Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/June 1882/A New Theory of the Sun
THE CONSERVATION OF SOLAR ENERGY.
A PAPER was recently read by me before the Royal Society, under the above title, which may be termed a first attempt to open for the sun a creditor and debtor account, inasmuch as he has hitherto been regarded only as the great almoner, pouring forth incessantly his boundless wealth of heat, without receiving any of it back. Such a proposal touches the root of solar physics, and can not therefore be expected to pass without challenge—to meet which I gladly embrace the opportunity, now offered to me through the courtesy of the editor of this review, of enlarging somewhat upon the first concise statement of my views regarding this question.
Man has from the very earliest ages looked up with a feeling of awe and wonderment to our great luminary, to whom we owe not only the light of day, but the genial warmth by which we live, by which our hills are clad with verdure, our rivers flow, and without which our life-sustaining food, both vegetable and animal, could not be produced.
When for our comfort and our use we resort to a fire either of wood. or coal, we know now by the light of modern science that we are utilizing only solar rays that have been stored up by the aid of the process of vegetation in our forests or in the forests of former geological ages, when our coal-fields were the scenes of rank tropical growth. The potency of the solar ray in this respect was recognized—even before science had discovered its true significance—by clear-sighted men such as the late George Stephenson, who, when asked what in his opinion was the ultimate cause of the motion of his locomotive-engine, said that he thought it went by "the bottled-up rays of the sun."
With the exception of our coal-fields and a few elementary combustible substances such as sulphur and what are called the precious metals, which we find sparsely scattered about, our earth consists essentially of combined matter. Thus our rivers, lakes, and oceans are filled with oxidized hydrogen, the result of a most powerful combustion; and the crust of our earth is found to consist either of quartz (a combination of the metal silicon with oxygen) or limestone (oxidized calcium combined with oxidized carbon), or of other metals, such as magnesium, aluminium, or iron, oxidized and combined in a similar manner. Excepting, therefore, the few substances before enumerated, we may look upon our earth, near its surface at any rate, as a huge ball of cinder, which, if left to itself, would soon become intensely cold, and devoid of life or animation of any kind.
It is true that a goodly store of heat still exists in the interior of our earth, which, according to some geologists, is in a state of fusion, and must certainly be in a highly heated condition; but this internal heat would be of no avail, owing to the slow rate of conduction, by which alone, excepting volcanic action, it could be brought to us living upon its surface.
An estimate of the amount of heat poured down annually upon the surface of our earth may be formed from the fact that it exceeds a million times the heat producible by all the coal raised, which may be taken at 280,000,000 tons a year.
If, then, we depend upon solar radiation for our very existence from day to day, it can not be said that we are only remotely interested in solar physics, and the question whether and how solar energy, comprising the rays of heat, of light, and the actinic rays, is likely to be maintained, is one in which we have at least as great a reversionary interest as we have in landed estate or other property.
If the amount of heat, or, more correctly speaking, of energy, supplied annually to our earth is great as compare with terrestrial quantities, that scattered abroad in all directions by the sun strikes us as something almost beyond conception.
The amount of heat radiated from the sun has been approximately computed by the aid of the pyrheliometer of Pouillet, and by the actinometers of Herschel, at 18,000,000 heat-units from every square foot of its surface per hour; or, expressed popularly, if coal were consumed on the surface of the sun in the most perfect manner, our total annual production of 280,000,000 tons, being the estimated produce of all the coal-mines of the earth, would suffice to keep up solar radiation for only one forty-millionth part of a second; or, if the earth were a mass of coal, and could be supplied by contract to the solar furnace-men, this supply would last them just thirty-six hours.
If the sun were surrounded by a solid sphere of a radius equal to the mean distance of the sun from the earth (95,000,000 miles), the whole of this prodigious amount of heat would be intercepted; but considering that the earth's apparent diameter as seen from the sun is only seventeen seconds, the earth can intercept only the 2,250-millionth part. Assuming that the other planetary bodies swell the amount of intercepted heat to ten times this amount, there remains the important fact that 224999999 of the solar energy is radiated into space, and apparently lost to the solar system, and only 1 utilized or intercepted.
Notwithstanding this enormous loss of heat, solar temperature has not diminished sensibly for centuries, if we neglect the periodic changes, apparently connected with the appearance of sun-spots, that have been observed by Lockyer and others, and the question forces itself upon us, how this great loss can be sustained without producing an observable diminution of solar temperature, even within a human life-time.
