Michelson A. A. Light waves and their uses (1903)

Home   Download (PDF, DjVu)   <<<     Page 127   >>>




Our knowledge of the heavenly bodies is still very limited. The little that we have learned has been acquired almost entirely with the assistance of the telescope, or the telescope compounded with the spectroscope. Without these, the stars and the planets would always remain, even to the most perfect unaided vision, as simple points of light. With these aids we are every year adding very much to our knowledge of their constitution, their form, their structure, and their motions. For example, the spectroscope gives information concerning the elements contained in the sun and the stars; for by means of the dark or bright lines in the spectrum we are able to identify elements by the position of their spectral lines, and from this identification we are able to infer, with almost absolute certainty, the presence of the corresponding material in the heavenly body which is examined. The same is true of comets and nebulae. By the general character of the spectrum we may also distinguish whether these bodies are in the form of incandescent gases, or whether they are in solid or liquid form; and we can, to a certain extent, infer their temperature. We can even determine whether the body is approaching or receding. For example, if the body is approaching, the waves are crowded together so that their wave length will be shortened, and hence they have a correspondingly altered position in the spectrum, /. the line will be shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum. If the body is receding, the spectral line is shifted in position toward the red end of the spectrum.



Light Waves and Their Uses

By th© telescope we have discovered that all the planets, including many of the minor planets, have discs of appreciable size. W© have found markings on the planets, have discovered the satellites of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and have observed various interesting details concerning the structure of these rings. The strange markings on the planet Mars, which bear such a remarkable resemblance to the works of intelligent beings, are among the most interesting of the recent revelations of th© telescope.

It is hard to realize that such observations concern bodies that are distant millions of miles from us; in fact, the distance is so great that it can be more readily expressed by the time light takes to reach us from these bodies. In some cases this may be as much as several years. We can compare this distance with the circumference of the earth, by considering that light or a telegram will go around the earth seven times in a second, while from these bodies it would take several hours for light to reach us. Yet these are our nearest neighbors, or, rather, members of our immediate family. Our farther neighbors are so remote that probably the light from many of them has not yet reached us. To these more distant bodies our own little family of planets is probably invisible; even the sun itself is a second-rate star. If, however, Jupiter were sufficiently bright, then the sun and Jupiter together would form what is called a “ double star,” and to an inhabitant of a distant planet which might be traveling about this distant star it would appear as a double star with a separation of about one second, which may be expressed as th© angle subtended by two luminous points about one-half inch apart when at a distance of three miles. They would therefore be entirely invisible to th© naked eye as separate objects.

One of the most serious difficulties in the way of further progress in the investigation of the telescopic characteristics