Astronomy for Amateurs
by Camille Flammarion
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Published October, 1904




MADAME: I have dedicated none of my works, save Stella—offered to the liberal-minded, the free and generous friend of progress, and patron of the sciences, James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald. In this volume, Madame, I make another exception, and ask your permission to offer it to the first woman who consented to be enrolled in the list of members of the Astronomical Society of France, as foundress of this splendid work, from the very beginning of our vast association (1887); and who also desired to take part in the permanent organization of the Observatory at Juvisy, a task of private enterprise, emancipated from administrative routine. An Astronomy for Women[1] can not be better placed than upon the table of a lady whose erudition is equal to her virtues, and who has consecrated her long career to the pursuit and service of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True.




















Contemplation Frontispiece From a painting by Paul Renaud


1. The great Book of the Heavens is open to all eyes 15

2. The earth in space. June solstice, midday 20

3. The Great Bear (or Dipper) and the Pole Star 34

4. To find the Pole Star 35

5. To find Cassiopeia 37

6. To find Pegasus and Andromeda 37

7. Perseus, the Pleiades, Capella 38

8. To find Arcturus, the Herdsman, and the Northern Crown 40

9. The Swan, Vega, the Eagle 41

10. The Constellations of the Zodiac: summer and autumn; Capricorn, Archer, Scorpion, Balance, Virgin, Lion 46

11. The Constellations of the Zodiac: winter and spring; Crab, Twins, Bull, Ram, Fishes, Water-Carrier 47

12. Orion and his celestial companions 48

13. Winter Constellations 51

14. Spring Constellations 52

15. Summer Constellations 53

16. Autumn Constellations 54

17. The double star Mizar 69

18. Triple star [xi] in Cancer 72

19. Quadruple star [epsilon] of the Lyre 73

20. Sextuple star [theta] in the Nebula of Orion 74

21. The Star-Cluster in Hercules 79

22. The Star-Cluster in the Centaur 80

23. The Nebula in Andromeda 81

24. Nebula in the Greyhounds 82

25. The Pleiades 83

26. Occultation of the Pleiades by the Moon 85

27. Stellar dial of the double star [gamma] of the Virgin 86

28. Comparative sizes of the Sun and Earth 93

29. Direct photograph of the Sun 96

30. Telescopic aspect of a Sun-Spot 97

31. Rose-colored solar flames 228,000 kilometers (141,500 miles) in height, i.e., 18 times the diameter of the Earth 103

32. Orbits of the four Planets nearest to the Sun 115

33. Orbits of the four Planets farthest from the Sun 116

34. Mercury near quadrature 117

35. The Earth viewed from Mercury 119

36. The Evening Star 123

37. Successive phases of Venus 124

38. Venus at greatest brilliancy 126

39. The Earth viewed from Venus 130

40. Diminution of the polar snows of Mars during the summer 136

41. Telescopic aspect of the planet Mars (Feb., 1901) 137

42. Telescopic aspect of the planet Mars (Feb., 1901) 138

43. Chart of Mars 140

44. The Earth viewed from Mars 144

45. Telescopic aspect of Jupiter 150

46. Jupiter and his four principal satellites 155

47. Saturn 159

48. Varying perspective of Saturn's Rings, as seen from the Earth 161

49. The Great Comet of 1858 174

50. What our Ancestors saw in a Comet 177

After Ambroise Pare (1858)

51. Prodigies seen in the Heavens by our Forefathers 178

52. The orbit of a Periodic Comet 182

53. The tails of Comets are opposed to the Sun 185

54. A Meteor 191

55. Shooting Stars of November 12, 1799 196

From a contemporary drawing

56. Fire-Ball seen from the Observatory at Juvisy, August 10, 1899 199

57. Explosion of a Fire-Ball above Madrid, February 10, 1896 200

58. Raphael's Fire-Ball (The Madonna of Foligno) 202

59. A Uranolith 203

60. Motion of the Earth round the Sun 222

61. Inclination of the Earth 224

62. The divisions of the globe. Longitudes and latitudes 226

63. To find the long and short months 230

64. The Full Moon slowly rises 234

65. The Moon viewed with the unaided eye 236

66. The Man's head in the Moon 237

67. Woman's head in the Moon 238

68. The kiss in the Moon 239

69. Photograph of the Moon 240

70. The Moon's Phases 241

71. Map of the Moon 247

72. The Lunar Apennines 251

73. Flammarion's Lunar Ring 253

74. Lunar landscape with the Earth in the sky 254

75. Battle between the Medes and Lydians arrested by an Eclipse of the Sun 266

76. Eclipse of the Moon at Laos (February 27, 1877) 269

77. The path of the Eclipse of May 28, 1900 273

78. Total eclipse of the Sun, May 28, 1900, as observed from Elche (Spain) 281

79. The Eclipse of May 28, 1900, as photographed by King Alfonso XIII, at Madrid 285

80. Measurement of Angles 289

81. Division of the Circumference into 360 degrees 291

82. Measurement of the distance of the Moon 292

83. Measurement of the distance of the Sun 297

84. Small apparent ellipses described by the stars as a result of the annual displacement of the Earth 306


The Science of Astronomy is sublime and beautiful. Noble, elevating, consoling, divine, it gives us wings, and bears us through Infinitude. In these ethereal regions all is pure, luminous, and splendid. Dreams of the Ideal, even of the Inaccessible, weave their subtle spells upon us. The imagination soars aloft, and aspires to the sources of Eternal Beauty.

What greater delight can be conceived, on a fine spring evening, at the hour when the crescent moon is shining in the West amid the last glimmer of twilight, than the contemplation of that grand and silent spectacle of the stars stepping forth in sequence in the vast Heavens? All sounds of life die out upon the earth, the last notes of the sleepy birds have sunk away, the Angelus of the church hard by has rung the close of day. But if life is arrested around us, we may seek it in the Heavens. These incandescing orbs are so many points of interrogation suspended above our heads in the inaccessible depths of space.... Gradually they multiply. There is Venus, the white star of the shepherd. There Mars, the little celestial world so near our own. There the giant Jupiter. The seven stars of the Great Bear seem to point out the pole, while they slowly revolve around it.... What is this nebulous light that blanches the darkness of the heavens, and traverses the constellations like a celestial path? It is the Galaxy, the Milky Way, composed of millions on millions of suns!... The darkness is profound, the abyss immense.... See! Yonder a shooting star glides silently across the sky, and disappears!...

Who can remain insensible to this magic spectacle of the starry Heavens? Where is the mind that is not attracted to these enigmas? The intelligence of the amateur, the feminine, no less than the more material and prosaic masculine mind, is well adapted to the consideration of astronomical problems. Women, indeed, are naturally predisposed to these contemplative studies. And the part they are called to play in the education of our children is so vast, and so important, that the elements of Astronomy might well be taught by the young mother herself to the budding minds that are curious about every issue—whose first impressions are so keen and so enduring.

Throughout the ages women have occupied themselves successfully with Astronomy, not merely in its contemplative and descriptive, but also in its mathematical aspects. Of such, the most illustrious was the beautiful and learned Hypatia of Alexandria, born in the year 375 of our era, public lecturer on geometry, algebra, and astronomy, and author of three works of great importance. Then, in that age of ignorance and fanaticism, she fell a victim to human stupidity and malice, was dragged from her chariot while crossing the Cathedral Square, in March, 415, stripped of her garments, stoned to death, and burned as a dishonored witch!

Among the women inspired with a passion for the Heavens may be cited St. Catherine of Alexandria, admired for her learning, her beauty and her virtue. She was martyred in the reign of Maximinus Daza, about the year 312, and has given her name to one of the lunar rings.

Another celebrated female mathematician was Madame Hortense Lepaute, born in 1723, who collaborated with Clairaut in the immense calculations by which he predicted the return of Halley's Comet. "Madame Lepaute," wrote Lalande, "gave us such immense assistance that, without her, we should never have ventured to undertake this enormous labor, in which it was necessary to calculate for every degree, and for a hundred and fifty years, the distances and forces of the planets acting by their attraction on the comet. During more than six months, we calculated from morning to night, sometimes even at table, and as the result of this forced labor I contracted an illness that has changed my constitution for life; but it was important to publish the result before the arrival of the comet."

This extract will suffice for the appreciation of the scientific ardor of Madame Lepaute. We are indebted to her for some considerable works. Her husband was clock-maker to the King. "To her intellectual talents," says one of her biographers, "were joined all the qualities of the heart. She was charming to a degree, with an elegant figure, a dainty foot, and such a beautiful hand that Voiriot, the King's painter, who had made a portrait of her, asked permission to copy it, in order to preserve a model of the best in Nature." And then we are told that learned women can not be good-looking!...

The Marquise du Chatelet was no less renowned. She was predestined to her career, if the following anecdote be credible. Gabrielle-Emilie de Breteuil, born in 1706 (who, in 1725, was to marry the Marquis du Chatelet, becoming, in 1733, the most celebrated friend of Voltaire), was four or five years old when she was given an old compass, dressed up as a doll, for a plaything. After examining this object for some time, the child began angrily and impatiently to strip off the silly draperies the toy was wrapped in, and after turning it over several times in her little hands, she divined its uses, and traced a circle with it on a sheet of paper. To her, among other things, we owe a precious, and indeed the only French, translation of Newton's great work on universal gravitation, the famous Principia, and she was, with Voltaire, an eloquent propagator of the theory of attraction, rejected at that time by the Academie des Sciences.