Among the ingenious hypotheses intended to account for a continuance of solar heat is that of shrinkage or gradual reduction of the sun's volume, suggested by Helmholtz. It may, however, be argued against this theory that the heat so produced would be liberated throughout its mass, and would have to be brought to the surface by conduction, aided perhaps by convection; but we know of no material of sufficient conductivity to transmit anything approaching the amount of heat lost by radiation.
Chemical action between the constituent parts of the sun has also been suggested; but here again we are met by the difficulty that the products of such combination would, ere this, have accumulated on the surface, and would have formed a barrier against further action.
These difficulties led Sir William Thomson to the suggestion that the cause of maintenance of solar temperature might be found in the circumstance of meteorites, not falling upon the sun from great distances in space, as had been suggested by Mayer and Waterton, but circulating with an acquired velocity within the planetary distances of the sun, and he shows that each pound of matter so imported would represent a large number of heat-units, without disturbing the planetary equilibrium. But in considering more fully the enormous amount of planetary matter that would be required for the maintenance of the solar temperature, Sir William Thomson soon abandoned this hypothesis for that of simple transfer of heat from the interior of a fluid sun to the surface by means of convection-currents, which latter hypothesis is at the present time supported by Professor Stokes and other leading physicists.
This theory has certainly the advantage of accounting for the greatest possible store of heat within the solar mass, because it supposes the latter to consist in the main of a fluid heated to such a temperature that, if it were relieved at any point of the confining pressure, it would flash into gas of a vastly inferior, but still of an elevated, temperature. It is supposed that such fluid material, or material in the "critical" condition, as Professor Thomas Andrews, of Belfast, has named it, is continually transferred to the surface by means of convection-currents, that is to say, by currents forming naturally when a fluid substance is cooled at its upper surface, and sinks down after cooling to make room for ascending material at the comparatively higher temperature. It is owing to such convection-currents that the temperature of a room is, generally speaking, higher toward the ceiling than toward the floor, and that upon plunging a thermometer into a tank of heated water the surface temperature is found slightly superior to that near the bottom.
These convection-currents owe their existence to a preponderance of the cooled descending over the ascending current; but this difference being slight, and the ascending and descending currents inter-mixing freely, they are, generally speaking, of a sluggish character; hence, in all heating apparatus, it is found essential to resort either to artificial propulsion, or to separating walls between the ascending and the descending currents, in order to give effect to the convective transfer of heat.
In the case of a fluid sun another difficulty presents itself through the circumstance that the vast liquid interior is enveloped in a gaseous atmosphere, which, although perhaps some thousands of miles in depth, represents a relatively very small store of heat. Convection-currents may be supposed active in both the gaseous atmosphere and in the fluid ocean below, but the surface of this fluid must necessarily constitute a barrier between the two convective systems, nor could the convective action of the gaseous atmosphere—that is to say, the simple up and down currents caused by surface refrigeration—be such as to disturb the liquid surface below to any great extent, because each descending current would have had plenty of time to get intermixed with its neighboring ascending current, and would, therefore, have reached its least intensity on arriving on the liquid surface.
As regards the liquid, its most favorable condition for heating purposes would be at the critical point, or that at which the slightest diminution of superincumbent pressure would make it flash off into gas; but considering that, by means of conduction and convection, the liquid matter must have assumed, in the course of ages, a practically uniform temperature to a very considerable depth, it follows that the liquid below the surface, with fluid pressure in addition to that of the superimposed gaseous atmosphere, must be ordinary fluid, the critical condition being essentially confined only to the surface.
Conditions analogous to those here contemplated are met with in a high-pressure steam-boiler, with its heated water and dense vapor atmosphere. Suppose the fire below such a boiler be withdrawn, and its roof be exposed to active radiation into space, what should we observe through a strong pane of glass inserted in the side of the boiler near the liquid surface, lit up by an incandescent electric lamp within? The loss of heat by radiation from the boiler would give rise to convection-currents, and partial condensation of the vapor atmosphere; then, if the motion of the water were made visible by means of coloring matter, we should observe convection-currents in the fluid mass separate and distinct from those in the gaseous mass; but these convection-currents would cause no visible disturbance of the liquid surface, which would present itself to the eye with the smoothness of a mirror. It is only in the event of the steam-pressure being suddenly relieved at any point on the surface that a portion of the water would flash into steam, causing a violent upheaval of the liquid.
