Making New Worlds With a Throw of the Dice

Science  01 Oct 1999:
Vol. 286, Issue 5437, pp. 68-69
DOI: 10.1126/science.286.5437.68

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New computer algorithms are allowing planetary scientists to simulate the formation of Earth and the other rocky planets, giving researchers a new respect for the role of chance in determining these planets' orbits and shaping their structure and composition. In the earliest days of the nascent solar system, when dozens of Mars-sized protoplanets roamed the inner solar system and met in catastrophic collisions, tiny variations in trajectory made all the difference. After the four terrestrial planets formed, planetary evolution amplified the effects of chance even further, determining, for example, a planet's final allotment of water, which in turn affected everything from its geology to its fitness for life.