22 June 2022: Atoms, Photons and the Nebulium Affair
22 June 2022: Atoms, Photons and the Nebulium Affair

22 June 2022: Atoms, Photons and the Nebulium Affair

Our own Tony Sizer presented the lecture, which had been rescheduled due to the indisposition of
the advertised speaker. Tony opened by explaining that the origins of formal astronomy in the UK
lay in the national need for reliable navigation for our seafaring and trading nation. There was a
certain indifference on the part of the state to the issues of how the universe worked – the Royal
Observatory was dedicated to establishing with greater and greater accuracy the positions of the
stars and the moon. However, the Victorian period was one where a significant number of wealthy
“Gentlemen Scientists” ware able to dabble in astronomy and related sciences, building immense
observing apparatus and developing the sciences of spectroscopy, photography and chemistry. In
the process they were discovering the physics of electromagnetic radiation, the existence of the
“noble gases” and the nature of emissions from the sun and other stars.

Tony explained the basics of how excitation of atoms led to emission of photons with wavelengths
specific to each element.

He focused on the pioneering work of William Huggins in astronomical spectroscopy, which
provided the basis for determining the makeup of stars and other celestial bodies. However,
Huggins (laden with recognition in his day, but now long forgotten) didn’t realise that some
emissions actually related to the physical state of known elements and weren’t indications of novel
elements. He went to his grave believing that new elements in the sun’s corona (Coronium) and
gaseous nebulae (Nebulium) had been discovered. It was due to his work that the claims were
subsequently debunked.

– Andrew Ramsay