Cornhill Magazine,  8 (1863), 679–87.

Colours of the Double Stars

[Richard A Proctor]




Astronomy, Observation, Instruments, Ancient Authorities, Amateurism, Controversy, Extra-Terrestrial Life, Religion, Creationism, Design, Theory, Physics, Measurement, Sound, Music, Experiment, Railways, Light, Ether, Spectroscopy

People mentioned:

Friedrich G W Struve , John P Nichol , John F W Herschel

    Begins with a quotation from Alfred Tennyson, and then gives a 'a list of some of the most remarkable and beautiful binary stars within reach of telescopes of moderate power', which is provided for the 'convenience of those of our readers who may desire to view these objects, and who possess charts of the heavens, or celestial globes' (680). After rejecting the idea that the often complementary colours of double stars are produced by 'merely the effect of contrast' (681) and proposing instead that these colours are 'inherent in the separate members' of a system of stars, insists that there can be 'little doubt that these systems [...] are engirdled about by planets, which, in their turn, are the abodes of living creatures'. Although refusing to enter 'on the vexed question of the plurality of worlds', asserts that 'no trick of logic will convince the reflective mind that the myriads of bright orbs visible to the eye, or revealed by the telescope [...] speed in their orbits through a gigantic solitude—that from no spot in the illimitable universe but the speck that we inhabit arises the voice of adoration or of prayer'. Considers the effect of the diversity of the colours of surrounding stars on the 'nature of beings inhabiting such planets', and advises, 'It is sufficient that we know that their Almighty Creator has, with infinite wisdom and mercy, adjusted their nature and their powers to the situation in which He has placed them'. (682) Describes the 'experiments tried on the railway uniting Utrecht and Maarsen' involving a group of static musicians and another group on a moving train which showed that a sound is subject to modification by the velocity of the individual hearing it or the source of the sound itself, an investigation that 'will enable the reader to anticipate' the parallel 'theory of M. Doppler on the colours of double stars' (684). Doppler's theory urges that 'all the stars are white, or nearly so', but seem to exhibit particular colours according to the velocity with which they are approaching ('violet, indigo, blue, or green') or moving away ('red, orange, or yellow') from the observer (685). However, the 'prevalence of colours from the red end of the spectrum' in actual observation seems, in Doppler's understanding, 'to suppose an expansion, or, as it were, an unwinding of our galaxy' which has not been suggested elsewhere (686). Concludes that the reliability of Doppler's theory will 'be established or confuted by the observations of the next few years', including the 'investigations of star spectra, now occupying the attention of the Astronomer Royal' (687).


Proctor 1872

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