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Wonders of the Aurora

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE brilliant streamers of colored light which wave at certain seasons over the heavens have long since been recognized as among the most singular and impressive of all the phenomena which the skies present to our view. There is something surpassingly beautiful in the appearance of the true "auroral curtain." Fringed with colored streamers, it waves to and fro as though shaken by some unseen hand. Then from end to end there pass a succession of undulations, the folds of the curtain interwrapping and forming a series of graceful curves. Suddenly, and as by magic, there succeeds a perfect stillness, as though the unseen power which had been displaying the varied beauties of the auroral curtain were resting for a moment. But even while the motion of the curtain is stilled we see its light mysteriously waxing and waning. Then, as we gaze, fresh waves of disturbance traverse the magic canopy. Startling coruscations add splendor to the scene, while the noble span of the auroral arch, from which the waving curtain seems to depend, gives a- grandeur to the spectacle which no words can adequately describe. Gradually, however,: the celestial fires which have illuminated the gorgeous arch seem to die out. The luminous zone breaks up. The scene of the display becomes covered with scattered streaks and patches of ashen grey light, which hang like clouds over the northern heavens. Then these in turn disappear, and nothing remains of the brilliant spectacle but a dark smoke-like segment on the horizon.

Such is the aurora as seen in arctic or antarctic regions, where the phenomenon appears in its fullest beauty. Even in our own latitudes, however, strikingly beautiful auroral displays may sometimes be witnessed. Yet those who have seen the spectacle presented near the true home of the aurora, recognize in other auroras a want of the fulness and splendor of color which form the most striking features of the arctic and antarctic auroral curtains.

Physicists long since recognized in the aurora a phenomenon of more than local, of more even than terrestrial, significance. They learned to associate it with relations which affect the whole planetary scheme. Let us inquire how this had come about.

So long as men merely studied the appearances presented by the aurora, so long, in fact, as they merely regarded the phenomenon as a local display, they could form no adequate conception of its importance. The circumstance which first revealed something of the true character of the aurora was one which seemed to promise little.

Arago was engaged in watching from day to day, and from year to year, the vibrations of the magnetic needle in the Paris Observatory. He traced the slow progress of the needle to its extreme westerly variation, and watched its course as it began to retrace its way towards the true north. He discovered the minute vibration which the needle makes each day across its mean position. He noticed that this vibration is variable in extent, and so he was led to watch it more closely. Thus he had occasion to observe more attentively than had yet been done the sudden irregularities which occasionally characterize the daily movements of the needle.

All this seems to have nothing to do with the auroral streamers ; but we now reach the important discovery which rewarded Arago's patient watchfulness.

In January, 1819, he published a statement to the effect that the sudden changes of the magnetic needle are often associated with the occurrence of an aurora. I give the statement in his own words, as translated by General Sabine :—"Auroras ought to be placed in the first rank among the causes which sometimes disturb the regular march of the diurnal changes of the magnetic needle. These do not, even in summer, exceed a quarter of a degree, but when an aurora appears, the magnetic needle is often seen to move in a few instants over several degrees." "During an aurora," he adds, "one often sees in the northern region of the heavens luminous streamers of different colors shoot from all points of the horizon. The point in the sky to which these streamers converge is precisely the point to which a magnetized needle suspended by its centre of gravity directs itself. . . . It has, moreover, been shown that the concentric circular segments, almost similar in form to the rainbow, which are usually seen previous to the appearance of the luminous streamers, have their two extremities resting on two parts of the horizon which are equally distant from the direction towards which the needle turns ; and the summit of each arc lies exactly in that direction. From all this, it appears, incontestably, that there is an intimate connection between the causes of auroras and those of terrestrial magnetism."

This strange hypothesis was, at first, much opposed by scientific men. Amongst others, the late Sir David Brewster pointed out a variety of objections, some of which appeared at first sight of great force. Thus, he remarked that magnetic disturbances of the most remark-able character have often been observed when no aurora has been visible; and he noticed certain peculiarities in the auroras observed near the polar regions, which did not seem to accord with Arago's view.

But gradually it was found that physicists had mis-taken the character of the auroral display. It appeared that the magnetic needle not only swayed responsively to auroras observable in the immediate neighborhood, but to auroras in progress hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Nay, as inquiry progressed, it was discovered that the needles in our northern observatories are swayed by influences associated even with the occurrence of auroras around the southern polar regions.

In fact, not only have the difficulties pointed out (very properly, it need hardly be remarked) by Sir David Brewster been wholly removed; but it has been found that a much closer bond of sympathy exists between the magnetized needle and the auroral streamers than even Arago had supposed. It is not merely the case that while an auroral display is in progress the needle is subject to unusual disturbance, but the movements of the needle are actually synchronous with the waving movements of the mysterious streamers. An aurora may be in progress in the north of Europe, or even in Asia or America, and as the colored banners wave to and fro, the tiny needle watched by patient observers at Greenwich or Paris, will respond to every phase of the display.

