4413794The Music of the Spheres — Chapter X.Florence Armstrong Grondal



The Milky Way

One of the loveliest, and most amazing, phenomena of the heavens is the Milky Way. In olden times, imagination ran riot as to just what this luminous band of light could be. It was almost as great a mystery as the tides, which were called the "grave of curiosity."

Fully equal to solving the problem to their own satisfaction, even as they did the motion of the stars, the ancient people considered that here, perhaps, was a crack or seam where the two halves of heaven were imperfectly joined thus giving to earth a glimpse of the glory beyond the darkness.

"Whether the skies grown old here shrink their frame,
And through the chinks admit an upper Flame,
Or whether here the heaven's two Halves are joyn'd,
But oddly clos'd, still leave a Seam behind."

In ancient Judea it was imagined as a Long Bandage wrapped around the heavens.

Others thought that the Milky Way was not an imperfection in the floor of heaven but a pathway left open for the angels. A French legend has it the glimmering of lights held by angels to guide mortals on their way to heaven. Some of the tribes of American Indians have a legend somewhat like the French legend for they, too, thought that it was a road on which souls journeyed to their "happy hunting ground." The large stars, on either side of the road, were camp fires which cheered and warmed the travelers on their way.

Aristotle imagined that this misty arch of light was the result of gaseous exhalations which had risen from the earth and now rested between the region of the ether and that of the planets.

"The stars, and Sun himself, as some have said
By exhalations from the deep are fed."
Lucan's Pharsalia.

Posidonious thought that it was a compound of fire less dense than that of the stars but more luminous. Still others fancifully considered it to be the course of the sun-chariot after Phæthon had lost control of his horses and that along here were the imprints of the hot hoofs and the ruts scorched by the fiery wheels.

A more modern legend of Swedish origin tells of the construction of the Milky Way by two lovers who were mourning for each other on separate stars. After toiling a thousand years they built this "bridge of starry light" which spanned the space between the two stars and enabled them to once more be united.

"And now Salami and Zulamith, when this long toil was done,
Straight rushed into each other's arms, and melted into one.
So they became the brightest star in heaven's high arch that dwelt,
Great Sirius, the mighty sun, beneath Orion's belt."

The Chinese, Japanese and Koreans thought of the Milky Way as a river. An ancient tale, current in these countries, connects this "river" and the constellations of Lyra and Aquila in the quaint and charming romance of two lovers who were so happily married that they could not bear to be separated. As a result, they neglected their duties to such an extent that the God of the Firmament placed the bride on a constellation on one side of the celestial river and her husband on a constellation on the other side. "Now," said he, "on the 7th night of the 7th month you may meet—if you are able." This date occurs during the summer-time, in July, at a time of the year when the Milky Way and these stars are well placed for observation, and, on a clear night anyone with a keen eye and an open mind may witness a remarkable thing happen. Every magpie in sight flies upward, higher than it ever flew before, up to the very fields of heaven where the Milky River wends its way. Ranging themselves side by side, the birds make a bridge of their bodies and wings which spans the celestial river and solves the problem of how the lovers shall meet. On this happy night, the stars of Lyra and Aquila burn with five different colors. If, however, the weather is stormy and rain falls, the river rises and flows over the plains and all the magpies in China, Korea and Japan cannot reach across it. The children of Korea stone every magpie they see loitering around its usual haunts, to remind it of its duty.

Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote the Japanese version of this story in a most delightful way, said it seemed to be the origin of a festival called Tanabata. During this festival the Japanese write poems with dew "from the River of Heaven," which is collected fresh from yam leaves. These poems are written on strips of blue, green, red, yellow and white paper to match the colors of the stars, and are tied on bamboo stalks set up about the houses. Mr. Hearn in his "Romance of the Milky Way" refers to the story in this exquisite manner:

"In the silence of the transparent night, before the rising of the moon, the charm of the ancient tale sometimes descends upon me out of the scintillant sky, to make me forget the monstrous facts of science and the stupendous horror of space. Then I no longer behold the Milky Way, as that awful Ring of Cosmos, whose hundred million suns are powerless to lighten the abyss, but as the very Amanogwa itself—the river Celestial. I see the thrill of its shining stream, the mists that hover along the verge, and the watergrasses that bend in the winds of autumn. White Orihime I see at her starry loom and the Ox that grazes on the farther shore—and I know that the falling dew is the spray of the Herdsman's oar."

There are any number of references to the Milky Way throughout the realms of poetry. Amelia describes it as

"a fair illumined path
That leadeth upward to the gate of heaven."


