WE TRY TO MAKE A MAPby@robertsball


by Robert S. BallApril 24th, 2023
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The group of bodies which cluster around our sun forms a little island, so to speak, in the extent of infinite space. We may illustrate this by a map in which we shall endeavor to show the stars placed at their proper relative distances. We first open the compasses one inch, and thus draw a little circle to represent the path of the earth. We are not going to put in all the planets. We take Neptune, the outermost, at once. To draw its path I open the compasses to thirty inches, and draw a circle with that radius. That will do for our solar system, though the comets no doubt will roam beyond these limits. To complete our map we ought of course to put in some stars. There are a hundred million to choose from, and we shall begin with the brightest. It is often called the Dog Star, but astronomers know it better as Sirius. Let us see where it is to be placed on our map. Sirius is beyond Neptune, so it must be outside somewhere. Indeed, it is a good deal further off than Neptune; so I try at the edge of the drawing-board; I have got a method of making a little calculation that I do not intend to trouble you with, but I can assure you that the results it leads me to are quite correct; they show me that this board is not big enough. But could a board which was big enough fit into this lecture theatre? Here, again, I make my little calculations, and I find that there would not be room for a board sufficiently great; in fact, if I put the sun here at one end, with its planets around it, Sirius would be too near on the same scale if it were at the further corner. The board would have to go out through the wall of the theatre, out through London. Indeed, big as London is, it would not be large enough to contain the drawing-board that I should require. It would have to stretch about twenty miles from where we are now assembled. We may therefore dismiss any hope of making a practical map of our system on this scale if Sirius is to have its proper place. Let us, then, take some other star. We shall naturally try with the nearest of all. It is one that we do not know in this part of the world, but those that live in the southern hemisphere are well acquainted with it. The name of this star is Alpha Centauri. Even for this star, we should require a drawing three or four miles long if the distance from the earth to the sun is to be taken as one inch. You see what an isolated position our sun and his planets occupy. The members of the family are all close together, and the nearest neighbors are situated at enormous distances. There is a good reason for this separation. The stars are very pretty and perfectly harmless to us where they are at present situated. They might be very troublesome neighbors if they were very much closer to our system. It is therefore well they are so far off; they would be constantly making disturbance in the sun’s family if they were near at hand. Sometimes they would be dragging us into unpleasantly great heat by bringing us too close to the sun, or producing a coolness by pulling us away from the sun, which would be quite as disagreeable.
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Star-land: Being Talks With Young People About the Wonders of the Heavens by Robert S. Ball is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. STARS


We try to make a Map—The Stars are Suns—The Numbers of the Stars—The Clusters of Stars—The Rank of the Earth as a Globe in Space—The Distances of the Stars—The Brightness and Color of Stars—Double Stars—How we find what the Stars are made of—The Nebulæ—What the Nebulæ are made of—Photographing the Nebulæ—Conclusion.


The group of bodies which cluster around our sun forms a little island, so to speak, in the extent of infinite space. We may illustrate this by a map in which we shall endeavor to show the stars placed at their proper relative distances. We first open the compasses one inch, and thus draw a little circle to represent the path of the earth. We are not going to put in all the planets. We take Neptune, the outermost, at once. To draw its path I open the compasses to thirty inches, and draw a circle with that radius. That will do for our solar system, though the comets no doubt will roam beyond these limits. To complete our map we ought of course to put in some stars. There are a hundred million to choose from, and we shall begin with the brightest. It is often called the Dog Star, but astronomers know it better as Sirius. Let us see where it is to be placed on our map. Sirius is beyond Neptune, so it must be outside somewhere. Indeed, it is a good deal further off than Neptune; so I try at the edge of the drawing-board; I have got a method of making a little calculation that I do not intend to trouble you with, but I can assure you that the results it leads me to are quite correct; they show me that this board is not big enough. But could a board which was big enough fit into this lecture theatre? Here, again, I make my little calculations, and I find that there would not be room for a board sufficiently great; in fact, if I put the sun here at one end, with its planets around it, Sirius would be too near on the same scale if it were at the further corner. The board would have to go out through the wall of the theatre, out through London. Indeed, big as London is, it would not be large enough to contain the drawing-board that I should require. It would have to stretch about twenty miles from where we are now assembled. We may therefore dismiss any hope of making a practical map of our system on this scale if Sirius is to have its proper place. Let us, then, take some other star. We shall naturally try with the nearest of all. It is one that we do not know in this part of the world, but those that live in the southern hemisphere are well acquainted with it. The name of this star is Alpha Centauri. Even for this star, we should require a drawing three or four miles long if the distance from the earth to the sun is to be taken as one inch. You see what an isolated position our sun and his planets occupy. The members of the family are all close together, and the nearest neighbors are situated at enormous distances. There is a good reason for this separation. The stars are very pretty and perfectly harmless to us where they are at present situated. They might be very troublesome neighbors if they were very much closer to our system. It is therefore well they are so far off; they would be constantly making disturbance in the sun’s family if they were near at hand. Sometimes they would be dragging us into unpleasantly great heat by bringing us too close to the sun, or producing a coolness by pulling us away from the sun, which would be quite as disagreeable.


We are about to discuss one of the grandest truths in the whole of nature. We have had occasion to see that this sun of ours is a magnificent globe immensely larger than the greatest of his planets, while the greatest of these planets is immensely larger than this earth; but now we are to learn that our sun is, indeed, only a star not nearly so bright as many of those which shine over our heads every night. We are comparatively close to the sun, so that we are able to enjoy his beautiful light and cheering heat. Each of those other myriads of stars is a sun, and the splendor of those distant suns is often far greater than that of our own. We are, however, so enormously far from them that they appear dwindled down to insignificance. To judge impartially between our sun or star and such a sun or star as Sirius we should stand halfway between the two; it is impossible to make a fair estimate when we find ourselves situated close to one star and a million times as far from the other. After allowance is made321 for the imperfections of our point of view, we are enabled to realize the majestic truth that the sun is no more than a star, and that the other stars are no less than suns. This gives us an imposing idea of the extent and the magnificence of the universe in which we are situated. Look up at the sky at night—you will see a host of stars; try to think that every one of them is itself a sun. It may probably be that those suns have planets circulating round them, but it is hopeless for us to expect to see such planets. Were you standing on one of those stars and looking towards our system, you would not perceive the sun to be the brilliant and gorgeous object that we knew so well. If you could see him at all, he would merely seem like a star, not nearly so bright as many of those you can see at night. Even if you had the biggest of telescopes to aid your vision, you could never discern from one of these bodies the planets which surround the sun. No astronomer in the stars could see Jupiter even if his sight were a thousand times as good or his telescopes a thousand times as powerful as any sight or telescope that we know. So minute an object as our earth would, of course, be still more hopelessly beyond the possibility of vision.


To count the stars involves a task which lies beyond the power of man to accomplish. Even without the aid of any telescope, we can see a great multitude of stars from this part of the world. There are also many322 constellations in the southern hemisphere which never appear above our horizon. If, however, we were to go to the equator, then, by waiting there for a twelve-month, all the stars in the heavens would have been successively exposed to view. An astronomer, Houzeau, with the patience to count them, enumerated about 6000. This is the naked-eye estimate of the star-population of the heavens; but if, instead of relying on unaided vision, you get the assistance of a little telescope, you will be astounded at the enormous multitude of stars which are disclosed.

Fig. 82.—The Great Bear and the Pole.

An ordinary opera-glass or binocular is a very useful instrument for looking at the stars in the heavens. If you employ an instrument of this sort, you will be amazed to find that the heavens teem with additional323 hosts of stars that your unaided vision would never have given you knowledge of. Any part of the sky may be observed; but, just to give an illustration, I shall take one special region, namely, that of the Great Bear (Fig. 82). The seven well-known stars are here shown, four of which form a sort of oblong, while the other three represent the tail. I would like you to make this little experiment. On a fine clear night, count how many stars there are within this oblong; they are all very faint, but you will be able to see a few, and, with good sight, and on a clear night, you may see perhaps ten. Next take your opera-glass and sweep it over the same region; if you will carefully count the stars it shows, you will find fully 200; so that the opera-glass has, in this part of the sky, revealed nearly twenty times as many stars as could be seen without its aid. As 6000 stars can be seen by the eye all over the heavens, we may fairly expect that twenty times that number—that is to say, 120,000 stars—could be shown by the opera-glass over the entire sky. Let us go a step further, and employ a telescope, the object-glass of which is three inches across. This is a useful telescope to have, and, if a good one, will show multitudes of pleasing objects, though an astronomer would not consider it very powerful. An instrument like this, small enough to be carried in the hand, has been applied to the task of enumerating the stars in the northern half of the sky, and 320,000 stars were counted. Indeed, the actual number that might have been seen with it is considerably greater, for when the astronomer Argelander made this memorable investigation324 he was unable to reckon many of the stars in localities where they lay very close together. This grand count only extended to half the sky, and, assuming that the other half is as richly inlaid with stars, we see that a little telescope like that we have supposed will, when swept over the heavens, reveal a number of stars which exceeds that of the population of any city in England except London. It exhibits more than one hundred times as many stars as our eyes could possibly reveal. Still, we are only at the beginning of the count; the very great telescopes add largely to the number. There are multitudes of stars which in small instruments we cannot see, but which are distinctly visible from our great observatories. That telescope would be still but a comparatively small one which would show as many stars in the sky as there are people living in this mighty city of London; and with the greatest instruments, the tale of stars has risen to a number far greater than that of the entire population of Great Britain.

