Kelvin on the sun

On Friday 21 January 1887 Sir William Thomson (he became Lord Kelvin in 1892) addressed the Friday Evening Discourse in Physical Science at the Royal Institution in London. He addressed the audience on The Sun's Heat. In the tradition of the lectures he assumed that members of the audience had no expert scientific knowledge. It is worth commenting that Thomson is, of course, entirely wrong but there was no way before the discovery of the structure of the atom that he could possibly have produced a correct theory. The lecture is interesting both in showing the knowledge of the period, and also in showing how the leading scientists pushed forward the bounds of knowledge.

Below is a version of the first part of Thomson's lecture.

The second part of Thomson's lecture may be found here: Kelvin on the sun 2

The Sun's Heat, Part 1

Sir William Thomson, LL.D. F.R.S. M.R.L.
Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow.

From human history we know that for several thousand years the sun has been giving heat and light to the earth as at present, possibly with some considerable fluctuations, and possibly with some not very small progressive variation. The records of agriculture, and the natural history of plants and animals within the time of human history, abound with evidence that there has been no exceedingly great change in the intensity of the sun's heat and light within the last three thousand years; but for all that, there may have been variations of quite as much as 5 or 10 per cent, as we may judge by considering that the intensity of the solar radiation to the earth is 6126\large\frac{1}{2}\normalsize per cent greater in January than in July; and neither at the equator nor in the northern or southern hemispheres has this difference been discovered by experience or general observation of any kind. But as for the mere age of the sun, irrespective of the question of uniformity, we have proof of something vastly more than three thousand years in geological history, with its irrefragable evidence of continuity of life on the earth in time past for tens of thousands, and probably for millions of years.

Here, then, we have a splendid subject for contemplation and research in Natural Philosophy or Physics - the science of dead matter. The sun, a mere piece of matter of the moderate dimensions which we know it to have, bounded all round by cold ether, has been doing work at the rate of four hundred and seventy-six thousand million million million horse-power for three thousand years; and at possibly a higher, certainly not much lower, rate for a few million years. How is this to be explained? Natural philosophy cannot evade the question, and no physicist who is not engaged in trying to answer it can have any other justification than that his whole working time is occupied with work on some other subject or subjects of his province by which he has more hope of being able to advance science.

It may be taken as an established result of scientific inquiry that the sun is not a burning fire, and is merely a white hot fluid mass cooling, with some little accession of fresh energy by meteors occasionally falling in, but of very small account in comparison with the whole energy of heat which he gives out from year to year. Helmholtz's form of the meteoric theory of the origin of the sun's heat, may be accepted as having the highest degree of scientific probability that can be assigned to any assumption regarding actions of prehistoric times. The essential principle of the explanation is this; at some period of time, long past, the sun's initial heat was generated by the collision of pieces of matter gravitationally attracted together from distant space to build up his present mass; and shrinkage due to cooling gives, through the work done by the mutual gravitation of all parts of the shrinking mass, the vast heat-storage capacity in virtue of which the cooling has been, and continues to be, so slow.

In some otherwise excellent books it is "paradoxically" stated that the sun is becoming hotter because of the condensation. Paradoxes have no place in science. Their removal is the substitution of true for false statements and thoughts, not always so easily effected as in the present case. The truth is, that it is because the sun is becoming less hot in places of equal density that his mass is allowed to yield gradually under the condensing tendency of gravity and thus from age to age cooling and condensation go on together.

An essential detail of Helmholtz's theory of solar heat is that the sun must be fluid, because even though given at any moment hot enough from the surface to any depth, however great, inwards, to be brilliantly incandescent, the conduction of heat from within through solid matter of even the highest conducting quality known to us, would not suffice to maintain the incandescence of the surface for more than a few hours, after which all would be darkness. Observation confirms this conclusion so far as the outward appearance of the sun is concerned, but does not suffice to disprove the idea which was so eloquently set forth by Sir John Herschel, and which prevailed till thirty or forty years ago, that the sun is a solid nucleus enclosed in a sheet of violently agitated flame. In reality, the matter of the outer shell of the sun, from which the heat is radiated outwards, must in cooling become denser, and so becoming unstable in its high position must fall down, and hotter fluid from within must rush up to take its place. The tremendous currents thus continually produced in this great mass of flaming fluid constitute the province of the newly-developed science of solar physics, which, with its marvellous instrument of research - the spectroscope - is yearly and daily giving us more and more knowledge of the actual motions of the different ingredients, and of the splendid and all-important resulting phenomena.

