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Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System 
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 Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System

Please either use this thread to discuss the above referenced chapter of "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.



Mon Nov 28, 2016 11:57 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
Placing human life in the context of the solar system involves the rather surprising conclusion that the solar system, not just our planet earth alone, can be considered the niche within which life has evolved. Bryson helps to set the spatial scale of the solar system by saying if the earth was the size of a pea then the next closest star would be ten thousand miles away.

The way I have found most helpful to illustrate this scale is to say that if the whole solar system out to Pluto and Neptune was an inch across, then the next star, Proxima Centauri, would be a hundred yards away. Think tossing a coin at one end of a football ground with nothing else on the whole ground. What that means, coin v football ground, is that within the ‘coin’ we have a systemic planetary order that has largely been stable for nearly four billion years, since Neptune was expelled by the 1:2 Jupiter Saturn resonance and its motion past Uranus put the face on the man in the moon. Earth may have been sterilized by that late heavy bombardment four billion years ago, but the extinction events since then have not been quite as catastrophic.

My thinking is that this framework of stable celestial order provides the real context for the history of everything, enabling us to find the most stable permanent structures that describe the entire system in which we exist. In an area of astronomy that has not been much studied as far as I can tell, it appears that the overall solar system follows a very stable pattern driven by the resonance of the gas giants’ orbits. The marker of this pattern, drawn from calculations by NASA, is the distance of the sun from the solar system centre of mass, a point known as the barycentre.

When Jupiter and Saturn are together, the centre of mass is pulled out of the sun, and when Jupiter and Saturn are opposite, the centre of mass is near the heart of the sun. Interestingly, this Jupiter-Saturn cycle appears to form the main Mayan time period of nearly 20 years, the k’atun. This main structure of time (but not the Mayan link) was discovered by Sir Isaac Newton as part of his theory of gravity, and was then refined when Uranus and Neptune were discovered. Neptune has a bigger effect on the centre of mass than Uranus does, just as a person at the end of a seesaw exercises more force than a person close to the bar.

What I discovered in my study of this wholistic structure of the solar system was that the Jupiter-Saturn-Neptune cycle of 179 years produces a stable repeating overlapping set of patterns in the centre of mass, like a Spirograph flower. Every 179 years these three main planets come together almost exactly thirty degrees further around the stars, producing a wide ‘eternal return of the same’ after 2148 years when their conjunction, now drifting apart, is in the same stars. None of us have seen such a triple conjunction in our lifetimes. The last one was in 1881, and the next one, at the end of an overlapping cycle, will be in 2020-25, followed by the next event in the 1881 family, in 2060.

This pattern of the gas giant orbits is a main permanent stable structure of our solar system. The four terrestrial planets are nestled inside this pattern. Possibly coincidentally, this 179 year gas giant triple conjunction period is exactly one twelfth of the time, 2148 years, that it takes for the earth’s axis to shift by one zodiac constellation. If we speculate about this not just being a coincidence, we can imagine it is like the earth is bouncing on a net formed by the entire solar system, and this bounce produces the stable period of the wobble of our planetary axis, driven by lunisolar torque. Whether that coincidence involves a deeper physical resonance is not something that astronomy has answered.

Bryson sets the stage for the history of everything by first looking at the universe and then zooming in to the solar system. The physical framework of the sun and its planetary flotsam has stable orderly patterns which could prove to be more influential on our natural structure of time and the process of evolution than we have discovered so far.


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Post Re: Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
Thanks for kick starting this discussion, Robert. ;-)

In your opinion can the chapters in A Short History of Nearly Everything be read independently of other chapters? ...as in out of order and all willy-nilly? Or do you find the book best read sequentially, chapter by chapter?



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Post Re: Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
Chris OConnor wrote:
Thanks for kick starting this discussion, Robert. ;-)

In your opinion can the chapters in A Short History of Nearly Everything be read independently of other chapters? ...as in out of order and all willy-nilly? Or do you find the book best read sequentially, chapter by chapter?


This book provides an accurate and systematic explanation of human existence through an orderly scientific progression from the most universal truth through to specific facts of life. This logical structure uses the term history in the title in an ironic way, because there is no discussion of political events at all, and the book is confined to natural history rather than human history.

The big questions of how science provides an orderly and meaningful account of existence are to my view the most fascinating and important themes addressed in this book. It is possible to infer answers to the questions of why we exist and whether there is intrinsic purpose and direction in life from this material.

