The Windows of Absolute Nightby@serviss
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The Windows of Absolute Night

by Garrett P. ServissMarch 19th, 2023
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To most minds mystery is more fascinating than science. But when science itself leads straight up to the borders of mystery and there comes to a dead stop, saying, “At present I can no longer see my way,” the force of the charm is redoubled. On the other hand, the illimitable is no less potent in mystery than the invisible, whence the dramatic effect of Keats’ “stout Cortez” staring at the boundless Pacific while all his men look at each other with a wild surmise, “silent upon a peak in Darien.” It is with similar feelings that the astronomer regards certain places where from the peaks of the universe his vision seems to range out into endless empty space. He sees there the shore of his little isthmus, and, beyond, unexplored immensity.
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Curiosities of the Sky by Garrett Putman Serviss is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. The Windows of Absolute Night

The Windows of Absolute Night

To most minds mystery is more fascinating than science. But when science itself leads straight up to the borders of mystery and there comes to a dead stop, saying, “At present I can no longer see my way,” the force of the charm is redoubled. On the other hand, the illimitable is no less potent in mystery than the invisible, whence the dramatic effect of Keats’ “stout Cortez” staring at the boundless Pacific while all his men look at each other with a wild surmise, “silent upon a peak in Darien.” It is with similar feelings that the astronomer regards certain places where from the peaks of the universe his vision seems to range out into endless empty space. He sees there the shore of his little isthmus, and, beyond, unexplored immensity.

The name, “coal-sacks,” given to these strange voids is hardly descriptive. Rather they produce upon the mind the effect of blank windows in a lonely house on a pitch-dark night, which, when looked at from the brilliant interior, become appalling in their rayless murk. Infinity seems to acquire a new meaning in the presence of these black openings in the sky, for as one continues to gaze it loses its purely metaphysical quality and becomes a kind of entity, like the ocean. The observer is conscious that he can actually see the beginning of its ebon depths, in which the visible universe appears to float like an enchanted island, resplendent within with lights and life and gorgeous spectacles, and encircled with screens of crowded stars, but with its dazzling vistas ending at the fathomless sea of pure darkness which encloses all.

The Galaxy, or Milky Way, surrounds the borders of our island in space like a stellar garland, and when openings appear in it they are, by contrast, far more impressive than the general darkness of the interstellar expanse seen in other directions. Yet even that expanse is not everywhere equally dark, for it contains gloomy deeps discernable with careful watching. Here, too, contrast plays an important part, though less striking than within the galactic region. Some of Sir William Herschel’s observations appear to indicate an association between these tenebrious spots and neighboring star clouds and nebulæ. It is an illuminating bit of astronomical history that when he was sweeping the then virgin heavens with his great telescopes he was accustomed to say to his sister who, note-book in hand, waited at his side to take down his words, fresh with the inspiration of discovery: “Prepare to write; the nebulæ are coming; here space is vacant.”

The most famous of the “coal-sacks,” and the first to be brought to general attention before astronomers had awakened to the significance of such things, lies adjacent to the “Southern Cross,” and is truly an amazing phenomenon. It is not alone the conspicuousness of this celestial vacancy, opening suddenly in the midst of one of the richest parts of the Galaxy, that has given it its fame, but quite as much the superstitious awe with which it was regarded by the early explorers of the South Seas. To them, as well as to those who listened in rapt wonder to their tales, the “Coal-sack” seemed to possess some occult connection with the mystic “Cross.” In the eyes of the sailors it was not a vacancy so much as a sable reality in the sky, and as, shuddering, they stared at it, they piously crossed themselves. It was another of the magical wonders of the unknown South, and as such it formed the basis of many a “wild surmise” and many a sea-dog’s yarn. Scientific investigation has not diminished its prestige, and today no traveler in the southern hemisphere is indifferent to its fascinating strangeness, while some find it the most impressive spectacle of the antarctic heavens.

All around, up to the very edge of the yawning gap, the sheen of the Milky Way is surpassingly glorious; but there, as if in obedience to an almighty edict, everything vanishes. A single faint star is visible within the opening, producing a curious effect upon the sensitive spectator, like the sight of a tiny islet in the midst of a black, motionless, waveless tarn. The dimensions of the lagoon of darkness, which is oval or pear-shaped, are eight degrees by five, so that it occupies a space in the sky about one hundred and thirty times greater than the area of the full moon. It attracts attention as soon as the eye is directed toward the quarter where it exists, and by virtue of the rarity of such phenomena it appears a far greater wonder than the drifts of stars that are heaped around it. Now that observatories are multiplying in the southern hemisphere, the great austral “Coal-sack” will, no doubt, receive attention proportioned to its importance as one of the most significant features of the sky. Already at the Sydney Observatory photographs have shown that the southern portion of this Dead Sea of Space is not quite “bottomless,” although its northern part defies the longest sounding lines of the astronomer.