The dark spots on the sun appear to indicate commotion of this description, but these are evidently not the result of mere convection-currents; if they were, they would occur indiscriminately over the entire surface of the sun, whereas telescopic observation has revealed the fact that they do occur almost exclusively in two belts, between the equator and the polar surfaces on either side. Their occurrence could be satisfactorily explained if we could suppose the existence of strong lateral currents flowing from the polar surfaces toward the equator, which lateral currents in the solar atmosphere would cause cyclones or vortex action with a lower and denser atmosphere consisting probably of metallic vapors; this vortex action extending downward would relieve the fluid ocean locally from pressure, and give rise to explosive outbursts of enormous magnitude, projecting the lower atmosphere high above the photosphere, with a velocity measured, according to Lockyer, by a thousand miles a second. It will be seen from what follows how, according to my views, such vortex action in those intermediate regions of the sun would necessarily be produced.
But supposing that, notwithstanding the difficulties just pointed out, convection-currrents sufficed to effect a transfer of internal heat to the surface with sufficient rapidity to account for the enormous surface-loss by radiation, we should only have the poor satisfaction of knowing that the available store would last longer than might have been expected, whereas a complete solution of the problem would be furnished by a theory, according to which the radiant energy which is now supposed to be dissipated into space and irrecoverably lost to our solar system, could be arrested and brought back in another form to the sun himself, there to continue the work of solar radiation.
Some six years ago the thought occurred to me that such a solution of the solar problem might not lie beyond the bounds of possibility, and, although I can not claim intimate acquaintance with the intricacies of solar physics, I have watched its progress, and have engaged also in some physical experiments bearing upon the question, all of which have served to strengthen my confidence, and to ripen in me the determination to submit my views, not without some misgiving, to the touchstone of scientific criticism.
For the purposes of my theory, stellar space is supposed to be filled with highly rarefied gaseous bodies, including hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and their compounds, besides solid materials in the form of dust. Each planetary body would in that case attract to itself an atmosphere depending for density upon its relative attractive importance, and it would not seem unreasonable to suppose that the heavier and less diffusible gases would form the staple of these local atmospheres; that, in fact, they would consist mostly of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbonic acid, while hydrogen and its compounds would predominate in space.
In support of this view it may be urged that, in following out the molecular theory of gases as laid down by Clausius, Clerk Maxwell, and Thomson, it would be difficult to assign a limit to a gaseous atmosphere in space; and, further, that some writers—among whom I will here mention only Grove, Humboldt, Zollner, and Mattieu Williams—have boldly asserted the existence of a space filled with matter. But Newton himself, as Dr. Sterry Hunt tells us in an interesting paper which has only just reached me, has expressed views in favor of such an assumption.
The history of Newton's paper is remarkable and very suggestive. It was read before the Royal Society on the 9th and 16th of December, 1675, and remained unpublished until 1757, when it was printed by Birch, the then secretary, in the third volume of his "History of the Royal Society," but received no attention; in 1846 it was published in the "Philosophical Magazine" at the suggestion of Harcourt, but was again disregarded; and now, once more, only a few months since, a philosopher on the other side of the Atlantic brings back to the birthplace of Newton his forgotten and almost despised work of two hundred years ago.
Quoting from Dr. Sterry Hunt's paper:
If at the time of Newton chemistry had been understood as it now is, and if, moreover, he had been armed with that most wonderful of all modern scientific instruments, the spectroscope, the direct outcome of his own prismatic analysis, there appears to be no doubt that the author of the laws of gravitation would have so developed his thoughts upon solar fuel that they would have taken the form rather of a scientific discovery than of a mere speculation.
Our proof that interstellar space is filled with attenuated matter does not rest, however, solely upon the uncertain ground of speculation. We receive occasionally upon our earth celestial visitors termed meteorites; these are known to travel in loose masses round the sun in orbits intersecting at certain points that of our earth. When in their transit they pass through the denser portion of our atmosphere they become incandescent, and are popularly known as falling stars. In some cases they are really deserving of that name, because they strike down upon our earth, from the surface of which they have been picked up and subjected to searching examination while still warm after their exertion. Dr. Flight has only very recently communicated to the Royal Society an analysis of the occluded gases of one of these meteorites as follows:
|CO2 (Carbonic acid)||0·12|
|CO (Carbonic oxide)||31·88|
It appears surprising that there was no aqueous vapor, considering that there was much hydrogen and oxygen in combination with carbon; but perhaps the vapor escaped observation, or was expelled to a greater extent than the other gases by external heat when the meteorite passed through our atmosphere. Opinions concur that the gases found occluded in meteorites can not be supposed to have entered into their composition during the very short period of traversing our denser atmosphere; but, if any doubt should exist on this head, it ought to be set at rest by the fact that the gas principally occluded is hydrogen, which is not contained in our atmosphere in any appreciable quantity.
