Excerpts From The Electric Universe
The following is the first of a series of excerpts from The Electric Universe,
copyright © 2002, 2007 Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott and published by
Mikamar Publishing. Reproduced with the kind permission of the authors and publisher.
Electric Comets Part 1
Presented by Dave Smith
January 16, 2010
Since the beginning of the space age and with progression to more sophisticated
and accurate space probes and telescopes, astrophysicists have been presented
with many "surprises", resulting in an almost daily ad hoc adjustment of their theories.
But of the many bodies known throughout space, nothing is more enigmatic for the
standard model of cosmology than the humble comet. And so we begin this presentation
at the beginning of Chapter 4, Electric Comets.
Chapter 4 - Electric Comets
“Comets are perhaps at once the most spectacular and the
least well understood members of the solar system.”
At the end of the nineteenth century neither an electric Sun
hypothesis nor a theory of electric comets would have been
controversial. Both were discussed in scientific papers. Around the
same time, Kristian Birkeland performed his electrical Terrella
experiments, reproducing the behavior of sunspots and auroras.91
–Marcia Neugebauer, JPL
Then science took a wrong turn. Investment in a theory began to
override critical attention to observation and to experimental testing of
alternatives. Astronomers shunned Birkeland, whose work posed new
and promising possibilities. Not until the latter half of the 20th century
did innovative scientists again consider electrical explanations, concentrating
their investigations in the fields of electrical engineering
and plasma science, rather than astrophysics. Alfvén devoted chapters
in his 1981 book Cosmic Plasma,92 to the electric circuits of the Sun,
planets, and comets. But still, few astrophysicists were listening.
Each time a comet is observed close up, we are told that our
understanding of comets and the origin of the solar system will be
revolutionized. But the revolution never happens. The established
story about comets has become an article of faith.
In 1950, Fred Whipple proposed a
model of comets that became
famously known as the "dirty
Photo Smithsonian Astrophysical
Observatory, courtesy Dr. Whipple
[Click to enlarge]
The French artist Georges Braque suggested that it is always
useful to have two ideas, one to challenge or dispose of the other.
Astronomers have only a single idea about comets, and the lack of
competition encourages behavior that is more interpretive than
investigative. In the absence of skepticism, intellectual curiosity gives
way to conformity and conceit, as when NASA inscribed the words of
Fred Whipple, the originator of the ‘dirty snowball’ comet model, on a
microchip carried by the Stardust spacecraft in 2004: “Today we know
that comets are black and cold, consisting of ices and dust that
coalesced from an interstellar cloud as it collapsed to form the solar
system.” We know no such thing.
We have never observed an interstellar cloud collapsing to form a
planetary system. And no gravitational accretion model has been able
to explain the weird assortment of solar planets. Dusty rings and disks
around stars have been discovered, but it is pure conjecture to call
them ‘gravitational accretion’ disks, since we also observe those stars
ejecting matter in defiance of gravity.
Of all the bodies in the heavens,
perhaps none will prove more
in confirming the electric
field of the Sun than the comet.
Image Credit: NASA
[Click to enlarge]
If comets are dirty, icy leftovers from the primordial formation of
the planets, why are the nuclei so black? Why does comet dust show
minerals expected to have formed at high temperatures near the Sun?
How does a tiny comet nucleus produce a finely filamented plasma tail
that stretches for tens of millions of kilometers across the solar
system? If the tail is formed of matter evaporated from the comet by
the Sun’s heat, why is the matter ejected in energetic jets? And why do
comet nuclei present us with such sharply carved relief, when the
surface was supposed to look like a softened ice cream melting in the
Sun? The questions are legion, while the ‘explanations’ invariably
come after the fact and as disconnected guesses. Yet seldom is the
popular myth of comet origins questioned.
Page 87: INFORMATION PANEL [ Permalink ]
By all appearances comet nuclei appear to be complex, cratered
rocks a few kilometers in diameter. All that seems to distinguish them
from those other space mountains—asteroids—is their eccentric orbits
and accompanying displays in the heavens. Indeed, we now know that
some asteroids occasionally exhibit cometary comas. One schizoid
object, Chiron, is classified a ‘Centaur,’ named after a mythological
figure that was half man, half horse. This, of course, refers to the ‘half
and half’ (comet/asteroid) nature of Chiron. Yet rocky asteroids were
thought to be much more evolved bodies than comets, and no one had
imagined that the distinction between comets and asteroids would
break down as it has in recent years.
