Simon Newcomb, The Extent of the Universe
Vol. 30, pp. 311-321 of The Harvard Classics
The greatest spectacle offered man is a view of the magnificent vault of heaven. Under the stupendous arch of the Milky Way the cares of the world roll off.
(Newcomb died July 11, 1909.)
The reader who desires to approach this subject in the most receptive spirit should begin his study by betaking himself on a clear, moonless evening, when he has no earthly concern to disturb the serenity of his thoughts, to some point where he can lie on his back on bench or roof, and scan the whole vault of heaven at one view. He can do this with the greatest pleasure and profit in late summer or autumn—winter would do equally well were it possible for the mind to rise so far above bodily conditions that the question of temperature should not enter. The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe. If summer or autumn be chosen, the stupendous arch of the Milky Way will pass near the zenith, and the constellation Lyra, led by its beautiful blue Vega of the first magnitude, may be not very far from that point. South of it will be seen the constellation Aquila, marked by the bright Altair, between two smaller but conspicuous stars. The bright Arcturus will be somewhere in the west, and, if the observation is not made too early in the season, Aldebaran will be seen somewhere in the east. When attention is concentrated on the scene the thousands of stars on each side of the Milky Way will fill the mind with the consciousness of a stupendous and all-embracing frame, beside which all human affairs sink into insignificance. A new idea will be formed of such a well-known fact of astronomy as the motion of the solar system in space, by reflecting that, during all human history, the sun, carrying the earth with it, has been flying towards a region in or just south of the constellation Lyra, with a speed beyond all that art can produce on earth, without producing any change apparent to ordinary vision in the aspect of the constellation. Not only Lyra and Aquila, but every one of the thousand stars which form the framework of the sky, were seen by our earliest ancestors just as we see them now. Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort; but I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens under the conditions just described. As we make a feeble attempt to learn what science can tell us about the structure of this starry frame, I hope the reader will allow me to at least fancy him contemplating it in this way.
The first question which may suggest itself to the inquiring reader is: How is it possible by any methods of observation yet known to the astronomer to learn anything about the universe as a whole? We may commence by answering this question in a somewhat comprehensive way. It is possible only because the universe, vast though it is, shows certain characteristics of a unified and bounded whole. It is not a chaos, it is not even a collection of things, each of which came into existence in its own separate way. If it were, there would be nothing in common between two widely separate regions of the universe. But, as a matter of fact, science shows unity in the whole structure, and diversity only in details. The Milky Way itself will be seen by the most ordinary observer to form a single structure. This structure is, in some sort, the foundation on which the universe is built. It is a girdle which seems to span the whole of creation, so far as our telescopes have yet enabled us to determine what creation is; and yet it has elements of similarity in all its parts. What has yet more significance, it is in some respects unlike those parts of the universe which lie without it, and even unlike those which lie in that central region within it where our system is now situated. The minute stars, individually far beyond the limits of visibility to the naked eye, which form its cloudlike agglomerations, are found to be mostly bluer in color, from one extreme to the other, than the general average of the stars which make up the rest of the universe.
In the preceding essay on the structure of the universe, we have pointed out several features of the universe showing the unity of the whole. We shall now bring together these and other features with a view of showing their relation to the question of the extent of the universe.
The Milky Way being in a certain sense the foundation on which the whole system is constructed, we have first to notice the symmetry of the whole. This is seen in the fact that a certain resemblance is found in any two opposite regions of the sky, no matter where we choose them. If we take them in the Milky Way, the stars are more numerous than elsewhere; if we take opposite regions in or near the Milky Way, we shall find more stars in both of them than elsewhere; if we take them in the region anywhere around the poles of the Milky Way, we shall find fewer stars, but they will be equally numerous in each of the two regions. We infer from this that whatever cause determined the number of the stars in space was of the same nature in every two antipodal regions of the heavens.
