Our Star The Sun

In the incessant agitation of daily life in which we are involved by the thousand superfluous wants of modern "civilization," one is prone to assume that existence is complete only when it reckons to the good an incalculable number of petty incidents, each more insignificant than the last. Why lose time in thinking or dreaming? We must live at fever heat, must agitate, and be infatuated for inanities, must create imaginary desires and torments.

The thoughtful mind, prone to contemplation and admiration of the beauties of Nature, is ill at ease in this perpetual vortex that swallows everything—satisfaction, in a life that one has not time to relish; love of the beautiful, that one views with indifference; it is a whirlpool that perpetually hides Truth from us, forgotten forever at the bottom of her well.

And why are our lives thus absorbed in merely material interests? To satisfy our pride and vanity! To make ourselves slaves to chimeras! If the Moon were inhabited, and if her denizens could see us plainly enough to note and analyze the details of human existence on the surface of our planet, it would be curious and perhaps a little humiliating for us, to see their statistics. What! we should say, is this the sum of our lives? Is it for this that we struggle, and suffer, and die? Truly it is futile to give ourselves such trouble.

And yet the remedy is simple, within the power of every one; but one does not think of it just because it is too easy, although it has the immense advantage of lifting us out of the miseries of this weary world toward the inexpressible happiness that must always awaken in us with the knowledge of the Truth: we need only open our eyes to see, and to look out. Only—one hardly ever thinks of it, and it is easier to let one's self be blinded by the illusion and false glamor of appearances.

Think what it would be to consecrate an hour each day to voluntary participation in the harmonious Choir of Nature, to raise one's eyes toward the Heavens, to share the lessons taught by the Pageant of the Universe! But, no: there is no time, no time for the intellectual life, no time to become attached to real interests, no time to pursue them.

Among the objects marshaled for us in the immense spectacle of Nature, nothing without exception has struck the admiration and attention of man as much as the Sun, the God of Light, the fecundating orb, without which our planet and its life would never have issued from nonentity, the visible image of the invisible god, as said Cicero, and the poets of antiquity. And yet how many beyond the circle of those likely to read these pages know that this Sun is a star in the Milky Way, and that every star is a sun? How many take any account of the reality and grandeur of the Universe? Inquire, and you will find that the number of people who have any notion, however rudimentary, of its construction, is singularly restricted. Humanity is content to vegetate, much after the fashion of a race of moles.

Henceforward, you will know that you are living in the rays of a star, which, from its proximity, we term a sun. To the inhabitants of other systems of worlds, our splendid Sun is only a more or less brilliant, luminous point, according as the spot from which it is observed is nearer or farther off. But to us its "terrestrial" importance renders it particularly precious; we forget all the sister stars on its account, and even the most ignorant hail it with enthusiasm without exactly knowing what its rôle in the universe may be, simply because they feel that they depend on it, and that without it life would become extinct on this globe. Yes, it is the beneficent rays of the Sun that shed upon our Earth the floods of light and heat to which Life owes its existence and its perpetual propagation.

Hail, vast Sun! a little star in Infinitude, but for us a colossal and portentous luminary. Hail, divine Benefactor! How should we not adore, when we owe him the glow of the warm and cheery days of summer, the gentle caresses by which his rays touch the undulating ears, and gild them with the touch? The Sun sustains our globe in Space, and keeps it within his rays by the mysteriously powerful and delicate cords of attraction. It is the Sun that we inhale from the embalmed corollas of the flowers that uplift their gracious heads toward his light, and reflect his splendors back to us. It is the Sun that sparkles in the foam of the merry wine; that charms our gaze in those first days of spring, when the home of the human race is adorned with all the charms of verdant and flowering youth. Everywhere we find the Sun; everywhere we recognize his work, extending from the infinitely great to the infinitely little. We bow to his might, and admire his power. When in the sad winter day he disappears behind the snowy eaves, we think his fiery globe will never rise to mitigate the short December days which are alleviated with his languid beams.

April restores him to superb majesty, and our hearts are filled with hope in the illumination of those beauteous, sunny hours.

Our celestial journey carried us far indeed from our own Solar System. Guided by the penetrating eye of the telescope, we reached such distant creations that we lost sight of our cherished luminary.

But we remember that he burns yonder, in the midst of the pale cosmic cloud we term the Milky Way. Let us approach him, now that we have visited the Isles of Light in the Celestial Ocean; let us traverse the vast plains strewn with the burning gold of the Suns of the Infinite.

