Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/254

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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