There is a similar, but less perfect, “coal-sack” in the northern hemisphere, in the constellation of “The Swan,” which, strange to say, also contains a well-marked figure of a cross outlined by stars. This gap lies near the top of the cross-shaped figure. It is best seen by averted vision, which brings out the contrast with the Milky Way, which is quite brilliant around it. It does not, however, exercise the same weird attraction upon the eye as the southern “Coal-sack,” for instead of looking like an absolute void in the sky, it rather appears as if a canopy of dark gauze had been drawn over the stars. We shall see the possible significance of this appearance later.

The Milky Way. Region near M.S. Photographed by Professor Barnard

Just above the southern horizon of our northern middle latitudes, in summer, where the Milky Way breaks up into vast sheets of nebulous luminosity, lying over and between the constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, there is a remarkable assemblage of “coal-sacks,” though none is of great size. One of them, near a conspicuous star-cluster in Scorpio, M80, is interesting for having been the first of these strange objects noted by Herschel. Probably it was its nearness to M80 which suggested to his mind the apparent connection of such vacancies with star-clusters which we have already mentioned.

But the most marvelous of the “coal-sacks” are those that have been found by photography in Sagittarius. One of Barnard’s earliest and most excellent photographs includes two of them, both in the star-cluster M8. The larger, which is roughly rectangular in outline, contains one little star, and its smaller neighbor is lune-shaped—surely a most singular form for such an object. Both are associated with curious dark lanes running through the clustered stars like trails in the woods. Along the borders of these lanes the stars are ranked in parallel rows, and what may be called the bottoms of the lanes are not entirely dark, but pebbled with faint stellar points. One of them which skirts the two dark gaps and traverses the cluster along its greatest diameter is edged with lines of stars, recalling the alignment of the trees bordering a French highway. This road of stars cannot be less than many billions of miles in length!

All about the cluster the bed of the Galaxy is strangely disturbed, and in places nearly denuded, as if its contents had been raked away to form the immense stack and the smaller accumulations of stars around it. The well-known “Trifid Nebula” is also included in the field of the photograph, which covers a truly marvelous region, so intricate in its mingling of nebulæ, star-clusters, star-swarms, star-streams, and dark vacancies that no description can do it justice. Yet, chaotic as it appears, there is an unmistakable suggestion of unity about it, impressing the beholder with the idea that all the different parts are in some way connected, and have not been fortuitously thrown together. Miss Agnes M. Clerke made the striking remark that the dusky lanes in M8 are exemplified on the largest scale in the great rift dividing the Milky Way, from Cygnus in the northern hemisphere all the way to the “Cross” in the southern. Similar lanes are found in many other clusters, and they are generally associated with flanking rows of stars, resembling in their arrangement the thick-set houses and villas along the roadways that traverse the approaches to a great city.

But to return to the black gaps. Are they really windows in the star-walls of the universe? Some of them look rather as if they had been made by a shell fired through a luminous target, allowing the eye to range through the hole into the void space beyond. If science is discretely silent about these things, what can the more venturesome and less responsible imagination suggest? Would a huge “runaway sun,” like Arcturus, for instance, make such an opening if it should pass like a projectile through the Milky Way? It is at least a stimulating inquiry. Being probably many thousands of times more massive than the galactic stars, such a stellar missile would not be stopped by them, though its direction of flight might be altered. It would drag the small stars lying close to its course out of their spheres, but the ultimate tendency of its attraction would be to sweep them round in its wake, thus producing rather a star-swarm than a vacancy. Those that were very close to it might be swept away in its rush and become its satellites, careering away with it in its flight into outer space; but those that were farther off, and they would, of course, greatly outnumber the nearer ones, would tend inward from all sides toward the line of flight, as dust and leaves collect behind a speeding motor (though the forces operating would be different), and would fill up the hole, if hole it were. A swarm thus collected should be rounded in outline and bordered with a relatively barren ring from which the stars had been “sucked” away. In a general sense the M8 cluster answers to this description, but even if we undertook to account for its existence by a supposition like the above, the black gaps would remain unexplained, unless one could make a further draft on the imagination and suggest that the stars had been thrown into a vast eddy, or system of eddies, whose vortices appear as dark holes. Only a maelstrom-like motion could keep such a funnel open, for without regard to the impulse derived from the projectile, the proper motions of the stars themselves would tend to fill it. Perhaps some other cause of the whirling motion may be found. As we shall see when we come to the spiral nebulæ, gyratory movements are exceedingly prevalent throughout the universe, and the structure of the Milky Way is everywhere suggestive of them. But this is hazardous sport even for the imagination—to play with suns as if they were but thistle-down in the wind or corks in a mill-race.

