A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter II
The progress of modern astronomy
The fixed stars
When Biela's comet gave the inhabitants of the earth such a fright in 1832, it really did not come within fifty millions of miles of us. Even the great comet through whose filmy tail the earth passed in 1861 was itself fourteen millions of miles away. The ordinary mind, schooled to measure space by the tiny stretches of a pygmy planet, cannot grasp the import of such distances; yet these are mere units of measure compared with the vast stretches of sidereal space. Were the comet which hurtles past us at a speed of, say, a hundred miles a second to continue its mad flight unchecked straight into the void of space, it must fly on its frigid way eight thousand years before it could reach the very nearest of our neighbor stars; and even then it would have penetrated but a mere arm's-length into the vistas where lie the dozen or so of sidereal residents that are next beyond. Even to the trained mind such distances are only vaguely imaginable. Yet the astronomer of our century has reached out across this unthinkable void and brought back many a secret which our predecessors thought forever beyond human grasp.

A tentative assault upon this stronghold of the stars was being made by Herschel at the beginning of the century. In 1802 that greatest of observing astronomers announced to the Royal Society his discovery that certain double stars had changed their relative positions towards one another since he first carefully charted them twenty years before. Hitherto it had been supposed that double stars were mere optical effects. Now it became clear that some of them, at any rate, are true "binary systems," linked together presumably by gravitation and revolving about one another. Halley had shown, three-quarters of a century before, that the stars have an actual or "proper" motion in space; Herschel himself had proved that the sun shares this motion with the other stars. Here was another shift of place, hitherto quite unsuspected, to be reckoned with by the astronomer in fathoming sidereal secrets.

Double stars.
When John Herschel, the only son and the worthy successor of the great astronomer, began star-gazing in earnest, after graduating senior wrangler at Cambridge, and making two or three tentative professional starts in other directions to which his versatile genius impelled him, his first extended work was the observation of his father's double stars. His studies, in which at first he had the collaboration of Mr. James South, brought to light scores of hitherto unrecognized pairs, and gave fresh data for the calculation of the orbits of those longer known. So also did the independent researches of F. G. W. Struve, the enthusiastic observer of the famous Russian observatory at the university of Dorpat, and subsequently at Pulkowa. Utilizing data gathered by these observers, M. Savary, of Paris, showed, in 1827, that the observed elliptical orbits of the double stars are explicable by the ordinary laws of gravitation, thus confirming the assumption that Newton's laws apply to these sidereal bodies. Henceforth there could be no reason to doubt that the same force which holds terrestrial objects on our globe pulls at each and every particle of matter throughout the visible universe.

The pioneer explorers of the double stars early found that the systems into which the stars are linked are by no means confined to single pairs. Often three or four stars are found thus closely connected into gravitation systems; indeed, there are all gradations between binary systems and great clusters containing hundreds or even thousands of members. It is known, for example, that the familiar cluster of the Pleiades is not merely an optical grouping, as was formerly supposed, but an actual federation of associated stars, some two thousand five hundred in number, only a few of which are visible to the unaided eve. And the more carefully the motions of the stars are studied, the more evident it becomes that widely separated stars are linked together into infinitely complex systems, as yet but little understood. At the same time, all instrumental advances tend to resolve more and more seemingly single stars into close pairs and minor clusters. The two Herschels between them discovered some thousands of these close multiple systems; Struve and others increased the list to above ten thousand; and Mr. S. W. Burnham, of late years the most enthusiastic and successful of double-star pursuers, added a thousand new discoveries while he was still an amateur in astronomy, and by profession the stenographer of a Chicago court. Clearly the actual number of multiple stars is beyond all present estimate.

The elder Herschel's early studies of double stars were undertaken in the hope that these objects might aid him in ascertaining the actual distance of a star, through measurement of its annual parallax - that is to say, of the angle which the diameter of the earth's orbit would subtend as seen from the star. The expectation was not fulfilled. The apparent shift of position of a star as viewed from opposite sides of the earth's orbit, from which the parallax might be estimated, is so extremely minute that it proved utterly inappreciable, even to the almost preternaturally acute vision of Herschel, with the aid of any instrumental means then at command. So the problem of star distance allured and eluded him to the end, and he died in 1822 without seeing it even in prospect of solution. His estimate of the minimum distance of the nearest star, based though it was on the fallacious test of apparent brilliancy, was a singularly sagacious one, but it was at best a scientific guess, not a scientific measurement.

The distance of the stars
Just about this time, however, a great optician came to the aid of the astronomers. Joseph Fraunhofer perfected the refracting telescope, as Herschel had perfected the reflector, and invented a wonderfully accurate "heliometer," or sun-measurer. With the aid of these instruments the old and almost infinitely difficult problem of star distance was solved. In 1838 Bessel announced from the Konigsberg observatory that he had succeeded, after months of effort, in detecting and measuring the parallax of a star. Similar claims had been made often enough before, always to prove fallacious when put to further test; but this time the announcement carried the authority of one of the greatest astronomers of the age, and scepticism was silenced.

