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

The Sun

Teacher's Story

If, only once in a century, there came to us from our great sun, light and heat, bringing the power to awaken dormant life, to lift the plant from the seed and clothe the earth with verdure, then it would indeed be a miracle. But the sun by shining every day cheapens its miracles in the eyes of the thoughtless. While it hardly comes within the province of the nature-study teacher to make a careful study of the sun, yet she may surely stimulate in her pupils a desire to know something of this great luminous center of our system.

Our sun is a great shining globe about one hundred and ten times as thick through as the earth, and more than a million times as large. If we look at the sun in a clear sky, it is so brilliant that it hurts our eyes. Thus, it is better to look at it through a smoked glass, or when the atmosphere is very hazy. If we should see the sun through a telescope, we should find that its surface is not one great glare of light but is mottled, looking like a plate of rice soup, and at times there are dark spots to be seen upon its surface. Some of these spots are so large that during very "smoky weather" we can see them with the naked eye. In September, 1908, a sun-spot was plainly visible; it was ten thousand miles across, and our whole world could have been dropped into it with a thousand miles to spare all around it. We do not know the cause of these sun-spots, but we know they appear in greater numbers in certain regions of the sun, above and below the equator. And since each sun-spot retains its place on the surface of the sun, just as a hole dug in the surface of our earth would retain its place, we have been able to tell by the apparent movement of these spots how rapidly and in which direction the sun is turning on its axis; it revolves once in about twenty-six days and, since the sun is so much larger than our earth, a spot on the equator travels at a rate of more than a mile a second. There is a queer thing about the outside surface of the sun—the equator rotates more rapidly than the parts lying nearer the poles; this shows that the sun is a gaseous or liquid body, for if it were solid, like our earth, all its parts would have to rotate at the same rate. At periods of eleven years the greatest number of spots appear upon the sun.

Another interesting feature of the sun is the tremendous explosion of hydrogen gas mixed with the vapors of calcium and magnesium, which shoot out flames from twenty-five thousand to three hundred thousand miles high, at a rate of speed two hundred times as swift as a rifle bullet travels. Think what fireworks one might see from the sun's surface all the time! One would not need to wait until the Fourth of July for fireworks there. These great, explosive flames can be seen by the telescope when the moon eclipses the sun, and they have been analyzed by means of the spectroscope. Besides these magnificent explosions, there is surrounding the sun a glow which is brighter near the sun's surface and paler at the edges; it is a magnificent solar halo, some of its streamers being millions of miles long. This halo is called the Corona, and is visible during total eclipses. By means of the spectroscope we know that there are about forty chemical elements in the sun, which are the same as those we find upon our earth.

As the sun weighs 330,000 times as much as the earth, the force of gravity upon its surface is twenty-seven and two-thirds times as much as it is here. A letter which weighs an ounce here would weigh almost a pound and three quarters on the sun; and a man of ordinary size in this world would weigh more than two tons there, and would be crushed to death by his own weight. Find how much your watch, your book, your pencil, your baseball, your football would weigh on the sun.

Our Sun and Its Family

First of all we shall have to acknowledge that our great, blazing sun is simply a medium-sized star, not nearly so large as Vega, nor even as large as the Pole-star; but it happens to be our own particular star and so is of the greatest importance to us. The sun has several other worlds, more or less like our own, revolving around it on almost the same level or plane in which our world revolves, but some of these worlds are much nearer the sun and others much farther away than ours. Nearest of all is Mercury, but it is not half so thick through as our earth, and it is so close to the sun that it circles around in 88 days; that is, its year is only 88 days long. Next comes Venus, almost as large as the earth, with a year 225 days long; next comes our earth, which completes its year in 365 days; next beyond us is Mars, a little more than half as thick as the earth and with a year 687 days long; beyond Mars is a group of small planets which are not large enough to be seen with the telescope, but we know that one of the largest of the group is only 490 miles through; beyond this mysterious swarm of little worlds is great Jupiter almost ten times as thick through as the earth, and it is so far away that it does not circle about the sun but once in 11 years; beyond great Jupiter comes Saturn, not quite ten times the diameter of the earth and so far from the sun that it takes 29½ years for it to move around its orbit; beyond Saturn is Uranus, only about four times as thick through as our world, and it has a year 84 years long; but the outermost of all our sun's planets is Neptune, little larger than Uranus, but so far from the sun that 165 years are required for it to complete its circle. Just think of a spring or a winter 41 years long! If Methuselah had lived on Neptune, he would have died before he was five and one-half years old.

