Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/June 1883/The Boundaries of Astronomy II

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THE whole range of astronomy presents no speculations which have attracted more attention than the celebrated nebular hypotheses of Herschel and of Laplace. We shall first enunciate these speculations, and then we shall attempt to indicate how far they seem to be warranted by the actual state of scientific knowledge. In one of his most memorable papers, Sir William Herschel presents us with a summary of his observations on the nebulæ, arranged in such a manner as to suggest his theory of the gradual transmutation of nebulæ into stars. He first shows us that there are regions in the heavens where a faint diffused nebulosity is all that can be detected by the telescope. There are other nebulæ in which a nucleus can be just discerned; others again in which the nucleus is easily seen; and still others where the nucleus is a brilliant, star-like point. The transition from an object of this kind to a nebulous star is very natural, while the nebulous stars pass into the ordinary stars by a few graduated stages. It is thus possible to enumerate a series of objects, beginning at one end with the most diffused nebulosity, and ending at the other with an ordinary fixed star or group of stars. Each object in the series differs but slightly from the object just before it and just after it. It seemed to Herschel that he was thus able to view the actual changes by which masses of phosphorescent or glowing vapor became actually condensed down into stars. The condensation of a nebula could be followed in the same manner as we can study the growth of the trees in a forest by comparing the trees of various ages which the forest contains at the same time. In attempting to pronounce upon the positive evidence available in the discussion of Herschel's theory, we encounter a well-known difficulty. To establish this theory, it would be necessary to watch the actual condensation of one single nebula from the primitive gaseous condition down to the stellar points. It may easily be conceived that such a process would require a vast lapse of time, perhaps enormously greater than the period between the invention of the telescope and the present moment. It may at all events be confidently asserted that the condensation of a nebula into a star is a process which has never been witnessed. Whether any stages in that process can be said to have been witnessed is a different matter, on which it is not easy to speak with precision. Drawings of the same nebula, made at different dates, often exhibit great discrepancies. In comparing these drawings, it must be remembered that a nebula is an object usually devoid of distinct outline, and varying greatly in appearance with different telescopic apertures. Take, for instance, the very splendid nebula in Orion, which is one of the most glorious objects that can be seen in a telescope. There can be no doubt that the drawings made at different times do exhibit most marked differences. Indeed, the differences are sometimes so great that it is hard to believe that the same object is depicted. It is well to look also at drawings made of the same object at the same time, but by different observers and with different telescopes. Where we find contemporary drawings at variance—and they are often widely at variance—it seems hard to draw any conclusion from drawings as to the presence or the absence of change in the shape of the nebula.

There are, however, good grounds for believing that nebulæ really do undergo some changes, at least as regards brightness; but whether these changes are such as Herschel's theory would seem to require is quite another question. Perhaps the best authenticated instance is that of the variable nebula in the constellation of Taurus, discovered by Mr. Hind in 1852. At the time of its discovery this object was a small nebula about one minute in diameter, with a central condensation of light. D'Arrest, the distinguished astronomer of Copenhagen, found, in 1861, that this nebula had vanished. On the 29th of December, 1861, the nebula was again seen in the powerful refractor at Pulkova, but, on December 12, 1863, Mr. Hind failed to detect the nebula with the telescope by which it had been originally discovered. This instrument had, however, only half the aperture of the Pulkova telescope. In 1868, O. Struve, observing at Pulkova, detected another nebulous spot in the vicinity of the place of the missing object, but this has also now vanished. Struve does not, however, consider that the nebula of 1868 is distinct from Hind's nebula, but he says:

"What I see is certainly the variable nebula itself, only in altered brightness and spread over a larger space. Some traces of nebulosity are still to be seen exactly on the spot where Hind and D' Arrest placed the variable nebula. It is a remarkable circumstance that this nebula is in the vicinity of a variable star, which changes somewhat irregularly from the ninth to the twelfth magnitude. At the time of the discovery, in 1861, both the star and the nebula were brighter than they have since become.

This is the best authenticated history of observed change in any nebula. It must be admitted that the changes are such as would not be expected if Herschel's theory were universally true.

