Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Earth’s senescence

Microbes were the only life on Earth up until the relatively recent advent of multicellular life, and are arguably still the dominant form of life on our planet. Furthermore, the sun has been gradually heating up ever since it first formed, and this continuing process will soon (soon in the sense of geological time) eliminate multicellular life again. Heat-induced decreases in the atmosphere's CO2 content will kill off all complex plants within about 500 million years, and although some animals may be able to live by eating algae, it will only be another few hundred million years at most until the planet is completely heat-sterilized.

Why is the sun getting brighter? The only thing that keeps a star like our sun from collapsing due to its own gravity is the pressure of its gases. The sun's energy comes from nuclear reactions at its core, and the net result of these reactions is to fuse hydrogen atoms into helium atoms. It takes four hydrogens to make one helium, so the number of atoms in the sun is continuously decreasing. Since PV = nkT, this causes a decrease in pressure, which makes the core contract. As the core contracts, collisions between hydrogen atoms become more frequent, and the rate of fusion reactions increases.

Last Update: 2009-06-21