Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/February 1882/A Glimpse Through the Corridors of Time
|←Longevity of the Oyster||Popular Science Monthly Volume 20 February 1882 (1882)
A Glimpse Through the Corridors of Time
By Robert Stawell Ball
YOUR committee has done me much honor by inviting me to deliver the first lecture in this large and very beautiful hall. In accepting the task I was aware that it involved a great responsibility, but I had various grounds of encouragement. I remembered that I was not coming among you as a stranger, and I knew that I had a subject worthy of a memorable occasion. I would I were equally confident of my ability to do justice to so noble a theme.
The lecture bears the somewhat poetic title of "A Glimpse through the Corridors of Time." A poetic title has been chosen, because, if I can properly exhibit the subject, you will see that it appeals powerfully to the imagination as well as to the reason. I shall invite you to use your imagination to aid in looking back into the very remotest recesses of antiquity. And when I speak of antiquity I do not mean the paltry centuries with which our historians have to deal. The ancient days to which I refer are vastly anterior to those of the "grand old masters" and those of the "bards sublime." Nor do we even allude to the thousands of years which have elapsed since Babylon and Nineveh were splendid and populous cities. Even the noble pyramids of Egypt are but of yesterday when compared with the æons of years which must pass before our review.
The most ancient human monuments that now exist can not, I suppose, be more than a few thousand years old. Five thousand years nearly exhausts all historical time. Ten thousand years certainly does. Though we have no earlier historical record, yet other records are not wanting. Geology tells us that ten thousand years is but a mere moment in the span of the earth's history. We learn from geology that even the career of man himself has lasted far more than ten thousand years. Yet man is but the latest addition to the succession of life on the earth. For the chronology of the earlier epochs of the earth's history we require majestic units to give adequate expression to our dates. Thousands of years are not sufficient, nor tens of thousands, nor hundreds of thousands. The course of geological time is to be reckoned in millions of years.
The corridors of time through which I wish to give you a glimpse are these dignified millions. Yet our retrospect will only extend to a certain definite epoch in the past history of our earth. We speak of nothing anterior to the time when our earth assumed the dignity of maternity, and brought forth its first and only child. We shall trace the development of that child which, though millions of years old, is still in dependence on its parent. We shall describe the influence of the parent over the child, and the not less remarkable reaction of the child upon the parent. We shall foreshadow the destiny which still awaits the mother and child when millions of years shall have elapsed.
At the time of its birth the earth was not, as we see it now, clothed with vegetation and teeming with animal life. It was a huge inorganic mass, too hot for life, perhaps hot enough to be soft or viscid, if not actually molten. The offspring was what might be expected from such a parent. It was also a rude inorganic mass. Time has wrought wondrous changes in both parent and child. Time has transformed the earth into an abode of organic life. It has transformed the earth's offspring into our silvery moon.
It will be my duty to sketch for you the manner in which these changes have been brought about. To a great extent we can do this with no hesitating steps; we are guided by a light which can not deceive. It is the light of mathematical reasoning. These discoveries are of an astronomical character, but they have not been made by telescopes. They have been made by diligent labors of the most abstruse kind. The mathematical astronomer sits at his desk, and not in an observatory. He has in his hand a pen, and not a telescope. Before him lies a sheet of paper, and not the starry heavens. He is no doubt furnished with a few facts from observation. It is his province to interpret those facts, to inform them with life, and to infer the unknown from the known. It is thus discoveries are made which are the sublimest efforts of human genius.
The argument on which I invite you to follow me is founded on a very simple matter. Many of those present go every summer to the sea-side. Those who do so are well acquainted with the daily ebb and flow which we call the tides. Even the children with their spades and buckets know how the flowing tide will fill their moats dug in the sand and inundate their mimic castles. In the ebb and flow of the tide we have a mechanical engine of mighty power. I hope this evening to point out the wonderful effect which tides have had on the earth in times past, as well as the effect they will exercise in the future. It is the tides which are to reveal to us a glimpse through the corridors of time.
The cause of the ebb and flow of the tide has long ceased to be a mystery. In the earliest times it was noticed that the tides were connected with the moon. Pliny and Aristotle both refer to the alliance between the tides and the age of the moon. It is well known that the tides on our coasts sometimes rise to an unusual height. Those who dwell on low ground adjoining tidal rivers are painfully aware of this fact by the floods which are often produced. Such occurrences generally take place at the time of new moon or of full moon. At first quarter or last quarter the tides are even below the usual height. A fisherman who has to regulate his movements by the tides will know full well that at certain times the tides rise higher and fall lower than at other times. He brings his boat out on the falling tide, he brings it back on the rising tide, and, when making the harbor after a night's fishing, it would be natural to hear him say, "Oh, we shall run in easily this morning, there is a strong tide, the moon was full last night." Or if he had to cross a dangerous bank he would soon learn the difference between the spring tide and the neap. Fishermen are not much addicted to abstract reasoning. For many centuries, perhaps indeed for thousands of years, observant men might have known that the moon and the tides were connected. But they did not know any reason why this connection should exist. I dare say they did not even know whether the moon was the cause of the tides or the tides the cause of the moon.