Another unity marked with yet more precision is seen in the chemical elements of which stars are composed. We know that the sun is composed of the same elements which we find on the earth and into which we resolve compounds in our laboratories. These same elements are found in the most distant stars. It is true that some of these bodies seem to contain elements which we do not find on earth. But as these unknown elements are scattered from one extreme of the universe to the other, they only serve still further to enforce the unity which runs through the whole. The nebulae are composed, in part at least, of forms of matter dissimilar to any with which were are acquainted. But, different though they may be, they are alike in their general character throughout the whole field we are considering. Even in such a feature as the proper motions of the stars, the same unity is seen. The reader doubtless knows that each of these objects is flying through space on its own course with a speed comparable with that of the earth around the sun. These speeds range from the smallest limit up to more than one hundred miles a second. Such diversity might seem to detract from the unity of the whole; but when we seek to learn something definite by taking their average, we find this average to be, so far as can yet be determined, much the same in opposite regions of the universe. Quite recently it has become probable that a certain class of very bright stars known as Orion stars—because there are many of them in the most brilliant of our constellations—which are scattered along the whole course of the Milky Way, have one and all, in the general average, slower motions than other stars. Here again we have a definable characteristic extending through the universe. In drawing attention to these points of similarity throughout the whole universe, it must not be supposed that we base our conclusions directly upon them. The point they bring out is that the universe is in the nature of an organized system; and it is upon the fact of its being such a system that we are able, by other facts, to reach conclusions as to its structure, extend, and other characteristics.
One of the great problems connected with the universe is that of its possible extend. How far away are the stars? One of the unities which we have described leads at once to the conclusion that the stars must be at very different distances from us; probably the more distant ones are a thousand times as far as the nearest; possibly even farther than this. This conclusion may, in the first place, be based on the fact that the stars seem to be scattered equally throughout those regions of the universe which are not connected with the Milky Way. To illustrate the principle, suppose a farmer to sow a wheat field of entirely unknown extent with ten bushels of wheat. We visit the field and wish to have some idea of its acreage. We may do this if we know how many grains of wheat there are in the ten bushels. Then we examine a space two or three feet square in any part of the field and count the number of grains in that space. If the wheat is equally scattered over the whole field, we find its extent by the simple rule that the size of the field bears the same proportion to the size of the space in which the count was made that the whole number of grains in the ten bushels sown bears to the number of grains counted. If we find ten grains in a square foot, we know that the number of square feet in the whole field is one-tenth that of the number of grains sown. So it is with the universe of stars. If the latter are sown equally through space, the extent of the space occupied must be proportional to the number of stars which it contains.
But this consideration does not tell us anything about the actual distance of the stars or how thickly they may be scattered. To do this we must be able to determine the distance of a certain number of stars, just as we suppose the farmer to count the grains in a certain small extent of his wheat field. There is only one way in which we can make a definite measure of the distance of any one star. As the earth swings through its vast annual circuit round the sun, the direction of the stars must appear to be a little different when seen from one extremity of the circuit than when seen from the other. This difference is called the parallax of the stars; and the problem of measuring it is one of the most delicate and difficult in the whole field of practical astronomy.
The nineteenth century was well on its way before the instruments of the astronomer were brought to such perfection as to admit of the measurement. From the time of Copernicus to that of Bessel many attempts had been made to measure the parallax of the stars, and more than once had some eager astronomer thought himself successful. But subsequent investigation always showed that he had been mistaken, and that what he thought was the effect of parallax was due to some other cause, perhaps the imperfections of his instrument, perhaps the effect of heat and cold upon it or upon the atmosphere through which he was obliged to observe the star, or upon the going of his clock. Thus things went on until 1837, when Bessel announced that measures with a heliometer—the most refined instrument that has ever been used in measurement—showed that a certain star in the constellation Cygnus had a parallax of one-third of a second. It may be interesting to give an idea of this quantity. Suppose one’s self in a house on top of a mountain looking out of a window one foot square, at a house on another mountain one hundred miles away. One is allowed to look at that distant house through one edge of the pane of glass and then through the opposite edge; and he has to determine the change in the direction of the distant house produced by this change of one foot in his own position. From this he is to estimate how far off the other mountain is. To do this, one would have to measure just about the amount of parallax that Bessel found in his star. And yet this star is among the few nearest to our system. The nearest star of all, Alpha Centauri, visible only in latitudes south of our middle ones, is perhaps half as far as Bessel’s star, while Sirius and one or two others are nearly at the same distance. About 100 stars, all told, have had their parallax measured with a greater or less degree of probability. The work is going on from year to year, each successive astronomer who takes it up being able, as a general rule, to avail himself of better instruments or to use a better method. But, after all, the distances of even some of the 100 stars carefully measured must still remain quite doubtful.
