Astronomical Discovery Part 11

Hence it will easily be imagined that our knowledge of the corona, the part of the sun which we can still only study on occasions of a total solar eclipse, advances but slowly. During the last twenty years there has been altogether scarcely half-an-hour available for this research, though it may fairly be said that the very best possible use has been made of that half-hour. And, what is of importance for our immediate purpose, it has gradually been established by comparing the photographs of one eclipse with those of another, that the corona itself undergoes distinct changes in form in the same period which governs the changes of sun-spots. When there are many sun-spots the corona spreads out in all directions from the edge of the sun's disc; when there are few sun-spots the corona extends very much further in the direction of the sun's equator, so that at sun-spot minimum there is an appearance of two huge wings. Although the evidence is necessarily collected in a sc.r.a.ppy manner, by this time there is sufficient to remove this relationship out of the region of mere suspicion, and to give it a well-established place in our knowledge of the sun's surroundings.

[Sidenote: Corona may influence magnets.]

Now the corona of the sun may be compared to some rare animal which we only see by paying a visit to some distant land, and may consider ourselves even then fortunate to get a glimpse of; and it might be thought that the habits of such an animal are not likely to be of any great importance in our everyday life. But so far from this being the case in regard to the corona, it is more than possible that the knowledge of its changes may be of vital interest to us. I have already said that, as yet, we have no satisfactory account of the reason why changes in sun-spots seem to influence changes in our magnets on the earth; but one of the theories put forward in explanation, and one by no means the least plausible, is that this influence may come, not from the sun-spots themselves, but from some other solar phenomenon which varies in sympathy with them; and in particular that it may come from the corona. These wings which reach out at sun-spot minimum can be seen to extend a considerable distance, and there is no reason to suppose that they actually cease at the point where they become too faint for us to detect them further; they may extend quite as far as the earth itself and even beyond; and they may be of such a nature as to influence our magnets. As the earth revolves round the sun it may sometime plunge into them, to emerge later and pa.s.s above or below them; as again the wings spread themselves at sun-spot minimum and seem to shrink at maximum, so our magnets may respond by sympathetic though very small vibrations. Hence it is quite possible that the corona is directly influencing the magnetic changes on the earth.

[Sidenote: Possible importance of corona.]

But it may be urged that these changes are so slight as to be merely of scientific interest. That may be true to-day, but who will be bold enough to say that it will be true to-morrow? If we are thinking of practical utility alone, we may remember that two great forces of Nature which we have chained into the service of man, steam and electricity, put forth originally the most feeble manifestations, which might readily have been despised as valueless; but by careful attention to proper conditions results of overwhelming practical importance have been obtained from these forces, which might have been, and for many centuries were, neglected as too trivial to be worth attention. Recently the world has been startled by the discovery of new elements, such as radium, whose very existence was only detected by a triumph of scientific acuteness in investigation, and yet which promise to yield influences on our lives which may overwhelm in importance all that has gone before. And similarly it may be that these magnetic changes, when properly interpreted or developed, may become of an importance in the future out of all proportion to the attention which they have hitherto attracted. Hence, although perhaps sufficient has already been established to show the immense consequences which flow from Schwabe's remarkable discovery of the periodicity in solar spots, we may be as yet only on the threshold of its real value.

From what little causes great events spring! How little can Schwabe have realised, when he began to point his modest little telescope at the sun, and to count the number of spots--the despised spots which he had been a.s.sured were of no interest and exhibited no laws, and were generally unprofitable--that he was taking the first step in the invention of the great science of Solar Physics!--a science which is, I am glad to say, occupying at the present moment so much of the attention, not only of the great Yerkes Observatory, but of many other observatories scattered over the globe.

