by Robert S. BallApril 30th, 2023
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The Primæval Nebula—A Planetary Nebula—The Progress of its Evolution—Unsymmetrical Contraction—Centres of Condensation—The Form ultimately assumed—Difference between Small Bodies and Large—Earth and Sun—Acceleration of Velocities—Formation of the Subordinate Systems—Special Circumstances in the case of the Earth and Moon—Vast Scale of the Spirals—Spectra of the Spiral Nebulæ. We shall consider in this chapter what we believe to have been the history of that splendid system, formed by the planets under the presiding control of the sun. The ground over which we have already passed will prepare us for the famous doctrine that the sun, the planets and their satellites, together with the other bodies which form the group we call the solar system, have originated from the contraction of a primæval nebula.
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The Earth's Beginning by Robert S. Ball is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE EVOLUTION OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM


The Primæval Nebula—A Planetary Nebula—The Progress of its Evolution—Unsymmetrical Contraction—Centres of Condensation—The Form ultimately assumed—Difference between Small Bodies and Large—Earth and Sun—Acceleration of Velocities—Formation of the Subordinate Systems—Special Circumstances in the case of the Earth and Moon—Vast Scale of the Spirals—Spectra of the Spiral Nebulæ.

We shall consider in this chapter what we believe to have been the history of that splendid system, formed by the planets under the presiding control of the sun. The ground over which we have already passed will prepare us for the famous doctrine that the sun, the planets and their satellites, together with the other bodies which form the group we call the solar system, have originated from the contraction of a primæval nebula.

As the ages rolled by, this great primæval nebula began to undergo modification. In accordance with the universal law which we find obeyed in our laboratories, and which we have reason to believe must be equally obeyed throughout the whole extent of space, this nebula, if warmer than the surrounding space, must begin to radiate forth its heat. We are to assume that the nebula does not receive heat from other bodies, adequate to compensate for that which it dissipates by radiation. There is thus a loss of heat and consequently the nebula must begin to contract. Its material must gradually draw together, and must do so under the operation of those fundamental laws which we have explained in the last chapter.

The contraction, or rather the condensation, of the material would of course generally be greatest at the central portion of the nebula. This is especially noticeable in the photograph of the great spiral already referred to. But in addition to this special condensation at the centre, the concentration takes place also, though in a lesser degree, at many other points throughout the whole extent of the glowing mass. Each centre of condensation which in this way becomes established tends continually to increase. In consequence of this law, as the great nebula contracted and as the great bulk of the material drew in towards the centre, there were isolated regions in the nebula which became subordinate centres of condensation. Perhaps in the primæval nebula, from which the solar system originated, there were half-a-dozen or more of these centres that were of conspicuous importance, while a much larger number of small points were also distinguished from the surrounding nebula. (Figs. 40 and 41.) And still the contraction went on. The heat, or rather the energy with which the nebula had been originally charged, was still being dissipated by radiation. We give no estimate of the myriads of years that each stage of the mighty process must have occupied. The tendency of the transformation was, however, always in one direction. It did at last result in a great increase of the density of the substance of the nebula, both in the central regions as well as in the subordinate parts. In due time this increase in density had reached such a point that the materials in the condensing centres could be no longer described as retaining the gaseous form.

But though heat was incessantly being radiated from the great nebula, it did not necessarily follow that the nebula was itself losing temperature. This is a seeming paradox to which we have already had occasion to refer in Chapter VI. We need not now further refer to it than to remember that, in speaking of the loss of heat from the nebula, it would sometimes not be correct to describe the operation as that of cooling. Up to a certain stage in the condensation, the loss of heat leads rather to an augmentation of temperature than to its decline.

We are thus led to see how the laws of heat, after being in action on the primitive nebula for a period of illimitable ages, have at last effected a marvellous transformation. That nebula has condensed into a vast central mass with a number of associated subordinate portions. We may suppose that the original nebula in the course of time does practically disappear. It is absorbed by the attraction of those ponderous centres which have gradually developed throughout its extent.