We embark upon a ray of light, and glide rapidly to the portals of our Universe. Soon we perceive a tiny speck, scintillating feebly in the depths of Space, and recognize it as our own celestial quarters. This little star shines like the head of a gold pin, and increases in size as we advance toward it. We traverse a few more trillion miles in our rapid course, and it shines out like a fine star of the first magnitude. It grows larger and larger. Soon we divine that it is our humble Earth that is shining before us, and gladly alight upon her. In future we shall not quit our own province of the Celestial Kingdom, but will enter into relations with this solar family, which interests us the more in that it affects us so closely.

Fig. 28.—Comparative sizes of the Sun and Earth. Fig. 28.—Comparative sizes of the Sun and Earth.

The Sun, which is manifested to us as a fine white disk at noon, while it is fiery red in the evening, at its setting, is an immense globe, whose colossal dimensions surpass those of our terrestrial atom beyond all conceivable proportion.

In diameter, it is, in effect, 1081⁄2 times as large as the Earth; that is to say, if our planet be represented by a globe 1 meter in diameter, the Sun would figure as a sphere 1081⁄2 meters across. This is shown on the accompanying figure (Fig. 28), which is in exact proportion.

If our world were set down upon the Sun, with all its magnificence, all its wealth, its mountains, its seas, its monuments, and its inhabitants, it would only be an imperceptible speck. It would occupy less space in the central orb than one grain in a grenade. If the Earth were placed in the center of the Sun, with the Moon still revolving round it at her proper distance of 384,000 kilometers (238,500 miles), only half the solar surface would be covered.

In volume the Sun is 1,280,000 times vaster than our abode, and 324,000 times heavier in mass. That the giant only appears to us as a small though very brilliant disk, is solely on account of its distance. Its apparent dimensions by no means reveal its majestic proportions to us.

When observed with astronomical instruments, or photographed, we discover that its surface is not smooth, as might be supposed, but granulated, presenting a number of luminous points dispersed over a more somber background. These granulations are somewhat like the pores of a fruit, e.g., a fine orange, the color of which recalls the hue of the Sun when it sinks in the evening, and prepares to plunge us into darkness. At times these pores open under the influence of disturbances that arise upon the solar surface, and give birth to a Sun-Spot. For centuries scientists and lay people alike refused to admit the existence of these spots, regarding them as so many blemishes upon the King of the Heavens. Was not the Sun the emblem of inviolable purity? To find any defect in him were to do him grievous injury. Since the orb of day was incorruptible, those who threw doubt on his immaculate splendor were fools and idiots. And so when Scheiner, one of the first who studied the solar spots with the telescope, published the result of his experiments in 1610, no one would believe his statements.

Yet, from the observations of Galileo and other astronomers, it became necessary to accept the evidence, and stranger still to recognize that it is by these very spots that we are enabled to study the physical constitution of the Sun.

They are generally rounded or oval in shape, and exhibit two distinct parts; first, the central portion, which is black, and is called the nucleus, or umbra; second, a clearer region, half shaded, which has received the name of penumbra. These parts are sharply defined in outline; the penumbra is gray, the nucleus looks black in relation to the dazzling brilliancy of the solar surface; but as a matter of fact it radiates a light 2,000 times superior in intensity to that of the full moon.

Fig. 29.—Direct photograph of the Sun. Fig. 29.—Direct photograph of the Sun.

Some idea of the aspect of these spots may be obtained from the accompanying reproduction of a photograph of the Sun (taken September 8, 1898, at the author's observatory at Juvisy), and from the detailed drawing of the large spot that broke out some days later (September 13), crossed by a bridge, and furrowed with flames. As a rule, the spots undergo rapid transformations.

Fig. 30.—Telescopic aspect of a Sun-Spot. Fig. 30.—Telescopic aspect of a Sun-Spot.

These spots, which appear of insignificant dimensions to the observers on the Earth, are in reality absolutely gigantic. Some that have been measured are ten times as large as the Earth's diameter, i.e., 120,000 kilometers (74,500 miles).

Sometimes the spots are so large that they can be seen with the unaided eye (protected with black or dark-blue glasses). They are not formed instantaneously, but are heralded by a vast commotion on the solar surface, exhibiting, as it were, luminous waves or faculæ. Out of this agitation arises a little spot, that is usually round, and enlarges progressively to reach a maximum, after which it diminishes, with frequent segmentation and shrinkage. Some are visible only for a few days; others last for months. Some appear, only to be instantly swallowed in the boiling turmoil of the flaming orb. Sometimes, again, white incandescent waves emerge, and seem to throw luminous bridges across the central umbra. As a rule the spots are not very profound. They are funnel-shaped depressions, inferior in depth to the diameter of the Earth, which, as we have seen, is 108 times smaller than that of the Sun.

