1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Astrophysics

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ASTROPHYSICS, the branch of astronomical science which treats of the physical constitution of the heavenly bodies. So long as these bodies could be known to men only as points or disks of light in the sky, no such science was possible. Even later, when the telescope was the only instrument of research, knowledge on this subject was confined to the appearances presented by the planets, supplemented by more or less probable inferences as to the nature of their surfaces. When, in the third quarter of the 19th century, spectrum analysis was applied to the light coming to us from the heavenly bodies, a new era in astronomical science was opened up of such importance that the body of knowledge revealed by this method has sometimes been termed the “new astronomy.” The development of the method has been greatly assisted by photography, while the application of photometric measurements has been a powerful auxiliary in the work. It has thus come about that astrophysics owes its recent development, and its recognition as a distinct branch of astronomical science, to the combination of the processes involved in the three arts of spectroscopy, photography and photometry. The most general conclusions reached by this combination may be summed up as follows:—

1. The heavenly bodies are composed of like matter with that which we find to make up our globe. The sun and stars are found to contain the more important elements with which chemistry has made us acquainted. Iron, calcium and hydrogen may be especially mentioned as three familiar chemical elements which enter largely into the constitution of all the matter of the heavens. It would be going too far to say that all the elements known to us exist in the sun or the stars; nor is the question whether the rarer ones can or cannot be found there of prime importance. The general fact of identity in the main constituents is the one of most fundamental importance. It would be going too far in the other direction to claim that all the elements which compose the heavenly bodies are found on the earth. There are many lines in the spectra of the stars, as well as of the nebulae, which are not certainly identified with those belonging to any elements known to our chemistry. The recent discoveries growing out of the investigation of newly discovered forms of radiation lead to the conclusion that the question of the forms of matter in the stars has far wider range than the simple question whether any given element is or is not found outside our earth. The question is rather that of the infinity of forms that matter may assume, including that most attenuated form found in the nebulae, which seem to be composed of matter more refined than even the atoms supposed to make up the matter around us.

2. The second conclusion is that, as a general rule, the incandescent heavenly bodies are not masses of solid or liquid matter as formerly assumed, but mainly masses either of gas, or of substances gaseous in their nature, so compressed by the gravitation of their superincumbent parts toward a common centre that their properties combine those of the three forms of matter known to us. We have strong reason to believe that even the sun, though much denser than the general average of the stars, may possibly be characterized as gaseous rather than solid. Probabilities also seem to favour the view that this may, to a certain extent, be true of the four great planets of our system. The case of bodies like our earth and Mars, which are solid either superficially or throughout, is probably confined to the smaller bodies of the universe.

3. A third characteristic which seems to belong to the great bodies of the universe is the very high temperature of their interior. With a modification to be mentioned presently, we may regard them as intensely hot bodies, probably at a temperature higher than any we can produce by artificial means, of which the superficial portions have cooled off by radiation into space. A modification in this proposition which may hereafter be accepted involves an extension of our ideas of temperature, and leads us to regard the interior heat of the heavenly bodies as due to a form of molecular activity similar to that of which radium affords so remarkable an instance. This modification certainly avoids many difficulties connected with the question of the interior heat of the earth, sun, Jupiter and probably all the larger heavenly bodies.

A limit is placed on our knowledge of astrophysics which, up to the present time, we have found no means of overstepping. This is imposed upon us by the fact that it is only when matter is in a gaseous form that the spectroscope can give us certain knowledge as to its physical condition. So long as bodies are in the solid state the light which they emit, though different in different substances, has no characteristic so precisely marked that detailed conclusions can be drawn as to the nature of the substance emitting it. Even in a liquid form, the spectrum of any kind of matter is less characteristic than that of gas. Moreover, a gaseous body of uniform temperature, and so dense as to be non-transparent, does not radiate the characteristic spectrum of the gas of which it is composed. Precise conclusions are possible only when a gaseous body is transparent through and through, so that the gas emits its characteristic rays—or when the rays from an incandescent body of any kind pass through a gaseous envelope at a temperature lower than that of the body itself. In this case the revelations of the spectroscope relate only to the constitution of the gaseous envelope, and not to the body below the envelope, from which the light emanates. The outcome of this drawback is that our knowledge of the chemical constitution of the stars and planets is still confined to their atmospheres, and that conclusions as to the constitution of the interior masses which form them must be drawn by other methods than the spectroscopic one.

When the spectroscope was first applied in astronomy, it was hoped that the light reflected from living matter might be found to possess some property different from that found in light reflected from non-living matter, and that we might thus detect the presence of life on the surface of a planet by a study of its spectrum; but no hope of this kind has so far been realized.

We have, in this brief view of the subject, referred mainly to the results of spectrum analysis. Growing out of, but beyond this method is the beginning of a great branch of research which may ultimately explain many heretofore enigmatical phenomena of nature. The discovery of radio-activity may, by explaining the interior heat of the great bodies of the universe, solve a difficulty which since the middle of the 19th century has been discussed by physicists and geologists—that of reconciling the long duration which geologists claim for the crust of the earth with the period during which physicists have deemed it possible that the sun should have radiated heat. Evidence is also accumulating to show that the sun and stars are radio-active bodies, and that emanations proceeding from the sun, and reaching the earth, have important relations to the phenomena of Terrestrial Magnetism and the Aurora.

The subject of Astrophysics does not admit of so definite a subdivision as that of Astrometry. The conclusions which researches relating to it have so far reached are treated in the articles Star; Sun; Comet; Nebula; Aurora Polaris, &c.  (S. N.)