Almost all of the Earth's sister planets are better off for moons than she; neither Venus nor Mercury has any moons. Mars has two moons, Jupiter five and Saturn has nine besides some splendid rings; and a queer thing about one of Saturn's moons is that it revolves in an opposite direction from the others. Uranus has four moons, while Neptune is not any better off than we are, unless, there are some we have not been able to discover because they are so far away.

One peculiar thing about all of the planets of the sun's family and all of their moons is that they all shine by reflecting the light of the sun, and none of them are hot enough to give off light independently; but these sister worlds of ours are so near us that they often seem larger and brighter than the stars, which are true suns and give off much more light than our own sun. After a little experience the young astronomer learns to distinguish the planets from the true stars; the planets always follow closely the path of the sun and moon through the sky; they often seem larger and brighter than the true stars and do not twinkle so much. The so-called morning and evening stars are other planets of our sun's family and are not stars at all.

Dr. Simon Newcomb in his delightful book, "Astronomy for Everybody," gives the best illustration to make us understand the place of our sun and its planets and its relation to the stars in space. He explains that if here in the Atlantic States we should make a model of our solar system by putting an apple down in a field to represent the sun; then our earth could be represented by a mustard seed forty feet away revolving around the apple; and Neptune, our outermost planet, could be represented as a small pea circling around the apple at the distance of a quarter of a mile. Thus, our whole solar system could be modeled in a field one-half mile square, except for comets which might extend out in their long orbits for several miles. But to find the star nearest to our earth, the star that is only four and one-half light-years away from us, we should have to travel from this field across the whole of North America to California, and then take steamer and go out into the Pacific Ocean before we should reach our nearest star neighbor, which would be another sun like our own and be represented by another apple.


Besides planets and stars there are in space other bodies spinning around our great sun, and following paths shaped quite differently than those followed by our earth and its sister planets. We move around the sun nearly in a circle with the sun at the center, but these other heavenly bodies swing around in great ellipses, the sun being near one end of the ellipse and the other end being out in space beyond our farthest planet. These bodies do not revolve around the sun in the same plane as our world and the other planets, and indeed they often move in quite the opposite direction. The most noticeable of these bodies whose race-track around the sun is long instead of circular are the comets, and we know that some of these almost brush the sun when turning at the end of their course. The astronomers have been able to measure the length of the race-tracks of some of the comets and thus tell when they will come back. Encke's comet, named after the German astronomer, makes its course in three and one-half years and this is the shortest period of any we know. There are about thirty comets whose courses have been thus measured; the longest period belongs to Halley's comet, which makes such a long trip that it comes back only once in seventy-six years; but there are other comets which astronomers are sure travel such long routes that they come back only once in hundreds or even thousands of years. About nine hundred comets have been discovered, many of them so small that they can only be seen through the aid of the telescope; and it has been found that in one instance, at least, three comets are racing around the sun on the same track.

A comet is a beautiful object, usually having a head which is a point of brilliant light and a long, flaring tail of fainter light, which always extends out from it on the side opposite the sun. The head of a comet must be nearly twice as thick through as the earth in order to be large enough for our telescopes to discover it. Some of the comet heads have been measured, and one was thirty-one times, and another one hundred and fifty times, as wide as our earth. If the heads are this large, imagine how long the tails must be! Some of them are far longer than the distance from our earth to the sun.