Nor did Bessel's achievement long await corroboration. Indeed, as so often happens in fields of discovery, two other workers had almost simultaneously solved the same problem - Struve at Pulkowa, where the great Russian observatory, which so long held the palm over all others, had now been established; and Thomas Henderson, then working at the Cape of Good Hope, but afterwards the Astronomer Royal of Scotland. Henderson's observations had actual precedence in point of time, but Bessel's measurements were so much more numerous and authoritative that he has been uniformly considered as deserving the chief credit of the discovery, which priority of publication secured him.

By an odd chance, the star on which Henderson's observations were made, and consequently the first star the parallax of which was ever measured, is our nearest neighbor in sidereal space, being, indeed, some ten billions of miles nearer than the one next beyond. Yet even this nearest star is more than two hundred thousand times as remote from us as the sun. The sun's light flashes to the earth in eight minutes, and to Neptune in about three and a half hours, but it requires three and a half years to signal Alpha Centauri. And as for the great majority of the stars, had they been blotted out of existence before the Christian era, we of to-day should still receive their light and seem to see them just as we do. When we look up to the sky, we study ancient history; we do not see the stars as they ARE, but as they WERE years, centuries, even millennia ago.

The information derived from the parallax of a star by no means halts with the disclosure of the distance of that body. Distance known, the proper motion of the star, hitherto only to be reckoned as so many seconds of arc, may readily be translated into actual speed of progress; relative brightness becomes absolute lustre, as compared with the sun; and in the case of the double stars the absolute mass of the components may be computed from the laws of gravitation. It is found that stars differ enormously among themselves in all these regards. As to speed, some, like our sun, barely creep through space - compassing ten or twenty miles a second, it is true, yet even at that rate only passing through the equivalent of their own diameter in a day. At the other extreme, among measured stars, is one that moves two hundred miles a second; yet even this "flying star," as seen from the earth, seems to change its place by only about three and a half lunar diameters in a thousand years. In brightness, some stars yield to the sun, while others surpass him as the arc-light surpasses a candle. Arcturus, the brightest measured star, shines like two hundred suns; and even this giant orb is dim beside those other stars which are so distant that their parallax cannot be measured, yet which greet our eyes at first magnitude. As to actual bulk, of which apparent lustre furnishes no adequate test, some stars are smaller than the sun, while others exceed him hundreds or perhaps thousands of times. Yet one and all, so distant are they, remain mere disklike points of light before the utmost powers of the modern telescope.

Revelations of the Spectroscope.
All this seems wonderful enough, but even greater things were in store. In 1859 the spectroscope came upon the scene, perfected by Kirchhoff and Bunsen, along lines pointed out by Fraunhofer almost half a century before. That marvellous instrument, by revealing the telltale lines sprinkled across a prismatic spectrum, discloses the chemical nature and physical condition of any substance whose light is submitted to it, telling its story equally well, provided the light be strong enough, whether the luminous substance be near or far - in the same room or at the confines of space. Clearly such an instrument must prove a veritable magic wand in the hands of the astronomer.

Very soon eager astronomers all over the world were putting the spectroscope to the test. Kirchhoff himself led the way, and Donati and Father Secchi in Italy, Huggins and Miller in England, and Rutherfurd in America, were the chief of his immediate followers. The results exceeded the dreams of the most visionary. At the very outset, in 1860, it was shown that such common terrestrial substances as sodium, iron, calcium, magnesium, nickel, barium, copper, and zinc exist in the form of glowing vapors in the sun, and very soon the stars gave up a corresponding secret. Since then the work of solar and sidereal analysis has gone on steadily in the hands of a multitude of workers (prominent among whom, in this country, are Professor Young of Princeton, Professor Langley of Washington, and Professor Pickering of Harvard), and more than half the known terrestrial elements have been definitely located in the sun, while fresh discoveries are in prospect.

It is true the sun also contains some seeming elements that are unknown on the earth, but this is no matter for surprise. The modern chemist makes no claim for his elements except that they have thus far resisted all human efforts to dissociate them; it would be nothing strange if some of them, when subjected to the crucible of the sun, which is seen to vaporize iron, nickel, silicon, should fail to withstand the test. But again, chemistry has by no means exhausted the resources of the earth's supply of raw material, and the substance which sends its message from a star may exist undiscovered in the dust we tread or in the air we breathe. In the year 1895 two new terrestrial elements were discovered; but one of these had for years been known to the astronomer as a solar and suspected as a stellar element, and named helium because of its abundance in the sun. The spectroscope had reached out millions of miles into space and brought back this new element, and it took the chemist a score of years to discover that he had all along had samples of the same substance unrecognized in his sublunary laboratory. There is hardly a more picturesque fact than that in the entire history of science.