CHAPTER VI

THE VARIATION OF LAt.i.tUDE

If we should desire to cla.s.sify discoveries in order of merit, we must undoubtedly give a high place to those which are made under direct discouragements. In the last chapter we saw that Schwabe entered upon his work under conditions of this kind, it being the opinion of experienced astronomers who had looked at the facts that there was nothing of interest to be got by watching sun-spots. In the present chapter I propose to deal with a discovery made in the very teeth of the unanimous opinion of the astronomical world by an American amateur, Mr. S. C. Chandler of Cambridge (Ma.s.sachusetts). It is my purpose to allow him to himself explain the steps of this discovery by giving extracts from the magnificent series of papers which he contributed to the _Astronomical Journal_ on the subject in the years 1891-94, but it may help in the understanding of these extracts if I give a brief summary of the facts. And I will first explain what is meant by the "Variation of Lat.i.tude."

[Sidenote: Lat.i.tude.]

[Sidenote: Precession.]

We are all familiar with the existence of a certain star in the heavens called the Pole Star, and we know that at any particular place it is seen constantly in the north at a definite height above the horizon, which is the lat.i.tude of the place. When watched carefully with a telescope it is found to be not absolutely stationary, but to describe a small circle in the heavens day by day, or rather night by night. These simple facts are bound up with the phenomenon of the earth's rotation in this way: the axis about which it is rotating points to the centre of that little circle, and any change in the position of the axis can therefore be determined by observing these motions of the Pole Star. Such changes may be of two kinds: firstly, we might find that the size of the circle increased or diminished, and this would mean that the earth's axis was pointing farther away from the Pole Star or nearer to it--pointing, that is to say, in a different direction in s.p.a.ce. This actually happens (as has been known for some thousands of years) owing to the phenomenon called "precession"; the circle described by our Pole Star is at present getting a little smaller, but it will ultimately increase in size, and after thousands of years become so large that the Pole Star will entirely lose its character as a steady guide to the North.

[Sidenote: Change of lat.i.tude.]

[Sidenote: Twenty years ago disbelieved.]

Secondly (and this is what more immediately concerns us), the centre of the circle may alter its position and be no longer at the same height above the horizon of any given place. This would mean that the earth's axis was shifting _in the earth itself_--that the North Pole which our explorers go to seek is not remaining in the same place. That it does not change appreciably in position we know from familiar experience; our climates, for instance, would suffer considerably if there were any large changes. But astronomers are concerned with minute changes which would not have any appreciable effect on climate, and the question has long been before them whether, putting aside large movements, there were any minute variations in position of the North Pole. Twenty years ago the answer to this question would have been given decidedly in the negative; it was considered as certain that the North Pole did not move at all within the limits of our most refined astronomical observations. Accepted theory seemed to indicate that any movements must in any case recur after a period of ten months, and careful discussion of the observations showed that there was no oscillation in such a period. Now we know that the theory itself was wrong, or rather was founded upon a mistaken a.s.sumption; and that the facts when properly examined show clearly a distinct movement of the North Pole, not a very large one, for all its movements take place within the area occupied by a moderate-sized room, but still a movement easily measurable by astronomical observations, and Mr. Chandler was the first to point out the law of these movements, and very possibly the first to suspect them.

[Sidenote: Chandler's papers.]

With these few words of explanation I will let Mr. Chandler tell his own story. His first paper appeared in the _Astronomical Journal_ in November 1891, and is courageously headed, "On the Variation of Lat.i.tude"--I say courageously, because at that time it was believed that the lat.i.tude did _not_ vary, and Mr. Chandler himself was only in possession of a small portion of the facts. They unravelled themselves as he went forward; but he felt that he had firm hold of the end of the thread, and he faced the world confidently in that belief. He begins thus:--

[Sidenote: First signs of change.]

"In the determination of the lat.i.tude of Cambridge[5] with the Almucantar, about six years and a half ago, it was shown that the observed values, arranged according to nights of observation, exhibited a decided and curious progression throughout the series, the earlier values being small, the later ones large, and the range from November 1884 to April 1885 being about four-tenths of a second.

There was no known or imaginable instrumental or personal cause for this phenomenon, yet the only alternative seemed to be an inference that the lat.i.tude had actually changed. This seemed at the time too bold an inference to place upon record, and I therefore left the results to speak for themselves. The subsequent continuation of the series of observations to the end of June 1885 gave a maximum about May 1, while the discussion of the previous observations from May to November 1884 gave a minimum about September 1, indicating a range of 0".7 within a half-period of about seven months."

