the godly algorithm (59: early earth formation)

Rotation, and other mighty things

The planets-to-be did not get pulled in to become engulfed by the birthing sun, because the whole solar system was rotating. The rotational movement imparted centrifugal force to the planets—in effect slinging them “out,” away from the sun. But they could not in fact sling away because another force, Sol’s huge gravity, held them “in.” The solar center had grown so large and dense that it now had enormous gravity all on its own, and that gravity held all eight new protoplanets firmly in its grip. The two opposing forces—centrifugal out, gravity in—held each of the eight in an equilibrium, a sort of stasis, from whence they could venture neither farther out nor closer in. Planetary orbits were born.


And the whole thing turned, like Ezekiel’s wheels. As our birthing sun ignited and began casting forth its enormous new light and heat, it rotated. And each of its newly formed planets orbited around their parent sun even as they too rotated, all nine bodies now slowly spinning on their individual axes. And the entire solar system, rotating as a systemic whole, moved through the universe in its place at the edge of the Orion spiral arm in its parent Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy also rotated. A grand self-organized spectacle of matter and energy in motion, slowly circling. They say the entire universe itself is rotating—but with no outside reference point, how can they know? And all this for no apparent reason—all devoid of any apparent meaning or purpose at all—a question mark to challenge the rising, emerging minds of creatures that “soon” would evolve on the small rocky ordinary planet third-out from the average star known as Sol.


The relative speeds resulting from all this rotation are interesting in themselves. Relaxing in a chair at the equator, you would be traveling a thousand miles per hour with earth’s rotation. Plus, the earth is orbiting the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. Plus, add in another 486,000 miles per hour as our solar system keeps pace with the galaxy’s rotation. Plus, there’s another estimated 1.3 million miles per hour as our galaxy sails through the universe. Add them up. Even when sitting perfectly still, you are traveling through the universe far faster than a puny bullet which speeds along at only 3,000 miles per hour. Pretend you’re Einstein, imagining himself inside an elevator way out in space, figuring out that there’s no difference between gravity and acceleration. Think about that.


Except for their roundness, the eight new planets were but hot balls, hardly recognizable as planets. Major differences among them, however, were already evident. The inner four had surfaces, and those surfaces were roiling magma seething at thousands of degrees. Three of these were roughly similar in size, but one, nearest the sun, was noticeably smaller. In a far distant future they would be called Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.


The other four, the outer planets, were many times larger than the inner four, and they had no surfaces. They were made of gas, dense gas condensed around some kind of yet denser gas at their centers, with gradually decreasing density of the gas correlating with distance from their centers. Where their outermost atmospheres became totally thinned, their planetariness simply ended—and that’s how they still are today. No surfaces.


The innermost of these gas giants, next out from Mars, was a true giant, so vastly more huge than its peers that it has been called a star which never got quite big enough to ignite. Mighty Jupiter, largest planet in our star system, named after that old king of the gods. It was followed next out by almost-as-mighty Saturn, which would one day be encircled by rings of rocky-icy detritus that would seem beautiful as seen from Earth. Last-out Uranus and Neptune were smaller, relative to Jupiter, but still gas giants. The immense gravity of these four huge planets would affect the orbital motion of each other as well as the motion of all the smaller planets, and would actually make the sun wobble in its location at the center. They still do, and it does, to this day.


The evolution of the rocky planets is, in general, more interesting that that of the gas giants, because a rocky planet has a well defined hard surface on which things can happen. It also contains far more heavy elements than a gas giant, and this adds to the interesting things that happen on and in it. From their beginnings as balls of boiling magma, the four rocky planets began cooling and, ever so slowly, their surfaces hardened. The process proceeded a bit differently on each of the four, but noting how it happened on the third planet out will suffice for our purposes.


Earth had finally formed from a cloud of greatly condensed dust and gas surrounding our young sun a mere hundred million years after gravity had created the sun itself. Spinning on its axis so fast that a day lasted only six hours, the new earth was a lava hell—a turbulent, flowing mass of red hot liquid rock. Pause and consider what this condition must mean for the first six days as described in Genesis. It certainly spells trouble for that alleged dividing of the waters, for any water would have boiled away in seconds. I also doubt Genesis presumed mere six-hour days. Reasonable doubt, as they say.


In this roiling maelstrom the earth’s constituent atoms were thoroughly jumbled, but not for long. While lighter elements rose or were pushed to the surface, where they would gradually cool and solidify to become the earth’s crust that we now stand on, gravity pulled most of the heaviest elements in to the center, forming a huge core of molten iron and nickel. It’s still there today, dwarfing by orders of magnitude the pitiful mouse holes we dig to mine out teeny slugs of heavy minerals at or near the crust’s outer surface, polluting grievously as we go. Have you ever seen what they call mine “tailings”?


