Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/October 1885/On the Solar Corona

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ON THE SOLAR CORONA.[1]
By WILLIAM HUGGINS, F. R. S.

IF it were usual to prefix a motto to these evening discourses, I might have selected such words as "Seeing the Invisible," for I have to describe a method of investigation by which what is usually unseeable may become revealed. We live at the bottom of a deep ocean of air, and therefore every object outside the earth can be seen by us only as it looks when viewed through this great depth of air. Professor Langley has shown recently that the air mars, colors, distorts, and therefore misleads and cheats us to an extent much greater than was supposed. Langley considers that the light and heat absorbed and scattered by the air and the particles of matter floating in it amount to no less than forty per cent of the light falling upon it. In consequence of this want of transparency and of the presence of finely divided matter always more or less suspended in it, the air, when the sun shines upon it, becomes itself a source of light. This illuminated aërial ocean necessarily conceals from us by overpowering them any sources of light less brilliant than itself which are in the heavens beyond. From this cause the stars are invisible at midday. This illuminated air also conceals from us certain surroundings and appendages of the sun, which become visible on the very rare occasions when the moon coming between us and the sun cuts off the sun's light from the air where the eclipse is total, and so allows the observer to see the surroundings of the sun through the cone of unilluminated air which is in shadow. It is only when the aërial curtain of light is thus withdrawn that we can become spectators of what is taking place on the stage beyond. The magnificent scene never lasts more than a few minutes, for the moon passes and the curtain of light is again before us. On an average, once in two years this curtain of light is lifted for from three to six minutes. I need not say how difficult it is from these glimpses at long intervals even to guess at the plot of the drama which is being played out about the sun.

The purpose of this discourse is to describe a method by which it is possible to overcome the barrier presented to our view by the bright screen of air, and so watch from day to day the changing scenes taking place behind it in the sun's surroundings.

The object of our quest is to be found in the glory of radiant beams and bright streamers intersected by darker rifts which appears about the sun at a total solar eclipse. The corona possesses a structure of great complexity, which is the more puzzling in its intricate arrangement because, though we seem to have a flat surface before us, it exists really in three dimensions. If we were dwellers in Flatland and the corona were a sort of glorified catherine-wheel, the task of interpretation would seem less difficult. But, as we are looking at an object having thickness as well as extension, the forms seen in the corona must appear to us more or less modified by the effect of perspective. This consideration tells us also that the intrinsic brightness of the corona toward the sun's limb is much less than its apparent brightness as seen by us, of which no inconsiderable part must be due to the greater extent of corona in the line of sight as the sun is approached. The corona undergoes great and probably continual change, as the same coronal forms are not present at different eclipses.

The attempts which have been made from time to time to see the corona without an eclipse have been based mainly upon the hope that if the eye were protected from the intense direct light of the sun, and from all light other than that from the sky immediately about the sun, then the eye might become sufficiently sensitive to perceive the corona. These attempts have failed because it was not possible to place the artificial screen where the moon comes, outside our atmosphere, and so keep in shadow the part of the air through which the observer looks. The latest attempts have been made by Professor Langley at Mount Whitney, and Dr. Copeland, assistant to Lord Crawford, on the Andes. Professor Langley says, "I have tried visual methods under the most favorable circumstances, but with entire non-success." Dr. Copeland observed at Puno, at a height of 12,040 feet. He says, "It ought to be mentioned that the appearances produced by the illuminated atmosphere were often of the most tantalizing description, giving again and again the impression that my efforts were about to be crowned with success."

There are occasions on which the existence of the brighter part of the corona near the sun's limb can be detected without an eclipse. The brightness of the sky near the sun's limb is due to two distinct factors, the air-glare and the corona behind it, which M. Janssen considers to be brighter than the full moon. When Venus comes between us and the sun, it is obvious that the planet, as it approaches the sun, comes in before the corona, and shuts off the light which is due to it. To the observer the sky at the place where the planet is appears darker than the adjoining parts, that is to say, the withdrawal of the coronal light from behind has made a sensible diminution in the brightness of the sky. It follows that the part of the sky behind which the corona is situated must be brighter in a small degree than the adjoining parts, and it would perhaps not be too much to say that the corona would always be visible when the sky is clear, if our eyes were more sensitive to small differences of illumination of adjacent areas. My friend Mr. John Brett, A. R. A., tells me that he is able to see the corona in a telescope of low power.