It is therefore possible to open discussion at any chapter of this book. The themes progress from astronomy through physics to geology and biology. All of this has strong political implications in terms of how we can base our values on facts within an orderly world view.


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Post Re: Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
I recall trying to help my daughter with a "living planets" exercise at her school, with the fourth-graders acting as the planets to demonstrate the scale of the solar system. We couldn't really do it accurately, of course, or else little Freddie Pluto would have been stationed in the next state. We could only give a sense of the immensity of the system.

But I had no idea that the sun to Pluto (demoted since Bryson wrote) is "barely one fifty-thousandth of the way" to the end of the solar system. Immensity beyond our ability to comprehend tends to drive our ambitions to inhabit the cosmos into difficulty. One doesn't like to say there's a limit to how far we can extend ourselves with technology, but still, not everything that we can imagine, or stamp 'theoretically possible,' is going to become reality. Back when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, the feeling was that we were off to the races, the hard part being achieved. We'd be inhabiting the moon within a decade, surely. What we had accomplished, under the heat of competition with the Soviets, now looks like a one-off (even though we walked on the lunar surface several times). Will Elon Musk be able to get our extra-planetary visions on track again by establishing a base on Mars? He's not likely to live long enough to do that. He could lay the groundwork for others to use later, I suppose.



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Post Re: Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
DWill wrote:
I recall trying to help my daughter with a "living planets" exercise at her school, with the fourth-graders acting as the planets to demonstrate the scale of the solar system. We couldn't really do it accurately, of course, or else little Freddie Pluto would have been stationed in the next state. We could only give a sense of the immensity of the system.


I recall a similar experience of trying to convey to students a more realistic sense of the size of the solar system. I was teaching in the far northern territory of Nunavut, Canada at the time. As a resource teacher, I suggested a demonstration to the high school science teacher that would broaden their sense of the immensity of the solar system and the cosmos in general.
Our base was a huge abandoned satellite dish on the edge of town we used to represent the sun. The 'planet students' were then sent off to their prearanged positions representing each of the planets out on the tundra with my "Freddie Pluto" taking off with his marble (representing Pluto) on his snowmobile (many of the students traveled to school by snowmobile) to a distance where he was barely visible to the group at the base. All this to say we created an image they didn't soon forget and later discussions on the solar system and the cosmos were that much more meaningful.
As for me, I'm still trying with my puny brain to capture a truer sense of the immensity of the cosmos. This book is helping with that effort.



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Post Re: Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
DWill wrote:
Back when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, the feeling was that we were off to the races, the hard part being achieved. We'd be inhabiting the moon within a decade, surely. What we had accomplished, under the heat of competition with the Soviets, now looks like a one-off (even though we walked on the lunar surface several times). Will Elon Musk be able to get our extra-planetary visions on track again by establishing a base on Mars? He's not likely to live long enough to do that. He could lay the groundwork for others to use later, I suppose.

Humans should spend the next millennium fixing the earth after our ravaging of it, before pursuing any of this nonsense about space travel. The real next frontier is the ocean. If we continue to ignore the collapse of planetary biodiversity that we are causing, the ocean will kill us all through climate change.


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Post Re: Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
We don't find it enthralling to tend to maintenance and preservation, unfortunately. They're not sexy.



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Post Re: Chapter 2: Welcome to the Solar System
If I may be permitted to engage in a bit of personal recollection, this chapter has provided me a trip down memory lane. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, I was a student in elementary and junior high schools (no "middle" school in those days). I was what today might be called a nerd; I loved science and particularly astronomy. I even briefly decided on a career as an astronomer. Anyway, I recall those charts of the solar systerm and dreamed of flying to the planets. At this time, I also became enamored of science-fiction; my ABCs were Asiimov, Bradbuiry and Clarke. There was life on Venus and Mars in those days, and trips to those planets were as routine as trans-oceanic flightsd are today. Those were also the early days of television, and I avidly followed the adventures of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Captain Video, and others, who regularly zoomed about the solar system.

I especially remember an illustration in a large reference book; it showed our galaxy, the Milky Way, only it was labeled "The Universe." A couple of other galaxies, shown at the edges of the page, and as being much smaller, were called "Island Universes." I guess humanity still had a bit of a homocentric view of things. When I saw my first photograph of the Andromeda Galaxy (Not called an "Island Universe," nor a nebula, but a Galaxy), it was (for me) an epiphany.

Reading abpit living solar system demonstrations, the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud, reminds me just how big the solar system, our galaxy, and the universe really are. It is a bit humbling.


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