Nor is it easy to explain the tides. We were all taught that the moon makes the tides. Yet I can imagine an objector to say, If the moon makes the tides, why does it give Bristol a splendid tide of forty feet, while London is put off with only eighteen? The true answer is, that the height of the tide is largely affected by local circumstances, by the outline of the coasts, by estuaries and channels. It is even affected to some extent by the wind. Into such details, however, I do not now enter: all I require is, that you shall admit that the moon causes the tides, and that the tides cause currents. In some few places the currents caused by the tides are made to do useful work. A large reservoir is filled by the rising tide, and as the water enters it turns a water-wheel. On the ebbing tide the water flows out of the reservoir, and again gives motion to a water-wheel. There is here a source of power, but it is only in very exceptional circumstances that such a contrivance can be worked economically. Sir W. Thomson, in his address to Section A of the British Association at York, went into this question in its commercial aspect. At present, however, we may say that the power of the tides is as much wasted as is the power of Niagara. Perhaps, when coal becomes more scarce and when the means of distributing power by electricity are more developed, the tides and the great water-falls will be utilized; but that day will not be reached while coal is only a few shillings a ton.
Though we have not yet put the tides into harness, yet tides are not idle. Work they will do, whether useful or not. In some places the tidal currents are scouring out river-channels; in others they are moving sand-banks. From a scientific point of view the work done by the tides is of unspeakable importance. To realize the importance, let us ask the question, Whence is this energy derived with which the tides do their work? The answer seems a very obvious one. If the tides are caused by the moon, the energy they possess must also be derived from the moon. This looks plain enough, but unfortunately it is not true. Would it be true to assert that the finger of the rifleman which pulls the trigger supplies the energy with which the rifle-bullet is animated? Of course it would not. The energy is derived from the explosion of the gunpowder, and the pulling of the trigger is merely the means by which that energy is liberated. In a somewhat similar manner the tidal wave produced by the moon is the means whereby a part of the energy stored in the earth is compelled to expend itself in work. I do not say this is an obvious result. Indeed, it depends upon a refined dynamical theorem, which it would be impossible to enter into here.
But what do we mean by taking energy from the earth? Let me illustrate this by a comparison between the earth rotating on its axis and the fly-wheel of an engine. The fly-wheel is a sort of reservoir, into which the engine pours its power at each stroke of the piston. The various machines in the mill merely draw off the power from the store accumulated in the fly-wheel. The earth is like a gigantic flywheel detached from the engine, though still connected with the machines in the mill. In that mighty fly-wheel a stupendous quantity of energy is stored up, and a stupendous quantity of energy would be given out before that fly-wheel would come to rest. The earth's rotation is the reservoir whence the tides draw the energy they require for doing work. Hence it is that, though the tides are caused by the moon, yet whenever they require energy they draw on the supply ready to hand in the rotation of the earth.
The earth differs from the fly-wheel of the engine in a very important point. As the energy is withdrawn from the fly-wheel by the machines in the mill, so it is restored thereto by the power of the steam-engine, and the fly runs uniformly. But the earth is merely the fly-wheel without the engine. When the work done by the tides withdraws energy from the earth, that energy is never restored. It therefore follows that the energy of the earth's rotation must he decreasing. This leads to a consequence of the most wonderful importance. It tells us that the speed with which the earth rotates on its axis is diminishing. We can state the result in a manner which has the merits of simplicity and brevity:
"The tides are increasing the length of the day."
This statement is the text of the discourse which I am to give you this evening. From this simple fact the new and wondrous theory of tidal evolution is deduced. A great scientific theory is generally the outcome of many minds. To a certain extent this is true of the theory of tidal evolution. It was Professor Helmholtz who first appealed to what tides had already done on the moon. It was Professor Purser who took an important step in the analytical theory. It was Sir William Thomson's mathematical genius which laid the broad and deep foundations of the fabric. These are the pioneers in this splendid research. But they were only the pioneers. The great theory itself is chiefly the work of one man. You are all familiar with the name he bears. The discoverer of tidal evolution is Mr. G. II. Darwin, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
It would be impracticable for me now to go into the actual mathematical calculations. I shall rather endeavor to give you an outline of this theory, shorn of its technical symbols. I think this can be done, even though we attempt to retain the accuracy of mathematical language. Nor would it be fair to throw on Mr. Darwin or the other mathematicians I have named the responsibility for all I am going to say. I must be myself responsible for the way in which those theories are set forth, as well as for some of the deductions made from them.
At present, no doubt, the effect of the tides in changing the length of the day is very small. A day now is not appreciably longer than a day a hundred years ago. Even in a thousand years the change in the length of the day is only a fraction of a second. But the importance arises from the fact that the change, slow though it is, lies always in one direction. The day is continually increasing. In millions of years the accumulated effect becomes not only appreciable but even of startling magnitude.
The change in the length of the day must involve a corresponding change in the motion of the moon. This is by no means obvious. It depends upon an elaborate mathematical theorem. I can not attempt to prove this for you, but I think I can state the result so that it can be understood without the proof. If the moon acts on the earth and retards the rotation of the earth, so, conversely, does the earth react upon the moon. The earth is tormented by the moon, so it strives to drive away its persecutor. At present the moon revolves round the earth at a distance of about 240,000 miles. The reaction of the earth tends to increase that distance, and to force the moon to revolve in an orbit which is continually getting larger and larger.
Here, then, we have two remarkable consequences of the tides which are inseparably connected. Remember, also, that we are not enunciating any mere speculative doctrine. These results are the inevitable consequences of the tides. If the earth had no seas or oceans, no lakes or rivers; if it were an absolutely rigid solid throughout its entire mass—then these changes could not take place. The length of the day would never alter, and the distance of the moon would only fluctuate between narrow limits.
