Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/December 1881/A Half-Century of Science II
|←Equality and Inequality in Sex||Popular Science Monthly Volume 20 December 1881 (1881)
A Half-Century of Science II
By John Lubbock
|Catholicism, Protestantism, and Suicide→|
End of series
IN astronomy, the discovery in 1845 of the planet Neptune, made independently and almost simultaneously by Adams and by Le Verrier, was certainly one of the very greatest triumphs of mathematical genius. Of the minor planets, four only were known in 1831, while the number now on the roll amounts to 220. Many astronomers believe in the existence of an intra-Mercurial planet or planets, but this is still an open question. The solar system has also been enriched by the discovery of an inner ring to Saturn, of satellites to Mars, and of additional satellites to Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
The most unexpected progress, however, in our astronomical knowledge, during the past half-century, has been due to spectrum analysis. The dark lines in the spectrum were first seen by Wollaston, who noticed a few of them; but they were independently discovered by Fraunhofer, after whom they are justly named, and who, in 1814, mapped no fewer than 576. The first steps in "spectrum analysis," properly so called, were made by Sir J. Herschel, Fox Talbot, and by Wheatstone, in a paper read before this Association in 1835. The latter showed that the spectrum emitted by the incandescent vapor of metals was formed of bright lines, and that these lines, while, as he then supposed, constant for each metal, differed for different metals. "We have here," he said, "a mode of discriminating metallic bodies more readily than that of chemical examination, and which may hereafter be employed for useful purposes." Nay, not only can bodies thus be more readily discriminated, but, as we now know, the presence of extremely minute portions can be detected, the 5000000 of a grain being in some cases easily perceptible.
It is also easy to see that the presence of any new simple substance might be detected, and in this manner already several new elements have been discovered, as I shall mention when we come to chemistry.
But spectrum analysis has led to even grander and more unexpected triumphs. Fraunhofer himself noticed the coincidence between the double dark line D of the solar spectrum and a double line which he observed in the spectra of ordinary flames, while Stoke* pointed out to Sir W. Thomson, who taught it in his lectures, that in both cases these lines were due to the presence of sodium. To Kirchhoff and Bunsen, however, is due the independent conception and the credit of having first systematically investigated the relation which exists between Fraunhofer's lines and the bright lines in the spectra of incandescent metals. In order to get some fixed measure by which they might determine and record the lines characterizing any given substance it occurred to them that they might use for comparison the spectrum of the sun. They accordingly arranged their spectroscope so that one half of the slit was lighted by the sun, and the other by the luminous gases they proposed to examine. It immediately struck them that the bright lines in the one corresponded with the dark lines in the other—the bright line of sodium, for instance, with the line or rather lines D in the sun's spectrum. The conclusion was obvious. There was sodium in the sun! It must indeed have been a glorious moment when that thought flashed across them, and even by itself well worth all their labor.
But why is the bright line of a sodium-flame represented by a black one in the spectrum of the sun! To Angstrom is due the theory that a vapor or gas can absorb luminous rays of the same refrangibility only which it emits when highly heated; while Balfour Stewart independently discovered the same law with reference to radiant heat.
This is the basis of Kirchhoff's theory of the origin of Fraunhofer's lines. In the atmosphere of the sun the vapors of various metals are present, each of which would give its characteristic lines, but within this atmospheric envelope is the still more intensely heated nucleus of the sim, which emits a brilliant continuous spectrum, containing rays of all degrees of refrangibility. When the light of this intensely heated nucleus is transmitted through the surrounding atmosphere, the bright lines which would be produced by this atmosphere are seen as dark ones.
Kirchhoff and Bunsen thus proved the existence in the sun of hydrogen, sodium, magnesium, calcium, iron, nickel, chromium, manganese, titanium, and cobalt; since which Angstrom, Thalen, and Lockyer have considerably increased the list. But it is not merely the chemistry of the heavenly bodies on which light is thrown by the spectroscope; their physical structure and evolutional history are also illuminated by this wonderful instrument of research. It used to be supposed that the sun was a dark body enveloped in a luminous atmosphere. The reverse now appears to be the truth. The body of the sun, or photosphere, is intensely brilliant; round it lies the solar atmosphere of comparatively cool gases, which cause the dark lines in the spectrum; thirdly, a chromosphere—a sphere principally of hydrogen, jets of which are said sometimes to reach to a height of 100,000 miles or more, into the outer coating or corona, the nature of which is still very doubtful.
