Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1845:
WILLIAM HUGGINS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we see what stars are made of. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Amateur astronomer William Huggins did not invent spectroscopy. That was done by German physicists Kirchhoff and Bunsen in 1859, when Huggins was working in London as a dealer in silks and linen.

They announced that bright lines, which appear in the spectrum formed by light as it passes through a prism, reveal the chemistry of the light source. If you look at the spectrum of sunlight, they said, those lines might reveal the sun's composition.

By then, Huggins was an amateur member of both the Royal Microscopical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, and he took the bait. Although he'd started at Cambridge University, he'd dropped out to manage the family drapery business. However, his heart lay in optics and astronomy — and in music, as well.

Huggins' wife, Margaret, also a gifted intellectual and musician, remarked that his violin playing was more cerebral than "perfervid". Huggins projected an outward picture of detachment. He'd been raised a Calvinist and Margaret later described his religious convictions as "Christian unattached."

But we need to look below that surface. There was nothing detached about his reaction to Kirchoff's and Bunsen's announcement. By then, deeply involved in astronomy, he said the discovery was "like the coming upon a spring of water in dry and thirsty land." Huggins developed a powerful spectrographic telescope apparatus, He also catalogued spectral lines for many substances. With his wife as his chief collaborator, he determined the essential composition, not just of the sun, but of stars and nebulae as well.

And so the empyrean matter of space turned into a large and diverse array of earthly substances. Huggins found that the nebulae were gaseous. He found an unknown green line in the spectrum of those gases. Others took that for a new substance, nebulium, while Huggins remained a skeptic. And, in the twentieth century, we learned that nebulium was actually ionized oxygen and nitrogen.

Huggins was first to identify a Doppler shift of light from certain stars, and first to realize they must be moving relative to us. In 1868, he announced that the star Sirius was running away from us at over twenty miles per second. In the twentieth century, Edwin Hubble used the Doppler shift to show that we live in an expanding universe.

Two Huggins biographers, Barbara Becker and Herbert Dingle, both come back to a central contradiction in Huggins remarkable amateur career -- the paradox of passion versus detachment. Becker suggests a lesson about science itself, when she says,

He could not tame his eclectic and opportunistic research style to fit the image of the methodical and systematic ... investigator, but he [constructed] a more conforming public account of himself.
Well, that picture goes far beyond Huggins and mere image building. Good science always means harnessing passion into the kind of barely controlled detachment and skepticism that Huggins showed us.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


B. J. Becker, Celestial Spectroscopy: Making Reality Fit the Myth. Science, Vol. 301, Sept.5, 2003, pp. 1332-1333.

H. Dingle, Huggins, William. Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.). New York: \ Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980, Vol. ??, pp. 540-543.

See also Encyclopaedia Britannica entries under spectroscopy and Huggins.


Sodium flame spectrum
The spectrum of light from a sodium flame, showing several of the so-called Fraunhofer lines that reveal the chemistry of the flame. Frontispiece of W. J. Rolfe and J. A. Gillet, A Handbook of Natural Philosophy, Boston: Woolworth, Ainsworth, & Co. 1868.
spectroscope
An 1868 spectroscopic apparatus (from Rolfe and Gillet, op. cit.)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.