Sunday, February 24, 2013

Solar System Stability

The recent 100-year meteor strike on February 15 may have triggered some apprehension about the stability of our Solar System, the abode of humans in the cosmos. By marked coincidence, Asteroid 2012 DA14 passed Earth from a different direction on the same day, coming within 17000 miles, closer than nearby earth communications satellites. The object was much larger than the Russian meteor but posed no danger to Earth dwellers. These two recent events cause us to reflect on the nature of our Solar system. How predictable and how stable is it? Do we live in a chaotic solar system characterized by space debris bombarding Earth like a target at a celestial shooting range? The two recent events notwithstanding, let us consider the remarkable stability of our multi-billion year old Solar System.

The picture of our Solar System with its central Sun surrounded by eight orbiting planets and millions of much smaller objects has been presented to us from our childhood as an orderly and predictable system. Modern man, created uniquely in the image of God, has inhabited planet Earth only for a few tens of thousands of years. The Solar System as part of the cosmos, however, has been present for the last several billion years, roughly one third of the time elapsed since the event described in Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The events of the six creation “days” of Genesis 1:3-31 followed long after the verse 1 beginning.

Let us answer the questions posed in our first paragraph. Is our Solar System a chaotic system? One common definition of chaos is “complete disorder and confusion.” On February 15 some may have answered, “Yes,” but that would be completely false. Mathematicians have attempted to answer the question for centuries, including French astronomer Laplace in 1773. He made a serious attempt to offer mathematical proof of the fundamental stability of the Solar System. He came close in his attempt. Isaac Newton in 1687 “believed that divine intervention might occasionally be necessary to put the solar system back in order and prevent its dissolution.” Ivars Peterson’s volume Newton’s Clock…Chaos in the Solar System states, “The Solar System has apparently survived for more than four billion years in some semblance of its present form…None of this work (speaking of computer modeling) provides evidence that the Solar System is falling apart.” (italics mine)

Another modern usage of chaos gives a different picture. “Chaos theory” describes the underlying order of a complex system in which even tiny initial changes could yield a widely diverging result far down the road. For example, the popular example of the fluttering butterfly wing at one geographic location (the Butterfly Effect) triggers a chain of events which ultimately could generate a hurricane at some distant place on the earth. In theory, The Butterfly Effect may be more than science fiction. A chaos theory scenario involving our billions of years old Solar System may be worth contemplating without being accused of bowing at the altar of pure science fiction. Ivars Peterson writes: “In the case of the Solar System, the question is whether the multifarious influences of every body on every other body shift the planets from their essentially unchanging orbits only slightly and temporarily, or whether these effects can eventually lead to radical, irreversible changes…”

Peterson’s most significant observation relates to the ongoing mystery surrounding the long standing stability of the Solar System: “…The problem of the Solar System’s stability has fascinated and tormented astronomers and mathematicians for more than 200 years. Somewhat to the embarrassment of contemporary experts, it remains one of the most perplexing, unsolved issues in celestial mechanics.” Our current vision of this apparent stability could relate to our intuitive recognition of the initial and ongoing work of God.

Whether or not we believe, as Isaac Newton believed, that God’s ongoing intervention was necessary to periodically restore planets’ orbits to their places, virtually everyone could agree that our universe is a divinely ordered place. In over four billion years, the potentials of chaos theory have not brought about disaster on our planet. The Solar System in which we reside is a beautiful and unique place.