Formerly the red flames which represent the higher regions of the chromosphere could be seen only on the rare occasions of a total solar eclipse. Janssen and Lockyer, by the application of the spectroscope, have enabled us to study this region of the sun at all times. It is, moreover, obvious that the powerful engine of investigation afforded us by the spectroscope is by no means confined to the substances which form part of our system. The incandescent body can thus be examined, no matter how great its distance, so long only as the light is strong enough. That this method was theoretically applicable to the light of the stars was indeed obvious, but the practical difficulties were very great. Sirius, the brightest of all, is, in round numbers, a hundred millions of millions of miles from us; and, though as big as sixty of our suns, his light when it reaches us, after a journey of sixteen years, is at most one two-thousand-millionth part as bright. Nevertheless, as long ago as 1815 Fraunhofer recognized the fixed lines in the light of four of the stars, and in 1863 Miller and Huggins in our own country, and Rutherfurd in America, succeeded in determining the dark lines in the spectrum of some of the brighter stars, thus showing that these beautiful and mysterious lights contain many of the material substances with which we are familiar. In Aldebaran, for instance, we may infer the presence of hydrogen, sodium, magnesium, iron, calcium, tellurium, antimony, bismuth, and mercury; some of which are not yet known to occur in the sun. As might have been expected, the composition of the stars is not uniform, and it would appear that they may be arranged in a few well-marked classes, indicating differences of temperature, or, in other words, of age. Some recent photographic spectra of stars obtained by Huggins go very far to justify this view. Thus we can make the stars teach us their own composition with light which started from its source before we were born light older than our Association itself.
Until 1864, the true nature of the unresolved nebulæ was a matter of doubt. In that year, however, Huggins turned his spectroscope on to a nebula, and made the unexpected discovery that the spectra of some of these bodies are discontinuous—that is to say, consist of bright lines only, indicating that, "in place of an incandescent solid or liquid body, we must probably regard these objects, or at least their photo surfaces, as enormous masses of luminous gas or vapor. For it is from matter in a gaseous state only that such light as that of the nebulas is known to be emitted." So far as observation has yet gone, nebulas may be divided into two classes: some giving a continuous spectrum, others one consisting of bright lines. These latter all appear to give essentially the same spectrum, consisting of a few bright lines. Two of them, in Mr. Huggins's opinion, indicate the presence of hydrogen: one of them agrees in position with a line characteristic of nitrogen.
But spectrum analysis has even more than this to tell us. The old methods of observation could determine the movements of the stars so far only as they were transverse to us; they afforded no means of measuring motion either directly toward or away from us. Now, Doppler suggested in 1841 that the colors of the stars would assist us in this respect, because they would be affected by their motion to and from the earth, just as a steam-whistle is raised or lowered as it approaches or recedes from us. Every one has observed that if a train whistles as it passes us, the sound appears to alter at the moment the engine goes by. This arises, of course, not from any change in the whistle itself, but because the number of vibrations which reach the ear in a given time are increased by the speed of the train as it approaches, and diminished as it recedes. So, like the sound, the color would be affected by such a movement; but Döppler's method was practically inapplicable, because the amount of effect on the color would be utterly insensible; and even if it were otherwise, the method could not be applied, because, as we did not know the true color of the stars, we have no datum-line by which to measure.
A change of refrangibility of light, however, does occur in consequence of relative motion, and Huggins successfully applied the spectroscope to solve the problem. He took in the first place the spectroscope of Sirius, and chose a line known as F, which is due to hydrogen. Now, if Sirius was motionless, or rather if it retained a constant distance from the earth, the line F would occupy exactly the same position in the spectrum of Sirius as in that of the sun. On the contrary, if Sirius were approaching or receding from us, this line would be slightly shifted either toward the blue or red end of the spectrum. He found that the line had moved very slightly toward the red, indicating that the distance between us and Sirius is increasing at the rate of about twenty miles a second. So also Betelgeux, Rigel, Castor, and Regulus are increasing their distance; while, on the contrary, that of others, as for instance of Vega, Arcturus, and Pollux, is diminishing. The results obtained by Huggins on about twenty stars have since been confirmed and extended by Mr. Christie, now Astronomer-Royal in succession to Sir G. Airy, who has long occupied the post with so much honor to himself and advantage to science.
