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atmosphere, increases with the obliquity of incidence. Of ten thousand rays falling on its surface, 8123 arrive at a given point of the earth if they fall perpendicularly; 7024 arrive if the angle of direction be fifty degrees ; 2831, if it be seven degrees; and only five rays will arrive through a horizontal stratum. Since so great a quantity of light is lost in passing through the atmosphere, many celestial objects are altogether invisible from the plain, which may be seen from elevated situations. Diminished splendour, and the false estimate we make of distance from the number of intervening objects, lead us to suppose the sun and moon to be much larger when in the horizon than at any other altitude, though their apparent diameters are then somewhat less. Instead of the sudden transitions of light and darkness, the reflective power of the air adorns nature with the rosy and golden hues of the Aurora and twilight. Even when the sun is eighteen degrees below the horizon, a sufficient portion of light remains to show that at the height of thirty miles it is still dense enough to reflect light. The atmosphere scatters the sun's rays, and gives all the beautiful tints and cheerfulness of day. It transmits the blue light in greatest abundance; the higher we ascend, the sky assumes a deeper hue ; but, in the expanse of space, the sun and stars must appear like brilliant specks in profound blackness.
Constitution of Light according to Sir Isaac Newton — Absorption of Light
- Colours of Bodies — Constitution of Light according to Sir David Brewster - New Colours Fraunhoffer's Dark Lines — Dispersion of Light – The Achromatic Telescope — Homogeneous Light - Accidental and Complementary Colours -- M. Plateau's Experiments and Theory of Accidental Colours.
It is impossible thus to trace the path of a sunbeam through our atmosphere without feeling a desire to know its nature, by what power it traverses the immensity of space, and the various modifications it undergoes at the surfaces and in the interior of terrestrial substances.
Sir Isaac Newton proved the compound nature of white light, as emitted from the sun, by passing a sunbeam through a glass prism (N. 195), which, separating the rays by refraction, formed a spectrum or oblong image of the sun, consisting of seven colours, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—of which the red is the least refrangible, and the violet the most. But, when he reunited these seven ays by means of a lens, the compound beam became pure white as before. He insulated each coloured ray, and, finding that it was no longer capable of decomposition by refraction, concluded that white light consists of seven kinds of homogeneous light, and that to the same colour the same refrangibility ever belongs, and to the same refrangibility the same colour. Since the discovery of absorbent media, however, it appears that this is not the constitution of the solar spectrum.
We know of no substance that is either perfectly opaque or perfectly transparent. Even gold may be beaten so thin as to be pervious to light. On the contrary, the clearest crystal, the purest air or water, stops or absorbs its rays when transmitted, and gradually extinguishes them as they penetrate to greater depths. On this account objects cannot be seen at the bottom of very deep water, and many more stars are visible to the naked eye from the tops of mountains than from the valleys. The quantity of light that is incident on any transparent substance is always greater than the sum of the reflected and refracted rays. A small quantity is irregularly reflected in all directions by the imperfections of the polish by which we are enabled to see the surface ; but a much greater portion is absorbed by the body. Bodies that reflect all the rays appear white, those that absorb them all seem black; but most substances, after decomposing the white light which falls upon them, reflect some colours and absorb the rest. A violet reflects the violet rays alone and absorbs the others. Scarlet cloth absorbs almost all the colours except red. Yellow cloth reflects the yellow rays most abundantly, and blue cloth those that are blue. Consequently colour is not a property of matter, but arises from the action of matter upon light. In fact, the law of action and reaction obtains in light as in every other department of nature, so that light cannot be reflected, refracted, much less absorbed, by any medium without being reacted upon by it. Thus a white riband reflects all the rays, but, when dyed red, the particles of the silk acquire the property of reflecting the red rays most abundantly and of absorbing the others. Upon this property of unequal absorption the colours of transparent media depend; for they also receive their colour from their power of stopping or absorbing some of the colours of white light, and transmitting others. As, for example, black and red inks, though equally homogeneous, absorb different kinds of rays; and, when exposed to the sun, they become heated in different degrees ; while pure water seems to transmit all rays equally, and is not sensibly heated by the passing light of the sun. The rich dark light transmitted by a smalt-blue finger-glass is not a homogeneous colour like the blue or indigo of the spectrum, but is a mixture of all the colours of white light which the glass has not absorbed. The colours absorbed are such as mixed with the blue tint would form white light. When the spectrum of seven colours is viewed through a thin plate of this glass, they are all visible; and, when the plate is very thick, every colour is absorbed between the extreme red and the extreme violet, the interval being perfectly black; but, if the spectrum be viewed through a certain thickness of the glass intermediate between the two, it will be found that the middle of the red space, the whole of the orange, a great part of the green, a considerable part of the blue, a little of the indigo, and a very little of the violet, vanish, being absorbed by the blue glass ; and that