But the identity in substance of earth and sun and stars was not more clearly shown than the diversity of their existing physical conditions. It was seen that sun and stars, far from being the cool, earthlike, habitable bodies that Herschel thought them (surrounded by glowing clouds, and protected from undue heat by other clouds), are in truth seething caldrons of fiery liquid, or gas made viscid by condensation, with lurid envelopes of belching flames. It was soon made clear, also, particularly by the studies of Rutherfurd and of Secchi, that stars differ among themselves in exact constitution or condition. There are white or Sirian stars, whose spectrum revels in the lines of hydrogen; yellow or solar stars (our sun being the type), showing various metallic vapors; and sundry red stars, with banded spectra indicative of carbon compounds; besides the purely gaseous stars of more recent discovery, which Professor Pickering had specially studied. Zollner's famous interpretation of these diversities, as indicative of varying stages of cooling, has been called in question as to the exact sequence it postulates, but the general proposition that stars exist under widely varying conditions of temperature is hardly in dispute.

The assumption that different star types mark varying stages of cooling has the further support of modern physics, which has been unable to demonstrate any way in which the sun's radiated energy may be restored, or otherwise made perpetual, since meteoric impact has been shown to be - under existing conditions, at any rate - inadequate. In accordance with the theory of Helmholtz, the chief supply of solar energy is held to be contraction of the solar mass itself; and plainly this must have its limits. Therefore, unless some means as yet unrecognized is restoring the lost energy to the stellar bodies, each of them must gradually lose its lustre, and come to a condition of solidification, seeming sterility, and frigid darkness. In the case of our own particular star, according to the estimate of Lord Kelvin, such a culmination appears likely to occur within a period of five or six million years.

The Astronomy of the Invisible.
But by far the strongest support of such a forecast as this is furnished by those stellar bodies which even now appear to have cooled to the final stage of star development and ceased to shine. Of this class examples in miniature are furnished by the earth and the smaller of its companion planets. But there are larger bodies of the same type out in stellar space - veritable "dark stars" - invisible, of course, yet nowadays clearly recognized.

The opening up of this "astronomy of the invisible" is another of the great achievements of the nineteenth century, and again it is Bessel to whom the honor of discovery is due. While testing his stars for parallax; that astute observer was led to infer, from certain unexplained aberrations of motion, that various stars, Sirius himself among the number, are accompanied by invisible companions, and in 1840 he definitely predicated the existence of such "dark stars." The correctness of the inference was shown twenty years later, when Alvan Clark, Jr., the American optician, while testing a new lens, discovered the companion of Sirius, which proved thus to be faintly luminous. Since then the existence of other and quite invisible star companions has been proved incontestably, not merely by renewed telescopic observations, but by the curious testimony of the ubiquitous spectroscope.

One of the most surprising accomplishments of that instrument is the power to record the flight of a luminous object directly in the line of vision. If the luminous body approaches swiftly, its Fraunhofer lines are shifted from their normal position towards the violet end of the spectrum; if it recedes, the lines shift in the opposite direction. The actual motion of stars whose distance is unknown may be measured in this way. But in certain cases the light lines are seen to oscillate on the spectrum at regular intervals. Obviously the star sending such light is alternately approaching and receding, and the inference that it is revolving about a companion is unavoidable. From this extraordinary test the orbital distance, relative mass, and actual speed of revolution of the absolutely invisible body may be determined. Thus the spectroscope, which deals only with light, makes paradoxical excursions into the realm of the invisible. What secrets may the stars hope to conceal when questioned by an instrument of such necromantic power?

But the spectroscope is not alone in this audacious assault upon the strongholds of nature. It has a worthy companion and assistant in the photographic film, whose efficient aid has been invoked by the astronomer even more recently. Pioneer work in celestial photography was, indeed, done by Arago in France and by the elder Draper in America in 1839, but the results then achieved were only tentative, and it was not till forty years later that the method assumed really important proportions. In 1880, Dr. Henry Draper, at Hastings-on-the-Hudson, made the first successful photograph of a nebula. Soon after, Dr. David Gill, at the Cape observatory, made fine photographs of a comet, and the flecks of starlight on his plates first suggested the possibilities of this method in charting the heavens.

Since then star-charting with the film has come virtually to supersede the old method. A concerted effort is being made by astronomers in various parts of the world to make a complete chart of the heavens, and before the close of our century this work will be accomplished, some fifty or sixty millions of visible stars being placed on record with a degree of accuracy hitherto unapproachable. Moreover, other millions of stars are brought to light by the negative, which are too distant or dim to be visible with any telescopic powers yet attained - a fact which wholly discredits all previous inferences as to the limits of our sidereal system. Hence, notwithstanding the wonderful instrumental advances of the nineteenth century, knowledge of the exact form and extent of our universe seems more unattainable than it seemed a century ago.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.