History of Astronomy Forbes 1909 12 The Sun

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Geschichte der Astronomie bis 1909. Sprache des Werks: English. Version: 1.


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M.A., F.R.S., M. INST. C. E.,


We have seen how the theory of the solar system was slowly developed by the constant efforts of the human mind to find out what are the rules of cause and effect by which our conception of the present universe and its development seems to be bound. In the primitive ages a mere record of events in the heavens and on the earth gave the only hope of detecting those uniform sequences from which to derive rules or laws of cause and effect upon which to rely. Then came the geometrical age, in which rules were sought by which to predict the movements of heavenly bodies. Later, when the relation of the sun to the courses of the planets was established, the sun came to be looked upon as a cause; and finally, early in the seventeenth century, for the first time in history, it began to be recognised that the laws of dynamics, exactly as they had been established for our own terrestrial world, hold good, with the same rigid invariability, at least as far as the limits of the solar system.

Throughout this evolution of thought and conjecture there were two types of astronomers--those who supplied the facts, and those who supplied the interpretation through the logic of mathematics. So Ptolemy was dependent upon Hipparchus, Kepler on Tycho Brahe, and Newton in much of his work upon Flamsteed.

When Galileo directed his telescope to the heavens, when Secchi and Huggins studied the chemistry of the stars by means of the spectroscope, and when Warren De la Rue set up a photoheliograph at Kew, we see that a progress in the same direction as before, in the evolution of our conception of the universe, was being made. Without definite expression at any particular date, it came to be an accepted fact that not only do earthly dynamics apply to the heavenly bodies, but that the laws we find established here, in geology, in chemistry, and in the laws of heat, may be extended with confidence to the heavenly bodies. Hence arose the branch of astronomy called astronomical physics, a science which claims a large portion of the work of the telescope, spectroscope, and photography. In this new development it is more than ever essential to follow the dictum of Tycho Brahe--not to make theories until all the necessary facts are obtained. The great astronomers of to-day still hold to Sir Isaac Newton's declaration, "Hypotheses non fingo." Each one may have his suspicions of a theory to guide him in a course of observation, and may call it a working hypothesis. But the cautious astronomer does not proclaim these to the world; and the historian is certainly not justified in including in his record those vague speculations founded on incomplete data which may be demolished to-morrow, and which, however attractive they may be, often do more harm than good to the progress of true science. Meanwhile the accumulation of facts has been prodigious, and the revelations of the telescope and spectroscope entrancing.

12. THE SUN.

One of Galileo's most striking discoveries, when he pointed his telescope to the heavenly bodies, was that of the irregularly shaped spots on the sun, with the dark central _umbra_ and the less dark, but more extensive, _penumbra_ surrounding it, sometimes with several umbrae in one penumbra. He has left us many drawings of these spots, and he fixed their period of rotation as a lunar month.

[Illustration: SOLAR SURFACE, As Photographed at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, showing sun-spots with umbrae, penumbrae, and faculae.]

It is not certain whether Galileo, Fabricius, or Schemer was the first to see the spots. They all did good work. The spots were found to be ever varying in size and shape. Sometimes, when a spot disappears at the western limb of the sun, it is never seen again. In other cases, after a fortnight, it reappears at the eastern limb. The faculae, or bright areas, which are seen all over the sun's surface, but specially in the neighbourhood of spots, and most distinctly near the sun's edge, were discovered by Galileo. A high telescopic power resolves their structure into an appearance like willow-leaves, or rice-grains, fairly uniform in size, and more marked than on other parts of the sun's surface.

Speculations as to the cause of sun-spots have never ceased from Galileo's time to ours. He supposed them to be clouds. Scheiner[1] said they were the indications of tumultuous movements occasionally agitating the ocean of liquid fire of which he supposed the sun to be composed.

A. Wilson, of Glasgow, in 1769,[2] noticed a movement of the umbra relative to the penumbra in the transit of the spot over the sun's surface; exactly as if the spot were a hollow, with a black base and grey shelving sides. This was generally accepted, but later investigations have contradicted its universality. Regarding the cause of these hollows, Wilson said:--

 Whether their first production and subsequent numberless changes
 depend upon the eructation of elastic vapours from below, or upon
 eddies or whirlpools commencing at the surface, or upon the
 dissolving of the luminous matter in the solar atmosphere, as clouds
 are melted and again given out by our air; or, if the reader
 pleases, upon the annihilation and reproduction of parts of this
 resplendent covering, is left for theory to guess at.[3]

Ever since that date theory has been guessing at it. The solar astronomer is still applying all the instruments of modern research to find out which of these suppositions, or what modification of any of them, is nearest the truth. The obstacle--one that is perhaps fatal to a real theory--lies in the impossibility of reproducing comparative experiments in our laboratories or in our atmosphere.