The large central body, and perhaps some of the other bodies thus evolved, are at first of so high a temperature that a copious radiation of heat still goes forth from the system. As they discharge their stores of heat, the smaller bodies show the effects of loss of heat more rapidly than those which are larger. It is indeed obvious that a small body must cool more rapidly than a big one. It is sufficient to note that the cooling takes place from the surface, and that the bigger the body the larger the quantity of material that it contains for each unit of superficial area. If the radius of a sphere be doubled, its volume is increased eightfold, while its surface is only increased fourfold.

Fig. 38.—The Ring Nebula in Lyra (Lick Observatory).
(From the Royal Astronomical Society Series.)

Let us now concentrate our attention on two of the bodies which, after immense ages, have been formed from the condensation of the primæval nebula. Let one of the two bodies be that central object, which preponderates so enormously that its mass is a thousandfold that of all the others taken together. Let the other be one of the smaller bodies. As it parts with its heat, the smaller body, which has originally condensed from the nebula, will assume some of the features of a mass of molten liquid. From the liquid condition, the body will pass with comparative rapidity into a solid state, at least on its outer parts. The exterior of this body will therefore become solid while the interior is still at an excessively high temperature. The outer material, which has assumed the solid form, is constituted of the elements with which we are acquainted, and is in the form of what the geologist would class as the igneous rocks, of which granite is the best known example. The shell of hard rocks outside encloses the material which is still heated and molten inside. Such a crust would certainly be an extremely bad conductor of heat. The internal heat is therefore greatly obstructed in its passage outwards to the surface. The internal heat may consequently be preserved in the interior of the body for an enormously protracted period, a period perhaps comparable with those immense ages which the evolution of the body from the primæval nebula has demanded. The smaller body may have thus attained a condition in which the temperature reigning on its surface is regulated chiefly by the external conditions of the space around, while the internal parts are still highly charged with the primitive heat from the original nebula.

The great central mass, which we may regard as thousands of times greater than that of the subordinate body, cools much more slowly. The cooling of this great mass is so enormously protracted in comparison with that of the smaller body that it is quite conceivable the central mass may continue to glow with intense fervour for immense ages after the smaller body has become covered with hard rock.

It will, I hope, be clear that the two bodies to which I am here alluding are not merely imaginary objects. The small body, which has so far cooled down that its surface has lost all indication of internal heat, is of course our earth. The great central mass which still glows with intense fervour is the sun. Such is in outline the origin of the sun and the earth as suggested by the nebular theory.

What we have said of the formation of the earth will equally apply to the evolution of other detached portions of the primitive nebula. There may be several of these, and they may vary greatly in size. The smaller they are the more rapidly in general will the superabundant heat be radiated away, and the sooner will the surface of that planet acquire the temperature which is determined by the surrounding conditions. There are, however, many modifying circumstances.

It is essential to notice that the primæval nebula must have had some initial moment of momentum, unless we are to assume the occurrence of that which is infinitely improbable. It would have been infinitely improbable for the system not to have had some moment of momentum originally. As the evolution proceeds, and as the energy is expended, while this original endowment of moment of momentum is preserved, we find, as explained in the last chapter, the system gradually settling down into proximity to a plane, and gradually acquiring a uniform direction of revolution. Hence we see that each of the subordinate masses which ultimately consolidate to form a planet have a motion of revolution around the central body. In like manner the central body itself rotates, and all these motions are performed in the same direction.

In addition to the revolutions of the planets around the sun, there are other motions which can be accounted for as consequences of the contraction of the nebula. We now refer to that central portion which is to form the sun, and consider, in the first instance, only one of the subordinate portions which is to form a planet. As these two bodies form part of the same nebulous mass they will to a certain extent rotate together as one piece. If any body is rotating as a whole, every part of that body is also in actual rotation. We shall refer to this again later on; but for the present it is sufficient to observe that as the planet was originally continuous with the sun, it had a motion of rotation besides its motion of revolution, and it revolved round its own axis in a period equal to that of its revolution round the sun. In the beginning the rotation of the planet was therefore an exceedingly slow movement. But it became subsequently accelerated. For we have already explained that each planet is by itself subjected to the law of the conservation of moment of momentum. As each planet assumes a separate existence, it draws to itself its share of the moment of momentum, and that must be strictly preserved. But the planet, or rather the materials which are to form the future planet, are all the time shrinking; they are drawing more closely together. If, therefore, the area which each particle of the planet describes when multiplied by the mass of that particle and added to the similar products arising from all the other particles, is to remain constant, it becomes necessary that just as the orbits of these particles diminish in size, so must the speed at which they revolve increase. We thus find that there is a tendency in the planet to accelerate its rotation. And thus we see that a time will come when the planet, having assumed an independent existence, will be found rotating round its axis with a velocity which must be considered high in comparison with the angular 253velocity which the planet had while it still formed part of the original nebula.