The Sun-Spots are not devoid of motion, and from their movements we learn that the radiant orb revolves upon itself in about twenty-five days. This rotation was determined in 1611, by Galileo, who, while observing the spots, saw that they traversed the solar disk from east to west, following lines that are oblique to the plane of the ecliptic, and that they disappear at the western border fourteen days after their arrival at the eastern edge. Sometimes the same spot, after being invisible for fourteen days, reappears upon the eastern edge, where it was observed twenty-eight days previously. It progresses toward the center of the Sun, which is reached in seven days, disappears anew in the west, and continues its journey on the hemisphere opposed to us, to reappear under observation two weeks later, if it has not meantime been extinguished. This observation proves that the Sun revolves upon itself. The reappearance of the spots occurs in about twenty-seven days, because the Earth is not stationary, and in its movement round the burning focus, a motion effected in the same direction as the solar rotation, the spots are still visible two and a half days after they disappeared from the point at which they had been twenty-five days previously. In reality, the rotation of the Sun occupies twenty-five and a half days, but strangely enough this globe does not rotate in one uniform period, like the Earth; the rotation periods, or movements of the different parts of the solar surface, diminish from the Sun's equator toward its poles. The period is twenty-five days at the equator, twenty-six at the twenty-fourth degree of latitude, north or south, twenty-seven at the thirty-seventh degree, twenty-eight at the forty-eighth. The spots are usually formed between the equator and this latitude, more especially between the tenth and thirtieth degrees. They have never been seen round the poles.

Toward the edges of the Sun, again, are very brilliant and highly luminous regions, which generally surround the spots, and have been termed faculæ (facula, a little torch). These faculæ, which frequently occupy a very extensive surface, seem to be the seat of formidable commotions that incessantly revolutionize the face of our monarch, often, as we said, preceding the spots. They can be detected right up to the poles.

Our Sun, that appears so calm and majestic, is in reality the seat of fierce conflagrations. Volcanic eruptions, the most appalling storms, the worst cataclysms that sometimes disturb our little world, are gentle zephyrs compared with the solar tempests that engender clouds of fire capable at one burst of engulfing globes of the dimensions of our planet.

To compare terrestrial volcanoes with solar eruptions is like comparing the modest night-light that consumes a midge with the flames of the fire that destroys a town.

The solar spots vary in a fairly regular period of eleven to twelve years. In certain years, e.g., 1893, they are vast, numerous and frequent; in other years, e.g., 1901, they are few and insignificant. The statistics are very carefully preserved. Here, for instance, is the surface showing sun-spots expressed in millionths of the extent of the visible solar surface:

1889 78
1890 99
1891 569
1892 1,214
1893 1,464
1895 974
1896 543
1897 514
1898 375
1899 111
1900 75
1901 29
1902 62

The years 1889 and 1901 were minima; the year 1893 a maximum.

It is a curious fact that terrestrial magnetism and the boreal auroras exhibit an oscillation parallel to that of the solar spots, and apparently the same occurs with regard to temperature.

We must regard our sun as a globe of gas in a state of combustion, burning at high temperature, and giving off a prodigious amount of heat and light. The dazzling surface of this globe is called a photosphere (light sphere). It is in perpetual motion, like the waves of an ocean of fire, whose roseate and transparent flames measure some 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) in height. This stratum of rose-colored flames has received the name of chromosphere (color sphere). It is transparent; it is not directly visible, but is seen only during the total eclipses of the Sun, when the dazzling disk of that luminary is entirely concealed by the Moon; or with the aid of the spectroscope. The part of the Sun that we see is its luminous surface, or photosphere.

From this agitated surface there is a constant ejection of gigantic eruptions, immense jets of flame, geysers of fire, projected at a terrific speed to prodigious heights.

For years astronomers were greatly perplexed as to the nature of these incandescent masses, known as prominences, which shot out like fireworks, and were only visible during the total eclipses of the Sun. But now, thanks to an ingenious invention of Janssen and Lockyer, these eruptions can be observed every day in the spectroscope, and have been registered since 1868, more particularly in Rome and in Catania, where the Society of Spectroscopists was founded with this especial object, and publishes monthly bulletins in statistics of the health of the Sun.

These prominences assume all imaginable forms, and often resemble our own storm-clouds; they rise above the chromosphere with incredible velocity, often exceeding 200 kilometers (124 miles) per second, and are carried up to the amazing height of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles).