Sir William Herschel propounded an explanation of Wilson's observation which received much notice, but which, out of respect for his memory, is not now described, as it violated the elementary laws of heat.

Sir John Herschel noticed that the spots are mostly confined to two zones extending to about 35° on each side of the equator, and that a zone of equatoreal calms is free from spots. But it was R. C. Carrington[4] who, by his continuous observations at Redhill, in Surrey, established the remarkable fact that, while the rotation period in the highest latitudes, 50°, where spots are seen, is twenty-seven-and-a-half days, near the equator the period is only twenty-five days. His splendid volume of observations of the sun led to much new information about the average distribution of spots at different epochs.

Schwabe, of Dessau, began in 1826 to study the solar surface, and, after many years of work, arrived at a law of frequency which has been more fruitful of results than any discovery in solar physics.[5] In 1843 he announced a decennial period of maxima and minima of sun-spot displays. In 1851 it was generally accepted, and, although a period of eleven years has been found to be more exact, all later observations, besides the earlier ones which have been hunted up for the purpose, go to establish a true periodicity in the number of sun-spots. But quite lately Schuster[6] has given reasons for admitting a number of co-existent periods, of which the eleven-year period was predominant in the nineteenth century.

In 1851 Lament, a Scotchman at Munich, found a decennial period in the daily range of magnetic declination. In 1852 Sir Edward Sabine announced a similar period in the number of "magnetic storms" affecting all of the three magnetic elements--declination, dip, and intensity. Australian and Canadian observations both showed the decennial period in all three elements. Wolf, of Zurich, and Gauthier, of Geneva, each independently arrived at the same conclusion.

It took many years before this coincidence was accepted as certainly more than an accident by the old-fashioned astronomers, who want rigid proof for every new theory. But the last doubts have long vanished, and a connection has been further traced between violent outbursts of solar activity and simultaneous magnetic storms.

The frequency of the Aurora Borealis was found by Wolf to follow the same period. In fact, it is closely allied in its cause to terrestrial magnetism. Wolf also collected old observations tracing the periodicity of sun-spots back to about 1700 A.D.

Spoerer deduced a law of dependence of the average latitude of sun-spots on the phase of the sun-spot period.

All modern total solar eclipse observations seem to show that the shape of the luminous corona surrounding the moon at the moment of totality has a special distinct character during the time of a sun-spot maximum, and another, totally different, during a sun-spot minimum.

A suspicion is entertained that the total quantity of heat received by the earth from the sun is subject to the same period. This would have far-reaching effects on storms, harvests, vintages, floods, and droughts; but it is not safe to draw conclusions of this kind except from a very long period of observations.

Solar photography has deprived astronomers of the type of Carrington of the delight in devoting a life's work to collecting data. It has now become part of the routine work of an observatory.

In 1845 Foucault and Fizeau took a daguerreotype photograph of the sun. In 1850 Bond produced one of the moon of great beauty, Draper having made some attempts at an even earlier date. But astronomical photography really owes its beginning to De la Rue, who used the collodion process for the moon in 1853, and constructed the Kew photoheliograph in 1857, from which date these instruments have been multiplied, and have given us an accurate record of the sun's surface. Gelatine dry plates were first used by Huggins in 1876.

It is noteworthy that from the outset De la Rue recognised the value of stereoscopic vision, which is now known to be of supreme accuracy. In 1853 he combined pairs of photographs of the moon in the same phase, but under different conditions regarding libration, showing the moon from slightly different points of view. These in the stereoscope exhibited all the relief resulting from binocular vision, and looked like a solid globe. In 1860 he used successive photographs of the total solar eclipse stereoscopically, to prove that the red prominences belong to the sun, and not to the moon. In 1861 he similarly combined two photographs of a sun-spot, the perspective effect showing the umbra like a floor at the bottom of a hollow penumbra; and in one case the faculæ were discovered to be sailing over a spot apparently at some considerable height. These appearances may be partly due to a proper motion; but, so far as it went, this was a beautiful confirmation of Wilson's discovery. Hewlett, however, in 1894, after thirty years of work, showed that the spots are not always depressions, being very subject to disturbance.