In addition to those stars which the largest telescopes show us, there are myriads which make their presence evident in a wholly different way. It is only in quite recent times that an attempt has been made to develop fully the powers of photography in representing the celestial objects. On a photographic plate which has been exposed to the sky in a great telescope the stars are recorded by thousands. Many of these may, of course, be observed with a good telescope, but there are not a few others which no one ever saw in a telescope, which apparently no one ever could see, though325 the photograph is able to show them. We do not, however, employ a camera like that which the photographer uses who is going to take your portrait. The astronomer’s plate is put into his telescope, and then the telescope is turned towards the sky. On that plate the stars produce their images, each by its own light. Some of these images are excessively faint, but we give a very long exposure of an hour or two hours; sometimes as much as four hours’ exposure is given to a plate so sensitive that a mere fraction of a second would sufficiently expose it during the ordinary practice of taking a photograph in daylight. We thus afford sufficient time to enable the fainter objects to indicate their presence upon the sensitive film. Even with an exposure of a single hour a picture exhibiting 16,000 stars has been taken by Mr. Isaac Roberts, of Liverpool. Yet the portion of the sky which it represents is only one ten-thousandth part of the entire heavens. It should be added that the region which Mr. Roberts has photographed is furnished with stars in rather exceptional profusion.

Here, at last, we have obtained some conception of the sublime scale on which the stellar universe is constructed. Yet even these plates cannot represent all the stars that the heavens contain. We have every reason for knowing that with larger telescopes, with more sensitive plates, with more prolonged exposures, ever fresh myriads of stars will be brought within our view.

You must remember that every one of these stars is truly a sun, a lamp, as it were, which doubtless gives light to other objects in its neighborhood as our sun326 sheds light upon this earth and the other planets. In fact, to realize the glories of the heavens you should try to think that the brilliant points you see are merely the luminous points of the otherwise invisible universe.

Standing one fine night on the deck of a Cunarder we passed in open ocean another great Atlantic steamer. The vessel was near enough for us to see not only the light from the mast-head but also the little beams from the several cabin ports; and we could see nothing of the ship herself. Her very existence was only known to us by the twinkle of these lights. Doubtless her passengers could see, and did see, the similar lights from our own vessel, and they probably drew the correct inference that these lights indicated a great ship.

Consider the multiplicity of beings and objects in a ship: the captain and the crew, the passengers, the cabins, the engines, the boats, the rigging, and the stores. Think of all the varied interests there collected and then reflect that out on the ocean, at night, the sole indication of the existence of this elaborate structure was given by the few beams of light that happened to radiate from it. Now raise your eyes to the stars; there are the twinkling lights. We cannot see what those lights illuminate, we can only conjecture what untold wealth of non-luminous bodies may also lie in their vicinity; we may, however, feel certain that just as the few gleaming lights from a ship are utterly inadequate to give a notion of the nature and the contents of an Atlantic steamer, so are the twinkling stars utterly inadequate to give even the faintest conception of the327 extent and the interest of the universe. We merely see self-luminous bodies, but of the multitudes of objects and the elaborate systems of which these bodies are only the conspicuous points we see nothing and we know very little. We are, however, entitled to infer from an examination of our own star—the sun—and of the beautiful system by which it is surrounded, that these other suns may be also splendidly attended. This is quite as reasonable a supposition as that a set of lights seen at night on the Atlantic Ocean indicates the existence of a fine ship.


On a clear night you can often see, stretching across the sky, a track of faint light, which is known to astronomers as the “Milky Way.” It extends below the horizon and then round the earth to form a girdle about the heavens. When we examine the Milky Way with a telescope we find, to our amazement, that it consists of myriads of stars, so small and so faint that we are not able to distinguish them individually; we merely see the glow produced from their collective rays. Remembering that our sun is a star, and that the Milky Way surrounds us, it would almost seem as if our sun were but one of the host of stars which form this cluster.

Fig. 83.—Globular Cluster in the Centaur.

There are also other clusters of stars, some of which are exquisitely beautiful telescopic spectacles. I may mention a celebrated pair of these objects which lies in the constellation of Perseus. The sight of them in a great telescope is so imposing that no one who is fit to328 look through a telescope could resist a shout of wonder and admiration when first they burst on his view. But there are other clusters. Here is a picture of one which is known as the “Globular Cluster in the Centaur” (Fig. 83). It consists of a ball of stars, so far off that, however large these several suns may actually be, they have dwindled down to extremely small points of light. A homely illustration may serve to show the appearance which a globular cluster presents in a good telescope. I take a pepper-castor and on a sheet of white paper I begin to shake out the pepper until there is a little heap at the centre and other grains are scattered loosely about. Imagine that every one of those grains of pepper was to be transformed into a tiny electric light, and then you have some idea of what a cluster of stars would look like when viewed through a telescope of sufficient power. There are multitudes of such329 groups scattered through the depths of space. They require our biggest telescopes to show them adequately. We have seen that our sun is a star, being only one of a magnificent cluster that form the Milky Way. We have also seen that there are other groups scattered through the length and depth of space. It is thus we obtain a notion of the rank which our earth holds in the scheme of things celestial.


Let me give an illustration with the view of explaining more fully the nature of the relation which the earth bears to the other globes which abound through space, and you must allow me to draw a little upon my imagination. I shall suppose that Her Majesty’s mails extend not only over this globe, but that they also communicate with other worlds; that postal arrangements exist between Mars and the earth, between the sun and Orion—in fact, everywhere throughout the whole extent of the universe. We shall consider how our letters are to be addressed. Let us take the case of Mr. John Smith, merchant, who lives at 1001, Piccadilly; and let us suppose that Mr. John Smith’s business transactions are of such an extensive nature that they reach not only all over this globe, but away throughout space. I shall suppose that the firm has a correspondent residing—let us say in the constellation of the Great Bear; and when this man of business wants to write to Mr. Smith from these remote regions, what address must he put upon the letter, so that the Postmaster-General of330 the universe shall make no mistake about its delivery? He will write as follows:—

Let us now see what the several lines of this address mean. Of course we put down the name of Mr. John Smith in the first line, and then we will add “1001 Piccadilly” for the second; but as the people in the Great Bear are not likely to know where Piccadilly is, we shall add “London” underneath. As even London itself cannot be well known everywhere, it is better to write “England.” This would surely find Mr. John Smith from any post-office on this globe. From other globes, however, the supreme importance of England may not be so immediately recognized, and therefore it is as well to add another line, “Europe.” This ought to be sufficient, I think, for any post-office in the solar system. Europe is big enough to be visible from Mars or Venus, and should be known to the post-office people there, just as we know and have names for the continents on Mars. But further away there might be a little difficulty; from Uranus and Neptune the different regions on our earth can never have been distinguished, and therefore we must add another line to indicate the particular globe of the solar system which contains331 Europe. Mark Twain tells us that there was always one thing in astronomy which specially puzzled him, and that was to know how we found out the names of the stars. We are, of course, in hopeless ignorance of the name by which this earth is called among other intelligent beings elsewhere who can see it. I can only adopt the title of “Earth,” and therefore I add this line. Now our address is so complete that from anywhere in the solar system—from Mercury, from Jupiter, or Neptune—there ought to be no mistake about the letter finding its way to Mr. John Smith. But from his correspondent in the Great Bear this address would be still incomplete; they cannot see our earth from there, and even the sun himself only looks like a small star—like one, in fact, of thousands of stars elsewhere. However, each star can be distinguished, and our sun may, for instance, be recognized from the Great Bear by some designation. We shall add the line “Near the Sun,” and then I think that from this constellation, or from any of the other stars around us, the address of Mr. John Smith may be regarded as complete. But Mr. Smith’s correspondence may be still wider. He may have an agent living in the cluster of Perseus or on some other objects still fainter and more distant; then “Near the Sun” is utterly inadequate as a concluding line to the address, for the sun, if it can be seen at all from thence, will be only of the significance of an excessively minute star, no more to be designated by a special name than are each of the several leaves on the trees of a forest. What this distant correspondent will be acquainted with is not the earth or the332 sun, but only the cluster of stars among which the sun is but a unit. Again we use our own name to denote the cluster, and we call it the “Milky Way.” When we add this line, we have made the address of Mr. John Smith as complete as circumstances will permit. I think a letter posted to him anywhere ought to reach its destination. To perfect it, however, we will finish up with one line more—“The Universe.”