As thousands of years roll on, the length of the day increases second by second, and the distance of the moon increases mile by mile. These changes are never reversed. It is the old story of the perpetual dropping. As the perpetual dropping wears away the stone, so the perpetual action of the tides has sculptured out the earth and moon. Still, the action of the tides continues. To-day is longer than yesterday; yesterday is longer than the day before. A million years ago the day probably contained some minutes less than our present day of twenty-four hours. Our retrospect does not halt here; we at once project our view back to an incredibly remote epoch which was a crisis in the history of our system.
Let me say at once that there is great uncertainty about the date of that crisis. It must have been at least 50,000,000 years ago. It may have been very much earlier. This crisis was the interesting occasion when the moon was born. I wish I could chronicle the event with perfect accuracy, but I can not be sure of anything except that it was more than 50,000,000 years ago.
I do not admit that there is anything discreditable about this uncertainty. Do you not know that our historians, who have records and monuments to help them, are often in great confusion about dates? I am not going to find any fault with historians. They do their best to learn the truth; but I can not help reminding you that they are often as much in the dark about centuries as the astronomers are about millions. Take, for example, the siege of Troy, which Homer has immortalized, and ask the historians to state the date of that event. Some say that the siege of Troy was 1184 b. c., others that it was 900 b. c.; both are equally uncertain. Schliemann says that he found the remains of the town burned down, but that no one knows who did it or when it was done. Others, again, say that there was never any siege of Troy at all.
A recent instance which has attracted great and deserved attention is Schliemann's discovery at Mycenæ of what he considers to have been the tomb of Agamemnon. The tomb certainly did contain the remains of some mighty man, if we may judge by the hundred-pound weight of gold ornaments which were found there. Most people think that these tombs, whosesoever they were, date from at least 1000 b. c. On the other hand, some very high authorities regard the monuments as the tombs of northern invaders who came into Greece 500-600 a. d. Here, then, we have a range of some 1,500 years for the date of the tombs, and no dates between these two are possible. I am sure I do not pretend to decide between them, or even to have an opinion on the subject; but I can not help saying that in one respect the astronomers are better off than the historians. The historians can not even agree whether Schliemann's gold ornaments are b. c. or a. d. Astronomers are, at all events, certain that the date of the moon's birth was before the present era.
At the critical epoch to which our retrospect extends, the length of the day was only a very few hours. I can not tell you exactly how many hours. It seems, however, to have been more than two and less than four. If we call it three hours we shall not be far from the truth. Perhaps you may think that, if we looked back to a still earlier epoch, the day would become still less and finally disappear altogether! This is, however, not the case. The day can never have been much less than three hours in the present order of things. Everybody knows that the earth is not a sphere, but that there is a protuberance at the equator, so that, as our school-books tell us, the earth is shaped like an orange. It is well known that this protuberance is due to the rotation of the earth on its axis, by which the equatorial parts bulge out by centrifugal force. The quicker the earth rotates the greater is the protuberance. If, however, the rate of rotation exceeds a certain limit, the equatorial portions of the earth could no longer cling together. The attraction which unites them would be overcome by centrifugal force, and a general break-up would occur. It can be shown that the rotation of the earth when on the point of rupture corresponds to a length of the day somewhere about the critical value of three hours, which we have already adopted. It is therefore impossible for us to suppose a day much shorter than three hours. What occurred prior to this I do not here discuss.
Let us leave the earth for a few minutes, and examine the past history of the moon. We have seen that the moon revolves around the earth in an ever-widening orbit, and consequently the moon must in ancient times have been nearer the earth than it is now. No doubt the change is slow. There is not much difference between the orbit of the moon a thousand years ago and the orbit in which the moon is now moving.
But when we rise to millions of years the difference becomes very appreciable. Thirty or forty millions of years ago the moon was much closer to the earth than it is at present; very possibly the moon was then only half its present distance. We must, however, look still earlier, to a certain epoch not less than fifty millions of years ago. At that epoch the moon must have been so close to the earth that the two bodies were almost touching. I dare say this striking result will come upon many with surprise when they hear it for the first time. It was, I know, with great surprise that I myself read of it not many months ago. But the evidence is unimpeachable, and it is, indeed, wonderful to see how such information has been gained by merely looking at the ripples of the tide.
Everybody knows that the moon revolves now around the earth in a period of twenty-seven days. The period depends upon the distance between the earth and the moon. The time and the distance are connected together by one of Kepler's celebrated laws, so that, as the distance shortens, so must the time of revolution shorten. In earlier times the month must have been shorter than our present month. Some millions of years ago the moon completed its journey in a week instead of taking twenty-eight days as at present. Looking back earlier still, we find the month has dwindled down to a day, then down to a few hours, until, at that wondrous epoch when the moon was almost touching the earth, the moon spun round the earth once every three hours.
It would require the combined powers of a poet and a mathematician to portray the scene with becoming dignity. I have only promised to give you that glimpse along the Corridors of Time which I have myself been able to obtain. The scene is laid in the abyss of space; the time is more than 50,000,000 years ago; the dramatis personæ are the earth and the moon.
