Earth and Space

The only people to know about white dwarfs

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 IOP RESOURCES

Henry Norris Russell (co-developer, with Ejnar Hertzsprung, of the eponymous diagram) described the moment of discovery of White Dwarf stars in 1910. Russell had suggested an analysis of the low luminosity star, Omicron Eridani, which was unusual since its spectrum resembled that of a much hotter star. Russell had proposed to his colleague, Edward C Pickering, working with Williamina Fleming (see page 14) that it would be useful to measure the spectra of a star of known distance…

And so we telephoned down to the office of Mrs. Fleming and Mrs. Fleming said, yes, she’d look it up. In half an hour she came up and said, “I’ve got it here, unquestionably spectral type A.” I knew enough, even then, to know what that meant. I was flabbergasted. I was really baffled trying to make out what it meant. Then Pickering thought for a moment and then said with a kindly smile, “I wouldn’t worry. It’s just these things which we can’t explain that lead to advances in our knowledge.” Well, at that moment, Pickering, Mrs. Fleming and I were the only people in the world who knew of the existence of white dwarfs.



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