Numbers of other women astronomers might be cited, all showing how accessible this highly abstract science is to the feminine intellect. President des Brosses, in his charming Voyage en Italie, tells of the visit he paid in Milan to the young Italian, Marie Agnesi, who delivered harangues in Latin, and was acquainted with seven languages, and for whom mathematics held no secrets. She was devoted to algebra and geometry, which, she said, "are the only provinces of thought wherein peace reigns." Madame de Charriere expressed herself in an aphorism of the same order: "An hour or two of mathematics sets my mind at liberty, and puts me in good spirits; I feel that I can eat and sleep better when I have seen obvious and indisputable truths. This consoles me for the obscurities of religion and metaphysics, or rather makes me forget them; I am thankful there is something positive in this world." And did not Madame de Blocqueville, last surviving daughter of Marshal Davout, who died in 1892, exclaim in her turn: "Astronomy, science of sciences! by which I am attracted, and terrified, and which I adore! By it my soul is detached from the things of this world, for it draws me to those unknown spheres that evoked from Newton the triumphant cry: 'Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei!'"

Nor must we omit Miss Caroline Herschel, sister of the greatest observer of the Heavens, the grandest discoverer of the stars, that has ever lived. Astronomy gave her a long career; she discovered no less than seven comets herself, and her patient labors preserved her to the age of ninety-eight.—And Mrs. Somerville, to whom we owe the English translation of Laplace's Mecanique celeste, of whom Humboldt said, "In pure mathematics, Mrs. Somerville is absolutely superior." Like Caroline Herschel, she was almost a centenarian, appearing always much younger than her years: she died at Naples, in 1872, at the age of ninety-two.—So, too, the Russian Sophie Kovalevsky, descendant of Mathias Corvinus, King of Hungary, who, an accomplished mathematician at sixteen, married at eighteen, in order to follow the curriculum at the University (then forbidden to unmarried women); arranging with her young husband to live as brother and sister until their studies should be completed. In 1888 the Prix Bordin of the Institut was conferred on her.—And Maria Mitchell of the United States, for whom Le Verrier gave a fete at the Observatory of Paris, and who was exceptionally authorized by Pope Pius IX to visit the Observatory of the Roman College, at that time an ecclesiastical establishment, closed to women.—And Madame Scarpellini, the Roman astronomer, renowned for her works on shooting stars, whom the author had the honor of visiting, in company with Father Secchi, Director of the Observatory mentioned above.

At the present time, Astronomy is proud to reckon among its most famous workers Miss Agnes Clerke, the learned Irishwoman, to whom we owe, inter alia, an excellent History of Astronomy in the Nineteenth Century;—Mrs. Isaac Roberts, who, under the familiar name of Miss Klumpke, sat on the Council of the Astronomical Society of France, and is D. Sc. of the Faculty of Paris and head of the Bureau for measuring star photographs at the Observatory of Paris (an American who became English by her marriage with the astronomer Roberts, but is not forgotten in France);—Mrs. Fleming, one of the astronomers of the Observatory at Harvard College, U.S.A., to whom we owe the discovery of a great number of variable stars by the examination of photographic records, and by spectral photography;—Lady Huggins, who in England is the learned collaborator of her illustrious husband;—and many others.

* * * * *

The following chapters, which aim at summing up the essentials of Astronomy in twelve lessons for amateurs, will not make astronomers or mathematicians of my readers—much less prigs or pedants. They are designed to show the constitution of the Universe, in its grandeur and its beauty, so that, inhabiting this world, we may know where we are living, may realize our position in the Cosmos, appreciate Creation as it is, and enjoy it to better advantage. This sun by which we live, this succession of months and years, of days and nights, the apparent motions of the heavens, these starry skies, the divine rays of the moon, the whole totality of things, constitutes in some sort the tissue of our existence, and it is indeed extraordinary that the inhabitants of our planet should almost all have lived till now without knowing where they are, without suspecting the marvels of the Universe.

* * * * *

For the rest, my little book is dedicated to a woman, muse and goddess—the charming enchantress Urania, fit companion of Venus, ranking even above her in the choir of celestial beauties, as purer and more noble, dominating with her clear glance the immensities of the universe. Urania, be it noted, is feminine, and never would the poetry of the ancients have imagined a masculine symbol to personify the pageant of the heavens. Not Uranus, nor Saturn, nor Jupiter can compare with the ideal beauty of Urania.

Moreover, I have before me two delightful books, in breviary binding, dated the one from the year 1686, the other from a century later, 1786. The first was written by Fontenelle for a Marquise, and is entitled Entretiens sur la Pluralite des Mondes. In this, banter is pleasantly married with science, the author declaring that he only demands from his fair readers the amount of application they would concede to a novel. The second is written by Lalande, and is called Astronomie des Dames. In addressing myself to both sexes, I am in honorable company with these two sponsors and esteem myself the better for it.



The crimson disk of the Sun has plunged beneath the Ocean. The sea has decked itself with the burning colors of the orb, reflected from the Heavens in a mirror of turquoise and emerald. The rolling waves are gold and silver, and break noisily on a shore already darkened by the disappearance of the celestial luminary.

We gaze regretfully after the star of day, that poured its cheerful rays anon so generously over many who were intoxicated with gaiety and happiness. We dream, contemplating the magnificent spectacle, and in dreaming forget the moments that are rapidly flying by. Yet the darkness gradually increases, and twilight gives way to night.

The most indifferent spectator of the setting Sun as it descends beneath the waves at the far horizon, could hardly be unmoved by the pageant of Nature at such an impressive moment.

The light of the Crescent Moon, like some fairy boat suspended in the sky, is bright enough to cast changing and dancing sparkles of silver upon the ocean. The Evening Star declines slowly in its turn toward the western horizon. Our gaze is held by a shining world that dominates the whole of the occidental heavens. This is the "Shepherd's Star," Venus of rays translucent.

Little by little, one by one, the more brilliant stars shine out. Here are the white Vega of the Lyre, the burning Arcturus, the seven stars of the Great Bear, a whole sidereal population catching fire, like innumerable eyes that open on the Infinite. It is a new life that is revealed to our imagination, inviting us to soar into these mysterious regions.

O Night, diapered with fires innumerable! hast thou not written in flaming letters on these Constellations the syllables of the great enigma of Eternity? The contemplation of thee is a wonder and a charm. How rapidly canst thou efface the regrets we suffered on the departure of our beloved Sun! What wealth, what beauty hast thou not reserved for our enraptured souls! Where is the man that can remain blind to such a pageant and deaf to its language!

To whatever quarter of the Heavens we look, the splendors of the night are revealed to our astonished gaze. These celestial eyes seem in their turn to gaze at, and to question us. Thus indeed have they questioned every thinking soul, so long as Humanity has existed on our Earth. Homer saw and sung these self-same stars. They shone upon the slow succession of civilizations that have disappeared, from Egypt of the period of the Pyramids, Greece at the time of the Trojan War, Rome and Carthage, Constantine and Charlemagne, down to the Twentieth Century. The generations are buried with the dust of their ancient temples. The Stars are still there, symbols of Eternity.

The silence of the vast and starry Heavens may terrify us; its immensity may seem to overwhelm us. But our inquiring thought flies curiously on the wings of dream, toward the remotest regions of the visible. It rests on one star and another, like the butterfly on the flower. It seeks what will best respond to its aspirations: and thus a kind of communication is established, and, as it were, protected by all Nature in these silent appeals. Our sense of solitude has disappeared. We feel that, if only as infinitesimal atoms, we form part of that immense universe, and this dumb language of the starry night is more eloquent than any speech. Each star becomes a friend, a discreet confidant, often indeed a precious counsellor, for all the thoughts it suggests to us are pure and holy.

Is any poem finer than the book written in letters of fire upon the tablets of the firmament? Nothing could be more ideal. And yet, the poetic sentiment that the beauty of Heaven awakens in our soul ought not to veil its reality from us. That is no less marvelous than the mystery by which we were enchanted.

And here we may ask ourselves how many there are, even among thinking human beings, who ever raise their eyes to the starry heavens? How many men and women are sincerely, and with unfeigned curiosity, interested in these shining specks, and inaccessible luminaries, and really desirous of a better acquaintance with them?

Seek, talk, ask in the intercourse of daily life. You, who read these pages, who already love the Heavens, and comprehend them, who desire to account for our existence in this world, who seek to know what the Earth is, and what Heaven—you shall witness that the number of those inquiring after truth is so limited that no one dares to speak of it, so disgraceful is it to the so-called intelligence of our race. And yet! the great Book of the Heavens is open to all eyes. What pleasures await us in the study of the Universe! Nothing could speak more eloquently to our heart and intellect!