In those ancient times I see our earth to be a noble globe, as it is at present. Yet it is not partly covered with oceans and partly clothed with verdure. The primeval earth seems rather a fiery and half molten mass, where no organic life can dwell. Instead of the atmosphere which we now have I see a dense mass of vapors, in which perhaps all the oceans of the earth are suspended as clouds. I see that the sun still rises and sets to give the succession of day and of night, but the day and the night together only amount to three hours instead of twenty-four. Almost touching the chaotic mass of the earth is another much smaller and equally chaotic body. Around the earth I see this small body rapidly rotating. The two revolve together as if they were bound by invisible bands. This smaller body is the moon. Such is the picture which I wish to present to you as a glimpse through the Corridors of Time.
I have hitherto refrained from introducing any merely speculative matters. If we can believe anything of mathematics, anything of dynamics, we must admit that the picture I have attempted to outline is a faithful portrait. The only uncertain elements are the date and the periodic time. I do, however, now propose to venture on one speculation in which Mr. Darwin has indulged. I propose to offer a suggestion as to how a small body came into this most remarkable position close by the earth, and how its motion was produced.
We have hitherto been guided by the unerring light of dynamics, but at this momentous epoch dynamics deserts us, and we have only probability to guide our faltering steps. One hint, however, dynamics does give. It reminds ns that a rotation once in three hours is very close to the quickest rotation which the earth could have without falling to pieces. As the earth was thus predisposed to rupture, it is of extreme interest to observe that a cause tending to precipitate such a rupture was then ready to hand. It seems not unlikely that we are indebted to the sun as the occasion by which the moon was fractured off from the earth and assumed the dignity of an independent body. It must be remembered that the sun produces tides in the earth as well as the moon, but the solar tides are so small compared with the lunar tides that we have hitherto been enabled to neglect them. There could, however, have been no lunar tides before the moon existed, and consequently in the early ages before the moon was detached the earth was disturbed by the solar tides, and by the solar tides alone.
The primeval earth thus rose and fell under the tidal action of the sun. Probably there were no oceans then on the earth; but tides do not require oceans, or even water, for their operation. The primitive tides were manifested as throbs in the actual body of the earth itself, which was then in a more or less fluid condition. Even at this moment bodily tides are disturbing the solid earth beneath our feet; but these tides are now so small as to be imperceptible when compared with the oceanic tides.
At the remote epoch of which we are speaking the solar tides were very small, as they are at present. Yet, small as they are, there was a particular circumstance which may have enormously increased their importance. The point to which I refer can be illustrated very simply. We have here a weight of fourteen pounds freely suspended, and here I have a small wooden mallet which barely weighs half an ounce, yet, small as this mallet is, I can make the heavy weight swing by merely giving it blows with the mallet. Let me try. I give the weight blow after blow. I hit it as hard as I can, yet the weight hardly swings. I have not yet been successful. The art of succeeding is merely to time the blows properly; this I am now doing, and you see the weight swings in an arc which is steadily augmenting.
We therefore see that a succession of impulses, in themselves small, can yet produce a great effect when they are properly timed. In the present case the impulses should succeed each other at the same interval as this pendulum requires for one to-and-fro oscillation. The time therefore depends on the body struck, and not at all on the body which gives the impulses.
Just as this pendulum swings with a definite period, so the vibrations of the primeval earth had a certain period appropriate to them. Suppose that the liquid primeval globe were pressed in on two quadrants and drawn out on the two others, and that the pressures were then released. The globe would attempt to regain its original form, but this it could not do at once, any more than the pendulum can at once regain its vertical position; the protruded portions would go in, but they would overshoot the mark, and the globe would thus oscillate to and fro. Now, it has been shown that the period of such oscillations in our primitive globe is about an hour and a half, or very close to half the supposed length of the day at that time. The solar tides, however, also have a period half the length of the day. Here, then, we have a case precisely analogous to the fourteen-pound weight I have just experimented on. We have a succession of small impulses given which are timed to harmonize with the natural vibrations. Just as the small timed impulses raised a large vibration in the weight, so the small solar tides on the earth threw the earth into a large vibration. At first these vibrations were small, but at each succeeding impulse the amplitude was augmented until at length the cohesion of the molten matter could no longer resist: a separation took place: one portion consolidated to form our present earth; the other portion consolidated to form the moon.
There is no doubt whatever that the moon was once quite close to the earth; but we have to speculate as to what brought the moon into that position. I have given you what I believe to be the most reasonable explanation, and I commend it to your attention. There are difficulties about it, no doubt: let me glance at one of them.
I can easily imagine an objector to say: "If the moon were merely a fragment torn off, how can we conceive that it should have that beautiful globular form which we now see? Ought not the moon to have rugged corners and an irregular shape? and ought not the earth to show a frightful scar at the spot where so large a portion of its mass was rent off?"
You must remember that in those early times the earth was not the rigid, solid mass on which we now stand. The earth was then so hot as to be partially soft, if not actually molten. If, then, a fragment were detached from the earth, that fragment would be a soft yielding mass. Not for long would that fragment retain an irregular form; the mutual attraction of the particles would draw the mass together. By the same gentle ministrations the wound on the earth would soon be healed. In the lapse of time the earth would become as whole as ever, and at last it would not retain even a scar to testify to the mighty catastrophe.
I am quite sure that, in so large and so cultivated an audience as that which I am now addressing, there are many persons who take a deep interest in the great science of geology. I believe, however, that the geologist who has studied all the text-books in existence might si ill be unacquainted with the very modern researches which I am attempting to set forth. Yet it seems to me that the geologists must quickly take heed of these researches. They have the most startling and important bearing on the prevailing creeds in geology. One of the principal creeds they absolutely demolish.
