How Have We Constructed the Origins of the Solar System Over Time?


Shining My Flashlight on the Milky Way

Shining My Flashlight on the Milky Way

Where did the solar system come from? Why and how? What accounts for its evolution over time? Those questions have plagued scientists, philosophers, theologians, and other thinkers from the point where humanity first realized that Earth was part of a large system of bodies all interacting with each other. It is also a subject I have been considering of late. Is anyone aware of a definitive work on this subject that can explain the evolution over time of this theme in the history of science?

The first attempts to explain in naturalistic terms the origins of the solar system some 500 years ago may seem rudimentary by today’s standards, but current explanations remain incomplete and some of their elements may well prove naïve as future scientists continue to investigate this subject. During the space age intensive efforts resulted in a revolution in knowledge gained about the solar system.

Using data newly available, scientists structured theories, always more than one, of solar system origin and evolution that reflected that larger sets of beliefs of the various communities and disciplines working on the question. Most theories involved to some degree a common set of elements: the collapse of cloud of gas and cosmic dust into the sun and the concentration of globs into planets and other smaller bodies, were seen as part of a single process.

The devil was in the details concerning this process, however, and scientists endlessly debated the roles of condensation versus of accretion, hot versus cold origins, the role of geological processes, the nature of wandering bodies, and the like. Consensus positions proved elusive. Even so, the story filtered through textbooks, popular writings, and multi-media presentations offered more certainty and less acknowledgment of tentativeness to the public than the scientists thought appropriate.

How might we come to grips with the manner in which knowledge about the solar system was created and evolved in the space science community and then was homogenized, popularized, and offered to the larger public and the manner in which that larger community of the United States incorporated it into its knowledge system? At the same time, how has the wider society embraced, or perhaps rejected, these larger scientific ideas about the origins of the solar system?

I am very interested in any thoughts readers might have on this subject.

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9 Responses to How Have We Constructed the Origins of the Solar System Over Time?

  1. Well, Roger, since it was asked:

    As a scientist and theoretician, I know that consensus cannot be achieved until there is a theoretical framework that incorporates the first-person perspective into the story of origins. Such a theory would necessarily be heretical and perhaps even blasphemous, as it would give its reader, whoever calls himself or herself “me,” direct involvement and causal agent for creation (origination) of not only the Solar System, but the Universe.

    But, scientists don’t want such a theory, I have found.

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  2. As long as some Americans cling to a supernatural creation myth there will be resistance to the public acceptance of the scientific explanation regarding the origin of the solar system and our place in it. I live in Louisiana and evidence-based science has been under attack by an unholy alliance of right-wing religious and political foes. As long as this alliance has the political power to influence the public school curriculum, force faith-based changes to textbooks, and control local and state school authorities we will be trapped in this intellectual quagmire.

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  3. mike shupp says:

    A few points: (1) I don’t see much evidence that people have been “taught” much at all about solar system origins and evolution. Some things just become part a culture, after all. For example, most Americans know quite a bit about baseball — 2 major leagues, two teams to a game, 9 innings with 3 outs per side, pitchers, batters, fielders, umpires — without becoming experts on baseball strategy or learning the history of the Negro leagues or calculating slugging percentages. Most people learn about the solar system in the same way: it gets some coverage in junior high science texts, newspapers used to talk a bit about interesting astronomical phenomena, comics and radio and television shows involving space travelers mentioned the planets, etc. And there’s astrology. And today we’ve got an internet with dozens of space-related web sites and Hubble photographs and video camera pictures of meteorites smashing into Russian cities and the like. So there’s a great deal of low level knowledge of astronomy that is just sort of “in the air.”

    (2) That said, I’d give a couple of points to science fiction. I recall my Dad — a high school science teacher — explaining the origins of the planets, as due to a “filament” of gas pulled from the sun by another sun coming extremely close — back about 1950 or 52, when I would have been in first grade. The Jeans Hypothesis, in short, and that does seem to have been a common notion at the time. 15 years later, in the Apollo era, scientists had pretty much switched over to Nebular Hypotheses of various sorts, and the “up in the air” explanations of solar system origins had done so as well, though I don’t recall any particular moment of transition. What I think in retrospect was that science fiction got people accustomed to the idea of many worlds in space around many suns, which made solar systems almost something to be expected among the stars. Thus the notion that planets might be a regularly occurring phenomena rather than the products of very rare celestial near-collisions began to be taken for granted. Let me note that it’s the existence of other solar systems that was sinking into peoples’ minds, not the various theories which would explain the origins of those systems.

