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The Sky Of The Alps

( Originally Published 1905 )



The vision of an object always implies a differential action on the retina of the observer. The object is distinguished from surrounding space by its excess or defect of light in relation to that space. By altering the illumination, either of the object itself or of its environment, we alter the appearance of the object. Take the case of clouds floating in the atmosphere with patches of blue between them. Anything that changes the illumination of either alters the appearance of both, that appearance depending, as stated, upon differential action. Now the light of the sky, being polarized, may, as the reader of the foregoing pages knows, be in great part quenched by a Nicol's prism, while the light of a common cloud, being unpolarized, cannot be thus extinguished. Hence. the possibility of very remarkable variations, not only in the aspect of the firmament, which is really changed, but also in the aspect of the clouds, which have that firmament as a background. It is possible, for example, to choose clouds of such a depth of shade that when the Nicol quenches the light behind them, they shall vanish, being indistinguishable from the residual dull tint which outlives the extinction of the brilliancy of the sky. A cloud less deeply shaded, but still deep enough, when viewed with the naked eye, to appear dark on a bright ground, is suddenly changed to a white cloud on a dark ground by the quenching of the light behind it. When a reddish cloud at sunset chances to float in the region of maximum polarization, the quenching of the surrounding light causes it to flash with a brighter crimson. Last Easter eve the Dartmoor sky, which had just been cleansed by a snow-storm, wore a very wild appearance. Round the horizon it was of steely brilliancy, while reddish cumuli and cirri floated southward. When the sky was quenched behind them these floating masses seemed like dull embers suddenly blown upon; they brightened like a fire.

In the Alps we have the most magnificent , examples of crimson clouds and snows, so that the effects just referred to may be here studied under the best possible conditions. On August 23, 1869, the evening Alpen-glow was very fine, though it did not reach its maximum depth and splendor. The side of the Weisshorn seen from the Bel Alp, being turned from the sun, was tinted mauve; but I wished to observe one of the rose-colored buttresses of the mountain. Such a one was visible from a point a few hundred feet above the hotel. The Matterhorn also, though for the most part in shade, had a crimson projection, while a deep ruddy red lingered along its western shoulder. Four distinct peaks and buttresses of the Dom, in addition to its dominant head—all covered with pure snow—were reddened by the light of sunset. The shoulder of the Alphubel was similarly colored, while the great mass of the Fletschorn was all aglow, and so was the snowy spine of the Monte Leone.

Looking at the Weisshorn through the Nicol, the glow of its protuberance was strong or weak according to the position of the prism. The summit also underwent striking changes. In one position of the prism it exhibited a pale white against a dark background; in the rectangular position it was a dark mauve against a light background. The red of the Matterhorn changed in a similar manner; but the whole mountain also passed through wonderful changes of definition. The air at the time was filled with a silvery haze, in which the Matterhorn almost disappeared. This could be wholly quenched by the Nicol, and then the mountain sprang forth with astonishing solidity and detachment from the surrounding air. The changes of the Dom were still more wonderful. A vast amount of light could be removed from the sky behind it, for it occupied the position of maximum polarization. By a little practice with the Nicol it was easy to render the extinction of the light, or its restoration, almost instantaneous. When the sky was quenched, the four minor peaks and buttresses, and the summit of the Dom, together with the shoulder of the Alphubel, glowed as if set suddenly on fire. This was immediately dimmed by turning the Nicol through an angle of 90°. It was not the stoppage of the light of the sky behind the mountains alone which produced this startling effect; the air between them and me was highly opalescent, and the quenching of this intermediate glare augmented remark-ably the distinctness of the mountains.

On the morning of August 24 similar effects were finely shown. At 10 A.M. all three mountains, the Dom, the Matterhorn, and the Weisshorn, were powerfully affected by the Nicol. But in this instance also, the line drawn to the Dom being very nearly perpendicular to the solar beams, the effects on this mountain were most striking. The . gray summit of the Matterhorn, at the same time, could scarcely be distinguished from the opalescent haze around it; but when the Nicol quenched the haze, the summit became instantly isolated, and stood out in bold definition. It is to be remembered that in the production of these effects the only things changed are the sky behind, and the luminous haze in front of the mountains; that these are changed because the light emitted from the sky and from the haze is plane polarized light, and that the light from the snows and from the mountains, being sensibly unpolarized, is not directly affected by the Nicol. It will also be understood that it is not the interposition of the haze as an opaque body that renders the mountains indistinct, but that it is the light of the haze which dims and bewilders the eye, and thus weakens the definition of objects 'seen through it.

