Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/June 1883/Cost of Life



NOTHING so forcibly strikes the attentive observer of natural phenomena as the prodigal expenditure of force and matter—the immense over-supply of seed; the enormous waste of sun-force in irrigation; the incalculable power, never to be utilized, represented in tidal action, and in atmospheric, oceanic, and river currents. If we extend our observation to the solar system and the inconceivable spaces intervening between that and the neighboring systems, the imagination fails to grasp the relation between the force that is utilized and that which is wasted. A million carried to the tenth power as a multiple, would fail to represent the waste of natural forces, as compared with the rudest Newcomen pumping-engine of the earliest type. This is familiar science, yet the expansion of the idea may present some points of novelty.

It is obvious that the whole system of planets, representing so many minute points in space, receive only an almost infinitesimally small proportion of the light and heat evolved by the sun. Some physicists are fond of giving the exact figures, but this is presenting the inconceivable. Siemens has made a very unsatisfactory effort to show that the force is conserved. He has made but few converts to his theory. It is the purpose of this monograph merely to expand the received idea of waste, by showing that the recipients of the prodigal bounty of the great giver of all good in our solar system—the sun—are far fewer than is usually supposed.

Before the spectroscope taught us that the reign of chemism is coextensive with that of physics, many conjectures were indulged in by astronomers as to the inhabitability of the planets in general. It was taken for granted that there was probably an endless variety in the forms, composition, and even original substance of matter. Vegetation and animalism probably assumed wonderful shapes, and were capable of existing amid conditions not only altogether different from the terrestrial, but altogether incompatible with life on this earth. This conception, unphilosophical a priori, and indirectly the fruit of the wonder-instinct and that bias inherited, according to Comte, from the theological régime, has been swept away, and the reign of law extended to the mystic dream-lands of the universe. No thinker so loosely hinged now as to imagine life without a certain degree of heat, light, and without oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and all the chemical elements, and that too in protean forms. Nay, more, the forms and succession of life must be, wherever found, substantially such as we are familiar with. If Venus has human inhabitants, they are not one eyed Cyclops, nor does vegetation bury its leaves in the ground and spread its roots in the air. Organs, and functions, and instinct are there also, subject to the grand laws of selection and development. Further, the absence of conditions essential to the sustenance of life on our globe would be equally fatal in any other. This brings up the question in hand—the scarcity, as a part of the problem of the cost, of life.

What planets are inhabited? Let us begin with the giant worlds on the verge of the system. In the first place, as might have been conjectured even before the revelations of the spectroscope, from their great volume of light as compared with their distances from the sun, all of these great bodies are self-luminous. They are at least incandescent, and doubtless Jupiter and Saturn are in a fluid, perhaps gaseous state. There can not be the slightest doubt that they are no more fit for life than the sun itself. Will they ever become the habitations of living things? Ignoring their distance from the sun, which to an inhabitant of Saturn would have about the apparent magnitude that Jupiter has to us, there are other considerations which set that question at rest.

The volume of Jupiter, for example, is about 1,280, Saturn 991, Uranus 80, times that of the Earth. The density of Jupiter being about 1·40 and that of the Earth 5·48, it follows that the attraction exerted by Jupiter is, roughly, 300 times that of the Earth. A man who weighs 150 pounds on the Earth, if transported to Jupiter, would shake the ground with a ponderous tread of 45,000 pounds, or 2212 tons! His own weight would at once crush him into a mere pulp. A hickory-nut, falling from a bough, would crash through him like a Minié-ball. Again, water would weigh fifteen times as much as quicksilver. A moderate wave would shiver to atoms the strongest ironclad, a rivulet would quickly form canons miles deep, and ordinary hailstones would destroy every living thing. If we suppose the existence of an atmosphere, even no more profound than our own, its weight would be a third that of water, and its pressure 4,500 pounds to the square inch—sufficient to crush a rhinoceros or the boiler of a steam engine. In motion, as a moderate breeze, it would sweep away not only every work of man, but the very hills and mountains. The same condition, in less degree, may be predicated of the lesser of the giant planets, and Jupiter is only selected as the most striking example.

Putting aside the hundreds of known, and the thousands and millions of unknown asteroids, as obviously unfit for life, let us next consider the case of Mars. The relative mass of Mars being only about 160 that of the Earth, it follows, as a necessary consequence of the laws of gravitation, that our typical man would only weigh about 212 pounds on the surface of that planet. Individual locomotion would be wonderfully facilitated, but its conditions would be reversed. The familiar dream of flying by a mere upward movement of the limbs might easily be realized in Mars, but an 80-ton locomotive would not propel a train of empty cars, and mechanical work of all kinds would be practically impossible. Niagara Falls, in such a planet, with water approximating the weight of air, would scarcely furnish power for a mill. A rifle ball might be caught in the hand without harm. It is obvious that, with an atmosphere of the density of our own, animal and vegetable life, and every artificial work, representing so many structures of gossamer, would disappear like magic at the first breeze. But no such atmosphere as ours is possible with Mars. Even supposing it to equal our own in altitude, its pressure would be only about one fourth of a pound to the inch. Life is impossible in such an atmosphere, as is shown by a far less tenuity at the summits of lofty mountains. But, even if gravitation were not deficient, the distance of Mars from the sun entitles him to considerably less than half our supply of light and heat; a disadvantage immensely aggravated by his very eccentric orbit. Croll has shown how the shifting eccentricity of the earth's orbit, by adding three weeks to the duration of winter, brought about the glacial epochs, and covered nearly the whole earth with ice at various eras. Conceive, then, the thermometer in the Martial torrid regions touching 50°, and that even under the hypothesis, rendered impossible by the very laws of gravitation, of an atmosphere as dense as our own! Nothing can be more certain than that there is no liquid in Mars, and no life.

