Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

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an infinitely vaster ocean but still a sort of ocean with the
Ether instead of water, an ocean in which the stars and
other heavenly bodies revolve and move. That, however,
is a very inadequate manner of considering the problem,
for it leaves out of account the boundless potential regions
beyond the area, however vast, of space actually occupied
by existing material creations. We cannot think of an
ocean without thinking of its shores, the shores of Europe
or America or Asia or whatever they may be ; but Space,
looked at objectively, has no boundaries. 1 Immense and
awful as are the distances involved in our visible universe,
there is no valid reason why there might not be a million,
even a million million such universes in illimitable space.
Hence the ocean simile breaks down in connection with
Space, just as the river simile breaks down in connection
with Time, of which Newton spoke as something which
" in itself and from its nature flows equally." But the
flowing thing must have a beginning and an end, not to
speak of boundaries, none of which things can we predicate
concerning Time.

The opposite way of looking at it is the subjective, by
which Space and Time are explained as real only to our
minds. The high-water mark of this method may be
found in the transcendental ideas of Kant, who taught
that Space and Time are conditions of all our experience,
not gained from it ; that is, that they are a priori ideas
supplied by the mind from its own resources. They
are attached to things-as-we-know-them or Phenomena,
not to the ding-an-sich, the thing -in -itself. Kant de-
scribed these two ideas by saying that Space is the form
of outer sense, Time of inner sense. Now in the case of
Space this extreme view breaks down. Astronomy and
astro-physics assume an objective space of three dimensions
corresponding to our conception of it, and are unintelligible
in any theory which denies the external validity of that

1 We must always bear in mind, in dealing with these topics, that
there is only one ens reale vel actuate — one Infinite Reality, namely God.
Similarly there never can be actualised an infinite number. On the other
hand, possibilities of all sorts are infinite, but they are entia rafionis, with
a foundation in God's omnipotence.


conception. There is a via media. If Space is not an
independent entity or real thing-in-itself and yet is not
purely subjective — since it is relative to our sensuous powers
of perception, and since our spatial perceptions and con-
ceptions do enable us to deal successfully with objects — it is
clear that the objective universe has an arrangement which
corresponds in some way to what we call spatial arrange-
ment, even though we may be unable to explain what that
may be.

Of course, the plain fact is that we can neither perfectly
nor adequately conceive what is meant by Space any more
than we can feel that we have a full comprehension of the
Universe. Yet there are persons who admit all these facts
and limitations ; who credit all that is told them about
the Universe and its composition ; who admit that they
can form no idea of what is meant by Space, though they
agree that it is there : but who yet refuse to believe in God
because they cannot understand Him, or understand how
He can never have had any beginning nor will ever have any
end. Of course, it is no argument to say that because we
have one thing which we cannot understand we may try
to explain it by something else which we do not fully com-
prehend. To that we may agree and on this point we base
no argument on behalf of the existence of God. But what
we may fairly claim is this : the contented acceptance of
one problem, admitted by materialists to be incomprehen-
sible, does take away from them the right to use that most
foolish argument, which one used to hear so often and still
hears from time to time, that we ought not to believe any-
thing which we cannot understand. It is absurd to suppose
that we ought to be able to understand God : He would
not be God if we could.

But we may gain a useful lesson in spiritual humility by
making a meditation on Space and Time, when we shall be
bound to come to the conclusion that we can form only the
feeblest and most inadequate conception of what is meant
by these terms, and recognize that the mind is in no way
capable of denning or explaining them. Yet in a sense they
are only the outskirts of the One Eternal Being who created
the Universe and all that it contains.


Perhaps to one who views man as a mere cog in a gigantic
machine, or a speck in an ocean of dust, the impression
most forcibly brought before the mind may be their ghastli-
ness, when he ponders on such things as Space, the Universe,
the inconceivable distances which it involves, the immense
areas of space empty, so far as we can tell, of everything
but the Ether.