Astronomy is the science par excellence. It is the most beautiful and most ancient of all, inasmuch as it dates back to the indeterminate times of highest antiquity. Its mission is not only to make us acquainted with the innumerable orbs by which our nights are illuminated, but it is, moreover, thanks to it that we know where and what we are. Without it we should live as the blind, in eternal ignorance of the very conditions of our terrestrial existence. Without it we should still be penetrated with the naive error that reduced the entire Universe to our minute globule, making our Humanity the goal of the Creation, and should have no exact notion of the immense reality.

To-day, thanks to the intellectual labor of so many centuries, thanks also to the immortal genius of the men of science who have devoted their lives to searching after Truth—men such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton—the veil of ignorance has been rent, and glimpses of the marvels of creation are perceptible in their splendid truth to the dazzled eye of the thinker.

The study of Astronomy is not, as many suppose, the sacrifice of oneself in a cerebral torture that obliterates all the beauty, the fascination, and the grandeur of the pageant of Nature. Figures, and naught but figures, would not be entertaining, even to those most desirous of instruction. Let the reader take courage! We do not propose that he shall decipher the hieroglyphics of algebra and geometry. Perish the thought! For the rest, figures are but the scaffolding, the method, and do not exist in Nature.

We simply beg of you to open your eyes, to see where you are, so that you may not stray from the path of truth, which is also the path of happiness. Once you have entered upon it, no persuasion will be needed to make you persevere. And you will have the profound satisfaction of knowing that you are thinking correctly, and that it is infinitely better to be educated than to be ignorant. The reality is far beyond all dreams, beyond the most fantastic imagination. The most fairy-like transformations of our theaters, the most resplendent pageants of our military reviews, the most sumptuous marvels on which the human race can pride itself—all that we admire, all that we envy on the Earth—is as nothing compared with the unheard-of wonders scattered through Infinitude. There are so many that one does not know how to see them. The fascinated eye would fain grasp all at once.

If you will yield yourselves to the pleasure of gazing upon the sparkling fires of Space, you will never regret the moments passed all too rapidly in the contemplation of the Heavens.

Diamonds, turquoises, rubies, emeralds, all the precious stones with which women love to deck themselves, are to be found in greater perfection, more beautiful, and more splendid, set in the immensity of Heaven! In the telescopic field, we may watch the progress of armies of majestic and powerful suns, from whose attacks there is naught to fear. And these vagabond comets and shooting stars and stellar nebulae, do they not make up a prodigious panorama? What are our romances in comparison with the History of Nature? Soaring toward the Infinite, we purify our souls from all the baseness of this world, we strive to become better and more intelligent.

* * * * *

But in the first place, you ask, what are the Heavens? This vault oppresses us. We can not venture to investigate it.

Heaven, we reply, is no vault, it is a limitless immensity, inconceivable, unfathomable, that surrounds us on all sides, and in the midst of which our globe is floating. THE HEAVENS ARE ALL THAT EXISTS, all that we see, and all that we do not see: the Earth on which we are, that bears us onward in her rapid flight; the Moon that accompanies us, and sheds her soft beams upon our silent nights; the good Sun to which we owe our existence; the Stars, suns of Infinitude; in a word—the whole of Creation.

Yes, our Earth is an orb of the Heavens: the sky is her domain, and our Sun, shining above our heads, and fertilizing our seasons, is as much a star as the pretty sparkling points that scintillate up there, in the far distance, and embellish the calm of our nights with their brilliancy. All are in the Heavens, you as well as I, for the Earth, in her course through Space, bears us with herself into the depths of Infinitude.

In the Heavens there is neither "above" nor "below." These words do not exist in celestial speech, because their significance is relative to the surface of this planet only. In reality, for the inhabitants of the Earth, "low" is the inside, the center of the globe, and "high" is what is above our heads, all round the Earth. The Heavens are what surround us on all sides, to Infinity.

The Earth is, like her fellows, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, one of the planets of the great solar family.

The Sun, her father, protects her, and directs all her actions. She, as the grateful daughter, obeys him blindly. All float in perfect harmony over the celestial ocean.

But, you may say, on what does the Earth rest in her ethereal navigation?

On nothing. The Earth turns round the colossal Sun, a little globe of relatively light weight, isolated on all sides in Space, like a soap-bubble blown by some careless child.

Above, below, on all sides, millions of similar globes are grouped into families, and form other systems of worlds revolving round the numerous and distant stars that people Infinitude; suns more or less analogous to that by which we are illuminated, and generally speaking of larger bulk, although our Sun is a million times larger than our planet.

Among the ancients, before the isolation of our globe in Space and the motions that incessantly alter its position were recognized, the Earth was supposed to be the immobile lower half of the Universe. The sky was regarded as the upper half. The ancients supplied our world with fantastic supports that penetrated to the Infernal Regions. They could not admit the notion of the Earth's isolation, because they had a false idea of its weight. To-day, however, we know positively that the Earth is based on nothing. The innumerable journeys accomplished round it in all directions give definite proof of this. It is attached to nothing. As we said before, there is neither "above" nor "below" in the Universe. What we call "below" is the center of the Earth. For the rest the Earth turns upon its own axis in twenty-four hours. Night is only a partial phenomenon, due to the rotary motion of the planet, a motion that could not exist under conditions other than that of the absolute isolation of our globe in space.

Since the Sun can only illuminate one side of our globe at one moment, that is to say one hemisphere, it follows that Night is nothing but the state of the part that is not illuminated. As the Earth revolves upon itself, all the parts successively exposed to the Sun are in the day, while the parts situated opposite to the Sun, in the cone of shadow produced by the Earth itself, are in night. But whether it be noon or midnight, the stars always occupy the same position in the Heavens, even when, dazzled by the ardent light of the orb of day, we can no longer see them; and when we are plunged into the darkness of the night, the god Phoebus still continues to pour his beneficent rays upon the countries turned toward him.

The sequence of day and night is a phenomenon belonging, properly speaking, to the Earth, in which the rest of the Universe does not participate. The same occurs for every world that is illuminated by a sun, and endowed with a rotary movement. In absolute space, there is no succession of nights and days.

Upheld in space by forces that will be explained at a later point, our planet glides in the open heavens round our Sun.

Imagine a magnificent aerostat, lightly and rapidly cleaving space. Surround it with eight little balloons of different sizes, the smallest like those sold on the streets for children to play with, the larger, such as are distributed for a bonus in large stores. Imagine this group sailing through the air, and you have the system of our worlds in miniature.

Still, this is only an image, a comparison. The balloons are held up by the atmosphere, in which they float at equilibrium. The Earth is sustained by nothing material. What maintains her in equilibrium is the ethereal void; an immaterial force; gravitation. The Sun attracts her, and if she did not revolve, she would drop into him; but rotating round him, at a speed of 107,000 kilometers[2] (about 66,000 miles) per hour, she produces a centrifugal force, like that of a stone in a sling, that is precisely equivalent, and of contrary sign, to its gravitation toward the central orb, and these two equilibrated forces keep her at the same medium distance.

This solar and planetary group does not exist solitary in the immense void that extends indefinitely around us. As we said above, each star that we admire in the depths of the sky, and to which we lift up our eyes and thoughts during the charmed hours of the night, is another sun burning with its own light, the chief of a more or less numerous family, such as are multiplied through all space to infinity. Notwithstanding the immense distances between the sun-stars, Space is so vast, and the number of these so great, that by an effect of perspective due solely to the distance, appearances would lead us to believe that the stars were touching. And under certain telescopic aspects, and in some of the astral photographs, they really do appear to be contiguous.

The Universe is infinite. Space is limitless. If our love for the Heavens should incite in us the impulse, and provide us with the means of undertaking a journey directed to the ends of Heaven as its goal, we should be astonished, on arriving at the confines of the Milky Way, to see the grandiose and phenomenal spectacle of a new Universe unfold before our dazzled eyes; and if in our mad career we crossed this new archipelago of worlds to seek the barriers of Heaven beyond them, we should still find universe eternally succeeding to universe before us. Millions of suns roll on in the immensities of Space. Everywhere, on all sides, Creation renews itself in an infinite variety.

According to all the probabilities, universal life is distributed there as well as here, and has sown the germ of intelligence upon those distant worlds that we divine in the vicinity of the innumerable suns that plow the ether, for everything upon the Earth tends to show that Life is the goal of Nature. Burning foci, inextinguishable sources of warmth and light, these various, multi-colored suns shed their rays upon the worlds that belong to them and which they fertilize.

Our globe is no exception in the Universe. As we have seen, it is one of the celestial orbs, nourished, warmed, lighted, quickened by the Sun, which in its turn again is but a star.

Innumerable Worlds! We dream of them. Who can say that their unknown inhabitants do not think of us in their turn, and that Space may not be traversed by waves of thought, as it is by the vibrations of light and universal gravitation? May not an immense solidarity, hardly guessed at by our imperfect senses, exist between the Celestial Humanities, our Earth being only a modest planet.

Let us meditate on this Infinity! Let us lose no opportunity of employing the best of our hours, those of the silence and peace of the bewitching nights, in contemplating, admiring, spelling out the words of the Great Book of the Heavens. Let our freed souls fly swift and rapt toward those marvelous countries where indescribable joys are prepared for us, and let us do homage to the first and most splendid of the sciences, to Astronomy, which diffuses the light of Truth within us.

