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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/February 1874/News from Jupiter

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 4‎ | February 1874


THE planet Jupiter has passed during the last year through a singular process of change. The planet has not, indeed, assumed a new appearance, but has gradually resumed its normal aspect after three or four years, during which the mid zone of Jupiter has been aglow with a peculiar ruddy light. The zone is now of a creamy-white color, its ordinary hue. We have, in fact, reached the close of a period of disturbance, and have received a definite answer to questions which had arisen as to the reality of the change described by observers. Many astronomers of repute were disposed to believe that the peculiarities recently observed were merely due to the instruments with which the planet has been observed—not, indeed, to any fault in those instruments, but, in fact, to their good qualities in showing color. A considerable number of the earlier accounts of Jupiter's change of aspect came from observers who used the comparatively modern form of telescope known as the silvered-glass reflectors, and it is well known that these instruments are particularly well suited for the study of color-changes. Nevertheless, observations made with the ordinary refracting telescope were not wanting; and it had begun to be recognized that Jupiter really had altered remarkably in appearance, even before that gradual process of change which, by restoring his usual aspect, enabled every telescopist to assure himself that there had been no illusion in the earlier observations.

I propose now to discuss certain considerations which appear to me to indicate the nature and probable meaning of the phenomena which have recently been observed in Jupiter. It seems to me that these phenomena are full of interest, whether considered in themselves or in connection with those circumstances on which I had been led to base the theory that Jupiter is a planet altogether unlike our earth in condition, and certainly unfit to be the abode of living creatures.

I would first direct special attention to the facts which have been ascertained respecting the atmosphere of Jupiter.

It does not appear to have been noticed as a remarkable circumstance, that Jupiter should have an atmosphere recognizable from our distant station. Yet, in reality, this circumstance is not only most remarkable, but is positively inexplicable on any theory by which Jupiter is regarded as a world resembling our own. It is certain that, except by the effects produced when clouds form and dissipate, our terrestrial atmosphere could not be recognized at Jupiter's distance with any telescopic power yet applied. But no one who has studied Jupiter with adequate means can for a moment fail to recognize the fact that the signs of an atmosphere indicate much more than the mere formation and dissipation of clouds. I speak here after a careful study of the planet during the late opposition, with a very fine reflecting telescope by Browning, very generously placed at my disposal by Lord Lindsay; and I feel satisfied that no one can study Jupiter for many hours (on a single night) without becoming convinced that the cloud-masses seen on his disk have a depth comparable with their length and breadth. Now, the depth of terrestrial cloud-masses would at Jupiter's distance be an absolutely evanescent quantity. The span of his disk represents about 84,000 miles, and his satellites, which look little more than points in ordinary telescopes, are all more than 2,000 miles in diameter. I am satisfied that any one who has carefully studied the behavior of Jupiter's cloud-belts will find it difficult to believe that their depth is less than the twentieth part of the diameter of the least satellite. Conceive, however, what the depth of an atmosphere would be in which cloud-masses a hundred miles deep were floating!

It may be asked, however, in what sense such an atmosphere would be inexplicable, or, at least irreconcilable with the theory that Jupiter is a world like our earth. Such an atmosphere would be in strict proportion, it might be urged, to the giant bulk of the planet, and such relative agreement seems more natural than would be a perfect correspondence between the depth of the atmosphere on Jupiter and the depth of our earth's atmosphere.

