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Astronomy for Amateurs

Astronomy for Amateurs

Author:Camille Flammarion


It is never safe, as we know, to judge by appearances, and this is perhaps more true of astronomy than of anything else.For instance...
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  The crimson disk of the Sun has plunged beneath the Ocean. The sea hasdecked itself with the burning colors of the orb, reflected from theHeavens in a mirror of turquoise and emerald. The rolling waves are goldand silver, and break noisily on a shore already darkened by thedisappearance of the celestial luminary.

  We gaze regretfully after the star of day, that poured its cheerful raysanon so generously over many who were intoxicated with gaiety andhappiness. We dream, contemplating the magnificent spectacle, and indreaming forget the moments that are rapidly flying by. Yet the darknessgradually increases, and twilight gives way to night.

  The most indifferent spectator of the setting Sun as it descends beneaththe waves at the far horizon, could hardly be unmoved by the pageant ofNature at such an impressive moment.

  The light of the Crescent Moon, like some fairy boat suspended in thesky, is bright enough to cast changing and dancing sparkles of silverupon the ocean. The Evening Star declines slowly in its turn toward thewestern horizon. Our gaze is held by a shining world that dominates thewhole of the occidental heavens. This is the "Shepherd's Star," Venus ofrays translucent.

  Little by little, one by one, the more brilliant stars shine out. Hereare the white Vega of the Lyre, the burning Arcturus, the seven stars ofthe Great Bear, a whole sidereal population catching fire, likeinnumerable eyes that open on the Infinite. It is a new life that isrevealed to our imagination, inviting us to soar into these mysteriousregions.

  O Night, diapered with fires innumerable! hast thou not written inflaming letters on these Constellations the syllables of the greatenigma of Eternity? The contemplation of thee is a wonder and a charm.How rapidly canst thou efface the regrets we suffered on the departureof our beloved Sun! What wealth, what beauty hast thou not reserved forour enraptured souls! Where is the man that can remain blind to such apageant and deaf to its language!

  To whatever quarter of the Heavens we look, the splendors of the nightare revealed to our astonished gaze. These celestial eyes seem in theirturn to gaze at, and to question us. Thus indeed have they questionedevery thinking soul, so long as Humanity has existed on our Earth. Homersaw and sung these self-same stars. They shone upon the slow successionof civilizations that have disappeared, from Egypt of the period of thePyramids, Greece at the time of the Trojan War, Rome and Carthage,Constantine and Charlemagne, down to the Twentieth Century. Thegenerations are buried with the dust of their ancient temples. The Starsare still there, symbols of Eternity.

  The silence of the vast and starry Heavens may terrify us; its immensitymay seem to overwhelm us. But our inquiring thought flies curiously onthe wings of dream, toward the remotest regions of the visible. It restson one star and another, like the butterfly on the flower. It seeks whatwill best respond to its aspirations: and thus a kind of communicationis established, and, as it were, protected by all Nature in these silentappeals. Our sense of solitude has disappeared. We feel that, if only asinfinitesimal atoms, we form part of that immense universe, and thisdumb language of the starry night is more eloquent than any speech. Eachstar becomes a friend, a discreet confidant, often indeed a preciouscounsellor, for all the thoughts it suggests to us are pure and holy.

  Is any poem finer than the book written in letters of fire upon thetablets of the firmament? Nothing could be more ideal. And yet, thepoetic sentiment that the beauty of Heaven awakens in our soul oughtnot to veil its reality from us. That is no less marvelous than themystery by which we were enchanted.

  And here we may ask ourselves how many there are, even among thinkinghuman beings, who ever raise their eyes to the starry heavens? How manymen and women are sincerely, and with unfeigned curiosity, interested inthese shining specks, and inaccessible luminaries, and really desirousof a better acquaintance with them?

  Seek, talk, ask in the intercourse of daily life. You, who read thesepages, who already love the Heavens, and comprehend them, who desire toaccount for our existence in this world, who seek to know what the Earthis, and what Heaven--you shall witness that the number of thoseinquiring after truth is so limited that no one dares to speak of it, sodisgraceful is it to the so-called intelligence of our race. And yet!the great Book of the Heavens is open to all eyes. What pleasures awaitus in the study of the Universe! Nothing could speak more eloquently toour heart and intellect!