To poetical souls, the contemplation of the Heavens carries thought away to higher regions than it attains in any other meditation. Who does not remember the beautiful lines of Victor Hugo in the Orientales? Who has not heard or read them? The poem is called "Ecstasy," and it is a fitting title. The words are sometimes set to music, and the melody seems to complete their pure beauty:

J'etais seul pres des flots par une nuit d'etoiles. Pas un nuage aux cieux, sur les mers pas de voiles; Mes yeux plongeaient plus loin que le monde reel, Et les bois et les monts et toute la nature Semblaient interroger, dans un confus murmure, Les flots des mers, les feux du ciel.

Et les etoiles d'or, legions infinies, A voix haute, a voix basse, avec mille harmonies Disaient, en inclinant leurs couronnes de feu; Et les flots bleus, que rien ne gouverne et n'arrete, Disaient en recourbant l'ecume de leur crete: ... C'est le Seigneur, le Seigneur Dieu!

Note: Free Translation

I was alone on the waves, on a starry night, Not a cloud in the sky, not a sail in sight, My eyes pierced beyond the natural world... And the woods, and the hills, and the voice of Nature Seemed to question in a confused murmur, The waves of the Sea, and Heaven's fires.

And the golden stars in infinite legion, Sang loudly, and softly, in glad recognition, Inclining their crowns of fire;... And the waves that naught can check nor arrest Sang, bowing the foam of their haughty crest... Behold the Lord God—Jehovah!

The immortal poet of France was an astronomer. The author more than once had the honor of conversing with him on the problems of the starry sky—and reflected that astronomers might well be poets.

It is indeed difficult to resist a sense of profound emotion before the abysses of infinite Space, when we behold the innumerable multitude of worlds suspended above our heads. We feel in this solitary contemplation of the Heavens that there is more in the Universe than tangible and visible matter: that there are forces, laws, destinies. Our ants' brains may know themselves microscopic, and yet recognize that there is something greater than the Earth, the Heavens;—more absolute than the Visible, the Invisible;—beyond the more or less vulgar affairs of life, the sense of the True, the Good, the Beautiful. We feel that an immense mystery broods over Nature,—over Being, over created things. And it is here again that Astronomy surpasses all the other sciences, that it becomes our sovereign teacher, that it is the pharos of modern philosophy.

O Night, mysterious, sublime, and infinite! withdrawing from our eyes the veil spread above us by the light of day, giving back transparency to the Heavens, showing us the prodigious reality, the shining casket of the celestial diamonds, the innumerable stars that succeed each other interminably in immeasurable space! Without Night we should know nothing. Without it our eyes would never have divined the sidereal population, our intellects would never have pierced the harmony of the Heavens, and we should have remained the blind, deaf parasites of a world isolated from the rest of the universe. O Sacred Night! If on the one hand it rests upon the heights of Truth beyond the day's illusions, on the other its invisible urns pour down a silent and tranquil peace, a penetrating calm, upon our souls that weary of Life's fever. It makes us forget the struggles, perfidies, intrigues, the miseries of the hours of toil and noisy activity, all the conventionalities of civilization. Its domain is that of rest and dreams. We love it for its peace and calm tranquillity. We love it because it is true. We love it because it places us in communication with the other worlds, because it gives us the presage of Life, Universal and Eternal, because it brings us Hope, because it proclaims us citizens of Heaven.



In Chapter I we saw the Earth hanging in space, like a globe isolated on all sides, and surrounded at vast distances by a multitude of stars.

These fiery orbs are suns like that which illuminates ourselves. They shine by their own light. We know this for a fact, because they are so far off that they could neither be illuminated by the Sun, nor, still more, reflect his rays back upon us: and because, on the other hand, we have been able to measure and analyze their light. Many of these distant suns are simple and isolated; others are double, triple, or multiple; others appear to be the centers of systems analogous to that which gravitates round our own Sun, and of which we form part. But these celestial tribes are situated at such remote distances from us that it is impossible to distinguish all the individuals of each particular family. The most delicate observations have only revealed a few of them. We must content ourselves here with admiring the principals,—the sun-stars,—prodigious globes, flaming torches, scattered profusely through the firmament.

How, then, is one to distinguish them? How can they be readily found and named? There are so many of them!

Do not fear; it is quite a simple matter. In studying the surface of the Earth we make use of geographical maps on which the continents and seas of which it consists are drawn with the utmost care. Each country of our planet is subdivided into states, each of which has its proper name. We shall pursue the same plan in regard to the Heavens, and it will be all the easier since the Great Book of the Firmament is constantly open to our gaze. Our globe, moreover, actually revolves upon itself so that we read the whole in due sequence. Given a clear atmosphere, and a little stimulus to the will from our love of truth and science, and the geography of the Heavens, or "uranography," will soon be as familiar to us as the geography of our terrestrial atom.

On a beautiful summer's night, when we look toward the starry sky, we are at first aware only of a number of shining specks. The stars seem to be scattered almost accidentally through Space; they are so numerous and so close to one another that it would appear rash to attempt to name them separately. Yet some of the brighter ones particularly attract and excite our attention. After a little observation we notice a certain regularity in the arrangement of these distant suns, and take pleasure in drawing imaginary figures round the celestial groups.

That is what the ancients did from a practical point of view. In order to guide themselves across the trackless ocean, the earliest Phenician navigators noted certain fixed bearings in the sky, by which they mapped out their routes. In this way they discovered the position of the immovable Pole, and acquired empire over the sea. The Chaldean pastors, too, the nomad people of the East, invoked the Heavens to assist in their migrations. They grouped the more brilliant of the stars into Constellations with simple outlines, and gave to each of these celestial provinces a name derived from mythology, history, or from the natural kingdoms. It is impossible to determine the exact epoch of this primitive celestial geography. The Centaur Chiron, Jason's tutor, was reputed the first to divide the Heavens upon the sphere of the Argonauts. But this origin is a little mythical! In the Bible we have the Prophet Job, who names Orion, the Pleiades, and the Hyades, 3,300 years ago. The Babylonian Tables, and the hieroglyphs of Egypt, witness to an astronomy that had made considerable advance even in those remote epochs. Our actual constellations, which are doubtless of Babylonian origin, appear to have been arranged in their present form by the learned philosopher Eudoxus of Cnidus, about the year 360 B.C. Aratus sang of them in a didactic poem toward 270. Hipparchus of Rhodes was the first to note the astronomical positions with any precision, one hundred and thirty years before our era. He classified the stars in order of magnitude, according to their apparent brightness; and his catalogue, preserved in the Almagest of Ptolemy, contains 1,122 stars distributed into forty-eight Constellations.

The figures of the constellations, taken almost entirely from fable, are visible only to the eyes of the imagination, and where the ancients placed such and such a person or animal, we may see, with a little good-will, anything we choose to fancy. There is nothing real about these figures. And yet it is indispensable to be able to recognize the constellations in order to find our way among the innumerable army of the stars, and we shall commence this study with the description of the most popular and best known of them all, the one that circles every night through our Northern Heavens. Needless to name it; it is familiar to every one. You have already exclaimed—the Great Bear!

This vast and splendid association of suns, which is also known as the Chariot of David, the Plow or Charles's Wain, and the Dipper, is one of the finest constellations in the Heavens, and one of the oldest—seeing that the Chinese hailed it as the divinity of the North, over three thousand years ago.

If any of my readers should happen to forget its position in the sky, the following is a very simple expedient for finding it. Turn to the North—that is, opposite to the point where the sun is to be found at midday. Whatever the season of the year, day of the month, or hour of the night, you will always see, high up in the firmament, seven magnificent stars, arranged in a quadrilateral, followed by a tail, or handle, of three stars. This magnificent constellation never sinks below our horizon. Night and day it watches above us, turning in twenty-four hours round a very famous star that we shall shortly become acquainted with. In the figure of the Great Bear, the four stars of the quadrilateral are found in the body, and the three at the extremity make the tail. As David's Chariot, the four stars represent the wheels, and the three others the horses.

Sometimes our ancestors called them the Seven Oxen, the "oxen of the celestial pastures," from which the word septentrion (septem triones, seven oxen of labor) is derived. Some see a Plowshare; others more familiarly call this figure the Dipper. As it rotates round the pole, its outline varies with the different positions.

It is not easy to guess why this constellation should have been called the Bear. Yet the name has had a certain influence. From the Greek word arctos (bear) has come arctic, and for its antithesis, antarctic. From the Latin word trio (ox of labor) has come septentrion, the seven oxen. Etymology is not always logical. Is not the word "venerate" derived from Venus?

In order to distinguish one star from another, the convention of denoting them by the letters of the Greek Alphabet has been adopted, for it would be impossible to give a name to each, so considerable is their number.[3]

[alpha] and [beta] denote the front wheels of the Chariot generally known as the "pointers;" [gamma] and [delta] the hind wheels; [epsilon], [zeta], [eta] the three horses. All these stars are of the second order of magnitude (the specific meaning of this expression will be explained in the next chapter), except the last ([delta]) of the quadrilateral, which is of the third order.