But it must not be forgotten that the atmosphere of Jupiter is attracted by the mass of the planet; and some rather remarkable consequences follow when we pay attention to this consideration. Of course a great deal must be assumed in an inquiry of the sort. Since, however, we are discussing the question whether there can be any resemblance between Jupiter and our earth, we may safely (so far as our inquiry is concerned) proceed on the assumption that the atmosphere of Jupiter does not differ greatly in constitution from that of our earth. We may further assume that, at the upper part of the cloud-layers we see, the atmospheric pressure is not inferior to that of our atmosphere at a height of seven miles above the sea-level, or one-fourth of the pressure at our sea-level. Combining these assumptions with the conclusion just mentioned, that the cloud-layers are at least 100 miles in depth, we are led to the following singular result as to the pressure of the Jovian atmosphere at the bottom of the cloud-layer: The atmosphere of any planet doubles in pressure with descent through equal distances, these distances depending on the power of gravity at the planet's surface. In the case of our earth, the pressure is doubled with descent through about 3 miles; but gravity on Jupiter is more than 2 times as great as gravity on our earth, and descent through If mile would double the pressure in the case of a Jovian atmosphere. Now, 100 miles contain this distance (If mile) more than seventy-one times; and we must therefore double the pressure at the upper part of the cloud-layer seventy-one successive times to obtain the pressure at the lower part. Two doublings raise the pressure to that at our sea-level; and the remaining sixty-nine doublings would result in a pressure exceeding that at our sea-level so many times that the number representing the proportion contains twenty-one figures.[1] I say would result in such a pressure, because in reality there are limits beyond which atmospheric pressure cannot be increased without changing the compressed air into the liquid form. What those limits are we do not know, for no pressure yet applied has changed common air, or either of its chief constituent gases, into the liquid form, or even produced any trace of a tendency to assume that form. But it is easily shown that there must be a limit to the increase of pressure which air will sustain without liquefying. For the density of any gas changes proportionately to the increase of pressure until the gas is approaching the state when it is about to turn liquid. Now, air at the sea-level has a density equal to less than the 900th part of the density of water; so that, if the pressure at the sea-level were increased 900 times, either the density would not increase proportionally, which would show that the gas was approaching the density of liquefaction, or else the gas would be denser than water, which must be regarded as utterly impossible. Or, if any one is disposed, for the sake of argument, to assume that a gas (at ordinary temperatures) may be as dense as water, then we need proceed but a few steps further, increasing the pressure about 18,000 times instead of 900 times, to have the density of platinum instead of that of water, and no one is likely to maintain that our air could exist in the gaseous form with a density equaling that of the densest of the elements. We are still an enormous way behind the number of twenty-one figures mentioned above; and, in fact, if we supposed the pressure and density to increase continually to the extent implied by the number of twenty-one figures, we should have a density exceeding that of platinum more than ten thousand millions of millions of times!

Of course this supposition is utterly monstrous, and I have merely indicated it to show how difficulties crowd around us in any attempt to show that a resemblance exists between the condition of Jupiter and that of our earth. The assumptions I made were sufficiently moderate, be it noticed, since I simply regarded (1) the air of Jupiter as composed like our own; (2) the pressure at the upper part of his cloud-layer as not less than the pressure far above the highest of our terrestrial cumulus clouds (with which alone the clouds of Jupiter are comparable); and (3) the depth of his cloud-layer as about one hundred miles. The first two assumptions cannot fairly be departed from to any considerable extent, without adopting the conclusion that the atmosphere of Jupiter is quite unlike that of our earth, which is precisely what I desire to maintain. The third is, of course, open to attack, though I apprehend that no one who has observed Jupiter with a good telescope will question its justice. But it is not at all essential to the argument that the assumed depth of the Jovian atmosphere should be even nearly so great. We do not need a third of our array of twenty-one figures, or even a seventh part, since no one who has studied the experimental researches made into the condition of gases and vapors can for a moment suppose that an atmosphere like ours could remain gaseous, except at an enormously high temperature, at a pressure of two or three hundred atmospheres. Such a pressure would be attained, retaining our first two assumptions, at a depth of about fourteen miles below the upper part of the cloud-layer. This is about the six-thousandth part of the diameter of Jupiter; and, if any student of astronomy can believe that that wonderfully complex and changeful cloud-envelope which surrounds Jupiter has a thickness of less than the six-thousandth part of the planet's diameter, I would recommend as a corrective the careful study of the planet for an hour or two with a powerful telescope, combined with the consideration that the thickness of a spider's web across the telescopic field of view would suffice to hide a breadth of twenty miles on Jupiter's disk.