  Astronomy is the science _par excellence_. It is the most beautiful andmost ancient of all, inasmuch as it dates back to the indeterminatetimes of highest antiquity. Its mission is not only to make usacquainted with the innumerable orbs by which our nights areilluminated, but it is, moreover, thanks to it that we know where andwhat we are. Without it we should live as the blind, in eternalignorance of the very conditions of our terrestrial existence. Withoutit we should still be penetrated with the naïve error that reduced theentire Universe to our minute globule, making our Humanity the goal ofthe Creation, and should have no exact notion of the immense reality.

  To-day, thanks to the intellectual labor of so many centuries, thanksalso to the immortal genius of the men of science who have devoted theirlives to searching after Truth--men such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler,Newton--the veil of ignorance has been rent, and glimpses of the marvelsof creation are perceptible in their splendid truth to the dazzled eyeof the thinker.

  The study of Astronomy is not, as many suppose, the sacrifice of oneselfin a cerebral torture that obliterates all the beauty, the fascination,and the grandeur of the pageant of Nature. Figures, and naught butfigures, would not be entertaining, even to those most desirous ofinstruction. Let the reader take courage! We do not propose that heshall decipher the hieroglyphics of algebra and geometry. Perish thethought! For the rest, figures are but the scaffolding, the method, anddo not exist in Nature.

  [Illustration: FIG. 1.--The great Book of the Heavens is open to alleyes.]

  We simply beg of you to open your eyes, to see where you are, so thatyou may not stray from the path of truth, which is also the path ofhappiness. Once you have entered upon it, no persuasion will be neededto make you persevere. And you will have the profound satisfaction ofknowing that you are thinking correctly, and that it is infinitelybetter to be educated than to be ignorant. The reality is far beyond alldreams, beyond the most fantastic imagination. The most fairy-liketransformations of our theaters, the most resplendent pageants of ourmilitary reviews, the most sumptuous marvels on which the human race canpride itself--all that we admire, all that we envy on the Earth--is asnothing compared with the unheard-of wonders scattered throughInfinitude. There are so many that one does not know how to see them.The fascinated eye would fain grasp all at once.

  If you will yield yourselves to the pleasure of gazing upon thesparkling fires of Space, you will never regret the moments passed alltoo rapidly in the contemplation of the Heavens.

  Diamonds, turquoises, rubies, emeralds, all the precious stones withwhich women love to deck themselves, are to be found in greaterperfection, more beautiful, and more splendid, set in the immensity ofHeaven! In the telescopic field, we may watch the progress of armies ofmajestic and powerful suns, from whose attacks there is naught to fear.And these vagabond comets and shooting stars and stellar nebulæ, do theynot make up a prodigious panorama? What are our romances in comparisonwith the History of Nature? Soaring toward the Infinite, we purify oursouls from all the baseness of this world, we strive to become betterand more intelligent.

  But in the first place, you ask, what are the Heavens? This vaultoppresses us. We can not venture to investigate it.

  Heaven, we reply, is no vault, it is a limitless immensity,inconceivable, unfathomable, that surrounds us on all sides, and in themidst of which our globe is floating. THE HEAVENS ARE ALL THAT EXISTS,all that we see, and all that we do not see: the Earth on which we are,that bears us onward in her rapid flight; the Moon that accompanies us,and sheds her soft beams upon our silent nights; the good Sun to whichwe owe our existence; the Stars, suns of Infinitude; in a word--thewhole of Creation.

  Yes, our Earth is an orb of the Heavens: the sky is her domain, and ourSun, shining above our heads, and fertilizing our seasons, is as much astar as the pretty sparkling points that scintillate up there, in thefar distance, and embellish the calm of our nights with theirbrilliancy. All are in the Heavens, you as well as I, for the Earth, inher course through Space, bears us with herself into the depths ofInfinitude.

  In the Heavens there is neither "above" nor "below." These words do notexist in celestial speech, because their significance is relative to thesurface of this planet only. In reality, for the inhabitants of theEarth, "low" is the inside, the center of the globe, and "high" is whatis above our heads, all round the Earth. The Heavens are what surroundus on all sides, to Infinity.

  The Earth is, like her fellows, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn,Uranus, Neptune, one of the planets of the great solar family.

  The Sun, her father, protects her, and directs all her actions. She, asthe grateful daughter, obeys him blindly. All float in perfect harmonyover the celestial ocean.

  But, you may say, on what does the Earth rest in her etherealnavigation?

  On nothing. The Earth turns round the colossal Sun, a little globe ofrelatively light weight, isolated on all sides in Space, like asoap-bubble blown by some careless child.