Mr. Chandler then gives some figures in support of these statements, presenting them with the clearness which is so well marked a feature of the whole series of papers, and concludes this introductory paper as follows:--

"It thus appears that the apparent change in the lat.i.tude of Cambridge is verified by this discussion of more abundant material.

The presumption that it is real, on this determination alone, would justify further inquiry.

[Sidenote: Confirmed in Europe.]

"Curiously enough Dr. Kustner, in his determination of the aberration from a series of observations coincident in time with those of the Almucantar, came upon similar anomalies, and his results, published in 1888, furnish a counterpart to those which I had pointed out in 1885. The verification afforded by the recent parallel determinations at Berlin, Prague, Potsdam, and Pulkowa, which show a most surprising and satisfactory accordance, as to the character of the change, in range and periodicity, with the Almucantar results, has led me to make further investigations on the subject. They seem to establish the nature of the law of those changes, and I will proceed to present them in due order."

The second paper appeared on November 23, and opens with the following brief statement of his general results at that time:--

[Sidenote: 427 days' period.]

"Before entering upon the details of the investigations spoken of in the preceding number, it is convenient to say that the general result of a preliminary discussion is to show a revolution of the earth's pole in a period of 427 days, from west to east, with a radius of thirty feet, measured at the earth's surface. a.s.suming provisionally, for the purpose of statement, that this is a motion of the north pole of the princ.i.p.al axis of inertia about that of the axis of rotation, the direction of the former from the latter lay towards the Greenwich meridian about the beginning of the year 1890. This, with the period of 427 days, will serve to fix approximately the relative positions of these axes at any other time, for any given meridian. It is not possible at this stage of the investigation to be more precise, as there are facts which appear to show that the rotation is not a perfectly uniform one, but is subject to secular change, and perhaps irregularities within brief s.p.a.ces of time."

[Sidenote: Contrary to received views.]

It is almost impossible, now that we have become familiar with the ideas conveyed in this paragraph, to understand, or even fully to remember, the impression produced by them at the time; the sensation caused in some quarters, and the ridicule excited in others. They were in flat contradiction to all accepted views; and it was believed that these views were not only theoretically sound, but had been matured by a thorough examination of observational evidence. The only period in which the earth's pole could revolve was believed to be ten mouths; and here was Mr.

Chandler proclaiming, apparently without any idea that he was contradicting the laws of dynamics, that it was revolving in fourteen months! The radius of its path had been found to be insensible by careful discussion of observations, and now he proclaimed a sensible radius o thirty feet. Finally, he had the audacity to announce a _variable_ period, to which there was nothing at all corresponding in the mathematical possibilities. This was the bitterest pill of all. Even after Professor Newcomb had shown us how to swallow the other two, he could not recommend any attempt at the third, as we shall presently see; and Mr. Chandler was fain ultimately to gild it a little before it could be gulped.

[Sidenote: Pulkowa puzzle solved, also Washington.]

But this is antic.i.p.ating, and it is our intention to follow patiently the evidence adduced in support of the above statements, made with such splendid confidence to a totally disbelieving world. Mr. Chandler first examines the observations of Dr. Kustner of Berlin, quoted at the end of his last paper, and shows how well they are suited by the existence of a variation in the lat.i.tude of 427 days; and that this new fact is added--when the Cambridge (U.S.A.) lat.i.tudes were the smallest those of Berlin were the largest, and _vice versa_, as would clearly be the case if the phenomenon was due to a motion of the earth's pole; for if it moved nearer America it must move further from Europe. He then examines a long series of observations made in the years 1864-1873 at Pulkowa, near St.