The spectroscopic method by which the prominences can be seen fails because a part only of the coronal light is resolved by the prism into bright lines, and of these lines no one is sufficiently bright and co-extensive with the corona to enable us to see the corona by its light, as the prominences may be seen by the red, the blue, or the green line of hydrogen.

The corona sends to us light of three kinds: 1. Light which the prism resolves into bright lines, which has been emitted by luminous gas. 2. Light which gives a continuous spectrum, which has come from incandescent liquid or solid matter. 3. Reflected sunlight, which M. Janssen considers to form the fundamental part of the coronal light.

The problem to be solved was how to disentangle the coronal light from the air-glare mixed up with it, or in other words how to give such an advantage to the coronal light that it might hold its own sufficiently for our eyes to distinguish the corona from the bright sky.

When the report reached this country in the summer of 1882 that photographs of the spectrum of the corona taken during the eclipse in Egypt showed that the coronal light seen from the earth as a whole is strong in the violet region, it seemed to me probable that if by some method of selective absorption this kind of light were isolated, then when viewed by this kind of light alone the corona might be at a sufficient advantage relatively to the air-glare to become visible. Though this light falls within the range of vision, the eye is less sensitive to small differences of illumination near this limit of its power. This consideration and some others led me to look to photography for aid, for it is possible by certain technical methods to accentuate the extreme sensitiveness of a photographic plate for minute differences of illumination. [A cardboard, on which a corona had been painted by so thin a wash of Chinese white that it was invisible to the audience, had been photographed. The photograph thrown upon the screen showed the corona plainly.] This cardboard represents the state of things in the sky about the sun. The painted corona is brighter than the cardboard, but our eyes are too dull to see it. In like manner the part of the sky near the sun where there is a background of corona is brighter than the adjoining parts where there is no corona behind, but not in a degree sufficiently great for our eyes to detect the difference.

A photographic plate possesses another and enormous advantage over the eye, in that it is able to furnish a permanent record of the most complex forms from an instantaneous exposure.

In my earlier experiments the necessary isolation of violet light was obtained by interposing a screen of colored glass or a cell containing potassic permanganate. The possible coming of false light upon the sensitive plate from the glass sides of the cell, as well as from precipitation due to the decomposition of the potassic permanganate under the sun's light, led me to seek to obtain the necessary light-selection in the film itself. Captain Abney had shown that argentic bromide, iodide, and chloride, differ greatly in the kind of light to which they are most sensitive. The chloride is most strongly affected by violet light from h to a little beyond K. It was found possible by making use of this selective action of argentic chloride to do away with an absorptive medium. To prevent reflected light, the back of the plate was covered with asphaltum varnish, and frequently a small metal disk a little larger than the sun's image was interposed in front of the plate to cut off the sun's direct light.

The next consideration was as to the optical means by which an image of the sun, as free as possible from imperfections of any kind, could be formed upon the plate. For several obvious reasons the use of lenses was given up, and I turned to reflection from a mirror of speculum metal. My first experiments were made with a Newtonian telescope by Short. With this instrument, during the summer of 1882, about twenty plates were taken on different days, in all of which coronal forms are to be seen about the sun's image. After a very critical examination of these plates, in which I was greatly helped by the kind assistance of Professor Stokes and Captain Abney, there seemed to be good ground to hope that the corona had really been obtained on the plates. [One of these negatives, obtained in August, 1882, was shown upon the screen.]

In the spring of the following year, 1883, the attack upon the corona was carried on with a more suitable apparatus. The Misses Lassell were kind enough to lend me a seven-foot Newtonian telescope made by Mr. Lassell, which possesses great perfection of figure and retains still its fine polish. For the purpose of avoiding the disadvantage of a second reflection from the small mirror, and also of reducing the aperture to three and a half inches, which gives a more manageable amount of light, I adopted the arrangement of the instrument which is shown in the following woodcut:

PSM V27 D781 Lassell telescope layout.jpg

The speculum b remains in its place at the end of the tube a, a, by which the mechanical inconvenience of tilting the speculum within the tube as in the ordinary form of the Herschelian telescope is avoided.