But we are not by any means limited to the reasoning here indicated, convincing as that reasoning should be to all who have studied the aspect of Jupiter with adequate telescopic power. We have in Jupiter's mean density an argument of irresistible force against the only view which enables us even hypothetically to escape from the conclusions just indicated. Let it be granted, for the sake of argument, that Jupiter's cloud-layer is less than fourteen miles in depth, so that we are freed for the moment from the inference that at the lower part of the atmosphere there is either an intense heat or else a density and pressure incompatible with the gaseous condition. We cannot, in this case, strike off more than twenty-eight miles from the planet's apparent diameter to obtain the real diameter of his solid globe—solid, at least, if we are to maintain the theory of his resemblance to our earth. This leaves his real diameter appreciably the same as his apparent diameter, and as a result we have the mean density of his solid globe equal to a fourth of the earth's mean density, precisely as when we leave his atmosphere out of the question. Now, I apprehend that the time has long since passed when we can seriously proceed at this stage to say, as it was the fashion to say in text-books of astronomy, "Therefore the substance of which Jupiter is composed must be of less specific gravity than oak and other heavy woods." We know that Brewster gravely reasoned that the solid materials of Jupiter might be of the nature of pumice-stone, so that, with oceans resembling ours, a certain latitude was allowed for increase of density in Jupiter's interior. But, in the presence of the teachings of spectroscopic analysis, few would now care to maintain, as probable, so preposterous a theory as this. Every thing that has hitherto been learned, respecting the constitution of the heavenly bodies, renders it quite unlikely that the elementary constitution of Jupiter differs from that of our earth. Again, it was formerly customary to speak of the possibility that Jupiter and Saturn might be hollow globes, mere shells, composed of materials as heavy as terrestrial elements. But, whatever opinion we may form as to the possibility that a great intensity of heat may vaporize a portion of Jupiter's interior, we know quite certainly that there must be enormous pressure throughout the whole of the planet's globe, and that even a vaporous nucleus would be of great density. For it is to be remembered that all that I have said above respecting the possibility of gases existing at great pressures applies only to ordinary temperatures—such temperatures, for example, as living creatures can endure. At exceedingly high temperatures much greater pressure, and therefore much greater density, can be attained without liquefaction or solidification. And, in considering the effect of pressure on the materials of a solid globe, we must not fall into the mistake of supposing that the strength of such solid materials can protect the material from compression and its effects. We must extend our conceptions beyond what is familiar to us. We know that any ordinary mass of some strong, heavy solid—as iron, copper, or gold—is not affected by its own weight so as to change in structure to an appreciable extent. The substance of a mass of iron forty or fifty-feet high, would be the same in structure at the bottom as at the top of the mass; for the strength of the metal would resist any change which the weight of the mass would (otherwise) tend to produce. But if there were a cubical mountain of iron twenty miles high, the lower part would be absolutely plastic under the pressure to which it would be subjected. It would behave in all respects as a fluid, insomuch that if (for convenience of illustration) we suppose it inclosed within walls made of some imaginary (and impossible) substance which would yield to no pressure, then, if a portion of the wall were removed near the base of the iron mountain, the iron would flow out like water[2] from a hole near the bottom of a cask. The iron would continue to run out in this way, until the mass was reduced several miles in height. In Jupiter's case a mountain of iron of much less height would be similarly plastic in its lower parts, simply because of the much greater attractive power of Jupiter's mass. Thus we see that the conception of a hollow interior, or of any hollow spaces throughout the planet's globe, is altogether inconsistent with what is known of the constitution of even the strongest materials.

How, then, are we to explain the relatively small mean density of Jupiter's globe? On the supposition that his atmosphere is less than fourteen miles deep, we cannot do so; for there is nothing hypothetical in the above considerations respecting a solid globe as large as Jupiter's, excepting always the assumption that the globe is not formed of substances unlike any with which we are familiar. Even this assumption, though it is one which few would care to maintain in the present position of our knowledge, amounts after all to an admission of the chief point which I am endeavoring to maintain: it is one way—but a very fanciful way—of inferring that Jupiter is utterly dissimilar to the earth. Rejecting it, as we safely may, we find the small density of Jupiter not merely unexplained, but manifestly inexplicable.

All our reasoning has been based on the assumption that the atmosphere of Jupiter exists at a temperature not greatly differing from that of our own atmosphere. If we assume instead an exceedingly high temperature, abandoning of course the supposition that Jupiter is an inhabited world, we no longer find any circumstances which are self-contradictory or incredible.

To begin with, we may on such an assumption find at once a parallel to Jupiter's case in that of the sun., For the sun is an orb attracting his atmospheric envelope and the material of his own solid or liquid surface (if he has any) far more mightily than Jupiter has been known to do. All the difficulties considered in the case of Jupiter would be enormously enhanced in the case of the sun, if we forgot the fact that the sun's globe is at an intense heat from surface to centre. Now, we know that the sun is intensely hot because we feel the heat that he emits, and recognize the intense lustre of his photosphere; so that we are not in danger of overlooking this important circumstance in his condition. Jupiter gives out no heat that we can feel, and assuredly Jupiter does not emit an intense light of his own. But, when we find that difficulties, precisely corresponding in kind, though not in degree, to those which we should encounter if we discussed the sun's condition in forgetfulness of his intense heat, exist also in the case of Jupiter, it appears manifest that we may safely adopt the conclusion that Jupiter is intensely heated, though not nearly to the same degree as the sun.

