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- Curiosities of the Sky - 4/25 -


Stellar clouds are characteristic of the Galaxy and are not found beyond its borders, except in the ``Magellanic Clouds'' of the southern hemisphere, which resemble detached portions of the Milky Way. These singular objects form as striking a peculiarity of the austral heavens as does the great ``Coal-sack'' described in Chapter 1. But it is their isolation that makes them so remarkable, for their composition is essentially galactic, and if they were included within its boundaries they would not appear more wonderful than many other parts of the Milky Way. Placed where they are, they look like masses fallen from the great stellar arch. They are full of nebulŠ and star-clusters, and show striking evidences of spiral movement.

Star-swarms, which are also characteristic features of the Galaxy, differ from star-clouds very much in the way that their name would imply -- i.e., their component stars are so arranged, even when they are countless in number, that the idea of an exceedingly numerous assemblage rather than that of a cloud is impressed on the observer's mind. In a star-swarm the separate members are distinguishable because they are either larger or nearer than the stars composing a ``cloud.'' A splendid example of a true star-swarm is furnished by Chi Persei, in that part of the Milky Way which runs between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia. This swarm is much coarser than many others, and can be seen by the naked eye. In a small telescope it appears double, as if the suns composing it had divided into two parties which keep on their way side by side, with some commingling of their members where the skirts of the two companies come in contact.

Smaller than either star-clouds or star-swarms, and differing from both in their organization, are star-clusters. These, unlike the others, are found outside as well as inside the Milky Way, although they are more numerous inside its boundaries than elsewhere. The term star-cluster is sometimes applied, though improperly, to assemblages which are rather groups, such, for instance, as the Pleiades. In their most characteristic aspect star-clusters are of a globular shape -- globes of suns! A famous example of a globular star-cluster, but one not included in the Milky Way, is the ``Great Cluster in Hercules.'' This is barely visible to the naked eye, but a small telescope shows its character, and in a large one it presents a marvelous spectacle. Photographs of such clusters are, perhaps, less effective than those of star-clouds, because the central condensation of stars in them is so great that their light becomes blended in an indistinguishable blur. The beautiful effect of the incessant play of infinitesimal rays over the apparently compact surface of the cluster, as if it were a globe of the finest frosted silver shining in an electric beam, is also lost in a photograph. Still, even to the eye looking directly at the cluster through a powerful telescope, the central part of the wonderful congregation seems almost a solid mass in which the stars are packed like the ice crystals in a snowball.

The same question rises to the lips of every observer: How can they possibly have been brought into such a situation? The marvel does not grow less when we know that, instead of being closely compacted, the stars of the cluster are probably separated by millions of miles; for we know that their distances apart are slight as compared with their remoteness from the Earth. Sir William Herschel estimated their number to be about fourteen thousand, but in fact they are uncountable. If we could view them from a point just within the edge of the assemblage, they would offer the appearance of a hollow hemisphere emblazoned with stars of astonishing brilliancy; the near-by ones unparalleled in splendor by any celestial object known to us, while the more distant ones would resemble ordinary stars. An inhabitant of the cluster would not know, except by a process of ratiocination, that he was dwelling in a globular assemblage of suns; only from a point far outside would their spherical arrangement become evident to the eye. Imagine fourteen-thousand fire-balloons with an approach to regularity in a spherical space -- say, ten miles in diameter; there would be an average of less than thirty in every cubic mile, and it would be necessary to go to a considerable distance in order to see them as a globular aggregation; yet from a point sufficiently far away they would blend into a glowing ball.

Photographs show even better than the best telescopic views that the great cluster is surrounded with a multitude of dispersed stars, suggestively arrayed in more or less curving lines, which radiate from the principle mass, with which their connection is manifest. These stars, situated outside the central sphere, look somewhat like vagrant bees buzzing round a dense swarm where the queen bee is sitting. Yet while there is so much to suggest the operation of central forces, bringing and keeping the members of the cluster together, the attentive observer is also impressed with the idea that the whole wonderful phenomenon may be the result of explosion. As soon as this thought seizes the mind, confirmation of it seems to be found in the appearance of the outlying stars, which could be as readily explained by the supposition that they have been blown apart as that they have flocked together toward a center. The probable fact that the stars constituting the cluster are very much smaller than our sun might be regarded as favoring the hypothesis of an explosion. Of their real size we know nothing, but, on the basis of an uncertain estimate of their parallax, it has been calculated that they may average forty-five thousand miles in diameter -- something more than half the diameter of the planet Jupiter. Assuming the same mean density, fourteen thousand such stars might have been formed by the explosion of a body about twice the size of the sun. This recalls the theory of Olbers, which has never been altogether abandoned or disproved, that the Asteroids were formed by the explosion of a planet circulating between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The Asteroids, whatever their manner of origin, form a ring around the sun; but, of course, the explosion of a great independent body, not originally revolving about a superior center of gravitational force, would not result in the formation of a ring of small bodies, but rather of a dispersed mass of them. But back of any speculation of this kind lies the problem, at present insoluble: How could the explosion be produced? (See the question of explosions in Chapters 6 and 14).