To examine the spectrum of a shooting-star would seem even more difficult; yet Alexander Herschel has succeeded in doing so, and finds that their nuclei are incandescent solid bodies; he has recognized the lines of potassium, sodium, lithium, and other substances, and considers that the shooting-stars are bodies similar in character and composition to the stony masses which sometimes reach the earth as aërolites.
Some light has also been thrown upon those mysterious visitants, the comets. The researches of Professor Newton on the periods of meteoroids led to the remarkable discovery by Schiaparelli of the identity of the orbits of some meteor-swarms with those of some comets. The similarity of orbits is too striking to be the result of chance, and shows a true cosmical relation between the bodies. Comets, in fact, are in some cases at any rate groups of meteoric stones. From the spectra of the small comets of 1866 and 1868, Huggins showed that part of their light is emitted by themselves, and reveals the presence of carbon in some form. A photographic spectrum of the comet recently visible, obtained by the same observer, is considered by him to prove that nitrogen, probably in combination with carbon, is also present.
No element has yet been found in any meteorite, which was not previously known as existing in the earth, but the phenomena which they exhibit indicate that they must have been formed under conditions very different from those which prevail on the earth's surface. I may mention, for instance, the peculiar form of crystallized silica, called by Maskelyne, asmanite; and the whole class of meteorites, consisting of iron generally alloyed with nickel, which Daubrée terms holosiderites. The interesting discovery, however, by Nordenskjöld, in 1870, at Ovifak, of a number of blocks of iron alloyed with nickel and cobalt, in connection with basalts containing disseminated iron, has, in the words of Judd, "afforded a very important link, placing the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial rocks in closer relations with one another."
We have as yet no sufficient evidence to justify a conclusion as to whether any substances exist in the-heavenly bodies which do not occur in our earth, though there are many lines which can not yet be satisfactorily referred to any terrestrial element. On the other hand, some substances which occur on our earth have not yet been detected in the sun's atmosphere. Such discoveries as these seemed, not long ago, entirely beyond our hopes. M. Comte, indeed, in his "Cours de Philosophic Positive," as recently as 1842, laid it down as an axiom regarding the heavenly bodies, that "nous concevons la possibilité de déterminer leurs formes, leurs distances, leurs grandeurs et leurs mouvements, tandis que nous ne saurions jamais étudier par aucun moyen leur composition chimique ou leur structure minéralogique." Yet within a few years this supposed impossibility has been actually accomplished, showing how unsafe it is to limit the possibilities of science.
It is hardly necessary to point out that, while the spectrum has taught us so much, we have still even more to learn. Why should some substances give few, and others many, lines? Why should the same substance give different lines at different temperatures? What are the relations between the lines and the physical or chemical properties? We may certainly look for much new knowledge of the hidden actions of atoms and molecules from future researches with the spectroscope. It may even, perhaps, teach us to modify our views of the so-called simple substances. Prout long ago, struck by the remarkable fact that nearly all atomic weights are simple multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen, suggested that hydrogen must be the primordial substance. Brodie's researches also naturally fell in with the supposition that the so-called simple substances are in reality complex, and that their constituents occur separately in the hottest regions of the solar atmosphere. Lockyer considers that his researches lend great probability to this view. The whole subject is one of intense interest, and we may rejoice that it is occupying the attention, not only of such men as Abney, Dewar, Hartley, Liveing, Roscoe, and Schuster in our own country, but also of many foreign observers.