the yellow rays occupy a larger space, covering part of that formerly occupied by the orange on one side and by the green on the other : so that the blue glass absorbs the red light, which when mixed with the yellow constitutes orange; and also absorbs the blue light, which when mixed with the yellow forms the part of the green space next to the yellow. Hence, by absorption, green light is decomposed into yellow and blue, and orange light into yellow and red : consequently the orange and green rays, though incapable of decomposition by refraction, can be resolved by absorption, and actually consist of two different colours possessing the same degree of refrangibility. Difference of colour, therefore, is not a test of difference of refrangibility, and the conclusion deduced by Newton is no longer admissible as a general truth. By this analysis of the spectrum, not only with blue glass but with a variety of coloured media, Sir David Brewster, so justly celebrated for his optical discoveries, is of opinion that the solar spectrum consists of three primary colours, red, yellow, and blue, each of which exists throughout its whole extent, but with different degrees of intensity in different parts ; and that the superposition of these three produces all the seven hues according as each primary colour is in excess or defect. That since a certain portion of red, yellow, and blue rays constitute white light, the colour of any point of the spectrum may be considered as consisting of the predominating colour at that point mixed with white light. Consequently, “ by absorbing the excess of any colour at any point of the spectrum above what is necessary to form white light, such white light will appear at that point as never mortal eye looked upon before this experiment, since it possesses the remarkable property of remaining the same after any number of refractions, and of being capable of decomposition by absorption alone.” This analysis of light has been called in question by Professor Challis, of Cambridge, who does not admit of any resolution by absorbing media different from that by the prism, though he admits that a mixture of blue and yellow solar light produces green. Professor Stokes, on the contrary, does not allow that a mixture of blue and yellow solar light produces green, although that mixture produces green when the light is from other sources, for he found the gradation from sunlight to pass from yellow through diluted yellow, white, diluted blue to blue; so he does not admit of Sir David Brewster's analysis of
the spectrum ; however, there appears to be still a doubt as to the real character of the phenomena presented by certain absorbing substances.
In addition to the seven colours of the Newtonian spectrum, Sir John Herschel has discovered a set of very dark red rays beyond the red extremity of the spectrum which can only be seen when the eye is defended from the glare of the other colours by a dark blue cobalt glass. He has also found that beyond the extreme violet there are visible rays of a lavender gray colour, which may be seen by throwing the spectrum on a sheet of paper moistened by the carbonate of soda. The illuminating power of the different rays of the spectrum varies with the colour. The most intense light is in the mean yellow ray, or, according to M. Fraunhofer, at the boundary of the orange and yellow.
When the prism is very perfect and the sunbeam small, so that the spectrum may be received on a sheet of white paper in its utmost state of purity, it presents the appearance of a riband shaded with all the prismatic colours, having its breadth irregularly striped or subdivided by an indefinite number of dark, and sometimes black lines. The greater number of these rayless lines are so extremely narrow that it is impossible to see them in ordinary circumstances. The best method is to receive the spectrum on the object-glass of a telescope, so as to magnify them sufficiently to render them visible. This experiment may also be made, but in an imperfect manner, by viewing a narrow slit between two nearly closed window-shutters through a very excellent glass prism held close to the eye, with its refracting angle parallel to the line of light. The rayless lines in the red portion of the spectrum become most visible as the sun approaches the horizon, while those in the blue extremity are most obvious in the middle of the day. When the spectrum is formed by the sun's rays, either direct or indirectmas from the sky, clouds, rainbow, moon, or planets—the black bands are always found to be in the same parts of the spectrum, and under all circumstances to maintain the same relative positions. Similar dark lines are also seen in the light of the stars, in the electric light, and in the flame of combustible substances, though differently arranged, each star and each flame having a system of dark lines peculiar to itself. Dr. Wollaston and M. Fraunhofer, of Munich, discovered these lines deficient of rays independently of each other.