We have thus been led by a perfectly distinct an independent line of reasoning to the very conclusion which I have advocated elsewhere on other grounds, viz., that Jupiter is in fact a miniature sun as respects heat, though emitting but a relatively small proportion of light. I would invite special attention to the circumstance that the evidence on which this conclusion had been based was already cumulative. And now a fresh line of evidence, in itself demonstrative I conceive, has been adduced. Moreover, I have not availed myself of the argument, very weighty in my opinion, on which Mr. Mattieu Williams has based similar conclusions respecting the temperature of Jupiter, in his interesting and valuable work called "The Fuel of the Sun." I fully agree with him in regarding it as a reasonable assumption, though I cannot go so far as to regard it as certain, that every planet has an atmosphere whose mass corresponds with, or is even perhaps actually proportional to, the mass of the planet it surrounds. If we make such an assumption in the case of Jupiter, we arrive at conclusions closely resembling those to which I have been led by the above process of reasoning.

Thus many lines of evidence, and some of them absolutely demonstrative, in my opinion, point to the conclusion that Jupiter is an orb instinct with fiery energy, aglow it may well be with an intense light which is only prevented from manifesting itself by the cloudy envelope which enshrouds the planet.

But, so soon as we regard the actual phenomena presented by Jupiter in the light of this hypothesis, we find the means of readily interpreting what otherwise would appear most perplexing. Chief among the phenomena thus accounted for, I would place the recent color-changes in the equatorial zone of Jupiter.

What, at a first view, could appear more surprising than a change affecting the color of a zone-shaped region whose surface is many times greater than the whole surface of our earth. It is true that a brief change might be readily explained as due to such changes as occur in our own air. Large regions of the earth are at one time cloud-covered, and at another free from clouds. Such regions, seen from Venus or Mercury, would at one time appear white, and at the other would show whatever color the actual surface of the ground might possess when viewed as a whole. But it seems altogether impossible to explain in this way a change or series of changes occupying many years, as in the case of the recent color-changes of Jupiter's belt. Let me not be misunderstood. I am not urging that the changes in Jupiter are not due to the formation and dissipation of clouds in his atmosphere. On the contrary, I believe that they are. What seems to me incredible is, the supposition that we have here to deal with such changes as occur in our own air in consequence of solar action.

I do not lose sight of the fact that the Jovian year is of long duration, and that whatever changes take place in the atmosphere of Jupiter through solar action might be expected to be exceedingly slow. Nay, it is one of the strongest arguments against the theory that solar action is chiefly in question, that any solar changes would be so slight as to be in effect scarcely perceptible. It is not commonly insisted upon in our text-books of astronomy—in fact, I have never seen the point properly noticed anywhere—that the seasonal changes in Jupiter correspond to no greater relative change than occurs in our daily supply of solar heat from about eight days before to about eight days after the spring or autumn equinox. It is incredible that so slight an effect as this should produce those amazing changes in the condition of the Jovian atmosphere which have unquestionably been indicated by the varying aspect of the equatorial zone. It is manifest that, on the one hand, the seasonal changes should be slow and slight so far as they depend on the sun, and, on the other, that the sun cannot rule so absolutely over the Jovian atmosphere as to cause any particular atmospheric condition to prevail unchanged for years.

If, however, Jupiter's whole mass is in a state of intense heat—if the heat is in fact sufficient, as it must be, to maintain an effective resistance against the tremendous force of Jovian gravitation—we can understand any changes, however amazing. We can see how enormous quantities of vapor must continually be generated in the lower regions to be condensed in the upper regions, either directly above the zone in which they were generated, or north or south of it, according to the prevailing motions in the Jovian atmosphere. And, although we may not be able to indicate the precise reason why at one time the mid zone or any other belt of Jupiter's surface should exhibit that whiteness which indicates the presence of clouds, and at another should show a coloring which appears to indicate that the glowing mass below is partly disclosed, we remember that the difficulty corresponds in character to that which is presented by the phenomena of solar spots. We cannot tell why sun-spots should wax and wane in frequency during a period of about eleven years; but this does not prevent us from adopting such opinions as to the condition of the sun's glowing photosphere as are suggested by the behavior of the spots.

It may be asked whether I regard the ruddy glow of Jupiter's equatorial zone, during the period of disturbance lately passed through, as due to the inherent light of glowing matter underneath his deep and cloud-laden atmosphere. This appears to me on the whole the most probable hypothesis, though it is by no means certain that the ruddy color may not be due to the actual constitution of the planet's vaporous atmosphere. In either case, be it noted, we should perceive in this ruddy light the inherent lustre of Jupiter's glowing mass, only in one case we assume that that lustre is itself ruddy, in the other we suppose that light, originally white, shines through ruddy vapor-masses. It is to be remembered, however, that, whichever view we adopt, we must assume that a considerable portion of the light received, even from these portions of the planet's disk, must have been reflected sunlight. In fact, from what we know about the actual quantity of light received from Jupiter, we may be quite certain that no very large portion of that light is inherent. Jupiter shines about as brightly as if he were a giant cumulus-cloud, and therefore almost as white as driven snow. Thus he sends us much more light than a globe of equal size of sandstone, or granite, or any known kind of earth. We get from him about three times as much light as a globe like our moon in substance, but as large as Jupiter, and placed where Jupiter is, would reflect toward the earth; but not quite so much as we should receive from a globe of pure snow of the same size and similarly placed.. It is only because large parts of the surface of Jupiter are manifestly not white, that we seem compelled to assume that some portion of his light is inherent. But the theory that Jupiter is intensely hot by no means requires, as some mistakenly imagine, that he should give out a large proportion of light. His real solid or liquid globe (if he have any) might, for instance, be at a white heat, and yet so completely cloud-enwrapped that none of its light could reach us. Or, again, his real surface might be like red-hot iron, giving out much heat but very little light.