The small plane speculum and the arm carrying it were removed. The open end of the tube is fitted with a mahogany cover. In this cover at one side is a circular hole, f, three and a quarter inches diameter, for the light to enter; below is a similar hole over which is fitted a framework to receive the "backs" containing the photographic plates, and also to receive a frame with fine-ground glass for putting the apparatus into position. Immediately below, toward the speculum, is fixed a shutter with an opening of adjustable width, which can be made to pass across more or less rapidly by the use of India-rubber bands of different degrees of strength. In front of the opening f is fixed a tube, c, six feet long, fitted with diaphragms, to restrict as far as possible the light which enters the telescope to that which comes from the sun and the sky immediately around it. The telescope-tube a, a, is also fitted with diaphragms, which are not shown in the diagram, to keep from the plate all light, except that coming directly from the speculum. It is obvious that, when the sun's light entering the tube at f falls upon the central part of the speculum, the image of the sun will be formed in the middle of the second opening at d, about two inches from the position it would take if the tube were directed axially to the sun. The exquisite definition of the photographic images of the sun shows, as was to be expected, that this small deviation from the axial direction, two inches in seven feet, does not affect sensibly the performance of the mirror. The whole apparatus is firmly strapped on to the refractor of the equatorial in my observatory, and carried with it by the clock-motion.

The performance of the apparatus is very satisfactory. The photographs show the sun's image sharply defined; even small spots are seen. When the sky is free from clouds, but presents a whity appearance from the large amount of scattered light, the sun's image is well defined upon a uniform background of illuminated sky, without any sudden increase of illumination immediately about it. It is only when the sky becomes clear and blue in color that coronal appearances present themselves with more or less distinctness. [Several negatives taken during the summer of 1883 were shown on the screen.] In our climate the increased illumination of the sky where there is a background of coronal light is too small to permit the photographs which show this difference to be otherwise than very faint. A small increase of exposure, or of development, causes it to be lost in the strong photographic action of the air-glare. For this reason, the negatives should be examined under carefully arranged illumination. They are not, therefore, well adapted for projection on a screen. [A negative taken with a whity sky showed a well-defined image of the sun, with a sensibly uniform surrounding of air-glare, but without any indication of the corona. In the case of the other negatives exhibited, which were taken on clearer days, an appearance, very coronal in character, was to be seen about the sun.]

On May 6th the corona was photographed during a total eclipse at Caroline Island by Messrs. Lawrence and Woods. This circumstance furnished a good opportunity of subjecting the new method to a crucial test, namely, by making it possible to compare the photographs taken in England, where there was no eclipse, with those taken at Caroline Island of the undoubtedly true corona during the eclipse. On the day of the eclipse the weather was bad in this country, but plates were taken before the eclipse, and others taken later on. These plates were placed in the hands of Mr. Wesley, who had had great experience in making drawings from the photographs taken during former eclipses. Mr. Wesley drew from the plates before he had any information of the results obtained at Caroline Island, and he was therefore wholly without bias in the drawings which he made from them. [Photographs of Mr. Wesley's drawings were projected on the screen, and then a copy of the Caroline Island eclipse photograph. The general resemblance was unmistakable, but the identity of the object photographed in England and at Caroline Island was placed beyond doubt by a remarkably formed rift on the east of the north pole of the sun. This rift, slightly modified in form, was to be seen in a plate taken about a solar rotation period before the eclipse, and also on a plate taken about the same time after the eclipse. The general permanence of this great rift certainly extended over some months, but no information is given as to whether the corona rotates with the sun. For from the times at which the plates were taken, one about a rotation period before and the other a rotation period after the eclipse, it is obvious the rift might have gone round with the sun, but there is no positive evidence on this point.[2]]

As the comparison of the English plates with those taken at Caroline Island possesses great interest, I think it well to put on record here a letter written by Mr. Lawrence to Professor Stokes, dated Sept. 14, 1883:

"Dr. Huggins called upon Mr. Woods this morning and showed us the drawings Mr. Wesley has made of his coronas. He told us that he particularly did not wish to see our negatives, but that he would like us to compare his results with ours. We did so, and found that some of the strongly marked details could be made out on his drawings, a rift near the north pole being especially noticeable; this was in a photograph taken on April 3d, in which the detail of the northern hemisphere is best shown, while the detail of our southern hemisphere most resembles the photograph taken on June 6th; in fact, our negatives seem to hold an intermediate position. Afterward I went with Dr. Huggins and Mr. Woods to Burlington House to see the negatives. The outline and distribution of light in the inner corona of April 3d are very similar to those on our plate which had the shortest exposure; the outer corona is, however, I think, hidden by atmospheric glare. As a result of the comparison, I should say that Dr. Huggins's coronas are certainly genuine as far as 8' from the limb."