I must now tell you something about the distances of the stars. I shall not make the attempt to explain fully how astronomers make such measurements, but I will give you some notion of how it is done. You may remember I showed you how we found the distance of a globe that was hung from the ceiling. The principle of the method for finding the distance of a star is somewhat similar, except that we make the two observations not from the two ends of a table, not even from opposite sides of the earth, but from two opposite points on the earth’s orbit, which are therefore at a distance of 186,000,000 miles. Imagine that on Midsummer Day, when standing on the earth here, I measure with a piece of card the angle between the star and the sun. Six months later, on Midwinter Day, when the earth is at the opposite point of its orbit, I again measure the angle between the same star and the sun, and we can now determine the star’s distance by making a triangle. I draw a line a foot long, and we will take this foot to represent 186,000,000 miles, the distance between the two stations;333 then placing the cards at the corners, I rule the two sides and complete the triangle, and the star must be at the remaining corner; then I measure the sides of the triangle, and find how many feet they contain, and recollecting that each foot corresponds to 186,000,000 miles, we discover the distance of the star. If the stars were comparatively near us, the process would be a very simple one; but, unfortunately, the stars are so extremely far off that this triangle, even with a base of only one foot, must have its sides many miles long. Indeed, astronomers will tell you that there is no more delicate or troublesome work in the whole of their science than that of discovering the distance of a star.

In all such measurements we take the distance from the earth to the sun as a conveniently long measuring-rod, whereby to express the results. The nearest stars are still hundreds of thousands of times as far off as the sun. Let us ponder for a little on the vastness of these distances. We shall first express them in miles. Taking the sun’s distance to be 93,000,000 miles, then the distance of the nearest fixed star is about twenty millions of millions of miles—that is to say, we express this by putting down a 2 first, and then writing thirteen ciphers after it. It is, no doubt, easy to speak of such figures, but it is a very different matter when we endeavor to imagine the awful magnitude which such a number indicates. I must try to give some illustrations which will enable you to form a notion of it. At first I was going to ask you to try and count this number, but when I found it would require at least 300,000 years, counting day and night without stopping, before334 the task was over, it became necessary to adopt some other method.

When on a visit in Lancashire I was once kindly permitted to visit a cotton mill, and I learned that the cotton yarn there produced in a single day would be long enough to wind round this earth twenty-seven times at the equator. It appears that the total production of cotton yarn each day in all the mills together would be on the average about 155,000,000 miles. In fact, if they would only spin about one-fifth more, we could assert that Great Britain produced enough cotton yarn every day to stretch from the earth to the sun and back again! It is not hard to find from these figures how long it would take for all the mills in Lancashire to produce a piece of yarn long enough to reach from our earth to the nearest of the stars. If the spinners worked as hard as ever they could for a year, and if all the pieces were then tied together, they would extend to only a small fraction of the distance; nor if they worked for ten years, or for twenty years, would the task be fully accomplished. Indeed, upwards of 400 years would be necessary before enough cotton could be grown in America and spun in this country to stretch over a distance so enormous. All the spinning that has ever yet been done in the world has not formed a long enough thread!

There is another way in which we can form some notion of the immensity of these sidereal distances. You will recollect that, when we were speaking of Jupiter’s moons (p. 219), I told you of the beautiful discovery which their eclipses enabled astronomers to335 make. It was thus found that light travels at the enormous speed of about 185,000 miles per second. It moves so quickly that within a single second a ray would flash two hundred times from London to Edinburgh and back again.

We said that a meteor travels one hundred times as swiftly as a rifle-bullet; but even this great speed seems almost nothing when compared with the speed of light, which is 10,000 times as great. Suppose some brilliant outbreak of light were to take place in a distant star—an outbreak which would be of such intensity that the flash from it would extend far and wide throughout the universe. The light would start forth on its voyage with terrific speed. Any neighboring star which was at a distance of less than 185,000 miles would, of course, see the flash within a second after it had been produced. More distant bodies would receive the intimation after intervals of time proportional to their distances. Thus, if a body were 1,000,000 miles away the light would reach it in from five to six seconds, while over a distance as great as that which separates the earth from the sun the news would be carried in about eight minutes. We can calculate how long a time must elapse ere the light shall travel over a distance so great as that between the star and our earth. You will find that from the nearest of the stars the time required for the journey will be over three years. Ponder on all that this involves. That outbreak in the star might be great enough to be visible here, but we could never become aware of it till three years after it had happened. When we are looking at such a star to-night we do not see it as it is at336 present, for the light that is at this moment entering our eyes has travelled so far that it has been three years on the way. Therefore, when we look at the star now we see it as it was three years previously. In fact, if the star were to go out altogether, we might still continue to see it twinkling for a period of three years longer, because a certain amount of light was on its way to us at the moment of extinction, and so long as that light keeps arriving here, so long shall we see the star showing as brightly as ever. When, therefore, you look at the thousands of stars in the sky to-night, there is not one that you see as it is now, but as it was years ago.

I have been speaking of the stars that are nearest to us, but there are others much farther off. It is true we cannot find the distance of these more remote objects with any degree of accuracy, but we can convince ourselves how great that distance is by the following reasoning. Look at one of the brightest stars. Try to conceive that the object was carried away further into the depths of space, until it was ten times as far from us as it is at present, it would still remain bright enough to be recognized in quite a small telescope; even if it were taken to one hundred times its original distance it would not have withdrawn from the view of a good telescope; while if it retreated one thousand times as far as it was at first it would still be a recognizable point in our mightiest instruments. Among the stars which we can see with our telescopes, we feel confident there must be many from which the light has expended hundreds of years, or even thousands337 of years, on the journey. When, therefore, we look at such objects, we see them, not as they are now, but as they were ages ago; in fact, a star might have ceased to exist for thousands of years, and still be seen by us every night as a twinkling point in our great telescopes.

Remembering these facts, you will, I think, look at the heavens with a new interest. There is a bright star, Vega or Alpha Lyræ, a beautiful gem, so far off that the light from it which now reaches our eyes started before many of my audience were born. Suppose that there are astronomers residing on worlds amid the stars, and that they have sufficiently powerful telescopes to view this globe, what do you think they would observe? They will not see our earth as it is at present, they will see it as it was years, and sometimes many years, ago. There are stars from which, if England could now be seen, the whole of the country would be observed at this present moment to be in a great state of excitement at a very auspicious event. Distant astronomers might notice a great procession in London, and they could watch the coronation of a youthful queen amid the enthusiasm of a nation. There are other stars still further, from which, if the inhabitants had good enough telescopes, they would now see a mighty battle in progress not far from Brussels. One splendid army could be beheld hurling itself time after time against the immovable ranks of the other. They would not, indeed, be able to hear the ever-memorable, “Up, Guards, and at them!” but there can be no doubt that there are stars so far away that the rays of light which started from the earth on338 the day of the battle of Waterloo are only just arriving there. Further off still, there are stars from which a bird’s-eye view could be taken at this very moment of the signing of Magna Charta. There are even stars from which England, if it could be seen at all, would now appear, not as the great England we know, but as a country covered by dense forests, and inhabited by painted savages, who waged incessant war with wild beasts that roamed through the island. The geological problems that now puzzle us would be quickly solved could we only go far enough into space and had we only powerful enough telescopes. We should then be able to view our earth through the successive epochs of past geological time; we should be actually able to see those great animals whose fossil remains are treasured in our museums tramping about over the earth’s surface, splashing across its swamps, or swimming with broad flippers through its oceans. Indeed, if we could view our own earth reflected from mirrors in the stars, we might still see Moses crossing the Red Sea, or Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden.