To form some idea of the amount of the heat which is being continually carried up to the sun's surface and radiated out into space, and of the dynamical relations between it and the solar gravitation, let us first divide that prodigious number (476×1021476 \times 10^{21}) of horse-power by the number (6.1×10186.1 \times 10^{18}) of square metres in the sun's surface, and we find 78,000 horse-power as the mechanical value of the radiation per square metre. Imagine, then, the engines of eight ironclads applied, by ideal mechanism of countless shafts, pulleys, and belts, to do all their available work of, say 10,000 horse-power each, in perpetuity driving one small paddle in a fluid contained in a square metre vat. The same heat would be given out from the square metre surface of the fluid as is given out from every square metre of the sun's surface.

But now to pass from a practically impossible combination of engines, and a physically impossible paddle and fluid and containing vessel, towards a more practical combination of matter for producing the same effect: still keep the ideal vat and paddle and fluid, but place the vat on the surface of a cool, solid, homogeneous globe of the same size (697,000 kilometres radius) as the sun, and of density (1.4) equal to the sun's mean density. Instead of using steam-power, let the paddle be driven by a weight descending in a pit excavated below the vat. As the simplest possible mechanism, take a long vertical shaft, with the paddle mounted on the top of it so as to turn horizontally. Let the weight be a nut working on a screw-thread on the vertical shaft, with guides to prevent the nut from turning - the screw and the guides being all absolutely frictionless. Let the pit be a metre square at its upper end, and let it be excavated quite down to the sun's centre, everywhere of square horizontal section, and tapering uniformly to a point in the centre. Let the weight be simply the excavated matter of the sun's mass, with merely a little clearance space between it and the four sides of the pit, and with a kilometre or so out off the lower pointed end to allow space for its descent. The mass of this weight is 326 million tons. Its heaviness, three-quarters of the heaviness of an equal mass at the sun's surface, is 244 million tons solar surface-heaviness. Now a horse-power is, per hour, 270 metre-tons, terrestrial surface-heaviness; or 10 metre-tons, solar surface-heaviness, because a ton of matter is twenty-seven times as heavy at the sun's surface as at the earth's. To do 78,000 horsepower, or 780,000 metre-tons solar surface-heaviness per hour, our weight must therefore descend at the rate of one metre in 313 hours, or about 28 metres per year.

To advance another step, still through impracticable mechanism, towards the practical method by which the sun's heat is produced, let the thread of the screw be of uniformly decreasing steepness from the surface downwards, so that the velocity of the weight, as it is allowed to descend by the turning of the screw, shall be in simple proportion to distance from the sun's centre. This will involve a uniform condensation of the material of the weight; but a condensation so exceedingly small in the course even of tens of thousands of years, that, whatever be the supposed material, metal or stone, of the weight, the elastic resistance against the condensation will be utterly imperceptible in comparison with the gravitational forces with which we are concerned. The work done per metre of descent of the top end of the weight will be just four-fifths of what it was when the thread of the screw was uniform. Thus, to do the 78,000 horse-power of work, the top end of the weight must descend at the rate of 35 metres per year: or 70 kilometres per 2000 years.

