Other Eyes Watching

A Study of the Solar System Article No. 9

by John W. Campbell, Jr. (pages 34-39 of February 1937's Astounding Stories)

ALL SPACE flamed with an intolerable incandescence; for two thousand million miles, titanic streamers of flame shot out, wove and twined, streamers that flared dull-red and cooling where they stretched to breaking, then great clots that swirled in blue-white heat of new creation. Dimming slowly in the distance, the Wrecker was vanishing, the vagrant star that had lashed worlds out of the Sun as it swept by.

Two worlds, each blazing with the blue-white heat of the violent racking their already incandescent masses were receiving, had neared, swung, passed on. Two suns, each a million miles in diameter -- not quaking, since they were not solid, but flaming gas -- had swept by at frightful, hurtling speeds, engendering gravitational stresses, as they passed within not millions of miles, but hundreds of miles of each other, that must have made the infinite fabric of space creak to the awful strains. Each a million-mile ball of incredibly hot matter -- nearing, nearing -- flames leaping out that were to make worlds, whole solar systems -- shrieking at each other with a roaring thunder whose mere vibrations of sound would have pulverized this planet -- and passing.

But this is the thing that paralyzes my thoughts: I cannot conceive that this thing, this blasting of flames that made worlds, the explosions that scattered giant planets over three billion miles of space -- all that flaming catastrophe -- took place, was, and was done in not more than three hours! So inconsequential a thing as reading through this magazine will take longer than that. But in that almost instantaneous, Gargantuan catastrophe -- worlds were made, set spinning, established -- and the star that caused it passed on forever.

The flaming drift of flame that it left shrieking through two thousand million miles of space cooled slowly, flaming filaments of wispy heat being drawn by mighty gravities of forming planets, till nearly all that scattered matter was collected in nine major clumps.

But it could not stay, for the frightful heats that had been buried under cooler layers of the stars had been torn out into open space, and it could not even radiate till it began to collect properly. (Hot atoms can radiate only when they collide with others.) * Our Earth condensed; others swiftly lost the hydrogen, the other light gases. But out farther from the Sun, the mightiest of all the groupings dragged at those atoms of lying hydrogen with a savage grip that slowed them as they struggled up one -- five -- ten -- twenty million miles from the heart of the mass that was to by Jupiter.

The Sun was far off, and the mighty drag it exerted to aid the gases in escaping the inner planets was weakened here. The gases, their speed exhausted in a running fight that lasted twenty million miles, fell back, captured. Half a million miles, and they could get free from Mars. But Jupiter? Not a chance! Already there were flaming aggregations that had half succeeded in escaping, only to be trapped as satellites rotating tens of millions of miles out, but captured, definitely.

Jupiter dragged them back. Heavy metals were there, and condensing now, under the pressure of inconceivable tons of that captured stuff, to a liquid, terrifically compressed core. On to them piled the greater tons of these returning, captured atoms. More, more, more turned liquid, as the cold of space drank in their heat slowly. Ages passed, and the heat went rapidly. The core grew cold, as the core of all other planets had cooled.

AND NOW JUPITER, last to cool, felt the chill of its far position. The Sun gave no great heat at this distance. That vast atmosphere which had condensed out first the metals, then the oxides, the compounds, finally water, till all the compounds had churned in the slowly cooling furnace and had reached a new stability, would up, at last, with a condition something like this: Every last trace of oxygen had found something to grip, and hold Down it had gone, as silicon dioxide or iron oxide or calcium oxide, some as trillions of tons of water. Fluorine, most active of nonmetals, had beaten even the oxygen to a mate. Chlorine was coming out, the bromine and iodine; sulphur and phosphorous had gone down with the oxygen.

Everything was happily united -- save for the inert gases that didn't want to be: helium and xenon and radon and argon. And two others: hydrogen and nitrogen. Nitrogen, because it isn't ordinarily very anxious to do anything about it. It's not a confirmed-bachelor element; but it usually takes the stimulus of high temperatures to make nitrogen active. Then, of course, nitrogen becomes so virulently active it will drive even oxygen out of combination!

Hydrogen didn't unite simply because there was too much of it. Most plentiful of all elements in those vast flames the three-hour catastrophe had thrown out to make planets, it had gone down, by the trillions of tons, with oxygen to make water. By the millions, it had gone contentedly to rest with chlorine. It had combined with everything that it could combine with -- and there simply wasn't enough. So, there was hydrogen and nitrogen in the atmosphere, no half-hearted twenty per cent of hydrogen; most of that atmosphere was hydrogen.