"ample road whose dust is gold
And pavement stars as stars to thee appear."

Ovid—a "high-road" "whose groundwork is of stars":

"A way there is, in heaven's expanded plain,
Which, when the skies are clear, is seen below,
And mortals, by the name of Milky, know.
The ground work is of stars; through which the road
Lies open to the Thunderer's abode."
Ovid's Metamorphoses (Dryden's Trans.)

Chaucer calls it "Watling street":

"Lo," quoth he, "cast up thine eye,
See yonder, lo! the galaxie,
The which men clepe the Milky Way
For it is white; and some parfay
Callen it Watling streete."

This great street was "brent with hete," he goes on to say, when the "Sunne's sonne" lost control of the sun-chariot, "that he could no governaunce." In Germany this same street was called "Irmin's Way," for the Saxon God Irmin was believed to ride along here in a ponderous brazen chariot now seen in the constellation of the Great Bear.

In 1609 Galileo, the distinguished Italian astronomer, turned his newly invented telescope toward this mysterious illuminated arch, and saw, to his delight, that it was a "track of countless stars." This fact, which he proclaimed to the world, has even more lure for the imaginative mind than a "road whose dust is gold." A modern poet describes it as

"Infinity's illimitable fields where bloom
the worlds like flowers about God's feet."

Thus the cold glass eye of the telescope does not, like the eye of the Medusa, turn a singing heart into stone. Some of the early writers, such as Ovid, evidently suspected that the Milky Way consisted of millions of distant stars, but the suggestion did not take well with the mass of people who preferred the belief that it was a radiant stairway used by the angels.

The "silvery glow," which is such an attractive feature of the star stream, is caused by the accumulated light of a dazzling torrent of stars. These stars, or suns, are so unthinkably distant that their individuality is lost like particles of mist, thus causing the bright faces of Sirius, Capella and other great stars to seem suddenly close.

This path of stars, called the Milky Way, stretches entirely around the sky, or seems to do so, because our solar system rests almost within its center—"almost" meaning within about 60,000 light years, which is comparatively close to the center of a Galaxy some 300,000 light years in diameter. If we could step off the earth and look at these stars they would appear as a gigantic wreath; as it is, we see one half of the wreath from the northern hemisphere and the other half by traveling to the southern hemisphere. At least this much of the ancient conception of the universe was correct—that our earth was situated near its center—but the idea that the sun, moon and stars whirled around it for its particular benefit, is looked upon as a vast conceit.

We now know for a certainty that our glorious Galaxy of stars is itself but an item in space, for since the recent investigations with the 60- and the 100-inch telescopes at Mount Wilson observatory with which the outer portions of the spiral nebulæ were resolved into swarms of stars, we know that there are hundreds of thousands of Galaxies separated from ours by a million light years, and from one another equally far. Probably the smaller nebulæ are even more remote. And we used to imagine that our own Galaxy floated through an infinite void of boundless space as lorn and lonely as Wordsworth's "cloud"! Then science goes still further and wonders if all these Galaxies form a part of a starry region which extends indefinitely in all directions or whether the star producing region is limited and surrounded by empty space!

"The eagle flying in the face of the sun is as naught to the audacity of man poised on a speck in space, marshalling the heavenly host about him and calling them by name across an abyss of space that may take years, hundreds of years, thousands and possibly millions of years for light to cross."

Our thoughts, now half stunned, fly back across unthinkable starless intervals, back like a magnet to the phosphorescent gleam which is ours in the boundless ocean in which a universe is but a gleam. Nearer—nearer—nearer—the gleam has softened to a touch of mist, the mist has expanded to a definite shape studded with stars which are brightening, and widening apart. Now the shape has become an ethereal form, and before us rises a marvelous creation. As seen from this outer point, our Galaxy is neither a ring nor a wreath but is formed of huge spirals which reach far outward into the heavens. This cathedral of light, whose "lace-work" is of suns, covers an area so magnificent that a beam of light traveling 6,000,000,000,000 miles a year would require some 300,000 years to cross it! Around a modest, medium-sized star in the central cluster of this overwhelming and heroic structure, whirls a tiny planet named Earth, and on this Earth, the infinitesimal human being named Man, whose questioning mind thus flies from star to star.

That world of worlds His arm the Almighty wound;
The bright immensity He raised, and pressed,
All trembling, like a babe, unto His breast.

 Think ye that I, who thus do ye maintain;
Thus always cherish ye, or all were vain—
Ye all would drop into your native void,
If by my hand ye were not held and buoyed.

