During the last few years, or rather decades of years, it has become rather a trite saying that to advance far in any branch of physical research a fair proficiency in no inconsiderable number of the sister sciences is an absolute necessity. But if this is true in general, none, I think, will question the assertion that a proficient in any of the physical sciences must be fairly conversant with photography as a science, or at least as an art. If we take for example a science which has of late years made rapid strides both in Europe and America, the science of astronomy, we shall not have far to go to find convincing proof that a great portion of the best work that is being done by its votaries is effected by the aid of photography. One eminent astronomer has quite lately gone so far as to declare that we no longer require observers of the heavens, but that their place can be better supplied by the gelatine plate of the photographer; and his words have been echoed by others not less able than himself. "Abolish the observer, and substitute the sensitive plate," is a sensational form of expressing the revolution in observational astronomy that is taking place under our eyes; but, although it suggests a vast amount of truth, it might leave upon the mind an exaggerated impression inimical to the best interests of science.
The award of the highest distinction in astronomy, the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, two years in succession, to those who have been most successful in celestial photography is no doubtful sign of the great value attached to such work. Last year it was Mr. Common who received the highest testimony of the merit due to his splendid photographs of the nebula of Orion; and this year Dr. Huggins, who has drawn much attention to celestial photography, by his successful attempts to picture the solar corona in full daylight, has received a similar acknowledgment of his labors in photographing the spectra of stars and comets and nebulae.
An adequate idea of the progress astronomy is now making by aid of photography can only be formed by a comprehensive view of all that is being at present attempted; but a rapid glance at some of the work may prepare the way for a more thorough investigation. A few years since, the astronomers who had advanced their science by aid of photography were few in number, and their results are soon enumerated. Some good pictures of the solar corona taken during solar eclipses, a series or two of sun-spot photographs, and a very limited number of successful attempts made upon the moon, and planets, and star clusters, were all the fruits of their labors. But now each month we learn of some new and efficient laborer in this field, which gives promise of so rich a harvest.
Each day the sun is photographed at Greenwich, at South Kensington, in India, and at the Physical Observatory of Potsdam, and thus a sure record is obtained of all the spots upon its surface, which may serve for the study of the periodicity of its changes, and for their probable connection with the important phenomena of terrestrial magnetism and meteorology. In France the splendid sun-pictures obtained by Dr. Janssen at the Physical Observatory of Meudon have thrown into the shade all other attempts at a photographic study of the most delicate features of the solar surface.
Dr. Huggins has shown that it is possible to obtain a daily photographic record of the solar prominences, and only lately he has secured results that justified a special expedition to the Alps to photograph the sun's corona, and he has now moved the Admiralty to grant a subsidy to Dr. Gill, the government astronomer at the Cape, by aid of which Mr. Woods can carry on the experiments that were so encouraging last summer in Switzerland.
We may, then, reasonably hope to obtain before long a daily picture of the sun and a photographic record of its prominences, and even of a certain portion of the solar corona; but the precious moments of each solar eclipse will always be invaluable for picturing those wondrous details in the corona that are now shown us by photography, and which can be obtained by photography alone.
Again, how very much is to be learnt in solar physics from the marvelous photographs of the sun's spectrum exhibited last summer by Professor Rowland; photographs that show as many as one hundred and fifty lines between H and K, and which he is still laboring to improve! The extension, too, of the visible solar spectrum into the ultra-violet by Corun, Mascart, and others, adds much to our knowledge of the sun; while the photographs of Abney in the ultrared increase our information in a direction less expected and certainly less easy of attainment. Both these extensions we find most ably utilized in the recent discussion of the very interesting photographs of the spectra of the prominences and of the corona taken during the total eclipse of May 18, 1882; and the photographic results of this eclipse afford ample proof that we can not only obtain pictures of the corona by photography that it would be impossible otherwise to procure, but also that in a few seconds information concerning the nature of the solar atmosphere may be furnished by photography that it would otherwise take centuries to accumulate, even under the most favorable circumstances.
The advantages to be gained by accurate photographs of the moon and planets, that will permit great enlargements, are too obvious to call for lengthened notice in such a rapid sketch as the present; for it is principally in the observation of details that the eye cannot grasp with the required delicacy, or with sufficient rapidity, that photography is so essential for rapid and sure progress.
Like the sketches of a solar eclipse, the drawings that are made of comets, and still more of nebulae, even by the most accomplished artists, are all, to say the least, open to doubt in their delicate details. And the truth of this is so obvious, that it is the expressed opinion of an able astronomer that a single photograph of the nebula of Orion, taken by Mr. Common, would be of more value to posterity than the collective drawings of this interesting object so carefully made by Rosse, Bond, Secchi, and so many others.
Another most important branch of astronomy, that is receiving very great attention at present, is the mapping of the starry heavens; and herein photography will perhaps do its best work for the astronomer. The trial star map by the brothers Henry, of a portion of the Milky Way, which they felt unable to observe satisfactorily by the ordinary methods, is so near absolute perfection that it alone proves the immense superiority of the photographic method in the formation of star maps. Fortunately this subject, which is as vast as it is fundamental, is being taken up vigorously. The Henries are producing a special lens for the work; Mr. Grubb is constructing a special Cassgrain reflector for Mr. Roberts of Maghull; and the Admiralty have instructed Mr. Woods to make this part of his work at the Cape Observatory, under the able direction of Dr. Gill. Besides star maps, clusters, too, and special portions of the heavens are being photographed by the Rev. T.E. Espin, of West Kirby; and such pictures will be of the greatest value, not only in fixing the position at a given date, but also aiding in the determination of magnitude, color, variability, proper motion, and even of the orbits of double and multiple stars, and the possible discovery of new planets and telescopic comets.
Such are some of the many branches of astronomy that are receiving the most valuable aid at present from photography; but the very value of the gift that is bestowed should make exaggeration an impossibility. Photography can well afford to be generous, but it must first be just, in its estimate of the work that has still to be done in astronomy independently of its aid; and although the older science points with just pride to what is being done for her by her younger sister, still she must not forget that now, as in the future, she must depend largely for her progress, not only on the skill of the photographer and the mathematician, but also on the trained eye and ear and hand of her own indefatigable observers. - S.J. Perry, S.J., F.R.S., in Br. Jour. of Photography.