Now let the whole surface of our cool solid sun be divided into squares, for example as nearly as may be of one square metre area each, and lot the whole mass of the sun be divided into long inverted pyramids or pointed rods, each 697,000 kilometres long, with their points meeting at the centre. Let each be mounted on a screw, as already described for the long tapering weight which we first considered; and let the paddle at the top end of each screw-shaft revolve in a fluid, not now confined to a vat, but covering the whole surface of the sun to a depth of a few metres or kilometres. Arrange the viscosity of the fluid and the size of each paddle so as to let the paddle turn just so fast as to allow the top end of each pointed rod to descend at the rate of 35 metres per year. The whole fluid will, by the work which the paddles do in it, be made incandescent, and it will give out heat and light to just about the same amount as is actually done by the sun. If the fluid is a few thousand kilometres deep over the paddles, it would be impossible, by any of the appliances of solar physics, to see the difference between our model mechanical sun and the true sun.

To do away with the last vestige of impracticable mechanism in which the heavinesses of all parts of each long rod are supported on the thread of an ideal screw cut on a vertical shaft of ideal matter, absolutely hard and absolutely frictionless: first, go back a step to our supposition of just one such rod and screw working in a single pit excavated down to the centre of the sun, and let us suppose all the rest of the sun's mass to be rigid and absolutely impervious to heat. Warm up the matter of the pyramidal rod to such a temperature that its material melts and experiences as much of Sir Humphry Davy's "repulsive motion" as suffices to keep it balanced as a fluid, without either sinking or rising from the position in which it was held by the thread of the screw. When the matter is thus held up without the screw, take away the screw or let it melt in its place. We should thus have a pit from the sun's surface to his centre, of a square metre area at the surface, full of incandescent fluid, which we may suppose to be of the actual ingredients of the solar substance. This fluid, having at the first instant the temperature with which the paddle left it, would at the first instant continue radiating heat just as it did when the paddle was kept moving; but it would quickly become much cooler at its surface, and to a distance of a few metres down. Currents of less hot fluid tumbling clown, and hotter fluid coming up from below, in irregular whirls, would carry the cooled fluid down from the surface, and bring up hotter fluid from below, but this mixing could not go on through a depth of very many metres to a sufficient degree to keep up anything approaching to the high temperature maintained by the paddle; and after a few hours or days, solidification would commence at the surface. If the solidified matter floats on the fluid, at the same temperature, below it, the crust would simply thicken as ice on a lake thickens in frosty weather; but if, as is more probable, solid matter, of such ingredients as the sun is composed of, sinks in the liquid when both are at the melting temperature of the substance, thin films of the upper crust would fall in, and continue falling in, until, for several metres downwards, the whole mass of mixed solid and fluid becomes stiff enough (like the stiffness of paste or of mortar) to prevent the frozen film from falling down from the surface. The surface film would then quickly thicken, and in the course of a few hours or days become less than red-hot on its upper surface, the whole pit full of fluid would go on cooling with extreme slowness until, after possibly about a million million million years or so, it would be all at the same temperature as the space to which its upper end radiates.

Let precisely what we have been considering be done for every one of our pyramidal rods, with, however, in the first place, thin partitions of matter impervious to heat separating every pit from its four surrounding neighbours. Precisely the same series of events as we have been considering will take place in every one of the pits.

Suppose the whole complex mass to be rotating at the rate of once round in twenty-five days, which is, about as exactly as we know it, the time of the sun's rotation about his axis.

Now at the instant when the paddle stops let all the partitions be annulled, so that there shall be perfect freedom for currents to flow unresisted in any direction, except so far as resisted by the viscosity of the fluid, and leave the piece of matter, which we may now call the Sun, to himself. He will immediately begin showing all the phenomena known in solar physics. Of course the observer might have to wait a few years for sunspots, and a few quarter-centuries to discover periods of sunspots, but they would, I think I may say probably, all be there just as they are, because I think we may feel that it is most probable that all these actions are due to the sun's own substance, and not to external influences of any kind. It is, however, quite possible, and indeed many who know most of the subject think it probable, that some of the chief phenomena due to sunspots arise from influxes of meteoric matter circling round the sun.