Figure 3 gives the outline of this primitive constellation. In revolving in twenty-four hours round the Pole, which is situated at the prolongation of a line drawn from [beta] to [alpha], it occupies every conceivable position,—as if this page were turned in all directions. But the relative arrangement of the seven stars remains unaltered. In contemplating these seven stars it must never be forgotten that each is a dazzling sun, a center of force and life. One of them is especially remarkable: [zeta], known as Mizar to the Arabs. Those who have good sight will distinguish near it a minute star, Alcor, or the Cavalier, also called Saidak by the Arabs—that is, the Test, because it can be used as a test of vision. But further, if you have a small telescope at your disposal, direct it upon the fine star Mizar: you will be astonished at discovering two of the finest diamonds you could wish to see, with which no brilliant is comparable. There are several double stars; these we shall become acquainted with later on.

Meantime, we must not forget our celestial geography. The Great Bear will help us to find all the adjacent constellations.

If a straight line is drawn (Fig. 4) from [beta] through [alpha], which forms the extremity of the square, and is prolonged by a quantity equal to the distance of [alpha] from the tip of the handle, we come on a star of second magnitude, which marks the extremity of a figure perfectly comparable with the Great Bear, but smaller, less brilliant, and pointing in the contrary direction. This is the Little Bear, composed, like its big brother, of seven stars; the one situated at the end of the line by which we have found it is the Pole-Star.

Immovable in the region of the North Pole, the Pole-Star has captivated all eyes by its position in the firmament. It is the providence of mariners who have gone astray on the ocean, for it points them to the North, while it is the pivot of the immense rotation accomplished round it by all the stars in twenty-four hours. Hence it is a very important factor, and we must hasten to find it, and render it due homage. It should be added that its special immobility, in the prolongation of the Earth's axis, is merely an effect caused by the diurnal movements of our planet. Our readers are of course aware that it is the earth that turns and not the sky. But evidence of this will be given later on. In looking at the Pole-Star, the South is behind one, the East to the right, and the West to the left.

Between the Great and the Little Bear, we can distinguish a winding procession of smaller stars. These constitute the Dragon.

We will continue our journey by way of Cassiopeia, a fine constellation placed on the opposite side of the Pole-Star in relation to the Great Bear, and shaped somewhat like the open limbs of the letter W. It is also called the Chair. And, in fact, when the figure is represented with the line [alpha] [beta] below, the line [chi] [gamma] forms the seat, and [gamma] [delta] [epsilon] its back.

If a straight line is drawn from [delta] of the Great Bear, and prolonged beyond the Pole-Star in a quantity equal to the distance which separates these two stars, it is easy to find this constellation (Fig. 5). This group, like the preceding, never sets, and is always visible, opposite to the Great Bear. It revolves in twenty-four hours round the Pole-Star, and is to be seen, now above, now below, now to the right, now to the left.

If in the next place, starting from the stars [alpha] and [delta] in the Great Bear, we draw two lines which join at Polaris and are prolonged beyond Cassiopeia, we arrive at the Square of Pegasus (Fig. 6), a vast constellation that terminates on one side in a prolongation formed of three stars.

These three last stars belong to Andromeda, and themselves abut on Perseus. The last star in the Square of Pegasus is also the first in Andromeda.

[gamma] of Andromeda is a magnificent double orb, to which we shall return in the next chapter, i.e., the telescope resolves it into two marvelous suns, one of which is topaz-yellow, and the other emerald-green. Three stars, indeed, are visible with more powerful instruments.

Above [beta] and near a small star, is visible a faint, whitish, luminous trail: this is the oblong nebula of Andromeda, the first mentioned in the history of astronomy, and one of the most beautiful in the Heavens, perceptible to the unaided eye on very clear nights.

The stars [alpha], [beta] and [gamma] of Perseus form a concave bow which will serve in a new orientation. If it is prolonged in the direction of [delta], we find a very brilliant star of the first magnitude. This is Capella, the Goat, in the constellation of the Charioteer (Fig. 7).

If coming back to [delta] in Perseus, a line is drawn toward the South, we reach the Pleiades, a gorgeous cluster of stars, scintillating like the finest dust of diamonds, on the shoulder of the Bull, to which we shall come shortly, in studying the Constellations of the Zodiac.

Not far off is a very curious star, [beta] of Perseus, or Algol, which forms a little triangle with two others smaller than itself. This star is peculiar in that, instead of shining with a fixed light, it varies in intensity, and is sometimes pale, sometimes brilliant. It belongs to the category of variable stars which we shall study later on. All the observations made on it for more than two hundred years go to prove that a dark star revolves round this sun, almost in the plane of our line of sight, producing as it passes in front of it a partial eclipse that reduces it from the second to the fourth magnitude, every other two days, twenty hours, and forty-nine minutes.

And now, let us return to the Great Bear, which aided us so beneficently to start for these distant shores, and whence we shall set out afresh in search of other constellations.

If we produce the curved line of the tail, or handle, we encounter a magnificent golden-yellow star, a splendid sun of dazzling brilliancy: let us make our bow to Arcturus, [alpha] of the Herdsman, which is at the extremity of this pentagonal constellation. The principal stars of this asterism are of the third magnitude, with the exception of [alpha], which is of the first. Alongside of the Herdsman is a circle consisting of five stars of the third and fourth magnitude, save the third, [alpha], or the Pearl, which is of the second magnitude. This is the Corona Borealis. It is very easily recognized (Fig. 8).

A line drawn from the Pole-Star to Arcturus forms the base of an equilateral triangle, the apex of which, situated opposite the Great Bear, is occupied by Vega, or [alpha] of the Lyre, a splendid diamond of ideal purity scintillating through the ether. This magnificent star, of first magnitude, is, with Arcturus, the most luminous in our Heavens. It burns with a white light, in the proximity of the Milky Way, not far from a constellation that is very easily recognized by the arrangement of its principal stars in the form of a cross. It is named Cygnus, the Bird, or the Swan (Fig. 9), and is easy to find by the Square of Pegasus, and the Milky Way. This figure, the brilliancy of whose constituents (of the third and fourth magnitudes) contrasts strongly with the pallor of the Milky Way, includes at its extremity at the foot of the Cross, a superb double star, [beta] or Albirio: [alpha] of Cygnus is also called Deneb. The first star of which the distance was calculated is in this constellation. This little orb of fifth magnitude, which hangs 69,000,000,000,000 kilometers (42,000,000,000,000 miles) above our Earth, is the nearest of all the stars to the skies of Europe.

Not far off is the fine Eagle, which spreads its wings in the Milky Way, and in which the star Altair, [alpha], of first magnitude, is situated between its two satellites, [beta] and [gamma].

The Constellation of Hercules, toward which the motions of the Sun are impelling us, with all the planets of its system, is near the Lyre. Its principal stars can be recognized inside the triangle formed by the Pole-Star, Arcturus, and Vega.

All the Constellations described above belong to the Northern Hemisphere. Those nearest the pole are called circumpolar. They revolve round the pole in twenty-four hours.

Having now learned the Northern Heavens, we must come back to the Sun, which we have left behind us. The Earth revolves round him in a year, and in consequence he seems to revolve round us, sweeping through a vast circle of the celestial sphere. In each year, at the same period, he passes the same points of the Heavens, in front of the same constellations, which are rendered invisible by his light. We know that the stars are at a fixed position from the Earth, whatever their distance, and that if we do not see them at noon as at midnight, it is simply because they are extinguished by the dazzling light of the orb of day. With the aid of a telescope it is always possible to see the more brilliant of them.

The Zodiac is the zone of stars traversed by the Sun in the course of a year. This word is derived from the Greek Zodiakos, which signifies "animal," and this etymology arose because most of the figures traced on this belt of stars represent animals. The belt is divided into twelve parts that are called the twelve Signs of the Zodiac, also named by the ancients the "Houses of the Sun," since the Sun visits one of them in each month. These are the signs, with the primitive characters that distinguish them: the Ram [Aries], the Bull [Taurus], the Twins [Gemini], the Crab [Cancer], the Lion [Leo], the Virgin [Virgo], the Balance [Libra], the Scorpion [Scorpio], the Archer [Sagittarius], the Goat [Capricorn], the Water-Carrier [Aquarius], the Fishes [Pisces]. The sign [Aries] represents the horns of the Ram, [Taurus] the head of the Bull, and so on.

If you will now follow me into the Houses of the Sun you will readily recognize them again, provided you have a clear picture of the principal stars of the Northern Heavens. First, you see the Ram, the initial sign of the Zodiac; because at the epoch at which the actual Zodiac was fixed, the Sun entered this sign at the vernal equinox, and the equator crossed the ecliptic at this point. This constellation, in which the horns of the Ram (third magnitude) are the brightest, is situated between Andromeda and the Pleiades. Two thousand years ago, the Ram was regarded as the symbol of spring; but owing to the secular movement of the precession of the equinoxes, the Sun is no longer there on March 21: he is in the Fishes.

To the left, or east of the Ram, we find the Bull, the head of which forms a triangle in which burns Aldebaran, of first magnitude, a magnificent red star that marks the right eye; and the Hyades, scintillating pale and trembling, on its forehead. The timid Pleiades, as we have seen, veil themselves on the shoulder of the Bull—a captivating cluster, of which six stars can be counted with the unaided eye, while several hundred are discovered with the telescope.