But in the mind of the believer in a Creator the idea
would be dispelled, even were it ever to be formed, by the
thought of the gloriousness of the whole conception, its
majesty, its incomprehensibility, its fitness, so far as any-
thing is fit, to serve, as the half-visible garment of that
Being whose greatness and attributes we can only represent
to ourselves by the incomplete and ineffective figures which
are all that are possible to our finite minds. 1

1 For Kant two things are " sublime " : the starry heavens above and
the moral law within. Similarly, St. Ignatius Loyola, who loved to meditate
on the sky : his favourite exclamation was, " Quam sordet tellus quando
ccelum aspicio 1 " [How mean the earth seems when I look at the
heavens !]


THE topics discussed in the last chapter have been
included in this book with a dual object. In the
first place it is important that the immensity and difficulty
of the problems connected with our conception of the
Universe and the fundamental character of considerations
relating to Space and Time should be realised by those
who have not previously been brought in contact with

Such considerations, when rightly meditated upon, form
no inconsiderable part of the argument for the existence
of a Supreme Being, which will be dealt with in the next

Again, the subject of the present chapter, which is of
importance from quite another point of view, would have
been unintelligible without the preliminary statements
considered in the immediately preceding pages.

So far then we have discovered that the theory of scientific
men is that the Space of the entire physical universe —
whatever arrangement of things that may really mean — is
occupied by the Ether which is the continuum by which
action at a distance, otherwise inexplicable, is explained.

Further, that the visible universe consists of a vast col-
lection of stars and other bodies ; that this collection taken
generally is lenticular in shape and that it has our Earth
somewhere about its centre.

We have now to see what theories have been put forward
to account for this arrangement of the universe and we may
commence with the best known and most widely held which
is called the Nebular Theory or Hypothesis.



The telescope reveals to us a large number of what are
called nebulae, though only two of these are even faintly
visible to the naked eye, the least invisible being that which
can be seen in the sword-handle of the constellation of Orion.
Subject to the further explanation which has yet to be given,
it may be said that a nebula, as indeed its name indicates,
is a kind of cloud — an incandescent cloud emitting a more or
less faint light, which retains its relative position to the
other heavenly bodies. In this respect, as in others, a nebula
differs from a comet, with which it must not be confused.
A comet is not in permanent relation of position, so far as
we can tell, to any other heavenly bodies, nor do we know
whether comets " are really indigenous to the solar system
or whether they may not be merely imported into the
system from the depths of space." 1 When we come to ask
what is the nature or structure or composition of nebulae
we are told that in some cases at least they can be shown
by very high-powered telescopes to be made up of an in-
numerable multitude of small stars. In other cases no
telescope constructed up to the present has been able to
resolve the nebula in such a manner, and so far as our
knowledge goes such nebulae would seem to consist of an
incandescent gas. That nebulae are incandescent is clear;
and this is a point of great importance in connection with
a matter to be dealt with in a subsequent chapter. They
emit a light of their own, white in. most cases but of a
bluish green in those of the planetary and irregular varieties.
We do not as yet know how these nebulae are kept in a
state of incandescence. According to the hypothesis put
forward by Sir Norman Lockyer, the light is to be attri-
buted " to collisions between numbers of small discrete
solid particles, these being vaporised and made luminous
owing to the heat developed by their impacts." 2

By calling in the aid of the spectroscope we are able to
tell something about the composition of these nebulae, as
we are about that of the stars themselves. For the sake of
those who are unfamiliar with the nature of the spectro-

1 " Encyclopaedia Britannica," ed. xi, sub voce " Nebular Theory."
* " Encyclopaedia Britannica," sub voce " Nebula."


scope it may be said at once that what it tells us about in
the case of the star is the character of its thin outer en-
velope and not strictly speaking the character of the star
itself. 1