  Above, below, on all sides, millions of similar globes are grouped intofamilies, and form other systems of worlds revolving round the numerousand distant stars that people Infinitude; suns more or less analogous tothat by which we are illuminated, and generally speaking of larger bulk,although our Sun is a million times larger than our planet.

  Among the ancients, before the isolation of our globe in Space and themotions that incessantly alter its position were recognized, the Earthwas supposed to be the immobile lower half of the Universe. The sky wasregarded as the upper half. The ancients supplied our world withfantastic supports that penetrated to the Infernal Regions. They couldnot admit the notion of the Earth's isolation, because they had a falseidea of its weight. To-day, however, we know positively that the Earthis based on nothing. The innumerable journeys accomplished round it inall directions give definite proof of this. It is attached to nothing.As we said before, there is neither "above" nor "below" in the Universe.What we call "below" is the center of the Earth. For the rest the Earthturns upon its own axis in twenty-four hours. Night is only a partialphenomenon, due to the rotary motion of the planet, a motion that couldnot exist under conditions other than that of the absolute isolation ofour globe in space.

  [Illustration: FIG. 2.--The earth in space. June solstice, midday.]

  Since the Sun can only illuminate one side of our globe at one moment,that is to say one hemisphere, it follows that Night is nothing but thestate of the part that is not illuminated. As the Earth revolves uponitself, all the parts successively exposed to the Sun are in the day,while the parts situated opposite to the Sun, in the cone of shadowproduced by the Earth itself, are in night. But whether it be noon ormidnight, the stars always occupy the same position in the Heavens,even when, dazzled by the ardent light of the orb of day, we can nolonger see them; and when we are plunged into the darkness of the night,the god Phoebus still continues to pour his beneficent rays upon thecountries turned toward him.

  The sequence of day and night is a phenomenon belonging, properlyspeaking, to the Earth, in which the rest of the Universe does notparticipate. The same occurs for every world that is illuminated by asun, and endowed with a rotary movement. In absolute space, there is nosuccession of nights and days.

  Upheld in space by forces that will be explained at a later point, ourplanet glides in the open heavens round our Sun.

  Imagine a magnificent aerostat, lightly and rapidly cleaving space.Surround it with eight little balloons of different sizes, the smallestlike those sold on the streets for children to play with, the larger,such as are distributed for a bonus in large stores. Imagine this groupsailing through the air, and you have the system of our worlds inminiature.

  Still, this is only an image, a comparison. The balloons are held up bythe atmosphere, in which they float at equilibrium. The Earth issustained by nothing material. What maintains her in equilibrium is theethereal void; an immaterial force; gravitation. The Sun attracts her,and if she did not revolve, she would drop into him; but rotating roundhim, at a speed of 107,000 kilometers[2]

about 66,000 miles

per hour,she produces a centrifugal force, like that of a stone in a sling, thatis precisely equivalent, and of contrary sign, to its gravitation towardthe central orb, and these two equilibrated forces keep her at the samemedium distance.

  This solar and planetary group does not exist solitary in the immensevoid that extends indefinitely around us. As we said above, each starthat we admire in the depths of the sky, and to which we lift up oureyes and thoughts during the charmed hours of the night, is another sunburning with its own light, the chief of a more or less numerous family,such as are multiplied through all space to infinity. Notwithstandingthe immense distances between the sun-stars, Space is so vast, and thenumber of these so great, that by an effect of perspective due solely tothe distance, appearances would lead us to believe that the stars weretouching. And under certain telescopic aspects, and in some of theastral photographs, they really do appear to be contiguous.

  The Universe is infinite. Space is limitless. If our love for theHeavens should incite in us the impulse, and provide us with the meansof undertaking a journey directed to the ends of Heaven as its goal, weshould be astonished, on arriving at the confines of the Milky Way, tosee the grandiose and phenomenal spectacle of a new Universe unfoldbefore our dazzled eyes; and if in our mad career we crossed this newarchipelago of worlds to seek the barriers of Heaven beyond them, weshould still find universe eternally succeeding to universe before us.Millions of suns roll on in the immensities of Space. Everywhere, on allsides, Creation renews itself in an infinite variety.

  According to all the probabilities, universal life is distributed thereas well as here, and has sown the germ of intelligence upon thosedistant worlds that we divine in the vicinity of the innumerable sunsthat plow the ether, for everything upon the Earth tends to show thatLife is the goal of Nature. Burning foci, inextinguishable sources ofwarmth and light, these various, multi-colored suns shed their rays uponthe worlds that belong to them and which they fertilize.