I shall close the present statement of evidence in favor of what I begin to regard as in effect a demonstrated theory, with the account of certain appearances which have been presented by Jupiter's fourth satellite during recent transits across the face of the planet. The appearances referred to have been observed by several telescopists, but I will select an account given in the monthly notices of the Astronomical Society, by Mr. Roberts, F.R.A.S., who observed the planet with a fine telescope by Wray, eight inches in aperture. "On March 26, 1873," he says, "I observed Jupiter about 8 p. m., and found the fourth satellite on the disk. I thought at first it must be a shadow; but, on referring to the Nautical Almanac, found that it was the fourth satellite itself. A friend was observing with me, and we both agreed that it was a very intense black, and also was not quite round. We each made independent drawings, which agreed perfectly, and consider that the observation was a perfectly reliable one. We could not imagine that such an intensely black object would be visible when off the disk, and waited with some impatience to see the emersion, but were disappointed by fog, which came on just at the critical time." Another observer, using a telescope only two inches in aperture, saw the satellite when off the disk, so that manifestly the blackness was merely an effect of contrast.

In considering this remarkable phenomenon, we must not forget that the other satellites do not look black (though some of them look dark) when crossing Jupiter's disk, so that we have to deal with a circumstance peculiar to the fourth or outermost satellite. Nevertheless, we seem precluded from supposing that any other difference exists between this satellite and the others than a certain inferiority of light-reflecting power. I might indeed find an argument for the view which I have suggested as not improbable, that Jupiter is a heat-sun to his satellites, since the three innermost would be in that case much better warmed than the outermost, and therefore would be much more likely to be cloud-encompassed, and so would reflect more light. But I place no great reliance on reasoning so ingenious, which stands much as a pyramid would stand (theoretically) on its apex. The broad fact that a body like the fourth satellite, probably comparable to our moon in light-reflecting power, looks perfectly black when on the middle of Jupiter's disk, is that on which I place reliance. This manifestly indicates a remarkable difference between the brightness of Jupiter and the satellite; and it is clear that the excess of Jupiter's brightness is in accordance with the theory that he shines in part with native light, or, in other words, is intensely heated.

This completes the statement of the evidence obtained during the recent opposition of Jupiter in favor of a theory which already had the great advantage of according with all known facts, and accounting for some which had hitherto seemed inexplicable. If this theory removes Jupiter from the position assigned to him by Brewster as the noblest of inhabited worlds, it indicates for him a higher position as a subordinate sun, nourishing with his heat, as he sways by his attractive energy, the scheme of worlds which circles round him. The theory removes also the difficulty suggested by the apparent uselessness of the Jovian satellites in the scheme of creation. When, instead of considering their small power of supplying Jupiter with light, we consider the power which, owing to his great size and proximity, he must possess of illuminating them with reflected light, and warming them with his native heat, we find a harmony and beauty in the Jovian system which before had been wanting; nor, when we consider the office which the sun subserves toward the members of his family, need we reject this view on account of the supposition—

"That bodies bright and greater should not serve

The less not bright."

Popular Science Review,

  1. The problem is like the well-known one relating to the price of a horse, where one farthing was to be paid for the first nail of 24 in the shoes, a half-penny for the next, a penny for the third, two pence for the fourth, and so on. It may be interesting to some of my readers to learn, that if we want to know roughly the proportion in which the first number is increased by any given number of doublings, we have only to multiply the number of doublings by 310ths, and add 1 to the integral part of the result, to give the number of digits in the number representing the required proportions. Thus multiplying 24 by 310ths gives 7 (neglecting fractions); and therefore the number of farthings in the horse problem is represented by an array of 8 digits.
  2. The effect of pressure in rendering iron and other metals plastic has been experimentally determined. Cast-steel has been made to flow almost like water, under pressure.