The Kew photographs [7] contributed a vast amount of information about sun-spots, and they showed that the faculæ generally follow the spots in their rotation round the sun.

The constitution of the sun's photosphere, the layer which is the principal light-source on the sun, has always been a subject of great interest; and much was done by men with exceptionally keen eyesight, like Mr. Dawes. But it was a difficult subject, owing to the rapidity of the changes in appearance of the so-called rice-grains, about 1" in diameter. The rapid transformations and circulations of these rice-grains, if thoroughly studied, might lead to a much better knowledge of solar physics. This seemed almost hopeless, as it was found impossible to identify any "rice-grain" in the turmoil after a few minutes. But M. Hansky, of Pulkowa (whose recent death is deplored), introduced successfully a scheme of photography, which might almost be called a solar cinematograph. He took photographs of the sun at intervals of fifteen or thirty seconds, and then enlarged selected portions of these two hundred times, giving a picture corresponding to a solar disc of six metres diameter. In these enlarged pictures he was able to trace the movements, and changes of shape and brightness, of individual rice-grains. Some granules become larger or smaller. Some seem to rise out of a mist, as it were, and to become clearer. Others grow feebler. Some are split in two. Some are rotated through a right angle in a minute or less, although each of the grains may be the size of Great Britain. Generally they move together in groups of very various velocities, up to forty kilometres a second. These movements seem to have definite relation to any sun-spots in the neighbourhood. From the results already obtained it seems certain that, if this method of observation be continued, it cannot fail to supply facts of the greatest importance.

It is quite impossible to do justice here to the work of all those who are engaged on astronomical physics. The utmost that can be attempted is to give a fair idea of the directions of human thought and endeavour. During the last half-century America has made splendid progress, and an entirely new process of studying the photosphere has been independently perfected by Professor Hale at Chicago, and Deslandres at Paris.[8] They have succeeded in photographing the sun's surface in monochromatic light, such as the light given off as one of the bright lines of hydrogen or of calcium, by means of the "Spectroheliograph." The spectroscope is placed with its slit in the focus of an equatoreal telescope, pointed to the sun, so that the circular image of the sun falls on the slit. At the other end of the spectroscope is the photographic plate. Just in front of this plate there is another slit parallel to the first, in the position where the image of the first slit formed by the K line of calcium falls. Thus is obtained a photograph of the section of the sun, made by the first slit, only in K light. As the image of the sun passes over the first slit the photographic plate is moved at the same rate and in the same direction behind the second slit; and as successive sections of the sun's image in the equatoreal enter the apparatus, so are these sections successively thrown in their proper place on the photographic plate, always in K light. By using a high dispersion the faculæ which give off K light can be correctly photographed, not only at the sun's edge, but all over his surface. The actual mechanical method of carrying out the observation is not quite so simple as what is here described.

By choosing another line of the spectrum instead of calcium K--for example, the hydrogen line H(3)--we obtain two photographs, one showing the appearance of the calcium floculi, and the other of the hydrogen floculi, on the same part of the solar surface; and nothing is more astonishing than to note the total want of resemblance in the forms shown on the two. This mode of research promises to afford many new and useful data.

The spectroscope has revealed the fact that, broadly speaking, the sun is composed of the same materials as the earth. Ångstrom was the first to map out all of the lines to be found in the solar spectrum. But Rowland, of Baltimore, after having perfected the art of making true gratings with equidistant lines ruled on metal for producing spectra, then proceeded to make a map of the solar spectrum on a large scale.

In 1866 Lockyer[9] threw an image of the sun upon the slit of a spectroscope, and was thus enabled to compare the spectrum of a spot with that of the general solar surface. The observation proved the darkness of a spot to be caused by increased absorption of light, not only in the dark lines, which are widened, but over the entire spectrum. In 1883 Young resolved this continuous obscurity into an infinite number of fine lines, which have all been traced in a shadowy way on to the general solar surface. Lockyer also detected displacements of the spectrum lines in the spots, such as would be produced by a rapid motion in the line of sight. It has been found that both uprushes and downrushes occur, but there is no marked predominance of either in a sun-spot. The velocity of motion thus indicated in the line of sight sometimes appears to amount to 320 miles a second. But it must be remembered that pressure of a gas has some effect in displacing the spectral lines. So we must go on, collecting data, until a time comes when the meaning of all the facts can be made clear.

