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A History of Science, Volume 5(of 5) by Williams

This calculation was made by Lord Kelvin


first sight this explanation seemed a little puzzling to many laymen and some experts, for it seemed to imply, as Lord Kelvin pointed out, that the sun contracts because it is getting cooler, and gains heat because it contracts. But this feat is not really as paradoxical as it seems, for it is not implied that there is any real gain of heat in the sun's mass as a whole, but quite the reverse. All that is sought is an explanation of a maintenance of heat-giving capacity relatively unchanged for a long, but not an interminable, period. Indeed, exactly here comes in the novel and startling feature of. Helmholtz's calculation. According to Mayer's meteoric hypothesis, there were no data at hand for any estimate whatever as to the sun's permanency, since no one could surmise what might be the limits of the meteoric supply. But Helmholtz's estimate implied an incandescent body cooling--keeping up a somewhat equable temperature through contraction for a time, but for a limited time only; destined ultimately to become liquid, solid; to cool below the temperature of incandescence--to die. Not only so, but it became possible to calculate the limits of time within which this culmination would probably occur. It was only necessary to calculate the total amount of heat which could be generated by the total mass of our solar system in falling together to the sun's centre from "infinity" to find the total heat-supply to be drawn upon. Assuming, then, that the present observed rate of heat-giving
has been the average maintained in the past, a simple division gives the number of years for which the original supply is adequate. The supply will be exhausted, it will be observed, when the mass comes into stable equilibrium as a solid body, no longer subject to contraction, about the sun's centre--such a body, in short, as our earth is at present.

This calculation was made by Lord Kelvin, Professor Tait, and others, and the result was one of the most truly dynamitic surprises of the century. For it transpired that, according to mathematics, the entire limit of the sun's heat-giving life could not exceed something like twenty-five millions of years. The publication of that estimate, with the appearance of authority, brought a veritable storm about the heads of the physicists. The entire geological and biological worlds were up in arms in a trice. Two or three generations before, they hurled brickbats at any one who even hinted that the solar system might be more than six thousand years old; now they jeered in derision at the attempt to limit the life-bearing period of our globe to a paltry fifteen or twenty millions.

The controversy as to solar time thus raised proved one of the most curious and interesting scientific disputations of the century. The scene soon shifted from the sun to the earth; for a little reflection made it clear that the data regarding the sun alone were not sufficiently definite. Thus Dr. Croll contended that if the parent bodies of the sun had chanced to be "flying stars" before collision, a vastly greater supply of heat would have been engendered than if the matter merely fell together. Again, it could not be overlooked that a host of meteors are falling into the sun, and that this source of energy, though not in itself sufficient to account for all the heat in question, might be sufficient to vitiate utterly any exact calculations. Yet again, Professor Lockyer called attention to another source of variation, in the fact that the chemical combination of elements hitherto existing separately must produce large quantities of heat, it being even suggested that this source alone might possibly account for all the present output. On the whole, then, it became clear that the contraction theory of the sun's heat must itself await the demonstration of observed shrinkage of the solar disk, as viewed by future generations of observers, before taking rank as an incontestable theory, and that computations as to time based solely on this hypothesis must in the mean time be viewed askance.

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