Next the Twins. They are easily recognized by the two fine stars, [alpha] and [beta], of first magnitude, which mark their heads, and immortalize Castor and Pollux, the sons of Jupiter, celebrated for their indissoluble friendship.

Cancer, the Crab, is the least important sign of the Zodiac. It is distinguished only by five stars of fourth and fifth magnitudes, situated below the line of Castor and Pollux, and by a pale cluster called Praesepe, the Beehive.

The Lion next approaches, superb in his majesty. At his heart is a gorgeous star of first magnitude, [alpha] or Regulus. This figure forms a grand trapezium of four stars on the celestial sphere.

The Virgin exhibits a splendid star of first magnitude; this is Spica, which with Regulus and Arcturus, form a triangle by which this constellation can be recognized.

The Balance follows the Virgin. Its scales, marked by two stars of second magnitude, are situated a little to the East of Spica.

We next come to the eighth constellation of the Zodiac, which is one of the most beautiful of this belt of stars. Antares, a red star of first magnitude, occupies the heart of the venomous and accursed Scorpion. It is situated on the prolongation of a line joining Regulus to Spica, and forms with Vega of the Lyre, and Arcturus of the Herdsman, a great isosceles triangle, of which this latter star is the apex.

The Scorpion, held to be a sign of ill luck, has been prejudicial to the Archer, which follows it, and traces an oblique trapezium in the sky, a little to the east of Antares. These two southernmost constellations never rise much above the horizon for France and England. In fable, the Archer is Chiron, the preceptor of Jason, Achilles and AEsculapius.

Capricorn lies to the south of Altair, on the prolongation of a line from the Lyre to the Eagle. It is hardly noticeable save for the stars [alpha] and [beta] of third magnitude, which scintillate on its forehead.

The Water-Carrier pours his streams toward the horizon. He is not rich in stars, exhibiting only three of third magnitude that form a very flattened triangle.

Lastly the Fishes, concluding sign of the Zodiac, are found to the south of Andromeda and Pegasus. Save for [alpha], of third magnitude, this constellation consists of small stars that are hardly visible.

These twelve zodiacal constellations will be recognized on examining the chart (Figs. 10-11).

We must now visit the stars of the Southern Heavens, some of which are equally deserving of admiration.

It should in the first place be noted that the signs of the Zodiac and the Southern Constellations are not, like those which are circumpolar, perpetually visible at all periods of the year. Their visibility depends on the time of year and the hour of the night.[4]

In order to admire the fine constellations of the North, as described above, we have only to open our windows on a clear summer's evening, or walk round the garden in the mysterious light of these inaccessible suns, while we look up at the immense fields in which each star is like the head of a celestial spear.

But the summer is over, autumn is upon us, and then, too soon, comes winter clothed in hoar-frost. The days are short and cold, dark and dreary; but as a compensation the night is much longer, and adorns herself with her most beautiful jewels, offering us the contemplation of her inexhaustible treasures.

First, let us do homage to the magnificent Orion, most splendid of all the constellations: he advances like a colossal giant, and confronts the Bull.

This constellation appears about midnight in November, in the south-eastern Heavens; toward eleven o'clock in December and January, due south; about ten in February, in the south-east; about nine in March, and about eight in April, in the west; and then sets below our horizon.

It is indisputably the most striking figure in the sky, and with the Great Bear, the most ancient in history, the first that was noticed: both are referred to in the ancient texts of China, Chaldea, and Egypt.

Eight principal stars delineate its outline; two are of the first magnitude, five of the second, and one of the third (Fig. 12). The most brilliant are Betelgeuse ([alpha]) and Rigel ([beta]): the former marking the right shoulder of the Colossus as it faces us; the second the left foot. The star on the left shoulder is [gamma] or Bellatrix, of second magnitude; that of the right foot, [chi], is almost of the third. Three stars of second magnitude placed obliquely at equal distances from each other, the first or highest of which marks the position of the equatorial line, indicate the Belt or Girdle. These stars, known as the Three Kings, and by country people as the Rake, assist greatly in the recognition of this fine constellation.

A little below the second star of the Belt, a large white patch, like a band of fog, the apparent dimensions of which are equal to that of the lunar disk, is visible to the unaided eye: this is the Nebula of Orion, one of the most magnificent in the entire Heavens. It was discovered in 1656 by Huyghens, who counted twelve stars in the pale cloud. Since that date it has been constantly studied and photographed by its many admirers, while the giant eye of the telescope discovers in it to-day an innumerable multitude of little stars which reveal the existence of an entire universe in this region.

Orion is not merely the most imposing of the celestial figures; it is also the richest in sidereal wonders. Among these, it exhibits the most complex of all the multiple systems known to us: that of the star [theta] situated in the celebrated nebula just mentioned. This marvelous star, viewed through a powerful telescope, breaks up into six suns, forming a most remarkable stellar group.

This region is altogether one of the most brilliant in the entire firmament. We must no longer postpone our homage to the brightest star in the sky, the magnificent Sirius, which shines on the left below Orion: it returns every year toward the end of November. This marvelous star, of dazzling brilliancy, is the first, [alpha], in the constellation of the Great Dog, which forms a quadrilateral, the base of which is adjacent to a triangle erected from the horizon.

When astronomers first endeavored to determine the distance of the stars, Sirius, which attracted all eyes to its burning fires, was the particular object of attention. After long observation, they succeeded in determining its distance as 92 trillion kilometers (57 trillion miles). Light, that radiates through space at a velocity of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second, takes no less than ten years to reach us from this sun, which, nevertheless, is one of our neighbors.

The Little Dog, in which Procyon ([alpha], of first magnitude) shines out, is above its big brother. With the exception of [alpha], it has no bright stars.

Lastly, toward the southern horizon, we must notice the Hydra, Eridanus, the Whale, the Southern Fish, the Ship, and the Centaur. This last constellation, while invisible to our latitudes, contains the star that is nearest to the Earth, [alpha], of first magnitude, the distance of which is 40 trillion kilometers (25 trillion miles).

The feet of the Centaur touch the Southern Cross, which is always invisible to us, and a little farther down the Southern Pole reigns over the icy desert of the antarctic regions.

In order to complete the preceding descriptions, we subjoin four charts representing the aspect of the starry heavens during the evenings of winter, spring, summer, and autumn. To make use of these, we must suppose them to be placed above our heads, the center marking the zenith, and the sky descending all round to the horizon. The horizon, therefore, bounds these panoramas. Turning the chart in any direction, and looking at it from north, south, east, or west, we find all the principal stars. The first map (Fig. 13) represents the sky in winter (January) at 8 P.M.; the second, in spring (April) at 9 P.M.; the third, in summer (July) at the same hour; the fourth, the sky in autumn (October) at the same time.

And so, at little cost, we have made one of the grandest and most beautiful journeys conceivable. We now have a new country, or, better, have learned to see and know our own country, for since the Earth is a planet we must all be citizens of the Heavens before we can belong to such or such a nation of our lilliputian world.

We must now study this sublime spectacle of the Heavens in detail.




We have seen from the foregoing summary of the principal Constellations that there is great diversity in the brightness of the stars, and that while our eyes are dazzled with the brilliancy of certain orbs, others, on the contrary, sparkle modestly in the azure depths of the night, and are hardly perceptible to the eye that seeks to plumb the abysses of Immensity.

We have appended the word "magnitude" to the names of certain stars, and the reader might imagine this to bear some relation to the volume of the orb. But this is not the case.

To facilitate the observation of stars of varying brilliancy, they have been classified in order of magnitude, according to their apparent brightness, and since the dimensions of these distant suns are almost wholly unknown to us, the most luminous stars were naturally denoted as of first magnitude, those which were a little less bright of the second, and so on. But in reality this word "magnitude" is quite erroneous, for it bears no relation to the mass of the stars, divided thus at an epoch when it was supposed that the most brilliant must be the largest. It simply indicates the apparent brightness of a star, the real brilliancy depending on its dimensions, its intrinsic light, and its distance from our planet.

And now to make some comparison between the different orders. Throughout the entire firmament, only nineteen stars of first magnitude are discoverable. And, strictly speaking, the last of this series might just as well be noted of "second magnitude," while the first of the second series might be added to the list of stars of the "first order." But in order to form classes distinct from one another, some limit has to be adopted, and it was determined that the first series should include only the following stars, the most luminous in the Heavens, which are subjoined in order of decreasing brilliancy.


1. Sirius, or [alpha] of the Great Dog. 2. Canopus, or [alpha] of the Ship. 3. Capella, or [alpha] of the Charioteer. 4. Arcturus, or [alpha] of the Herdsman. 5. Vega, or [alpha] of the Lyre. 6. Proxima, or [alpha] of the Centaur. 7. Rigel, or [beta] of Orion. 8. Achernar, or [alpha] of Eridanus. 9. Procyon, or [alpha] of the Little Dog. 10. [beta] of the Centaur. 11. Betelgeuse, or [alpha] of Orion. 12. Altair, or [alpha] of the Eagle. 13. [alpha] of the Southern Cross. 14. Aldebaran, or [alpha] of the Bull. 15. Spica, or [alpha] of the Virgin. 16. Antares, or [alpha] of the Scorpion. 17. Pollux, or [beta] of the Twins. 18. Regulus, or [alpha] of the Lion. 19. Fomalhaut, or [alpha] of the Southern Fish.


