The Nebular Hypothesis

Author: Pierre Simon de Laplace

The Nebular Hypothesis

Pierre Simon Laplace

Engraving from an original picture by Nedeon

From the preceding chapter, it appears that we have the five following phenomena to assist us in investigating the cause of the primitive motions of the planetary system. The motions of the planets in the same direction, and very nearly in the same plane; the motions of the satellites in the same direction as those of the planets; the motions of rotation of these different bodies and also of the sun, in the same direction as their motions of projection, and in planes very little inclined to each other; the small eccentricity of the orbits of the planets and satellites; finally, the great eccentricity of the orbits of the comets, their inclinations being at the same time entirely indeterminate.

Buffon is the only individual that I know of, who, since the discovery of the true system of the world, endeavoured to investigate the origin of the planets and satellites. He supposed that a comet, by impinging on the Sun, carried away a torrent of matter, which was reunited far off, into globes of different magnitudes and at different distances from this star. These globes, when they cool and become hardened, are the planets and their satellites. This hypothesis satisfies the first of the five preceding phenomena; for it is evident that all bodies thus formed should move very nearly in the plane which passes through the centre of the Sun, and through the direction of the torrent of matter which has produced them: but the four remaining phenomena appear to me inexplicable on this supposition. Indeed, the absolute motion of the molecules of a planet ought to be in the same direction as the motion of the centre of gravity; but it by no means follows from this, that the motion of rotation of a planet should be also in the same direction. Thus the Earth may revolve from east to west, and yet the absolute motion of each of its molecules may be directed from west to east. This observation applies also to the revolution of the satellites, of which the direction in the same hypothesis, is not necessarily the same as that of the motion of projection of the planets.

The small eccentricity of the planetary orbits is a phenomenon, not only difficult to explain on this hypothesis, but altogether inconsistent with it. We know from the theory of central forces, that if a body which moves in a re-entrant orbit about the Sun, passes very near the body of the Sun, it will return constantly to it, at the end of each revolution. Hence it follows that if the planets were originally detached from the Sun, they would touch it, at each return to this star; and their orbits, instead of being nearly circular, would be very eccentric. Indeed it must be admitted that a torrent of matter detached from the Sun, cannot be compared to a globe which just skims by its surface; from the impulsions which the parts of this torrent receive from each other, combined with their mutual attraction, they may, by changing the direction of their motions, increase the distances of their perihelions from the Sun. But their orbits should be extremely eccentric, or at least all the orbits would not be q. p. circular, except by the most extraordinary chance. Finally, no reason can be assigned on the hypothesis of Buffon, why the orbits of more than one hundred comets, which have been already observed, should be all very eccentric. This hypothesis, therefore, is far from satisfying the preceding phenomena. Let us consider whether we can assign the true cause.

Whatever may be its nature, since it has produced or influenced the direction of the planetary motions, it must have embraced them all within the sphere of its action; and considering the immense distance which intervenes between them, nothing could have effected this but a fluid of almost indefinite extent. In order to have impressed on them all a motion q. p. circular and in the same direction about the Sun, this fluid must environ this star, like an atmosphere. From a consideration of the planetary motions, we are therefore brought to the conclusion, that in consequence of an excessive heat, the solar atmosphere originally extended beyond the orbits of all the planets, and that it has successively contracted itself within its present limits.

In the primitive state in which we have supposed the Sun to be, it resembles those substances which are termed nebulae, which, when seen through telescopes, appear to be composed of a nucleus, more or less brilliant, surrounded by a nebulosity, which, by condensing on its surface, transforms it into a star. If all the stars are conceived to be similarly formed, we can suppose their anterior state of nebulosity to be preceded by other states, in which the nebulous matter was more or less diffuse, the nucleus being at the same time more or less brilliant. By going back in this manner, we shall arrive at a state of nebulosity so diffuse, that its existence can with difficulty be conceived.

For a considerable time back, the particular arrangement of some stars visible to the naked eye, has engaged the attention of philosophers. Mitchel remarked long since how extremely improbable it was that the stars composing the constellation called the Pleiades, for example, should be confined within the narrow space which contains them, by the sole chance of hazard; from which he inferred that this group of stars, and the similar groups which the heavens present to us, are the effects of a primitive law of nature. These groups are a general result of the condensation of nebulae of several nuclei; for it is evident that the nebulous matter being perpetually attracted by these different nuclei, ought at length to form a group of stars, like to that of the Pleiades. The condensation of nebulae consisting of two nuclei, will in like manner form stars very near to each other, revolving the one about the other like to the double stars, whose respective motions have been already recognized.