_Total Solar Eclipses_.--During total solar eclipses the time is so short, and the circumstances so impressive, that drawings of the appearance could not always be trusted. The red prominences of jagged form that are seen round the moon's edge, and the corona with its streamers radiating or interlacing, have much detail that can hardly be recorded in a sketch. By the aid of photography a number of records can be taken during the progress of totality. From a study of these the extent of the corona is demonstrated in one case to extend to at least six diameters of the moon, though the eye has traced it farther. This corona is still one of the wonders of astronomy, and leads to many questions. What is its consistency, if it extends many million miles from the sun's surface? How is it that it opposed no resistance to the motion of comets which have almost grazed the sun's surface? Is this the origin of the zodiacal light? The character of the corona in photographic records has been shown to depend upon the phase of the sun-spot period. During the sun-spot maximum the corona seems most developed over the spot-zones--i.e., neither at the equator nor the poles. The four great sheaves of light give it a square appearance, and are made up of rays or plumes, delicate like the petals of a flower. During a minimum the nebulous ring seems to be made of tufts of fine hairs with aigrettes or radiations from both poles, and streamers from the equator.

[Illustration: SOLAR ECLIPSE, 1882. From drawing by W. H. Wesley, Secretary R.A.S.; showing the prominences, the corona, and an unknown comet.]

On September 19th, 1868, eclipse spectroscopy began with the Indian eclipse, in which all observers found that the red prominences showed a bright line spectrum, indicating the presence of hydrogen and other gases. So bright was it that Jansen exclaimed: "_Je verrai ces lignes-là en dehors des éclipses_." And the next day he observed the lines at the edge of the uneclipsed sun. Huggins had suggested this observation in February, 1868, his idea being to use prisms of such great dispersive power that the continuous spectrum reflected by our atmosphere should be greatly weakened, while a bright line would suffer no diminution by the high dispersion. On October 20th Lockyer,[10] having news of the eclipse, but not of Jansen's observations the day after, was able to see these lines. This was a splendid performance, for it enabled the prominences to be observed, not only during eclipses, but every day. Moreover, the next year Huggins was able, by using a wide slit, to see the whole of a prominence and note its shape. Prominences are classified, according to their form, into "flame" and "cloud" prominences, the spectrum of the latter showing calcium, hydrogen, and helium; that of the former including a number of metals.

The D line of sodium is a double line, and in the same eclipse (1868) an orange line was noticed which was afterwards found to lie close to the two components of the D line. It did not correspond with any known terrestrial element, and the unknown element was called "helium." It was not until 1895 that Sir William Ramsay found this element as a gas in the mineral cleavite.

The spectrum of the corona is partly continuous, indicating light reflected from the sun's body. But it also shows a green line corresponding with no known terrestrial element, and the name "coronium" has been given to the substance causing it.

A vast number of facts have been added to our knowledge about the sun by photography and the spectroscope. Speculations and hypotheses in plenty have been offered, but it may be long before we have a complete theory evolved to explain all the phenomena of the storm-swept metallic atmosphere of the sun.

The proceedings of scientific societies teem with such facts and "working hypotheses," and the best of them have been collected by Miss Clerke in her _History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century_. As to established facts, we learn from the spectroscopic researches (1) that the continuous spectrum is derived from the _photosphere_ or solar gaseous material compressed almost to liquid consistency; (2) that the _reversing layer_ surrounds it and gives rise to black lines in the spectrum; that the _chromosphere_ surrounds this, is composed mainly of hydrogen, and is the cause of the red prominences in eclipses; and that the gaseous _corona_ surrounds all of these, and extends to vast distances outside the sun's visible surface.


[1] _Rosa Ursina_, by C. Scheiner, _fol_.; Bracciani, 1630.

[2] _R. S. Phil. Trans_., 1774.

[3] _Ibid_, 1783.

[4] _Observations on the Spots on the Sun, etc.,_ 4°; London and Edinburgh, 1863.

[5] _Periodicität der Sonnenflecken. Astron. Nach. XXI._, 1844, P. 234.

[6] _R.S. Phil. Trans._ (ser. A), 1906, p. 69-100.

[7] "Researches on Solar Physics," by De la Rue, Stewart and Loewy; _R. S. Phil. Trans_., 1869, 1870.

[8] "The Sun as Photographed on the K line"; _Knowledge_, London, 1903, p. 229.

[9] _R. S. Proc._, xv., 1867, p. 256.

[10] _Acad. des Sc._, Paris; _C. R._, lxvii., 1868, p. 121.