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- Curiosities of the Sky - 10/25 -


all the phenomena of Nova Persei, and particularly the appearance of the great spiral nebula that seemed to exhale from the heart of the star. Upon the whole, the theory of an encounter between a star and a dark nebula seems best to fit the observations. By that hypothesis the expanding billow of light surrounding the core of the conflagration is very well accounted for, and the spectroscopic peculiarities are also explained.

Dr Gustov Le Bon offers a yet more alarming theory, suggesting that temporary stars are the result of atomic explosion; but we shall touch upon this more fully in Chapter 14.

Twice in the course of this discussion we have called attention to the change of color invariably undergone by temporary stars in the later stages of their career. This was conspicuous with Nova Persei which glowed more and more redly as it faded, until the nebulous light began to overpower that of the stellar nucleus. Nothing could be more suggestive of the dying out of a great fire. Moreover, change of color from white to red is characteristic of all variable stars of long period, such as ``Mira'' in Cetus. It is also characteristic of stars believed to be in the later stages of evolution, and consequently approaching extinction, like Antares and Betelgeuse, and still more notably certain small stars which ``gleam like rubies in the field of the telescope.'' These last appear to be suns in the closing period of existence as self-luminous bodies. Between the white stars, such as Sirius and Rigel, and the red stars, such as Aldebaran and Alpha Herculis, there is a progressive series of colors from golden yellow through orange to deep red. The change is believed to be due to the increase of absorbing vapors in the stellar atmosphere as the body cools down. In the case of ordinary stars these changes no doubt occupy many millions of years, which represent the average duration of solar life; but the temporary stars run through similar changes in a few months: they resemble ephemeral insects -- born in the morning and doomed to perish with the going down of the sun.

Explosive and Whirling NebulŠ

One of the most surprising triumphs of celestial photography was Professor Keeler's discovery, in 1899, that the great majority of the nebulŠ have a distinctly spiral form. This form, previously known in Lord Rosse's great ``Whirlpool Nebula,'' had been supposed to be exceptional; now the photographs, far excelling telescopic views in the revelation of nebular forms, showed the spiral to be the typical shape. Indeed, it is a question whether all nebulŠ are not to some extent spiral. The extreme importance of this discovery is shown in the effect that it has had upon hitherto prevailing views of solar and planetary evolution. For more than three-quarters of a century Laplace's celebrated hypothesis of the manner of origin of the solar system from a rotating and contracting nebula surrounding the sun had guided speculation on that subject, and had been tentatively extended to cover the evolution of systems in general. The apparent forms of some of the nebulŠ which the telescope had revealed were regarded, and by some are still regarded, as giving visual evidence in favor of this theory. There is a ``ring nebula'' in Lyra with a central star, and a ``planetary nebula'' in Gemini bearing no little resemblance to the planet Saturn with its rings, both of which appear to be practical realizations of Laplace's idea, and the elliptical rings surrounding the central condensation of the Andromeda Nebula may be cited for the same kind of proof.

But since Keeler's discovery there has been a decided turning away of speculation another way. The form of the spiral nebulŠ seems to be entirely inconsistent with the theory of an originally globular or disk-shaped nebula condensing around a sun and throwing or leaving off rings, to be subsequently shaped into planets. Some astronomers, indeed, now reject Laplace's hypothesis in toto, preferring to think that even our solar system originated from a spiral nebula. Since the spiral type prevails among the existing nebulŠ, we must make any mechanical theory of the development of stars and planetary systems from them accord with the requirements which that form imposes. A glance at the extraordinary variations upon the spiral which Professor Keeler's photographs reveal is sufficient to convince one of the difficulty of the task of basing a general theory upon them. In truth, it is much easier to criticize Laplace's hypothesis than to invent a satisfactory substitute for it. If the spiral nebulŠ seem to oppose it there are other nebulŠ which appear to support it, and it may be that no one fixed theory can account for all the forms of stellar evolution in the universe. Our particular planetary system may have originated very much as the great French mathematician supposed, while others have undergone, or are now undergoing, a different process of development. There is always a too strong tendency to regard an important new discovery and the theories and speculations based upon it as revolutionizing knowledge, and displacing or overthrowing everything that went before. Upon the plea that ``Laplace only made a guess'' more recent guesses have been driven to extremes and treated by injudicious exponents as ``the solid facts at last.''

