In 1947 Astronomer George H. Herbig of Lick Observatory took a photograph of a small area in the Orion nebula, which is 1,600 light years (9,600 trillion miles) away from the earth. It showed three faint stars embedded in a cloud of dust and gas. At last week's Dublin meeting of the International Astronomical Union, Dr. Herbig displayed a recent picture of the same region. The picture showed five stars, two of which may be newborn. The light from the new stars, of course, took 1,600 years to reach the earth, so the stars were actually born about the same time as the Roman Emperor Theodosius, and as far as any earthling knows, they may have long since gone.
"Our understanding of what is taking place," said Dr. Herbig, "could hardly be more incomplete, but it may be that we have witnessed the opening phase of an episode in stellar evolution."
Astronomers believe that stars are condensations of the dust and gas that drift through space, so they watch dark or bright nebulas with special eagerness. Some of them contain "T Tauri variables":*faint stars that wax and wane irregularly. They light up the dust near them, which makes them look fuzzy, and they are so numerous in certain dusty regions that astronomers have long suspected that they are formed from the dust.
If Dr. Herbig's new-found stars prove to be real infants, they will reinforce the idea, already held by many astronomers, that stars are being formed continuously out of dust and gas in space.
*Named for T Tauri, the best-known star of the type.