Nor is this all. Looking beyond the few thousand stars that are visible to the naked eye, Herschel sees series after series of more distant stars, marshalled in galaxies of millions; but at last he reaches a distance beyond which the galaxies no longer increase. And yet--so he thinks--he has not reached the limits of his vision. What then? He has come to the bounds of the sidereal system--seen to the confines of the universe. He believes that he can outline this system, this universe, and prove that it has the shape of an irregular globe, oblately flattened to almost disklike proportions, and divided at one edge--a bifurcation that is revealed even to the naked eye in the forking of the Milky Way.
This, then, is our universe as Herschel conceives it-- a vast galaxy of suns, held to one centre, revolving, poised in space. But even here those marvellous telescopes do not pause. Far, far out beyond the confines of our universe, so far that the awful span of our own system might serve as a unit of measure, are revealed other systems, other universes, like our own, each composed, as he thinks, of myriads of suns, clustered like our galaxy into an isolated system--mere islands of matter in an infinite ocean of space. So distant from our universe are these now universes of Herschel's discovery that their light reaches us only as a dim, nebulous glow, in most cases invisible to the unaided eye. About a hundred of these nebulae were known when Herschel began his studies. Before the close of the century he had discovered about two thousand more of them, and many of these had been resolved by his largest telescopes into clusters of stars. He believed that the farthest of these nebulae that he could see was at least three hundred thousand times as distant from us as the nearest fixed star. Yet that nearest star--so more recent studies prove--is so remote that its light, travelling one hundred and eighty thousand miles a second, requires three and one-half years to reach our planet.
As if to give the finishing touches to this novel scheme of cosmology, Herschel, though in the main very little given to unsustained theorizing, allows himself the privilege of one belief that he cannot call upon his telescope to substantiate. He thinks that all the myriad suns of his numberless systems are instinct with life in the human sense. Giordano Bruno and a long line of his followers had held that some of our sister planets may be inhabited, but Herschel extends the thought to include the moon, the sun, the stars--all the heavenly bodies. He believes that he can demonstrate the habitability of our own sun, and, reasoning from analogy, he is firmly convinced that all the suns of all the systems are "well supplied with inhabitants." In this, as in some other inferences, Herschel is misled by the faulty physics of his time. Future generations, working with perfected instruments, may not sustain him all along the line of his observations, even, let alone his inferences. But how one's egotism shrivels and shrinks as one grasps the import of his sweeping thoughts!
Continuing his observations of the innumerable nebulae, Herschel is led presently to another curious speculative inference. He notes that some star groups are much more thickly clustered than others, and he is led to infer that such varied clustering tells of varying ages of the different nebulae. He thinks that at first all space may have been evenly sprinkled with the stars and that the grouping has resulted from the action of gravitation.
"That the Milky Way is a most extensive stratum of stars of various sizes admits no longer of lasting doubt," he declares, "and that our sun is actually one of the heavenly bodies belonging to it is as evident. I have now viewed and gauged this shining zone in almost every direction and find it composed of stars whose number ... constantly increases and decreases in proportion to its apparent brightness to the naked eye.
"Let us suppose numberless stars of various sizes, scattered over an indefinite portion of space in such a manner as to be almost equally distributed throughout the whole. The laws of attraction which no doubt extend to the remotest regions of the fixed stars will operate in such a manner as most probably to produce the following effects:
"In the first case, since we have supposed the stars to be of various sizes, it will happen that a star, being considerably larger than its neighboring ones, will attract them more than they will be attracted by others that are immediately around them; by which means they will be, in time, as it were, condensed about a centre, or, in other words, form themselves into a cluster of stars of almost a globular figure, more or less regular according to the size and distance of the surrounding stars....
"The next case, which will also happen almost as frequently as the former, is where a few stars, though not superior in size to the rest, may chance to be rather nearer one another than the surrounding ones,... and this construction admits of the utmost variety of shapes. . . .