The centrifuge and the sun

Rohit Gupta | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on April 14, 2017

Prisoners of the golden orb: Eclipse observations in China, circa 1840

Rohit Gupta

Formation of the solar system as a centrifuge, rain as distillation

During solar eclipse expeditions of the Victorian age, it was common to speak of the spectacular appearance of the corona as if it were a ‘beautiful halo’ such as ‘painters draw around the heads of saints’. In Empire And The Sun, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang illustrates this and other accounts which describe the “majestic power” of the eclipsed sun, as if it were a crowned emperor. Since antiquity, monarchs have used solar symbolism and bloodlines from the sun in order to proclaim their divine right (hint: corona, coronation). Eclipse-hunters of the British Raj were themselves like rays of a sun, which displayed the geopolitical power of Empire by penetrating the darkest penumbra of the farthest continent.

“From Jahangir’s time onwards” (r 1605-27), writes Anna Malecka, “...under the influence of European prints of Christ and the Apostles which were brought to India by the Jesuits, this aura had also appeared in Mughal art, taking a form of radiant nimbuses around the heads of the emperors.”

She also mentions how Humayun “used to put a veil over his crown and then raise it to acclaim of his courtiers who would cry out: ‘Light has shined forth!’”

“When a king sits on his throne to judge, he winnows out all evil [like chaff] with his eyes,” says the Book Of Proverbs (20:8), some of which are attributed to Solomon “the wise”, a strong influence on the Mughal dynasty. According to Al-Tha’alabi (1035 AD), Solomon’s mechanical throne, constructed with occult knowledge by djinns, could rotate to give him 360° vision. (According to other tales, writes Priscilla P Soucek, this Sulaymanic throne could even fly.) The moral of that proverb being that the presence of an all-seeing eye of providence alters the behaviour of its subjects, often by fear, separating the wheat from the chaff, winnowing the truth from untruth like a gentle solar wind.

The origin of the sun and the formation of the solar system have been a source of confounding debates throughout history. The most widely accepted theory — the nebular hypothesis — can be traced as far back as Lucretius’s (99-55BC) ‘De rerum natura’. The modern consensus is that a large rotating cloud of interstellar gas collapsed under its own gravity to form the sun, with the rest of the matter forming a proto-disc before settling into the planets, which rotate due to the leftover angular momentum in the same orbital plane. This is far from a settled issue, riddled as it is with countless, thorny paradoxes.

As water on a wet, spinning acorn would fly away from its surface due to angular momentum, liquids of two different densities in a rapidly rotating bowl would become unmixed due to this outward force, like artificial gravity; which is what happens to blood samples in a medical centrifuge. Due to a similar primordial rotation, we are now led to imagine that the early solar system acted as a kind of centrifugal separator of elements in the original disk.

William Whewell went so far as to argue that life on Earth is a privilege (1853, ‘Of the plurality of worlds’), since ‘the Earth’s orbit is the temperate zone of the solar system’. On which Alfred R Wallace commented in an essay called ‘Man’s place in the universe’ (1904), “...there only is it possible to have those moderate variations of heat and cold, dryness and moisture, which are suitable for animal life. [Whewell] ...suggested that the outer planets of the system consisted mainly of water, gases, and vapour, as indicated by their low specific gravity, and were therefore quite unsuitable for terrestrial life.”

Dietrick E Thomsen explains this in a more recent piece: “The inner planets of the solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, asteroids) are rocky, dense terrestrial; the outer ones (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) are low in density and have a chemical composition like that of the Sun.” He reported the work of NASA’s JB Pollack, who suggested in 1976 that Saturn and Uranus may instead be stillborn stars, whose evolution was arrested, preventing the creation of a three-star solar system. In fact, Saturn, in particular, is like a mini-solar system caught in the process of formation via the nebular rotation mechanism. Perhaps in such a system, although the knowledge of astronomy would not advance as much as it has in the balance of day and night, the sun would never set on any empire.

It is the cycle of day and night that drives, like an AC motor, the waters of the Earth to rise as if in a distillation column, an atmospheric alembic, purifying it and returning as rain. Who knows how many such hidden apparatus are employed by Nature in its vast laboratory?

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on April 14, 2017
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