I suppose the most-read book that has ever been written on geology is Sir Charles Lyell's "Principles." The feature which characterizes Lyell's work is expressed in the title of the hook, "Modern Changes of the Earth and its Inhabitants considered as illustrative of Geology." Lyell shows how the changes now going on in the earth have in course of time produced great effects. He points out triumphantly that there is no need of supposing mighty deluges and frightful earthquakes to account for the main facts of geology.
Lyell attempts to show that the present action of winds and storms, of rains and rivers, of ice and snow, of waves and tides, will account for the formation of strata, and that the gentle oscillations of the earth's crust will explain the varying distribution of land and water. In this we can to a great extent follow him. I am quite satisfied with the oscillations in the land. If the land rises an inch or two every century in one place and falls to the same extent elsewhere, all that is required has been explained. Nor do I feel at present disposed to question his views as to rivers or to glaciers, to rains or to winds. There is, however, one great natural agent of which Lyell does not take adequate account. He does not attach enough importance to the tides. No doubt he admits that the tides do some geological work. He even thinks they can do a great deal of work. The sea batters the cliffs on the coasts/'and wears them into sand and pebble's. The glaciers grind down the mountains, the rains and frosts wear the land into mud, and rivers carry that mud into the sea. In the calm depths of ocean this mud subsides to the bottom; it becomes consolidated into rocks; in the course of time these rocks again become raised, to form the dry land with which we are acquainted.
The tides, says Lyell, help in this work. Tidal currents aid in carrying the mud out to sea; they aid to a considerable extent in the actual work of degradation, and thus contribute their quota to the manufacture of stratified rocks. Such is the modest rôle which Lyell has assigned to the tides, and no doubt the majority of geologists have acquiesced in this doctrine. Nor can there be any doubt that this is a just view of tidal action at present. That it is a just view of tidal action in past times is what I now deny. Lyell did not know—yell could not have known—that our tides are but the feeble surviving ripples of mighty tides with which our oceans once pulsated. Introduce these mighty tides among our geological agents, and see how waves and storms, rivers and glaciers, will hide their diminished heads.
I must attempt to illustrate this view of tidal importance in ancient geological times. Let me try by the aid of the tides to explain the great difficulty which every one must have felt in regard to Lyell's theory. I allude to the stupendous thickness of the Palæozoic rocks.
Look back through the Corridors of Time in the manner in which they are presented to us in the successive epochs of geology. We pass rapidly over the brief career of prehistoric man; then through the long ages of Tertiary rocks, when the great mammals were developed; back again to the much earlier period when colossal reptiles and birds were the chief inhabitants of the earth; back again to those still earlier ages when the luxuriant forests nourished that have siren birth to the coal-fields; back once more to the age of fishes; back finally to those earliest periods when the lowest forms of life began to dawn in the Palæozoic era.
As we date remote ages astronomically by the distance of the moon, so we date remote ages geologically by the prevailing organic life. It is a great desideratum to harmonize these two chronological systems, and to find out, if possible, what lunar distance corresponds to each geological epoch. In the whole field of natural science there is no more noble problem. Take, for examine, that earliest and most interesting epoch when life perhaps commenced on the earth, and when stratified rocks were deposited five or ten miles thick, which seem to have contained no living forms higher than the humble Eozoön, if even that were an organized being. Let us ask what the distance of the moon was at the time when those stupendous beds of sediment were deposited in the primeval ocean. We have in this comparison every element of uncertainty except one. The exception is, however, all-important. We know that the moon must have been nearer to the earth than it is at present. There are many very weighty reasons for supposing that the moon must have been very much nearer than it is now. It is not at all unlikely that the moon may then have been situated at only a small fraction of its present distance. My argument is only modified, but not destroyed, whatever fraction we may take. We must take some estimate for the purpose of illustration. I have had considerable doubts what estimate to adopt. I am desirous of making my argument strong enough, but I do not want to make it seem exaggerated. At present the moon is 240,000 miles away; but there was a time when the moon was only one sixth part of this, or, say, 40,000 miles away. That time must have corresponded to some geological epoch. It may have been earlier than the time when the Eozoön lived. It is more likely to have been later. I want to point out that, when the moon was only 40,000 miles away, we had in it a geological engine of transcendent power.
On the primitive oceans the moon raised tides as it does at present; but the 40,000-mile moon was a far more efficient tide-producer than our 240,000-mile moon. The nearer the moon the greater the tide. To express the relation accurately we say that the efficiency of the moon in producing tides varies inversely as the cube of its distance. E< re, then, we have the means of calculating the tidal efficiency for any moon-distance. The 40,000-mile moon being at a distance of only one sixth of our present moon's distance, its tidal efficiency would be increased 6 X 6 X 6 fold. In other words, when our moon was only 40,000 miles away, it was 216 times as good a tide-producer as it is at present.
The height to which the tides rise and fall is so profoundly modified by the coasts and by the depth of the sea, that at present we find at different localities tides of only a few inches and tides of sixty or seventy feet. In ancient times there were no doubt also great varieties in the tidal heights, owing to local circumstances. To continue our calculations we must take some present tide. Let us discard the extremes just indicated and take a moderate tide of three-feet rise and three-feet fall as a type of our present tides. On this supposition, what is to be a typical example of a tide raised by the 40,000-mile moon? If the present tides be three feet, and if the early tides be 216 times their present amount, then it is plain that the ancient titles must have been 648 feet.
