Astronomical Discovery Part 10

a.s.suredly if he entertained such an idea, it was not borrowed from the authorities of the last century, to whom the solar spots were objects of more attention than they have been of late years.

"'Nulla constanti temporum lege apparent aut evanesc.u.n.t,' says Keill in 1739.--_Introduct. ad Physic. Astronom._, p. 253.

"'Il est manifest par ce que nous venons de rapporter qu'il n'y a point de regle certaine de leur formation, ni de leur nombre et de leur figure,' says Ca.s.sini II. in 1740.--_Elem d'Astron._, vol. i. p.


"'Il semble qu'elles ne suivent aucune loi dans leur apparitions,'

says Le Monnier in 1746.--_Inst.i.t. Astron._, p. 83.

"'Solar spots observe no regularity in their shape, magnitude, number, or in the time of their appearance or continuance,' says Long in 1764.--_Astron._, vol. ii. p. 472.

"'Les apparitions des taches du soleil n'ont rien de regulier,' says Lalande in 1771.--_Astron._, vol. iii. -- 3131, 2nd edit.

"And Delambre's opinion may be inferred from a well-known pa.s.sage in the third volume of his 'Astronomy' (p. 20), published in 1814, where treating of the solar spots he says, 'Il est vrai qu'elles sont plus curieuses que vraiment utiles.'"[4]

It will thus be evident that Herr Schwabe had the courage to enter upon a line of investigation which others had practically condemned as likely to lead nowhere, and that his discovery was quite contrary to expectation. It is a lesson to us that not even the most unlikely line of work is to be despised; for the outcome of Schwabe's work was the first step in the whole series of discoveries which have gradually built up the modern science of Solar Physics, which occupies so deservedly large a part of the energies of, for instance, the great observatory attached to the University of Chicago.

[Sidenote: Schwabe's announcement.]

It has been our practice to recall the actual words in which the discoverer himself stated his discovery, and I will give the original modest announcement of Schwabe, though for convenience of those who do not read German I will attempt a rough translation. He had communicated year by year the results of his daily counting of the solar spots to the _Astronomische Nachrichten_, and after he had given ten years' results in this way he collected them together, but he made no remark on the curious sequence which they undoubtedly showed at that time. Waiting patiently six years for further material, in 1843 he ventured to make his definite announcement as follows:--"From my earlier observations, which I have communicated annually to this journal, there was manifest already a certain periodicity of sun-spots; and the probability of this being really the case is confirmed by this year's results. Although I gave in volume 15 the total numbers of groups for the years 1826-1837, nevertheless I will repeat here a complete series of all my observations of sun-spots, giving not only the number of groups, but also the number of days of observation, and further the days when the sun was free from spots. The number of groups alone will not in itself give sufficient accuracy for determination of a period, since I have convinced myself that when there are a large number of sun-spots the number will be reckoned somewhat too small, and when few sun-spots, the number somewhat too large; in the first case several groups are often counted together in one, and in the second it is easy to divide a group made up of two component parts into two separate groups. This must be my excuse for repeating the early catalogue, as follows:--

+---------------------------------------------+Year.Number ofDays freeDays ofGroups.from Spots.Observation.---------------------------------------------18261182227718271612273182822502821829199024418301901217---------------------------------------------1831149323918328449270183333139267183451120273183517318244---------------------------------------------1836272020018373330168183828202021839162020518401523263---------------------------------------------18411021528318426864307184334149324(1844)(52)(111)(320)+---------------------------------------------+

"If we now compare together the number of groups, and the days free from spots, we find that the sun-spots have a period of about ten years, and that for about five years they are so numerous that during this period few days, if any, are free from spots. The sequel must show whether this period is constant, whether the minimum activity of the sun in producing spots lasts for one or two years, and whether this activity increases more quickly than it decreases."


FEB. 18, 1894. FEB. 19, 1894.


[Sidenote: Attracted little attention, until eight years later.]

This brief announcement is all that the discoverer says upon the subject; and it is perhaps not remarkable that it attracted very little attention, especially when we remember that it related to a matter which the astronomical world had agreed to put aside as unprofitable and not worth attention. Next year, in giving his usual paper on the spots for 1844 he recurs to the subject in the following sentence: "The periodicity of spots of about ten years which was indicated in my summary published last year, is confirmed by this year's observations." I have added in brackets to the table above reproduced the numbers for 1844 subsequently given, and it will be seen how nearly they might have been predicted.

[Sidenote: Other phenomena sympathetic and others not.]