Let us now return to the idea of dividing the space in which the universe is situated into concentric spheres drawn at various distances around our system as a centre. Here we shall take as our standard a distance 400,000 times that of the sun from the earth. Regarding this as a unit, we imagine ourselves to measure out in any direction a distance twice as great as this—then another equal distance, making one three times as great, and so indefinitely. We then have successive spheres of which we take the nearer one as the unit. The total space filled by the second sphere will be 8 times the unit; that of the third space 27 times, and so on, as the cube of each distance. Since each sphere includes all those within it, the volume of space between each two spheres will be proportional to the difference of these numbers—that is, to 1, 7, 19, etc. Comparing these volumes with the number of stars probably within them, the general result up to the present time is that the number of stars in any of these spheres will be about equal to the units of volume which they comprise, when we take for this unit the smallest and innermost of the spheres, having a radius 400,000 times the sun’s distance. We are thus enabled to form some general idea of how thickly the stars are sown through space. We cannot claim any numerical exactness for this idea, but in the absence of better methods it does afford us some basis for reasoning.
Now we can carry on our computation as we supposed the farmer to measure the extent of his wheat field. Let us suppose that there are 125,000,000 stars in the heavens. This is an exceedingly rough estimate, but let us make the supposition for the time being. Accepting the view that they are nearly equally scattered throughout space, it will follow that they must be contained within a volume equal to 125,000,000 times the sphere we have taken as our unit. We find the distance of the surface of this sphere by extracting the cube root of this number, which gives us 500. We may, therefore, say, as the result of a very rough estimate, that the number of stars we have supposed would be contained within a distance found by multiplying 400,000 times the distance of the sun by 500; that is, that they are contained within a region whose boundary is 200,000,000 times the distance of the sun. This is a distance through which light would travel in about 3,300 years.
It is not impossible that the number of stars is much greater than that we have supposed. Let us grant that there are eight times as many, or 1,000,000,000. Then we should have to extend the boundary of our universe twice as far, carrying it to a distance which light would require 6,600 years to travel.
There is another method of estimating the thickness with which stars are sown through space, and hence the extent of the universe, the result of which will be of interest. It is based on the proper motion of the stars. One of the greatest triumphs of astronomy of our time has been the measurement of the actual speed at which many of the stars are moving to or from us in space. These measures are made with the spectroscope. Unfortunately, they can be best made only on the brighter stars—becoming very difficult in the case of stars not plainly visible to the naked eye. Still the motions of several hundreds have been measured and the number is constantly increasing.
A general result of all these measures and of other estimates may be summed up by saying that there is a certain average speed with which the individual stars move in space; and that this average is about twenty miles per second. We are also able to form an estimate as to what proportion of the stars move with each rate of speed from the lowest up to a limit which is probably as high as 150 miles per second. Knowing these proportions we have, by observation of the proper motions of the stars, another method of estimating how thickly they are scattered in space; in other words, what is the volume of space which, on the average, contains a single star. This method gives a thickness of the stars greater by about twenty-five per cent. than that derived from the measures of parallax. That is to say, a sphere like the second we have proposed, having a radius 800,000 times the distance of the sun, and therefore a diameter 1,600,000 times this distance, would, judging by the proper motions, have ten or twelve stars contained within it, while the measures of parallax only show eight stars within the sphere of this diameter having the sun as its centre. The probabilities are in favor of the result giving the greater thickness of the stars. But, after all, the discrepancy does not change the general conclusion as to the limits of the visible universe. If we cannot estimate its extent with the same certainty that we can determine the size of the earth, we can still form a general idea of it.
The estimates we have made are based on the supposition that the stars are equally scattered in space. We have good reason to believe that this is true of all the stars except those of the Milky Way. But, after all, the latter probably includes half the whole number of stars visible with a telescope, and the question may arise whether our results are seriously wrong from this cause. This question can best be solved by yet another method of estimating the average distance of certain classes of stars.