As the planets have been evolved so as to describe their several orbits around the sun, so in like manner the smaller systems of satellites have been so evolved as to describe their orbits round the several planets that are their respective primaries. When a planet, or rather the materials which were drawing together to form a planet, had acquired a predominant attraction for the parts of the primæval nebula in their locality, a portion of the nebulous material became specially associated with the planet. As the planet with this nebulous material became separated from the central contracting sun, or became, as it were, left behind while the sun was drawing into itself the material which surrounded it the planet and its associated nebula underwent on a miniature scale an evolution similar to that which had already taken place in the formation of the sun and the planets as a whole. In this manner secondary systems seem sometimes to have had their origin.

We should, however, say that though what we have here indicated appears to explain fully the evolution of some of the systems, such, for instance, as that of Jupiter and his four moons, or Saturn and his eight or nine, the circumstances with regard to the earth and the moon are such as to require a very different explanation of the origin of our satellite. In the first place we may notice that the great mass of the moon, in comparison with the earth, is a wholly exceptional feature in the relations between the planets and their satellites in the other parts of the system. In no other instance does the mass of a satellite bear to the mass of the planet a ratio anything like so great as the ratio of our moon to the earth. The moon has a mass which is about one-eightieth of the mass of the earth, while even the largest of Jupiter’s satellites has not one ten-thousandth part of the mass of the planet itself. The evolution of the earth and moon system has been brought about in a manner very different from that of the evolution of the other systems of satellites. We do not here enter into any discussion of the matter. We merely remind the reader that it is now known, mainly by the researches of Professor G. H. Darwin, that in all probability the moon was originally part of the earth, and that a partition having occurred while the materials of the earth and moon were still in a plastic state, a small portion broke away to form the moon, leaving behind the greater mass to form the earth. Then, under the influence of tides, which may agitate a mass of molten rock, as the moon was once (Fig. 39), just as they may agitate an ocean, the moon was forced away, and was ultimately conducted to its present orbit.

Fig. 39.—Lunar Craters: Hyginus and Albategnius.
(Photographed by MM. Loewy and Puiseux.)

It was at first tempting to imagine that a theory which accounted so satisfactorily for the evolution of the moon from the earth might also account in a similar manner for the evolution of the earth from the sun. Had this been the case, it is needless to say that the principles we now accept in the nebular theory would have needed large modification, if not actual abandonment. A close examination into the actual statistics brings forcibly before us the exceptional character of the earth-moon system. It can be demonstrated that the earth could not have been evolved from the sun in the same manner as there is every reason to believe that the moon has been evolved from the earth. The evolution of the satellites of Jupiter has proceeded along lines quite different from those of the evolution of the moon from the earth, so that we may, perhaps, find in the evolution of the satellites of Jupiter an illustration in miniature of the way in which the planets themselves have been evolved in relation to the sun.

We must not forget that the only spiral nebulæ which lie within the reach of our powers of observation, whether telescopic or photographic, appear to be objects of enormously greater cosmical magnificence than was that primæval nebula from which so insignificant an object as the solar system has sprung. The great spirals, so far as we can tell at present, appear to be thousands of times, or even millions of times, greater in area than the solar system. At this point, however, we must speak with special caution, having due regard to the paucity of our knowledge of a most important element. Astronomers must confess that no efforts which have yet been made to determine the dimensions of a nebula have been crowned with success. We have not any precise idea as to what the distance of the great spiral might be. We generally take for granted that these nebulæ are at distances comparable with the distances of the stars. On this assumption we estimate that the spiral nebulæ must transcend enormously the dimensions of the primæval nebula from which the solar system has sprung. The spiral nebulæ that have so far come within our observation seem to be objects of an order of magnitude altogether higher than a solar system. They seem to be engaged on the majestic function of evolving systems of stars like the Milky Way, rather than on the inconsiderable task of producing a system which concerns only a single star and not a galaxy.