So important is the subject of star distance that I am tempted to give one more illustration in order to bring before you some conception of how vast such distances are. I shall take, as before, the nearest of the stars so far as known to us, and I hope to be forgiven for taking an illustration of a practical and a commercial kind instead of one more purely scientific. I shall suppose that a railway is about to be made from London to Alpha Centauri. The length of that railway, of course, we have already stated: it is twenty billions of miles.339 So I am now going to ask your attention to the simple question as to the fare which it would be reasonable to charge for the journey. We shall choose a very cheap scale on which to compute the price of a ticket. The parliamentary rate here is, I believe, a penny for every mile. We will make our interstellar railway fares much less even than this; we shall arrange to travel at the rate of one hundred miles for every penny. That, surely, is moderate enough. If the charges were so low that the journey from London to Edinburgh only cost fourpence, then even the most unreasonable passenger would be surely contented. On these terms how much do you think the fare from London to this star ought to be? I know of one way in which to make our answer intelligible. There is a National Debt with which your fathers are, unhappily, only too well acquainted; you will know quite enough about it yourselves in those days when you have to pay income tax. This debt is so vast that the interest upon it is about sixty thousand pounds a day, the whole amount of the National Debt being six hundred and thirty-eight millions of pounds (April, 1898).

If you went to the booking office with the whole of this mighty sum in your pocket—but stop a moment; could you carry it in your pocket? Certainly not, if it were in sovereigns. You would find that after you had as many sovereigns as you could conveniently carry there would still be some left—so many, indeed, that it would be necessary to get a cart to help you on with the rest. When the cart had as great a load of sovereigns as the horse could draw there would be still some340 more, and you would have to get another cart; but ten carts, twenty carts, fifty carts, would not be enough. You would want five thousand of these before you would be able to move off towards the station with your money. When you did get there and asked for a ticket at the rate of one hundred miles for a penny, do you think you would get any change? No doubt some little time would be required to count the money, but when it was counted the clerk would tell you that there was not enough, that he must have nearly two hundred millions of pounds more.

That will give some notion of the distance of the nearest star, and we may multiply it by ten, by one hundred, and even by one thousand, and still not attain to the distance of some of the more remote stars that the telescope shows us.

On account of the immense distances of the stars we can only perceive them to be mere points of light. We can never see a star to be a globe with marks on it like the moon, or like one of the planets—in fact, the better the telescope the smaller does the star seem, though, of course, its brightness is increased with every addition to the light-grasping power of the instrument.


Another point to be noticed is the arrangement of stars in classes, according to their lustre. The brightest stars, of which there are about twenty, are said to be of the first magnitude. Those just inferior to the first magnitude are ranked as the second; and those just341 lower than the second are estimated as the third; and so on. The smallest points that your unaided eyes will show you are of about the sixth magnitude. Then the telescope will reveal stars still fainter and fainter, down to what we term the seventeenth or eighteenth magnitudes, or even lower still. The number of stars of each magnitude increases very much in the classes of small ones.

Most of the stars are white, but many are of a somewhat ruddy hue. There are a few telescopic points which are intensely red, some exhibit beautiful golden tints, while others are blue or green.

There are some curious stars which regularly change their brilliancy. Let me try to illustrate the nature of these variables. Suppose that you were looking at a street gas-lamp from a very long distance, so that it seemed a little twinkling light; and suppose that some one was preparing to turn the gas-cock up and down. Or, better still, imagine a little machine which would act regularly so as to keep the light first of all at its full brightness for two days and a half, and then gradually turn it down until in three or four hours it declines to a feeble glimmer. In this low state the light remains for twenty minutes; then during three or four hours the gas is to be slowly turned on again until it is full. In this condition the light will remain for two days and a half, and then the same series of changes is to recommence. This would be a very odd form of gas-lamp. There would be periods of two days and a half during which it would remain at its full; these would be separated by intervals of about seven hours, when the342 gradual turning down and turning up again would be in progress.

Fig. 84.—Perseus and its Neighboring Stars, including Algol.

The imaginary gas-lamp is exactly paralleled by a star Algol, in the constellation of Perseus (Fig. 84), which goes through the series of changes I have indicated. Ordinarily speaking, it is a bright star of the second magnitude, and, whatever be the cause, the star performs its variations with marvellous uniformity. In fact, Algol has always arrested the attention of those who observed the heavens, and in early times was looked on as the eye of a Demon. There are many other stars which also change their brilliancy. Most of them require much longer periods than Algol, and sometimes a new star which nobody has ever seen before will suddenly kindle into brilliancy. It is now known that the bright star Algol is attended by a dark companion. This dark star sometimes comes between Algol and the observer and cuts off the light. Thus it is that the diminution of brightness is produced.


Whenever you have a chance of looking at the heavens through a telescope, you should ask to be shown what is called a double star. There are many stars in the heavens which present no remarkable appearance to the unaided eye, but which a good telescope at once shows to be of quite a complex nature. These are what we call double stars, in which two quite distinct stars are placed so close together that the unaided eye is unable to separate them. Under the magnifying343 power of the telescope, however, they are seen to be distinct. In order to give some notion of what these objects are like, I shall briefly describe three of them. The first lies in that best known of constellations, the Great Bear. If you look at his tail, which consists of three stars, you will see that near the middle one of the three a small star is situated; we call this little star Alcor, but it is the brighter one near Alcor to which I344 specially call your attention. The sharpest eye would never suspect that it was composed of two stars placed close together. Even a small telescope will, however, show this to be the case, and this is the easiest and the first observation that a young astronomer should make when beginning to turn a telescope to the heavens. Of course, you will not imagine that I mean Alcor to be the second component of the double star; it is the bright star near Alcor which is the double. Here are two marbles, and these marbles are fastened an inch apart. You can see them, of course, to be separate; but if the pair were moved further and further away, then you would soon not be able to distinguish between them, though the actual distance between the marbles had not altered. Look at these two wax tapers which are now lighted; the little flames are an inch apart. You would have to view them from a station a third of a mile away if the distance between the two flames were to appear the same as that between the two components of this double star. Your eye would never be able to discriminate between two lights only an inch apart at so great a distance; a telescope would, however, enable you to do so, and this is the reason why we have to use telescopes to show us double stars.

You might look at that double star year after year throughout the course of a long life without finding any appreciable change in the relative positions of its components. But we know that there is no such thing as rest in the universe; even if you could balance a body so as to leave it for a moment at rest, it would not stay there, for the simple reason that all the bodies345 round it in every direction are pulling at it, and it is certain that the pull in one direction will preponderate, so that move it must. Especially is this true in the case of two suns like those forming a double star. Placed comparatively near each other they could not remain permanently in that position; they must gradually draw together and come into collision with an awful crash. There is only one way by which such a disaster could be averted. That is by making one of these stars revolve around the other just as the earth revolves around the sun, or the moon revolves around the earth. Some motion must, therefore, be going on in every genuine double star, whether we have been able to see that motion or not.

Let us now look at another double star of a different kind. This time it is in the constellation of Gemini. The heavenly twins are called Castor and Pollux. Of these, Castor is a very beautiful double star, consisting of two bright points, a great deal closer together than were those in the Great Bear; consequently a better telescope is required for the purpose of showing them separately. Castor has been watched for many years, and it can be seen that one of these stars is slowly revolving around the other; but it takes a very long time, amounting to hundreds of years, for a complete circuit to be accomplished. This seems very astonishing, but when you remember how exceedingly far Castor is, you will perceive that that pair of stars which appear so close together that it requires a telescope to show them apart must indeed be separated by hundreds of millions of miles. Let us try to conceive our own system346 transformed into a double star. If we took our outermost planet—Neptune—and enlarged him a good deal, and then heated him sufficiently to make him glow like a sun, he would still continue to revolve round our sun at the same distance, and thus a double star would be produced. An inhabitant of Castor who turned his telescope towards us would be able to see the sun as a star. He would not, of course, be able to see the earth, but he might see Neptune like another small star close to the sun. If generations of astronomers in Castor continued their observations of our system, they would find a binary star, of which one component took a century and a half to go round the other. Need we then be surprised that when we look at Castor we observe movements that seem very slow?

There is often so much diffused light about the bright stars seen in a telescope, and so much twinkling in some states of the atmosphere, that stars appear to dance about in rather a puzzling fashion, especially to one who is not accustomed to astronomical observations. I remember hearing how a gentleman once came to visit an observatory. The astronomer showed him Castor through a powerful telescope as a fine specimen of a double star, and then, by way of improving his little lesson, the astronomer mentioned that one of these stars was revolving around the other. “Oh, yes,” said the visitor, “I saw them going round and round in the telescope.” He would, however, have had to wait for a few centuries with his eye to the instrument before he would have been entitled to make this assertion.

347Double stars also frequently delight us by giving beautifully contrasted colors. I dare say you have often noticed the red and the green lights that are used on railways in the signal lamps. Imagine one of those red and one of those green lights away far up in the sky and placed close together, then you would have some idea of the appearance that a colored double star presents, though, perhaps, I should add that the hues in the heavenly bodies are not so vividly different as are those which our railway people find necessary. There is a particularly beautiful double star of this kind in the constellation of the Swan. You could make an imitation of it by boring two holes, with a red-hot needle, in a piece of card, and then covering one of these holes with a small bit of the topaz-colored gelatine with which Christmas crackers are made. The other star is to be similarly colored with blue gelatine. A slide made on this principle placed in the lantern gives a very good representation of these two stars on the screen. There are many other colored doubles besides this one; and, indeed, it is noteworthy that we hardly ever find a blue or a green star by itself in the sky; it is always as a member of one of these pairs.