  Our globe is no exception in the Universe. As we have seen, it is one ofthe celestial orbs, nourished, warmed, lighted, quickened by the Sun,which in its turn again is but a star.

  Innumerable Worlds! We dream of them. Who can say that their unknowninhabitants do not think of us in their turn, and that Space may not betraversed by waves of thought, as it is by the vibrations of light anduniversal gravitation? May not an immense solidarity, hardly guessed atby our imperfect senses, exist between the Celestial Humanities, ourEarth being only a modest planet.

  Let us meditate on this Infinity! Let us lose no opportunity ofemploying the best of our hours, those of the silence and peace of thebewitching nights, in contemplating, admiring, spelling out the words ofthe Great Book of the Heavens. Let our freed souls fly swift and rapttoward those marvelous countries where indescribable joys are preparedfor us, and let us do homage to the first and most splendid of thesciences, to Astronomy, which diffuses the light of Truth within us.

  To poetical souls, the contemplation of the Heavens carries thought awayto higher regions than it attains in any other meditation. Who does notremember the beautiful lines of Victor Hugo in the Orientales? Who hasnot heard or read them? The poem is called "Ecstasy," and it is afitting title. The words are sometimes set to music, and the melodyseems to complete their pure beauty:

  J'étais seul près des flots par une nuit d'étoiles.Pas un nuage aux cieux, sur les mers pas de voiles;Mes yeux plongeaient plus loin que le monde réel,Et les bois et les monts et toute la natureSemblaient interroger, dans un confus murmure,Les flots des mers, les feux du ciel.

  Et les étoiles d'or, légions infinies,A voix haute, à voix basse, avec mille harmoniesDisaient, en inclinant leurs couronnes de feu;Et les flots bleus, que rien ne gouverne et n'arrête,Disaient en recourbant l'écume de leur crête:... C'est le Seigneur, le Seigneur Dieu!

  _Note: Free Translation_

  I was alone on the waves, on a starry night,Not a cloud in the sky, not a sail in sight,My eyes pierced beyond the natural world...And the woods, and the hills, and the voice of NatureSeemed to question in a confused murmur,The waves of the Sea, and Heaven's fires.

  And the golden stars in infinite legion,Sang loudly, and softly, in glad recognition,Inclining their crowns of fire;...And the waves that naught can check nor arrestSang, bowing the foam of their haughty crest...Behold the Lord God--Jehovah!

  The immortal poet of France was an astronomer. The author more thanonce had the honor of conversing with him on the problems of the starrysky--and reflected that astronomers might well be poets.

  It is indeed difficult to resist a sense of profound emotion before theabysses of infinite Space, when we behold the innumerable multitude ofworlds suspended above our heads. We feel in this solitary contemplationof the Heavens that there is more in the Universe than tangible andvisible matter: that there are forces, laws, destinies. Our ants' brainsmay know themselves microscopic, and yet recognize that there issomething greater than the Earth, the Heavens;--more absolute than theVisible, the Invisible;--beyond the more or less vulgar affairs of life,the sense of the True, the Good, the Beautiful. We feel that an immensemystery broods over Nature,--over Being, over created things. And it ishere again that Astronomy surpasses all the other sciences, that itbecomes our sovereign teacher, that it is the _pharos_ of modernphilosophy.

  O Night, mysterious, sublime, and infinite! withdrawing from our eyesthe veil spread above us by the light of day, giving back transparencyto the Heavens, showing us the prodigious reality, the shining casket ofthe celestial diamonds, the innumerable stars that succeed each otherinterminably in immeasurable space! Without Night we should knownothing. Without it our eyes would never have divined the siderealpopulation, our intellects would never have pierced the harmony of theHeavens, and we should have remained the blind, deaf parasites of aworld isolated from the rest of the universe. O Sacred Night! If on theone hand it rests upon the heights of Truth beyond the day's illusions,on the other its invisible urns pour down a silent and tranquil peace, apenetrating calm, upon our souls that weary of Life's fever. It makes usforget the struggles, perfidies, intrigues, the miseries of the hours oftoil and noisy activity, all the conventionalities of civilization. Itsdomain is that of rest and dreams. We love it for its peace and calmtranquillity. We love it because it is true. We love it because itplaces us in communication with the other worlds, because it gives usthe presage of Life, Universal and Eternal, because it brings us Hope,because it proclaims us citizens of Heaven.