Though the plates which were obtained during the summer of 1883 appeared to be satisfactory to the extent of showing that there could be little doubt remaining but that the corona had been photographed without an eclipse, and therefore of justifying the hope that a successful method for the continuous investigation of the corona had been placed in the hands of astronomers, yet, as the photographs were taken under the specially unfavorable conditions of our climate, they failed to show the details of the structure of the corona.

The next step was obviously to have the method carried out at some place of high elevation, where the large part of the glare which is due to the lower and denser parts of our atmosphere would no longer be present. I ventured to suggest to the Council of the Royal Society that a grant from the fund placed annually by the Government at the disposal of the Royal Society should be put in the hands of a small committee for this purpose. This suggestion was well received, and a committee was appointed by the Council of the Royal Society. The committee selected the Riffel, near Zermatt in Switzerland, a station which has an elevation of 8,500 feet, and the further advantages of easy access, and of hotel accommodation. The committee was fortunate in securing the services, as photographer, of Mr. Ray Woods, who as assistant to Professor Schuster had photographed the corona during the eclipse of 1882 in Egypt, and who in 1883, in conjunction with Mr. Lawrence, had photographed the eclipse of that year at Caroline Island.

Mr. Woods arrived at the Riffel in the beginning of Jnly, 1884, with an apparatus, similar to one shown in the woodcut on a former page, constructed by Mr. Grubb.

Captain Abney, who had made observations on the Riffel in former years, had remarked on the splendid blue-black skies which were seen there whenever the lower air was free from clouds or fog. But unfortunately during the last year or so a veil of finely divided matter of some sort has been put about the earth, of which we have heard so much in the accounts from all parts of the earth of gorgeous sunsets and after-glows. This fine matter was so persistently present in the higher regions of the atmosphere during last summer, that Mr. "Woods did not get once a really clear sky. On the contrary, whenever visible cloud was absent, then instead of a blue-black sky there came into view a luminous haze, forming a great aureole about the sun, of a faint red color, which passed into bluish white near the sun. Mr. Woods found the diameter of the aureole to measure about 44°. This appearance about the sun has been seen all over the world during last summer, but with greatest distinctness at places of high elevation.

The relative position of the colors, blue inside and red outside, shows that the aureole is a diffraction phenomenon due to minute particles of matter of some kind. Mr. Ellery, Captain Abney, and some others, consider the matter to be water in the form probably of minute ice-spicules; others consider it to consist of particles of volcanic dust projected into the air during the eruption at Krakatoa; but whatever it is, and whencesoever it came, it is most certainly matter in the wrong place so far as astronomical observations are concerned, and in a peculiar degree for success in photographing the corona. We are only beginning to learn that, whether in our persons or in our works, it is by minimized matter chiefly that we are undone. So injurious was the effect of this aureole that it was not possible to obtain any photographs of the corona at my observatory near London. This great diffraction aureole went far to defeat the object for which Mr. Woods had gone to the Riffel, but fortunately the great advantage of being free from the effects of the lower eight thousand feet of denser air told so strongly that, notwithstanding the ever-present aureole, Mr. Woods was able to obtain a number of plates on which the corona shows itself with more or less distinctness. [Three untouched photographic copies of the plates taken at the Riffel were shown upon the screen.] From the presence of the aureole the negatives show less detail than we have every reason to believe would have been the case if the sky had been as blue and clear as in some former years. This circumstance makes great care necessary in the discussion of these plates, and it would be premature to say what information is to be obtained from them.

[As an illustration of the differences of form which the corona has assumed at different eclipses, photographs taken in 1871, 1878, 1882, and 1883 were projected on the screen. Attention was called to the equatorial extension seen in the photograph taken in 1878, and to the suggestion which had been put forward that this peculiar character was connected with the then comparative state of inactivity of the sun's surface, at a period of minimum sun-spot action, especially as an equatorial extension was observed in 1867.]