Another question arises: What is the thickness of the hedge of stars through which the holes penetrate? Is the depth of the openings proportionate to their width? In other words, is the Milky Way round in section like a rope, or flat and thin like a ribbon? The answer is not obvious, for we have little or no information concerning the relative distances of the faint galactic stars. It would be easier, certainly, to conceive of openings in a thin belt than in a massive ring, for in the first case they would resemble mere rifts and breaks, while in the second they would be like wells or bore-holes. Then, too, the fact that the Milky Way is not a continuous body but is made up of stars whose actual distances apart is great, offers another quandary; persistent and sharply bordered apertures in such an assemblage are a priori as improbable, if not impossible, as straight, narrow holes running through a swarm of bees.

The difficulty of these questions indicates one of the reasons why it has been suggested that the seeming gaps, or many of them, are not openings at all, but opaque screens cutting off the light from stars behind them. That this is quite possible in some cases is shown by Barnard’s later photographs, particularly those of the singular region around the star Rho Ophiuchi. Here are to be seen somber lanes and patches, apparently forming a connected system which covers an immense space, and which their discoverer thinks may constitute a “dark nebula.” This seems at first a startling suggestion; but, after all, why should their not be dark nebulæ as well as visible ones? In truth, it has troubled some astronomers to explain the luminosity of the bright nebulæ, since it is not to be supposed that matter in so diffuse a state can be incandescent through heat, and phosphorescent light is in itself a mystery. The supposition is also in accord with what we know of the existence of dark solid bodies in space. Many bright stars are accompanied by obscure companions, sometimes as massive as themselves; the planets are non-luminous; the same is true of meteors before they plunge into the atmosphere and become heated by friction; and many plausible reasons have been found for believing that space contains as many obscure as shining bodies of great size. It is not so difficult, after all, then, to believe that there are immense collections of shadowy gases and meteoric dust whose presence is only manifested when they intercept the light coming from shining bodies behind them.

This would account for the apparent extinguishment of light in open space, which is indicated by the falling off in relative number of telescopic stars below the tenth magnitude. Even as things are, the amount of light coming to us from stars too faint to be seen with the naked eye is so great that the statement of it generally surprises persons who are unfamiliar with the inner facts of astronomy. It has been calculated that on a clear night the total starlight from the entire celestial sphere amounts to one-sixtieth of the light of the full moon; but of this less than one-twenty-fifth is due to stars separately distinguished by the eye. If there were no obscuring medium in space, it is probable that the amount of starlight would be noticeably and perhaps enormously increased.

But while it seems certain that some of the obscure spots in the Milky Way are due to the presence of “dark nebulæ,” or concealing veils of one kind or another, it is equally certain that there are many which are true apertures, however they may have been formed, and by whatever forces they may be maintained. These, then, are veritable windows of the Galaxy, and when looking out of them one is face to face with the great mystery of infinite space. There the known universe visibly ends, but manifestly space itself does not end there. It is not within the power of thought to conceive an end to space, for the instant we think of a terminal point or line the mind leaps forward to the beyond. There must be space outside as well as inside. Eternity of time and infinity of space are ideas that the intellect cannot fully grasp, but neither can it grasp the idea of a limitation to either space or time. The metaphysical conceptions of hypergeometry, or fourth-dimensional space, do not aid us.