There can be no doubt that in ancient times tides of this amount, and even tides very much larger, must have occurred. I ask the geologists to take account of these facts, and to consider the effect—a tidal rise and fall of 648 feet twice every day. Dwell for one moment on the sublime spectacle of a tide of 648 feet high, and see what an agent it would be for the performance of geological work! We are now standing, I suppose, some 500 feet above the level of the sea. The sea is a good many miles from Birmingham, yet if the rise and fall at the coasts were 648 feet, Birmingham might be as great a sea-port as Liverpool. Three quarters tide would bring the sea into the streets of Birmingham. At high tide there would be about 150 feet of blue water over our heads. Every house would be covered, and the tops of a few chimneys would alone indicate the site of the town.
In a few hours more the whole of this vast flood would have retreated. Not only would it leave England high and dry, but probably the Straits of Dover would be drained, and perhaps even Ireland would in a literal sense become a member of the United Kingdom. A few hours pass, and the whole of England is again inundated, but only again to be abandoned.
These mighty tides are the gift which astronomers have now made to the working machinery of the geologist. They constitute an engine of terrific power to aid in the great work of geology. What would the puny efforts of water in other ways accomplish when compared with these majestic tides and the great currents they produce?
In the great primeval tides will probably be found the explanation of what has long been a reproach to geology. The early Palæozoic rocks form a stupendous mass of ocean-made beds which, according to Professor Williamson, are twenty miles thick up to the top of the Silurian beds. It has long been a difficulty to conceive how such a gigantic quantity of material could have been ground up and deposited at the bottom of the sea. The geologists said, "The rivers and other agents of the present day will do it if you give them time enough." But, unfortunately, the mathematicians and the natural philosophers would not give them time enough, and they ordered the geologists to "hurry up their phenomena." The mathematicians had other reasons for believing that the earth could not have been so old as the geologists demanded. Now, however, the mathematicians have discovered the new and stupendous tidal grinding-engine. With this powerful aid the geologists can get through their work in a reasonable period of time, and the geologists and the mathematicians may be reconciled.
I have here a large globe to represent the earth, and a small globe suspended by a string to represent the moon. At the commencement of the history the two globes were quite close; they were revolving rapidly, and the moon was constantly over the same locality on the primeval earth. I do not know where that locality was; it was probably the part of the earth from which the moon had been detached. No doubt it was somewhere near the equator, but the distinction of land and water had not then arisen. Around the primeval earth the moon revolved in three hours; the earth also revolved in three hours, so that the moon constantly remained over the red region. This I can illustrate by holding the small globe which represents the moon in one hand, and making the large globe which represents the earth revolve by the other.
This state of things formed what is known as unstable dynamical equilibrium. It could not last. Either the moon must fall back again on the earth, and be reabsorbed into its mass, or the moon must commence to move away from the earth. Which of these two courses was the moon to take? The case is analogous to that of a needle balanced on its point. The needle must fall some way, but what is to decide whether it shall fall to the right or to the left? I do not know what decided the moon, but what the decision was is perfectly plain. The fact that the moon exists shows that it did not return to the earth, but that the moon adopted the other course, and commenced its outward journey.
As the moon recedes, the period which it requires for a journey round the earth increases also. Initially that period was but three hours, and it has increased up until our present month of six hundred and fifty-six hours.
The rotation of the earth has been modified by the retreat of the moon. Directly the moon began to retreat, the earth was no longer under an obligation to keep the same face thereto. When the moon was at a certain distance, the earth made two rotations for every revolution that the moon made. Thus, as I carry the small globe round the large globe, the latter makes two revolutions for one revolution of the small globe. Still the moon gets farther and farther away, until the earth performs three, four, or more rotations for each of the moon's revolutions. Do not infer that the rate of the earth's rotation is increasing; the contrary is the fact. The earth's rotation is getting slower, and so is that of the moon; but the retardation of the moon is much greater than that of the earth. Even though the rotation of the earth is much more than the primitive three hours, yet that of the moon has increased to several times the rotation of the earth.
The moon recedes still farther and farther, and at length a noticeable epoch is reached, to which I must call attention. At that epoch the moon is so far out that its revolution takes twenty-nine times as long as the rotation of the earth. The month was then twenty-nine times the day. The duration of the day was less than the present twenty-four hours, but I do not believe it was very much less. The time we are speaking of is not very remote, perhaps only a very few million years ago. The month was then in the zenith of its glory. The month was never twenty-nine times as long as the day before. It has never been twenty-nine times as long as the day since. It will never be twenty-nine times as long as the day again.
Resuming our history, we find the moon still continuing to revolve in an ever-widening circle, the length of the month and of the day both increasing. The ratio of the day to the month was still undergoing a change. When the moon was a little farther off, the earth only revolved twenty-eight times instead of twenty-nine times in one revolution of the moon. Still, the velocity of the earth abates until it only makes twenty-seven revolutions in one revolution of the moon. This is an epoch of especial interest, for it is the present time. In the present order of things the moon revolves round the earth once while the earth rotates twenty-seven times. This has remained sensibly true for thousands of years, and no doubt will remain sensibly true for thousands of years to come, but it will not remain true indefinitely. Wondrous as are the changes which have occurred in times past, not less wondrous are the changes which are to occur in time to come. The tides have guided our gropings into the past; they will continue to guide our researches to make a forecast of the future.
