Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/207

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195
A HALF-CENTURY OF SCIENCE.

moreover, obvious that the powerful engine of investigation afforded us by the spectroscope is by no means confined to the substances which form part of our system. The incandescent body can thus be examined, no matter how great its distance, so long only as the light is strong enough. That this method was theoretically applicable to the light of the stars was indeed obvious, but the practical difficulties were very great. Sirius, the brightest of all, is, in round numbers, a hundred millions of millions of miles from us; and, though as big as sixty of our suns, his light when it reaches us, after a journey of sixteen years, is at most one two-thousand-millionth part as bright. Nevertheless, as long ago as 1815 Fraunhofer recognized the fixed lines in the light of four of the stars, and in 1863 Miller and Huggins in our own country, and Rutherfurd in America, succeeded in determining the dark lines in the spectrum of some of the brighter stars, thus showing that these beautiful and mysterious lights contain many of the material substances with which we are familiar. In Aldebaran, for instance, we may infer the presence of hydrogen, sodium, magnesium, iron, calcium, tellurium, antimony, bismuth, and mercury; some of which are not yet known to occur in the sun. As might have been expected, the composition of the stars is not uniform, and it would appear that they may be arranged in a few well-marked classes, indicating differences of temperature, or, in other words, of age. Some recent photographic spectra of stars obtained by Huggins go very far to justify this view. Thus we can make the stars teach us their own composition with light which started from its source before we were born light older than our Association itself.

Until 1864, the true nature of the unresolved nebulæ was a matter of doubt. In that year, however, Huggins turned his spectroscope on to a nebula, and made the unexpected discovery that the spectra of some of these bodies are discontinuous—that is to say, consist of bright lines only, indicating that, "in place of an incandescent solid or liquid body, we must probably regard these objects, or at least their photo surfaces, as enormous masses of luminous gas or vapor. For it is from matter in a gaseous state only that such light as that of the nebulas is known to be emitted." So far as observation has yet gone, nebulas may be divided into two classes: some giving a continuous spectrum, others one consisting of bright lines. These latter all appear to give essentially the same spectrum, consisting of a few bright lines. Two of them, in Mr. Huggins's opinion, indicate the presence of hydrogen: one of them agrees in position with a line characteristic of nitrogen.

But spectrum analysis has even more than this to tell us. The old methods of observation could determine the movements of the stars so far only as they were transverse to us; they afforded no means of measuring motion either directly toward or away from us. Now, Doppler suggested in 1841 that the colors of the stars would assist us in this respect, because they would be affected by their motion to and