James Clerk Maxwell on the nature of Saturn's rings

In 1859 James Clerk Maxwell published On the Stability of the Motion of Saturn's Rings. Maxwell was awarded the Adams Prize for his essay which contained many pages of detailed mathematical calculations. We give below an extract from the essay, essentially the beginning and end of the essay with around 60 pages of mathematical calculations omitted:-

On the Stability of the Motion of Saturn's Rings

Statement of the Problem
There are some questions in Astronomy, to which we are attracted rather on account of their peculiarity, as the possible illustration of some unknown principle, than from any direct advantage which their solution would afford to mankind. The theory of the Moon's inequalities, though in its first stages it presents theorems interesting to all students of mechanics, has been pursued into such intricacies of calculation as can be followed up only by those who can make the improvement of the Lunar Tables the object of their lives. The value of the labours of these men is recognized by all who are aware of the importance of such tables in Practical Astronomy and Navigation. The methods by which the results are obtained are admitted to be sound, and we leave to professional astronomers the labour and the merit of developing them.

The questions which are suggested by the appearance of Saturn's Rings cannot, in the present state of Astronomy, call forth so great an amount of labour among mathematicians. I am not aware that any practical use has been made of Saturn's Rings, either in Astronomy or in Navigation. They are too-distant, and too insignificant in mass, to produce any appreciable effect on the motion of other parts of the Solar system; and for this very reason it is difficult to determine those elements of their motion which we obtain so accurately in the case of bodies of greater mechanical importance.

But when we contemplate the Rings from a purely scientific point of view, they become the most remarkable bodies in the heavens, except, perhaps, those still less useful bodies - the spiral nebulae. When we have actually seen that great arch swung over the equator of the planet without any visible connection, we cannot bring our minds to rest. We cannot simply admit that such is the case, and describe it as one of the observed facts in nature, not admitting or requiring explanation. We must either explain its motion on the principles of mechanics, or admit that, in the realms of Saturn, there can be motion regulated by laws which we are unable to explain ...

We know, since it has been demonstrated by Laplace, that a uniform solid ring cannot revolve permanently about a planet. We propose in this Essay to determine the amount and nature of the irregularity which would be required to make a permanent rotation possible. We shall find that the stability of the motion of the ring would be ensured by loading the ring at one point with a heavy satellite about four and one-half times the weight of the ring, but this load, besides being inconsistent with the observed appearance of the rings, must be far too artificially adjusted to agree with the natural arrangements observed elsewhere, for a very small error in excess or defect would render the ring again unstable.

We are, therefore, constrained to abandon the theory of a solid ring, and to consider the case of a ring, the parts of which are not rigidly connected, as in the case of a ring of independent satellites, or a fluid ring.

There is now no danger of the whole ring or any part of it being precipitated on the body of the planet. Every particle of the ring is now to be regarded as a satellite of Saturn, disturbed by the attraction of a ring of satellites at the same mean distance from the planet, each of which however is subject to slight displacements. The mutual action of the parts of the ring will be so small compared with the attraction of the planet, that no part of the ring can ever cease to move round Saturn as a satellite.

But the question now before us is altogether different from that relating to the solid ring. We have now to take account of variations in the form and arrangement of the parts of the ring, as well as its motion as a whole, and we have as yet no security that these variations may not accumulate till the ring entirely loses its original form, and collapses into one or more satellites, circulating round Saturn. In fact, such a result is one of the leading doctrines of the "nebular theory" of the formation of planetary systems: and we are familiar with the actual breaking up of fluid rings under the action of "capillary" force, in the beautiful experiments of M Plateau.

In this essay I have shown that such a destructive tendency actually exists, but that by the revolution of the ring it is converted into the condition of dynamical stability. As the scientific interest of Saturn's Rings depends at present mainly on this question of their stability, I have considered their motion rather as an illustration of general principles, than as a subject for elaborate calculation, and, therefore, I have confined myself to those parts of the subject which bear upon the question of the permanence of a given form of motion.

There is a very general and very important problem in Dynamics, the solution of which would contain all the results of this Essay and a great deal more. It is this: "Having found a particular solution of the equations of motion of any material system, to determine whether a slight disturbance of the motion indicated by the solution would cause a small periodic variation, or a total derangement of the motion."