Farther and farther will the moon retreat, and more and more slowly will the earth revolve. But we shall not pause at intervening stages; we shall try to sketch the ultimate type to which our system tends. In the dim future, many millions of years distant, the final stage will be approached. As this stage draws nigh, the rotation of the earth will again approach to equality with the revolution of the moon. From the present month of twenty-seven days we shall pass to a month of twenty-six days, of twenty-five days, and so on, until eventually we shall reach a month of two days, and lastly a month of one day. When this state has been attained the earth will constantly turn the same region toward the moon. I do not know what is the locality on the earth which is destined for this distinction.
Here you see that the first state and the last state of the earth-moon history are in one sense identical. In each case the same face of the earth is constantly directed toward the moon. In another way, how different are the first stage and the last! At the beginning the day and the month were both equal, and they were each three hours. At the end the day and the month will be again equal, but they will each be 1,400 hours. The moon will then go round the earth in 1,400 hours, while the earth will rotate on its axis in the same time. In other words, the day is destined in the very remote future to become as long as fifty-seven of our days. This epoch will assuredly come if the universe lasts long enough. When it has come it will endure for countless ages. It would endure for ever if the earth and the moon could be isolated from all external interference.
We heard a great deal a few years ago about the necessity of shortening the hours of labor. I wish to point out that the social reformers who are striving to shorten the hours of labor are pulling one way, while the moon is pulling the other. The moon is increasing the length of the day. The change will be very gradual, but none the less is it inevitable. Where will the nine-hours' movement be when the day has increased to 1,400 hours? This will be a very serious matter, and there is only one way by which it can be avoided. The question is one rather for engineers than for astronomers; but I can not help throwing out a suggestion. My advice is: Anchor the moon, and keep it from going out. If you can do this, and if you can also provide a brake by which the speed of the moon can be controlled, then you will be able for ever to revel in the enjoyment of a twenty-four-hour day.
Should this engineering feat never be accomplished, then we have only the 1,400-hour day to look forward to. Nor is there anything untoward in the prospect, when we take natural selection, as our comforter. By natural selection man has become exactly harmonized with his present environment. No doubt natural selection moves at a dignified pace, but so in all truth does tidal evolution. Natural selection and tidal evolution have advanced pari passu through all the past millions of geological time. They will advance pari passu through all the ages yet to come. As the day lengthens, so will man's nature gradually change too, without any hardship or inconvenience. All that is necessary is plenty of time. Should we think it a hardship that our children should have a day of twenty-four hours and one second instead of twenty-four hours? That the day enjoyed by our grandchildren should be a second longer than the day of our children? That the day of our great-grandchildren should be a second longer still, and so on continually? This would be no inconvenience whatever. No one except the astronomers would be able to detect the change, and daily life would be unaltered. Yet, carry on this process for only 150,000,000 years, and we shall find that the whole change of the day from twenty-four hours to 1,400 hours has been accomplished. The actual rate of change is indeed much less than this, and is at present so small that astronomers can hardly even detect it.
Our remote posterity will have a night 700 hours long, and when the sun rises in the morning 700 hours more will elapse before he can set. This they will find a most suitable and agreeable arrangement. They will look back on our short periods of rest and short periods of work with mingled curiosity and pity. Perhaps they will even have exhibitions of eccentric individuals able to sleep for eight hours, work for eight hours, and play for eight hours. They will look on such curiosities in the same way as we look on the man who undertakes to walk a thousand miles in a thousand hours.
I am beyond all things anxious to give you the impression that I am not indulging in any mere romance. No doubt the various figures I have mentioned are but estimates. They may be found to require correction—perhaps large correction; but the general outline of the theory must be true. Should any traces of doubt still linger in the mind of some prejudiced person, let me finally dissipate them. Perhaps some caviler may say: "Where are the proofs of all this action of the tides? How do you know that the tides are sufficiently powerful to produce such changes?" I believe I have shown this abundantly, but some people require a great deal of conviction. I have therefore kept my best argument for the end.
For an overwhelming proof of tidal efficiency I shall summon the heavens themselves to witness, and I shall point to the stupendous task which tides have already accomplished. As the moon has made and is making tides on the earth, so the earth once raised tides on the moon. These tides have ceased for ages; their work is done; but they have raised a monument in the moon to testify to the tidal sufferings which the moon has undergone. To that monument I now confidently appeal. The moon being much smaller than the earth, the tides on the moon produced by the earth must have been many times as great as the tides on our earth produced by the moon. It matters not that the moon now contains no liquid ocean. Nor does it matter whether the moon ever had a liquid ocean. In very ancient days the moon was not the hard, rigid mass which it now appears. Time was when the volcanoes raged on the moon with a fury which nothing on our earth at present can parallel. The moon was then in a soft or a more or less fluid condition, and in this viscous mass the earth produced great tides.
Great tides in truth they were, for the earth is eighty times as heavy as the moon. On the other hand, the moon is only one fourth the diameter of the earth; so that the actual height of the tides on the moon would be still many times as great as the tides on the earth. When the moon was nearer to us, as it was in early ages, those tides were still greater. Think for one moment of what a lunar tidal wave of such magnitude would be capable! This wave is perhaps of molten lava; it would tear over the surface with terrific power, and anything that friction could accomplish that great current would do. That tidal current has done its work; even if the moon were fluid at the present day, it could no longer be distracted by tides. Remember, it is not the mere presence of the tide which produces friction. It is the action of the tide in rising and in falling which accomplishes the work. If, therefore, the moon moved so that it was always high tide at the same place, the tides could produce no further effect. The spot where the tide is high on the moon is the spot which is toward the earth. It hence follows that the action of the tides will cease when the moon constantly directs the same face to the earth. The moon has thus at length gained a haven of rest from a tidal point of view. No doubt the moon has a high tide and it has a low tide, but those tides no longer ebb and flow: the moon has succumbed to the incessant action of friction, and has assumed the only attitude which can relieve it from incessant disturbance.