Further proof of the fact that stellar space is filled with gaseous matter is furnished by spectrum analysis, and it appears from recent investigation, by Dr. Huggins and others, that the nucleus of a comet contains very much the same gases found occluded in meteorites, in-eluding "carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and probably oxygen," while, according to the views set forth by Dewar and Liveing, it also contains nitrogenous compounds such as cyanogen.
Adversely to the assumption that interplanetary space is filled with gases, it is urged that the presence of ordinary matter would cause sensible retardation of planetary motion, such as must have made itself felt before this; but, assuming that the matter filling space is an almost perfect fluid not limited by border surfaces, it can be shown on purely mechanical grounds that the retardation by friction through such an attenuated medium would be very slight indeed, even at planetary velocities.
But it may be contended that, if the views here advocated regarding the distribution of gases were true, the sun should draw to him-self the bulk of the least diffusible, and therefore the heaviest gases, such as carbonic acid, carbonic oxide, oxygen, and nitrogen, whereas spectrum analysis has proved, on the contrary, a great prevalence of hydrogen.
In explanation of this seeming anomaly, it can be shown, in the first place, that the temperature of the sun is so high that such compound gases as carbonic acid and carbonic oxide could not exist within him, their point of dissociation being very much below the solar temperature. It has been contended, indeed, by Mr. Lockyer, that none of the metalloids have any existence at these temperatures, although as regards oxygen Dr. Draper asserts its existence in the solar photosphere. There must be regions, however, outside that thermal limit, where their existence would not be jeopardized by heat; and here great accumulation of the comparatively heavy gases that constitute our atmosphere would probably take place, were it not for a certain counterbalancing action.
I here approach a point of primary importance in my argument, upon the proof of which my further conclusions must depend.
The sun completes one revolution on its axis in twenty-five days, and its diameter being taken at 882,000 miles, it follows that the tangential velocity amounts to 1·25 miles per second, or to what the tangential velocity of our earth would be if it occupied five hours instead of twenty-four in accomplishing one revolution. This high rotative velocity of the sun must cause an equatorial rise of the solar atmosphere, to which Mairan, in 1731, attributed the appearance of zodiacal light. Laplace rejected this explanation on the ground that zodiacal light extended to a distance from the sun exceeding our own, whereas the equatorial rise of the solar atmosphere due to its rotation could not exceed nine twentieths of the distance of Mercury. But it must be remembered that Laplace based his calculation upon the generally accepted hypothesis of an empty stellar space (occupied only by an imaginary ether), and it can be shown that the result of solar rotation would be widely different, if supposed to take place within a medium of unbounded extension. In this case pressures would be balanced all round, and the sun would act mechanically upon the floating matter surrounding him in the manner of a fan, drawing it toward himself upon the polar surfaces, and projecting it outward in a continuous disk-like stream from the equatorial surfaces.
By this fan action, hydrogen, hydrocarbons, and oxygen are supposed to be drawn in enormous quantities toward the polar surfaces of the sun; during their gradual approach they pass from their condition of extreme attenuation and intense cold to that of compression, accompanied with increase of temperature, until, on approaching the photo-sphere, they burst into flame, giving rise to a great development of heat, and a temperature commensurate with their point of dissociation at the solar density. The result of their combustion will be aqueous vapor and carbonic acid, and these products of combustion, in yielding to the influence of centrifugal force, will flow toward the solar equator, and be thence projected into space.
In view of the importance of this centrifugal action for the purpose of my theory, the following simple mathematical statement of the problem may not be thought out of place: Let us consider the condition of two equal gaseous masses, at equal distances from the solar center, the one in the direction of the equator, the other in that of either of the poles. These two masses would be equally attracted toward the sun, and balance one another as regards the force of gravitation, but the former would be subject to another force, that of centrifugal action, which, however small in amount as compared with the enormous attraction of the sun, would destroy the balance, and determine a motion toward the sun as regards the mass opposite the polar surface, and into space as regards the equatorial mass. The same action would take effect upon the masses filling their places, and the result must be a continuous current depending for its velocity upon the rate of solar rotation. The equatorial current so produced, owing to its mighty proportions, would flow outward into space, to a practically unlimited distance.
