1902 Encyclopedia > Nebular Theory

Nebular Theory

NEBULAR THEORY. The nebular theory is a famous hypothesis which has been advanced with the view of accounting for the origin of the solar system. It is emphatically a speculation; it cannot be demonstrated by observation or established by mathematical calculation. Yet the boldness and the splendour of the nebular theory have always given it a dignity not usually attached to a doctrine which has so little direct evidence in its favour. It will also be admitted that from the very nature of the case a theory of the origin of the solar system must be devoid of direct testimony. All we could expect to find would be features in that system whose existence the theory would account for: or possibly by looking at other systems we might observe them in phases suggesting the early phases of our own system. It is hard to see what other kind of evidence would be attainable. Now as a matter of fact our system does present many most striking features which could be accounted for by the nebular theory, and the theory also derives as much corroboration from the study of other systems as we could reasonably expect. Hence, as all attainable evidence is on the whole in favour of the nebular theory (though here and there three are exceptional phenomena), astronomers have generally regarded this theory with considerable approval.

There are very remarkable features in the solar system which point bodies which it contains. We must at once put the comets out of view. It does nor appear that they bear any testimony on either side of the question. We do not know whether the comets are really indigenous to the solar system or whether they may not be merely imported into the system from the depths of space. Even if the comets be indigenous to the system, they may, as many suppose, be merely ejections from the sun, or in any case their orbits are exposed to such tremendous perturbations from the planets that it is quite unsafe from the present orbit of a comet to attempt any estimate of what that orbit may have been countless ages ago. On all these grounds we must put the comets on one side for the present and discuss the nebular theory without any reference thereto. But even with this omission we still muster in the solar system from two to three hundred bodies, almost every one of which pronounces distinctly, though with varying emphasis, in favour of the nebular theory. The first great fact to which we refer is the common direction in which the planets revolve around the sun. This is true not only of the great planets revolve around the sun. This is true not only of the great planets Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune; it is also true of the host of more than two hundred small planets. All these bodies perform their revolution in the same direction. It is also extremely remarkable that all the great planets and many of the small ones have their orbits very nearly in the same plane, and nearly circular in form. Viewed as a question in probabilities, we may ask what the chance is that our of two hundred and fifty bodies revolving around the sun all shall be moving in one direction. If the direction of movement were decided by chance, the probability against such as arrangement is of stupendous magnitude. It is represented by the ratio of unity to a number containing about sixty figures, and so we are at once forced to the conclusion that this remarkable feature of the planetary motio9ns must have some physical explanation. In a minor degree this conclusion is strengthened by observing the satellites. Discarding those of Uranus, in which the orbits of the satellites are highly inclined to the ecliptic, and in which manifestly some exceptional though unknown influences have been at work, we may say that the satellites revolved around the primaries also in the same direction; while, to make the picture complete, we find that the planets, so far as they can be observed, rotate on their axes in the same manner.

The nebular theory here steps in and offers an explanation of this most remarkable uniformity. Laplace supposed that our sun had once a stupendous nebulous atmosphere which extended so far out as to fill all the space at present occupied by the planets. This gigantic nebulous mass, of which the sun was only the central and somewhat more condensed portion, is supposed to have a movement of rotation on its axis. There is no difficulty in conceiving how a nebula, quite independently of any internal motion of its parts, shall also have had as a whole movement of rotation. In fact a little consideration will show from the law of probabilities that it is infinitely probable that such an object should really have some movement of rotation, no matter by what causes the nebula may have originated. As this vast mass cooled it must by the laws of heat have contracted towards the centre, and as it contracted it must, according to a well-known law of dynamics, rotate more rapidly. The time would then come when the centrifugal force on the outer parts of the mass would more than counterbalance the attraction of the centre, and thus we would have the outer parts left as a ring. The inner portion will still continue to contract, the same process will be repeated, and thus a second ring will be formed. We have thus grounds for believing that the original nebula will separate into a series of rings all revolving in the same direction with a central nebulous mass in the interior. The materials of each ring would continue to cool and to contract until they passed from the gaseous to the liquid condition. If the consolidation took place with comparative uniformity we might then anticipate the formation of a vast multitude of small planets such as those we actually do find in the region between the orbit of Mars and that of Jupiter. More usually, however, the ring might be expect ed not to be uniform, and therefore to condense in some parts more rapidly than in others. The effects of such parts more rapidly than in others. The effect of such contraction would be to draw into a single mass the materials of the ring, and thus we would have a planet formed, while the satellites of that planet would be developed form the still nascent planet in the same way as the planet itself originated form the sun. In this was we account most simply for the uniformity in the direction in which the planets revolve, and for the mutual proximity of the planes in which their orbits are contained. The rotation of the planets on their axes is also explained, for at the time of the first formation of the planet it must have participated in the rotation of the whole nebula, and by the subsequent contraction of the planet the speed with which the rotation was performed must have been accelerated.