Having, then, discovered that the universe is a thing contained in something indefinitely greater than itself; having looked out of its windows and found only the gloom of starless night outside—what conclusions are we to draw concerning the beyond? It seems as empty as a vacuum, but is it really so? If it be, then our universe is a single atom astray in the infinite; it is the only island in an ocean without shores; it is the one oasis in an illimitable desert. Then the Milky Way, with its wide-flung garland of stars, is afloat like a tiny smoke-wreath amid a horror of immeasurable vacancy, or it is an evanescent and solitary ring of sparkling froth cast up for a moment on the viewless billows of immensity. From such conclusions the mind instinctively shrinks. It prefers to think that there is something beyond, though we cannot see it. Even the universe could not bear to be alone—a Crusoe lost in the Cosmos! As the inhabitants of the most elegant château, with its gardens, parks, and crowds of attendants, would die of loneliness if they did not know that they have neighbors, though not seen, and that a living world of indefinite extent surrounds them, so we, when we perceive that the universe has limits, wish to feel that it is not solitary; that beyond the hedges and the hills there are other centers of life and activity. Could anything be more terrible than the thought of an isolated universe? The greater the being, the greater the aversion to seclusion. Only the infinite satisfies; in that alone the mind finds rest.

We are driven, then, to believe that the universal night which envelopes us is not tenantless; that as we stare out of the star-framed windows of the Galaxy and see nothing but uniform blackness, the fault is with our eyes or is due to an obscuring medium. Since our universe is limited in extent, there must be other universes beyond it on all sides. Perhaps if we could carry our telescopes to the verge of the great “Coal-sack” near the “Cross,” being then on the frontier of our starry system, we could discern, sparkling afar off in the vast night, some of the outer galaxies. They may be grander than ours, just as many of the suns surrounding us are immensely greater than ours. If we could take our stand somewhere in the midst of immensity and, with vision of infinite reach, look about us, we should perhaps see a countless number of stellar systems, amid which ours would be unnoticeable, like a single star among the multitude glittering in the terrestial sky on a clear night. Some might be in the form of a wreath, like our own; some might be globular, like the great star-clusters in Hercules and Centaurus; some might be glittering circles, or disks, or rings within rings. If we could enter them we should probably find a vast variety of composition, including elements unknown to terrestrial chemistry; for while the visible universe appears to contain few if any substances not existing on the earth or in the sun, we have no warrant to assume that others may not exist in infinite space.

And how as to gravitation? We do not know that gravitation acts beyond the visible universe, but it is reasonable to suppose that it does. At any rate, if we let go its sustaining hand we are lost, and can only wander hopelessly in our speculations, like children astray. If the empire of gravitation is infinite, then the various outer systems must have some, though measuring by our standards an imperceptible, attractive influence upon each other, for gravitation never lets go its hold, however great the space over which it is required to act. Just as the stars about us are all in motion, so the starry systems beyond our sight may be in motion, and our system as a whole may be moving in concert with them. If this be so, then after interminable ages the aspect of the entire system of systems must change, its various members assuming new positions with respect to one another. In the course of time we may even suppose that our universe will approach relatively close to one of the others; and then, if men are yet living on the earth, they may glimpse through the openings which reveal nothing to us now, the lights of another nearing star system, like the signals of a strange squadron, bringing them the assurance (which can be but an inference at present) that the ocean of space has other argosies venturing on its limitless expanse.

There remains the question of the luminiferous ether by whose agency the waves of light are borne through space. The ether is as mysterious as gravitation. With regard to ether we only infer its existence from the effects which we ascribe to it. Evidently the ether must extend as far as the most distant visible stars. But does it continue on indefinitely in outer space? If it does, then the invisibility of the other systems must be due to their distance diminishing the quantity of light that comes from them below the limit of perceptibility, or to the interposition of absorbing media; if it does not, then the reason why we cannot see them is owing to the absence of a means of conveyance for the light waves, as the lack of an interplanetary atmosphere prevents us from hearing the thunder of sun-spots. (It is interesting to recall that Mr Edison was once credited with the intention to construct a gigantic microphone which should render the roar of sun-spots audible by transforming the electric vibrations into sound-waves). On this supposition each starry system would be enveloped in its own globule of ether, and no light could cross from one to another. But the probability is that both the ether and gravitation are ubiquitous, and that all the stellar systems are immersed in the former like clouds of phosphorescent organisms in the sea.

So astronomy carries the mind from height to greater height. Men were long in accepting the proofs of the relative insignificance of the earth; they were more quickly convinced of the comparative littleness of the solar system; and now the evidence assails their reason that what they had regarded as the universe is only one mote gleaming in the sunbeams of Infinity.

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This book is part of the public domain. Garrett Putman Serviss (2004). Curiosities of the Sky. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

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