Scintillating Stars But Not Planets

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) may have been the first person to write that stars twinkle but planets don’t, though our understanding of twinkling has evolved since he explained that “The planets are near, so that the visual ray reaches them in its full vigour, but when it comes to the fixed stars it is quivering because of the distance and its excessive extension.”

John Stedman (1744-1797), a controversial and complicated figure to be sure, writes the following dialog between teacher and student in The Study of Astronomy, Adapted to the capacities of youth (1796):

PUPIL.  How is the twinkling of the stars in a clear night accounted for?

TUTOR.   It arises from the continual agitation of the air or atmosphere through which we view them; the particles of air being always in motion, will cause a twinkling in any distant luminous body, which shines with a strong light.

PUPIL.  Then, I suppose, the planets not being luminous, is the reason why they do not twinkle.

TUTOR.   Most certainly.  The feeble light with which they shine is not sufficient to cause such an appearance.

Still not quite right, but closer to our current understanding. Our modern term for “twinkling” is atmospheric scintillation, which is changes in a star’s brightness caused by curved wavefronts focusing or defocusing starlight.

Scintillation is caused by refractive index variations (due to differences in pressure, temperature, and humidity) of “pockets” of air passing in front of the light path between star and observer at a typical height of about 5 miles. These pockets are typically about 3 inches across, so from the naked eye observer’s standpoint, they subtend an angle of about 2 arcseconds.

The largest angular diameters of stars are on the order of 50 milliarcseconds1 (R Doradus, Betelgeuse, and Mira), and only seventeen stars have an an angular diameter larger than 1 milliarcsecond. So, it is easy to see how cells of air on the order of 2 arcseconds across moving across the light path could cause the stars to flicker and flash as seen with the unaided eye.

The five planets that are easily visible to the unaided eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) have angular diameters that range from 3.5 arcseconds (Mars, at its most distant) up to 66 arcseconds (Venus, at its closest). Since the disk of a planet subtends multiple air cells, the different refractive indexes tend to cancel each other out, and the planet shines with a steady light.

From my own experience watching meteors many nights with my friend Paul Martsching, our reclining lawn chairs just a few feet apart, I have sometimes seen a principal star briefly brighten by two magnitudes or more, with Paul seeing no change in the star’s brightness, and vice versa.

Stedman’s dialogue next turns to the distances to the nearest stars.

PUPIL.  Have the stars then light in themselves?

TUTOR.   They undoubtedly shine with their own native light, or we should not see even the nearest of them: the distance being so immensely great, that if a cannon-ball were to travel from it to the sun, with the same velocity with which it left the cannon, it would be more than 1 million, 868 thousand years, before it reached it.

He adds a footnote:

The distance of Syrius is 18,717,442,690,526 miles.  A cannon-ball going at the rate of 1143 miles an hour, would only reach the sun in about 1,868,307 years, 88 days.

Where Stedman comes up with the velocity of a cannon-ball is unclear, but the Earth’s rotational speed at the equator is 1,040 mph, close to Stedman’s cannon-ball velocity of 1,143 mph. He states the distance to the brightest star Sirius—probably then thought to be the nearest star—is 18,717,442,690,526 miles or 3.18 light years, a bit short of the actual value of 8.60 light years. The first measurements of stellar parallax lie 42 years in the future when Stedman’s book was published.

1 1 milliarcsecond (1 mas) = 0.001 arcsecond

Aristotle, De Caelo, Book 2, chap.8, par. 290a, 18
Crumey, A., 2014, MNRAS, 442, 2600
Dravins, D., Lindegren, L., Mezey, E., Young, A. T., 1997a, PASP, 109, 173
Ellison, M. A., & Seddon, H., 1952, MNRAS, 112, 73
Stedman, J., 1796, The Study of Astronomy, Adapted to the capacities of youth