There is quite a different method of approaching the subject, which leads in a very striking manner to conclusions practically identical with those we have just sketched. We may commence by dealing with the sun as we find it at the present moment, and then reasoning back to what must have been the case in the earlier epochs of the history of our system. The stupendous daily outpour of heat from the sun at the present time is really, when properly studied, a profound argument in support of the nebular theory. The amount of the sun’s heat has been estimated. We receive on the earth less than one two-thousand-millionth part of the whole radiation. It would seem that the greater part of the rest of that torrent flows away to be lost in space. Now what supplies this heat? We might at first suppose that the sun was really a mightily heated body radiating out its heat as white hot iron does, but this explanation cannot be admitted in face of the notorious fact that there is no historical evidence that the sun is growing colder. We have not the slightest reason to think than it was a couple of thousand years ago, yet it can be shown that, if the sun were merely radiating heat as simply a hot body, then it would cool some degrees within the time covered by historical records. We therefore conclude that he sun has some other source of heat than that due simply to incandescence. We can also conceive that the heat of the sun might be supplied by something analogous to combustion. It would take 20 tons of coal a day burned on each square foot of the sun’s surface to supply the daily radiation. Even if the sun were made of one mass of fuel as efficient as coal, that mass must be entirely expended in a few thousand years. We cannot therefore admit that the source of the heat in the sun is to be found in any chemical combination taking place in its mass. Where then can we find an adequate supply of heat? Only one external source can be named: the falling of meteors into the sun must yield some heat just as the flash of a shooting star yields some heat to our atmosphere, but the question is whether the quantity of heat obtainable from the shooting stars is at all adequate for the purpose. It can be shown that unless a quantity of meteors in collective mass equal to our moon were to plunge into the sun every year the supply of heat could be sustained from this source. Now there is non reason to be believe that meteors in anything like this quantity can be supplied to the sun, and therefore we must reject this source as also inadequate.

The truth about the sun’s heat appears to be that the sun is really an incandescent body losing heat, but that the operation of cooling is immensely retarded owing to a curious circumstance due jointly to the stupendous mass of the sun and to a remarkable law of heat. It is of course well known that if energy disappears in one form it reappears in another, and this principle applied to the sun will explain the famous difficulty.

As the sun loses head it contracts, and every pair of particles in the sun are nearer to each other after the contraction than they were before. The energy due to their separation is thus less in the contracted state than in the original state, and as that energy cannot be lost it must reappear in heat. The sun is thus slowly contracting; but as it contracts it gains heat by the operation of the law just referred to, and thus the further cooling and further contraction of the sun is protracted until the additional heat obtained is radiated away. In this way we can reconcile the fact that the sun is certainly losing heat with the fact that the change in temperature has not been large enough to be perceived within historic times.

It can be shown that the sun is at present contracting, so that its diameter diminished four miles every century. This is of course an inappreciable distance when is nearly a million of miles, butt he significance for our present purposes depends upon the fact that this contraction is always taking place. A thousand years ago the sun must have had a diameter 40 miles greater than at present, ten thousand years ago that diameter must been 400 mules more than it is now, and so on. We cannot perhaps assert that the same rate is to be continued for very many centuries, but it is plain that the further we look back into past time the greater must the sun have been.

Dealing then simply with the laws of nature as we know them, we can see no boundary to the growth of the sun as we look back. We must conceive a time when the sun as swollen to such an extent that it filled up the entire space girdled by the orbit of Mercury. Earlier still the sun must have reached to the Earth. Earlier still the sun must have reached to where Neptune now revolved on the confined of our system, but the mass of the sun could not undergo an expansion so prodigious without being made vastly more rarefied than at present, and hence we are led by this mode of reasoning to the conception of the primaeval nebula from which our system has originated.

Considering our sun is but a star, or but one of the millions of stars, it becomes a question of great interest to see whether any other system present indication of nebulous origin analogous to that which Laplace proposed for the solar system. In one of his most memorable papers, Sir W. Herschel marshal the evidence which can be collected on this point. He arranges in this paper a selection from his observations on the nebulae in such a way as to give great plausibility to his view of the gradual transmutation of nebulae into stars. Herschel begins by showing 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 nebulae in which a nucleus can be just discerned, others again in which the nucleus is easily been, 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 every 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 form the object just before it and the object just after it. It seemed to Herschel that he was thus able to view the actual changes by which actually condensed down into stars. The condensation of a nebula could be followed in the same manner a we can study the growth of the trees in the forest, by comparing the trees of various ages which the forest contains at the same time. In attempting to pronounce on the evidence with regard to Herschel’s theory, we must at once admit that the transmutation of a nebula into a star has never been seen. It is indeed very doubtful whether any changes of a nebula have ever been seen which are of the same character as the changes Herschel’s theory would require. It seems, however, most likely that the periods of time required for such changes are so stupendous that the changes accomplished in a century or two are absolutely inappreciable.

The nebular theory is a noble speculation supported by plausible argument, and the verdict of science on the whole subject cannot be better expressed 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 overthrow his doubts until the sun shall be found growing smaller by actual measurement, or the nebulae be actually seen to condense into stars and systems. (R. S. B.)

The above article was written by: Sir R.. S. Ball.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries