SINCE the last meeting of the British Association, Science has had to mourn the loss of one of its pioneers, in the death of the veteran astronomer, Schwabe, of Dessau, at a good old age, not before he had faithfully and honorably finished his work. In truth, this work was of such a nature that the worker could not be expected long to survive its completion.
It is now nearly fifty years since he first began to produce daily sketches of the spots that appeared upon the sun's surface. Every day on which the sun was visible (and such days are more frequent in Germany than in this country), with hardly any intermission for forty years, this laborious and venerable observer made his sketch of the solar disk. At length this unexampled perseverance met with its reward in the discovery of the periodicity of sun-spots, a phenomenon which very speedily attracted the attention of the scientific world.
It is not easy to overrate the importance of the step gained when a periodicity was found to rule these solar outbreaks. A priori we should not have expected such a phenomenon. If the old astronomers were perplexed by the discovery of sun-spots, their successors must have been equally perplexed when they ascertained their periodicity. For while all are ready to acknowledge periodicity as one of the natural conditions of terrestrial phenomena, yet every one is inclined to ask what there can be to cause it in the behavior of the sun himself. Manifestly it can only have two possible causes. It must either be the outcome of some strangely hidden periodical cause residing in the sun himself, or must be produced by external bodies, such as planets, acting somehow in their varied positions on the atmosphere of the sun. But whether the cause be an internal or external one, in either case we are completely ignorant of its nature.
We can easily enough imagine a cause operating from the sun himself and his relations with a surrounding medium to produce great disturbances on his surface, but we cannot easily imagine why disturbances so caused should have a periodicity. On the other hand we can easily enough attach periodicity to any effect caused by the planets, but we cannot well see why bodies comparatively so insignificant should contribute to such very violent outbreaks as we now know sun-spots to be.
If we look within we are at a loss to account for the periodicity of solar disturbances, and if we look without we are equally at a loss to account for their magnitude. But, since that within the sun is hidden
- Opening Address in Section A, at the Bristol Meeting of the British Association.