When geology so greatly extended our ideas of past time, the continued heat of the sun became a question of greater interest than ever. Helmholtz has shown that, while adopting the nebular hypothesis, we need not assume that the nebulous matter was originally incandescent; but that its present high temperature may be, and probably is, mainly due to gravitation between its parts. It follows that the potential energy of the sun is far from exhausted, and that with continued shrinking it will continue to give out light and beat, with little, if any, diminution for several million years.
Like the sand of the sea, the stars of heaven have ever been used as effective symbols of number, and the improvements in our methods of observation have added fresh force to our original impressions. We now know that our earth is but a fraction of one out of at least 75,000,000 worlds. But this is not all. In addition to the luminous heavenly bodies, we can not doubt that there are countless others, invisible to us from their greater distance, smaller size, or feebler light; indeed, we know that there are many dark bodies which now emit no light, or comparatively little. Thus, in the case of Procyon, the existence of an invisible body is proved by the movement of the visible star. Again, I may refer to the curious phenomena presented by Algol, a bright star in the head of Medusa. This star shines without change for two days and thirteen hours; then, in three hours and a half, dwindles from a star of the second to one of the fourth magnitude; and then, in another three and a half hours, reassumes its original brilliancy. These changes seem certainly to indicate the presence of an opaque body, which intercepts at regular intervals a part of the light emitted by Algol.
Thus the floor of heaven is not only "thick inlaid with patines of bright gold," but studded also with extinct stars; once, probably, as brilliant as our own sun, but now dead and cold, as Helmholtz tells us that our sun itself will be, some seventeen million years hence.
The connection of astronomy with the history of our planet has been a subject of speculation and research during a great part of the half-century of our existence. Sir Charles Lyell devoted some of the opening chapters of his great work to the subject. Haughton has brought his very original powers to bear on the subject of secular changes in climate, and Croll's contributions to the same subject are of great interest. Last, but not least, I must not omit to make mention of the series of massive memoirs (I am happy to say, not yet nearly terminated) by George Darwin on tidal friction, and the influence of tidal action on the evolution of the solar system. I may, perhaps, just mention, as regards telescopes, that the largest reflector, in 1830, was Sir W. Herschel's, of four feet; the largest at present being Lord Rosse's, of six feet; as regards refractors, the largest then had a diameter of eleven and a quarter inches, while your fellow townsman, Cooke, carried the size to twenty-five inches, and Mr. Grubb, of Dublin, has just successfully completed one of twenty-seven inches for the Observatory of Vienna. It is remarkable that the two largest telescopes in the world should both he Irish.
The general result of astronomical researches has been thus eloquently summed up by Proctor: "The sidereal system is altogether more complicated and more varied in structure than has hitherto been supposed; in the same region of the stellar depths coexist stars of many orders of real magnitude; all orders of nebulæ, gaseous or stellar, planetary, ring-formed, elliptical, and spiral, exist within the limits of the galaxy; and, lastly, the whole system is alive with movements, the laws of which may one day be recognized, though at present they appear too complex to be understood."
We can, I think, scarcely claim the establishment of the undulatory theory of light as falling within the last fifty years; for though Brewster, in his "Report on Optics," published in our first volume, treats the question as open, and expresses himself still unconvinced, he was, I believe, almost alone in his preference for the emission theory. The phenomena of interference, in fact, left hardly—any if any—room for doubt, and the subject was finally set at rest by Foucault's celebrated experiments in 1850. According to the undulatory theory, the velocity of light ought to be greater in air than in water, while if the emission theory were correct the reverse would be the case. The velocity of light—186,000 miles in a second—is, however, so great that, to determine its rate in air, as compared with that in water, might seem almost hopeless. The velocity in air was, nevertheless, determined by Fizeau in 1849, by means of a rapidly revolving wheel. In the following year Foucault, by means of a revolving mirror, demonstrated that the velocity of light is greater in air than in water—thus completing the evidence in favor of the undulatory theory of light.
The idea is now gaining ground that, as maintained by Clerk Maxwell, light itself is an electro-magnetic disturbance, the luminiferous ether being the vehicle of both light and electricity.
