Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 60.djvu/300

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It would be interesting to recall the strange traditions in which primitive peoples have recorded their vague imaginings of the origin of things. But the absence of even an attempt at careful reasoning renders such tales of no value for our present purpose. The Greek philosophers were not oblivious to the value of observation as a check on speculation regarding the solar system, but the instruments then available were too crude to give accurate positions of the heavenly bodies. Even Copernicus, though he established the sun at the center of our system, and thus paved the way for the nebular hypothesis, retained the epicycles of the Greeks. Kepler, basing his investigations upon the observations of Tycho Brahe, proved that the planets move in ellipses with the sun at the focus, and removed all vestige of doubt as to the general plan of the solar system. The harmony which characterizes the motions of the planets and a knowledge of the effect of gravitation led Kant to formulate an explanation of the origin of the solar system, which subsequently found more perfect expression in the nebular hypothesis of Laplace.

In this hypothesis Laplace seeks to account for the formation of the sun and planets through the contraction of a vast nebulous cloud, which once filled the entire solar system, extending to the orbit of Neptune. This mass, which he considered to be fiery hot, was supposed to be in rotation. As it cooled, through radiation into space, it contracted toward the center. The result of this contraction was to increase the velocity of rotation, and when through increasing velocity the centrifugal force at the periphery counterbalanced the attraction of the central mass, a ring was thrown off. Further contraction resulted in the formation of other rings, in each of which the matter collected about its densest part, and thus produced a planet. Before they had time to cool these planets in turn threw off rings, which, with the single exception of Saturn's ring system, condensed into satellites.

This celebrated hypothesis, though unsupported by mathematical proof, has occupied a dominant position since the time of its publication more than a century ago. It has been subjected to much criticism, but most of the objections raised by Faye and others have been met by modifications of the hypothesis. Of late it has encountered fresh attacks on the part of Chamberlin and Moulton, and it now seems doubtful whether it will be possible to overcome their criticisms, which are based on dynamical considerations. It may prove to be sufficient, however, to forsake the lenticular mass of vapor predicated by Laplace in favor of the spiral form which Keeler has shown to characterize so many nebulæ.

The nebular hypothesis seeks to account for a system like our own, wherein a central sun is surrounded by planets and satellites, originally self-luminous, but ultimately cooled to the point where they are lumi-