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

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Interference Methods in Astronomy 129

of the planets and of the constitution of star systems, is what is called bad “seeing.” It must be remembered that light, in order to reach a telescope, must pass through from forty to one hundred miles of atmosphere. This atmosphere is not homogeneous. If the atmosphere were homogeneous, there would not be any very serious objection. The intensity of the light from the object would be practically as great as if there were no air present. But the air is unequally heated, and therefore has unequal densities in different portions. Hence the different portions of a beam of light which have passed through different parts of the atmosphere and reached different parts of the objective of the telescope would be differently retarded, and these differences in retardation would not be constant, but would vary, sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly, producing what is technically called “ boiling.”

This unsteadiness of the image is the most serious difficulty with which astronomers have to contend; there is no instrumental remedy. The best that can be done is to choose an appropriate site, and it seems to be tlio general opinion of astronomers that such a site is best chosen on some very high plateau or tableland. By some it is considered that a high mountain top is a desirable location, and there is no question that such a site possesses very marked advantages in consequence of the rarity of the air. If the air were very rare,, 4 boiling” would have less effect than it has in dense air. But to compensate this advantage we have the very bad effect of currents of heated air traveling up the side of the mountain. As a matter of fact, however, even in the worst locations, there are occasional nights when the astronomer has almost perfect seeing — when even the largest instruments attain almost their theoretical limit of accuracy. This theoretical efficiency may be most conveniently tested by observations on double stars.


Light Waves and Their Uses

The resolving power, as shown in one of the preceding lectures, depends on the size of the diffraction rings which are produced about the image of a star. It was also shown that the smallest angle which a telescope could resolve was that subtended at the center of the lens by the

radius of the first dark ring, and this angle is equal to the ratio of the length of the light wave to the diameter of the objective. For example, if we consider a 4-inch glass, the length of the light wave being of an inch, this

angle would be If

the lens were a 40-inch glass, the angle would be something like YwJ-crrro, which can bo represented by the angle subtended by a dime at the distance of fifteen miles. Hence, if we had two such dimes placed side by side, the largest glass would scarcely separate them.

Fig. 90 is an actual photograph of the image of a point of light taken with an aperture smaller than that of a telescope, but otherwise under the same conditions under which a telescope is used. It is easy to see that, surrounding the point of the image, there is a more or less defined white disc, and beyond this a dark ring. Outside of this dark ring there are a bright ring and another dark ring. Theoretically, there are a great number of those rings; practically, we see only one or two under the most favorable conditions.

This figure represents the appearance of the image of one of Jupiter’s satellites as it would bo observed in one of the largest telescopes under the most favorable conditions. If it be required to measure the diameter of one of these very