Eddington 1927: Formation of Planetary Systems



This paper presents Chapter VIII (section 4) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Formation of Planetary Systems

If the planets of the solar system should fail us, there remain some thousands of millions of stars which we have been accustomed to regard as suns ruling attendant systems of planets. It has seemed a presumption, bordering almost on impiety, to deny to them life of the same order of creation as ourselves. It would indeed be rash to assume that nowhere else in the universe has Nature repeated the strange experiment which she has performed on the earth. But there are considerations which must hold us back from populating the universe too liberally.

On examining the stars with a telescope we are surprised to find how many of those which appear single points to the eye are actually two stars close together. When the telescope fails to separate them the spectroscope often reveals two stars in orbital revolution round each other. At least one star in three is double—a pair of self-luminous globes both comparable in dimensions with the sun. The single supreme sun is accordingly not the only product of evolution; not much less frequently the development has taken another turn and resulted in two suns closely associated. We may probably rule out the possibility of planets in double stars. Not only is there a difficulty in ascribing to them permanent orbits under the more complicated field of gravitation, but a cause for the formation of planets seems to be lacking. The star has satisfied its impulse to fission in another manner; it has divided into two nearly equal portions instead of throwing off a succession of tiny fragments.

The double stars revolve around each other with natural speeds that are inversely proportional to the square roots of their inertia.

The most obvious cause of division is excessive rotation. As the gaseous globe contracts it spins fast and faster until a time may come when it can no longer hold together, and some kind of relief must be found. According to the nebular hypothesis of Laplace the sun gained relief by throwing off successively rings of matter which have formed the planets. But were it not for this one instance of a planetary system which is known to us, we should have concluded from the thousands of double stars in the sky that the common consequence of excessive rotation is to divide the star into two bodies of equal rank.

It might still be held that the ejection of a planetary system and the fission into a double star are alternative solutions of the problem arising from excessive rotation, the star taking one course or the other according to circumstances. We know of myriads of double stars and of only one planetary system; but in any case it is beyond our power to detect other planetary systems if they exist. We can only appeal to the results of theoretical study of rotating masses of gas; the work presents many complications and the results may not be final; but the researches of Sir J. H. Jeans lead to the conclusion that rotational break-up produces a double star and never a system of planets. The solar system is not the typical product of development of a star; it is not even a common variety of development; it is a freak.

Planetary systems are rare.

By elimination of alternatives it appears that a configuration resembling the solar system would only be formed if at a certain stage of condensation an unusual accident had occurred. According to Jeans the accident was the close approach of another star casually pursuing its way through space. This star must have passed within a distance not far outside the orbit of Neptune; it must not have passed too rapidly, but have slowly overtaken or been overtaken by the sun. By tidal distortion it raised big protuberances on the sun, and caused it to spurt out filaments of matter which have condensed to form the planets. That was more than a thousand million years ago. The intruding star has since gone on its way and mingled with the others; its legacy of a system of planets remains, including a globe habitable by man.

Even in the long life of a star encounters of this kind must be extremely rare. The density of distribution of stars in space has been compared to that of twenty tennis-balls roaming the whole interior of the earth. The accident that gave birth to the solar system may be compared to the casual approach of two of these balls within a few yards of one another. The data are too vague to give any definite estimate of the odds against this occurrence, but I should judge that perhaps not one in a hundred millions of stars can have undergone this experience in the right stage and conditions to result in the formation of a system of planets.

However doubtful this conclusion as to the rarity of solar systems may be, it is a useful corrective to the view too facilely adopted which looks upon every star as a likely minister ‘to life. We know the prodigality of Nature. How many acorns are scattered for one that grows to an oak? And need she be more careful of her stars than of her acorns? If indeed she has no grander aim than to provide a home for her greatest experiment, Man, it would be just like her methods to scatter a million stars whereof one might haply achieve her purpose.

Man is at the top of the evolutionary sequence.

The number of possible abodes of life severely restricted in this way at the outset may no doubt be winnowed down further. On our house-hunting expedition we shall find it necessary to reject many apparently eligible mansions on points of detail. Trivial circumstances may decide whether organic forms originate at all; further conditions may decide whether life ascends to a complexity like ours or remains in a lower form. I presume, however, that at the end of the weeding out there will be left a few rival earths dotted here and there about the universe.

A further point arises if we have especially in mind contemporaneous life. The time during which man has been on the earth is extremely small compared with the age of the earth or of the sun. There is no obvious physical reason why, having once arrived, man should not continue to populate the earth for another ten billion years or so; but—well, can you contemplate it? Assuming that the stage of highly developed life is a very small fraction of the inorganic history of the star, the rival earths are in general places where conscious life has already vanished or is yet to come. I do not think that the whole purpose of the Creation has been staked on the one planet where we live; and in the long run we cannot deem ourselves the only race that has been or will be gifted with the mystery of consciousness. But I feel inclined to claim that at the present time our race is supreme; and not one of the profusion of stars in their myriad clusters looks down on scenes comparable to those which are passing beneath the rays of the sun.


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