Here is a piece of stone. If I wanted to know what it was composed of, I should ask a chemist to tell me. He would take it into his laboratory, and first crush it into powder, and then, with his test tubes, and with the liquids which his bottles contain, and his weighing348 scales, and other apparatus, he will tell all about it; there is so much of this, and so much of that, and plenty of this, and none at all of that. But now, suppose you ask this chemist to tell you what the sun is made of, or one of the stars. Of course, you have not a sample of it to give him; how, then, can he possibly find out anything about it? Well, he can tell you something, and this is the wonderful discovery that I want to explain to you. We now put down the gas, and I kindle a brilliant red light. Perhaps some of those whom I see before me have occasionally ventured on the somewhat dangerous practice of making fireworks. If there is any boy here who has ever constructed sky-rockets, and put the little balls into the top which are to burn with such vivid colors when the explosion takes place, he will know that the substance which tinged that red fire must have been strontium. He will recognize it by the color; because strontium gives a red light which nothing else will give. Here are some of these lightning papers, as they are called; they are very pretty and very harmless; and these, too, give brilliant red flashes as I throw them. The red tint has, no doubt, been produced by strontium also. You see we recognized the substance simply by the color of the light it produced when burning.

Perhaps some of you have tried to make a ghost at Christmas by dressing up in a sheet, and bearing in your hand a ladle blazing with a mixture of common salt and spirits of wine, the effect produced being a most ghastly one. Some mammas will hardly thank me for this suggestion, unless I add that the ghost must349 walk about cautiously, for otherwise the blazing spirit would be very apt to produce conflagrations of a kind more extensive than those intended. However, by the kindness of Professor Dewar, I am enabled to show the phenomenon on a splendid scale, and also free from all danger. I kindle a vivid flame of an intensely yellow color, which I think the ladies will unanimously agree is not at all becoming to their complexions, while the pretty dresses have lost their variety of colors. Here is a nice bouquet, and yet you can hardly distinguish the green of the leaves from the brilliant colors of the flowers, except by trifling differences of shade. Expose to this light a number of pieces of variously colored ribbon, pink and red and green and blue, and their beauty is gone; and yet we are told that this yellow is a perfectly pure color; in fact, the purest color that can be produced. I think we have to be thankful that the light which our good sun sends us does not possess purity of that description. There is one substance which will produce that yellow light; it is a curious metal called sodium—a metal so soft that you can cut it with a knife, and so light that it will float on water; while, still more strange, it actually takes fire the moment it is dropped on the water. It is only in a chemical laboratory that you will be likely to meet with the actual metallic sodium, yet in other forms the substance is one of the most abundant in nature. Indeed, common salt is nothing but sodium closely united with a most poisonous gas, a few respirations of which would kill you. But this strange metal and this noxious gas, when united, become simply the salt for our eggs at350 breakfast. This pure yellow light, wherever it is seen, either in the flame of spirits of wine mixed with salt or in that great blaze at which we have been looking, is characteristic of sodium. Wherever you see that particular kind of light, you know that sodium must have been present in the body from which it came.

We have accordingly learned to recognize two substances, namely, strontium and sodium, by the different lights which they give out when burning. To these two metals we may add a third. Here is a strip of white metallic ribbon. It is called magnesium. It seems like a bit of tin at the first glance, but indeed it is a very different substance from tin; for, look, when I hold it in the spirit-lamp, the strip of metal immediately takes fire, and burns with a white light so dazzling that it pales the gas-flames to insignificance. There is no other substance which will, when kindled, give that particular kind of light which we see from magnesium. I can recommend this little experiment as quite suitable for trying at home; you can buy a bit of magnesium ribbon for a trifle at the optician’s; it cannot explode or do any harm, nor will you get into any trouble with the authorities provided you hold it when burning over a tray or a newspaper, so as to prevent the white ashes from falling on the carpet.

There are, in nature, a number of simple bodies called elements. Every one of these, when ignited under suitable conditions, emits a light which belongs to it alone, and by which it can be distinguished from every other substance. I do not say that we can try the experiments in the simple way I have here indicated. Many of the351 materials will yield light which will require to be studied by much more elaborate artifices than those which have sufficed for us. But you see that the method affords a means of finding out the actual substances present in the sun or in the stars. There is a practical difficulty in the fact that each of the heavenly bodies contains a number of different elements; so that in the light it sends us the hues arising from distinct substances are blended into one beam. The first thing to be done is to get some way of splitting up a beam of light, so as to discover the components of which it is made. You might have a skein of silks of different hues tangled together, and this would be like the sunbeam as we receive it in its unsorted condition. How shall we untangle the light from the sun or a star? I will show you by a simple experiment. Here is a beam from the electric light; beautifully white and bright, is it not? It looks so pure and simple, but yet that beam is composed of all sorts of colors mingled together, in such proportions as to form white light. I take a wedge-shaped piece of glass called a prism, and when I introduce it into the course of the beam, you see the transformation that has taken place (Fig. 85). Instead of the white light you have now all the colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, marked by their initial letters in the figure. These colors are very beautiful, but they are transient, for the moment we take away the prism they all unite again to form white light. You see what the prism has done; it has bent all the light in passing through it; but it is more effective in bending the blue than the red, and352 consequently the blue is carried away much further than the red. Such is the way in which we study the composition of a heavenly body. We take a beam of its light, we pass it through a prism, and immediately it is separated into its components; then we compare what we find with the lights given by the different elements, and thus we are enabled to discover the substances which exist in the distant object whose light we have examined. I do not mean to say that the method is a simple one; all I am endeavoring to show is a general outline of the way in which we have discovered the materials present in the stars. The instrument that is employed for this purpose is called the spectroscope.353 And perhaps you may remember that name by these lines, which I have heard from an astronomical friend:—

Fig. 85.—How to split up a Ray of Light.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

Now we find out what you are,

When unto the midnight sky,

We the spectroscope apply.”

I am sure it will interest everybody to know that the elements which the stars contain are not altogether different from those of which the earth is made. It is true there may be substances in the stars of which we know nothing here; but it is certain that many of the most common elements on the earth are present in the most distant bodies. I shall only mention one, the metal iron. That useful substance has been found in some of the stars which lie at almost incalculable distances from the earth.


In drawing towards the close of these lectures I must say a few words about some dim and mysterious objects to which we have not yet alluded. They are what are called nebulæ, or little clouds; and in one sense they are justly called little, for each of them occupies but a very small spot in the sky as compared with that which would be filled by an ordinary cloud in our air. The nebulæ are, however, objects of the most stupendous proportions. Were our earth and thousands of millions of bodies quite as big all put together, they would not be nearly so great as one of these nebulæ.354 Astronomers reckon up the various nebulæ by thousands, but I must add that most of them are apparently faint and uninteresting. A nebula is sometimes liable to be mistaken for a comet. The comet is, as I have already explained, at once distinguished by the fact that it is moving and changing its appearance from hour to hour, while scores of years elapse without changes in the aspect or position of a nebula. The most powerful telescopes are employed in observing these faint objects. I take this opportunity of showing a picture of an instrument suitable for such observations. It is the great reflector of the Paris Observatory (Fig. 87).

Fig. 86.—The Ring Nebula in Lyra, under Different Telescopic Powers.

There are such multitudes of nebulæ that I can only show a few of the more remarkable kinds. In Fig. 86 will be seen pictures of a curious object in the constellation of Lyra seen under different telescopic powers. This is a gigantic ring of luminous gas. To judge of the size of this ring let us suppose that a railway were laid across it, and the train you entered at one side was not to stop until it reached the other side, how long do356 you think this journey would require? I recollect some time ago a picture in Punch which showed a train about to start from London to Brighton, and the guard walking up and down announcing to the passengers the alarming fact that “this train stops nowhere.” An old gentleman was seen vainly gesticulating out of the window and imploring to be let out ere the frightful journey was commenced. In the nebular railway the passengers would almost require such a warning.

Fig. 87.—A Great Reflecting Telescope.

Let the train start at a speed of a mile a minute, you would think, surely, that it must soon cross the ring. But the minutes pass, an hour has elapsed; so the distance must be sixty miles, at all events. The hours creep on into days, the days advance into years, and still the train goes on. The years would lengthen out into centuries, and even when the train had been rushing on for a thousand years with an unabated speed of a mile a minute, the journey would certainly not have been completed. Nor do I venture to say what ages must elapse ere the terminus at the other side of the ring nebula would be reached.