The energy of chemical combination is as nothing compared with the gravitational energy of shrinkage, to which the sun's activity is almost wholly due. A body falling forty-six kilometres to the sun's surface or through the sun's atmosphere, has as much work done on it by gravity, as corresponds to a high estimate of chemical energy in the burning of combustible materials. But chemical combinations and dissociations may, as urged by Lockyer, in his book on the 'Chemistry of the Sun,' just now published, be thoroughly potent determining influences on some of the features of non-uniformity of the brightness in the grand phenomena of sunspots, hydrogen flames, and corona, which make the province of solar physics. But these are questions belonging to a very splendid branch of solar science to which only allusion can be made at the present time.

What concerns us as to the explanation of sun-light and sun-heat may be summarised in two propositions:-
  1. Gigantic currents throughout the sun's liquid mass are continually maintained by fluid, slightly cooled by radiation falling down from the surface, and hotter fluid rushing up to take its place.

  2. The work done in any time by the mutual gravitation of all the parts of the fluid, as it shrinks in virtue of the lowering of its temperature, is but little less than (so little less than, that we may regard it as practically equal to) the dynamical equivalent of the heat that is radiated from the sun in the same time.

The rate of shrinkage corresponding to the present rate of solar radiation has been proved to us, by the consideration of our dynamical model, to be 35 metres on the radius per year, or one ten-thousandth of its own length on the radius per two thousand years. Hence, if the solar radiation has been about the same as at present for two hundred thousand years, his radius must have been greater by one per cent two hundred thousand years ago than at present. If we wish to carry our calculations much farther back or forward than two hundred thousand years, we must reckon by differences of the reciprocal of the sun's radius, and not by differences simply of the radius, to take into account the change of density (which, for example, would be three per cent for one per cent change of the radius). Thus the rule, easily worked out according to the principles illustrated by our mechanical model, is this:-

Equal differences of the reciprocal of the radius correspond to equal quantities of heat radiated away from million of years to million of years.

Take two examples-
  1. If in past time there has been as much as fifteen million times the heat radiated from the sun as is at present radiated out in one year, the solar radius must have been four times as great as at present.

  2. If the sun's effective thermal capacity can be maintained by shrinkage till twenty million times the present year's amount of heat is radiated away, the sun's radius must be half what it is now. But it is to be remarked that the density which this would imply, being 11.2 times the density of water, or just about the density of lead, is probably too great to allow the free shrinkage as of a cooling gas to be still continued without obstruction through overcrowding of the molecules. It seems, therefore, most probable that we cannot for the future reckon on more of solar radiation than, if so much as, twenty million times the amount at present radiated out in a year. It is also to be remarked that the greatly diminished radiating surface, at a much lower temperature, would give out annually much less heat than the sun in his present condition gives. The same considerations led Newcomb to the conclusion:-
    ... that it is hardly likely that the sun can continue to give sufficient heat to support life on the earth (such life as we now are acquainted with, at least) for ten million years from the present time.
In all our calculations hitherto we have for simplicity taken the density as uniform throughout, and equal to the true mean density of the sun, being about 1.4 times the density of water, or about a quarter of the earth's mean density. In reality the density in the upper parts of the sun's mass must be something less than this, and something considerably more than this in the central parts, because of the pressure in the interior increasing to something enormously great at the centre. If we knew the distribution of interior density we could easily modify our calculations accordingly; but it does not seem probable that the correction could, with any probable assumption as to the greatness of the density throughout a considerable proportion of the sun's interior, add more than a few million years to the past of solar heat, and what could be added to the past must be taken from the future.

In our calculations we have taken Pouillet's number for the total activity of solar radiation, which practically agrees with Herschel's. Forbes showed the necessity for correcting the mode of allowing for atmospheric absorption used by his two predecessors in estimating the total amount of solar radiation, and he was thus led to a number 1.6 times theirs. Forty years later Langley, in an excellently worked out consideration of the whole question of absorption by our atmosphere, of radiant heat of all wave-lengths, accepts and confirms Forbes's reasoning, and by fresh observations in very favourable circumstances on Mount Whitney, 15,000 feet above the sea-level, finds a number a little greater still than Forbes (1.7, instead of Forbes' 1.6, times Pouillet's number). Thus Langley's measurement of solar radiation corresponds to 133,000 horse-power per square metre, instead of the 78,000 horse-power which we have taken, and diminishes each of our times in the ratio of 1 to 1.7. Thus, instead of Helmholtz's twenty million years, which was founded on Pouillet's estimate, we have only twelve millions, and similarly with all our other time reckonings based on Pouillet's results. In the circumstances, and taking fully into account all possibilities of greater density in the sun's interior, and of greater or less activity of radiation in past ages, it would, I think, be exceedingly rash to assume as probable anything more than twenty million years of the sun's light in the past history of the earth, or to reckon on more than five or six million years of sunlight for time to come.

