Thursday, March 31, 2011

Making the Main Sequence

Working independently, two astronomers, Ejnar Hertsprung (1873–1967) of Denmark and Henry Norris Russell (1877–1957) of the United States studied the relationship between the luminosity of stars and their surface temperatures. Their work (Hertsprung began about 1911) was built on the classification scheme of another woman from the Harvard College Observatory, Antonia Maury. She first classified stars both by the lines observed and the width or shape of the lines. Her scheme was an important step toward realizing that stars of the same temperature could have different luminosity. Plotting the relationship between temperature and luminosity graphically (in what is now known as a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram or H-R diagram), these two men discovered that most stars fall into a well-defined region of the graph. That is, the hotter stars tend to be the most luminous, while the cooler stars are the least luminous.
The region of the temperature luminosity plot where most stars reside is called the main sequence. Most stars are there, because as we will discover, that is where they spend the majority of their lives. Stars that are not on the main sequence are called giants or dwarfs, and we will see how stars leave the main sequence and end up in the far corners of the temperature-luminosity plot.

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