II. THE PROGRESS OF MODERN ASTRONOMY
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.