Another remarkable occurrence in modern astronomy may be cited as having some bearing on the question as to the actual evidence for or against Herschel's theory. On November 24, 1876, Dr. Schmidt noticed a new star of the third magnitude, in the constellation Cygnus. The discoverer was confident that no corresponding object existed on the evening of the 20th of November. The brilliancy of the new star gradually declined, until, on the 13th of December, Mr. Hind found it of the sixth magnitude. The spectrum of this star was carefully studied by many observers, and it exhibited several bright lines, which indicated that the star differed from other stars by the possession of vast masses of glowing gaseous material. This star was observed by Dr. Copeland, at the Earl of Crawford's observatory, on September 2, 1877. It was then below the tenth magnitude, and of a decidedly bluish tint. Viewed through the spectroscope, the light of this star was almost completely monochromatic, and appeared to be indistinguishable from that which is often found to come from nebulæ. Dr. Copeland thus concludes:

Bearing in mind the history of this star from the time of its discovery by Schmidt, it would seem certain that we have an instance before us in which a star has changed into a planetary nebula of small angular diameter. At least it may be safely affirmed that no astronomer, discovering the object in its present state, would, after viewing it through a prism, hesitate to pronounce as to its present nebulous character.

It should, however, be added that Professor Pickering has since found slight traces of a continuous spectrum, but the object has now become so extremely faint that such observations are very difficult. This remarkable history might be adduced if we wished to procure evidence of the conversion of stars into nebulæ, but for the nebular theory we require evidence of the conversion of nebulæ into stars.

Care must be taken not to exaggerate the inferences to be drawn from the two instances I have quoted, viz., the variable nebula in Taurus and the new star in Cygnus. I think it more likely that both of these are to be regarded as exceptional phenomena. It is certainly true that they are perhaps the most remarkable instances in which changes in nebulæ have actually been witnessed; but the probability is that the only reason why they have been witnessed is because they were very exceptional. Those who have observed the nebulæ for many years are well assured of the general permanence of their appearance. The nebulæ we have referred to are chosen out of thousands. The ordinary nebulæ appear just as constant as the ordinary bright stars. Every one expects to see Vega in the constellation Lyra; and with equal confidence every astronomer counts on seeing the celebrated annular nebula when he directs his telescope to the same constellation. This permanence is very probably merely due to the stupendous distances at which these objects are placed. Only gigantic changes could be detected, and for these, gigantic periods of time would be required. We are bound to believe that heated bodies radiate their heat; and, if so, they must contract. This general law, which pervades all Nature, so far as we know it, seems to be the real basis indeed, the only basis on which the nebular theory of Herschel can be maintained. Up to the present, it must be admitted that this theory has received no direct telescopic confirmation.

The nebular theory by which Laplace sought to account for the origin of the solar system seems, from the nature of the case, to be almost incapable of receiving any direct testimony. "We shall here enunciate the theory in the language of Professor Newcomb:

The remarkable uniformity among the directions of the revolutions of the planets being something which could not have been the result of chance, Laplace sought to investigate its probable cause. This cause, he thought, could be nothing else than the atmosphere of the sun, which once extended so far out as to fill all the space now occupied by the planets. He conceives the immense vaporous mass forming the sun and his atmosphere to have had a slow rotation on its axis. The mass, being intensely hot, would slowly cool off, and as it did so would contract toward the center. As it contracted, its velocity would, in obedience to one of the fundamental laws of mechanics, constantly increase, so that a time would arrive when, at the outer boundary of the mass, the centrifugal force due to the rotation would counterbalance the attractive force of the central mass. Then those outer portions would be left behind as a revolving ring, while the next inner portions would continue to contract, until at their boundary the centrifugal and attractive forces would be again balanced, when a second ring would be left behind, and so on. Thus, instead of a continuous atmosphere, the sun would be surrounded by a series of concentric revolving rings of vapor. Now, how would these rings of vapor behave? As they cooled off, their denser materials would condense first, and thus the ring would be composed of a mixed mass, partly solid and partly vaporous, the quantity of solid matter constantly increasing and that of vapor diminishing. If the ring were perfectly uniform this condensing process would take place equally all around it, and the ring would thus be broken up into a group of small planets like that which we see between Mars and Jupiter. But we should expect that, in general, some portions of the ring would be much, denser than others, and the denser portion would gradually attract the rarer portions around it, until instead of a ring we should have a single mass, composed of a nearly solid center, surrounded by an immense atmosphere of fiery vapor. This condensation of the ring of vapor around a single point would have produced no change in the amount of rotary motion originally existing in the ring; the planet surrounded by its fiery atmosphere would therefore be in rotation, and would be, in miniature, a reproduction of tbe case of the sun surrounded by his atmosphere with which we set out. In the same way that the solar atmosphere formed itself first into rings, and then these rings condensed into planets, so, if the planetary atmosphere were sufficiently extensive, they would form themselves into rings, and these rings would condense into satellites. In the case of Saturn, however, one of the rings was so perfectly uniform that there could be no denser portion to draw the rest of the ring around it, and thus we have the well-known rings of Saturn.