Then, on the other hand, we have the observation of Herschel, since abundantly confirmed, that space is unusually vacant in the immediate neighborhood of condensed star-clusters and nebulŠ, which, as far as it goes, might be taken as an indication that the assembled stars had been drawn together by their mutual attractions, and that the tendency to aggregation is still bringing new members toward the cluster. But in that case there must have been an original condensation of stars at that point in space. This could probably have been produced by the coagulation of a great nebula into stellar nuclei, a process which seems now to be taking place in the Orion Nebula.

A yet more remarkable globular star-cluster exists in the southern hemisphere, Omega Centauri. In this case the central condensation of stars presents an almost uniform blaze of light. Like the Hercules cluster, that in Centaurus is surrounded with stars scattered over a broad field and showing an appearance of radial arrangement. In fact, except for its greater richness, Omega Centauri is an exact duplicate of its northern rival. Each appears to an imaginative spectator as a veritable ``city of suns.'' Mathematics shrinks from the task of disentangling the maze of motions in such an assemblage. It would seem that the chance of collisions is not to be neglected, and this idea finds a certain degree of confirmation in the appearance of ``temporary stars'' which have more than once blazed out in, or close by, globular star-clusters.

This leads up to the notable fact, first established by Professor Bailey a few years ago, that such clusters are populous with variable stars. Omega Centauri and the Hercules cluster are especially remarkable in this respect. The variables found in them are all of short period and the changes of light show a noteworthy tendency to uniformity. The first thought is that these phenomena must be due to collisions among the crowded stars, but, if so, the encounters cannot be between the stars themselves, but probably between stars and meteor swarms revolving around them. Such periodic collisions might go on for ages without the meteors being exhausted by incorporation with the stars. This explanation appears all the more probable because one would naturally expect that flocks of meteors would abound in a close aggregation of stars. It is also consistent with Perrine's discovery -- that the globular star clusters are powdered with minute stars strewn thickly among the brighter ones.

In speaking of Professor Comstock's extraordinary theory of the Milky Way, the fact was mentioned that, broadly speaking, the nebulŠ are less numerous in the galactic belt than in the comparatively open spaces on either side of it, but that they are, nevertheless, abundant in the broader half of the Milky Way which he designates as the front of the gigantic ``plough'' supposed to be forcing its way through the enveloping chaos. In and around the Sagittarius region the intermingling of nebulŠ and galactic star clouds and clusters is particularly remarkable. That there is a causal connection no thoughtful person can doubt. We are unable to get away from the evidence that a nebula is like a seed-ground from which stars spring forth; or we may say that nebulŠ resemble clouds in whose bosom raindrops are forming. The wonderful aspect of the admixtures of nebulŠ and star-clusters in Sagittarius has been described in Chapter 1. We now come to a still more extraordinary phenomenon of this kind -- the Pleiades nebulŠ.

The group of the Pleiades, although lying outside the main course of the Galaxy, is connected with it by a faint loop, and is the scene of the most remarkable association of stars and nebulous matter known in the visible universe. The naked eye is unaware of the existence of nebulŠ in the Pleiades, or, at the best, merely suspects that there is something of the kind there; and even the most powerful telescopes are far from revealing the full wonder of the spectacle; but in photographs which have been exposed for many hours consecutively, in order to accumulate the impression of the actinic rays, the revelation is stunning. The principle stars are seen surrounded by, and, as it were, drowned in, dense nebulous clouds of an unparalleled kind. The forms assumed by these clouds seem at first sight inexplicable. They look like fleeces, or perhaps more like splashes and daubs of luminous paint dashed carelessly from a brush. But closer inspection shows that they are, to a large extent, woven out of innumerable threads of filmy texture, and there are many indications of spiral tendencies. Each of the bright stars of the group -- Alcyone, Merope, Maia, Electra, Taygeta, Atlas -- is the focus of a dense fog (totally invisible, remember, alike to the naked eye and to the telescope), and these particular stars are veiled from sight behind the strange mists. Running in all directions across the relatively open spaces are nebulous wisps and streaks of the most curious forms. On some of the nebular lines, which are either straight throughout, or if they change direction do so at an angle, little stars are strung like beads. In one case seven or eight stars are thus aligned, and, as if to emphasize their dependence upon the chain which connects them, when it makes a slight bend the file of stars turns the same way. Many other star rows in the group suggest by their arrangement that they, too, were once strung upon similar threads which have now disappeared, leaving the stars spaced along their ancient tracks. We seem forced to the conclusion that there was a time when the Pleiades were embedded in a vast nebula resembling that of Orion, and that the cloud has now become so rare by gradual condensation into stars that the merest trace of it remains, and this would probably have escaped detection but for the remarkable actinic power of the radiant matter of which it consists. The richness of many of these faint nebulous masses in ultra-violet radiations, which are those that specifically affect the


Curiosities of the Sky - 4/25

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