These results have a direct bearing upon what artists call "aerial perspective." As we look from the summit of Mont Blanc, or from a lower elevation, at the serried crowd of peaks, especially if the mountains be darkly colored—covered with pines, for example—every peak and ridge is separated from the mountains behind it by a thin blue haze which renders the relations of the mountains as to distance unmistakable. When this haze is regarded through the Nicol perpendicular to the sun's rays, it is in many cases wholly quenched, because the light which it emits in this direction is wholly polarized. When this happens, aerial perspective is abolished, and mountains very differently distant appear to rise in the same vertical plane. Close to the Bel Alp, for instance, is the gorge of the Massa, and beyond the gorge is a high ridge darkened by pines. This ridge may be projected upon the dark slopes at the opposite side of the Rhone valley, and between both we have the blue haze referred to, throwing the distant mountains far away. But at certain hours of the day the haze may be quenched, and then the Massa ridge and the mountains beyond the Rhone seem almost equally distant from the eye. The one appears, as it were, a vertical continuation of the other. The haze varies with the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere. At certain times and places it is almost as blue as the sky itself; but to see its color, the attention must be withdrawn from the mountains and from the trees which cover them. In point of fact, the haze is a piece of more or less perfect sky; it is produced in the same manner, and is subject to the same laws, as the firmament itself. We live in the sky, not under it.

These points were further elucidated by the deportment of the selenite plate, with which the readers of the foregoing pages are so well acquainted. On some of the sunny days of August the haze in the valley of the Rhone, as looked at from the Bel Alp, was very remarkable. Toward evening the sky above the mountains opposite to my place of observation yielded a series of the most splendidly-colored iris-rings ; but on lowering the selenite until it had the darkness of the pines at the opposite side of the Rhone valley, instead of the darkness of space, as a background, the colors were not much diminished in brilliancy. I should estimate the distance across the valley, as the crow flies, to the opposite mountain, at nine miles; so that a body of air of this thickness can, under favorable circumstances, produce chromatic effects of polarization almost as vivid as those produced by the sky itself.

Again: the light of a landscape, as of most other things, consists of two parts; the one, coming purely from superficial reflection, is always of the same color as the light which falls upon the landscape; the other part reaches us from a certain depth within the objects which compose the landscape, and it is this portion of the total light which gives these objects their distinctive colors. The white light of the sun enters all substances to a certain depth, and is partly ejected by internal reflection; each distinct substance absorbing and reflecting the light, in accordance with the laws of its own molecular constitution. Thus the solar light is sifted by the landscape, which appears in such colors and variations of color as, after the sifting process, reach the observer's eye. Thus the bright green of grass, or the darker color of the pine, never comes to us alone, but is always mingled with an amount of light derived from superficial reflection. A certain hard brilliancy is conferred upon the woods and meadows by this superficially-reflected light. Under certain circumstances, it may be quenched by a Nicol's prism, and we then obtaro the true color of the grass and foliage. Trees and meadows, thus regarded, exhibit a richness and softness of tint which they never show as long as the superficial light is permitted to mingle with the true interior emission. The needles of the pines show this effect very well, large-leaved trees still better; while a glimmering field of maize exhibits the most extraordinary variations when looked at through the rotating Nicol.

Thoughts and questions like those here referred to took me, in. August, 1869, to the top of the Aletschhorn. The effects described in the foregoing paragraphs were, for the most part, reproduced on the summit of the mountain. I scanned the whole of the sky with my Nicol. Both alone, and in conjunction with the selenite, it pronounced the perpendicular to the solar beams to be the direction of maximum polarization. But at no portion of the firmament was the polarization complete. The artificial sky produced in the experiments recorded in the preceding pages could, in this respect, be rendered far more perfect than the natural one; while the gorgeous "residual blue," which makes its appearance when the polarization of the artificial sky ceases to be perfect, was strongly contrasted with the lack-lustre hue which, in the case of the firmament, outlived the extinction of the brilliancy. With certain substances, however, artificially treated, this dull residue may also be obtained.

All along the arc, from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc, the light of the sky immediately above the mountains was powerfully acted upon by the Nicol. In some cases the variations of intensity were astonishing. I have already said that a little practice enables the observer to shift the Nicol from one position to another so rapidly as to render the alternative extinction and restoration of the light immediate. When this was done along the arc to which I have referred, the alternations of light and darkness resembled the play of sheet lightning behind the mountains. There was an element of awe connected with the suddenness with which the mighty masses, ranged along the line referred to, changed their aspect and definition under the operation of the prism.



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