For many centuries it had been an enigma to astronomers why the moon should always turn the same face to the earth. It could be shown that there were many million chances to one in favor of this being due to some physical cause. The ordinary theory of gravitation failed to explain the cause. Every one had noticed this phenomenon. Yet the explanation was never given till lately. It was Helmholtz who showed that this was a consequence of ancient tides, and this simple and most satisfactory explanation had been universally accepted. The constant face of the moon is a living testimony to the power of the tides. What tides have accomplished on the moon is an earnest of what tides will accomplish on the earth.
In the great conflict of the tides the earth has already conquered the moon, and forced the moon to render perpetual homage as a token of submission. Remember, however, that the earth is large and the moon is small. Yet, small though the moon is, it gallantly struggles on. "You have forced me," cries the moon to the earth, "to abandon the rotation with which I was originally endowed; you have compelled me to rotate in the manner you have dictated. I will have my revenge. It is true I am weak, but I am unrelenting; day by day I am exhausting you by the tides with which I make you throb. The time will assuredly come, though it may not be for millions of years, when you shall be forced to make a compromise. When that compromise is made the turmoils of the tides will cease; our mutual movements will be adjusted. With equal dignity we shall each rotate around the other; with equal dignity we shall each constantly bend the same face to the other."
There is another point to be considered. We must not forget that there is a sun in the heavens as well as a moon. The sun also produces tides in the earth. Those tides were much smaller than the lunar tides, so that we could afford to neglect them. But we have seen that the lunar tides will gradually decrease to nothing. It behooves us then to consider what the solar tides can effect which shall be worthy of our attention. In a lecture which I gave here some years ago, I made allusion to the discovery of the satellites of Mars. I mentioned that one of the satellites of Mars presented a phenomenon unparalleled in the solar system. The satellite revolved around Mars in a period of seven hours, while Mars himself rotated on his axis in a period of twenty-four hours. We here actually find the moon of Mars rotating around Mars in much less than one of Mars's own days. This was a most curious and unexpected circumstance, but the observations of the discoverer, Asaph Hall, placed the great fact beyond any doubt. The mystery has now been explained. It is due to the action of the solar tides on Mars. Nay, more, we can actually foresee that at some incredibly remote future time our earth and moon are destined to present the same movements which have seemed so anomalous in Mars.
Left to themselves the earth and the moon would have remained for ever in the condition of compromise. The moon would have revolved round the earth in 1,400 hours. The earth would have rotated on its axis in 1,400 hours also. But now the solar tides intervene. They have little effect upon the moon; it revolves as before, but the solar tides begin to retard the earth still further. Instead of a period of 1,400 hours, the earth will have a still longer day, so that finally the moon revolves more rapidly around the earth than the earth rotates on its axis.
It seems to me that the episode I have mentioned is one of the most interesting in the whole of modern astronomy. We have first a most delicate telescopic discovery of the tiny satellite of Mars and of its anomalous movements. We then have a beautiful explanation of how this anomalous motion has arisen from the action of solar tides. Finally, we have in this miniature system of Mars a foreshadowing of the ultimate destiny of our earth and our moon.
Do I say the ultimate destiny? Nothing is ultimate in nature. The moon and the earth would have come to an amicable and a final agreement had they been let alone. But now the sun has intervened and disturbed the earth's rotation. The truce once broken, the moon again produces tides on the earth, the earth reacts on the moon, and a whole chain of complicated movements are the consequence. I shall not now attempt to trace the further progress of events.
I have dealt with very large figures in this lecture, and perhaps I have taxed your imagination by my demands that you should conceive of periods of tens of millions of years. Yet, after all, let us look at the results in their true proportion, compared with the universe in which our lot has been cast.
Truly we have been engaged with a very trifling matter. Is not our earth one of the most insignificant bodies in the universe? And our moon is much smaller still. Nor is it even the life-history of our earth that we have been considering, it is merely a brief episode in that history. What are the periods of time we have been discussing when compared with those infinitely longer periods during which the solar system has been evolved? Even the solar system is but one out of one hundred million such systems, each of which has its own life-history. Viewed in their true proportions, the phenomena I have described are but of infinitesimal importance, and the time they have occupied is merely ephemeral.
No doubt we have only dwelt upon the tides on the earth and the tides in the moon, which have been of such infinite importance. But do not suppose that tides are confined to the earth and to the moon. So far as we know, every body in the universe is capable of producing, and actually does produce, tides in every other body. Every planet throbs in response to the tides produced in it by every other planet. Every star has a distinct tidal wave produced in it by every other star. You may say that such tides are infinitesimal, but you must remember that infinitesimal causes, sufficiently often repeated, can achieve the mightiest effects.
We know that tides have wrought our solar system into its present form; and are we to say that the wondrous powers of the tides have no grander scope for their exercise? I prefer to believe that tides operate far and wide through the universe, and that in the recognition of the supreme importance of tidal evolution we mark a great epoch in the history of physical astronomy.—Nature.
- Lecture delivered at the Midland Institute, Birmingham, October 24, 1881.