Wünsch, as long ago as 1792, had clearly shown that the three primary colors were red, green, and violet; but his results attracted little notice, and the general view used to be that there were seven principal colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet; four of which—namely, orange, green, indigo, and violet—were considered to arise from mixtures of the other three. Red, yellow, and blue were therefore called the primary colors, and it was supposed that in order to produce white light these three colors must always be present. Helmholtz, however, again showed, in 1852, that a color to our unaided eyes identical with white was produced by combining yellow with indigo. At that time yellow was considered to be a simple color, and this, therefore, was regarded as an exception to the general rule, that a combination of three simple colors is required to produce white. Again, it was, and indeed still is, the general impression that a combination of blue and yellow makes green. This, however, is entirely a mistake. Of course, we all know that yellow paint and blue paint make green paint; but this results from absorption of light by the semi-transparent solid particles of the pigments, and is not a mere mixture of the colors proceeding unaltered from the yellow and the blue particles; moreover, as can easily be shown by two sheets of colored paper and a piece of window-glass, blue and yellow light, when combined, do not give a trace of green, but if pure would produce the effect of white. Green, therefore, is after all not produced by a mixture of blue and yellow. On the other hand, Clerk Maxwell proved in 1860 that yellow could be produced by a mixture of red and green, which put an end to the pretension of yellow to be considered a primary element of color. From these and other considerations it would seem, therefore, that the three primary colors—if such an expression be retained—are red, green, and violet.
The existence of rays beyond the violet, though almost invisible to our eyes, had long been demonstrated by their chemical action. Stokes, however, showed in 1852 that their existence might be proved in another manner, for that there are certain substances which, when excited by them, emit light visible to our eyes. To this phenomenon he gave the name of fluorescence. At the other end of the spectrum Abney has recently succeeded in photographing a large number of lines in the infra-red portion, the existence of which was first proved by Sir William Herschel.
From the rarity, and in many cases the entire absence, of reference to blue, in ancient literature, Geiger—adopting and extending a suggestion first thrown out by Mr. Gladstone—has maintained that, even as recently as the time of Homer, our ancestors were blue-blind. Though for my part I am unable to adopt this view, it is certainly very remarkable that neither the "Rigveda," which consists almost entirely of hymns to heaven, nor the "Zendavesta," the Bible of the Parsees or fire-worshipers, nor the Old Testament, nor the Homeric poems, ever allude to the sky as blue.
On the other hand, from the dawn of poetry, the splendors of the morning and evening skies have excited the admiration of mankind. As Ruskin says, in language almost as brilliant as the sky itself, the whole heaven, "from the zenith to the horizon, becomes one molten, mantling sea of color and fire; every black bar turns into massy gold, every ripple and wave into unsullied, shadowless crimson, and purple, and scarlet, and colors for which there are no words in language, and no ideas in the mind— things which can only be conceived while they are visible ; the intense hollow blue of the upper sky melting through it all, showing here deep, and pure, and lightness ; there, modulated by the filmy, formless body of the transparent vapor, till it is lost im- perceptibly in its crimson and gold."
But what is the explanation of these gorgeous colors? why is the sky blue ? and why are the sunrise and sunset crimson and gold ? It may be said that the air is blue ; but, if so, how can the clouds assume their varied tints ? Brücke showed that very minute particles sus- pended in water are blue by reflected light. Tyndall has taught us that the blue of the sky is clue to the reflection of the blue rays by the minute particles floating in the atmosphere. Now, if from the white light of the sun the blue rays are thus selected, those which are transmitted will be yellow, orange, and red. Where the distance is short the transmitted light will appear yellowish. But as the sun sinks toward the horizon the atmospheric distance increases, and con- sequently the number of the scattering particles. They weaken in succession the violet, the indigo, the blue, and even disturb the pro- portions of green. The transmitted light under such circumstances must pass from yellow through orange to red, and thus, while we at noon are admiring the deep blue of the sky, the same rays, robbed of their blue, are elsewhere lighting up the evening sky with all the glories of sunset.