But in what manner has the solar atmosphere determined the motions of rotation and revolution of the planets and satellites? If these bodies had penetrated deeply into this atmosphere, its resistance would cause them to fall on the Sun. We may therefore suppose that the planets were formed at its successive limits, by the condensation of zones of vapours, which it must, while it was cooling, have abandoned in the plane of its equator.

Let us resume the results which we have given m the tenth chapter of the preceding book. The Sun’s atmosphere cannot extend indefinitely; its limit is the point where the centrifugal force arising from the motion of rotation balances the gravity; but according as the cooling contracts the atmosphere, and condenses the molecules which are near to it, on the surface of the star, the motion of rotation increases; for, in virtue of the principle of areas, the sum of the areas described by the radius vector of each particle of the Sun and its atmosphere, and projected on the plane of its equator, is always the same. Consequently the rotation ought to be quicker, when these particles approach to the centre of the Sun. The centrifugal force arising from this motion becoming thus greater; the point where the gravity is equal to it, is nearer to the centre of the Sun. Supposing, therefore, what is natural to admit, that the atmosphere extended at any epoch as far as this limit, it ought, according as it cooled, to abandon the molecules, which are situated at this limit, and at the successive limits produced by the increased rotation of the Sun. These particles, after being abandoned, have continued to circulate about this star, because their centrifugal force was balanced by their gravity. But as this equality does not obtain for these molecules of the atmosphere which are situated on the parallels to the Sun’s equator, these have come nearer by their gravity to the atmosphere [p.353] according as it condensed, and they have not ceased to belong to it inasmuch as by their motion, they have approached to the plane of this equator.

Let us now consider the zones of vapours, which have been successively abandoned. These zones ought, according to all probability, to form by their condensation, and by the mutual attraction of their particles, several concentrical rings of vapours circulating about the Sun. The mutual friction of the molecules of each ring ought to accelerate some and retard others, until they all had acquired the same angular motion. Consequently the real velocities of the molecules which are farther from the Sun, ought to be greatest. The following cause ought likewise to contribute to this difference of velocities: The most distant particles of the Sun, and which, by the effects of cooling and condensation, have collected so as to constitute the superior part of the ring, have always described areas proportional to the times, because the central force by which they are actuated has been constantly directed to this star; but this constancy of areas requires an increase of velocity, according as they approach more to each other. It appears that the same cause ought to diminish the velocity of the particles, which, situated near the ring, constitute its inferior part.

If all the particles of a ring of vapours continued to condense without separating, they would at length constitute a solid or a liquid ring. But the regularity which this formation requires in all the parts of the ring, and in their cooling, ought to make this phenomenon very rare. Thus the solar system presents but one example of it; that of the rings of Saturn. Almost always each ring of vapours ought to be divided into several masses, which, being moved with velocities which differ little from each other, should continue to revolve at the same distance about the Sun. These masses should assume a spheroidical form, with a rotatory motion in the direction of that of their revolution, because their inferior particles have a less real velocity than the superior; they have therefore constituted so many planets in a state of vapour. But if one of them was sufficiently powerful, to unite successively by its attraction, all the others about its centre, the ring of vapours would be changed into one sole spheroidical mass, circulating about the Sun, with a motion of rotation in the same direction with that of revolution. This last case has been the most common; however, the solar system presents to us the first case in the four small planets which revolve between Mars and Jupiter, at least unless we suppose with Olbers, that they originally formed one planet only, which was divided by an explosion into several parts, and actuated by different velocities. Now if we trace the changes which a further cooling ought to produce in the planets formed of vapours, and of which we have suggested the formation, we shall see to arise in the centre of each of them, a nucleus increasing continually, by the condensation of the atmosphere which environs it. In this state, the planet resembles the Sun in the nebulous state, in which we have first supposed it to be; the cooling should therefore produce at the different limits of its atmosphere, phenomena similar to those which have been described, namely, rings and satellites circulating about its centre in the direction of its motion of rotation, and revolving in the same direction on their axes. The regular distribution of the mass of rings of Saturn about its centre and in the plane of its equator, results naturally from this hypothesis, and, without it, is inexplicable. Those rings appear to me to be existing proofs of the primitive extension of the atmosphere of Saturn, and of its successive condensations. Thus, the singular phenomena of the small eccentricities of the orbits of the planets and satellites, of the small inclination of these orbits to the solar equator, and of the identity in the direction of the motions of rotation and revolution of all those bodies with that of the rotation of the Sun, follow the hypothesis which has been suggested, and render it extremely probable. If the solar system was formed with perfect regularity, the orbits of the bodies which compose it would be circles, of which the planes, as well as those of the various equators and rings, would coincide with the plane of the solar equator. But we may suppose that the innumerable varieties which must necessarily exist in the temperature and density of different parts of these great masses, ought to produce the eccentricities of their orbits, and the deviations of their motions, from the plane of this equator.