In spite of this limitation it is conceded that the spectro-
scopic method does afford us information of incalculable
value as to the composition of the heavenly bodies. As
far as regards the stars we learn that their chemical com-
position is very similar to that of our sun, and that the sun
itself presents a range of chemical components similar to
those of which our Earth is made up. Owing to the very
feeble light which they emit, the spectra of nebulae are very
difficult of observation : still many of them have been
spectroscopically examined, and the result has been to show
that most of them reveal by their spectra a chemical com-
position indistinguishable from that of the stars. Some,
however, whilst presenting in their spectra lines familiar to
us and recognisable as those of elements with which we are
well acquainted, also present other lines which have so far
not been recognised as related to any elements existing on
this earth. 2 These two unknown lines are always found
together, have always the same relative intensity and have
been attributed to an unknown element which has been
called " nebulium." With this apparent but perhaps not

1 Any manual of spectroscopy will explain the instrument and make
clear the point just alluded to, which cannot here be further dealt with.
For a brief but admirable account of this and other matters referred to in
this chapter the reader may be directed to " The Making of the Earth," by
J. W. Gregory, Home University Library.

2 It is quite possible that we are not acquainted with all the elements
which exist in the earth itself. The interior of the earth, which from its
weight is called the barysphere, must be much heavier than the crust or
lithosphere. This last is only two and a half times as heavy as an equal
bulk of water, whilst the entire globe is five and a half times that weight.
There are facts which point to the conclusion that the barysphere is com-
posed of nickel-iron, but the truth is that we do not know and are never
likely to know what it consists of. This matter is mentioned in order to
show that the fact that the lines of nebulium have not as yet been associ-
ated with anything on this earth does not prove that there is nothing in
the earth which is associated with them.

Apropos of this matter it may be mentioned that helium, as indeed its
name implies, was first discovered in the sun, as long ago as 1868, by
means of its characteristic bright yellow spectrum-line. It was only in
1895 that it was identilied in this earth, when Sir William Ramsay found
it in certain minerals. It has since become famous as the constituent of
the " alpha-rays " of radio-active substances.


real exception, the spectroscope teaches us that we may
look upon stars, nebulae, and our own solar system as con-
sisting of the same chemical substances. If they are
identical in character, may they not be also identical in
origin ? Is not that the simplest and most satisfying
solution of the question as to how the universe comes
to be as it is ? This identity of composition is indeed one of
the most important arguments in favour of the Nebular

As put forward originally by Laplace, this theory sup-
posed that the position now occupied by our solar system —
to confine ourselves to the consideration of that which we
know most about — was once occupied by a vast, perhaps
lenticular nebula, the centre of which occupied the position
now rilled by our sun.

This nebula was in a condition of incandescence and was,
therefore, emitting light. Further, it had a rotatory move-
ment and was whirling round at a rapid rate on its own
axis. We may pause for one moment to remember that the
theory postulates, but does not account for, the nebula,
its incandescence, and its motion.

What follows explains, or may explain, what happens in
such a system, but it neither explains nor pretends to ex-
plain the system itself. To return to the theory. This
heated, whirling nebula would by slow degrees become
cooler, and as it became cooler it must contract towards
its centre. Further, the more it contracted the more rapidly
it must have rotated. All these things follow upon what we
know as the laws of nature and need not be delayed over.
In such a system as this there must be two conflicting forces.
First of all there is the centrifugal force, which tends to tear
the periphery from the centre, the kind of force which we
see in action when a mop full of water is " trundled."
Secondly, there is the force of attraction, which holds the
periphery to the centre. Now as the contraction and the
rapidity of rotation of the system increase, the time must
come when the centrifugal force at the periphery must over-
come the attractive force towards the centre. Any person
who thinks for a moment will see that the result of this
must be the splitting off of the periphery of the nebula as a


