Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock


"Though I know not what you are, twinkle, twinkle little star."

The Story of the Stars

Teacher's Story

"Why did not somebody teach me the constellations and make me at home in the starry heavens, which are always overhead, and which I don't half know to this day."

Dallas Lore Sharp

For many reasons aside from the mere knowledge acquired, children should be taught to know something of the stars. It is an investment for future years; the stars are a constant reminder to us of the thousands of worlds outside our own, and looking at them intelligently, lifts us out of ourselves in wonder and admiration for the infinity of the universe, and serves to make our own cares and trials seem trivial. The author has not a wide knowledge of the stars; a dozen constellations were taught to her as a little child by her mother, who loved the sky as well as the earth; but perhaps nothing she has ever learned has been to her such a constant source of satisfaction and pleasure as this ability to call a few stars by the names they have borne since the men of ancient times first mapped the heavens. It has given her a sense of friendliness with the night sky, that can only be understood by those who have had a similar experience.

There are three ways in which the mysteries of the skies are made plain to us: First, by the telescope; second, by geometry, trigonometry and calculations—a proof that mathematics is even more of a heavenly than an earthly science; and third, by the use of the spectroscope, which can only be understood after we study physics. It is an instrument which tells us, by analyzing the light of the stars, what chemical elements compose them; and also, by the means of the light, it estimates the rate at which the stars are moving and the direction of their motion.

Thus, we have learned many things about the stars; we know that every shining star is a great blazing sun, and there is no reason to doubt that many of these suns have worlds, like the earth, spinning around them although, of course, so far away as to be invisible to us; for our world could not be seen at all from even the nearest star. We also know that many of the stars which seem single to us are really double—made up of two vast suns swinging around a common center; and although they may be millions of miles apart, they are so far away that they seem to us as one star. The telescope reveals many of these double stars and shows that they circle around their orbits in various periods of time, the most rapid making the circle in five years, another in sixteen years, another in forty-six years; while there is at least one lazy pair which seems to require fully sixteen hundred years to complete their circle. And the spectroscope has revealed to us that many of the stars which seem single through the largest telescope are really double, and some of these great suns race around each other in the period of a few hours, which is a rate of speed we could hardly imagine.

Astronomers have been able to measure the distance from us to many of the stars, but when this distance is expressed in miles it is too much for us to grasp. Thus, they have come to measure heavenly distance in terms of the rate at which light travels, which is 186,400 miles per second or about six trillions of miles per year; this distance is called a light-year. Light reaches us from the sun in about eight minutes, but it takes more than four years for a ray to reach us from the nearest star. It adds new interest to the Pole-star to know that the light which reaches our eyes left that star almost half a century ago, and that the light we get from the Pleiades may have started on its journey before America was discovered. Most of the stars are so far away that we cannot measure the distance.

Although the stars seem always to be in the same places, they are all moving through space just as our sun and its family are doing; but the stars are so far away that, although one may move a million miles a day, it would require many years of observation for us to detect that it moved at all. We know the rate at which some of the stars are moving but have no idea of their goal; nor do we have any idea where our sun is dragging us at the rate of nearly 800 miles per minute. It is thought that our sun and the other suns are whirling around some greater center or centers; but if so, the orbits are so many trillions of miles across that the suns all seem to be going somewhere in a straight line, each attending strictly to its own business.

Through the spectroscope we know something of the life of stars; we know that when they are young they are composed of thin gases and shine white or blue; and as they grow older, they become more solid and shine yellow, like our sun; and when older still, they grow red and are yet more condensed, like Betelgeuse in Orion, which is an aged sun and which will, in time, grow cold and dark and invisible to us. The spectroscope reveals many dark stars whirling through space—vast, dead suns with their fires extinguished, never to be lighted again unless, in its swift course, one of them should hurl itself against another star with a fearful force which shall shatter it into gaseous atoms, and these be thrown into fierce spiral whirlpools, from which it shall again be fashioned into a white-hot sun and become a star in our sky.

The scientists are coming to understand a little of how the stars are made; for scattered through the skies are masses of misty light, called nebulæ, which means clouds; nebulæ are vast gaseous bodies composed of the stuff of which stars are made. Each nebula keeps its own special place in the heavens—just like a star, and is moving through space—like a star. The spectroscope shows that many of these shining, misty masses are made up of glowing gases, largely hydrogen; and many are disk-shaped, twisted into a spiral. There are grounds for believing that these spiral nebulæ are stars in the process of forming. Nebulæ are mostly telescopic, although two or three may be detected by the keen, unaided eye as a little blur of light, like that surrounding the third star of Orion's sword. There are eight thousand or more nebulæ which have been discovered and mapped. Some idea of their tremendous size is given by Ball when speaking of the ring nebula of Lyra, which we cannot see with the naked eye, and yet if a railroad train started to cross its diameter at the middle, and went at the rate of a mile a minute, one thousand years would not complete the journey.

The number of stars that may be seen with the unaided eye, if one were to travel from the southern to the northern polar region, would be between six and seven thousand; but it would require very keen eyes to see two thousand at one time. With the help of the telescope, about eight hundred thousand stars have been discovered, classified and catalogued, while photography of the skies reveals millions. It is thought that the new international photographic chart, which shall cover all the space seen from our globe, may show thirty millions of stars. The Milky Way or Galaxy, that great, white band across the heavens, is made up of stars which are so far away that we cannot see them, but see only their diffused light. It is well called a "River of Stars" flowing in a circle around our whole solar system; and, except during the spring months, one-half of it may be seen directly above us while the other half is hidden below us. The place of the Milky Way in the heavens seems fixed and eternal; any star within its borders is always seen at the same point. When the Northern Cross lifts itself toward the zenith we are able to see that, near that constellation, the star river divides into three streams with long, blue islands between.

Reference books—There are a large number of excellent text-books and popular books on astronomy. The following are a few which I have used most often: Astronomy for Everybody, Newcomb; Todd's New Astronomy; The Friendly Stars, Martin; Starland, Ball; The Stars Through an Opera Glass, Serviss; Other Suns than Ours, Proctor; Other Worlds than Ours, Proctor.

For children—Earth and Sky, Holden; Stories of Starland, Proctor; The Children's Book of Stars, G. E. Mitton; Storyland of the Stars, Pratt; Stars in Song and Legend, Porter; The Planisphere, Thos. Whittaker.

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