Then come the stars of the second magnitude, of which there are fifty-nine. The stars of the Great Bear (with the exception of [delta], which is of third magnitude), the Pole-Star, the chief stars in Orion (after Rigel and Betelgeuse), of the Lion, of Pegasus, of Andromeda, of Cassiopeia, are of this order. These, with the former, constitute the principal outlines of the constellations visible to us.

Then follow the third and fourth magnitudes, and so on.

* * * * *

The following table gives a summary of the series, down to the sixth magnitude, which is the limit of visibility for the unaided human eye:

19 stars of first magnitude. 59 of second magnitude. 182 of third magnitude. 530 of fourth magnitude. 1,600 of fifth magnitude. 4,800 of sixth magnitude.

This makes a total of some seven thousand stars visible to the unaided eye. It will be seen that each series is, roughly speaking, three times as populated as that preceding it; consequently, if we multiply the number of any class by three, we obtain the approximate number of stars that make up the class succeeding it.

Seven thousand stars! It is an imposing figure, when one reflects that all these lucid points are suns, as enormous as they are potent, as incandescent as our own (which exceeds the volume of the Earth by more than a million times), distant centers of light and heat, exerting their attraction on unknown systems. And yet it is generally imagined that millions of stars are visible in the firmament. This is an illusion; even the best vision is unable to distinguish stars below the sixth magnitude, and ordinary sight is far from discovering all of these.

Again, seven thousand stars for the whole Heavens makes only three thousand five hundred for half the sky. And we can only see one celestial hemisphere at a time. Moreover, toward the horizon, the vapor of the atmosphere veils the little stars of sixth magnitude. In reality, we never see at a given moment more than three thousand stars. This number is below that of the population of a small town.

* * * * *

But celestial space is unlimited, and we must not suppose that these seven thousand stars that fascinate our eyes and enrich our Heavens, without which our nights would be black, dark, and empty,[5] comprise the whole of Creation. They only represent the vestibule of the temple.

Where our vision is arrested, a larger, more powerful eye, that is developing from century to century, plunges its analyzing gaze into the abysses, and reflects back to the insatiable curiosity of science the light of the innumerable suns that it discovers. This eye is the lens of the optical instruments. Even opera-glasses disclose stars of the seventh magnitude. A small astronomical objective penetrates to the eighth and ninth orders. More powerful instruments attain the tenth. The Heavens are progressively transformed to the eye of the astronomer, and soon he is able to reckon hundreds of thousands of orbs in the night. The evolution continues, the power of the instrument is developed; and the stars of the eleventh and twelfth magnitudes are discovered successively, and together number four millions. Then follow the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth magnitudes. This is the sequence:

7th magnitude 13,000. 8th " 40,000. 9th " 120,000. 10th " 380,000. 11th " 1,000,000. 12th " 3,000,000. 13th " 9,000,000. 14th " 27,000,000. 15th " 80,000,000.

Accordingly, the most powerful telescopes of the day, reenforced by celestial photography, can bring a stream of more than 120 millions of stars into the scope of our vision.

The photographic map of the Heavens now being executed comprises the first fourteen magnitudes, and will give the precise position of some 40,000,000 stars, distributed over 22,054 sheets, forming a sphere 3 meters 44 centimeters in diameter.

The boldest imagination is overwhelmed by these figures, and fails to picture such millions of suns—formidable and burning globes that roll through space, sweeping their systems along with them. What furnaces are there! what unknown lives! what vast immensities!

And again, what enormous distances must separate the stars, to admit of their free revolution in the ether! In what abysses, at what a distance from our terrestrial atom, must these magnificent and dazzling Suns pursue the paths traced for them by Destiny!

* * * * *

If all the stars radiated an equal light, their distances might be calculated on the principle that an object appears smaller in proportion to its distance. But this equality does not exist. The suns were not all cast in the same mold.

Indeed, the stars differ widely in size and brightness, and the distances that have been measured show that the most brilliant are not the nearest. They are scattered through Space at all distances.

Among the nearer stars of which it has been found possible to calculate the distance, some are found to be of the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and even ninth magnitudes, proving that the most brilliant are not always the least distant.

For the rest, among the beautiful and shining stars with which we made acquaintance in the last chapter may be cited Sirius, which at a distance of 92 trillion kilometers (57 trillion miles) from here still dazzles us with its burning fires; Procyon or [alpha] of the Little Dog, as remote as 112 trillion kilometers (69-1/2 trillion miles); Altair of the Eagle, at 160 trillion kilometers (99 trillion miles); the white Vega, at 204 trillion kilometers (126-1/2 trillion miles); Capella, at 276 trillion kilometers (171 trillion miles); and the Pole-Star at 344 trillion kilometers (213-1/2 trillion miles). The light that flies through Space at a velocity of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second, takes thirty-six years and a half to reach us from this distant sun: i.e., the luminous ray we are now receiving from Polaris has been traveling for more than the third of a century. When you, gentle reader, were born, the ray that arrives to-day from the Pole-Star was already speeding on its way. In the first second after it had started it traveled 300,000 kilometers; in the second it added another 300,000 which at once makes 600,000 kilometers; add another 300,000 kilometers for the third second, and so on during the thirty-six years and a half.

If we tried to arrange the number 300,000 (which represents the distance accomplished in one second) in superposed rows, as if for an addition sum, as many times as is necessary to obtain the distance that separates the Pole-Star from our Earth, the necessary operation would comprise 1,151,064,000 rows, and the sheet of paper required for the setting out of such a sum would measure approximately 11,510 kilometers (about 7,000 miles), i.e., almost the diameter of our terrestrial globe, or about four times the distance from Paris to Moscow!

Is it not impossible to realize that our Sun, with its entire system, is lost in the Heavens at such a distance from his peers in Space? At the distance of the least remote of the stars he would appear as one of the smallest.

* * * * *

The nearest star to us is [alpha] of the Centaur, of first magnitude, a neighbor of the South Pole, invisible in our latitudes. Its distance is 275,000 radii of the terrestrial orbit, i.e., 275,000 times 149 million kilometers, which gives 41 trillions, or 41,000 milliards of kilometers (= 25-1/2 trillion miles). [A milliard = 1,000 millions, the French billion. A trillion = 1,000 milliards, or a million millions, the English billion. The French nomenclature has been retained by the translator.] At a speed of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second the light takes four years to come from thence. It is a fine double star.

The next nearest star after this is a little orb invisible to the unaided eye. It has no name, and stands as No. 21,185 in the Catalogue of Lalande. It almost attains the seventh magnitude (6.8). Its distance is 64 trillion kilometers (39-1/2 trillion miles).

The third of which the distance has been measured is the small star in Cygnus, already referred to in Chapter II, in describing the Constellations. Its distance is 69 trillion kilometers (42-1/2 trillion miles). This, too, is a double star. The light takes seven years to reach us.

As we have seen, the fine stars Sirius, Procyon, Aldebaran, Altair, Vega, and Capella are more remote.

Our solar system is thus very isolated in the vastness of Infinitude. The latest known planet of our system, Neptune, performs its revolutions in space at 4 milliards, 470 million kilometers (2,771,400,000 miles) from our Sun. Even this is a respectable distance! But beyond this world, an immense gulf, almost a void abyss, extends to the nearest star, [alpha] of the Centaur. Between Neptune and Centauris there is no star to cheer the black and cold solitude of the immense vacuum. One or two unknown planets, some wandering comets, and swarms of meteors, doubtless traverse those unknown spaces, but all invisible to us.

Later on we will discuss the methods that have been employed in measuring these distances. Let us now continue our description.

* * * * *

Now that we have some notion of the distance of the stars we must approach them with the telescope, and compare them one with another.

Let us, for example, get close to Sirius: in this star we admire a sun that is several times heavier than our own, and of much greater mass, accompanied by a second sun that revolves round it in fifty years. Its light is exceedingly white, and it notably burns with hydrogen flames, like Vega and Altair.

Now let us approach Arcturus, Capella, Aldebaran: these are yellow stars with golden rays, like our Sun, and the vapor of iron, of sodium, and of many other metals can be identified in their spectrum. These stars are older than the first, and the ruddy ones, such as Antares, Betelgeuse, [alpha] of Hercules, are still older; several of them are variable, and are on their way to final extinction.

The Heavens afford us a perennial store of treasure, wherein the thinker, poet or artist can find inexhaustible subjects of contemplation.

You have heard of the celestial jewels, the diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, topazes, and other precious stones of the sidereal casket. These marvels are met with especially among the double stars.

Our Sun, white and solitary, gives no idea of the real aspect of some of its brothers in Infinitude. There are as many different types as there are suns!

Stars, you will think, are like individuals: each has its distinct characteristics: no two are comparable. And indeed this reflection is justified. While human vanity does homage to Phoebus, divine King of the Heavens, other suns of still greater magnificence form groups of two or three splendid orbs, which roll the prodigious combinations of their double, triple, or multiple systems through space, pouring on to the worlds that accompany them a flood of changing light, now blue, now red, now violet, etc.

