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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 73.djvu/107

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03
HISTORY OF THE CONSERVATION OF ENERGY1

did not attempt an estimate of the age of the solar system, but he discussed the preliminary question as to the source of solar heat. As soon as Mayer had convinced himself that energy can not be destroyed, and that the energy of the earth comes mainly from the sun, he began to study what Sir William Herschel had called "the great secret" of the maintenance of solar heat. In 18-11, before the publication of his first paper, he asked questions relating to solar heat, in a letter to Baur, "Is it the glowing of the sun? Why does he not cool off? Is it a burning depending upon willing meteoric stones?"[1]

In 1816 he had a paper ready on this subject. Being reminded by a friend that no one can be a prophet in his own country, he sent the paper to the Academy of Sciences in Paris. A committee of the academy was directed to report on this paper, but it failed to do so and the paper was ignored. It could be published only at his own expense. It appeared in 1818 under the title, "Celestial Dynamics." Mayer concludes that the sun can not be a glowing mass, sending out radiation without compensation; solar heat can not be due entirely to chemical changes; solar heat can not be due to solar rotation. He finally embraces the theory that solar heat is due to the energy of meteors falling into the sun. He did not overlook the fact that the resulting increase of mass of the sun would increase its attraction for the planets, and would shorten the sidereal year. He knew that observation does not disclose any variation in the length of the year. An easy explanation would be offered by Newton's corpuscular theory of light, according to which the sun sends out matter into space. But this theory was then known to be untenable. In this dilemma Mayer takes refuge in an idea which rests on a misconception of the unclulatory theory of light, and he offers an explanation which is now easily recognized as invalid.

From Mayer we pass to William Thomson, the late Lord Kelvin, who, six years later, took up the very same problem and arrived independently at almost identically the same conclusions. That solar heat may be due to falling meteors was first suggested in England by Waterston. Unlike Mayer, Thomson sees no objection to the increase in the sun's mass resulting from meteoric showers, for, "according to the form of the gravitation theory" which he proposed, "the added matter is drawn from a space where it acts on the planets with very nearly the same forces as when incorporated in the sun." In an appendix to the paper, Thomson ventures an estimate of the age of the sun. This is the first attempt, made by a physicist, to compute the age of our great luminary and to prepare a mortuary estimate of it. He goes on the supposition that the solar energy of rotation is derived from the energy of falling meteors. He calculates that, allowing for the constant loss


  1. "Mechanik der Wärme," p. 146.