Unfortunately, hydrogen and nitrogen, while they unite to form ammonia, do not do so very willingly, as Earth chemists know. During the War, Germany spent millions developing very complex and expensive apparatus to force the unwilling elements together. Haber, the inventor, should have been killed, by all rights, in one of the almost innumerable explosions they had trying to force these two into combination.

The principal point of the process is pressure -- pressure in large doses -- and they tried to use enormous steel retorts, made of metal of the finest quality and nine inches thick. But hydrogen has a nasty habit of forming a compound with iron -- iron hydride -- under these conditions, and that compound is twice as brittle as glass and not a tenth as strong. The retorts, fifty feet long and three feet in diameter, for all those nine-inch walls, blew up. Hydrogen and nitrogen do not unite readily, except under great pressure --

Pressure! Of all things Jupiter has, pressure is outstanding. Pressure that would make the bottoms of our seas seem near vacuum conditions. The hydrogen and nitrogen inevitably combined. Ammonia takes less room than the two gases; the elements were literally crushed together -- not to ammonia water, but to liquid ammonia, for Jupiter was cold, bitterly cold. Water was the stuff that made those great chalky mountains along the torrid equator, where the vast, intensely blue seas washed at them, and steamed slowly. Seas, of little, low, choppy waves, crushed under the gravity of that 86,000-mile world -- seas of liquid ammonia.

The cold snows of the north -- 65,000 miles away around the titanic globe -- were solid ammonia. And that atmosphere was hydrogen and ammonia vapor -- and methane, carbon tetrahydride. That is the principal constituent of natural gas here on Earth, an excellent fuel. Not on Jupiter. On Jupiter it is the waste product, the incombustible residue. Gasoline would be a safe cleaning fluid there, utterly incombustible. There, they would say that hydrogen would not burn, but oxygen was an excellent fuel.

BUT that is not all that is strange in the chemistry of the giant planet. Jupiter is possessed of a climate ideal for life! The temperature is mild, about 120 degrees below zero centigrade, 185 below Fahrenheit. Yes that's a mild temperature! It's mild for life on an entirely different basis, an ammonia basis. Remember that in the discussion of the possible life media, I said that ammonia, though unstable, was a possible medium? That hydrogen could function as the active gas as low temperatures under great pressure? These conditions are fulfilled, for ammonia is stable, and the enormous pressure makes hydrogen active.

So a life is possible there, a life that breathes in a pure, invigorating atmosphere of hydrogen, with gentle breezes of ammonia! Its foods are, perhaps oxidizing agents instead of reducing agents. There are many organic compounds that we know which are capable of this action, compounds called peroxides which are violently explosive at the temperature of Earth, but stable at temperatures so low that Jupiter would find them normal.

Chemistry of life would be strangely different. Perhaps if there are intelligent, but not-too-intelligent inhabitants, they attempt to forget their woes on Saturday nights with the aid of a bottle of ethylamine, C2H5NH, instead of that ancient Earthly staple, ethyl alcohol, C2H5OH. To them, perhaps that compound H2O is a solid, white salt; at any rate, it is an immensely important part of their diet.

And what sort of a world do they live in? It must be a savage world of small animals. No great 100-foot monsters ever lived on the land of Jupiter, for they would have been crushed under their own weight. The animals would be small so that they could be active. Elephants never jump. Perhaps beings corresponding to men would be no more than two feet tall, but muscled so powerfully as to make any hand-to-hand encounters with such people (impossible due to the differences in atmosphere and pressure) a dangerous business indeed. Swift-moving beyond belief, in order to keep up with an environment lashed by a gravity two and a half times as swift as ours.

Things fall more swiftly. The spring of an attacking animal there would be a blur of motion to our eyes, for if it were not, he would not be able to spring any distance before that snapping gravity jerked him back to the ground.

They would have hard ground of low almost flat country, where even the strength of mountains cannot lift themselves high against an overwhelming, eternal gravity. Though Jupiter is 300 times as massive as Earth, its gravity is not, fortunately, 300 times as great at the surface, because the surface is so far from the center of the planet. At one hundred thousand miles from the center of Earth, the gravity is one three hundredth that an equal distance from the center of Jupiter, but the latter planet is larger -- and the surface is farther from the center.

But the hills are low, for the gravity is still intense. The trees are low scrubby things, perhaps with many stalks supporting a widespreading network of branches. There's reason for that, too -- two good ones. The gravity -- always that -- and the winds. Not the gentle zephyrs of a minor planet like Earth, but howling, roaring, shrieking tornadoes that seem left-over memories of that wild day when planets were created in three brief hours. Winds that shriek past at two hundred miles an hour. Those are the steady, day-in-and-day-out trade winds of Jupiter -- gentle things that they expect every day of the long, long year. At least, we know they exist in the upper atmosphere, and surely something more than a hint of them goes raving around the surface.