Space age attempts to determine the composition and structure of
comets have, in fact, left Whipple’s dirty snowball model in disarray.
Infrared spectra of several comets have shown the presence of the
mineral olivine, which requires a temperature of between 1,100 and
1,600 Kelvin and the absence of water, to form crystals. Such a
temperature would have driven off any ices. So an ad hoc requirement
was added—that the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ components of a comet must be
formed in separate regions of the primordial nebula and then later
mixed together. Ironically, a similar problem of mixing high and low
temperature components is found in meteorites, and in this case a few
adventurous astronomers have attributed the enigmatic composition to
the effects of lightning in the early solar nebula—an explanation at
least pointing in the right direction.
Early Electric Theories of Comets
Professor W. Stanley Jevons wrote in Nature,
December 28, 1871:
“The observed regular diminution of period of
Encke’s comet is still, I believe, an unexplained phenomenon
for which it is necessary to invent a special
hypothesis, a Deus ex machina, in the shape of an
imaginary resisting medium... It is asserted by Mr. R.
A. Proctor, Prof. Osborne Reynolds, and possibly
others, that comets owe many of their peculiar phenomena
to electric action... I merely point out that if
the approach of a comet to the sun causes the development
of electricity arising from the comet’s motion,
a certain resistance is at once accounted for.”
In July 1872, Scientific American informed its
readers that “Professor Zollner of Leipsic” ascribes
the “self-luminosity” of comets to “electrical excitement.”
According to the article, Zollner suggests that
“the nuclei of comets, as masses, are subject to
gravitation, while the vapors developed from them,
which consist of very small particles, yield to the action
of the free electricity of the sun....” Also the
August 1882 English Mechanic and World of Science wrote of
comet tails: “...There seems to be a rapidly
growing feeling amongst physicists that both the selflight
of comets and the phenomena of their tails belong
to the order of electrical phenomena.” Similar
ideas about comet’s tails appear in Nature, Jan 30,
1896: “It has long been imagined that the phenomenon
of comet’s tails are in some way due to a solar
electrical repulsion, and additional light is thrown on
this subject by recent physical researches.”
In 1924 Hugo Benioff published The Present
State of the Electrical Theory of Comet Forms.
Benioff noted that electrostatic repulsion of ionized
comet tails required “a value of the solar charge
which is over one hundred times larger than can be
accounted for by any known ways of producing such
The solar charge was positive and estimated to
be 127 times greater than could be achieved by the
escape of electrons from a hot Sun. Benioff concludes
that “It would seem best therefore to attribute
the Sun’s repulsive action on the tail particles to radiation
pressure rather than to electrical action since
the former has been shown to be adequate to account
for the facts qualitatively at least.”
However, there is a vast gulf between what may
work for a single phenomenon qualitatively and what
must work for all phenomena quantitatively. Here we
see how critical it is to choose the correct model before
applying any mathematical analysis. When
working with incorrect assumptions, mathematics
merely “allows one to be wrong with confidence.”
Benioff admits “There are other phenomena
associated with comets that indicate the presence of
electrical forces. The outward radial motions in all
directions of particles close to the nucleus are best
explained as resulting from an electrical charge associated
with the nucleus.” But once again, the model
proposed for charging the comet nucleus is naïve and
merely considers charging by photo-ionization. Science
is supposed to advance by revisiting earlier assumptions
in the light of new knowledge.
Clearly, that has not happened.
Astronomers continue to attribute a comet’s star-like nucleus and
gigantic glowing coma and filamentary tail to solar heating as it nears
the Sun. But as far back as 1991, it was already apparent that
something was wrong with such a simple solar heating model. Moving
between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus—a distance fourteen times
farther from the Sun than the Earth—Comet Halley inexplicably flared
up. At that distance solar heat does not sublimate ices. But telescopes
showed that the 15-kilometer nucleus had ejected a cloud of dust that
stretched more than 300,000 kilometers. But under the inertia of
official theory, such surprises are invariably minimized and quickly
On its journey through the inner
solar system, Comet Hale-Bopp
discharging out past the orbit
of Jupiter—too far from the Sun for a
to melt. Four years after
Hale-Bopp left the inner solar
it was still active. It
displayed a coma, a fan-shaped
and an ion tail— even
though it was farther from the Sun
Jupiter, Saturn or even Uranus.