The next question for consideration is, What would become of these products of combustion when thus returned into space? Apparently they would gradually change the condition of stellar material, rendering it more and more neutral; but I venture to suggest the possibility, nay, the probability, that solar radiation will, under these conditions, step in to bring back the combined materials to a state of separation by dissociation carried into effect at the expense of that solar energy which is now supposed to be irrevocably lost or dissipated into space as the phrase goes.
According to the law of dissociation as developed by Bunsen and Sainte-Claire Deville, the point of decomposition of different compounds depends upon the temperature on the one hand, and upon the pressure on the other. According to Sainte-Claire Deville, the dissociation tension of aqueous vapor at atmospheric pressure and at 2,800° C. is 0·5, that is to say one half of the vapor would exist as such, the remaining half being found as a mechanical mixture of hydrogen and oxygen; but, with the pressure, the temperature of dissociation rises and falls, as the temperature of saturated steam rises and falls with its pressure. It is therefore conceivable that the solar photosphere may be raised by combustion to a temperature exceeding 2,800° C, whereas dissociation may be effected in space at a lower temperature. This temperature of 2,800° would be quite sufficient to account for the character and amount of solar radiation, if it is only borne in mind that the luminous atmosphere may be a thousand miles in depth, and that the flame of hydrogen and hydrocarbons, in the uppermost layers of this zone, is transparent to the radiant energy produced in the layers below, thus making the total radiation rather the sum of matter in combustion than the effect of a very intensely heated surface.
Sainte-Claire Deville's investigations had reference only to heats measured by means of pyrometers, but do not extend to the effects of radiant heat. Dr. Tyndall has shown by his important researches that vapor of water and other gaseous compounds intercept radiant heat in a most remarkable degree, and there is other evidence to show that radiant energy from a source of high intensity possesses a dissociating power far surpassing the measurable temperature to which the compound substance under its influence is raised. Thus carbonic acid and water are dissociated in the leaf-cells of plants under the influence of the direct solar ray at ordinary summer temperature, and experiments in which I have been engaged for nearly three years go to prove that this dissociating action is obtained also under the radiant influence of the electric arc, although it is scarcely perceptible if the energy is such as can be produced by an inferior source of heat.
The point of dissociation of aqueous vapor and carbonic acid admits, however, of being determined by direct experiment. It engaged my attention some years ago, but I have hesitated to publish the qualitative results I then obtained, in the hope of attaining to quantitative proofs.
These experiments consisted in the employment of glass tubes furnished with platinum electrodes, and filled with aqueous vapor or with carbonic acid in the usual manner, the latter being furnished with caustic soda to regulate the vapor-pressure by heating. Upon immersing one end of the tube charged with aqueous vapor in a refrigerating mixture of ice and chloride of calcium, its temperature at that end was reduced to −32° C., corresponding to a vapor-pressure, according to Regnault, of 1 of an atmosphere. When so cooled no slow electric discharge took place on connecting the two electrodes with a small induction-coil. I then exposed the end of the tube projecting out of the freezing mixture, backed by white paper, to solar radiation (on a clear summer's day) for several hours, when, upon again connecting up to the inductorium, a discharge, apparently that of a hydrogen vacuum, was obtained. This experiment being repeated furnished unmistakable evidence, I thought, that aqueous vapor had been dissociated by exposure to solar radiation. The carbonic-acid tubes gave, however, less unmistakable effects. Not satisfied with these qualitative results, I made arrangements to collect the permanent gases so produced by means of a Sprengel pump, but was prevented by lack of time from pursuing the inquiry, which I propose, however, to resume shortly, being of opinion that, independently of my present speculation, the experiments may prove useful in extending our knowledge regarding the laws of dissociation.
It should be here observed that, according to Professor Stokes, the ultra-violet rays are in large measure absorbed in passing through clear glass, and it follows from this discovery that only a small portion of the chemical rays found their way through the tubes to accomplish the work of dissociation. This circumstance being adverse to the experiment only serves to increase the value of the effect observed, while it appears to furnish additional proof of the fact, first enunciated by Professor Draper, and corroborated by my own experiments on plants, that the dissociating power of light is not confined to the ultra-violet rays, but depends in the process of vegetation chiefly upon the yellow and red rays.