In the preceding hypothesis, the comets do not belong to the solar system. If they be considered, as we have done, as small nebulae, wandering from one solar system to another, and formed by the condensation of the nebulous matter, which is diffused so profusely throughout the universe, we may conceive that when they arrive in that part of space where the attraction of the Sun predominates, it should force them to describe elliptic or hyperbolic orbits. But as their velocities are equally possible in every direction, they must move indifferently in all directions, and at every possible inclination to the elliptic; which is conformable to observation. Thus the condensation of the nebulous matter, which explains the motions of rotation and revolution of the planets and satellites in the same direction, and in orbits very little inclined to each other, likewise explains why the motions of the comets deviate from this general law.

The great eccentricity of the orbits of the comets, is also a result of our hypothesis. If those orbits are elliptic, they are very elongated, since their greater axes are at least equal to the radius of the sphere of activity of the Sun. But these orbits may be hyperbolic; and if the axes of these hyperbolae are not very great with respect to the mean distance of the Sun from the Earth, the motion of the comets which describe them will appear to be sensibly hyperbolic. However, with respect to the hundred comets, of which the elements are known, not one appears to move in a hyperbola; hence the chances which assign a sensible hyperbola, are extremely rare relatively to the contrary chances. The comets are so small, that they only become sensible when their perihelion distance is inconsiderable. Hitherto this distance has not surpassed twice the diameter of the Earth’s orbit, and most frequently, it has been less than the radius of this orbit. We may conceive, that in order to approach so near to the Sun, their velocity at the moment of their ingress within its sphere of activity, must have an intensity and direction confined within very narrow limits. If we determine by the analysis of probabilities, the ratio of the chances which in these limits, assign a sensible hyperbola to the chances which assign an orbit, which may without sensible error be confounded with a parabola, it will be found that there is at least six thousand to unity that a nebula which penetrates within the sphere of the Sun’s activity so as to be observed, will either describe a very elongated ellipse, or an hyperbola, which, in consequence of the magnitude of its axis will be as to sense confounded with a parabola in the part of its orbit which is observed. It is not therefore surprising that hitherto no hyperbolic motions have been recognized.

The attraction of the planets, and perhaps also the resistance of the ethereal media, ought to change several cometary orbits into ellipses, of which the greater axes are much less than the radius of the sphere of the solar activity. It is probable that such a change was produced in the orbit of the comet of 1759, the greater axis of which was not more than thirty-five times the distance of the Sun from the Earth. A still greater change was produced in the orbits of the comets of 1770 and of 1805.

If in the zones abandoned by the atmosphere of the Sun, there are any molecules too volatile to be united to each other, or to the planets, they ought in their circulation about this star to exhibit all the appearances of the zodiacal light, without opposing any sensible resistance to the different bodies of the planetary system, both on account of their great rarity and also because their motion is very nearly the same as that of the planets which they meet.

An attentive examination of all the circumstances of this system renders our hypothesis still more probable. The primitive fluidity of the planets is clearly indicated by the compression of their figure, conformably to the laws of the mutual attraction of their molecules; it is moreover demonstrated by the regular diminution of gravity, as we proceed from the equator to the poles. This state of primitive fluidity to which we are conducted by astronomical phenomena, is also apparent from those which natural history points out. But in order fully to estimate them, we should take into account the immense variety of combinations formed by all the terrestrial substances which were mixed together in a state of vapour, when the depression of their temperature enabled their elements to unite; it is necessary likewise to consider the wonderful changes which this depression ought to cause in the interior and at the surface of the earth, in all its productions, in the constitution and pressure of the atmosphere, in the ocean, and in all substances which it held in a state of solution. Finally, we should take into account the sudden changes, such as great volcanic eruptions, which must at different epochs have deranged the regularity of these changes. Geology, thus studied under the point of view which connects it with astronomy, may, with respect to several objects, acquire both precision and certainty.

