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- Curiosities of the Sky - 2/25 -


stars cannot be less than many billions of miles in length!

All about the cluster the bed of the Galaxy is strangely disturbed, and in places nearly denuded, as if its contents had been raked away to form the immense stack and the smaller accumulations of stars around it. The well-known ``Trifid Nebula'' is also included in the field of the photograph, which covers a truly marvelous region, so intricate in its mingling of nebulŠ, star-clusters, star-swarms, star-streams, and dark vacancies that no description can do it justice. Yet, chaotic as it appears, there is an unmistakable suggestion of unity about it, impressing the beholder with the idea that all the different parts are in some way connected, and have not been fortuitously thrown together. Miss Agnes M. Clerke made the striking remark that the dusky lanes in M8 are exemplified on the largest scale in the great rift dividing the Milky Way, from Cygnus in the northern hemisphere all the way to the ``Cross'' in the southern. Similar lanes are found in many other clusters, and they are generally associated with flanking rows of stars, resembling in their arrangement the thick-set houses and villas along the roadways that traverse the approaches to a great city.

But to return to the black gaps. Are they really windows in the star-walls of the universe? Some of them look rather as if they had been made by a shell fired through a luminous target, allowing the eye to range through the hole into the void space beyond. If science is discretely silent about these things, what can the more venturesome and less responsible imagination suggest? Would a huge ``runaway sun,'' like Arcturus, for instance, make such an opening if it should pass like a projectile through the Milky Way? It is at least a stimulating inquiry. Being probably many thousands of times more massive than the galactic stars, such a stellar missile would not be stopped by them, though its direction of flight might be altered. It would drag the small stars lying close to its course out of their spheres, but the ultimate tendency of its attraction would be to sweep them round in its wake, thus producing rather a star-swarm than a vacancy. Those that were very close to it might be swept away in its rush and become its satellites, careering away with it in its flight into outer space; but those that were farther off, and they would, of course, greatly outnumber the nearer ones, would tend inward from all sides toward the line of flight, as dust and leaves collect behind a speeding motor (though the forces operating would be different), and would fill up the hole, if hole it were. A swarm thus collected should be rounded in outline and bordered with a relatively barren ring from which the stars had been ``sucked'' away. In a general sense the M8 cluster answers to this description, but even if we undertook to account for its existence by a supposition like the above, the black gaps would remain unexplained, unless one could make a further draft on the imagination and suggest that the stars had been thrown into a vast eddy, or system of eddies, whose vortices appear as dark holes. Only a maelstrom-like motion could keep such a funnel open, for without regard to the impulse derived from the projectile, the proper motions of the stars themselves would tend to fill it. Perhaps some other cause of the whirling motion may be found. As we shall see when we come to the spiral nebulŠ, gyratory movements are exceedingly prevalent throughout the universe, and the structure of the Milky Way is everywhere suggestive of them. But this is hazardous sport even for the imagination -- to play with suns as if they were but thistle-down in the wind or corks in a mill-race.

Another question arises: What is the thickness of the hedge of stars through which the holes penetrate? Is the depth of the openings proportionate to their width? In other words, is the Milky Way round in section like a rope, or flat and thin like a ribbon? The answer is not obvious, for we have little or no information concerning the relative distances of the faint galactic stars. It would be easier, certainly, to conceive of openings in a thin belt than in a massive ring, for in the first case they would resemble mere rifts and breaks, while in the second they would be like wells or bore-holes. Then, too, the fact that the Milky Way is not a continuous body but is made up of stars whose actual distances apart is great, offers another quandary; persistent and sharply bordered apertures in such an assemblage are a priori as improbable, if not impossible, as straight, narrow holes running through a swarm of bees.

The difficulty of these questions indicates one of the reasons why it has been suggested that the seeming gaps, or many of them, are not openings at all, but opaque screens cutting off the light from stars behind them. That this is quite possible in some cases is shown by Barnard's later photographs, particularly those of the singular region around the star Rho Ophiuchi. Here are to be seen somber lanes and patches, apparently forming a connected system which covers an immense space, and which their discoverer thinks may constitute a ``dark nebula.'' This seems at first a startling suggestion; but, after all, why should their not be dark nebulŠ as well as visible ones? In truth, it has troubled some astronomers to explain the luminosity of the bright nebulŠ, since it is not to be supposed that matter in so diffuse a state can be incandescent through heat, and phosphorescent light is in itself a mystery. The supposition is also in accord with what we know of the existence of dark solid bodies in space. Many bright stars are accompanied by obscure companions, sometimes as massive as themselves; the planets are non-luminous; the same is true of meteors before they plunge into the atmosphere and become heated by friction; and many plausible reasons have been found for believing that space contains as many obscure as shining bodies of great size. It is not so difficult, after all, then, to believe that there are immense collections of shadowy gases and meteoric dust whose presence is only manifested when they intercept the light coming from shining bodies behind them.