It is now time that something should be said of the probable nature of the corona.

Six hypotheses have been suggested:

1. That the corona consists of a gaseous atmosphere resting upon the sun's surface and carried round with it.

2. That the corona is made up, wholly or in part, of gaseous and finely divided matter which has been ejected from the sun, and is in motion about the sun from the forces of ejection, of the sun's rotation, and of gravity—and possibly of a repulsion of some kind.

3. That the corona resembles the rings of Saturn, and consists of swarms of meteoric particles revolving with sufficient velocity to prevent their falling into the sun.

4. That the corona is the appearance presented to us by the unceasing falling into the sun of meteoric matter and the débris of comets' tails.

5. That the coronal rays and streamers are, at least in part, meteoric streams strongly illuminated by their near approach to the sun, neither revolving about nor falling into the sun, but permanent in position and varying only in richness of meteoric matter, which are parts of eccentric comet orbits. This view has been supported by Mr. Proctor, on the ground that there must be such streams crowding richly together in the sun's neighborhood.

6. The view of the corona suggested by Sir William Siemens in his solar theory.

It has been suggested, even, that the corona is so complex a phenomenon that there may be an element of truth in every one of these hypotheses. Anyway, this enumeration of hypotheses, more or less mutually destructive, shows how great is the difficulty of explaining the appearances which present themselves at a total solar eclipse, and how little we really know about the corona.

An American philosopher, Professor Hastings, has revived a prior and altogether revolutionary question: Has the corona an objective existence? Is it anything more than an optical appearance depending upon diffraction? Professor Hastings has based his revival of this long-discarded negative theory upon the behavior of a coronal line which he saw, in his spectroscope, change in length east and west of the sun during the progress of the eclipse at Caroline Island. His view appears to rest on the negative foundation that Fresnel's theory of diffraction may not apply in the case of a total eclipse, and that at such great distances there is a possibility that the interior of the shadow might not he entirely dark, and so to an observer might cause the appearance of a bright fringe around the moon.[3]

Not to speak of the recent evidence of the reality of the corona from the photographs which have been taken when there is no intervening moon to produce diffraction, there is the adverse evidence afforded by the peculiar spectra of different parts of the corona, and by the complicated and distinctly peculiar structure seen in the photographs taken at eclipses. The crucial test of this theory appears to be that, if it be true, then the corona would be much wider on the side where the sun's limb is least deeply covered, that is to say, the corona would alter in width on the two sides during the progress of the eclipse. Not to refer to former eclipses where photographs taken at different times and even at different places have been found to agree, the photographs taken during the eclipse at Caroline Island show no such changes. M. Janssen says, "Les formes de la couronne ont été absolument fixes pendant toute la durée de la totalité." The photographs taken by Messrs. Lawrence and Woods also go to show that the corona suffered no such alterations in width or form as would be required by Professor Hastings's theory during the passage of the moon.

We have, therefore, I venture to think, a right to believe in an objective reality of some sort about the sun corresponding to the appearance which the corona presents to us. At the same time some very small part of what we see must be due to a scattering of the coronal light itself by our air, but the amount of this scattered light over the corona must be less than what is seen over the dark moon.

That the sun is surrounded by a true gaseous atmosphere of relatively limited extent there can be little doubt, but many considerations forbid us to think of an atmosphere which rises to a height which can afford any explanation of the corona, which streams several hundred thousand miles above the photosphere. For example, a gas at that height, if hundreds or even thousands of times lighter than hydrogen, would have more than metallic density near the sun's surface—a state of things which spectroscopic and other observations show is not the case. The corona does not exhibit the rapid condensation toward the sun's limb which such an atmosphere would present, especially when we take into account the effect of perspective in increasing the apparent brightness of the lower regions of the corona. There is, too, the circumstance that comets have passed through the upper part of the corona without being burned up or even sensibly losing velocity.