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

The Sun is surrounded with these enormous flames on every side; sometimes they shoot out into space like splendid curving roseate plumes; at others they rear their luminous heads in the Heavens, like the cleft and waving leaves of giant palm-trees. Having illustrated a remarkable type of solar spot, it is interesting to submit to the reader a precise observation of these curious solar flames. That reproduced here was observed in Rome, January 30, 1885. It measured 228,000 kilometers (141,500 miles) in height, eighteen times the diameter of the earth (represented alongside in its relative magnitude). (Fig. 31.)

Solar eruptions have been seen to reach, in a few minutes, a height of more than 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles), and then to fall back in a flaming torrent into that burning and inextinguishable ocean.

Observation, in conjunction with spectral analysis, shows these prominences to be due to formidable explosions produced within the actual substance of the Sun, and projecting masses of incandescent hydrogen into space with considerable force.

Nor is this all. During an eclipse one sees around the black disk of the Moon as it passes in front of the Sun and intercepts its light, a brilliant and rosy aureole with long, luminous, branching feathers streaming out, like aigrettes, which extend a very considerable distance from the solar surface. This aureole, the nature of which is still unknown to us, has received the name of corona. It is a sort of immense atmosphere, extremely rarefied. Our superb torch, accordingly, is a brazier of unparalleled activity—a globe of gas, agitated by phenomenal tempests whose flaming streamers extend afar. The smallest of these flames is so potent that it would swallow up our world at a single breath, like the bombs shot out by Vesuvius, that fall back within the crater.

What now is the real heat of this incandescent focus? The most accurate researches estimate the temperature of the surface of the Sun at 7,000°C. The internal temperature must be considerably higher. A crucible of molten iron poured out upon the Sun would be as a stream of ice and snow.

We can form some idea of this calorific force by making certain comparisons. Thus, the heat given out appears to be equal to that which would be emitted by a colossal globe of the same dimensions (that is, as voluminous as twelve hundred and eighty thousand terrestrial globes), entirely covered with a layer of incandescent coal 28 kilometers (18 miles) in depth, all burning at equal combustion. The heat emitted by the Sun, at each second, is equal to that which would result from the combustion of eleven quadrillions six hundred thousand milliards of tons of coal, all burning together. This same heat would bring to the boil in an hour, two trillions nine hundred milliards of cubic kilometers of water at freezing-point.

Our little planet, gravitating at 149,000,000 kilometers (93,000,000 miles) from the Sun, arrests on the way, and utilizes, only the half of a milliard part of this total radiation.

How is this heat maintained? One of the principal causes of the heat of the Sun is its condensation. According to all probabilities, the solar globe represents for us the nucleus of a vast nebula, that extended in primitive times beyond the orbit of Neptune, and which in its contraction has finally produced this central focus. In virtue of the law of transformation of motion into heat, this condensation, which has not yet reached its limit, suffices to raise this colossal globe to its level of temperature, and to maintain it there for millions of years. In addition, a substantial number of meteors is forever falling into it. This furnace is a true pandemonium.

The Sun weighs three hundred and twenty-four thousand times more than the Earth—that is to say, eighteen hundred and seventy octillions of kilograms:


(1,842,364,532,019,704,433,497,536,945 tons).

In Chapter XI we shall explain the methods by which it has been found possible to weigh the Sun and determine its exact distance.

I trust these figures will convey some notion of the importance and nature of the Sun, the stupendous orb on whose rays our very existence depends. Its apparent dimension (which is only half a degree, 32′, and would be hidden from sight, like that of the full moon, which is about the same, by the tip of the little finger held out at arm's length), represents, as we have seen, a real dimension that is colossal, i.e., 1,383,000 kilometers (more than 857,000 miles), and this is owing to the enormous distance that separates us from it. This distance of 149,000,000 kilometers (93,000,000 miles) is sufficiently hard to appreciate. Let us say that 11,640 terrestrial globes would be required to throw a bridge from here to the Sun, while 30 would suffice from the Earth to the Moon. The Moon is 388 times nearer to us than the Sun. We may perhaps conceive of this distance by calculating that a train, moving at constant speed of 1 kilometer (0.6214 mile) a minute, would take 149,000,000 minutes, that is to say 103,472 days, or 283 years, to cross the distance that separates us from this orb. Given the normal duration of life, neither the travelers who set out for the Sun, nor their children, nor their grandchildren, would arrive there: only the seventh generation would reach the goal, and only the fourteenth could bring us back news of it.