Still the subject attracted little attention. Turning over the leaves of the journal at random, I came across the annual report of the Astronomer Royal of England, printed at length. But in it there is no reference to this discovery, which opened up a line of work now strongly represented in the annual programme of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Mr. Johnson remarks that the only person who had taken it up was Julius Schmidt, who then resided near Hamburg. But Schwabe went on patiently acc.u.mulating facts; and in 1851 the great Von Humboldt in the third volume of his _Cosmos_, drew attention to the discovery, which was accordingly for the first time brought into general notice. It will be seen that there are not many facts of general interest relating to the actual discovery beyond the courage with which the work was commenced in a totally unpromising direction, and the scant attention it received after being made for us. We may admit that interest centres chiefly in the tremendous consequences which flowed from it. We now recognise that many other phenomena are bound up with this waxing and waning of the solar spots. We might be prepared for a sympathy in phenomena obviously connected with the sun itself; but it was an unexpected and startling discovery that magnetic phenomena on the earth had also a sympathetic relation with the changes in sun-spots, and it is perhaps not surprising that when once this connection of solar and terrestrial phenomena was realised, various attempts have been made to extend it into regions where we cannot as yet allow that it has earned a legitimate right of entry. We have heard of the weather and of Indian famines occurring in cycles identical with the sun-spot cycle; and it is obvious how tremendously important it would be for us if this were found to be actually the case. For we might in this way predict years of possible famine and guard against them; or if we could even partially foretell the kind of weather likely to occur some years hence, we might take agricultural measures accordingly. The importance of the connection, if only it could be established, is no doubt the reason which has misled investigators into laying undue stress on evidence which will not bear close scrutiny. For the present we must say decidedly that no case has been made out for paying serious attention to the influence of sun-spots on weather. Nevertheless, putting all this aside, there is quite enough of first-rate importance in the sequel to Schwabe's discovery.

[Sidenote: Greenwich sun records.]

[Sidenote: The sun's rotation.]

Let us review the facts in order. Most of us, though we may not have had the advantage of seeing an actual sun-spot through a telescope, have seen drawings or photographs of spots. There is a famous drawing made by James Nasmyth (of steam-hammer fame), in July, 1864, which is of particular interest, because at that time Nasmyth was convinced--and he convinced many others with him--that the solar surface was made up of a miscellaneous heap of solid bodies in shape like willow leaves, or grains of rice, thrown together almost at random, and the drawing was made by him to ill.u.s.trate this idea. Comparing a modern photograph with it, we see that there is something to be said for Nasmyth's view, which attracted much attention at the time and occasioned a somewhat heated controversy.

But since the invention of the spectroscope it has become quite obsolete; it probably does not correspond in any way to the real facts. But instead of looking at pictures which have been enlarged to show the detailed structure in and near a spot, we will look at a series of pictures of the whole sun taken on successive days at Greenwich in which the spots are necessarily much smaller, but which show the behaviour of the spots from day to day. (See Plates X. and XI.) From the date at the foot of each it will be seen that they gradually cross the disc of the sun (a fact first discovered by Galileo in 1610), showing that the sun rotates on an axis once in about every twenty-five days. There are many interesting facts connected with this rotation; especially that the sun does not rotate as a solid body, the parts near the (Sun's) Equator flowing quicker than those nearer the Poles; but for the present we cannot stop to dwell upon them.

What interests us particularly is the history, not from day to day, but from year to year, as Schwabe has already given it for a series of years.


FEB. 20, 1894. FEB. 21, 1894.


[Sidenote: Wolf's numbers.]

[Sidenote: Greenwich areas.]

[Sidenote: Magnetic fluctuations.]

When it became generally established that this periodicity existed, Rudolf Wolf of Zurich collected the facts about sun-spots from the earliest possible date, and represented this history by a series of numbers which are still called Wolf's Sun-Spot Numbers. You will see from the diagram the obvious rise and fall for eleven years,--not ten years, as Schwabe thought, but just a little over eleven years. The facts are, however, given more completely by the work done at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. It is part of the regular daily work of that Observatory to photograph the sun at least twice. Many days are of course cloudy or wet, so that photographs cannot be obtained; but there are available photographs similarly taken in India or in Mauritius, where the weather is more favourable, and from these the gaps are so well filled up that very few days, if any, during the whole year are left without some photograph of the sun's surface. On these photographs the positions and the areas of the spots are carefully measured under a microscope, and the results when submitted to certain necessary calculations are published year by year. It is clearly a more accurate estimate of the spottedness of the sun to take the total _area_ of all the spots rather than their mere _number_, for in the latter case a large spot and a small one count equally. Hence the Greenwich records will perhaps give us an even better idea of the periodicity than Wolf's numbers. Now, at the same observatory magnetic observations are also made continuously. If a magnet be suspended freely we are accustomed to say that it will point to the North Pole; but this is only very roughly true. In the first place, it is probably well known to you that there is a considerable deviation from due north owing to the fact that the magnetic North Pole is not the same as the geographical North Pole; but this for the present need not concern us. What does concern us is, that if the needle is hung up and left long enough to come to rest, it does not then remain steadily at rest, but executes slow and small oscillations backwards and forwards, up and down, throughout the day; repeating nearly the same oscillations on the following day, but at the same time gradually changing its behaviour so as to oscillate differently in summer and winter. These changes are very small, and would pa.s.s unnoticed by the naked eye; but when carefully watched through a telescope, or better still, when photographed by some apparatus which will at the same time magnify them, they can be rendered easily visible. When the history of these changes is traced it is seen at once that there is a manifest connection with the cycle of sun-spot changes; for instance, if we measure the range of swing backwards and forwards during the day and take the average for all the days in the year, and then compare this with the average number of sun-spots, we shall see that the averages rise and fall together. Similarly we may take the up and down swing, find the average amount of it throughout the year, and again we shall find that this corresponds very closely with the average number of sun-spots.