The parallaxes of which we have heretofore spoken consist in the change in the direction of a star produced by the swing of the earth from one side of its orbit to the other. But we have already remarked that our solar system, with the earth as one of its bodies, has been journeying straightforward through space during all historic times. It follows, therefore, that we are continually changing the position from which we view the stars, and that, if the latter were at rest, we could, by measuring the apparent speed with which they are moving in the opposite direction from that of the earth, determine their distance. But since every star has its own motion, it is impossible, in any one case, to determine how much of the apparent motion is due to the star itself, and how much to the motion of the solar system through space. Yet, by taking general averages among groups of stars, most of which are probably near each other, it is possible to estimate the average distance by this method. When an attempt is made to apply it, so as to obtain a definite result, the astronomer finds that the data now available for the purpose are very deficient. The proper motion of a star can be determined only by comparing its observed position in the heavens at two widely separate epochs. Observations of sufficient precision for this purpose were commenced about 1750 at the Greenwich Observatory, by Bradley, then Astronomer Royal of England. But out of 3,000 stars which he determined, only a few are available for the purpose. Even since his time, the determinations made by each generation of astronomers have not been sufficiently complete and systematic to furnish the material for anything like a precise determination of the proper motions of stars. To determine a single position of any one star involves a good deal of computation, and if we reflect that, in order to attack the problem in question in a satisfactory way, we should have observations of 1,000,000 of these bodies made at intervals of at least a considerable fraction of a century, we see what an enormous task the astronomers dealing with this problem have before them, and how imperfect must be any determination of the distance of the stars based on our motion through space. So far as an estimate can be made, it seems to agree fairly well with the results obtained by the other methods. Speaking roughly, we have reason, from the data so far available, to believe that the stars of the Milky Way are situated at a distance between 100,000,000 and 200,000,000 times the distance of the sun. At distances less than this it seems likely that the stars are distributed through space with some approach to uniformity. We may state as a general conclusion, indicated by several methods of making the estimate, that nearly all the stars which we can see with our telescopes are contained within a sphere not likely to be much more than 200,000,000 times the distance of the sun.
The inquiring reader may here ask another question. Granting that all the stars we can see are contained within this limit, may there not be any number of stars outside the limit which are invisible only because they are too far away to be seen?
This question may be answered quite definitely if we grant that light from the most distant stars meets with no obstruction in reaching us. The most conclusive answer is afforded by the measure of starlight. If the stars extended out indefinitely, then the number of those of each order of magnitude would be nearly four times that of the magnitude next brighter. For example, we should have nearly four times as many stars of the sixth magnitude as of the fifth; nearly four times as many of the seventh as of the sixth, and soon indefinitely. Now, it is actually found that while this ratio of increase is true for the brighter stars, it is not so for the fainter ones, and that the increase in the number of the latter rapidly falls off when we make counts of the fainter telescopic stars. In fact, it has long been known that, were the universe infinite in extent, and the stars equally scattered through all space, the whole heavens would blaze with the light of countless millions of distant stars separately invisible even with the telescope.
The only way in which this conclusion can be invalidated is by the possibility that the light of the stars is in some way extinguished or obstructed in its passage through space. A theory to this effect was propounded by Struve nearly a century ago, but it has since been found that the facts as he set them forth do not justify the conclusion, which was, in fact, rather hypothetical. The theories of modern science converge towards the view that, in the pure ether of space, no single ray of light can ever be lost, no matter how far it may travel. But there is another possible cause for the extinction of light. During the last few years discoveries of dark and therefore invisible stars have been made by means of the spectroscope with a success which would have been quite incredible a very few years, ago and which, even to-day, must excite wonder and admiration. The general conclusion is that, besides the shining stars which exist in space, there may be any number of dark ones, forever invisible in our telescopes. May it not be that these bodies are so numerous as to cut off the light which we would otherwise receive from the more distant bodies of the universe? It is, of course, impossible to answer this question in a positive way, but the probable conclusion is a negative one. We may say with certainty that dark stars are not so numerous as to cut off any important part of the light from the stars of the Milky Way, because, if they did, the latter would not be so clearly seen as it is. Since we have reason to believe that the Milky Way comprises the more distant stars of our system, we may feel fairly confident that not much light can be cut off by dark bodies from the most distant region to which our telescopes can penetrate. Up to this distance we see the stars just as they are. Even within the limit of the universe as we understand it, it is likely that more than one-half the stars which actually exist are too faint to be seen by human vision, even when armed with the most powerful telescopes. But their invisibility is due only to their distance and the faintness of their intrinsic light, and not to any obstructing agency.
The possibility of dark stars, therefore, does not invalidate the general conclusions at which our survey of the subject points. The universe, so far as we can see it, is a bounded whole. It is surrounded by an immense girdle of stars, which, to our vision, appears as the Milky Way. While we cannot set exact limits to its distance, we may yet confidently say that it is bounded. It has uniformities running through its vast extent. Could we fly out to distances equal to that of the Milky Way, we should find comparatively few stars beyond the limits of that girdle. It is true that we cannot set any definite limit and say that beyond this nothing exists. What we can say is that the region containing the visible stars has some approximation to a boundary. We may fairly anticipate that each successive generation of astronomers, through coming centuries, will obtain a little more light on the subject-will be enabled to make more definite the boundaries of our system of stars, and to draw more and more probable conclusions as to the existence or non-existence of any object outside of it. The wise investigator of to-day will leave to them the task of putting the problem into a more positive shape.
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