And I may notice in passing that two very interesting conclusions follow from this peculiarity. First, every magnetic needle over the whole earth must be simultaneously disturbed; and secondly, the auroral streamers which wave across the skies of one country must move synchronously with those which are visible in the skies of another country, even though thousands of miles may separate the two regions.

But I must pass on to consider further the circumstances which give interest and significance to the strange discovery which is the subject of this paper.

Could we only associate auroras with terrestrial magnetism, we should still have done much to enhance the interest which the beautiful phenomenon is calculated to excite. But when once this association has been established, others of even greater interest are brought into recognition. For terrestrial magnetism has been clearly shown to be influenced directly by the action of the sun:. The needle in its daily vibration follows the sun, not indeed through a complete revolution, but as far as the influence of other forces will permit. This has been abundantly confirmed, and is a fact of extreme importance in the theory of terrestrial magnetism. Wherever the sun may be, either on the visible heavens or on that half of the celestial sphere which is at the moment beneath the horizon, the end of the needle nearest to the sun makes an effort (so to- speak) to point more directly towards the great ruling centre of the planetary scheme. Seeing, then, that the daily vibration of the needle is thus caused, we recognize the fact that the disturbances of the daily vibration may be referred to some peculiarity of the solar action.

It was not, therefore, so surprising as many have sup-posed, that the increase and diminution of these disturbances, in a period of about eleven years, should be found to correspond with the increase and diminution of the number of solar spots in a period of equal length.

We already begin to see, then, that auroras are associated in some mysterious way with the action of the solar rays. The phenomenon which had been looked on for so many ages as a mere spectacle, caused perhaps by some process in the upper regions of the air, of a simply local character, has been brought into the range of planetary phenomena. As surely as the brilliant planets which deck the nocturnal skies are illuminated by the same orb which gives us our days and seasons, so they are subject to the same mysterious influence which causes the northern banners to wave resplendently over the star-lit depths of heaven. Nay, it is even probable that every flicker and coruscation of our auroral displays corresponds with similar manifestations upon every planet which travels round the sun. It becomes, then, a question of exceeding interest to inquire what is the nature of the mysterious apparition which from time to time illuminates our skies. We have learnt something of the laws according to which the aurora appears; but what is its true nature? What sort of light is that which illuminates the heavens? Is there some process of combustion going on in the upper regions of our atmosphere? Or are the auroral streamers electric or phosphorescent? Or, lastly, is the light simply solar light reflected from some substance which exists at an enormous elevation above the earth?

All these views have from time to time found sup-porters among scientific men. It need hardly be said that what we now know of the association between auroral action and some form of solar disturbance, would at once enable us to reject some of these hypotheses. But we need not discuss the subject from this point of view, be-cause a mode of research has recently been rendered available which ,at once answers our inquiries as to the general character of any kind of light. I proceed to consider the application of this method to the light from the auroral streamers.

The spectroscope, or, as we may term the instrument, the "light-sifter," tells us of what nature an object which is a source of light may be. If the object is a luminous solid or liquid, the instrument converts its light into a rainbow-colored streak. If the object is a luminous vapor, its light is converted into a few bright lines. And lastly, if the object is a luminous solid or liquid shining through any vapors, the rainbow-colored streak again makes its appearance, but it is now crossed by dark lines, corresponding to the vapors which surround the object and absorb a portion of its light.

But I must not omit to notice two circumstances which render the interpretation of a spectrum somewhat less simple than it would otherwise be.

In the first place, if an object is shining by reflected light its spectrum is precisely similar to that of the object whose light illuminates it. Thus we cannot pronounce positively as to the nature of an object merely from the appearance of its spectrum, unless we are quite certain that the object is self-luminous. For example, we observe the solar spectrum to be a rainbow-colored streak crossed by a multitude: of dark lines, and we conclude accordingly that the sun is an incandescent globe shining through a complex vaporous atmosphere. We feel no doubt on this point, because we are absolutely certain that the sun is self-luminous. Again, we observe the spectrum of the moon to be exactly similar to the solar spectrum, only, of course, much less brilliant. And here also we feel no doubt in interpreting the result. We know, certainly, that the moon is not self-luminous, and therefore we conclude with the utmost certainty that the light we receive from her is simply reflected solar light. So far all is clear. But now take the case of an object like a comet, which may or may not be self-luminous. If we find that a comet's spectrum resembles the sun's—and this is not altogether a hypothetical case, for a portion of the light of every comet yet examined does in reality give a rainbow-colored streak resembling the solar spectrum—we cannot form, in that case, any such positive conclusion. The comet may be a self-luminous body; but, on the other hand, its light may be due merely to the reflection of the solar beams. Accordingly, the spectroscopist always ac-companies the record of such an observation with an expression of doubt as to the real nature of the object which is the source of light.