—with God, 'tis one
To guide a sunbeam or create a sun—
To rule ten thousand thousand worlds or none.
Go, worlds! said God, but learn, ere ye depart,
My favored temple is an human heart;"
Festus, Philip James Bailey.

The two Crosses

At the foot of the Northern Cross, the Milky Way divides into two large channels which are quite irregular along the edges. These two channels do not unite again for a distance of 150 degrees, which leads us around to the southern hemisphere. As seen from the southern hemisphere, one of these divisions is particularly bright, while the other is not only fainter but looks as if its streams of stars had encountered obstacles along their pathway and had been forced to run up little rills along its sides.

On the Milky Way in the southern hemisphere, is the famous Southern Cross. This Cross contains four bright stars set close together, one of the first magnitude, two of the second magnitude, and one of the third magnitude. Although its figure is not quite so large nor as perfect as that of the Northern Cross, its stars are brighter and it holds a prominent position near the southern pole. In the first maps of the southern hemisphere, South America is designated as "Terra sancti crucis," the land of the holy cross. When Vega is our Pole Star, the Northern Cross will hold a prominent position near the northern pole.

Near the Southern Cross, as is the case near the Northern Cross, lies a remarkable dark blot which stands out sharply against the silvery path of the Milky Way. This dark body is 130 times larger than the area of the full moon and is much more impressive than the one seen in the north. It is said that superstitious sailors used to shudder and cross themselves because it lay so close to the Cross, but in those days, dark nebulæ were thought to be holes in the heavens and the combination was suggestive of what happened to sailors who were good, or who failed to be good.

Not far from the Southern Cross is a telescopic treasure which has long been enjoyed by astronomers. This treasure is a cluster of colored stars so delicately beautiful that the loveliest of rubies, emeralds and sapphires seem to have been filled with fire and turned to stars. There are over a hundred of these sparkling jewels in a space of only one forty-eighth of a square degree. What a delight it would be to suddenly uncover such a wonderful casket in our treasure hunt among the stars! But imagine the pleasure in watching the sky from the surface of a planet swinging in a field of such stars. Quite a thrill was experienced at the thought of a daytime tinted by a colored sun, or even two colored suns, but now imagine a night-time adorned with large and glowing pink, green, orange, red and yellow stars!

"their skies flowered with stars,
Violet, rose, or pearl-hued or soft blue,
Golden or green, the light now blended, now

Just below the Southern Cross lie two stars which outrival the twin stars of Castor and Pollux.
The two pointers on the forefeet of Centaurus, the Centaur, and the Southern Cross.
These two stars are often called the "southern pointers" because they point out the Southern Cross. They belong to the constellation of the Centaur, Alpha Centauri being noted as lying closer to the earth than any other star. The light we call Alpha Centauri comes from two suns instead of one. These suns are separated from each other by a distance of 2,000 million miles and gravitate one round the other in a time equalling 81 of our years.

Above the Cross shines Canopus on the stern of Argo, the ship of the Argonauts. Canopus ranks next to Sirius in brightness. The bright stars of Orion and the Scorpion are each in their season seen high in the sky. Thus the appearance of the heavens would seem quite strange to one who had come from the north.

The magellanic Clouds

The Magellanic Clouds, which are almost as famous as the Southern Cross, lie to one side of the Milky Way, as seen by persons south of the equator, but they have no apparent connection with our Galaxy of stars. The "clouds" resemble the Milky Way and are easily discernible with the unaided eye, the larger one being 200 times the apparent size of the moon—about as large as the bowl of the Big Dipper—and the smaller one-fourth as large.

Photographs reveal the large Magellanic Cloud as being composed of nebulæ, individual stars and star clusters, the stars ranging from the fifth to the fifteenth magnitude. Flammarion counted 291 distinct nebulæ, 46 clusters and 582 stars. Herschel counted several hundred nebulæ and clusters "which far exceeds anything that is to be met with in any other region of the heavens." Dr. Harlow Shapley, director of the Harvard Observatory, found the linear diameter of the cloud to be 15,000 light years, and that it lay at such an immense distance that it required 110,000 years for its light to reach us. This cloud is like a small universe in itself, although many of its stars are anything but small for Dr. Shapley found that hundreds of them exceed the brightness of the sun by 10,000 times.

The large Magellanic Cloud lies between the southern pole and Canopus; the smaller one between Beta Centauri and the pole. These starry clouds, which look so much like real clouds, were named after the celebrated navigator, Magellan.