Petersburg, and again finds satisfactory confirmation of his law of variation. Now it had long been known that there was something curious about these observations, but no one could tell what it was. The key offered by Mr. Chandler fitted the lock exactly, and the anomalies which had been a puzzle were removed. This was in itself a great triumph; but there was another to come, which we may let Mr. Chandler describe in his own words:--

"In 1862 Professor Hubbard began a series of observations of [a]

Lyrae at the Washington Observatory with the prime vertical transit instrument, for the purpose of determining the constants of aberration and nutation and the parallax of the star. The methods of observation and reduction were conformed to those used with such success by W. Struve. After Hubbard's death the series was continued by Professors Newcomb, Hall, and Harkness until the beginning of 1867. Professor Hall describes these observations as the most accurate determinations of declination ever made at the Naval Observatory. The probable error of a declination from a single transit was 0".141, and judging from the accidental errors, the series ought to give trustworthy results. Upon reducing them, however, it was found that some abnormal source of error existed, which resulted in anomalous values of the aberration-constant in the different years, and a negative parallax in all. A careful verification of the processes of reduction failed to discover the cause of the trouble, and Professor Hall says that the results must stand as printed, and that probably some annual disturbance in the observations or the instrument occurred, which will never be explained, and which renders all deductions from them uncertain. The trouble could not be connected with personal equation, the anomalies remaining when the observations of the four observers who took part were separately treated. Nor, as Professor Hall points out, will the theoretical ten-month period in the lat.i.tude furnish the explanation.

"It is manifest, however, that if the 427-day period exists, its effect ought to appear distinctly in declination-measurements of such high degree of excellence as these presumably were, and, as I hope satisfactorily to show, actually are. When this variation is taken into account the observations will unquestionably vindicate the high expectations entertained with regard to them by the accomplished and skilful astronomers who designed and carried them out."

[Sidenote: Direction of revolution of Pole.]

[Sidenote: Example of results.]

From this general account I am excluding technical details and figures, and unfortunately a great deal is thereby lost. We lose the sense of conviction which the long rows of accordant figures force upon us, and we lose the opportunities of admiring both the astonishing amount of work done and the beautiful way in which the material is handled by a master.

But I am tempted to give one very small ill.u.s.tration of the numerical results from near the end of the paper. After discussing the Washington results, and amply fulfilling the promise made in the preceding extract, Mr. Chandler compares them with the Pulkowa results, and shows that the Earth's Pole must be revolving from west to east, and not from east to west. And then he writes down a simple formula representing this motion, and compares his formula with the observations. He gives the results in seconds of arc, but for the benefit of those not familiar with astronomical measurements we may readily convert these into feet; and in the following tables are shown the distances of the Earth's Pole _in feet_ from its average position,[6] as observed at Washington and at Pulkowa, and the same distances calculated according to the formula which Mr.

Chandler was able to write down at this early stage. The signs + and - of course indicate opposite directions of displacement:--

WASHINGTON.

_Deviation of Pole._

+-------------------------------------+Date.Observed.Formula.-------------------------------------1864, Dec. 28-28 feet-23 feet1865, Mar. 19- 1 "-12 "" June 1+15 "+12 "" Aug. 11+22 "+23 "" Oct. 9+11 "+15 "" Dec. 13-17 "- 6 "+-------------------------------------+

PULKOWA.

_Deviation of Pole._

+-------------------------------------+Date.Observed.Formula.-------------------------------------1865, July 25-18 feet-12 feet" Sept. 9+ 3 "+ 3 "" Nov. 22+26 "+22 "1866, Feb. 22+18 "+13 "" June 4-11 "-18 "" July 17-16 "-23 "+-------------------------------------+

Of course the figures are not exact in every case, but they are never many feet wrong; and it may well be imagined that it is a difficult thing to deduce, even from the most refined observations, the position of the earth's pole to within a foot. The difficulty is exactly the same as that of measuring the length of an object 300 miles away to within an inch!

Mr. Chandler winds up his second paper thus:--

"We thus find that the comparison of the simultaneous series at Pulkowa and Washington, 1863-1867, leads to the same conclusion as that already drawn from the simultaneous series at Berlin and Cambridge, 1884-1885. The direction of the polar motion may therefore be looked upon as established with a large degree of probability.

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