Fig. 40.—A remarkable Spiral (n.g.c. 628; in Pisces).
(Photographed by Dr. Isaac Roberts, F.R.S.)

The spiral form of structure is one in which Nature seems to delight. We find it in the organic world allied with objects of the greatest interest and beauty. The ammonite, a magnificent spiral shell sometimes exceeding three feet in diameter, belongs to a type which dominated the waters of the globe in secondary times, and which still survives in the nautilus. The same form is reproduced in minute creations totally different from ammonites in their zoological relations. Among the exquisite foraminifera which the microscopist knows so well may be found most delicate and beautiful spirals. Just as we see every range of spiral in the animal world, from an organism invisible to the naked eye, up to an ammonite a yard or more across, so it would seem that there are spiral nebulæ ranging from such vast objects as the great spiral in Canes Venatici down to such relatively minute spirals as those whose humble function it is to develop a solar system. It is no more than a reasonable supposition that the great spirals in the heavens are probably only the more majestic objects of an extremely numerous class. The smaller objects of this type—among which we might expect to find nebulæ like, in size and importance, to the primæval nebula of our system—are so small that they have not yet been recognised.

It should at this stage be mentioned that several curious small planetary nebulæ have in these modern days been discovered by their peculiar spectra. If the nebulous character of these most interesting objects had not been accidentally disclosed by characteristic lines in their spectra, these undoubted nebulæ would each have been classified merely as stars. This fact will lead us to the surmise that there must be myriads of nebulæ in the heavens, too small to come within the range of our telescopes or of our most sensitive photographic plates. Suppose that a facsimile of the primæval nebula of our system, precisely corresponding with it in size and identical with it in every detail, were at the present moment located in space, but at a distance from our standpoint, as great as the distance of, let us say, the great spiral; it seems certain that this nebula, even though it contained the materials for a huge sun and a potential system of mighty planets, if not actually invisible to us here, would in all probability demand the best powers of our instruments to reveal it, and then it would be classed not as a nebula at all but as a star of perhaps the 12th or 15th, or even smaller magnitude.

Fig. 41.—A clearly-cut Spiral (n.g.c. 4321; in Coma Berenices).
(Photographed by Dr. Isaac Roberts, F.R.S.)

It is to be remembered that the class of minute planetary nebulæ make themselves known solely by the fact that they exhibit the bright line indicative of gaseous spectra. If these objects (though still nebulæ) had not displayed gaseous spectra, it is certain they would have escaped detection, at least by the process which has actually proved so successful. The continuous band of light which they would then have presented could not be discriminated from the band of light from a star. It is therefore not improbable that among the star-like bodies which have been represented on our photographs, there may be some which are really minute spiral nebulæ. In general a star is a minute point of light which no augmentation of telescopic power and no magnification will show otherwise than as a point, granted only good optical conditions and good opportunity so far as the atmosphere is concerned. It has, however, been occasionally noted that certain so-called stars are not mere points of light; they do possess what is described as a disc. It is not at all impossible that the objects so referred to are spiral nebulæ. We may describe them as formed on a small scale in comparison with the great spiral or the nebula in Andromeda. But the smallness here referred to is only relative. They are in all probability quite as vast as the primæval spiral nebula from which the solar system has been evolved, though not so large as those curious ring-shaped nebulæ of which the most celebrated example lies in the constellation Lyra (Fig. 38).

Such is an outline of what we believe to have been the history of our solar system. We have already given the evidence derived from the laws of heat. We have now to consider the evidence which has been derived from the constitution of the system itself. We shall see how strongly it supports the belief that the origin of sun and planets has been such as the nebular theory suggests.

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