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