Before considering more recent theories than Laplace's, let us see what the nature of the photographic revelations is. The vast celestial maelstrom discovered by Lord Rosse in the ``Hunting Dogs'' may be taken as the leading type of the spiral nebulŠ, although there are less conspicuous objects of the kind which, perhaps, better illustrate some of their peculiarities. Lord Rosse's nebula appears far more wonderful in the photographs than in his drawings made with the aid of his giant reflecting telescope at Parsonstown, for the photographic plate records details that no telescope is capable of showing. Suppose we look at the photograph of this object as any person of common sense would look at any great and strange natural phenomenon. What is the first thing that strikes the mind? It is certainly the appearance of violent whirling motion. One would say that the whole glowing mass had been spun about with tremendous velocity, or that it had been set rotating so rapidly that it had become the victim of ``centrifugal force,'' one huge fragment having broken loose and started to gyrate off into space. Closer inspection shows that in addition to the principal focus there are various smaller condensations scattered through the mass. These are conspicuous in the spirals. Some of them are stellar points, and but for the significance of their location we might suppose them to be stars which happen to lie in a line between us and the nebula. But when we observe how many of them follow most faithfully the curves of the spirals we cannot but conclude that they form an essential part of the phenomenon; it is not possible to believe that their presence in such situations is merely fortuitous. One of the outer spirals has at least a dozen of these star-like points strung upon it; some of them sharp, small, and distinct, others more blurred and nebulous, suggesting different stages of condensation. Even the part which seems to have been flung loose from the main mass has, in addition to its central condensation, at least one stellar point gleaming in the half-vanished spire attached to it. Some of the more distant stars scattered around the ``whirlpool'' look as if they too had been shot out of the mighty vortex, afterward condensing into unmistakable solar bodies. There are at least two curved rows of minute stars a little beyond the periphery of the luminous whirl which clearly follow lines concentric with those of the nebulous spirals. Such facts are simply dumbfounding for anyone who will bestow sufficient thought upon them, for these are suns, though they may be small ones; and what a birth is that for a sun!

Look now again at the glowing spirals. We observe that hardly have they left the central mass before they begin to coagulate. In some places they have a ``ropy'' aspect; or they are like peascods filled with growing seeds, which eventually will become stars. The great focus itself shows a similar tendency, especially around its circumference. The sense that it imparts of a tremendous shattering force at work is overwhelming. There is probably more matter in that whirling and bursting nebula than would suffice to make a hundred solar systems! It must be confessed at once that there is no confirmation of the Laplacean hypothesis here; but what hypothesis will fit the facts? There is one which it has been claimed does so, but we shall come to that later. In the meanwhile, as a preparation, fix in the memory the appearance of that second spiral mass spinning beside its master which seems to have spurned it away.

For a second example of the spiral nebulŠ look at the one in the constellation Triangulum. God, how hath the imagination of puny man failed to comprehend Thee! Here is creation through destruction with a vengeance! The spiral form of the nebula is unmistakable, but it is half obliterated amid the turmoil of flying masses hurled away on all sides with tornadic fury. The focus itself is splitting asunder under the intolerable strain, and in a little while, as time is reckoned in the Cosmos, it will be gyrating into stars. And then look at the cyclonic rain of already finished stars whirling round the outskirts of the storm. Observe how scores of them are yet involved in the fading streams of the nebulous spirals; see how they have been thrown into vast loops and curves, of a beauty that half redeems the terror of the spectacle enclosed within their lines -- like iridescent cirri hovering about the edges of a hurricane. And so again are suns born!

Let us turn to the exquisite spiral in Ursa Major; how different its aspect from that of the other! One would say that if the terrific coil in Triangulum has all but destroyed itself in its fury, this one on the contrary has just begun its self-demolition. As one gazes one seems to see in it the smooth, swift, accelerating motion that precedes catastrophe. The central part is still intact, dense, and uniform in texture. How graceful are the spirals that smoothly rise from its oval rim and, gemmed with little stars, wind off into the darkness until they have become as delicate as threads of gossamer! But at bottom the story told here is the same -- creation by gyration!

Compare with the above the curious mass in Cetus. Here the plane of the whirling nebula nearly coincides with our line of sight and we see the object at a low angle. It is far advanced and torn to shreds, and if we could look at it perpendicularly to its plane it is evident that it would closely resemble the spectacle in Triangulum.

Then take the famous Andromeda Nebula (see Frontispiece), which is so vast that notwithstanding its immense distance even the naked eye perceives it as an enigmatical wisp in the sky. Its image on the sensitive plate is the masterpiece of astronomical photography; for wild, incomprehensible beauty there is nothing that can be compared with it. Here, if anywhere, we look upon the spectacle of creation in one of its earliest stages. The Andromeda Nebula is apparently less advanced toward transformation into stellar bodies than is that in Triangulum. The immense crowd of stars sprinkled over it and its neighborhood seem in the main to lie this side of the nebula, and consequently to have no connection with it. But incipient stars (in some places clusters of them) are seen in the nebulous rings, while one or two huge masses seem to give promise of transformation into stellar bodies of unusual magnitude. I say ``rings'' because although the loops encompassing the Andromeda Nebula have been called spirals by those who wish utterly to demolish Laplace's hypothesis, yet they are not manifestly such, as can be seen on comparing them with the undoubted spirals of the Lord Rosse Nebula. They look quite as much like circles or ellipses seen at an angle of, say, fifteen or twenty degrees to their plane. If they are truly elliptical they accord fairly well with Laplace's idea, except that the scale of magnitude is stupendous, and if the Andromeda Nebula is to become a solar system it will surpass ours in grandeur beyond all possibility of comparison.

There is one circumstance connected with the spiral nebulŠ, and conspicuous in the Andromeda Nebula on account of its brightness,


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