The head of a comet is supposed to be a mass of gas which is made to glow by the sun's heat, and is so volatile and thin that the heat evaporates it. In fact, this gas has so little weight that light can push it; one would never believe that light could push anything because we cannot feel it strike against us; but the physicists have found that it does push, and by pushing against the particles of the gas of comets it sends them out into a streamer away from the sun, just as the heat pushes out a flaring cloud of steam from the spout of a teakettle.

Another thing we know about comets is that they are not able to hold together, but break into pieces; and these pieces become cold out in space and condense and harden into lumps of metallic stone; and these lumps, each one whirling, follows the same track that the comet followed. If a comet should break into many pieces it would make a whole flock of these lumps all going in the same direction and in the same path about the sun.

Since comets are moving around the sun in every direction, it is possible that the earth may sometime meet one; and if this proves to be a "head on collision" there are those who prophesy that there will be no people left to tell the story; but the tails of comets are so thin and ethereal that our earth actually passed through one once, and no one but the astronomers knew anything about it.

Shooting Stars

When we look up during an evening walk and see a star falling through space, sometimes leaving a track of light behind it, we wonder which of the beautiful stars of the heavens has fallen. But astronomers tell us that no real star ever fell, but that what we saw was a lump of the matter of which worlds and comets are made; and it was following its own swift path around the sun, when by chance it crossed our earth's path, and was drawn toward us by that mysterious power called gravitation, which makes us fall down if we lose our balance, and which also made this bit of world-stuff fall to earth when it came so near us that its balance was disturbed. Although this shooting star was just a dark, cold lump of metal, too small for us to see, yet it was moving so swiftly along its path around the sun that the friction caused by its passing through our air, lighted it and burned it up, just as a match scratched on sandpaper lights and burns; as soon as it blazed we saw it and said, "There is a shooting star!" Sometimes the lump is so big that it does not have time to burn up while passing through the hundred miles or more of our atmosphere, and what is left of it strikes the earth usually with such force as to bury itself deep in the soil. Such lumps are called "meteoroids" before they fall and "meteors" while plunging white-hot through the air, but when they reach our earth we call what is left of them "meteorites." There are, in museums, many meteorites of this so-called stone, which is largely iron. Chemists find no new metals or elements in these strangers from space, but they do find new kinds of chemical partnerships and combinations. Some of these meteorites weigh hundreds of pounds, one in the Yale Museum weighing 1635 pounds. It surely would not be safe for a person to be on the spot where and when one of these meteorites strikes the earth; but there are so few of the meteors large enough to last until they become meteorites, that we may safely continue to enjoy the sight of shooting stars. If it were not for the air that wraps our globe, like a great, kindly blanket, and by its friction sets fire to the meteors and destroys them, no one could live on this earth because we all should be pelted to death. Prof. Newton estimated that every twenty-four hours our world meets seven millions of these shooting stars, some of them no larger than shot and others weighing tons.

The Relation between Comets and Meteors

It has been discovered that many of the shooting stars are gathered in great flocks and move about the sun in elongated paths, like the comets. We have learned the times of year when the path our earth follows comes close to these flocks of meteors which are flying around the sun like birds. One of these flocks is straggling, and we begin to meet it about the end of July and reach the center of the crowd on August 10th, and then continue to take stragglers until the last of August. We can see the point where we meet this flock of meteors, if we look for it in the direction of the constellation Perseus (see planisphere). On November 13th, we meet another flock which we find in the direction of the constellation Leo, of which the great star Regulus is the heart (see chart); but this flock is usually all in a bunch and we pass it in two days. Once there was a splendid flock which our world met every thirty-three years, and we took so many stragglers from it that our skies were filled with shooting stars, and ignorant people were greatly frightened; but for some reason, this flock has changed its path and we looked in vain for the great display of fireworks which was due to occur in 1899.

While we know from observation that the flocks of shooting stars, which make our star showers, are just broken pieces of comets which once traveled the same path, yet it does not follow that all our shooting stars are comet fragments. Prof. Elkins has shown by photographing meteors that some of them must be wanderers in the vast spaces which lie between the stars.

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