It will thus be seen that one of the principal features in the solar system for which the nebular theory has been invoked is the fact that the planets all revolve round the sun in the same direction. It will therefore be natural to take up first the discussion of this subject, and to inquire how far the common motion of the planets can be claimed in support of Laplace's nebular theory. The value of this argument is very materially influenced by another consideration of a somewhat peculiar character. If it were quite immaterial to the welfare of the planetary system whether all the planets moved the same way, or whether some moved one way and some another, then the nebular hypothesis would be entitled to all the support which could be derived from the circumstances of the case. Take, for instance, the eight principal planets—Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. All these planets move in the same way around the sun. The chances against such an occurrence are 127 to 1. The probability that the system of eight planets have been guided to move in the same direction by some cause may be taken to be 127 to 1. If we include the two hundred minor planets, the probability would be enormously enhanced. The nebular theory seems a reasonable explanation of how this uniformity of movements could arise, and therefore the advocates of the nebular theory may seem entitled to claim, all this high degree of probability in their favor. There is, however, quite a different point of view from which the question may be regarded. There are reasons which imperatively demand that the planets (at all events the large planets) shall revolve in uniform directions, which lie quite outside the view taken in the nebular theory. If the big planets did not all revolve in the same direction, the system would have perished long ago, and we should not now be here to discuss the nebular or any other hypothesis.

It is well known that, in consequence of the gravitation which pervades the solar system, each of the planets has its movements mainly subordinated to the attraction of the sun. But each of the planets attracts every other planet. In consequence of these attractions the orbits of the planets are to some extent affected. The mutual actions of the planets present many problems of the highest interest, and, it should be added, of the greatest difficulty. Many of these difficulties have been overcome. It is the great glory of the French mathematicians to have invented the methods by which the nature of the solar system could be studied. The results at which they arrived are not a little remarkable. They have computed how much the planets act and react upon each other, and they have shown that in consequence of these actions the orbit of each planet gradually changes its shape and its position. But the crowning feature of these discoveries is the demonstration that these changes in the orbits of the planets are all periodic. The orbits may fluctuate, but those fluctuations are confined within very narrow limits. In the course of ages the system gradually becomes deformed, but it will gradually return again to its original position, and again depart therefrom. These changes are comparatively so small that our system may be regarded as substantially the same even when its fluctuations have attained their greatest amplitude. These splendid discoveries are founded upon the actual circumstances of the system, as we see that system to be constituted. Take, for instance, the eccentricities of the orbits of the planets around the sun. Those eccentricities can never change much; they are now small quantities, and small quantities those eccentricities must forever remain. The proof of this remarkable theorem partly depends upon the fact that the planets are all revolving around the sun in the same direction. If one of the planets we have named were revolving in an opposite direction to the rest, the mathematical theory would break down. We would have no guarantee that the eccentricities would forever remain small as they are at present. In a similar manner, the planets all move in orbits whose planes are inclined to each other at very small angles. The positions of those planes fluctuate, but these fluctuations are confined within very narrow limits. The proof of this theorem, like the proof of the corresponding theorem about the eccentricities, depends upon the actual conditions of the planetary system as we find it. If one of the planets were to be stopped, turned round, and started off again in the opposite direction, our guarantee for the preservation of the planes would be gone. It therefore follows that, if the system is to be permanently maintained, all the planets must revolve in the same direction.

