Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Interview with David DeVorkin
What do we know about stellar evolution that we didn't know in Darwin's time?
The only thing we really had in Darwin's time was gravity. You have a cloud of gas and the cloud of gas naturally sees itself gravitationally and starts collapsing, gravitationally contracting, and as it does, its properties change. The difference is, today, we have more than gravity causing the star, as a great global glowing gas, to be balanced, a balance of forces.
Why did astronomers change from deriding Darwinism to accepting it?
The early derision, of course, was mainly over timescales. How could there possibly be enough time in the universe, still very much a biblical universe, to provide for the incredibly slow and uniform processes that Darwin said must be taking place.
In what areas did astronomers disagree with Darwin?
One of the most poignant, in astronomy, is the age of the earth because the evidence, of course, continued to mount in the late 19th century, from biology and geology, that the earth was very deep time, very, very old and very extended time. Yet, Kelvin, Lord Kelvin and other astronomers were thinking only in terms of gravity causing stars to change over time, made some very simple calculations and said the sun can't be that old, there can't be enough energy for it to shine for such a long time and it couldn't have been shining for such a long time. They were thinking, at most, in terms of hundreds of millions of years or tens of millions of years even, in the most drastic cases and that you needed many times that for Darwin's timescales.
Did Darwin's son George have more influence on astronomy than his father?
His son had direct and very, very profound influence on different parts of astronomy in England, especially in the area of mathematical astronomy and theoretical astronomy. You would see Darwin and his students and students' students in generations at Cambridge influencing the way that theorists, like Arthur Stanley Eddington, thought about the stars and it really was a foundation, a foundational era for looking at dynamical systems. A lot was happening in France as well, Poincare and others, but it was George Darwin who really set a line of thinking going that helped us look at stellar systems.
What do you think will be the next big discovery in Astronomy?
Well, I hope it happens in my lifetime and that would be truly discovering life elsewhere, that we really can say is independent of our particular circumstance here. Mars would be a good thing, but I'd like to look farther. That is, I think, as I think about it, the most profound question remaining, but I have faith that we will find an answer to that question of life in the universe, and it will be positive.
What would finding life elsewhere say about Darwin's original theories?
First thing I would say is, does it behave according to Darwinian principles? Then I will see whether there is something to be said for Darwinism. You know, like they say in Astronomy 101, describe the universe and then give two examples. So, with Darwinism, we got one great example here. I'd love to have another one.