A cluster of stars viewed in a small telescope will often seem like a nebula, for the rays of the stars become blended. A powerful telescope will, however, dispel the illusion and reveal the separate stars. It was, therefore, thought that all the nebulæ might be merely clusters so exceedingly remote that our mightiest instruments failed to resolve them into stars. But this is now known not to be the case. Many of these objects are really masses of glowing gas; such are, for instance, the ring nebulæ, of which I have just spoken,357 and the form of which I can simulate by a pretty experiment.

Fig. 88.—How to make the Smoke-rings.

We take a large box with a round hole cut in one face, and a canvas back at the opposite side. I first fill this box with smoke, and there are different ways of doing so. Burning brown paper does not answer well, because the supply of smoke is too irregular and the paper itself is apt to blaze. A little bit of phosphorus set on fire yields copious smoke, but it would be apt to make people cough, and, besides, phosphorus is a dangerous thing to handle incautiously, and I do not want to suggest anything which might be productive of disaster if the experiment was repeated at home. A little wisp of hay, slightly damped and lighted, will safely yield a sufficient supply, and you need not have an elaborate box like this; any kind of old packing-case, or even a band-box with a duster stretched across its open top and a round hole cut in the bottom, will answer capitally. While I have been speaking, my358 assistant has kindly filled this box with smoke, and in order to have a sufficient supply, and one which shall be as little disagreeable as possible, he has mixed together the fumes of hydrochloric acid and ammonia from two retorts shown in Fig. 88. A still simpler way of doing the same thing is to put a little common salt in a saucer and pour over it a little oil of vitriol; this is put into the box, and over the floor of the box common smelling-salts is to be scattered. You see there are dense volumes of white smoke escaping from every corner of the box. I uncover the opening and give a push to the canvas, and you see a beautiful ring flying across the room; another ring and another follow. If you were near enough to feel the ring, you would experience a little puff of wind; I can show this by blowing out a candle which is at the other end of the table. These rings are made by the air which goes into a sort of eddy as it passes through the hole. All the smoke does is to render the air visible. The smoke-ring is indeed quite elastic. If we send a second ring hurriedly after the first, we can produce a collision, and you see each of the two rings remains unbroken, though both are quivering from the effects of the blow. They are beautifully shown along the beam of the electric lamp, or, better still, along a sunbeam.

We can make many experiments with smoke-rings. Here, for instance, I take an empty box, so far as smoke is concerned, but air-rings can be driven forth from it, though you cannot see them, but you can feel them even at the other side of the room, and they will, as you see, blow out a candle. I can also shoot invisible359 air-rings at a column of smoke, and when the missile strikes the smoke it produces a little commotion and emerges on the other side, carrying with it enough of the smoke to render itself visible, while the solid black looking ring of air is seen in the interior. Still more striking is another way of producing these rings, for I charge this box with ammonia, and the rings from it you cannot see. There is a column of the vapor of hydrochloric acid that also you cannot see; but when the invisible ring enters the invisible column, then a sudden union takes place between the vapor of the ammonia and the vapor of the hydrochloric acid; the result is a solid white substance in extremely fine dust which renders the ring instantly visible.


There is a fundamental difference between the illumination of these little rings that I have shown you and the great rings in the heavens. I had to illuminate our smoke with the help of the electric light, for, unless I had done so, you would not have been able to see them. This white substance formed by the union of ammonia and hydrochloric acid has, of course, no more light of its own than a piece of chalk; it requires other light falling upon it to make it visible. Were the ring nebula in Lyra composed of this material, we could not see it. The sunlight which illuminates the planets might, of course, light up such an object as the ring, if it were comparatively near us; but Lyra is at such a stupendous distance that any light which the sun could send360 out there would be just as feeble as the light we receive from a fixed star. Should we be able to show our smoke-rings, for instance, if, instead of having the electric light, I merely cut a hole in the ceiling and allowed the feeble twinkle of a star in the Great Bear to shine through? In a similar way the sunbeams would be utterly powerless to effect any illumination of objects in these stellar distances. If the sun were to be extinguished altogether, the calamity would no doubt be a very dire one so far as we are concerned, but the effect on the other celestial bodies (moon and planets excepted) would be of the slightest possible description. All the stars of heaven would continue to shine as before. Not a point in one of the constellations would be altered, not a variation in the brightness, not a change in the hue of any star could be noticed. The thousands of nebulæ and clusters would be absolutely unaltered; in fact, the total extinction of the sun would be hardly remarked in the newspapers published in the Pleiades or in Orion. There might possibly be a little line somewhere in an odd corner to the effect “Mr. So-and-So, our well-known astronomer, has noticed that a tiny star, inconspicuous to the eye, and absolutely of no importance whatever, has now become invisible.”

If, therefore, it be not the sun which lights up this nebula, where else can be the source of its illumination? There can be no other star in the neighborhood adequate to the purpose, for, of course, such an object would be brilliant to us if it were large enough and bright enough to impart sufficient illumination to the nebula. It would be absurd to say that you could see a man’s face by the light of a candle while the candle itself was too faint or361 too distant to be visible. The actual facts are, of course, the other way; the candle might be visible, when it was impossible to discern the face which it lighted.

Hence we learn that the ring nebula must shine by some light of its own, and now we have to consider how it can be possible for such material to be self-luminous. The light of a nebula does not seem to be like flame; it can, perhaps, be better represented by the pretty electrical experiment with Geissler’s tubes. These are glass vessels of various shapes, and they are all very nearly empty, as you will understand when I tell you the way in which they have been prepared. A little gas was allowed into each tube, and then almost all the gas was taken out again, so that only a mere trace was left. I pass a current of electricity through these tubes, and now you see they are glowing with beautiful colors. The different gases give out lights of different hues, and the optician has exerted his skill so as to make the effect as beautiful as possible. The electricity, in passing through these tubes, heats the gas which they contain, and makes it glow; and just as this gas can, when heated sufficiently, give out light, so does the great nebula, which is a mass of gas poised in space, become visible in virtue of the heat which it contains.

We are not left quite in doubt as to the constitution of these gaseous nebulæ, for we can submit their light to the prism in the way I explained when we were speaking of the stars. Distant though that ring in Lyra may be, it is interesting to learn that the ingredients from which it is made are not entirely different from substances362 we know on our earth. The water in this glass, and every drop of water, is formed by the union of two gases, of which one is hydrogen. This is an extremely light material, as you see by a little balloon which ascends so prettily when filled with it. Hydrogen also burns very readily, though the flame is almost invisible. When I blow a jet of oxygen through the hydrogen, I produce a little flame with a very intense heat. For instance, I hold a steel pen in the flame, and it glows and sputters, and falls down in white-hot drops. It is needless to say that, as a constituent of water, hydrogen is one of the most important elements on this earth. It is, therefore, of interest to learn that hydrogen in some form or other is a constituent of the most distant objects in space that the telescope has revealed.


Of late years we have learned a great deal about nebulæ, by the help which photography has given to363 us. Look at this group of stars which constitutes that beautiful little configuration known as the Pleiades (Fig. 89). It looks like a miniature representation of the Great Bear; in fact, it would be far more appropriate to call the Pleiades the Little Bear than to apply that title to another quite different constellation, as has unfortunately been done. The Pleiades form a group containing six or seven stars visible to the ordinary eye, though persons endowed with exceptionally good vision can usually see a few more. In an opera-glass the Pleiades becomes a beautiful spectacle, though in a large telescope the stars appear too far apart to make a really effective cluster. When Mr. Roberts took a photograph of the Pleiades he placed a highly sensitive plate in his telescope, and on that plate the Pleiades engraved their picture with their own light. He left the plate exposed for hours, and on developing it not only were the stars seen, but there were also patches of faint light due to the presence of nebula. It could not be said that the objects on the plate were fallacious, for another photograph was taken, when the same appearances were reproduced.

Fig. 89.—The Pleiades.

When we look at that pretty group of stars which has attracted admiration during all time, we are to think that some of those stars are merely the bright points in a vast nebula, invisible to our unaided eyes or even to our mighty telescopes, though capable of recording its trace on the photographic plate. Does not this give us a greatly increased notion of the extent of the universe, when we reflect that by photography we are enabled to see much which the mightiest of telescopes had previously failed to disclose?

364Of all the nebulæ, now numbering some thousands, there is but a single one which can be seen without a telescope. It is in the constellation of Andromeda, and on a clear dark night can just be seen with the unaided eye as a faint stain of light on the sky. It has happened before now that persons noticing this nebula for the first time have thought they had discovered a comet. I would like you to try and find out this object for yourselves.