In the inexhaustible variety of Creation there exist Suns that are united in pairs, bound by a common destiny, cradled in the same attraction, and often colored in the most delicate and entrancing shades conceivable. Here will be a dazzling ruby, its glowing color shedding joy; there a deep blue sapphire of tender tone; beyond, the finest emeralds, hue of hope. Diamonds of translucent purity and whiteness sparkle from the abyss, and shed their penetrating light into the vast space. What splendors are scattered broadcast over the sky! what profusion!

To the naked eye, the groups appear like ordinary stars, mere luminous points of greater or less brilliancy; but the telescope soon discovers the beauty of these systems; the star is duplicated into two distinct suns, in close proximity. These groups of two or several suns are not merely due to an effect of perspective—i.e., the presence of two or more stars in our line of sight; as a rule they constitute real physical systems, and these suns, associated in a common lot, rotate round one another in a more or less rapid period, that varies for each system.

One of the most splendid of these double stars, and at the same time one of the easiest to perceive, is [zeta] in the Great Bear, or Mizar, mentioned above in describing this constellation. It has no contrasting colors, but exactly resembles twin diamonds of the finest water, which fascinate the gaze, even through a small objective.

Its components are of the second and fourth magnitudes, their distance = 14"[6]. Some idea of their appearance in a small telescope may be obtained from the subjoined figure (Fig. 17).

Another very brilliant pair is Castor. Magnitudes second and third. Distance 5.6"". Very easy to observe. [gamma] in the Virgin resolves into two splendid diamonds of third magnitude. Distance, 5.0". Another double star is [gamma] of the Ram, of fourth magnitude. Distance, 8.9".

And here are two that are even more curious by reason of their coloring: [gamma] in Andromeda, composed of a fine orange star, and one emerald-green, which again is accompanied by a tiny comrade of the deepest blue. This group in a good telescope is most attractive. Magnitudes, second and fifth. Distance, 10".

[beta] of the Swan, or Albireo, referred to in the last chapter, has been analyzed into two stars: one golden-yellow, the other sapphire. Magnitudes, third and fifth. Distance, 34". [alpha] of the Greyhounds, known also as the Heart of Charles II, is golden-yellow and lilac. Magnitudes, third and fifth. Distance 20".[7]

[alpha] of Hercules revolves a splendid emerald and a ruby in the skies; [zeta] of the Lyre exhibits a yellow and a green star; Rigel, an electric sun, and a small sapphire; Antares is ruddy and emerald-green; [eta] of Perseus resolves into a burning red star, and one smaller that is deep blue, and so on.

* * * * *

These exquisite double stars revolve in gracious and splendid couples around one another, as in some majestic valse, marrying their multi-colored fires in the midst of the starry firmament.

Here, we constantly receive a pure and dazzling white light from our burning luminary. Its ray, indeed, contains the potentiality of every conceivable color, but picture the fantastic illumination of the worlds that gravitate round these multiple and colored suns as they shed floods of blue and roseate, red, or orange light around them! What a fairy spectacle must life present upon these distant universes!

Let us suppose that we inhabit a planet illuminated by two suns, one blue, the other red.

It is morning. The sapphire sun climbs slowly up the Heavens, coloring the atmosphere with a somber and almost melancholy hue. The blue disk attains the zenith, and is beginning its descent toward the West, when the East lights up with the flames of a scarlet sun, which in its turn ascends the heights of the firmament. The West is plunged in the penumbra of the rays of the blue sun, while the East is illuminated with the purple and burning rays of the ruby orb.

The first sun is setting when the second noon shines for the inhabitants of this strange world. But the red sun, too, accomplishes the law of its destiny. Hardly has it disappeared in the conflagration of its last rays, with which the West is flushed, when the blue orb reappears on the opposite side, shedding a pale azure light upon the world it illuminates, which knows no night. And thus these two suns fraternize in the Heavens over the common task of renewing a thousand effects of extra-terrestrial light for the globes that are subject to their variations.

Scarlet, indigo, green, and golden suns; pearly and multi-colored Moons; are these not fairy visions, dazzling to our poor sight, condemned while here below to see and know but one white Sun?

As we have learned, there are not only double, but triple, and also multiple stars. One of the finest ternary systems is that of [gamma] in Andromeda, above mentioned. Its large star is orange, its second green, its third blue, but the two last are in close juxtaposition, and a powerful telescope is needed to separate them. A triple star more easy to observe is [zeta] of Cancer, composed of three orbs of fifth magnitude, at a distance of 1" and 5"; the first two revolve round their common center of gravity in fifty-nine years, the third takes over three hundred years. The preceding figure shows this system in a fairly powerful objective (Fig. 18).

in Cancer.]

In the Lyre, a little above the dazzling Vega, [epsilon] is of fourth magnitude, which seems a little elongated to the unaided eye, and can even be analyzed into two contiguous stars by very sharp sight. But on examining this attractive pair with a small glass, it is further obvious that each of these stars is double; so that they form a splendid quadruple system of two couples (Fig. 19): one of fifth and a half and sixth magnitudes, at a distance of 2.4", the other of sixth and seventh, 3.2" distant. The distance between the two pairs is 207".

of the Lyre.]

In speaking of Orion, we referred to the marvelous star [theta] situated in the no less famous Nebula, below the Belt; this star forms a dazzling sextuple system, in the very heart of the nebula (Fig. 20). How different to our Sun, sailing through Space in modest isolation!

Be it noted that all these stars are animated by prodigious motions that impel them in every direction.

in the Nebula of Orion.]

There are no fixed stars. On every side throughout Infinity, the burning suns—enormous globes, blazing centers of light and heat—are flying at giddy speed toward an unknown goal, traversing millions of miles each day, crossing century by century such vast spaces as are inconceivable to the human intellect.

If the stars appear motionless to us, it is because they are so remote, their secular movements being only manifested on the celestial sphere by imperceptible displacements. But in reality these suns are in perpetual commotion in the abysses of the Heavens, which they quicken with an extraordinary animation.

These perpetual and cumulative motions must eventually modify the aspect of the Constellations: but these changes will only take effect very slowly; and for thousands and thousands of years longer the heroes and heroines of mythology will keep their respective places in the Heavens, and reign undisturbed beneath the starry vault.

Examination of these star motions reveals the fact that our Sun is plunging with all his system (the Earth included) toward the Constellation of Hercules. We are changing our position every moment: in an hour we shall be 70,000 kilometers (43,500 miles) farther than we are at present. The Sun and the Earth will never again traverse the space they have just left, and which they have deserted forever.

And here let us pause for an instant to consider the variable stars. Our Sun, which is constant and uniform in its light, does not set the type of all the stars. A great number of them are variable—either periodically, in regular cycles—or irregularly.

We are already acquainted with the variations of Algol, in Perseus, due to its partial eclipse by a dark globe gravitating in the line of our vision. There are several others of the same type: these are not, properly speaking, variable stars. But there are many others the intrinsic light of which undergoes actual variations.

In order to realize this, let us imagine that our Earth belongs to such a sun, for example, to a star in the southern constellation of the Whale, indicated by the letter [omicron], which has been named the "wonderful" (Mira Ceti). Our new sun is shining to-day with a dazzling light, shedding the gladness of his joyous beams upon nature and in our hearts. For two months we admire the superb orb, sparkling in the azure illuminated with its radiance. Then of a sudden, its light fades, and diminishes in intensity, though the sky remains clear. Imperceptibly, our fine sun darkens; the atmosphere becomes sad and dull, there is an anticipation of universal death. For five long months our world is plunged in a kind of penumbra; all nature is saddened in the general woe.

But while we are bewailing the cruelty of our lot, our cherished luminary revives. The intensity of its light increases slowly. Its brilliancy augments, and finally, at the end of three months, it has recovered its former splendors, and showers its bright beams upon our world, flooding it with joy. But—we must not rejoice too quickly! This splendid blaze will not endure. The flaming star will pale once more; fade back to its minimum; and then again revive. Such is the nature of this capricious sun. It varies in three hundred and thirty-one days, and from yellow at the maximum, turns red at the minimum. This star, Mira Ceti, which is one of the most curious of its type, varies from the second to the ninth magnitudes: we cite it as one example; hundreds of others might be instanced.

Thus the sky is no black curtain dotted with brilliant points, no empty desert, silent and monotonous. It is a prodigious theater on which the most fantastic plays are continually being acted. Only—there are no spectators.

Again, we must note the temporary stars, which shine for a certain time, and then die out rapidly. Such was the star in Cassiopeia, in 1572, the light of which exceeded Sirius in its visibility in full daylight, burning for five months with unparalleled splendor, dominating all other stars of first magnitude; after which it died out gradually, disappearing at the end of seventeen months, to the terror of the peoples, who saw in it the harbinger of the world's end: that of 1604, in the Constellation of the Serpent, which shone for a year; of 1866, of second magnitude, in the Northern Crown, which appeared for a few weeks only; of 1876, in the Swan; of 1885, in the Nebula of Andromeda; of 1891, in the Charioteer; and quite recently, of 1901, in Perseus.

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