Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 60.djvu/312

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ing in an interior incandescent body has passed through a mass of cooler vapors, and that during its transmission some of the light has suffered absorption. If, on the other hand, the lines are bright, he knows that the region where they are produced is hotter than that lying below. Thus a single glance at the spectrum of a star is sufficient to give important information regarding the physical condition of its atmosphere.

But the spectral lines are able to tell a far more complete story of stellar conditions. If their exact position in the spectrum can be measured it becomes possible to determine the chemical composition of the star's atmosphere. And here the spectroscopist may be said to have the advantage of the archeologist, in that the key to stellar hieroglyphs is a master key, capable of interpreting not merely the language of a single people or a single age, but of laying bare the secrets of the most distant portions of the universe and applying with equal force to the primitive and to the most highly developed forms of celestial phenomena. If we take a piece of iron wire and turn it into vapor in the intense heat of an electric arc lamp we find that the light which the glowing iron vapor emits, when spread out into a spectrum by a prism, consists of a series of lines characteristically spaced and always occupying the same relative positions. In the same way every other element when transformed into vapor by a sufficiently intense heat emits characteristic radiations, consisting of groups of lines occupying definite positions in the spectrum. It is thus easy to see how the presence of iron vapor can be detected in the atmosphere of Sirius or in that of the sun. In the spectrum of each of these stars we find a group of lines occupying the same relative positions as the lines furnished by the iron vapor in an electric arc. Hydrogen gives an even more characteristic group of lines, which grow closer and closer together as we pass from the red end of the spectrum toward the violet. This group occurs in the spectra of thousands of stars and serves as an important guide in determining a star's place in a general scheme of stellar evolution.

The practical means of carrying out this method of research may be illustrated by a reference to the stellar spectroscope employed with the 40-inch Yerkes telescope. The spectroscope is rigidly attached to the lower end of the telescope tube. The image of a star formed by the 40-inch lens passes into the spectroscope through a slit about one one-thousandth of an inch wide. After analysis by a train of three prisms an image of the resulting spectrum is formed by a suitable lens upon a photographic plate. In making the photograph it is only necessary to keep the image of a star exactly on the slit throughout the exposure, which may occupy from one minute to several hours, the duration depending upon the brightness of the star.