A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter II
The progress of modern astronomy
Lockyer's Meteoric Hypothesis
Following up the surprising clews thus suggested, Sir Norman Lockyer, of London, has in recent years elaborated what is perhaps the most comprehensive cosmogonic guess that has ever been attempted. His theory, known as the "meteoric hypothesis," probably bears the same relation to the speculative thought of our time that the nebular hypothesis of Laplace bore to that of the eighteenth century. Outlined in a few words, it is an attempt to explain all the major phenomena of the universe as due, directly or indirectly, to the gravitational impact of such meteoric particles, or specks of cosmic dust, as comets are composed of. Nebulae are vast cometary clouds, with particles more or less widely separated, giving off gases through meteoric collisions, internal or external, and perhaps glowing also with electrical or phosphorescent light. Gravity eventually brings the nebular particles into closer aggregations, and increased collisions finally vaporize the entire mass, forming planetary nebulae and gaseous stars. Continued condensation may make the stellar mass hotter and more luminous for a time, but eventually leads to its liquefaction, and ultimate consolidation - the aforetime nebulae becoming in the end a dark or planetary star.

The exact correlation which Lockyer attempts to point out between successive stages of meteoric condensation and the various types of observed stellar bodies does not meet with unanimous acceptance. Mr. Ranyard, for example, suggests that the visible nebulae may not be nascent stars, but emanations from stars, and that the true pre-stellar nebulae are invisible until condensed to stellar proportions. But such details aside, the broad general hypothesis that all the bodies of the universe are, so to speak, of a single species - that nebulae (including comets), stars of all types, and planets, are but varying stages in the life history of a single race or type of cosmic organisms - is accepted by the dominant thought of our time as having the highest warrant of scientific probability.

All this, clearly, is but an amplification of that nebular hypothesis which, long before the spectroscope gave us warrant to accurately judge our sidereal neighbors, had boldly imagined the development of stars out of nebulae and of planets out of stars. But Lockyer's hypothesis does not stop with this. Having traced the developmental process from the nebular to the dark star, it sees no cause to abandon this dark star to its fate by assuming, as the original speculation assumed, that this is a culminating and final stage of cosmic existence. For the dark star, though its molecular activities have come to relative stability and impotence, still retains the enormous potentialities of molar motion; and clearly, where motion is, stasis is not. Sooner or later, in its ceaseless flight through space, the dark star must collide with some other stellar body, as Dr. Croll imagines of the dark bodies which his "pre-nebular theory" postulates. Such collision may be long delayed; the dark star may be drawn in comet-like circuit about thousands of other stellar masses, and be hurtled on thousands of diverse parabolic or elliptical orbits, before it chances to collide - but that matters not: "billions are the units in the arithmetic of eternity," and sooner or later, we can hardly doubt, a collision must occur. Then without question the mutual impact must shatter both colliding bodies into vapor, or vapor combined with meteoric fragments; in short, into a veritable nebula, the matrix of future worlds. Thus the dark star, which is the last term of one series of cosmic changes, becomes the first term of another series - at once a post-nebular and a pre-nebular condition; and the nebular hypothesis, thus amplified, ceases to be a mere linear scale, and is rounded out to connote an unending series of cosmic cycles, more nearly satisfying the imagination.

In this extended view, nebulae and luminous stars are but the infantile and adolescent stages of the life history of the cosmic individual; the dark star, its adult stage, or time of true virility. Or we may think of the shrunken dark star as the germ-cell, the pollen-grain, of the cosmic organism. Reduced in size, as becomes a germ-cell, to a mere fraction of the nebular body from which it sprang, it yet retains within its seemingly non- vital body all the potentialities of the original organism, and requires only to blend with a fellow-cell to bring a new generation into being. Thus may the cosmic race, whose aggregate census makes up the stellar universe, be perpetuated - individual solar systems, such as ours, being born, and growing old, and dying to live again in their descendants, while the universe as a whole maintains its unified integrity throughout all these internal mutations - passing on, it may be, by infinitesimal stages, to a culmination hopelessly beyond human comprehension.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.