Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/65

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.
53
SUNLIGHT, SEA, AND SKY.

for the one purpose, we may conclude that it will serve equally well for the other.

And now a word about that simpler apparatus. When light falls upon a transparent substance, part is reflected, part transmitted. If, therefore, the reflected part is polarized (and you have already seen that this is sometimes the case), it is not surprising that the transmitted part should be so also. And further, if the polarization by a single reflection or transmission is incomplete, it will become more and more complete by a repetition of the processes. This being so, if we take a pile of glass plates—say half a dozen, more or less, the thinner the better and hold them obliquely before our eye at an angle of about 30 (say one-third of a right angle) to the direction in which we are looking, we shall have all that is necessary to detect the presence of polarization; and if, further, we hold a piece of talc or mica, such as is commonly used as a cover to the globes of gas-burners, beyond the pile of plates, color will be produced in the same general manner as with the quartz, although with some essential difference in detail.

Suppose that we now turn our attention from the sea to the sky, and that on a clear, bright day we sweep the heavens with our apparatus, or polariscope, as it is called, we shall find traces of polarization colors brought out in a great many directions. But if we observe more closely we shall find that the most marked effects are produced in directions at right angles to that of the sun, when, in fact, we are looking across the direction of the solar beams. Thus, if the sun were just rising in the east or setting in the west, the line of most vivid effect would lie on a circle traced over the heavens from north to south. If the sun were in the zenith, or immediately overhead, the most vivid effects would be found round the horizon; while at intermediate hours the circle would shift round at the same rate as the clock, so as always to retain its direction at right angles to that of the sun.

Now, what is it that can produce this effect—or what even produces the light from all parts of a clear sky? The firmament is not a solid sphere or canopy, as was once supposed; it is clear, pure space, with no contents, save a few miles of the atmosphere of our earth, and beyond that the impalpable fluid or ether, as it is called, which is supposed to pervade all space, and to transmit light from the further limits of the stellar universe. But, apart from this ether, which is certainly inoperative to produce the sky appearance as we see it, a very simple experiment will suffice to show that a diffusion, or, as it has been better called, a scattering of light, is due to the presence of small particles in the air. If a beam from the electric lamp, or from the sun if we had it, be allowed to pass the room, its track becomes visible, as is well known by its reflection from the motes or floating bodies, in fact by the dust in the air. But if we clear the air of dust, as I now do by burning it with a spirit-lamp placed underneath, the