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9th July, 2010

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A tale too phantasmagorical to believe?

Some stories defy belief. Take what we are told about how our solar system came into being. I'm no expert on theories about the origin and evolution of our solar system from a primordial cloud of dust and gas. But I do know that practically every proposed stage in the generally-accepted sequence of events is beset with difficulties. So much so that I say, "You've got to be kidding".

All the variants on the theory begin with a "nutrient-rich", cool, dense cloud of interstellar dust and gas which reaches a gravitational tipping point and begins to collapse, forming in the process a disk of matter that grows progressively smaller, denser, and clumpier. Eventually, the matter collapses into a massive central clump of such mass and high temperature that it ignites surrounded by a series of smaller clumps (planets) that vary widely in composition from rocky innermost planets to gassy outermost planets. (I hasten to add that the word "dense" as just used is quite misleading; the densest clouds are considerably thinner than the most vacuous vacuum man can create.) The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Astronomy describes them this way:

This interstellar medium has an intricate structure of its own. Some of it is hot, tenuous, and substantially ionized. Some of it is clumped together in cooler, denser clouds. Many of these denser clouds are clumped together into cloud complexes of substantial mass.

These clouds, obviously, must contain all the nourishing goodness that makes for a healthy solar system. In other words, they must contain the 90 or so elements that make up rocks, water, our atmosphere, and living things. Where do cosmologists say these clouds of gas and dust come from, and how do they build up their complete inventory of elements? The Big Bang model says that the early universe consisted of only hydrogen and helium. Many of the elements that make up our planets - and you and me - are apparently being constantly formed inside stars as a byproduct of the nuclear reactions that make stars what they are. I certainly don't dispute that this process, called nucleosynthesis, is going on continually. And how can one deny that when some stars "die" they spew their substance into space in their explosive death throes, known as novae and supernovae?

But to suggest, as is done, that all the universe's clouds of dust and gas are the cadavers of stars that have lived, died and blasted their substance into space is going too far. How can random star explosions possibly account for "intricate structure" and "cloud complexes"?

But the problems continue. Astrophysicists tell us that nuclear reactions in stars cannot account for the formation of heavier elements such as gold. These require the extreme conditions of a supernova to form. Furthermore, lighter elements, such as beryllium, lithium and boron would actually be destroyed by the processes that occur in stars. To account for their presence in the cloudy soup, astronomers have proposed that these elements formed over billions of years through the breakup of heavier elements in the clouds by the action of cosmic ray particles tearing through the clouds and smashing into the heavier elements, tearing them apart. That's real alchemy. Astronomers assure us it is going on, and have even given it the charming name of cosmic ray spallation. Is it believable? Well, the same astonomers who assure us that infinitesimally tiny atomic particles do smash into each other in the incomprehensibly rarefied conditions of a gas cloud also assure us that two galaxies could pass right through each other without a single collision between any

two stars. I don't buy that.

But it gets worse. How did all the elements necessary to create our entire solar system end up in one cloud? After all, no one star has ever produced the entire sequence of elements that we find in our solar system. Well, Gribbin and Rees explain that,

The atoms we are made of come from all over our Milky Way Galaxy. They were forged in many different stars, and they may have spent a billion years or more wandering in interstellar space before finding themselves in the gas cloud that became our solar system.1

Now look, I'm not an astrophysicist, but I feel confident in branding this one an astronomical fairy story, acceptable to men much more intelligent than me because the alternative - the universe we know has not come to us by natural evolutionary processes following a primordial massive explosion - is completely unacceptable. As we saw earlier, interstellar clouds have an "intricate structure", with each cloud maintaining its own integrity, as unique in its own right as each star and planet in the universe is unique. They don't mingle their stuff; interstellar clouds are not being homogenized by some celestial mixer. True, just as two galaxies can "collide", conceivably two gas clouds could do the same. But the collision will not result in a mixing of stuff. The clouds would pass through each other and come out virtually unchanged, just as colliding galaxies do.

Theories about the evolution of our solar system from such a cloud face many obstacles, not the least of which is the puzzle of where the rest of the stuff goes after the job has been done. What do I mean? These clouds "typically have masses which are hundreds or thousands of times as great as the Sun".2 If our solar system forms when the cloud implodes, how does the unused 99% free itself from the gravitational maelstrom, and where does it go?

So many other questions arise. How does the homogenous cloud get divvied up into unique units of stuff with varying chemical compositions? How do almost all the silicates (that make up rocks) end up in the inner planets of Venus, Earth and Mars, while the volatile substances (gases) end up in the huge outer planets? And then you have comets and asteroids that occupy their own separate niches. Attempts such as this one to make it sound "natural" do not sound compelling to me at all:

In the inner solar system these small bodies would be primarily rocky in composition, whereas in the outer solar system it is presumed that the temperature would be lower and these bodies would have a substantial component of primitive ices. This is a natural way for rocky asteroidal bodies to form in the inner solar system, and cometary bodies in the outer solar system.3

The idea is that some of the rocky asteroids would clump together into the rocky planets while some of the icy comets would clump into the outer giant gas planets. Sorry, but not convinced.

And then you have the equally puzzling question of where Earth's water came from. How come one planet got the lion's share of the elixir of life? And how fortunate that the Earth just happened to have separate oceanic and continental crusts that make land and sea possible. And on and on it goes. Why can't astronomers see the obvious? Our solar system and planet bear all the marks of intelligent planning and design.

1 The Stuff of the Universe, p. 35

2 McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Astronomy, "Solar System"

3 McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Astronomy

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