The Inductive Economy of An Elegant Idea
An elegant and beautiful explanation is, to me, one that corrals a herd of seemingly unrelated facts within a single unifying concept. In our explorations of the worlds, including our own, that orbit the Sun, and in our attempts to find from these efforts what is special and what is commonplace about our own planet, I can think of two examples of this.
The first is an idea that was originally offered in the 1912 but met with such extreme hostility from the scientific establishment—not an unusual response, by the way, to an original idea—that it wasn't generally accepted until 50 years later. By that time, the sheer weight of evidence supporting it became so overwhelming that the notion was rendered irrefutable. And that notion was plate tectonics.
It could be said that the first indications of plate motions, though of course not recognized as such at the time, came from the observations of the early explorers, like Magellan, who noticed the puzzle-like fit of the continents, Africa and South America, for instance, on their maps. Fast forward to the early 20th century…Alfred Wegener, a German geophysicist, proposes movement of the continents (continental drift), to explain this hand-in-glove fit. Having no explanation, however, for how the continents could actually move, he was laughed out of the room.
But the evidence continued to mount: fossils, rock types, ancient climates were shown to be similar within widely separated geographical regions, like the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa. Studies of magnetized rocks, which if stationary will always indicate a consistent direction to the north magnetic pole regardless where on the globe they form, indicated that either the north pole location varied throughout time or that the rocks themselves were not formed where they are found today. Finally, by the 1960s, it was clear that many of the Earth's presently active geological phenomena, such as the strongest earthquakes and volcanoes, were found within distinct, sinuous belts that wrapped around the planet and carved the Earth's surface into distinct bounded regions. Furthermore, studies of rocks on the floors of the Earth's oceans revealed an alternating north-up/north-down magnetic striping pattern that could only be explained by the upwelling of molten lava from below, creating new oceanic floor, and the consequent spreading of the old floor, pushing the continents farther apart with time. We now know that the tectonic forces driving the motions of the Earth's crustal plates arise from the convective upwelling and downwelling currents of molten rock in the Earth's mantle that drag around the solid plates sitting atop them.
In the end, the notion that bits of the Earth's surface can drift over time is a glorious example of a simple, efficient and even elegant idea that was eventually proven correct yet so radical for its time, it was scorned.
The second is more or less an extraterrestrial version of the same. In an historic mission not unlike Homer's Odyssey, two identical spacecraft—Voyager I and II—spent the 1980s touring the planetary systems of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And the images they returned provided humanity its first detailed views of these planets and the moons and rings surrounding them.
Jupiter was the gateway planet, the first of the four encountered, and it was there that we learned just how complex and presently active other planetary bodies could be. Along with the stunningly active moon, Io, which sported at the time about 9 large volcanic eruptions, Voyager imaged the surface of Jupiter's icy moon, Europa. Just a bit smaller than our own Moon, Europa's surface was clearly young, rather free of craters, and scored with a complex pattern of cracks and fractures that were cycloidal in shape and continuous, with many 'loops', like the scales on a fish. From these discoveries and others, it was inferred that Europa might have a thin crust overlying either warm, soft ice or perhaps even liquid water, though how the fracture pattern came to look the way it does was a mystery. The idea of a sub-surface ocean was enticing for the implicit possibility of a habitable zone for extraterrestrial life.
A follow-on spacecraft, Galileo, arrived at Jupiter in 1995 and before too long got an even better look at Europa's cracked ice shell and its cycloidal fractures. It became clear to researchers at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab that the cycloidal fractures, and even their detailed characteristics, like the shapes of the cycloidal segments, and the existence of, the distance between, and orientations of the cusps, could all be explained by the stresses across the moon's thin ice shell created by the tides raised on it by Jupiter. Europa's distance to Jupiter varies over the course of its orbit because of gravitational resonances with the other Jovian moons. And that varying separation causes the magnitude and direction of the tidal stresses on its surface to change. Under these conditions, if a crack in the thin ice shell is initiated at any location by these stresses, then that crack will propagate across the surface over the course of a Europan day and will take the shape of a cycloid. This will continue, day in and day out, scoring the surface of Europa in the manner that we find it today. Furthermore, tidal stresses would be inadequate to affect these kinds of changes to the moon's surface if its ice shell did not overlie a liquid ocean…an exciting possibility by anyone's measure.
And so, a whole array of features on the surface of one of Jupiter's most fascinating moons, the enormous complexity of the patterns they form, and the implication of a subterranean liquid water ocean in which extraterrestrial life might have taken hold, were explained and supported with one very simple, very easily demonstrated, and very elegant idea….an idea which itself, like that of plate tectonics, exemplifies the great beauty and economy derivable from logical induction, one of humankind's most demonstrably powerful intellectual devices.