[Ill.u.s.tration: PLATE XII. NUMBER OF SUNSPOTS (Wolf) Compared with DAILY RANGE of MAGNETIC DECLINATION & DAILY RANGE of MAGNETIC HORZL. FORCE (as observed at Greenwich.)]

[Sidenote: Daily curves.]

[Sidenote: Difference between summer and winter, and between sun-spot maximum and minimum.]

[Sidenote: Cause unknown.]

But perhaps the most striking way to exhibit the sympathy is to combine different variations of the needle into one picture. And first we must remark that there is another important variation of the earth's magnetic action which we have not yet considered. We have mentioned the swing of the needle to and fro, and the swing up and down, and these correspond to changes in the _direction_ of the force of attraction on the needle. But there may be also changes in _intensity_ of this action; the pull may be a little stronger or a little weaker than before, and these variations are not represented by any actual movement of the needle, though they can be measured by proper experiments. We can, however, imagine them represented by a movement of the end of the needle if we suppose it made of elastic material, so that it would lengthen when the force was greater and contract slightly when the force was less. If a pencil were attached to the end of such an elastic needle so as to make a mark on a sheet of paper, and if for a moment we exclude the up and down movements, the pencil would describe during the day a curve on the paper, as the end of the needle swung backwards and forwards with the change in direction, and moved across the direction of swing with the change in intensity. Now when curves of this kind are described for a day in each month of the year, there is a striking difference between the forms of them. During the summer months they are, generally speaking, comparatively large and open, and during the winter months they are small and close. This change in form is seen by a glance at Plate XIII., which gives the curves throughout the whole of one year. Let us now, instead of forming a curve of this kind for each month, form a single average curve for the whole year; and let us further do this for a series of years. (Plate XIV.) We see that the curves change from year to year in a manner very similar to that in which they change from month to month in any particular year, and the law of change is such that in years when there are many sun-spots we get a large open curve similar to those found in the summer, while for years when there are few sun-spots we get small close curves very like those in the winter.

Hence we have two definite conclusions suggested: firstly, that the changes of force are sympathetic with the changes in the sun-spots; and secondly, that times of maximum sun-spots correspond to summer, and times of minimum to winter. And here I must admit that this is about as far as we have got at present in the investigation of this relationship. _Why_ the needle behaves in this way we have as yet only the very vaguest ideas; suggestions of different kinds have certainly been put forward, but none of them as yet can be said to have much evidence in favour of its being the true one. For our present purpose, however, it is sufficient to note that there is this very real connection, and that consequently Schwabe's sun-spot period may have a very real importance with regard to changes in our earth itself.




[Sidenote: Ill.u.s.tration of spurious connection.]

But I may perhaps repeat the word of caution already uttered against extending without sufficient evidence this notion of the influence of sun-spots to other phenomena, such as weather. A simple ill.u.s.tration will perhaps serve better than a long argument to show both the way in which mistakes have been made and the way in which they can be seen to be mistakes. There is at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich an instrument for noting the direction of the wind, the essential part being an ordinary wind-vane, the movements of which are automatically recorded on a sheet of paper. As the wind shifts from north to east the pencil moves in one direction, and when it shifts back again towards the north the pencil moves in the reverse way. But sometimes the wind shifts continuously from north to east, south, west, and back to north again, the vane making a complete revolution; and this causes the pencil to move continuously in one direction, until when the vane has come to north again, the pencil is far away from the convenient place of record; on such occasions it is often necessary to replace it by hand. Then again, the vane may turn in the opposite direction, sending the pencil inconveniently to the other side of the record. During the year it is easy to count the number of complete changes of wind in either direction, and subtracting one number from the other, we get the excess of complete revolutions of the vane in one direction over that in the other. Now if these rather arbitrary numbers are set down year by year, or plotted in the shape of a diagram, we get a curve which may be compared with the sun-spot curve, and during a period of no less than sixteen years--from 1858 to 1874--there was a remarkable similarity between the two diagrams. From this evidence _alone_ it might fairly be inferred that the sun-spots had some curious effect upon the weather at Greenwich, traceable in this extraordinary way in the changes of the wind. But the particular way in which these changes are recorded is so arbitrary that we should naturally feel surprise if there was a real connection between the two phenomena; and fortunately there were other records preceding these years and following them which enabled us to test the connection further, and it was found, as we might naturally expect, that it was not confirmed. On looking at diagrams (Plate XV.) for the periods before and after, no similarity can be traced between the sun-spot curve and the wind-vane curve, and we infer that the similarity during the period first mentioned was entirely accidental. This shows that we must be cautious in accepting, from a limited amount of evidence, a connection between two phenomena as real and established; for it may be purely fortuitous. We may particularly remark that it is desirable to have repet.i.tions through several complete periods instead of one alone. It is possible to reduce to mathematical laws the rules for caution in this matter; and much useful work has already been done in this direction by Professor Schuster of Manchester and others, though as yet too little attention has been paid to their rules by investigators naturally eager to discover some hitherto unthought-of connection between phenomena.