In this connection it is impossible not to notice the peculiar circumstances presented by the comets. By a sort of convention, the planets have adopted, or, at all events, they possess, movements which fulfill the conditions necessary if the planets are to live and let live; but the comets do not obey any of the conditions which are imposed by the planetary convention. The orbits of the comets are not nearly circles. They are sometimes ellipses with a very high degree of eccentricity; they are often so very eccentric that we are unable to distinguish the parts of their orbits which we see from actual parabolas. Nor do the directions iu which the comets move exhibit any uniformity; some move round the sun in one direction, some move in the opposite direction. Even the planes which contain the orbits of the comets are totally different from each other. Instead of being inclined at only a very few degrees to their mean position, the planes of the comets hardly follow any common law; they are inclined at all sorts of directions. In no respect do the comets obey those principles which are necessary to prevent constitutional disorder in the planetary system. The consequences of this are obvious, and unfortunate in the highest degree—for the comets. A comet possesses no security for the undisturbed enjoyment of its orbit. Not to mention the risk of actual collision with the planets, there are other ways in which the path of a comet may experience enormously great changes by the disturbances which the planets are capable of producing. How is it that the system has been able to tolerate the vagaries of comets for so many ages? Solely because the comets, though capable of suffering from perturbations, are practically incapable of producing any perturbations on the planets. The efficiency of a body in producing perturbations depends upon the mass of the body. Now, all we have hitherto seen with regard to comets tends to show that the masses of comets are extremely small. Attempts have been made to measure the masses of comets. Those attempts have always failed. They have failed because the scales in which we have attempted to weigh the comets have been too coarse to weigh anything of the almost spiritual texture of a comet. It is unnecessary to go as far as some have done, and to say that the weight of a large comet may be only a few pounds or a few ounces. It might be more reasonable to suppose that the weight of a large comet was thousands of tons, though even thousands of tons would be far too small a weight to admit of being measured by the very coarse balance which is at our disposal.

The enduring stability of the planetary system is thus seen to be compatible with the existence of comets solely because comets fulfill the condition of being almost imponderable in comparison with the mighty masses of the planetary system. The very existence of our planetary system is a proof of the doctrine that the masses of the comets are but small. Indeed, to those who will duly weigh the matter, it will probably appear that this negative evidence as to the mass of the comets is more satisfactory than the results of any of the more direct attempts to place the comets in the weighing-scales. If we restate the circumstances of the solar system, and if we include the comets in our view, it will appear how seriously the existence of the comets affects the validity of the argument in favor of the nebular hypothesis which is derived from the uniformity in the directions of the planetary movements. If we include the whole host of minor planets, we have for the population of the solar system something under three hundred planets, and an enormous multitude of comets. It will probably not be an overestimate if we suppose that the comets are ten times as numerous as the planets. The case, then, stands thus: The solar system consists of some thousands of different bodies; these bodies move in orbits of the most varied degrees of eccentricity; they have no common direction; their planes are situated in all conceivable positions, save only that each of these planes must pass through the sun. Stated in this way, the present condition of the solar system is surely no argument for the nebular theory. It might rather be said that it is inconceivable on the nebular theory how a system of this form could be constructed at all. Nine tenths of the bodies in the solar system do not exhibit movements which would suggest that they were produced from a nebula: the remaining tenth do no doubt exhibit movements which seem to admit of explanation by the nebular theory; but, had that tenth not obeyed the group of laws referred to, they would not now be there to tell the tale. The planetary system now lives solely because it was an organism fitted for survival. It is often alleged that the comets are not indigenous to the solar system. It has been supposed that the comets have been imported from other systems. It has also been urged with considerable probability that perhaps many comets may have had their origin in our sun and have been actually ejected therefrom. I do not now attempt to enter into the discussion of these views, which are at present problematical; let me pass from this part of the subject, with the remark that, until the nature and origin of comets be better understood, it will be impossible to appraise with accuracy the value of the argument for the nebular hypothesis which has been based on the uniformity of the directions in which the planets revolve around the sun.

There are, however, other circumstances in the solar system which admit of explanation by the nebular theory. It is a remarkable fact that the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all known to rotate upon their axes in the same direction as their revolutions around the sun. The nebular theory offers an explanation of this circumstance. It does not appear that this common rotation of the planets is absolutely necessary for the stability of the system. Should it further be proved that there is no other agency at work which would force the planets to rotate in the same direction, then it must be admitted that the nebular theory receives very substantial support.

There is another way in which we can examine the evidence on behalf of the nebular hypothesis. There are certain actions going on at present in the solar system; and by reasoning backward from these present actions we are led to believe that in extremely early times the condition of things may have resembled that which is supposed by the nebular hypothesis. Let us begin with the consideration of our sun, which is, as we know, daily radiating off light and heat into space. This heat is poured off in all directions; a small portion of it is intercepted by the earth, hut this portion is less than one two-thousand-millionth part of the whole; the planets also, no doubt, each intercept a small portion of the solar radiation; but the great mass of radiated heat from the sun entirely escapes. This heat is supposed not to be restored to the sun. The sun certainly must receive some heat by the radiation from the stars; but this is quite infinitesimal in comparison with the stupendous radiation from the sun. "We therefore conclude that the sun's heat is being squandered with prodigal liberality.[1] We also know that the store of heat which the sun can possess, though no doubt enormously great, is still limited in amount. It is, indeed, a question of very great interest to decide what are the probable sources by which the sun is able to maintain its present rate of expenditure. The sun must have some source of heat in addition to that which it would possess in virtue of its temperature as an incandescent body. If we suppose the sun to be a vast incandescent body, formed of materials which possess the same specific heat as the materials of which our earth is composed, the sun would then cool at the rate of from 5° to 10° per annum. At this rate the sun could not have lasted for more than a few thousand years before it cooled down. "We are therefore compelled to inquire whether the sun may not have some other source of heat to supply its radiation beyond that which arises merely from the temperature.