This would account for the apparent extinguishment of light in open space, which is indicated by the falling off in relative number of telescopic stars below the tenth magnitude. Even as things are, the amount of light coming to us from stars too faint to be seen with the naked eye is so great that the statement of it generally surprises persons who are unfamiliar with the inner facts of astronomy. It has been calculated that on a clear night the total starlight from the entire celestial sphere amounts to one-sixtieth of the light of the full moon; but of this less than one-twenty-fifth is due to stars separately distinguished by the eye. If there were no obscuring medium in space, it is probable that the amount of starlight would be noticeably and perhaps enormously increased.

But while it seems certain that some of the obscure spots in the Milky Way are due to the presence of ``dark nebulŠ,'' or concealing veils of one kind or another, it is equally certain that there are many which are true apertures, however they may have been formed, and by whatever forces they may be maintained. These, then, are veritable windows of the Galaxy, and when looking out of them one is face to face with the great mystery of infinite space. There the known universe visibly ends, but manifestly space itself does not end there. It is not within the power of thought to conceive an end to space, for the instant we think of a terminal point or line the mind leaps forward to the beyond. There must be space outside as well as inside. Eternity of time and infinity of space are ideas that the intellect cannot fully grasp, but neither can it grasp the idea of a limitation to either space or time. The metaphysical conceptions of hypergeometry, or fourth-dimensional space, do not aid us.

Having, then, discovered that the universe is a thing contained in something indefinitely greater than itself; having looked out of its windows and found only the gloom of starless night outside -- what conclusions are we to draw concerning the beyond? It seems as empty as a vacuum, but is it really so? If it be, then our universe is a single atom astray in the infinite; it is the only island in an ocean without shores; it is the one oasis in an illimitable desert. Then the Milky Way, with its wide-flung garland of stars, is afloat like a tiny smoke-wreath amid a horror of immeasurable vacancy, or it is an evanescent and solitary ring of sparkling froth cast up for a moment on the viewless billows of immensity. From such conclusions the mind instinctively shrinks. It prefers to think that there is something beyond, though we cannot see it. Even the universe could not bear to be alone -- a Crusoe lost in the Cosmos! As the inhabitants of the most elegant chÔteau, with its gardens, parks, and crowds of attendants, would die of loneliness if they did not know that they have neighbors, though not seen, and that a living world of indefinite extent surrounds them, so we, when we perceive that the universe has limits, wish to feel that it is not solitary; that beyond the hedges and the hills there are other centers of life and activity. Could anything be more terrible than the thought of an isolated universe? The greater the being, the greater the aversion to seclusion. Only the infinite satisfies; in that alone the mind finds rest.

We are driven, then, to believe that the universal night which envelopes us is not tenantless; that as we stare out of the star-framed windows of the Galaxy and see nothing but uniform blackness, the fault is with our eyes or is due to an obscuring medium. Since our universe is limited in extent, there must be other universes beyond it on all sides. Perhaps if we could carry our telescopes to the verge of the great ``Coal-sack'' near the ``Cross,'' being then on the frontier of our starry system, we could discern, sparkling afar off in the vast night, some of the outer galaxies. They may be grander than ours, just as many of the suns surrounding us are immensely greater than ours. If we could take our stand somewhere in the midst of immensity and, with vision of infinite reach, look about us, we should perhaps see a countless number of stellar systems, amid which ours would be unnoticeable, like a single star among the multitude glittering in the terrestial sky on a clear night. Some might be in the form of a wreath, like our own; some might be globular, like the great star-clusters in Hercules and Centaurus; some might be glittering circles, or disks, or rings within rings. If we could enter them we should probably find a vast variety of composition, including elements unknown to terrestrial chemistry; for while the visible universe appears to contain few if any substances not existing on the earth or in the sun, we have no warrant to assume that others may not exist in infinite space.

And how as to gravitation? We do not know that gravitation acts beyond the visible universe, but it is reasonable to suppose that it does. At any rate, if we let go its sustaining hand we are lost, and can only wander hopelessly in our speculations, like children astray. If the empire of gravitation is infinite, then the various outer systems must have some, though measuring by our standards an imperceptible, attractive influence upon each other, for gravitation never lets go its hold, however great the space over which it is required to act. Just as the stars about us are all in motion, so the starry systems beyond our sight may be in motion, and our system as a whole may be moving in concert with them. If this be so, then after interminable ages the aspect of the entire system of systems must change, its various members assuming new positions with respect to one another. In the course of time we may even suppose that our universe will approach relatively close to one of the others; and then, if men are yet living on the earth, they may glimpse through the openings which reveal nothing to us now, the lights of another nearing star system, like the signals of a strange squadron, bringing them the assurance (which can be but an inference at present) that the ocean of space has other argosies venturing on its limitless expanse.

There remains the question of the luminiferous ether by whose agency the waves of light are borne through space. The ether is as mysterious as gravitation. With regard to ether we only infer its existence from


Curiosities of the Sky - 2/25

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