Darwin and Modern Science: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Charles Darwin and of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of the Origin of Species

By A. C. Seward | Go to book overview

XXVIII
THE GENESIS OF DOUBLE STARS

BY SIR GEORGE DARWIN K.C.B., F.R.S. Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy in the University of Cambridge.

IN ordinary speech a system of any sort is said to be stable when it cannot be upset easily, but the meaning attached to the word is usually somewhat vague. It is hardly surprising that this should be the case, when it is only within the last thirty years, and principally through the investigations of M. Poincaré, that the conception of stability has, even for physicists, assumed a definiteness and clearness in which it was previously lacking. The laws which govern stability hold good in regions of the greatest diversity; they apply to the motion of planets round the sun, to the internal arrangement of those minute corpuscles of which each chemical atom is constructed, and to the forms of celestial bodies. In the present essay I shall attempt to consider the laws of stability as relating to the last case, and shall discuss the succession of shapes which may be assumed by celestial bodies in the course of their evolution. I believe further that homologous conceptions are applicable in the consideration of the transmutations of the various forms of animal and of vegetable life and in other regions of thought. Even if some of my readers should think that what I shall say on this head is fanciful, yet at least the exposition will serve to illustrate the meaning to be attached to the laws of stability in the physical universe.

I propose, therefore, to begin this essay by a sketch of the principles of stability as they are now formulated by physicists.


I.

If a slight impulse be imparted to a system in equilibrium one of two consequences must ensue; either small oscillations of the system will be started, or the disturbance will increase without limit and the arrangement of the system will be completely changed. Thus a stick may be in equilibrium either when it hangs from a peg or when it is balanced on its point. If in the first case the stick is touched it will swing to and fro, but in the second case it will topple over. The first

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