Of the various sources which have been suggested, it will here only be necessary to mention two. It has been supposed that the heat of the sun may be recruited by the incessant falling of meteoric matter upon the sun's surface. If that matter had been drawn only by the sun's attraction from the remote depths of space, it would fall upon the sun with an enormously great velocity, amounting to about 300 miles a second. It follows from the principle of the equivalence between heat and mechanical energy that a body entering the sun with this velocity would contribute to the sun a considerable quantity of heat. It is known that small meteoroids abound in the solar system; they are constantly seen in the form of shooting-stars when they dash into our atmosphere, and it can hardly be doubted that myriads of such bodies must fall into the sun. It does not, however, seem likely that enough matter of this kind can enter the sun to account for its mighty radiation of heat. It can be shown that the quantity of matter necessary for this purpose is so large that a mass equal in the aggregate to the mass of the earth would have to fall into the sun every century if the radiation of the sun were to be defrayed from this source. That so large a stream of matter should be perennially drawn into the sun is, to say the least, highly improbable. But it is quite possible to account for the radiation of the sun on strictly scientific principles, even if we discard entirely the contributions due to meteoric matter. As the sun parts with its heat it must contract, in virtue of the general law that all bodies contract when cooling; but in the act of contraction an amount of heat is produced. By this the process of cooling is greatly retarded. It can, indeed, be shown that, if the sun contracts so that his diameter decreases one mile every twenty-five years, the amount of heat necessary to supply his radiation would be amply accounted for. At this rate many thousands of years must elapse before the diminution in the sun's diameter would be large enough to be appreciable by our measurements.

Looking back into the remote ages, we thus see that the sun was larger and larger the further back we project our view. If we go sufficiently far back, we seem to come to a time when the sun, in a more or less completely gaseous state, filled up the whole solar system out to the orbit of Mercury, or earlier still, out to the orbit of the remotest planet. If we admit that the present laws of Nature have been acting during the past ages to which we refer, then it does not seem possible to escape the conclusion that the sun was once a nebulous mass of gas such as the nebular theory of Laplace would require.

It will also throw some light upon this retrospective argument for the nebular theory if we briefly consider the probable past history of the earth. It is known that the interior of the earth is hotter than the exterior. It has been suggested that this interior heat may arise from certain chemical actions which are at present going on. If this were universally the case, the argument now to be brought forward could not be entertained. I believe, however, most physicists will agree in thinking that the interior heat of the earth is an indication that the earth is cooling down from some former condition in which it was hotter than it is at present. The surface has cooled already, and the interior is cooling as quickly as the badly conducting materials of the earth will permit. "We are thus led to think of the earth as having been hotter in past time than at present. The further we look back the greater must the earth's heat have been. "We can not stop till the earth was once red-hot or white-hot, till it was molten or a mass of fiery vapor. Here, again, we are led to a condition of things which would certainly seem to harmonize with the doctrines of the nebular theory.

The verdict of science on the whole subject can not be expressed better than in the words of Newcomb:

At the present time we can only say that the nebular hypothesis is indicated by the general tendencies of the laws of Nature; that it has not been proved to be inconsistent with any fact; that it is almost a necessary consequence of the only theory by which we can account for the origin and conservation of the sun's heat; but that it rests on the assumption that this conservation is to be explained by the laws of Nature as we now see them in operation. Should any one be skeptical as to the sufficiency of these laws to account for the present state of things, science can furnish no evidence strong enough to over-throw his doubts until the sun shall be found growing smaller by actual measurement, or the nebulæ be actually seen to condense into stars and systems.

  1. A remarkable theory has recently been put forward by Dr. Siemens, according to which the sun's radiant energy is ultimately restored to the sun. Even the possibility of some such theory being true most seriously affects the above arguments in favor of the nebular hypothesis.