Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 16.djvu/13

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.
3
THE RECENT PROGRESS OF SOLAR PHYSICS.

observed the periodicity of the spots, and Carrington was already at work, their results were not wholly public, and the facts of the variable velocity of the sun's rotation were rather the surmises of a few than part of the body of acquired knowledge. Since then this branch of astronomy has grown almost to the position of an independent science, and, though it has not yet been distinctly divided into specialties in its turn like its elder sisters, yet we already see a tendency to their formations. Thus, with the study of the motions of the solar surface we associate with the names just mentioned those of Sporer, De la Rue; and Wolf; with eye-studies of the photosphere or solar meteorology, those of Dawes, Secchi, and others; with the telescopic use of the spectroscope those of Huggins, Janssen, Lockyer, Secchi, Young, and Tacchini. The work of mapping the spectrum, begun by Kirchhoff, has been continued by Angstrom, Mascart, and Cornu, while photography, in the hands of Rutherfurd, Janssen, and Draper, has largely superseded telescopic studies of the photosphere, and the list might be enlarged indefinitely. Let us glance at part of the work done by these during the past twenty years, for their labors make the history of our study.

The work of Carrington, completed in 1861, taught us what had before been suspected—both the periodicity of the spots and that this great globe, so far as we can see it, has different periods of rotation, its equatorial zones completing a revolution in less time than its polar ones. We know very little more on this point now, the cause of both phenomena remaining wholly mysterious to-day.

In the next year (1862) an impulse was given to the study of the solar surface by the announcement of a supposed discovery of gigantic individual bodies in it, of from 500 to 1,000 miles in length, distinct from each other, and existing in countless numbers. This extraordinary statement was not easily disproved, as it is with great difficulty that the real structure is discernible by the best telescopes. Forms, we can scarcely call them "bodies," are undoubtedly there, of a size and in numbers which could only exist on so vast a surface, and which are no doubt the chief immediate cause of the sun's light and heat—but what are their causes in turn, and what is their real nature? The suggestion was made at the time by the then, perhaps, most eminent living astronomer, that they might be, in a sort, living things—beings, in fact, whose vital force gave us the solar heat; a suggestion which we may smile at now, but which was received at the time with a kind of awe, as adumbrating some possible truth. Of its author I would speak with all possible respect in citing it, which I do here, as nothing can better indicate the obscurity of our knowledge, even at so recent a period. We may look back on such a possible suggestion and its connection with that "vital force," now itself banished by physiology, as a kind of landmark on the road we have traveled. Our science, young as it is, is old enough to have had its age of fable.