kind of ring. A repetition of the events thus described,
followed by still further repetitions of this process of split-
ting, would lead to the formation, first of all, of a second
ring within the first, and then of other such concentric
rings, all of which would have been formed from the original
nebula. In the centre or focus would be what remained of
the nebula after the successive rings had been split off it.
And, just as the original nebula was whirling round in a
certain direction, so the nucleus and the rings which had
split off it would continue whirling round in the same
direction as the original nebula and, therefore, in the same
direction as each other. Let us now return to the rings
which we have supposed to have been split off and consider
what their fate may have been. In either case, in the
process of cooling, the rings must have passed from the
state of an incandescent gas to one of a liquid character
before they could settle down as solids. 1 If, in this process,
consolidation were to take place with something like uni-
formity, a great number of small planets would be formed.
This is actually what we find in the interval between the
orbits of Mars and Jupiter (see Chapter x). The more likely
condition seems to have been one of non-uniform consolida-
tion, for the ring is not likely often to have been quite
uniform in all its circumference. But, if it were not thus
uniform, it would consolidate more rapidly in one part
than it would in others, with the result that a single planet
would be formed. Further, just as the planets, under this
theory, have split off from the mass which ultimately
remains as the sun, so the satellites, such as our moon, have
in a secondary manner split off from the various rings or
spheres. Primary or secondary in their manner of splitting
off, all these bodies, being parts of the original nebula,
would retain their motion and the direction of that motion
which the nebula itself possessed. As a matter of fact, of

1 From the point of view of this book it is merely necessary to show
that the Nebular Hypothesis, if true, does not in any way conflict with
religious opinions. At the same time, for the sake of accuracy, it may be
noted that a ring of matter can only concentrate around its centre and
this would mean that the ring would return to its parent nucleus. Hence
it is better to regard the detacned portions as initially more or less globular
rather than ring-shaped.


course this is what we find to be the case in regard to the
sun and the planets, including our earth : —

" This world was once a fluid haze of light
Till towards the centre set the starry tides,
And eddied into suns, that wheeling cast
The planets."

Thus the poet sums up, not inaptly, the Nebular Hypo-
thesis as generally received. Fascinating as it is we must
remember that it is only a hypothesis and one which may —
almost certainly must — receive profound modification. For
example, the lenticular mass of vapour which Laplace
posited may very probably have to be abandoned in favour
of the spiral or corkscrew form, which has been shown to
characterise so many nebulae. It is also questionable
whether any nebula is hot enough to be incandescent. In
fact some think that nebulae are cold, with the intense cold
of space, and that their luminosity is due to a rain of elec-
trons. That they are luminous is, of course, undoubted.

This, however, may be said, that the views which have just
been briefly sketched afford a very complete explanation of
the facts of the solar system, and, being free from incon-
sistency with at least most known facts, have long been
accepted as at least a very useful working hypothesis. In
connection with it let us look for a moment at the problem
of the continuance of the radiation of its heat by the sun,
on which matter a few moments may now profitably be
spent. In the first place, let us consider the enormous
output of energy of which the sun is agent. The noontide
heat which falls upon this county of Cork, in which I am
now writing, would be more than sufficient to drive all the
steam engines of the world. Yet the whole earth only
receives one 2,200,000,000th of the sun's radiance. The
sun's radiated energy amounts to about 14,000 horse-power
per square foot of the solar surface. Every one has heard
or read the statement that our coal fields are " bottled
sunlight," for the energy which we obtain from the com-
bustion of coal is only that which was gathered from the
sun by the forests of the Carboniferous Period and stored
up for our use. If it be true, as seems undoubtedly to be
the case, that this bottled energy will be exhausted within


a measurable period of time, it is clear that the best hope
for the future is that science will discover some method of
harnessing the sunlight itself in and for the service of man-
kind. It is clear that this vast amount of radiation must be
explicable in some way or another : what is that way and
what the explanation ?

