The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans

The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans
The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans

Life and its origin, the story of the creation of the earth we now live in, remains an enigma. As such, any attempt to explain such a mystery instantly attracts attention. Little wonder that The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans became a best-seller. Besides its captivating caption and theme, the caliber of its author already builds trust, a renowned physicist, mathematician, and astronomer. This double elegance gave the book an enormous success considering the many people who cite it often, including respected scientists like Bertrand Russell. The author explores the new teachings of astronomy and physical science, which focus on changing how we view the universe as a whole and the importance of human life. He maintains that whereas philosophy is essential, science takes precedence as it ascertains facts and hypotheses. James Jeans covers important topics regarding the universe, including the Dying Sun, Relativity and the Ether, Matter, and Radiation.


The universe has always been a mystery to humanity. The puzzles must have been even more compounded in the early 19th century, specifically 1930, when Sir James Jeans published The Mysterious Universe. Written at a time when real geniuses dominated the halls of academia, the book is an ultimate expression of what it means to think deeply. Some of the statements that Jeans make seem quaint in light of modern-day science. These two examples demonstrate this; (1) Helium is made up of four protons and four electrons. No one knew anything to do with the neutron. (2) The star cores yield heat through the annihilation of hydrogen atoms. Nuclear fusion was still a new topic, and no one could authoritatively explain.

The author stamped his authority as an intellectual giant. He makes astonishing remarks, some of which have been proven today to be true or just an inch from the truth. Scientists, in particular, should consider this a must-read as you will find Physics of 1930s interesting, amusing, and attractive. Non-scientists ought to read it with extra attention to details lest they get rather confused.

Origin of the universe and life on Earth

Sir James Jeans describes the Sun in comparison to the Earth and the universe. He asserts that the universe comprises of countless stars and that most of these are more significant than the Sun. These stars are more than a million miles from each other and that they rarely come into contact.

Based on his descriptions, it is clear that Jeans believes in the Big Bang Theory. This theory was coined to explain the creation of the solar system and all its planets, including the Earth. It asserts that the universe started as a small singularity. It then expanded for more than 13.8 billion years, turning into the cosmos we know today. Ever since Georges Lemaitre wrote in 1927 that it is possible to trace an expanding universe back in time, several scientists have built on his ideas. Sir James Jeans is one of them.

While expounding on Earth’s origin, he explains that over two thousand million years ago, a wandering star approached the Sun. The star’s gravitational pull created a tide on the Sun’s surface. It increased in size and burst to scatter pieces in space. These torn pieces of the Sun are the planets we know today. They were triggered by gravity to start moving around the Sun. In other words, the Earth and all associated planets came into existence as an accident.

With the planet formation issue tackled, one might want to know how the Earth became the only planet that supports life. Why is it that its neighbors could not also do the same if they came from a common source? Jeans admits that he does not have a clear explanation of how life started on Earth. However, he suggests the idea of simple unicellular organisms that advanced into complex beings such as humans. Our planet’s position in the solar system, the author explains, is what made it be the only one with life.

Causes of natural phenomena

One good thing about physics is that natural wonders observed decades ago remain to be the same today. The only thing that changes is their explanation. Sir James Jeans asserts that primitive man must have found nature quite puzzling. He cites a couple of examples that might have amused him. (1) A stone thrown into water sank while a piece of wood floated. (2) Lightning struck one tree while a similar neighboring tree remained untouched. (3) An unsupported object fell invariably; among other mindboggling natural phenomena.

Jeans is quick to note that such appearances triggered man to desire to develop an explanation. Thus, the first action involved attributing nature to the whims and passions of the gods. For instance, angry gods were said to make lightning strike one area and skip another. Jeans considers such references to be untrue. He notes that thanks to detailed studies, the theory of causation emerged.

That is, nothing in nature happens without being caused by a particular force. Unlike primitive man’s belief, this force is not triggered by the gods but by actual happenings in life. We still witness many of the natural phenomena that Jeans mentions. However, it is worth noting that advancements in technology have made it possible to come up with more accurate answers.

Matter and radiation

The main effect of radiation on matter is the ionization of atoms. Ionization and photoelectric effect are closely tied. During ionization, the energy-filled radioactive particles collide with atom electrons to eradicate them from the atoms. The electron knocked off from the atom is referred to as the primary electron. When this electron has more energy, it may eject another electron from its atom or do so on a different atom. This is known as secondary ionization. The fact that ionization completely ejects a primary electron does not imply that it always happens so. There are cases when only the electron’s energy level is increased, placing this electron to a higher energy state.

The Mysterious Universe explains the notion of molecules and atoms. It rules out the idea of Lucretian’ atoms’ and asserts that they are molecules. The term atom is reserved for the smaller units into which molecules could be split. The author explains the various ways of breaking up a molecule. These include exploding, burning, and heating. For instance, Jeans explains, when you place hydrogen peroxide in light, it is broken up into a molecule of water and oxygen. One can see this in practice when you open the hydrogen peroxide bottle left in sunlight. The pop sound felt is oxygen. You will also notice some water in the bottle.

He explains that each atom comprises negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons. Matter, on the other hand, is simply a collection of particles that have been charged with electricity. Given that each body is made up of charged particles, the mass of a moving body changes with its speed of motion. When you read the author’s assertions as they are, you might start questioning what your science teacher taught you.

Areas of agreement and refute

Many, especially scientists, have come to agree with most of the author’s explanations. In particular, his opinion as to why the Earth is the only planet supporting life makes perfect sense. To begin with, our source of energy is from the Sun, which is a more stable star. Most other stars burn too hot and do not live long enough to develop life. The smaller stars, on the other hand, are unstable and often blast their planets with radiation. Even though Jeans did not know this 21st-century fact, he still understood that the Sun was the major contributor to the existence of life on this planet. We are not too far from it to receive the much-needed sunlight, neither are we too close to get roasted.

However, the author does not make a clear breakdown of matter and atoms. Basically, the matter is made up of divisible particles referred to as atoms. The atoms comprise of subatomic particles called protons, electrons, and neutrons. It is worth noting that whereas protons and electrons were known by the time of the book’s writing, neutrons were discovered later on. More specifically, neutrons came into existence two years later after Jeans published his book. Despite this shortcoming, the book portrays significant scientific brilliance.


The Mysterious Universe enormous success is largely attributed to its position that all men, knowingly or unknowingly, desire to believe in their spiritual destiny. The balance between its scientific significance and spiritual importance is striking. The underlying point is the leading scientist’s points on physical sciences that are based on the universe’s mechanical interpretation and that this is not enough to explain the findings of nature studies.

One thing that comes out strongly in the book is a compromise, something that Englishmen held dear to their hearts. The author deducts as much as he adds such that towards the last chapters, you are left thinking what the book intended to convey. A comparison between the first and the last chapters clearly indicates cases of compromise. Whereas the first chapter explains the origin of life on Earth as something that we just stumbled into, the last chapter views the Earth as having been initially hostile to life.


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