Credit: N. Thomas (MPAE) et al.,
1.5-m La Silla Telescope, ESO
[Click to enlarge]
Repeatedly, astronomers have observed comets ejecting material
in narrow jets of gas and very fine dust. Hale-Bopp emitted more dust
than could be explained by subliming ices. Observations of comet jets
by earth-based instruments and space probes since 1985 have revealed
distinctive similarities to the discharge plumes from Jupiter’s moon,
Io—though no astronomer is about to call Io a comet. And the surface
of comet Tempel 1, viewed in one of our closest-ever looks at a comet
nucleus, showed the same similarities to electric discharge machining
(EDM) features that the Galileo probe revealed on the surface of Io.
The violent jets seen exploding from Comet Halley in 1985, like
those of Comet Borrelly in 2001, were far more energetic than could
be explained by sublimation of ice in the heat of the Sun. And close-up
views showed that it is not the full sunward faces of cometary nuclei
but well-focused discharge jets, some on the dark side, that produce
the spectacular tails of comets.
The Origin of Comets [ Permalink ]
Because comets lose considerable material at each pass around the
Sun, the ones we see cannot have been around for long. Of course
more than one answer to this dilemma might have been proposed, but
astronomers chose one theory in particular, and it has posed dilemmas
ever since. They claimed that since the formation of the planets
billions of years ago, comets have occupied the deep freeze beyond the
solar system. There they form an invisible cloud of icy objects located
about 1000 times farther from the Sun than Pluto, a good fraction of
the way to the nearest star.
The imagined cloud is named after Jan Oort, the astronomer who
proposed the idea. After billions of years, somehow a comet is
deflected from the Oort cloud into the inner solar system. The
disturbance is surmised to be due to a passing star or the movement of
the Sun above and below the galactic plane. But many astronomers
have pointed to the lack of evidence for sporadic comet showers that
such disturbances should unleash, and they have concluded that such
events, if they do occur, could only account for about one-fifth of
the comets we see.
Astronomer Tom Van Flandern has devised a scale model that
demonstrates the implausibility of the Oort cloud theory.93 If the
Earth’s orbit were represented by the period at the end of this
sentence and Pluto’s orbit by a circle of one-centimeter diameter,
then the nearest star is 41 meters away. The Oort cloud of comets
would orbit near a sphere 6 meters in diameter containing one
comet per cubic millimeter. The comets would move at about 3
millimeters per 1000 years. Within this scheme they are
effectively motionless with respect to the Sun. Passing stars on
rare occasions will sail past at a meter per 1000 years and stir up
the nearby comets. Less than 1 in 10,000 disturbed comets will be
knocked onto a path that will target the 1-millimeter or so sphere
surrounding the Sun where a comet might be seen from the Earth.
Diagram on a logarithmic scale showing the relationship between
the imagined Oort cloud of comets and the solar system.
[Click to enlarge]
Having visualized this, Van Flandern makes the point that the
true size of a sphere encompassing Pluto’s orbit is so vast that all of
the 200 billion stars in our galaxy would fit with room to spare in that
volume. He writes, “But the volume enclosed by the comet cloud is a
billion times greater yet. It truly is unimaginably large, surviving as a
plausible idea in large part because our intuitions fail so miserably to
comprehend the vastness of this volume.”
But the imagined Oort cloud is needed to save a cosmological
theory. And even so, it leaves vast discrepancies between the theory
and things that are observed. The model itself implies that a significant
percentage of comets will be on ‘hyperbolic’ orbits and launched out
of the solar system by the Sun’s gravity. But this is not observed.
Conversely, the observed number of short-period comets (with periods
of revolution less than 200 years) is two orders of magnitude more
than the Oort cloud model would predict.
Comet Theory in Crisis [ Permalink ]
Scientists at the end of the nineteenth century could see the many
parallels between the behavior of a luminous comet and a laboratory
glow discharge (see information panel p. 87). It was even
acknowledged that the acceleration of the comet tail away from the
Sun requires an electrified Sun. But in the following decades that
vision was abandoned. What happened to allow this promising idea to
founder, to be replaced with an inert mechanical model of a comet?
The answer seems clear—an understanding of the plasma
environment in space was lacking at that time. Irving Langmuir did not
coin the word ‘plasma’ until 1927. So early electrical theories of
comets were based on unworkable electrostatic arguments. The idea of
electricity in space quickly became anathema to astronomers.