We have seen that the sun draws on no external source for the heat he radiates out from year to year, and that the whole energy of this heat is due to the mutual attraction between his parts acting in conformity with the Newtonian law of gravitation. We have seen how an ideal mechanism, easily imagined and understood, though infinitely far from possibility of realisation, could direct the work done by mutual gravitation between all the parts of the shrinking mass, to actually generate its heat-equivalent in an ocean of white-hot liquid covering the sun's surface, and so keep it white-hot while constantly radiating out heat at the actual rate of the sun's heat-giving activity. Let us now consider a little more in detail the real forces and movements actually concerned in the process of cooling by radiation from the uttermost region of the sun, the falling inwards of the fluid thus cooled, the consequent mixing up of the whole mass of the sun, the resulting diminished elastic resistance to pressure in equi-dense parts, and the consequent shrinkage of the whole mass under the influence of mutual gravitation. I must first explain that this "elastic resistance to pressure" is due to heat, and is, in fact, what I have, in the present lecture, called "Sir Humphry Davy's repulsive motion". I called it so because Davy first used the expression "repulsive motion" to describe the fine intermolecular motions to which he and other founders of the Kinetic Theory of Heat attributed the elastic resistance to compression presented by
gases and fluids.

Imagine, instead of the atoms and molecules of the various substances which constitute the sun's mass, a vast number of elastic globes, like schoolboys' marbles or billiard balls. Consider first, anywhere on our earth a few million such balls put into a room, large enough to hold a thousand times their number, with perfectly hard walls and ceiling, but with a real wooden floor; or, what would be still more convenient for our purpose, a floor of thin elastic sheet steel, supported by joists close enough together to prevent it from drooping inconveniently in any part. Suppose in the beginning the marbles to be lying motionless on the floor. In this condition they represent the atoms of a gas, as for instance, oxygen, nitrogen, or hydrogen, absolutely deprived of heat, and therefore lying frozen, or as molecular dust strewn on the floor of the containing vessel.

If now a lamp be applied below the oxygen, nitrogen, or hydrogen, the substance becoming warmed by heat conducted through the floor, will rise from its condition of absolutely cold solid, or of incoherent molecular dust, and will spread as a gas through the whole enclosed space. If more and more heat be applied by the lamp the pressure of the gas outwards in all directions against the inside of the enclosing vessel will become greater and greater.

As a rude mechanical analogue to this warming of a gas by heat conducted through the floor of its containing vessel, from a lamp held below it, return to our room with floor strewn with marbles, and employ workmen to go below the floor and strike its underside in a great many places vehemently with mallets. The marbles in immediate contact with the floor will begin to jump from it and fall sharply back again like water in a pot on a fire simmering before it boils. If the workmen work energetically enough there will be more and more of commotion in the heap, till every one of the balls gets into a state of irregular vibration, up and down, or obliquely, or horizontally, but in no fixed direction; and by mutual jostling the heap swells up till the ceiling of the room prevents it from swelling any further. Suppose now the floor to become, like the walls and ceiling, absolutely rigid. The workmen may cease their work of hammering, which would now be no more availing to augment the motions of the marbles within, than would be a lamp applied outside to warm the contents of a vessel, if the vessel were made of ideal matter impermeable to heat. The marbles being perfectly elastic will continue for ever flying about in their room striking the walls and floor and ceiling and one another, and remaining in a constant average condition of denser crowd just over the floor and less and less dense up to the ceiling.

The second part of Thomson's lecture may be found here: Kelvin on the sun 2

Last Updated April 2007