Pons-Winnecke Comet and Other Such Non-sense
Nothing now remains of that astronomy which was once said to be the most perfect of the sciences; and imagination— stretched even to its uttermost— has failed to support it in the face of reason, and yet these last two years since Relativity became the vogue have produced the most remarkable figures astronomy has ever known.
In December 1920, Professor Michelson related how he had perfected an instrument known as an Interference- Refractometer, and how he had used it to measure the angular diameter of the star Betelgeuse, in the Belt of Orion; and found it to be 0.046 seconds of arc. That is to say that he found the measurement of this star as it appears to the eye (which is only like a glittering pin-point) to be 0.046″ from one side to the other, and that is one-twentieth part of a second of arc, or 1 72,000th part of a degree; very fine measurement indeed.
Professor Michelson, however, is a physicist, specially interested with theories of light, and so, having invented the instrument and measured the apparent diameter of the star, his work was done.
Astronomers then took up the matter, and on referring to their records, found the distance of Betelgeuse to be 180 light-years; that is 180 times 6,000,000,000,000 miles, or one thousand and eighty billions of miles from the earth ; and so they calculated that if a thing so far away appeared to be 1 72,000th part of a degree in diameter, its real diameter must be two hundred and sixty million miles!
Then the world of astronomy pointed with pride to the mighty star that was 260 million miles from one side to the other, and told how the sun was a million times bigger than the earth, while Betelgeuse was 27 million times bigger than the sun.
The actual size of Betelgeuse, however, depends upon its distance, and as we have shown in the chapter on “61 Cygni” that the astronomers’ method of measuring stellar distance is absolutely useless, we know that they are entirely wrong in supposing Betelgeuse to be 1,080 billions— or any other number of billions— of miles from the earth. Therefore it follows that as they do not know its distance, they may not use its apparent diameter and divide that into unknown billions of miles.
Being in reality quite ignorant of the distance of Betelgeuse, they have no legitimate means of forming any conception of its dimensions at all. Those dimensions are to be ascertained by first finding the star’s real distance, which is something less than twenty thousand miles.
Then that may be divided by Professor Michelson’s 0.046″, which will show the actual size of that twinkling little point of light known as “Betelgeuse” to be not much more than twenty-five feet!
It has since transpired that the distance to Betelgeuse had been measured on three different occasions, each time with a different result. One of these showed it to be 654 billions, another made it 900 billions, while the other gave it as 180 light-years, or 1,080 billions of miles away; and it is surprising that astronomers did not realise the fact which was clearly demonstrated by these differences— that their methods of measuring stellar distance are not to be relied upon.
In the meantime we can see no reason why they preferred to use the greatest of the three various estimates of the star’s distance— in conjunction with Michelson’s angular diameter— rather than the least, for that only seems to have had the effect of magnifying the dimensions of Betelgeuse to the uttermost.
While the excitement over Betelgeuse was at its height the universe loomed even larger than before, for Canopus and Rigel were then said to be “460 light-years away and they may be 1,000 or more.”
Meanwhile Dr. Crommelin gave us a scare with the story of how a comet called Pons-Winnecke was rushing toward the earth at a hundred thousand miles an hour, while Dr. Slipher discovered a nebulous mass that was gyrating round the firmament at eleven hundred miles a second!!! This, so far, has never been surpassed, and “SPIRAL NEBULA NUMBER 584” still holds the record of being the fastest thing in creation; its velocity being so great that it could go from Liverpool to New York in two ticks of the clock.
Pons-Winnecke had been seen somewhere in Africa in January 1921, and it was predicted that this comet would be visible at London in June; and this gave rise to much speculation. It was said that Pons-Winnecke might strike the earth with a fearful bump about the 26th of June, but Mr. E. W. Maunder said that though there might be a bump it is only a fog of gas after all; while Dr. Crommelin thought the comet might miss the earth this time, and so there appeared to be no danger. Then Sir Richard Gregory said that if the head of Pons-Winnecke did hit the earth it might set the world on fire, but we were reassured again when he told us that there is about as much chance of the comet hitting the earth as of a random shot hitting a bird in full flight; yet it seemed strange that he should imagine a comet to be like a random shot in this well-ordered universe; unless, perchance,
he had forgotten about the Law of Gravitation. And how are we to understand how the earth could be set on fire when he tells us that we may pass through the tail of a comet without harm because it is really a far higher vacuum than anything that can be produced in our laboratories? Then what are we to think of it all when Professor Fowler tells us that we don’t know how a comet is formed, we don’t know where it comes from, and don’t seem really to know what it is? He thought they may come from gases thrown off from the sun which are gradually cooled ; but that made it even more difficult to understand how it could set the earth on fire, or what all the bother was about.
Nevertheless the discussion continued, until at last the leading authorities advanced the “Fascinating Theory that Pons-Winnecke may have come from a distance in space so great that it is impossible to think or speak of that distance in terms of miles.” That took our breath away, for it appeared that the comet might come out of illimitable space, to wander amid the stars at its own sweet will, regardless of the Laws of Dynamics and Gravitation.
Even yet the romance is not complete— for after waiting in great expectation for several months the Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society told us that “Pons” had been seen again! this time with only a stump of his original tail, though even this stump was five hundred million miles long, and seemed to be comprised mostly of gas and meteors. It is not recorded how he knew the length of its tail, and nothing was said as to what had become of the remainder ; but to cut a long tale short— the summer came and passed— but Pons-Winnecke never arrived!
He was lost; and even now he may be wandering on and on, somewhere in fathomless space, no one knows whither; and nobody cares.
Note: Doesn’t all this sound like today, in the year 2017? Only the names have changed, that is all!