The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram shows the relation between the luminosity and surface temperature (which is related to spectral class, or color) of the stars in the Milky Way. Most stars fall along a diagonal, the main sequence, that extends from short-lived, hot, bright blue giants at the upper left to long-lived, cool, dim red dwarfs at the lower right. As a star in the main sequence depletes its hydrogen, it moves into the giant and supergiant regions and eventually ends life as white dwarf.
Hertzsprung-Russell diagram [for Ejnar Hertzsprung and H. N. Russell], graph (see illustration) showing the luminosity of a star as a function of its surface temperature. The luminosity, or absolute magnitude, increases upwards on the vertical axis; the temperature (or some temperature-dependent characteristic such as spectral class or color) decreases to the right on the horizontal axis. It is found that the majority of stars lie on a diagonal band that extends from hot stars of high luminosity in the upper left corner to cool stars of low luminosity in the lower right corner. This band is called the main sequence. Stars called white dwarfs lie sparsely scattered in the lower left corner. The giant stars—stars of great luminosity and size (see red giant)—form a thick, approximately horizontal band that joins the main sequence near the middle of the diagonal band. Above the giant stars, there is another sparse horizontal band consisting of the supergiant stars. The stars in the lower right corner of the main sequence are frequently called red dwarfs, and the stars between the main sequence and the giant branch are called subgiants. The significance of the H-R diagram is that stars are concentrated in certain distinct regions instead of being distributed at random. This regularity is an indication that definite laws govern stellar structure and stellar evolution. In population I regions (see stellar populations) like the spiral arms of galaxies or open star clusters, the stars fall almost exclusively on the main sequence. In population II regions like the nuclei of galaxies and globular clusters, the stars are older and have evolved significantly. The most luminous stars have evolved furthest, and an H-R diagram of such a region will show the upper end of the main sequence depopulated and will show a well-developed giant branch. In such a diagram it appears that the main sequence has “burned down” from the top like a candle. Thus, the point at which the main sequence terminates and the giant branch begins is an indication of the age of a star cluster. A modified H-R diagram of the stars in a cluster of unknown distance can be used to determine the absolute magnitude, or luminosity, of the stars. Since the apparent magnitude of a star of given absolute magnitude depends only on the star's distance, the observed apparent magnitude of the stars can be used to calculate the distance to the cluster.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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