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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/245

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CHAPTERS ON THE STARS.

If the practice of separating the visible stars into only six orders of magnitude were continued without change, we should still have the anomaly of including in one class stars of markedly different degrees of brightness. Some more than twice as bright as others would be designated of the same magnitude. Hence, to give quantitative exactness to the results, a magnitude is regarded as a quantity which may have any value whatever, and may be expressed by decimals—tenths or even hundredths. Thus, we may have stars of magnitude 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, etc., or we may even subdivide yet farther and speak of stars having magnitudes 5.11, 5.12, etc. Unfortunately, however, there is as yet no way known of determining the amount of light received from a star except by an estimate of its effect upon the eye. Two stars are regarded as equal when they appear to the eye of equal brilliancy. In such a case the judgment is very uncertain. Hence, observers have endeavored to give greater precision to it by the use of photometers,—instruments for measuring quantities of light. But even with this instrument the observer must depend upon an estimated equality of light as judged by the eye. The light from one star is increased or diminished in a known proportion until it appears equal to that of another star, which may be an artificial one produced by the flame of a candle. The proportion of increase or diminution shows the difference of magnitude between the two stars.

As we proceed to place the subject of photometric measures of star light on this precise basis we find the problem to be a complex one. In the first place not all the rays which come from a star are visible to our eyes as light. But all the radiance, visible or invisible, may be absorbed by a dark surface, and will then show its effect by heating that surface. The most perfect measure of the radiance of a star would therefore be the amount of heat which it conveys, because this expresses what is going on in the body better than the amount of visible light can do. But unfortunately the heating effect of the rays from a star is far below what can be measured or even indicated by any known instrument. We are therefore obliged to abandon any thought of determining the total amount of radiation and confine ourselves to that portion which we call light.

Here, when we aim at precision, we find that light, as we understand it, is properly measured only by its effect on the optic nerve, and there is no way of measuring this effect except by estimation. Thus, all the photometer can do is to give us the means of increasing or diminishing the light from one star, so that we can make it equal by estimation to that from some other star or source of light.

The difficulty of reaching strict results in this way is increased by the fact that stars are different in color. Two lights can be estimated as equal with greater precision when they are of the same color than