One of the most remarkable phenomena of the solar system is the rigorous quality which is observed to subsist between the angular motions of rotation and revolution of each satellite. It is infinity to unity that this is not the effect of hazard. The theory of universal gravitation makes infinity to disappear from this improbability, by shewing that it is sufficient for the existence of this phenomenon, that at the commencement these motions did not differ much. Then, the attraction of the planet would establish between them a perfect equality; but at the same time it has given rise to a periodic oscillation in the axis of the satellite directed to the planet, of which oscillation the extent depends on the primitive difference between these motions. As the observations of Mayer on the libration of the Moon, and those which Bouvard and Nicollet made for the same purpose, at my request, did not enable us to recognize this oscillation; the difference on which it depends must be extremely small, which indicates with every appearance of probability the existence of a particular cause, which, has confined this difference within very narrow limits, in which the attraction of the planet might establish between the mean motions of rotation and revolution a rigid equality, which at length terminated by annihilating the oscillation which arose from this equality. Both these effects result from our hypothesis; for we may conceive that the Moon, in a state of vapour, assumed in consequence of the powerful attraction of the earth the form of an elongated spheroid, of which the greater axis would be constantly directed towards this planet, from the facility with which the vapours yield to the slightest force impressed upon them. The terrestrial attraction continuing to act in the same manner, while the Moon is in a state of fluidity, ought at length, by making the two motions of this satellite to approach each other, to cause their difference to fall within the limits, at which their rigorous equality commences to establish itself. Then this attraction should annihilate, by little and little, the oscillation which this equality produced on the greater axis of the spheroid directed towards the earth. It is in this manner that the fluids which cover this planet, have destroyed by their friction and resistance the primitive oscillations of its axis of rotation, which is only now subject to the nutation resulting from the actions of the Sun and Moon. It is easy to be assured that the equality of the motions of rotation and revolution of the satellites ought to oppose the formation of rings and secondary satellites, by the atmospheres of these bodies. Consequently observation has not hitherto indicated the existence of any such. The motions of the three first satellites of Jupiter present a phenomenon still more extraordinary than the preceding; which consists in this, that the mean longitude of the first, minus three times that of the second, plus twice that of the third, is constantly equal to two right angles. There is the ratio of infinity to one, that this equality is not the effect of chance. But we have seen, that in order to produce it, it is sufficient, if at the commencement, the mean motions of these three bodies approached very near to the relation which renders the mean motion of the first, minus three times that of the second, plus twice that of the third, equal to nothing. Then their mutual attraction rendered this ratio rigorously exact, and it has moreover made the mean longitude of the first minus three times that of the second, plus twice that of the third, equal to a semicircumference. At the same time, it gave rise to a periodic inequality, which depends on the small quantity, by which the mean motions originally deviated from the relation which we have just announced. Notwithstanding all the care Delambre took in his observations, he could not recognize this inequality, which, while it evinces its extreme smallness, also indicates, with a high degree of probability, the existence of a cause which makes it to disappear. In our hypothesis, the satellites of Jupiter, immediately after their formation, did not move in a perfect vacuo; the less condensible molecules of the primitive atmospheres of the Sun and planet would then constitute a rare medium, the resistance of which being different for each of the stars, might make the mean motions to approach by degrees to the ratio in question; and when these movements had thus attained the conditions requisite, in order that the mutual attraction of the three satellites might render this relation accurately true, it perpetually diminished the inequality which this relation originated, and eventually rendered it insensible. We cannot better illustrate these effects than by comparing them to the motion of a pendulum, which, actuated by a great velocity, moves in a medium, the resistance of which is inconsiderable. It will first describe a great number of circumstances; but at length its motion of circulation perpetually decreasing, it will be converted into an oscillatory motion, which itself diminishing more and more, by the resistance of the medium, will eventually be totally destroyed, and then the pendulum, having attained a state of repose, will remain at rest for ever.

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Chicago: Pierre Simon de Laplace, The Nebular Hypothesis in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, WI: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 350–356. Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024,

MLA: Simon de Laplace, Pierre. The Nebular Hypothesis, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Vol. 6, Milwaukee, WI, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 350–356. Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Simon de Laplace, P, The Nebular Hypothesis. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, WI, pp.350–356. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from