There can scarcely be doubt that matter is present about the sun wherever the corona extends, and further that this matter is in the form of a fog. But there are fogs and fogs. The air we breathe, when apparently pure, stands revealed as a dense swarming of millions of motes if a sunbeam passes through it. Even such a fog is out of the question. If we conceive of a fog so attenuated that there is only one minute liquid or solid particle in every cubic mile, we should still have matter enough, in all probability, to form a corona. That the coronal matter is of the nature of a fog is shown by the three kinds of light which the corona sends to us—reflected solar light scattered by particles of matter, solid or liquid; and, secondly, light giving a continuous spectrum, which tells us that these solid or liquid particles are incandescent; while the third form of spectrum of bright lines, fainter and varying greatly at different parts of the corona and at different eclipses, shows the presence also of light-emitting gas. This gas existing between the particles need not necessarily form a true solar atmosphere, which the considerations already mentioned make an almost impossible supposition, for we may well regard this thin gas as carried up with the particles, or even to some extent to be furnished by them under the sun's heat.

It will be better to consider first the probable origin of this coronal matter, and by what means it can find itself at such enormous heights above the sun.

There is another celestial phenomenon, very unlike the corona at first sight, which may furnish us possibly with some clew to its true nature. The head of a large comet presents us with luminous streamers and rifts and curved rays, which are not so very unlike, on a small scale, some of the appearances which are peculiarly characteristic of the corona.[4] We do not know for certain the conditions under which these cometary appearances take place, but the hypothesis which seems on the way to become generally accepted attributes them to electrical disturbances, and especially to a repulsive force acting from the sun, possibly electrical, which varies as the surface, and not, like gravity, as the mass. A force of this nature in the case of highly attenuated matter can easily master the force of gravity, and, as we see in the tails of comets, blow away this thin kind of matter to enormous distances in the very teeth of gravity.

If such a force of repulsion is experienced in comets, it may well be that it is also present in the sun's surroundings. If this force be electrical, it can only come into play when the sun and the matter subjected to it have electric potentials of the same kind, otherwise the attraction on one side of a particle would equal the repulsion on the other. On this theory the coronal matter and the sun's surface must both be in the same electrical state, the repelled matter negative if the sun is negative, positive if the sun is positive.

The grandest terrestrial displays of electrical disturbance, as seen in lightning and the aurora, must be of a small order of magnitude as compared with the electrical changes taking place in connection with the ceaseless and fearful activity of the sun's surface; but we do not know how far these actions, or the majority of them, may be in the same electrical direction, or what other conditions there may be, so as to cause the sun's surface to maintain a high electrical state, whether positive or negative. A permanence of electric potential of the same kind would seem to be required by the phenomena of comets' tails.

If such a state of high electric potential at the photosphere be granted as is required to give rise to the repulsive force which the phenomena of comets appear to indicate, then, considering the gaseous irruptions and fiery storms of more than Titanic proportions which are going on without ceasing at the solar surface, it does not go beyond what might well be, to suppose that portions of matter ejected to great heights above the photosphere, and often with velocities not far removed from that which would be necessary to set it free from the sun's attraction, and very probably in the same electric state as the photosphere, might so come under this assumed electric repulsion as to be blown upward and to take on forms such as those seen in the corona: the greatest distances to which the coronal streamers have been traced are small as compared with the extent of the tails of comets, but then the force of gravity which the electrical repulsion would have to overcome near the sun would be enormously greater.

It is in harmony with this view of things that the positions of greatest coronal extension usually correspond with the spot-zones where the solar activity is most fervent; and also that a careful examination of the structure of the corona suggests strongly that the forces to which this complex and varying structure is due have their seat in the sun. Matter repelled upward would rise with the smaller rotational velocity of the photosphere, and lagging behind would give rise to curved forms; besides, the forces of irruption and subsequent electrical repulsion might well vary in direction and not be always strictly radial, and under such circumstances a structure of the character which the corona presents might well result. The sub-permanency of any great characteristic coronal forms, as, for example, the great rift seen in the photographs of the Caroline Island eclipse, and also in those taken in England a month before the eclipse and about a month afterward, must probably be explained by the maintenance for some time of the conditions upon which the forms depend, and not by an unaltered identity of the coronal matter; the permanency belonging to the form only, and not to the matter, as in the case of a cloud over a mountain-top or of a flame over the mouth of a volcano. If the forces to which the corona is due have their seat in the sun, the corona would probably rotate with it; but if the corona is produced by conditions external to the sun, then the corona might not be carried round with the sun.