[Sidenote: Faculae follow spots and the chromosphere.]

With this example of the need for caution, we may return to phenomena of which we can certainly say that they vary sympathetically with the sun-spots. Roughly speaking, the whole history of the sun seems to be bound up with them. Besides these dark patches which we call spots (which, by the way, are not really dark but only less bright than the surrounding part of the disc), there are patches brighter than the rest which have been called faculae. With ordinary telescopes, either visual or photographic, these can generally only be detected near the edge of the sun's disc; but even with this limitation it can easily be established that the faculae vary in number and size from year to year much in the same way as the spots, and this conclusion is amply confirmed by the beautiful method of observing the faculae with the new instrument designed by Professor Hale of the Yerkes Observatory. With this instrument, called a spectroheliograph, it is possible to photograph the faculae in all parts of the sun's disc, and thus to obtain a much more complete history of them, and there is no doubt whatever of their variation sympathetically with the spots. Nor is there any doubt about similar variations in other parts of the sun which we cannot see _at all_ with ordinary telescopes, except on the occasions when the sun is totally eclipsed. Roughly speaking, these outlying portions of the sun consist of two kinds, the chromosphere and the corona, the former looking like an irregular close coating of the ordinary sun, and the latter like a pearly halo of light extending to many diameters of the sun's disc, but not with any very regular form.



The chromosphere, from which shoot out the prominences or "red flames,"

can now be observed without an eclipse if we employ the beautiful instrument above-mentioned, the spectroheliograph; and Professor Hale has succeeded in photographing spots, faculae, and prominences all on the same plate. But although many have made the attempt (and Professor Hale, perhaps, a more determined attempt than any man living), no one has yet succeeded in obtaining any picture or evidence of the existence of the corona excepting on the occasion of a total solar eclipse.

[Sidenote: Eclipses of sun.]

[Sidenote: Total eclipses rare.]

Now these occasions are very rare. There are two or three eclipses of the sun every year, but they are generally of the kind known as partial; when the moon does indeed come between us and the sun to some extent, but only cuts off a portion of his light--a clean-cut black disc is seen to encroach more or less on the surface of the sun. Most of us have had an opportunity of seeing a partial eclipse, probably more than once; but few have seen a total eclipse. For this the moon must come with great exactness centrally between us and the sun; and the spot where this condition is fulfilled completely only covers a few hundred miles of the earth's surface at one moment. As the earth turns round, and as the moon revolves in its...o...b..t, this patch from which the sun is totally eclipsed travels over the earth's surface, marking out a track some thousands of miles in length possibly, but still not more than 200 miles wide; and in order to see the sun totally eclipsed even on the rare occasions when it is possible at all (for, as already remarked, in the majority of cases the eclipse is only partial), we must occupy some station in this narrow belt or track, which often tantalisingly over either the ocean or some regions not easily accessible to civilised man. Moreover, if we travel to such favoured spots the whole time during which the sun is totally eclipsed cannot exceed a few minutes, and hence observations are made under rather hurried and trying conditions. In these modern days of photography it is easier to take advantage of these precious moments than it used to be when there was only the eye and memory of an excited observer to rely upon. It is perhaps not surprising that some of the evidence collected on these earlier occasions was conflicting; but nowadays the observers, generally speaking, direct their energies in the first place to mounting accurately in position photographic apparatus of different kinds, each item of it specially designed to settle some particular problem in the most feasible way; secondly, to rehearsing very carefully the exact programme of exposures necessary during the critical few minutes; and finally, to securing these photographs with as few mistakes as possible when the precious moments actually arrive. Even then the whole of their efforts are quite likely to be rendered unavailing by a pa.s.sing cloud; and bitter is the disappointment when, after travelling thousands of miles, and spending months in preparation, the whole enterprise ends in nothing owing to some caprice of the weather.

[Sidenote: Corona follows spots.]

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