Nebular Theory - Encyclopedia

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NEBULAR THEORY, a theory advanced to account 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 from the very nature of the case can have but little direct evidence in its favour.

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Anomalies Creating Need for Theory


There are very remarkable features in the solar system which point unmistakably to some common origin of many of the different bodies which it contains. We may at once put the comets out of view. It does not 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. In any case the orbits of comets are exposed to such tremendous perturbations from the planets that it is unsafe from the present orbit of a comet to conjecture what that orbit may have been in remote antiquity. On these grounds we discuss the nebular theory without much reference to comets. But even after the omission of all cometary objects we can still count in the solar system upwards of five hundred bodies, almost every one of which pronounces distinctly, though with varying emphasis, in favour of the nebular theory.


The first great fact to be noticed is that the planets revolve around the sun in the same direction. This is true not only of the major planets Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; it is also true of the host of more than five hundred minor planets. It is also 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 calculate the chance that five hundred bodies revolving round the sun shall all be moving in the same direction. The improbability of such an arrangement is enormously great. It is represented by the ratio of a number containing about a hundred and sixty figures to unity, and so we are at once forced to the conclusion that this remarkable feature of the planetary motions 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 influences have been at work, we find that the satellites revolve around the primaries also in the same direction (Exceptions are Saturn ix. (Phoebe), Jupiter vii. (?) and viii., and the satellite of Neptune.); while, to make the argument complete, the planets, so far as they can be observed, rotate on their axes in the same manner.

Nebular Theory

The nebular theory offers an explanation of this most remarkable uniformity. Laplace supposed the existence of a primeval nebula 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 a movement of rotation. In fact a little consideration of the theory of probabilities will show it to be 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 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 expected not to be uniform, and, therefore, to condense in some parts more rapidly than in others. The effect of such contraction would be to draw the materials of the ring into a single mass, and thus we would have a planet formed, while the satellites of that planet would be developed from the still nascent planet in the same way as the planet itself originated from the sun. In this way 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.

Such was the nebular theory as it was originally sketched. At the present day when the nebulae that are spiral in form have been shown to be so numerous, next to the fixed stars themselves, our view of the nebular theory has been somewhat modified. It now seems probable that the spiral nebula is the fittest illustration of the transformation of a diffused nebula into a system of sun and planets.

The rotation of the planets on their axes is also explained as a consequence of the nebular theory, 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 considering the nebular origin of our system, 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 thence inferring what must have been the progress of events in the earlier epochs of the history of our system.

Sun's Heat as Evidence

The daily outpour of heat from the sun at the present time suggests a profound argument in support of the nebular theory. The amount of the sun's heat has been estimated, but 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 flows away to be lost in space. Now what supplies this heat? We might at first suppose that the sun was really an intensely heated body radiating out its heat as does white-hot iron, but this explanation cannot be admitted, for there is no historical evidence that the sun is growing colder. We have not the slightest reason to think that the radiation from the sun is measurably weaker now 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 every year, and must have cooled many thousands of degrees within the time covered by historical records. We, therefore, conclude that the sun has some other source of heat than that due simply to incandescence. It might, for example, be suggested that the heat of the sun was supplied by chemical combination 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 if the present rate of radiation was to be sustained. 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 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 not be sustained from this source. Now there is no reason to 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 enormous mass of the sun and to a remarkable law of heat. It is 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 heat 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 has been estimated that the sun is at present contracting so that its diameter diminishes 10 m. every century; there is, however, now reason to think that the rate of contraction is by no means so rapid as this would indicate. This is an inappreciable distance when compared with the diameter of the sun, which is nearly a million of miles, but the significance for our present purpose depends upon the fact that this contraction is always taking place. Assuming the accuracy of the estimate just made, we see that a thousand years ago the sun must have had a diameter 100 m. greater than at present, ten thousand years ago that diameter must have been 1000 m. 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 the 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 limit to the increasing size of the sun as we look back. We must conceive a time when the sun was 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 revolves on the confines 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 that our sun is but a star, or but one of the millions of stars, it is of interest to see whether any other systems present indication of a nebulous origin analogous to that which Laplace proposed for the solar system. In one of his papers, Sir W. Herschel marshals the evidence which can be collected on this point. He arranges 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 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 exhibit 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 the object just after it. It seemed to Herschel that he was thus able to view the actual changes by which masses of phosphorescent or glowing vapour 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 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 immense and that the changes accomplished in only 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 S. 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 sceptical 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."


BIBLIOGRAPHY. - Laplace, Systeme du monde; Sir William Herschel, Phil. - Trans. (1814), pp. 248-284; Kant's Cosmogony, translated by Professor Hastie; Sir John Herschel, Outlines of Astronomy; Professor S. Newcomb, Popular Astronomy; Lick Observatory publications. photographs of Nebulae; Sir Robert Ball, The Earth's Beginning. (R. S. B.)

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