If you look at it with an opera-glass it appears to be distinctly elongated. You can see more of its structure when you view it in larger instruments, but its nature was never made clear until some beautiful photographs were taken by Mr. Roberts (Fig. 90). Unfortunately, the nebula in Andromeda has not been placed in the best position for its portrait from our point of view. It seems as if it were a rather flat-shaped object, turned nearly edgewise towards us. To look at the pattern on a plate, you would naturally hold the plate so as to be able to look at it squarely. The pattern would not be seen well if the plate were so tilted that its edge was turned towards you. That seems to be nearly the way in which we are forced to view the nebula in Andromeda. We can trace in the photograph some divisions extending entirely round the nebula, showing that it seems to be formed of a series of rings; and there are some outlying portions which form part of the same system. Truly this is a marvellous object. It is impossible for us to form any conception of the true dimensions of this gigantic nebula; it is so far off that we have never yet been able to determine its distance.365 Indeed, I may take this opportunity of remarking that no astronomer has yet succeeded in ascertaining the distance of any nebula. Everything, however, points to the conclusion that they are at least as far as the stars.

Fig. 90.—The Great Nebula in Andromeda.

(From Mr. Roberts’ Photograph.)

It is almost impossible to apply the methods which we use in finding the distance of a star to the discovery366 of the distance of the nebulæ. These flimsy bodies are usually too ill-defined to admit of being measured with the precision and the delicacy required for the determination of distance. The measurements necessary for this purpose can only be made from one star-like point to another similar point. If we could choose a star in the nebula and determine its distance, then, of course, we should have the distance of the nebula itself; but the difficulty is that we have, in general, no means of knowing whether the star does actually lie in the object. It may, for anything we can tell, lie billions of miles nearer to us, or billions of miles further off, and, by merely happening to lie in the line of sight, appear to glimmer in the nebula itself.

Fig. 91.—To show how Small the Solar System is compared with a Great Nebula.

If we have any assurance that the star is surrounded by a mass of this glowing vapor, then it may be possible to measure that nebula’s distance. It will occasionally happen that grounds can be found for believing that a star which appears to be in the glowing gas does veritably lie therein, and is not merely seen in the same direction. There are hundreds of stars visible on a good drawing or a good photograph of the famous object in Andromeda, and doubtless large numbers of these are merely stars which happen to lie in the same line of sight. The peculiar circumstances attending the history of one star seem, however, to warrant us in making the assumption that it was certainly in the nebula. The history of this star is a remarkable one. It suddenly kindled from invisibility into brilliancy. How is a change so rapid in the lustre of a star to be accounted for? In a few days its brightness had undergone367 an extraordinary increase. Of course, this does not tell us for certain that the star lay in the glowing gas; but the most rational explanation that I have heard offered of this occurrence is that due, I believe, to my friend Mr. Monck. He has suggested that the sudden outbreak in brilliancy might be accounted for on the same principles as those by which we explain the ignition of meteors in our atmosphere. If a dark star, moving along with terrific speed through space, were suddenly to plunge into a dense region of the nebula, heat and light must be evolved in sufficient abundance to transform the star into a brilliant object. If, therefore, we knew the distance of this star at the time it was in Andromeda, we should, of course, learn the distance of that interesting object. This has been attempted, and it has thus been proved that the Great Nebula must be very much further from us than is that368 star of whose distance I attempted some time ago to give you a notion.

We thus realize the enormous size of the Great Nebula. It appears that if, on a map of this object, we were to lay down, accurately to scale, a map of the solar system, putting the sun in the centre and all the planets around in their true proportions out to the boundary traced by Neptune, this area, vast though it is, would be a mere speck on the drawing of the object. Our system would have to be enormously bigger before it sufficed to cover anything like the area of the sky included in one of these great objects. Here is a sketch of a nebula (Fig. 91), and near it I have marked a dot which is to indicate our solar system. We may feel confident that the Great Nebula is at the very least as mighty as this proportion would indicate.


And now, my young friends, I am drawing near the close of that course of lectures which has occupied us, I hope you will think not unprofitably, for a portion of our Christmas holidays. We have spoken of the sun and of the moon, of comets and of stars, and I have frequently had occasion to allude to the relative position of our earth in the universe. No doubt it is a noble globe which we inhabit, but I have failed in my purpose if I have not shown you how insignificant is this earth when compared with the vast extent of some of the other bodies that abound in space. We have, however, been endowed with a feeling of curiosity which makes369 us long to know of things beyond the confines of our own earth. Astronomers can tell us a little, but too often only a little. They will say—That is a star, and That is a planet, and That is so big, and That so far; such is the meagre style of information with which we often have to be content. The astronomers who live on other worlds, if their faculties be in any degree comparable with ours, must be similarly ignorant with regard to this earth. Inhabitants of our fellow-planets can know hardly anything more than that the earth on which we dwell is a globe 8000 miles across, with many clouds around us. Some of the planets would not even pay us the compliment of recognizing our existence; while from the other systems—the countless other systems—of space we are absolutely imperceptible and unknown.

Out of all the millions of bodies which we can see, you could very nearly count on your fingers those from which our earth would be visible. This reflection is calculated to show us how vast must be the real extent of that universe around us. Here is our globe, with its inhabitants, with its great continents, with its oceans, with its empires, its kingdoms, with its arts, its commerce, its literature, its sciences, and yet it would seem that all these things are absolutely unknown to any inhabitants that may exist elsewhere. I do not think that any reasonable person will doubt that there must be inhabitants elsewhere. There are millions of globes, many of them more splendid than ours. Surely it would be presumptuous to say that this is the only one of all the bodies in the universe on the surface of370 which life, with all that life involves, is manifested. You will rather think that our globe is but one in the mighty fabric, and that other globes may teem with interest just as ours does. We can, of course, make no conjecture as to what the nature of the life may be elsewhere. Could a traveller visit some other globes and bring back specimens of the natural objects that he found there, no collections that the world has ever seen could rival them in interest. When I go into the British Natural History Museum and look around that marvellous collection, it awakens in me a feeling of solemnity. I see there the remains of mighty extinct animals which once roamed over this earth; also objects which have been dredged from the bottom of the sea at a depth of some miles; there I can examine crystals which have required incalculable ages for their formation; and there I look at meteorites which have travelled from the heavens above down on to the earth beneath. Such sights, and the reflections they awaken, bring before us in an imposing manner the phenomena of our earth, and the extent and interest of its past history. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the only way to see the British Museum was to take lodgings close by when you were a boy, and to stay in the Museum from nine to five every day until you were an old man; then you would begin to have some notion of what this Institution contains. Think what millions of British Museums would be required were the universe to be adequately illustrated: one museum for the earth, another for Mars, another for Venus—but it would be useless attempting to enumerate them!

371Most of us must be content with acquiring the merest shred of information with regard even to our own earth. Perhaps a schoolboy will think it fortunate that we are so ignorant with respect to the celestial bodies. What an awful vista of lessons to be learned would open before his view, if only we had a competent knowledge of the other globes which surround us in space! I should like to illustrate the extent of the universe by following this reflection a little further. I shall just ask you to join with me in making a little calculation as to the extent of the lessons you would have to learn if astronomers should succeed in discovering some of the things they want to know.

Of course, all of us learn geography and history. We must know the geography of the leading countries of the globe, and we must have some knowledge of their inhabitants and of their government, their resources and their civilization. It would seem shockingly ignorant not to know something about China, or not to have some ideas on the subject of India or Egypt. The discovery of the New World also involves matters on which every boy and girl has to be instructed. Supposing we were so far acquainted with the other globes scattered through space that we were able to gain some adequate knowledge of their geography and natural history, of the creatures that inhabit them, of their different products and climates, then everybody would be anxious to learn those particulars; and even when the novelty had worn off, it would still be right for us to know something about countries perhaps more populous than China, about nations more opulent than our own,372 about battles mightier than Waterloo, about animals and plants far stranger than any we have ever dreamt of. An outline of all such matters should, of course, be learned, and as the amount of information would be rather extensive, we will try to condense it as much as possible.

To aid us in realizing the full magnificence of that scheme in the heavens of which we form a part, I shall venture to give an illustration. Let us attempt to form some slight conception of the number and of the bulk of the books which would be necessary for conveying an adequate description of that marvellous universe of stars which surround us. These stars being suns, and many of them being brighter and larger than our own sun, it is but reasonable to presume that they may be attended by planetary systems. I do not say that we have any right to infer that such systems are like ours. It is not improbable that many of the suns around us have a much poorer retinue than that which dignifies our sun. On the other hand, it is just as likely that many of these other suns may be the centres of systems far more brilliant and interesting, with far greater diversity of structure, with far more intensity and variety of life and intelligence than are found in the system of which we form a part. It is only reasonable for us to suppose that, as our earth is an average planet, so our sun is an average star both in size and in the importance of its attendants. We may take the number of stars in the sky at about one hundred millions; and thus we see that the books which are to contain a description of the entire universe—or rather, I should373 say, of the entire universe that we see—must describe 100,000,000 times as much as is contained in our single system. Of course, we know next to nothing of what the books should contain; but we can form some conjecture of the number of those books, and this is the notion to which I now ask your attention.