The same set of conditions, in exaggerated degree, exist in the minor superior planets, Ceres, Pallas, Juno, etc., while the asteroids are as much out of the question as the comets and meteors. In regard to the Jovian and Saturnian satellites, only probable conjecture can be indulged. We do not know with sufficient accuracy the degree of heat and light received from their primaries, to judge of those conditions, but all the obstacles flowing out of deficient gravitation predicated of Mars exist in equal degree in these satellites, the largest of which is inferior to Mars in dimensions.

In regard to our own moon much more definite information is accessible, though little need be said of its present life-conditions. Its bi-monthly axial revolution, its long, more than torrid day and antarctic night render it unnecessary to consider the question. But the mass of this satellite being about a third less than even that of Mars, interposes, and has ever interposed, the same everlasting mechanical obstacles to life there as in Mars. Atmosphere the moon may once have possessed, but it must always have been insufficient for life, insufficient to secure the stability of water, which, even if it continued in a liquid condition, would be swept—so light was it—in vast tides over the highest mountains. For the rest, if there be a man in the moon, it is interesting to know that he weighs less than two pounds, and can jump a mile, more or less.

Mercury, with a temperature of boiling water in the frigid zones and red-hot iron at the equator, may be a good place for a Calvinist to send his wicked neighbor, in imagination, but it can not be placed among the list of inhabited worlds. At last, then, out of all the vast, the countless myriads of circling orbs that do homage to our sun, only two remain to be considered—the Earth and Venus.

Venus, although too near the sun to render it likely that her tropical regions are habitable by man, is, so far as can be judged from her general physical condition, by no means destitute of life. If there be truth in the nebular hypothesis, Venus is younger than the Earth, and is therefore perhaps not evolutionized as to the highest forms. As to this, speculation would be little better than conjecture. Enough, that of Venus it can not be said, as of the other planets, with a certitude derived from the exact sciences, that there is no life in her.

The insignificant little globe called the Earth furnishes the only assurance of the higher forms of life, and, with the one exception of a globe even less than ours, of life in any stage of evolution. The Earth is not the millionth part of the known matter of our system, and, compared with the space occupied by that system, is far more insignificant than the smallest fleck of foam in the ocean. This tiny island in space does indeed teem with life; but, if this life were distributed equally through the space given to its production, thousands of miles would intervene between every individual form.

So much for the space and energy expended in the evolution of vitality. The same immense expenditure, the same apparent disproportion discloses itself when we consider the time that has been consumed in the process. Here we are again confronted by figures approximating eternity. Life has existed on the Earth millions of years, and mammalian life hundreds of thousands of years. Yet such periods are insignificant in comparison with the cosmogony of the planets. The duration of the highest order of life, under the refined conditions of a high type of civilization, is but of yesterday comparatively, but it has taken so enormous a period to ripen that we can no more conceive of it than of eternity. A space so vast that it is a tedious journey for light to traverse, and a lapse of time so great that a snail might have made the circuit with ease in the morning of it, have been necessary to give birth to one Shakespeare! All this space, and all this time, and all this immortal energy have as yet barely sufficed to develop a few organisms capable of a glimmering comprehension of the forces which have evolved them. All the rest, if the accepted theories of gravitation and light and heat are not wholly illusory or misunderstood, is waste space, waste matter, waste energy. Life is far more rare and far more costly in our solar system than diamonds in the earth.

But why not? Space is boundless, matter is infinite in quantity, and time is limitless, past and to come. Where the treasure is exhaustless, the question of cost is only interesting from a speculative point of view. This as regards the past.

One of the elements of cost—time has an interesting bearing on the future of the universe. Some scientists have of late indulged in presages more despondent than philosophical. According to this school, the dissipation of energy into space will finally result in the death of matter. Matter, being indestructible, will exist forever, but its soul will perish; first the vital form, then electricity, light, and heat, and finally even atomic vibration—leaving all cosmic bodies mere cadavers, like the terrestrial moon. This view has been combated by special theories, like that of Siemens, but not with great success. But there is a large aspect of the question which, though it seems to have escaped the attention of thinkers, at once sets it at rest, and demonstrates that energy and life are immortal. Bacon says of eternal duration, that, dividing it into past and future, it is of no consequence where we draw the line; a billion years ago, or a billion years hence, or the present, the two parts are still equal to each other and to the whole; thus contradicting all the laws of quantity. If this be a paradox, it has the peculiarity of being irrefutable, since it is impossible to conceive of any greater eternity than either the past or the future. Assuredly it can not be maintained that the future eternity is greater than the past. Assuming, then, this postulate, and that energy in all phases has been eternal in the past, it follows, with a force that commands unhesitating assent, that it will be eternal in the future. Whatever is, has been; whatever will be, has been. Energy has had one eternity in which to dissipate itself. What one eternity has not sufficed to bring about, will never be consummated. It may be interesting, but it is not essential to the demonstration, to investigate the method by which energy dissipated becomes once more potential. Perhaps the most tenable theory is, that it will be accomplished by the collision of dead worlds with each other, and the resulting mechanical evolution of light and heat. According to this view, attraction is the grand reservoir of the generic energy of the universe, on which all matter may draw when its differentiated force has been dissipated. But, be this as it may, the fruitful union of matter and energy in the infinite past is a stable guarantee that they will never be divorced.