Children often cry for the Moon. If one of these inquisitive little beings could stretch out its arms to touch the Sun, and burn its fingers there, it would not feel the burn for one hundred and sixty-seven years (when it would no longer be an infant), for the nervous impulse of sensation can only be transmitted from the ends of the fingers to the brain at a velocity of 28 meters per second.

'Tis long. A cannon-ball would reach the Sun in ten years. Light, that rapid arrow that flies through space at a velocity of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles per second), takes only eight minutes seventeen seconds to traverse this distance.

This brilliant Sun is not only sovereign of the Earth; he is also the head of a vast planetary system.

The orbs that circle round the Sun are opaque bodies, spherical in shape, receiving their light and heat from the central star, on which they absolutely depend. The name of planets given to them signifies "wandering" stars. If you observe the Heavens on a fine starry night, and are sufficiently acquainted with the principal stars of the Zodiac as described in a preceding chapter, you may be surprised on certain evenings to see the figure of some zodiacal constellation slightly modified by the temporary presence of a brilliant orb perhaps surpassing in its luminosity the finest stars of the first magnitude.

If you watch this apparition for some weeks, and examine its position carefully in regard to the adjacent stars, you will observe that it changes its position more or less slowly in the Heavens. These wandering orbs, or planets, do not shine with intrinsic light; they are illuminated by the Sun.

The planets, in effect, are bodies as opaque as the Earth, traveling round the God of Day at a speed proportional to their distance. They number eight principal orbs, and may be divided into two quite distinct groups by which we may recognize them: the first comprises four planets, of relatively small dimensions in comparison with those of the second group, which are so voluminous that the least important of them is larger than the other four put together.

In order of distance from the Sun, we first encounter:


These are the worlds that are nearest to the orb of day.

The four following, and much more remote, are, still in order of distance:


This second group is separated from the first by a vast space occupied by quite a little army of minute planets, tiny cosmic bodies, the largest of which measures little more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) in diameter, and the smallest some few miles only.

The planets which form these three groups represent the principal members of the solar family. But the Sun is a patriarch, and each of his daughters has her own children who, while obeying the paternal influence of the fiery orb, are also obedient to the world that governs them. These secondary asters, or satellites, follow the planets in their course, and revolve round them in an ellipse, just as the others rotate round the Sun. Every one knows the satellite of the Earth, the Moon. All the other planets of our system have their own moons, some being even more favored than ourselves in this respect, and having several. Mars has two; Jupiter, five; Saturn, eight; Uranus, four; and Neptune, one (at least as yet discovered).

In order to realize the relations between these worlds, we must appreciate their distances by arranging them in a little table:

  Distance in

Millions of

Distance in

Millions of

Mercury 57 35
Venus 108 67
The Earth 149 93
Mars 226 140
Jupiter 775 481
Saturn 1,421 882
Uranus 2,831 1,755
Neptune 4,470 2,771

The Sun is at the center (or, more properly speaking, at the focus, for the planets describe an ellipse) of this system, and controls them. Neptune is thirty times farther from the Sun than the Earth. These disparities of distance produce a vast difference in the periods of the planetary revolutions; for while the Earth revolves round the Sun in a year, Venus in 224 days, and Mercury in 88, Mars takes nearly 2 years to accomplish his journey, Jupiter 12 years, Saturn 29, Uranus 84, and Neptune 165.

Even the planets and their moons do not represent the Sun's complete paternity. There are further, in the solar republic, certain vagabond and irregular orbs that travel at a speed that is often most immoderate, occasionally approaching the Sun, not to be consumed therein, but, as it appears, to draw from its radiant source the provision of forces necessary for their perigrinations through space. These are the Comets, which pursue an extremely elongated orbit round the Sun, to which at times they approximate very closely, at other times being excessively distant.

And now to recapitulate our knowledge of the Solar Empire. In the first place, we see a colossal globe of fire dominating and governing the worlds that belong to him. Around him are grouped planets, in number eight principal, formed of solid and obscure matter, gravitating round the central orb. Other secondary orbs, the satellites, revolve round the planets, which keep them within the sphere of their attraction. And lastly, the comets, irregular celestial bodies, track the whole extent of the great solar province. To these might be added the whirlwinds of meteors, as it were disaggregated comets, which also circle round the Sun, and give origin to shooting stars, when they come into collision with the Earth.

Having now a general idea of our celestial family, and an appreciation of the potent focus that controls it, let us make direct acquaintance with the several members of which it is composed.

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