So vast is the field of knowledge that has to be traversed, that we should be obliged to compress our descriptions into the narrowest compass. We begin with a description of our earth, for nearly all the books in the libraries that exist at this moment are devoted to subjects connected with this earth. They include various branches of history, innumerable languages and literatures and religions, everything relating to life on this globe, to its history in past geological times, to its geography, to its politics, to every variety of manufacture and agriculture, and all the innumerable matters which concern our earth’s inhabitants, past and present. But this tremendous body of knowledge must be much condensed before it would be small enough to retire to its just position in the great celestial library. I can only allow to the earth one volume of about 500 pages. Everything that has to be said about our earth must be packed within this compass. All terrestrial languages, histories, and sciences that cannot be included between its covers can find no other place on our shelves. I cannot spare any more room. Our celestial library will be big enough, as you shall presently see. I am claiming a good deal for our earth when I regard it as one of the most important bodies in the solar system. Of course it is not the biggest—very far from it; but it seems as374 if the big planets and the sun were not likely to be inhabited, so that if we allow one other volume to the rest of the solar system, it will perhaps be sufficient, though it must be admitted that Venus, of which we know next to nothing, except that it is as large as the earth, may also be quite as full of life and interest. Mars and Mercury are also among the planets with possible inhabitants. We are, therefore, restricting the importance of the solar system as much as possible, perhaps even too much, by allowing it two. Within those two volumes every conceivable thing about the entire solar system—sun, planets (great and small), moons, comets, and meteors—must be included, or else it would not be represented at all in the great celestial library.

We shall deal on similar principles with the other systems through space. Each of the 100,000,000 stars will have two volumes allotted to it. Within the two volumes devoted to each star we must compress our description of the body itself and of the system which surrounds it; the planets, their inhabitants, histories, arts, sciences, and all other information. I am not, remember, discussing the contents, but only the number of books we should have to read ere we could obtain even the merest outline of the true magnificence of the heavens. Let us try to form some estimate as to the kind of library that would be required to accommodate 200,000,000 volumes. I suppose a long straight hall, so lofty that there could be fifty shelves of books on each side. As you enter you look on the right hand and on the left, and you see it packed from floor to ceiling with375 volumes. We have arranged them according to the constellations. All the shelves in one part contain the volumes relating to the worlds in the Great Bear, while upon the other side may repose ranks upon ranks of volumes relating to the constellation of Orion.

I shall suppose that the volumes are each about an inch and a half thick, and as there are fifty shelves on each side, you will easily see that for each foot of its length the hall will accommodate 800 books. We can make a little calculation as to the length of this library, which, as we walk down through it, stretches out before us in a majestic corridor, with books, books everywhere. Let us continue our stroll, and as we pass by we find the shelves on both sides packed with their thousands of volumes; and we walk on and on, and still see no end to the vista that ever opens before us. In fact, no building that was ever yet constructed would hold this stupendous library. Let the hall begin on the furthest outskirts of the west of London, carry it through the heart of the city, and away to the utmost limits of the east—not a half of the entire books could be accommodated. The mighty corridor would have to be fifty miles long, and to be packed from floor to ceiling with fifty shelves of books on each side, if it is to contain even this very inadequate description of the contents of the visible universe. Imagine the solemn feelings with which we should enter such a library, could it be created by some miracle! As we took down one of the volumes, with what mysterious awe should we open it, and read therein of some vast world which eye had376 never seen! There we might learn strange problems in philosophy, astonishing developments in natural history; with what breathless interest we should read of inhabitants of an organization utterly unknown to our merely terrestrial experience! Notwithstanding the vast size of the library, the description of each globe would have to be very scanty. Thus, for instance, in the single book which referred to the earth I suppose a little chapter might be spared to an island called England, and possibly a page or so to its capital, London. Similarly meagre would have to be the accounts of the other bodies in the universe; and yet, for this most inadequate of abstracts, a library fifty miles long, and lined closely with fifty shelves of books on each side, would be required!

Methuselah lived, we are told, nine hundred and sixty-nine years; but even if he had attained his thousandth birthday he would have had to read about 300 of these books through every day of his life before he accomplished the task of learning even the merest outline about the contents of space.

If, indeed, we were to have a competent knowledge of all these other globes, of all their countries, their geographies, their nations, their climates, their plants, their animals, their sciences, languages, arts and literatures, it is not a volume, or a score of volumes, that would be required, but thousands of books would have to be devoted to the description of each world alone, just as thousands of volumes have been devoted to the affairs of this earth without exhausting the subjects of interest it presents. Hundreds of thousands of libraries,377 each as large as the British Museum, would not contain all that should be written, were we to have anything like a detailed description of the universe which we see. I specially emphasize the words just written, and I do so because the grandest thought of all, and that thought with which I conclude, brings before us the overwhelming extent of the unseen universe. Our telescopes can, no doubt, carry our vision to an immeasurable distance into the depths of space. But there are, doubtless, stars beyond the reach of our mightiest telescopes. There are stars so remote that they cannot record themselves on the most sensitive of photographic plates.

On the blackboard I draw a little circle with a piece of chalk. I think of our earth as the centre, and this circle will mark for us the limit to which our greatest telescopes can sound. Every star which we see, or which the photographic plate sees, lies within this circle; but, are there no stars outside? It is true that we can never see them, but it is impossible to believe that space is utterly void and empty where it lies beyond the view of our telescopes. Are we to say that inside this circle stars, worlds, nebulæ, and clusters are crowded, and that outside there is nothing? Everything teaches us that this is not so. We occasionally gain accession to our power by adding perhaps an inch to the diameter of our object-glass, or by erecting a telescope in an improved situation on a lofty mountain peak, or by procuring a photographic plate of increased sensibility. It thus happens that we are enabled to extend our vision a little378 further and to make this circle a little larger, and thus to add a little more to the known inside which has been won from the unknown outside. Whenever this is done we invariably find that the new region thus conquered is also densely filled with stars, with clusters, and with nebulæ; it is thus unreasonable to doubt that the rest of space also contains untold myriads of objects, even though they may never, by any conceivable improvement in our instruments, be brought within the range of our observation. Reflect that this circle is comparatively small with respect to the space outside. It occupied but a small spot on this blackboard, the blackboard itself occupies only a small part of the end of the theatre, while the end of the theatre is an area very small compared with that of London, of England, of the world, of the solar system, of the actual distance of the stars. In a similar way the region of space which is open to our inspection is an inconceivably small portion of the entire extent of space. The unknown outside is so much larger than the known inside, it is impossible to express the proportion. I write down unity in this corner and a cipher after it to make ten, and six ciphers again to make ten millions, and again, six ciphers more to make ten billions; but I might write six more, ay, I might cover the whole of this blackboard with ciphers, and even then I should not have got a number big enough to express how greatly the extent of the space we cannot see exceeds that of the space we see. If, therefore, we admit the fact, which no reasonable person can doubt, that this outside, this unknown, this unreachable379 and, to us, invisible space does really contain worlds and systems as does this small portion of space in which we happen to be placed—then, indeed, we shall begin truly to comprehend the majesty of the universe. What figures are to express the myriads of stars that should form a suitable population for a space inconceivably greater than that which contains 100,000,000 stars? But our imagination will extend still further. It brings before us these myriads of unseen stars with their associated worlds, it leads us to think that these worlds may be full to the brim with interests as great as those which exist on our world. When we remember that, for an adequate description of the worlds which we can see, one hundred thousand libraries, each greater than any library on earth, would be utterly insufficient, what conception are we to form when we now learn that even this would only amount to a description of an inconceivably small fragment of the entire universe?

Let us conceive that omniscience granted to us an adequate revelation of the ample glories of the heavens, both in that universe which we do see and in that infinitely greater universe which we do not see. Let a full inventory be made of all those innumerable worlds, with descriptions of their features and accounts of their inhabitants and their civilizations, their geology and their natural history, and all the boundless points of interest of every kind which a world in the sense in which we understand it does most naturally possess. Let those things be written every one, then may we say that were this whole earth of ours covered with vast380 buildings, lined from floor to ceiling with book-shelves—were every one of these shelves stored full with volumes, yet, even then this library would be inadequate to receive the books that would be necessary to contain a description of the glories of the sidereal heavens.

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