Assuming, for my present purpose, that dissociation of aqueous vapor was really effected in the experiment just described, and assuming, further, that stellar space is filled with aqueous and other vapor of a density not exceeding the part of our atmosphere, it seems reasonable to suppose that its dissociation would be effected by solar radiation, and that solar energy would thus be utilized. The conjoint presence of aqueous vapor, carbonic acid, and nitrogen would only serve to facilitate their decomposition, in consequence of the simultaneous formation of hydrocarbons and nitrogenous compounds by combination of the nascent hydrogen and the nitrogen with carbon in a manner analogous to what occurs in vegetation. It is not necessary to suppose that all the energy radiated from the sun into space should be intercepted, inasmuch as even a partial return of heat in the manner described would serve to supplement solar radiation, the balance being made up by absolute loss. To this loss of energy would have to be added that consumed in sustaining the circulating current, which however, need not relatively be more than what is known to be lost on our earth through the tidal action, and may be supposed to be compensated as regards the time of solar rotation by gradual shrinkage.
By means of the fan-like action resulting from the rotation of the sun, the vapors dissociated in space to-day would be drawn toward the polar surfaces of the sun to-morrow, be heated by increase in density, and would burst into flame at a point where both their density and temperature had reached the necessary elevation to induce combustion, each complete cycle taking, however, years to be accomplished. The resulting aqueous vapor, carbonic acid, and carbonic oxide would be drawn toward the equatorial regions, and be then again projected into space by centrifugal force.
Space would, according to these views, be filled with gaseous compounds in process of decomposition by solar radiant energy, and the existence of these gases would furnish an explanation of the solar absorption spectrum, in which the lines of some of the substances may be entirely neutralized and lost to observation. As regards the heavy metallic vapors revealed in the sun by the spectroscope, it is assumed that these form a lower and denser solar atmosphere, not participating in the fan-like action which is supposed to affect the light outer atmosphere only, in which hydrogen is the principal factor.
Such a dense metallic atmosphere could not participate in the fan action affecting the lighter photosphere, because this is only feasible on the supposition that the density of the inflowing current is, at equal distances from the gravitating center, equal or nearly equal to the outflowing current. It is true that the products of combustion of hydrogen and hydrocarbon are denser than their constituents, but this difference may be balanced by their superior temperature on leaving the sun, whereas the metallic vapors would be unbalanced, and would therefore obey the laws of gravitation, recalling them to the sun. On the surface of contact between the two solar atmospheres, intermixture induced by friction must take place, however, giving rise to those vortices and explosive effects within the zones of the sun, between the equator and the polar surfaces, to which reference has already been made in this article; these may appropriately be called the "stormy regions" of the sun, which were first observed and commented upon by Sir John Herschel. Some of the denser vapors would probably get intermixed, be carried away mechanically by the lighter gases, and give rise to that cosmic dust observed to fall upon our earth in not inappreciable quantities, and generally assumed hitherto to be the débris of broken meteorolites. Excessive intermixture between the heat-producing atmosphere and the metallic vapors below appears to be prevented by the existence of an intermediate neutral atmosphere, and called the penumbra.
As the whole solar system moves through space at a pace estimated at 150,000,000 miles annually (being about one fourth of the velocity of the earth in its orbit), it appears possible that the condition of the gaseous fuel supplying the sun may vary according to its state of previous decomposition, in which other heavenly bodies may have taken part, and whereby an interesting reflex action between our sun and other heavenly bodies would be brought about. May it not be owing to such differences in the quality of the fuel supplied that the observed variations of the solar heat may arise?—and may it not be in consequence of such changes in the thermal condition of the photo-sphere that the extraordinary convulsions revealed to us as sun-spots occur?
The views here advocated could not be thought acceptable unless they furnished at any rate a consistent explanation of the still some-what mysterious phenomena of the zodiacal light and of comets. Regarding the former, we should be able to revert to Mairan's views, the objection by Laplace being met by a continuous outward flow from the solar equator. Luminosity would be attributable to particles of dust emitting light reflected from the sun, or to phosphorescence. But there is another cause for luminosity of these particles, which may deserve serious consideration. Each particle would be electrified by gaseous friction in its acceleration, and its electric tension would be vastly increased in its forcible removal, in the same way as the fine dust of the desert has been observed by Dr. Werner Siemens to be in a state of high electrification on the apex of the Cheops Pyramid. Could not the zodiacal light also be attributed to slow electric discharge backward from the dust toward the sun?—and would not the same cause account for a great difference of potential between the sun and earth, which latter may be supposed to be washed by the solar radial current? May not the presence of the radial solar current also furnish us with an explanation of the fact that hydrogen, while abounding apparently in space, is practically absent in our atmosphere, where aqueous vapor and carbonic acid, which would come to us directly from the sun, take its place? An action analogous to this, though on a much smaller scale, may be set up also by terrestrial rotation, giving rise to an electrical discharge from the outgoing equatorial stream to the polar regions, where the atmosphere to be pierced by the return flood is of least resistance. Thus the phenomenon of the aurora borealis or northern lights would find an easy explanation.