The question may be made to depend upon the conditions of a maximum or a minimum of a function of many variables, but the theory of the tests for distinguishing maxima from minima by the Calculus of Variations becomes so intricate when applied to functions of several variables, that I think it doubtful whether the physical or the abstract problem will be first solved.

At this point Maxwell begins his difficult mathematical calculations which go on for 60 pages. We omit them and move to his conclusions.
Summary of Conclusions

Let us now gather together the conclusions we have been able to draw from the mathematical theory of various kinds of conceivable rings.

We found that the stability of the motion of a solid ring depended on so delicate an adjustment, and at the same time so unsymmetrical a distribution of mass, that even if the exact condition were fulfilled, it could scarcely last long, and if it did, the immense preponderance of one side of the ring would be easily observed, contrary to experience. These considerations, with others derived from the mechanical structure of so vast a body, compel us to abandon any theory of solid rings.

We next examined the motion of a ring of equal satellites, and found that if the mass of the planet is sufficient, any disturbances produced in the arrangement of the ring will be propagated round it in the form of waves, and will not introduce dangerous confusion. If the satellites are unequal, the propagation of the waves will no longer be regular, but disturbances of the ring will in this, as in the former case, produce only waves, and not growing confusion. Supposing the ring to consist, not of a single row of large satellites, but of a cloud of evenly distributed unconnected particles, we found that such a cloud must have a very small density in order to be permanent, and that this is inconsistent with its outer and inner parts moving with the same angular velocity. Supposing the ring to be fluid and continuous, we found that it will be necessarily broken up into small portions.

We conclude, therefore, that the rings must consist of disconnected particles; these may be either solid or liquid, but they must be independent. The entire system of rings must therefore consist either of a series of many concentric rings, each moving with its own velocity, and having its own systems of waves, or else of a confused multitude of revolving particles, not arranged in rings, and continually coming into collision with each other.

Taking the first case, we found that in an indefinite number of possible cases the mutual perturbations of two rings, stable in themselves, might mount up in time to a destructive magnitude, and that such cases must continually occur in an extensive system like that of Saturn, the only retarding cause being the possible irregularity of the rings.

The result of long-continued disturbance was found to be the spreading out of the rings in breadth, the outer rings pressing outwards, while the inner rings press inwards.

The final result, therefore, of the mechanical theory is, that the only system of rings which can exist is one composed of an indefinite number of unconnected particles, revolving round the planet with different velocities according to their respective distances. These particles may be arranged in series of narrow rings, or they may move through each other irregularly. In the first case, the destruction of the system will be very slow, in the second case, it will be more rapid, but there may be a tendency towards an arrangement in narrow rings, which may retard the process.

We are not able to ascertain by observation the constitution of the two outer divisions of the system of rings, but the inner ring is certainly transparent, for the limb of Saturn has been observed through it. It is also certain, that though the space occupied by the ring is transparent, it is not through the material parts of it that Saturn was seen, for his limb was observed without distortion; which shows that there was no refraction, and, therefore, that the rays did not pass through a medium at all, but between the solid or liquid particles of which the ring is composed. Here then we have an optical argument in favour of the theory of independent particles as the material of the rings. The two outer rings may he of the same nature, but not so exceedingly rare that a ray of light can pass through their whole thickness without encountering one of the particles.

Finally, the two outer rings have been observed for 200 years, and it appears, from the careful analysis of all the observations by Struve, that the second ring is broader than when first observed, and that its inner edge is nearer the planet than formerly. The inner ring also is suspected to be approaching the planet ever since its discovery in 1850. These appearances seem to indicate the same slow progress of the rings towards separation which we found to he the result of theory, and the remark, that the inner edge of the inner ring is most distinct, seems to indicate that the approach towards the planet is less rapid near the edge, as we had reason to conjecture. As to the apparent unchangeableness of the exterior diameter of the outer ring, we must remember that the outer rings are certainly far more dense than the inner one, and that a small change in the outer rings must balance a great change in the inner one. It is possible, however, that some of the observed changes may be due to the existence of a resisting medium. If the changes already suspected should be confirmed by repeated observations with the same instruments, it will be worth while to investigate more carefully whether Saturn's Rings are permanent or transitionary elements of the Solar System, and whether in that part of the heavens we see celestial immutability, or terrestrial corruption and generation, and the old order giving place to new before our own eyes.

Last Updated March 2006