seeking to put such people right." This, however, was not Newton's method. He spent much valuable time in overthrowing objections which were often of a very futile description. Indeed, he suffered a great deal of annoyance from the persistency, and in some cases one might almost say from the rancour, of the attacks which were made upon him. Unfortunately for himself, he did not possess that capacity for sublime indifference to what men may say, which is often the happy possession of intellects greatly inferior to his.
The subject of optics still continuing to engross Newton's attention, he followed up his researches into the structure of the sunbeam by many other valuable investigations in connection with light. Every one has noticed the beautiful colours manifested in a soap-bubble. Here was a subject which not unnaturally attracted the attention of one who had expounded the colours of the spectrum with such success. He perceived that similar hues were produced by other thin plates of transparent material besides soap-bubbles, and his ingenuity was sufficient to devise a method by which the thicknesses of the different films could be measured. We can hardly, indeed, say that a like success attended his interpretation of these phenomena to that which had been so conspicuous in his explanation of the spectrum. It implies no disparagement to the sublime genius of Newton to admit that the doctrines he put forth as to the causes of the colours in the soap-bubbles can be no longer accepted. We must remember that Newton was a pioneer in accounting for the physical properties of light. The facts that he established are indeed unquestionable, but the explanations which he was led to offer of some of them are seen to be untenable in the fuller light of our present knowledge.
[PLATE: SIR ISAAC NEWTON'S SUN-DIAL.]
Had Newton done nothing beyond making his wonderful discoveries in light, his fame would have gone down to posterity as one of the greatest of Nature's interpreters. But it was reserved for him to accomplish other discoveries, which have pushed even his analysis of the sunbeam into the background; it is he who has expounded the system of the universe by the discovery of the law of universal gravitation.
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