The effect of this continuous outpour of solar materials could not be without very important influences as regards the geological conditions of our earth. Geologists have long acknowledged the difficulty of accounting for the amount of carbonic acid that must have been in our atmosphere, at one time or another, in order to form with lime those enormous beds of dolomite and limestone, of which the crust of our earth is in great measure composed. It has been calculated that, if this carbonic acid had been at one and the same time in our atmosphere, it would have caused an elastic pressure fifty times that of our present atmosphere; and, if we add the carbonic acid that must have been absorbed in vegetation in order to form our coal-beds, we should probably have to double that pressure. Animal life, of which we find abundant traces in these "measures," could not have existed under such conditions, and we are almost forced to the conclusion that the carbonic acid must have been derived from an external source.
It appears to me that the theory here advocated furnishes a feasible solution of this geological difficulty. Our earth being situated in the outflowing current of the solar products of combustion, or, as it were, in the solar chimney, would be fed from day to day with its quota of carbonic acid, of which our local atmosphere would assimilate as much as would be necessary to maintain it in a carbonic-acid vapor density balancing that of the solar current; we should thus receive our daily supply of this important constituent (with the regularity of fresh rolls for breakfast), which, according to an investigation by M. Reiset, communicated to the French Academy of Sciences by M. Dumas on the 6th of March last, amounts to the constant factor of one ten-thousandth part of our atmosphere. The aqueous vapor in the air would be similarly maintained as to its density, and its influx to, or reflux from, our atmosphere would be determined by the surface temperature of our earth.
It is also important to show how the phenomena of comets could be harmonized with the views here advocated, and I venture to hope that these occasional visitors will serve to furnish us with positive evidence in my favor. Astronomical physicists tell us that the nucleus of a comet consists of an aggregation of stones similar to meteorites. Adopting this view, and assuming that the stones have absorbed in stellar space gases to the amount of six times their volume, taken at atmospheric pressure, what, it may be asked, will be the effect of such a divided mass advancing toward the sun at a velocity reaching in perihelion the prodigious rate of 366 miles per second (as observed in the comet of 1845), being twenty-three times our orbital rate of motion? It appears evident that the entry of such a mass into a comparatively dense atmosphere must be accompanied by a rise of temperature by frictional resistance, aided by attractive condensation. At a certain point the increase of temperature must cause ignition, and the heat thus produced must drive out the occluded gases, which in an atmosphere 3,000 times less dense than that of our earth would produce 6 x 3,000 = 18,000 times the volume of the stones themselves. These gases would issue forth in all directions, but would remain un-observed except in that of motion, in which they would meet the interplanetary atmosphere with the compound velocity, and form a zone of intense combustion, such as Dr. Huggins has lately observed to surround the one side of the nucleus, evidently the side of forward motion. The nucleus would thus emit original light, whereas the tail may be supposed to consist of stellar dust rendered luminous by reflex action produced by the light of the sun and comet combined, as fore-shadowed already by Tyndall, Tait, and others, starting each from different assumptions.
Although I can not pretend to an intimate acquaintance with the more intricate phenomena of solar physics, I have long had a conviction, derived principally from familiarity with some of the terrestrial effects of heat, that the prodigious dissipation of solar heat is unnecessary to satisfy accepted principles regarding the conservation of energy, but that solar heat may be arrested and returned over and over again to the sun, in a manner somewhat analogous to the action of the heat recuperator in the regenerative engine and gas-furnace. The fundamental conditions are:
1. That aqueous vapor and carbon compounds are present in stellar or interplanetary space.
2. That these gaseous compounds are capable of being dissociated by radiant solar energy while in a state of extreme attenuation.
3. That the vapors so dissociated are drawn toward the sun in consequence of solar rotation, are flashed into flame in the photosphere, and rendered back into space in the condition of products of combustion.
Three weeks have now elapsed since I ventured to submit these propositions to the Royal Society for scientific criticism, and it will probably interest my readers to know what has been the nature of that criticism and the weight of additional evidence for or against my theory.
