Later years

In 1897, the year he begame Sir William Huggins, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Huggins wrote a lengthy article for the review magazine The Nineteenth Century entitled, ''The New Astronomy: A Personal Retrospect.'' By ''new astronomy'' he meant astrophysics, the study of the physical properties of the stars and nebulae through spectroscopy, in contrast to the traditional focus on stellar positions and planetary dynamics.

In this article, Huggins described the early years of his scientific career, with considerable literary flair and a minimum of concern for historical accuracy as far as dates and scope of work are concerned.47 His recollection of how he got his start in spectroscopy has proved particularly attractive to biographers, and is often quoted:

''I soon became a little dissatisfied with the routine character of ordinary astronomical work, and in a vague way sought about in my mind for the possibility of research upon the heavens in a new direction or by new methods. It was just at this time, when a vague longing after newer methods of observation for attacking many of the problems of the heavenly bodies filled my mind, that the news reached me of Kirchhoff's great discovery of the true nature and the chemical constitution of the Sun from his interpretation of the Fraunhofer lines.

''This news was to me like the coming upon a spring of water in a dry and thirsty land. Here at last presented itself the very order of work for which in an indefinite way I was looking— namely, to extend his novel methods of research upon the sun to the other heavenly bodies. A feeling of inspiration seized me: I felt as if I had it now in my power to lift a veil which had never before been lifted; as if a key had been put into my hands which would unlock a door which had been regarded as for ever closed to man—the veil and door behind which lay the unknown mystery of the true nature of the heavenly bodies. This was especially work for which I was to a great extent prepared, from being already familiar with the chief methods of chemical and physical research.''48

This personal retrospective launched William and Margaret on an effort to begin collecting and editing the published papers that they felt most represented the legacy of the Tulse Hill Observatory. They continued to do original research—they collaborated, for example, on a series of papers between 1903 and 1905 on the spectrum of radiation from the radioactive element radium—but put much of their effort into a two-volume work, Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra and The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins. These works included a history of the observatory, a description of the instruments and methods used, and reprints of papers, including those in both their names.

The Hugginses did not discuss William's unproductive efforts, such as those he made in the field of solar physics. Nor did they attempt to synthesize some new theory from his vast experience with the spectra of various kinds of nebulae. Perhaps they were right to hold back, because it was not until two years later that Scheiner obtained the photographic spectrum of the Andromeda nebula. That spectrum proclaimed, to those attuned to its message, the existence of ''island universes'' of stars, and contradicted Huggins' view of the Andromeda nebula as a Laplacian nebula in the process of forming a single star.

Perhaps the best synthesis of Huggins's views on the nature of our stellar system and the evolution of celestial bodies comes from an address he gave to a gathering of scientists in Cardiff, Wales, in 1891.49 In words that to some extent echo William

Herschel's, describing ''strata'' of stars and nebulae winding across the sky, Huggins wrote:

''The heavens are richly but very irregularly inwrought with stars. The brighter stars cluster into well-known groups upon a background formed of an enlacement of streams and convoluted windings and intertwined spirals of fainter stars, which becomes richer and more intricate in the irregularly rifted zone of the Milky Way.''

''We, who form part of the emblazonry, can only see the design distorted and confused; here crowded, there scattered, at another place superposed. The groupings due to our position are mixed up with those which are real.''

Foreshadowing the words of Harlow Shapley, the subject of our chapter 8, he added that structures seen among the stars seemed to have been built up on a range of scales or levels. ''We see a system of systems,'' he wrote, ''for the broad features of clusters and streams and spiral windings which mark the general design are reproduced in every part.''

Drawing on his pioneering studies of the motions of stars, Huggins emphasized that the components of the known universe were in motion, and that the motions of the stars might provide a clue to the universe's history. ''Surely every star, from Sirius and Vega down to each grain of the light dust of the Milky Way, has its present place in the heavenly pattern from the slow evolving of the past,'' he wrote.

Thus, the picture he painted is of a stellar system slowly evolving before our eyes, with clusters in various stages of formation joining other clusters and sinking into the dense agglomeration that is the Milky Way. He concluded that ''[t]he deciphering of this wonderfully intricate constitution of the heavens will be undoubtedly one of the chief astronomical works of the next century.'' Among the projects he predicted would provide important clues to the large-scale picture was the creation, by international cooperation, of a comprehensive photographic atlas of the stars. This project, known as the Carte du Ciel or Map of the Sky, would be an important part of the life of Jacobus Kapteyn, the subject of our next chapter.

An incident toward the end of Huggins' life puts his 30-year collaboration with his wife Margaret in a surprising perspective. In November, 1906, the Royal Society council met to vote on awarding its prestigious Hughes Medal to Hertha Ayrton, a woman physicist. Ayrton had worked on a number of phenomena, including electric arcs; she later became famous for inventing a type of fan to disperse the poisonous gases that threatened combatants during World War I.

Huggins had just completed his five-year term as president of the Royal Society. He was absent from the council meeting, having taken slightly ill. There is some speculation that Margaret persuaded him that he was not well enough to go out that day. In his absence, the council voted to award the medal to Ayrton, a move Huggins would certainly have argued against. On hearing the outcome of the vote, Huggins wrote in outrage to Joseph Larmor, the Royal Society's secretary:

''The papers will teem with publications from all the advanced women! I suppose the P [President] will invite her to the dinner, and ask her to make a speech. As the only lady—I should say woman—present, the P. will have to take her in, and seat her on his right hand! And all this comes from what appeared as the pure accident of my taking a chill on Wednesday. [...] Can we now refuse the Fellowship to a Medallist?''50

Huggins died in 1910, at the age of 86, following an operation. Since 1890, he had received a Civil List pension in recognition of his astronomical research, and after his death Margaret learned that she would continue to receive some of the money. She wrote to the same Joseph Larmor,

''No doubt you know about my Pension. £100 a year has been granted me, 'for my services to Science by collaborating with' my Dearest. This I could accept without any reflection on the memory of my Dearest—& with honour to myself as well as to him. I do regard the Pension as an honour to him although it is honourable also to me, & I humbly hope, — really earned for the 35 years of very hard work. None of you know how hard we worked here just our two unaided selves.''51

Margaret's comment about the Hugginses working by themselves serves as a reminder that William Huggins was one of the last great amateur astronomers who have contributed so much to the field. After his time, astronomy became increasingly professionalized, so that it was necessary for aspiring astronomers to study astronomy and physics at university, and, usually, to pursue their research in connection with universities or observatories which supplied equipment and assistants and helped shape the research agenda. In part, this growth and professionalization of the field grew out of the application of photography to spectroscopy, which the Hugginses helped bring about. Photography yielded so much data so quickly, compared to previous methods of recording observations, that it became almost impossible for the amateur, working alone, to compete with the well-staffed professional observatory.

0 0

Post a comment