SPEAKING OF SURFACE -- Jupiter has lots of that! How much of it is flooded, we have no way of guessing, but the planet is about 265,000 miles in circumference, and it spins around that circumference at a mad pace: once each ten hours, 26,500 miles an hour. But if ever a Jovian Magellan set out to circle his world, he would be tackling a task that even light would require a very distinctly measurable time to accomplish. Jupiter is a full-size planet, no accidental scrapings dropped behind that world!

And that fearfully heavy atmosphere is going to introduce difficulties when they start to make airplanes. The planes are easy enough -- almost anything with a flat surface will fly in an atmosphere as thick as that frightfully compressed stuff is. But speed is something quite different. It takes more than streamlining to wriggle a path through that ultra-condensed soup.

Under the circumstances, probably an automobile would have the better of it, for, could we see a Jovian driver, we would undoubtedly praise the gods of the universe that we couldn't ride with him. They would have a a habit of taking right-angle turns at forty to fifty miles an hour in about fifteen feet, and jittering through traffic with the general effect of one of those trick movies of a wild ride through New York.

Why? Because brakes there would have a far greater effect; the mass of the car, its inertia, would be unchanged, while its weight, and consequent pressure against the surface would be two and a half times as great. The jarring decelerations, approaching the severity of a full-fledged collision, would not bother the concentrated balls of muscular strength a Jovian would have to be, anyway. Swinging a corner of forty would be no trick at all, when the car was held to the road by Jupiter's savage clutch.

But top speeds? That forty or fifty would be like doing approximately the same speed through water. If the brakes stop a car quickly, so does the air. What they'd burn for gasoline, I don't know -- perhaps pure hydrogen peroxide -- but they would burn it at a frightening rate, to make any speed.

And what would they build these automobiles of? Not iron -- remember what happened to Haber's steel retorts. Iron is a hopelessly brittle metal under those conditions. * Not aluminum -- for in the strongly alkaline rains of that world, aluminum would melt away in no time. Silver would run away in liquid streams of ammonia-silver complex salts. So would copper. None of the noble metals -- they're all too heavy, by far, even if they are not as rare as on Earth, though they probably are. They would develop an utterly alien metallurgy, and a completely alien chemistry.

What do they burn in their gas stoves? Oxygen? Would they be able to develop radio where radio vacuum tubes would be crushed instantly by the brutal hand of that atmospheric pressure? Even if the tube is built sufficiently strong to stand the pressure, hydrogen atoms would seep through, as they diffuse through almost any material we know of. Perhaps, though, they would develop Alexanderson alternators for sending, which are nothing but specially designed dynamos; and receive by crystal detectors. Still -- even our best sets would never receive messages around that world -- a quarter of a million miles.

BUT are there any people there to worry about such things? We can't know, of course, but we can say this: There is an active liquid, not water, but one we have reason to believe is an excellent substitute. They have an atmosphere containing an active gas. They certainly have reason to develop life -- a nice mild climate, lots of land and "water" area in all probability. The Sunlight may be a bit diluent, but it's there.

Yes, those people may be based on a weird chemistry that makes liquid ammonia their "Adam's ale," and hydrogen their air; but the chemistry is possible. They might fry an egg -- of a Jovian chicken -- on the freezer tray of a Terrestrial refrigerator, but based on an ammonia scale, they have the proper temperature. They have day and night -- shorter than those of any other planet of the system-- to distribute the Sun's heat evenly.

If some strange and utterly alien creature from other solar systems were to come to make a guess as to which of Sol's children bore life, which do you suppose he would choose? Tiny planets -- the Terrestrial type -- with an almost perfect vacuum for atmosphere -- or mighty worlds like Jupiter? I think I would choose Jupiter, were it not that I just happen to have special, one might say "inside," dope. My personal economy is based on water.

I'm glad of that. That and the atmosphere I breathe. For I wonder if there are on Jupiter, peoples more intelligent than we, gazing out through mighty telescopes, wondering and longing, imagining life on tiny, more Sunward worlds -- and vainly wishing. Wishing, and knowing that they cannot leave. For just as surely as no near-evacuated vessel made of matter could resist for a day, that awful, crushing atmosphere of Jupiter, so surely could no vessel made of matter resist the frightful, bursting pressure should it venture into space charged with that ultra-compressed air. Burdened by an enormously heavy air, seeking to escape an enormously massive planet -- and the filtering, seeping hydrogen escaping steadily through the very atoms of the metal. I wonder if they look -- and wish --

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