Thursday, January 18, 2007

7 February: Boreham on William Huggins

A Celestial Alchemist
Sir William Huggins, whose birthday this is, was essentially one of the pick-and-shovel men of science. He was known as the Chemist of the Stars. He had his own ideas; he worked along his own line without thought of fame or fortune; but he eventually compelled the world to pay rapt attention to his discoveries. Approaching the normal span of human existence, he was elected to the presidency of the British Association, and his address from the chair on "The History of the Development of Prismatic Astronomy" is still cherished as one of the most notable contributions to modern science. For five successive years he was president of the Royal Society; and when, in 1902, King Edward instituted the Order of Merit as a special recognition of distinguished services rendered to mankind, Sir William Huggins, then nearly eighty, was one of the very first to receive the coveted honour. During the closing years of his long and useful life, the learned societies and prominent universities of almost all nations showered upon him brilliant decorations. Every department of investigation and research sought his counsel.

Richard Anthony Proctor, the eminent astronomer, used to speak of Huggins as the Herschel of the spectroscope. He was no more the inventor of the spectroscope, that is to say, than Herschel was the inventor of the telescope. But just as Herschel opened up new worlds to the conquest of the one instrument, so Huggins extended almost indefinitely the triumphs of the other. In the year that witnessed the Great Fire of London, Isaac Newton, then a youth of twenty-four, had amused himself by taking a ray of light to pieces. Shutting himself up in a dark room, he bored a hole in the shutter, caught on a prism the spear of light that shot in, and admired on a screen the rainbow-tinted hues into which that one white ray was thus divided. Acting upon this hint, other thinkers elaborated the procedure until Kirchhoff of Heidelberg set himself to analyse, not only the sunlight, but the sun itself. He talked of his experiments as if he had laid the sun on the table of his laboratory and had carved and probed it at his pleasure. It was the work of Kirchhoff that suggested that of Huggins, but it was Huggins who, lifting the spectroscope from the backwash of stagnation, gave it standing and recognition in the scientific world.

Opening Door That Had Been Closed For Ages
In his early days Huggins felt painfully dissatisfied with astronomical research as it was then conducted. But, as soon as he heard of Kirchhoff's exploits, he saw his own course with dramatic clearness. A feeling as of inspiration seized him. He felt, he said, as if he had it now in his power to lift a veil which had never before been raised, as if a key had been placed in his hands which would unlock a door that had been closed from the foundation of the world. He would apply the principles of chemistry to the phenomena of astronomy and solve the inscrutable mystery as to the true nature of the heavenly bodies. Nothing could have been more modest or unpretentious than the equipment with which he started. His telescope was a grotesquely primitive affair, whilst his spectroscope, constructed entirely to his own design, was a tiny instrument with a total length of less than five inches. His one stroke of luck was the invention, just in time to be of use to him, of dry-plate photography.

Huggins had only been four years at work when he was able to demonstrate, more clearly and convincingly than it had ever been demonstrated before, the essential and fundamental unity of the universe. In a lecture delivered before the British Association in 1866—exactly two centuries after Newton had bored the hole in the shutter—Sir William Huggins completed in the most conclusive way six valuable and epoch-making demonstrations. He proved that all the brighter stars have a structure analogous to that of the sun; he proved that the stars contain material elements common to the sun and the earth; he proved that the colours of the stars have their origin in the chemical constitution of the atmosphere which surrounds them; he proved that, the changes in brightness of some of the variable stars are attended by charges in the lines of absorption of their spectra; he proved that, in the construction of the stars great physical changes are in constant operation; and he proved that there exist in the heavens true nebulae, composed entirely of luminous gas.

Giving The Observatories A New Outlook
From that hour, our knowledge of the skies entered upon an entirely fresh phase. There is a sense in which astronomy is the oldest of all the sciences: it was the playground of antiquity: the first man sat on the first log that he felled and, gazing into infinity, speculated as to the principles of light that twinkled tantalisingly above them. But there is also a sense in which Sir William Huggins made it the youngest of the sciences: he brought the stars into the laboratories of the chemists. Subsequent generations, as they come and go, owe it to themselves to rescue the brave records of such men from the oblivion into which they have fallen, and to weave about their names their full meed of admiration and appreciation.

Sir William Huggins lived to be eighty-six, loved and honoured by all within his own immediate circle, and held in proud veneration by the most trusted academicians of his time. As an old man he took the greatest delight in his lifework, as he had every right to do. To the end, he was never tired of acknowledging his heavy obligations to those whose novel experiments and preparatory researches had suggested to him his own initial ventures. "We found the new astronomy," he used to say, "a newborn child. We take leave of her, in the full beauty of a vigorous youth, receiving homage in all the observatories of the world." It will speak poorly for the discernment and the gratitude of the race if one who did so much for science, and by the repercussions of whose salutory influence every branch of civilisation has been incalculably enriched, should ever be forgotten or ignored.

F W Boreham

Image: William Huggins

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