The churning/turning motion of Earth’s heavy metal core, way down inside the molten mantle which surrounds it, acts as a planet-sized magneto, creating a magnetic force field that reaches far out into the space surrounding the Earth. A planet-sized manifestation of the electromagnetic force discussed earlier. This magnetic field makes life on earth possible by deflecting super-charged particles that periodically emanate from sunspots—vast storms on our life-giving sun—and other radiation bursts arriving from faraway quarters of the universe. These so-called “cosmic rays” would be immediately deadly to all earth life if they were not deflected by our protective magnetic field. Sometimes during intense waves of incoming radiation, we see its deflective action at work and admire it as the aurora borealis—the northern lights. Lucky for us, it’s out there.


In our earth’s very early history, while still mostly molten, it was struck not quite fully head-on by a large planetary body thought to have been the size of Mars. A collision of titans, the crash had two immediate results. The invader disintegrated even while gouging out a massive portion from one earth hemisphere. It left about half of itself in the titanic hole it had dug, becoming a merged part of the earth. The rest of it, along with massive pieces of earth’s displaced crust and mantle, broke free and, by chance, went into orbit around the earth. Luna, earth’s children would call it. Our beautiful silvery moon.


Filled with the lighter elements gouged from the earth’s crust, the new moon was big enough that its considerable gravity slowly reshaped itself into a sphere. Its gravity was never sufficient to hold an atmosphere, and over time it lost most of its internal heat. Any rotation the invader may have arrived with was so undone by the collision that Luna ended up rotating on its axis exactly, only, once per orbit—a real curiosity among celestial objects—with the result that we only ever see but one face of our moon, the face it keeps turned toward earth. To see the back side you must become an astronaut.


Another hundred million years or two fleeted by. Our planet’s primeval atmosphere had, by various debated possibilities, accumulated copious amounts of water vapor in the form of steam. Initially too hot for liquid water to exist, the earth’s continued cooling eventually allowed the steam to condense into rain. Once started, the rain poured down for some millions of years, nonstop. Every year for unknown millions of years the daily forecast was for downpouring torrential rain, and more rain, without cease. Every depression on the earth’s crust filled with the new liquid water. Puddles; lakes, streams, rivers, whole seas. At least, that’s the most popular view—as you can imagine, scientists disagree about this, and have multiple theories. Regardless of that, by around 3.8 billion years ago permanent oceans were in place upon the earth—possibly the waters that were “under” heaven as described in Genesis but not by Old Turtle or Corn Woman.


Notice: the earth now had a moon and worldwide water, both being most helpful for enabling our kind of life to develop. We are familiar with water’s vital role in sustaining life, but less familiar with moon’s unsung role. The moon’s gravitational pull does more than merely create daily tides and mark menstrual cycles. It also keeps the earth from wobbling, providing a steadiness that tends to ensure (but does not guarantee) we have no wild climatic swings. The young Earth thus became unusually stable on its axis. Luna’s momentum and gravity also gradually slowed earth’s rotation, lengthening the initial six-hour day until, some millions of years later, our familiar 24-hour day eventually was reached. Some slowing still continues, but it is so slight no one cares. It is reasonable, though, to wonder about the length of each of those first six days cited in Genesis. Who’s to say “one day” wasn’t a metaphor for millions of years? Nobody was there counting.


Of great importance, the collision which created the moon knocked the earth’s axis into a slight tilt, a few degrees off perpendicular to the plane of planetary orbits around the sun. Because of this minor tilt, our planet’s modern climate has an unusual periodicity that we call “seasons.” Great swaths of the earth, lying between the always-hot equatorial zone and always-cold (for now) arctic zones, are characterized by four seasons, year after year. The seasons create a constantly evolving environment that is both stimulating and challenging to the development of life as we know it. Of course all that’s changing now.


In this grand old story so far, I have tried to emphasize that evolution is a continuous, seamless flow from one happening to the next, each event arising out of one that came before and lending itself inevitably to some future change. Cause and effect. Or, stated more accurately, infinite trillions of causes-and-effects all happening at the same time—on many tracks, each going in every direction—because everything on earth exists in relationship to everything else on earth, as shall become more evident in the next chapter. Phase 1 began immediately after the big bang, and involved energy taking different forms that we now call matter. The matter then organized itself into all the heavenly bodies, including our earth, and these were all composed of atoms, which are nothing but…energy. If perchance you had been standing by somewhere watching everything evolve from the big bang clear down to planet Earth—watching to see the next significant occurrence in the long evolution of the universe—the stage, as they say, was set.


On an algorithm-like, but purely chance-driven agenda, life would emerge next—a further rising of things. Phase 2:  Life. And the living bodies that life lived in would also be nothing but…energy. And so as we flow into the next chapter we shall watch carefully to see how life emerged on the planet we named Earth. But just watching how it emerged won’t tell us why it emerged. For that we’ll have to extend ourselves, and think.


And, as God so long ago saw that it was good, so shall we.


 – to be continued in one week –


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