The first explanation that would occur to anyone is that
the radiation is due to a simple process of cooling down.
This, however, is an impossible explanation. Had radiation
been due to a cooling process, then, at the rate at which it is
going, the sun would have cooled very appreciably even
during historic times, which is not the case. In fact, if the
sun's specific heat were that of the substances composing
the great bulk of the earth, the annual fall in its temperature
would be nearly io° F.

This explanation having proved to be faulty we may turn
to the next simplest : the sun is a fire, i.e. in a state of
combustion. This also is untenable. The sun is, in fact,
above the temperature at which we believe chemical com-
bination to be possible. But, even if the sun had been a
solid mass of the best Kilkenny anthracite, burning swiftly
enough to produce the known heat -supply, less than 6000
years would have been required for its complete consump-

These two simple explanations having utterly failed we
may turn to another which would not suggest itself to the
ordinary thinker, namely, the so-called Meteoric Hypo-

We know that if we hammer a piece of iron it will become
very hot and we can understand from that, what is also
true, viz. that the impact of a cannon-ball upon a sheet of
armour-plate engenders great heat. In the same way a
fall of comets or meteorites or cosmical matter into the
sun might, it has been suggested, keep up its incandescence.
To this explanation also there are insuperable objections.
In the first place, the sun's mass would by this means be
increased by an annual layer of twenty metres of asteroids.
This would produce very remarkable effects, amongst
which this may be mentioned, that since the dawn of
the Christian era the year would have been shortened


by six weeks. Further, if the sun were thus a target
for such a battery, so also must the earth be, though
necessarily to a feebler degree. Nevertheless, if such were
the case, calculation shows that, on this theory, each square
mile of the earth's surface would be bombarded by fifty
tons of missiles every day.

The only theory, in fact, which holds the field is
that of Helmholtz, namely, the theory of Gravitational
Shrinkage. Just as a stone on a height, or an avalanche,
or a stream, can do work and generate heat by its descent
to earth, so the contraction of the sun's materials can
convert their previously existing potential energy into
kinetic energy and so into heat. Further, it must not be
forgotten that gravity on the sun's surface is twenty-eight
times what it is on earth.

If we assume the sun to be of uniform density in its
interior and that it contracts uniformly, the contraction
necessary to generate an energy equal to that radiated is
about 225 feet a year, or four and a half miles in a century.
This would amount to about a second of arc in 10,000 years,
so that we can hardly hope as yet to obtain direct evidence
for the contraction. Of course, if the sun's radiance is due
to progressive shrinking, it is clear that a time existed when
it was much larger and more diffuse than it is now, which
in itself supports the nebular hypothesis. " It has been
estimated," says the writer in the last edition of the " En-
cyclopaedia Britannica," 1 "that the sun is at present con-
tracting, so that its diameter diminishes ten metres every
century ; there is, however, now reason to think that the
rate of contraction is by no means so rapid as this would
indicate. This is an inappreciable distance when compared
with the diameter of the sun, which is nearly a million of
miles, but the significance for our present purpose depends
upon the fact that this contraction is always taking place.
Assuming the accuracy of the estimate just made, we see that
a thousand years ago the sun must have had a diameter a
hundred metres greater than at present ; ten thousand
years ago that diameter must have been one thousand metres
more than it is now, and so on. We cannot, perhaps,, assert

1 1910-11.


that the same rate is to be continued for very many centuries,
but it is plain that the further we look back into the past
time the greater must the sun have been. Dealing, then,
simply with the laws of nature as we know them, we can
see no limit to the increasing size of the sun as we look back.
We must conceive a time when the sun was swollen to such
an extent that it filled up the entire space girdled by the
orbit of Mercury. Earlier still the sun must have reached
to the Earth. Earlier still the sun must have reached
to where Neptune now revolves on the confines of our
system, but the mass of the sun could not undergo an ex-
pansion so prodigious without being made vastly more
rarefied than at present, and hence we are led by this mode

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 11 of 38)