Criticism has been pronounced by mathematicians and physicists, but affecting singularly enough the chemical and not the mathematical portion of my argument; whereas chemists have expressed doubts regarding my mathematics while accepting the chemistry involved in my reasoning.
Doubts have been expressed as to the sufficiency of the proof that dissociation of attenuated aqueous vapor and carbonic acid is really effected by radiant solar energy, and, if so effected, whether the amount of heat so supplied to the sun could be at all adequate in amount to keep up the known rate of radiation. It was admitted in my paper that my own experiments on the dissociation of vapors within vacuous tubes amounted to inferential rather than absolute proof; but the amount of inferential evidence in favor of my views has been very much strengthened since by chemical evidence received from various sources; and I will here only refer to one of these.
Professor Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, has, in connection with Professor Herschel, of Newcastle, recently presented an elaborate paper or series of papers to the Royal Society of Edinburgh "On the Gaseous Spectra in Vacuum-Tubes," of which he has kindly forwarded me a copy. It appears from these memoirs that when vacuum-tubes, which contain attenuated vapors, have been laid aside for a length of time, they turn practically into hydrogen-tubes. In another very recent paper presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Professor Piazzi Smyth furnishes important additional proof of the presence of oxygen in the outer solar atmosphere, and gives an explanation why this important element has escaped observation by the spectroscope. Additional proof of the existence of oxygen in the outer solar atmosphere has been given by Professor Stoney, the Astronomer Royal for Ireland, and by Mr. R. Meldola in an interesting paper communicated by him to the "Philosophical Magazine," in June, 1878.
As regards the sufficiency of an inflowing stream of dissociated vapors to maintain solar energy, the following simple calculation may be of service: Let it be assumed that the stream flowing in upon the polar surfaces of the sun flashes into flame when it has attained the density of our atmosphere, that its velocity at that time is 100 feet per second (the velocity of a strong terrestrial wind), and that in its composition only one twentieth part is hydrogen and marsh-gas in equal proportions, the other nineteen twentieths being made up of oxygen, nitrogen, and neutral compounds. It is well known that each pound of hydrogen develops in burning about 60,000 heat-units, and each pound of marsh-gas about 24,000; the average of the two gases mixed in equal proportion would yield, roughly speaking, 42,000 units; but, considering that only one twentieth part of the inflowing current is assumed to consist of such combustible matter, the amount of heat developed per pound of inflowing current would be only 2,100 heat-units. One hundred cubic feet, weighing eight pounds, would enter into combustion every second upon each square foot of the polar surface, and would yield 8 x 60 x 60 x 2,100 = 60,480,000 heat-units per hour. Assuming that one third of the entire solar surface may be regarded as polar heat-receiving surface, this would give 20,000,000 heat-units per square foot of solar surface; whereas, according to Herschel's and Pouillet's measurements, only 18,000,000 heat-units per square foot of solar surface are radiated away. There would thus be no difficulty in accounting for the maintenance of solar energy from the supposed source of supply. On the other hand, I wish to guard myself against the assumption that appears to have been made by some critics, that what I have advocated would amount to the counterpart of "perpetual motion," and therefore to an absurdity. The sun can not of course get back any heat radiated by himself which has been turned to a purpose; thus the solar heat spent upon our earth in effecting vegetation must be absolutely lost to him.
My paper presented to the Royal Society was accompanied by a diagram of an ideal corona, representing an accumulation of igneous matter upon the solar surfaces, surrounded by disturbed regions pierced by occasional vortices and outbursts of metallic vapors, and culminating in two outward streams projecting from the equatorial surfaces into space through many thousands of miles. The only supporting evidence in favor of this diagram were certain indications that may be found in the instructive volume on the sun by Mr. R. A. Proctor. It was therefore a matter of great satisfaction to me to be informed, as I have been by an excellent authority and eye-witness, that my imaginary diagram bore a very close resemblance to the corona observed in America on the occasion of the total eclipse of the sun on the 11th of January, 1880.
Enough has been said, I think, to prove that the theory I have ventured to put forward is the result, at any rate, of considerable reflection; and I may add that, since its first announcement, I have not seen reason to reject any of the links of my chain of argument: these I have here endeavored to strengthen only by additional facts and explanations.
If these arguments can be proved to the entire satisfaction of those best able to form a judgment, they would serve to justify the poet Addison when he says:
"The unwearied sun from day to day
Does the Creator's power display,
- See "Proceeding, Royal Society," vol. xxx, March 1, 1880; also a paper read before Section A of the British Association, September 1, 1881, and ordered to be printed in the report.