Secondly, when an electric spark flashes through any vapor, its light gives a spectrum which indicates the nature, not only of the vapor through which the spark has passed, but of the substances between which the spark has travelled. Thus, if we cause an electric flash to pass between iron points through common air, we see in the spectrum the numerous bright lines which form the spectrum of iron, and in addition we see the bright lines belonging to the gases which form our atmosphere.

Both the considerations above discussed are of the utmost importance in studying the subject of the auroral light as analyzed by the spectroscope, because there are many difficulties in forming a general opinion as to the nature of the auroral light, while there are circumstances which would lead us to anticipate that the light is electric.

I notice also in passing that we owe to the Swedish physicist Angström a large share of the researches on which the above results respecting the spectrum of the electric spark are founded. The reader will presently see why I have brought Angström's name prominently for-ward in connection with the interesting branch of spectroscopic analysis just referred to. If the discovery we are approaching had been effected by a tyro in the use of the spectroscope, doubts might very reasonably have been entertained respecting the exactness of the observations on which the discovery rests.

It was suggested many years ago, long indeed before the true powers of spectroscopic analysis had been revealed, that perhaps if the light of the aurora were analyzed by the prism, evidence could be obtained of its electric nature. The eminent meteorologist Dové remarked, for instance, that "the peculiarities presented by the electric light are so marked that it appears easy to decide definitely by prismatic analysis whether the light of the aurora is or is not electric. Singularly enough, however, the first proof that the auroral light is of an electric nature was derived from a very different mode of inquiry. Dr. Robinson, of Armagh, discovered in 1858 (a year before Kirchhoff's recognition of the powers of spectroscopic analysis) that the light of the aurora possesses in a peculiar degree a property termed fluorescence, which is a recognized and characteristic property of the light produced by electrical discharges. "These effects," he remarks of the appearances presented by the auroral light under the tests he applied, "were so strong in relation to the actual intensity of the light, that they appear to afford an additional evidence of the electric origin of the phenomenon."

Passing over this ingenious application of one of the most singular and interesting properties of light, we find that the earliest determination of the real nature of the auroral light—or rather of its spectrum-was that effected by Angström. This observer took advantage of the occurrence of a brilliant aurora in the winter of 1867-68 to analyze the spectrum of the colored streamers. A single bright line only was seen! Otto Struve, an eminent Russian astronomer, shortly afterwards made confirmatory observations. At the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in June, 1868, Mr. Huggins thus described Struve 's results : "In a letter, M. Otto Struve has informed me that he has had two good opportunities of observing the spectrum of the aurora borealis. The spectrum consists of one line, and the light is therefore monochromatic. The line falls near the margin of the yellow and green portions of the spectrum.... This shows that the monochromatic light is greenish, which surprised me; but General Sabine tells me that in his polar expeditions he has frequently seen the aurora tinged with green, and this appearance corresponds with the position of the line seen by Mr. Struve."

The general import of this observation there is no mistaking. It teaches us that the light of the aurora is due to luminous vapor, and we may conclude, with every appearance of probability, that the luminosity of the vapor is due to the passage of electric discharges through it. It is, however, possible that the position of the bright line may be due to the character of the particles between which the discharges take place.

But the view we are to take must depend upon the position of the line. Here a difficulty presents itself. There is no known terrestrial element whose spectrum has a bright line precisely in the position of the line in the auroral spectrum. And mere proximity has no significance whatever in spectroscopic analysis. Two elements differing as much from each other in character as iron and hydrogen may have lines so closely approximating in position that only the most powerful spectroscope can indicate the difference. So that when Angstrom remarks that the bright line he has seen lies slightly to the left of a well-known group of lines belonging to the metal calcium (the principal ingredient of common chalk), we are by no means to infer that he supposes the substance which causes the presence of the bright line has any resemblance to that element. Until we can find an element which has a bright line in its spectrum absolutely coincident with the bright line detected by Angstrom in the spectrum of the aurora, all speculation as to the real nature of the vapor in which the auroral electric discharge takes place, or of the substances between which the spark travels, is altogether precluded.

It was supposed after the total solar eclipse of 1869 that the spectrum of the sun's corona exhibited the same bright lines as the aurora. But recent observations show that the coincidence is not so close as had been supposed, and, in fact, there is no evidence to show that the lines are the same.



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