    (3) What I find fascinating is that now we can see some alien solar systems, it’s beginning to appear that our own is rather anomalous. We don’t have Jupiter-sized bodies inside the orbit of Mercury, for example, For that matter, it isn’t the case that Jupiter is the largest conceivable planet any more. And the Rings of Saturn aren’t all that unique. Our Kuiper Belt , now that we know we have a Kuiper Belt, isn’t as big and glorious as that in other systems. And while the outer planets may have slipped in or out a bit 4 billion years ago, our system seems to have been improbably stable since — at least as currently explained (Okay, there was Velikovsky, but he probably wasn’t making the contributions to astronomical knowledge you were looking for). And now we know there are indeed some brown stars out there, and as of yesterday, at least one announced free-flying planet — with speculation that there might be 100,000 unattended planets for every star in our galaxy. The mysteries of planetary origins haven’t all been ferretted out. Oh wee!

    (4) A final odd note: there isn’t any real opposition to this kind of astronomical knowledge. Okay, there are Young Earth Creationists who want to argue God set things moving 6000 years ago, but they’re few and mostly ridiculed. Texas school book evaluating committees can safely ignore them. Darwinian biologists, on the other hand, seem to be in regular conflict with Intelligent Design enthusiasts. And people who want to scream for or against human-created global warming seem to be more common on the internet than football fans. But nobody — at least in the western world — seems troubled by the idea that our solar system had an origin, that our planets and moons were formed along with the sun, etc. Possibly the very notion that our system had a date of origin is congenial with Judeo-Christian theology even if the details differ. More likely, it’s just that such ideas don’t impact oil company profits.

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  4. mike shupp says:

    Oh, good gracious. You mean I might be responsible for provoking something? Please, let me just sit here and dither for a while and enjoy my impotence!

    Let me also expand on the last paragraph above. Someone — I’m reasonably certain it was Ramsey Macmullen in THE CHRISTIANS AS THE ROMANS SAW THEM — made the point once that to the Romans and Greeks and other pagans about them, the Gods were powerful beings but not actually Creators. They were creatures who came into being in a chaotic cosmos and produced order in the universe. In modern terms, they reduced entropy by bringing matter together in a structured form — creating planets for example.

    Then the Christians came along, with a somewhat different set of myths, which they’d lifted from the Jews. (But no one had paid attention to Jewish theology since Jews only made up a measly ten percent of the Roman empire.) And the Roman skeptics, once they thought it worthwhile to acknowledge these religious upstarts, ridiculed the Christians, saying essentially “What’s all this nonsense? Do you seriously claim that your God created the world from Nothingness? That before He spoke there was literally not a thing in all the Universe? C’mon now!” And after due reflection, the Christian theologians replied with (roughly) “Our God is the Big Kahuna and He’s a thousand times bigger and more than your gods or even ten thousand times and yes, He is so powerful that He can create matter from nothingness purely by His own will, and if you just believe in Him it will all make sense.”

    Well, things didn’t go super smoothly back in Roman times, but eventually Christians won out and pagans faded away and time passed and modern science along, and after some futzing about scientists came up with the idea of a Big Bang — in which all the matter in the universe was created our of nothing — and then even evidence that this preposterous notion was likely true.

    And in our time, I speculate, to most of us the Big Bang origin of the cosmos looks quite a bit like the Creation at the start of Genesis. Not literally, of course — prehistoric farmers and herdsmen didn’t have the vocabulary of modern astrophysicists — but the basic notion of creating all the material of the Universe at a single instant and providing a framework of 3-dimensional space + time in which all that matter could be placed . . . The unfolding of the cosmos, as depicted by the Big Bang Theory, bears much resemblance to Christian belief. (Or perhaps those of us brought up in Christian or Jewish or Moslem faiths, or familiar with those faiths, tend to focus on elements of the Big Bang theory which seen to “fit with” our faiths.)

    Of course, if the Big Bang corresponds to Christian notions of how the Universe came into being, one could argue that the creation of the solar system — clouds of gases pulled together by gravity and yet differentiating into a sun and planets and moons and comets, etc., — is rather like the pagan picture of creation two thousand years ago. Theologically, the creation of the solar system doesn’t really match Christian origin beliefs, and we might expect to find people who have rejected on that basis. But we don’t, I suspect to most people the origin of the universe just basically seems a bigger more important issue than the origins of the plantets, and if the universe’s beginnings match our preconceived beliefs, we basically take it for granted that the appearance and evolution of the solar system does as well — even though creating a star and its planets out of a cloud of gas resembles classical myths rather more than our own.

    Just mumbling aloud, of course.

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