With the space age discovery of the solar ‘wind’ of charged
particles, however, astrophysicists would have been wise to revisit the
physics of gas discharges. Instead, they switched from the 19th century
view of space as a perfectly insulating vacuum to the polar opposite,
where space plasma was treated as a perfect conductor, trapping
magnetic fields and preventing voltage differences between bodies in
space. This turn, according to Alfvén, amounted to ‘pseudo-science’
and would lead to a crisis in astrophysics.94
That alarm was raised
more than 3 decades ago. It has been ignored to this day and the crisis
is now upon us.
Under the spell of theoretical assumptions, and lacking the
training to recognize electrical discharge phenomena in space,
astrophysicists explain comet behavior in terms of electrically neutral
‘magnetohydrodynamics.’ In other words, ‘winds’ and ‘supersonic
shocks’ in electrically conducting, magnetized gas. They have ignored
Alfvén’s warning that magnetic fields cannot be ‘frozen in’ to the
diffuse plasma of the solar wind and the comet’s coma and tail. They
are unaware that a source of electrical energy is required to produce
and sustain cometary phenomena.
The nucleus of comet Halley as
seen by the Giotto space probe.
[Click to enlarge]
Consequently, the electric discharge model was not even on the
table at the beginning of the space age, allowing astronomers to
embrace Whipple’s dirty snowball model as the scientific consensus.
An endless series of surprises followed, as when cometologists caught
their first close-up look at Halley [above]:
“a surprising result of the
Giotto and Vega spacecraft encounters with Comet Halley in March
1986 was the discovery of a shell-like region of high plasma
density...” But Alfvén wasn’t surprised. He had earlier written, “It is
legitimate to conclude that space in general has a ‘cellular structure,’
although this is almost impossible to observe unless a spacecraft
penetrates the ‘cell walls’ (current sheets).” 95 In the approach to
Halley, the spacecraft had penetrated the comet’s plasma cell wall,
encountering a region whose stability and longevity could not be
explained in terms of simple out-gassing from the comet.
Now, after four close flybys by spacecraft and one impact event,
comets are more of an enigma than ever for astronomers. On July 4,
2005, the world watched NASA astronomers on television gleefully
celebrating the Deep Impact mission’s direct hit on comet Tempel 1.
But later, when the cameras had gone, the astronomers were left
scratching their heads in confusion. The Deep Impact team had hoped
that the impactor would kick up a relatively small cloud of dust from
Tempel 1, dig a crater, and expose pristine icy material underneath.
There was even some doubt amongst the Deep Impact team whether
the spacecraft cameras would see any effect at all. Instead there was a
puzzling initial flash followed by an incredible outburst of dust as fine
as talcum powder—an effect that left every observer stunned.
The New Scientist reported, “We have now had four close
encounters with comets, and every one of them has thrown
astronomers onto their back foot.”
96 The popular model of comets as
dirty snowballs no longer fits space age discoveries.
When a theory fails to anticipate discoveries and theorists are
continually surprised by new data, it is essential that the theory be
questioned. Astronomers believe that by discrediting a simplistic early
electrical model of comets they had dismissed all electrical models. Is
this stance justified in the light of what we now know about plasma
discharge phenomena? The question can be answered by comparing
the dirty snowball model with a new plasma discharge model of
In the accepted model, a comet is an aggregate of ice and dust
evaporating in the heat of the Sun. In the electric model, a comet could
be a solid rock discharging as it plunges more deeply into the Sun's
electric field. A proper comparison of the two models, however, will
require attention to details, accentuating the contrast between two
radically different perspectives. Systematic comparison can only
highlight the contrasts in predictive ability—the test of a good theory.
91 K. R. Birkeland, The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition, 1902-1903, Volume 1:
On the Cause of Magnetic Storms and The Origin of Terrestrial Magnetism. Published
92 H. Alfvén, Cosmic Plasma, Astrophysics and Space Library, Vol. 82, D. Reidel Publishing
93 T. Van Flandern, Dark Matter, Missing Planets & New Comets, pp. 180-1.
94 H. Alfvén, "Plasma physics, space research and the origin of the solar system,"
Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1970, p. 308.
95 H. Alfvén, Space Plasma, 1981, p. 40.
96 S. Clark, "Comet tails of the unexpected," New Scientist, 9 September 2005.
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