We have seen that the corona consists probably of a sort of incandescent fog, which at the same time scatters to us the photospheric light. Now, we must bear in mind the very different behavior of a gas, and of liquid or solid particles in the near neighborhood of the sun. A gas need not be greatly heated, even when near the sun, by the radiated energy. Heated gas from the photosphere would rapidly lose heat; but, on the other hand, liquid or solid particles, whether originally carried up as such or subsequently formed by condensation, would absorb the sun's heat, and at coronal distances would soon rise to a temperature not very greatly inferior to that of the photosphere. The gas which the spectroscope shows to exist along with the incandescent particles of the coronal stuff may therefore have been carried up as gas or have been in part distilled from the coronal particles under the enormous radiation to which they are exposed. Such a view would not be out of harmony with the very different heights to which different bright lines may be traced at different parts of the corona and at different eclipses. For obvious reasons, gases of different vapor density would be differently acted upon by a repulsive force which varies as the surface, and would to some extent be winnowed from each other; the lighter the gas the more completely would it come under the sway of repulsion, and so would be carried to a greater height than the gas more strongly held down by gravity. The relative proportions, at different heights of the corona, of the gases which the spectroscope shows to exist there (and recently Captain Abney and Professor Schuster have shown that in addition to the bright lines already known the spectrum of the corona of 1882 gave the rhythmical group of the ultra-violet lines of hydrogen which are characteristic of the photographic spectra of the white stars, and some other lines also) would vary from time to time, and depend in part upon the varying state of activity of the photosphere, and so probably establish a connection with the spectra of the prominences. This view of the corona would bring it within the charmed circle of interaction which seems to obtain among the phenomena of sun-spots and terrestrial magnetic disturbances and auroræ.

Many questions remain unconsidered; among others, whether the light emitted by the gaseous part of the corona is due directly to the sun's heat, or to electrical discharges taking place in it of the nature of the aurora. Further, what becomes of the coronal matter on the theory which has been suggested? Is it permanently carried away from the sun, as the matter of the tails of comets is lost to them? Among other considerations it may be mentioned that electric repulsion can maintain its sway only so long as the repelled particle remains in the same electrical state: if through electric discharges it ceases to maintain the electrical potential it possessed, the repulsion has no more power over it, and gravity will be no longer mastered. If, when this takes place, the particle is not moving away with a velocity sufficiently great to carry it from the sun, the particle will return to the sun. Of course, if the effect of any electric discharges or other conditions has been to change the potential of the particle from positive to negative, or the reverse, as the case may be, then the repulsion would be changed into an attraction acting in the same direction as gravity. In Mr. Wesley's drawings of the corona, especially in those of the eclipse of 1871, the longer rays or streamers appear not to end, but to be lost in increasing faintness and diffusion, but certain of the shorter rays are seen to turn round and to descend to the sun.[5]

It is difficult for us living in dense air to conceive of the state of attenuation probably present in the outer parts of the corona. Mr. Johnstone Stoney has calculated that more than twenty figures are needed to express the number of molecules in a cubic centimetre of ordinary air; and Mr. Crookes shows us in his tubes that matter, even when reduced to one-millionth part of the density of ordinary air, can become luminous under electrical excitement. [A glass bulb about four inches in diameter, kindly lent to me by Mr. Crookes, was exhibited, in which a metal ball about half an inch in diameter formed the negative pole. Under a suitable condition of the induction-current, this ball was seen to be surrounded by a corona of bluish-gray light which was sufficiently bright to be seen from all parts of the theatre.] Yet it is probable that these tubes must be looked upon as crowded cities of molecules as compared with the sparse molecular population of the great coronal wastes.

I forbear to speculate further, as we may expect more information as to the state of things in the corona from the daily photographs which will be shortly commenced at the Cape of Good Hope by Mr. Ray Woods under the direction of Dr. Gill.

 

  1. A lecture delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Friday evening, February 20, 1885.
  2. See Plates XI and XIA, "British Association Report," 1883, p. 348.
  3. Report of the Eclipse Expedition to Caroline Island, May, 1883. Memoir of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington.
  4. See "Comets," Royal Institution Proceedings, vol. x, p. 1.
  5. For a history of opinion of the nature of the corona, see papers by Professor Norton, Professor Young, and Professor Langley, in the "American Journal of Science"; also "The Sun," by Professor Young; and "The Sun the Ruler of the Planetary System," and various essays, by Mr. R. A. Proctor.