Read CHAPTER XIII of The Children's Book of Stars , free online book, by G.E. Mitton, on


You remember we have already remarked upon the difficulty of telling how far one star lies behind another, as we do not know their sizes. It is, to take another similar case, easy enough to tell if a star moves to one side or the other, but very difficult by ordinary observation to tell if it is advancing toward us or running away from us, for the only means we have of judging is if it gets larger or smaller, and at that enormous distance the fact whether it advances or recedes makes no difference in its size. Now, the spectroscope has changed all this, and we can tell quite as certainly if a star is coming toward us as we can if it moves to one side. I will try to explain this. You know, perhaps, that sound is caused by vibration in the air. The noise, whatever it is, jars the air and the vibrations strike on our ears. It is rather the same thing as the result of throwing a stone into a pond: from the centre of the splash little wavelets run out in ever-widening circles; so through the air run ever-widening vibrations from every sound. The more vibrations there are in a second the shriller is the note they make. In a high note the air-vibrations follow one another fast, pouring into one’s ear at a terrific speed, so that the apparatus in the ear which receives them itself vibrates fiercely and records a high note, while a lower note brings fewer and slower vibrations in a second, and the ear is not so much disturbed. Have you ever noticed that if a railway engine is sweeping-toward you and screaming all the time, its note seems to get shriller and shriller? That is because the engine, in advancing, sends the vibrations out nearer to you, so more of them come in a second, and thus they are crowded up closer together, and are higher and higher.

Now, light is also caused by waves, but they are not the same as sound waves. Light travels without air, whereas sound we know cannot travel without air, and is ever so much slower, and altogether a grosser, clumsier thing than light. But yet the waves or rays which make light correspond in some ways to the vibrations of sound. What corresponds to the treble on the piano is the blue end of the spectrum in light, and the bass is the red end. Now, when we are looking at the spectrum of any body which is advancing swiftly toward us, something of the same effect is observed as in the case of the shrieking engine. Take any star and imagine that that star is hastening toward us at a pace of three hundred miles a second, which is not at all an unusual rate for a star; then, if we examine the band of light, the spectrum, of such a star, we shall observe an extraordinary fact all these little lines we have spoken of are shoved up toward the treble or blue end of the spectrum. They still remain just the same distances from each other, and are in twos and threes or single, so that the whole set of lines is unaltered as a set, but everyone of them is shifted a tiny fraction up toward the blue end of the spectrum, just a little displaced. Now if, instead of advancing toward us, this same star had been rushing away from us at a similar pace, all these lines would have been moved a tiny bit toward the red or bass end of the spectrum. This is known to be certainly true, so that by means of the spectroscope we can tell that some of these great sun-stars are advancing toward us and some receding from us, according to whether the multitudes of little lines in the spectrum are shifted slightly to the blue or the red end.

You remember that it has been surmised that the pace the sun moves with his system is about twelve miles a second. This seems fast enough to us, who think that one mile a minute is good time for an express train, but it is slow compared with the pace of many of the stars. As I have said, some are travelling at a rate of between two hundred and three hundred miles a second; and it is due to the spectroscope that we know not only whether a star is advancing toward us or receding from us, but also whether the pace is great or not; it even tells us what the pace is, up to about half a mile a second, which is very marvellous. It is a curious fact that many of the small stars show greater movement than the large ones, which mayor may not mean that they are nearer to us.

It may be taken as established that there is no such thing as absolute rest in the universe: everything, stars and nebulae alike, are moving somewhere; in an infinite variety of directions, with an infinite variety of speed they hasten this way and that. It would be impossible for any to remain still, for even supposing it had been so ’in the beginning,’ the vast forces at work in the universe would not let it remain so. Out of space would come the persistent call of gravitation: atoms would cry silently to atoms. There could be no perfect equality of pull on all sides; from one side or another the pull would be the stronger. Slowly the inert mass would obey and begin falling toward it; it might be an inch at a time, but with rapid increase, until at last it also was hastening some whither in this universe which appears to us to be infinite.

It must be remembered that these stars, even when moving at an enormous pace, do not change their places in the sky when regarded by ordinary observers. It would take thousands of years for any of the constellations to appear at all different from what they are now, even though the stars that compose them are moving in different directions with a great velocity, for a space of many millions of miles, at the distance of most of the stars, would be but as the breadth of a fine hair as seen by us on earth. So thousands of years ago men looked up at the Great Bear, and saw it apparently the same as we see it now; yet for all that length of time the stars composing it have been rushing in this direction and that at an enormous speed, but do not appear to us on the earth to alter their positions in regard to each other. I know of nothing that gives one a more overwhelming sense of the mightiness of the universe and the smallness of ourselves than this fact. From age to age men look on changeless heavens, yet this apparently stable universe is fuller of flux and reflux than is the restless ocean itself, and the very wavelets on the sea are not more numerous nor more restless than the stars that bestrew the sky.