Another remarkable triumph of the last half-century has been the discovery of photography. At the commencement of the century Wedgwood and Davy observed the effect produced by throwing the images of objects on paper or leather prepared with nitrate of silver, but no means were known by which such images could be fixed. This was first effected by Niepce, but his processes were open to objections which prevented them from coming into general use, and it was not till 1839 that Daguerre invented the process which was justly named after him. Very soon a further improvement was effected by our countryman Talbot. He not only fixed his "Talbotypes" on paper— in itself a great convenience— but, by obtaining a negative, rendered it possible to take off any number of positive, or natural, copies from one original picture. This process is the foundation of all the methods now in use ; perhaps the greatest improvements having been the use of glass plates, first proposed by Sir John Herschel ; of collodion, sug- gested by Le Grey, and practically used by Archer ; and, more lately, of gelatine, the foundation of the sensitive film now growing into gen- eral use in the ordinary dry-plate process. Not only have a great variety of other beautiful processes been invented, but the delicacy of the sensitive film has been immensely increased, with the advan- tage, among others, of diminishing greatly the time necessary for obtaining a picture, so that even an express-train going at full speed can now be taken. Indeed, with full sunlight, 600 of a second is enough, and in photographing the sun itself 60000 of a second is sufficient.
We owe to Wheatstone the conception that the idea of solidity is derived from the combination of two pictures of the same object in slightly different perspective. This he proved in 1833 by drawing two outlines of some geometrical figure or other simple object, as they would appear to either eye respectively, and then placing them so that they might be seen, one by each eye. The "stereoscope," thus produced, has been greatly popularized by photography.
For two thousand years the art of lighting had made little if any progress. Until the close of the last century, for instance, our lighthouses contained mere fires of wood or coal, though the construction had vastly improved. The Eddystone Lighthouse, for instance, was built by Smeaton in 1759; but for forty years its light consisted in a row of tallow candles stuck in a hoop. The Argand lamp was the first great improvement, followed by gas, and in 1863 by the electric light.
Just as light was long supposed to be due to the emission of material particles, so heat was regarded as a material, though ethereal, substance, which was added to bodies when their temperature was raised.
Davy's celebrated experiment of melting two pieces of ice by rubbing them against one another in the exhausted receiver of an air pump, had convinced him that the cause of heat was the motion of the invisible particles of bodies, as had been long before suggested by Newton, Boyle, and Hooke. Rum ford and Young also advocated the same view. Nevertheless, the general opinion, even until the middle of the present century, was that heat was due to the presence of a subtile fluid known as "caloric," a theory which is now entirely abandoned.
Melloni, by the use of the electric pile, vastly increased our knowledge of the phenomena of radiant heat. His researches were confined to the solid and liquid forms of matter. Tyndall studied the gases in this respect, showing that differences greater than those established by Melloni existed between gases and vapors, both as regards the absorption and radiation of heat. He proved, moreover, that the aqueous vapor of our atmosphere, by checking terrestrial radiation, augments the earth's temperature, and he considers that the existence of tropical vegetation—the remains of which now constitute our coal-beds—may have been due to the heat retained by the vapors which at that period were diffused in the earth's atmosphere. Indeed, but for the vapor in our atmosphere, a single night would suffice to destroy the whole vegetation of the temperate regions.
Inspired by a contemplation of Graham Bell's ingenious experiments with intermittent beams on solid bodies, Tyndall took a new and original departure; and regarding the sounds as due to changes of temperature, be concluded that the same method would prove applicable to gases. He thus found himself in possession of a new and independent method of procedure. It need, perhaps, he hardly added that, when submitted to this new test, his former conclusions on the interaction of heat and gaseous matter stood their ground.
The determination of the mechanical equivalent of heat is mainly due to the researches of Mayer and Joule. Mayer, in 1842, pointed out the mechanical equivalent of heat as a fundamental datum to be determined by experiment. Taking the heat produced by the condensation of air as the equivalent of the work done in compressing the air, he obtained a numerical value of the mechanical equivalent of heat. There was, however, in these experiments, one weak point. The matter operated on did not go through a cycle of changes. He assumed that the production of heat was the only effect of the work done in compressing the air. Joule had the merit of being the first to meet this possible source of error. He ascertained that a weight of one pound would have to fall 772 feet in order to raise the temperature of one pound of water by 1º Fahr. Hirn subsequently attacked the problem from the other side, and showed that if all the heat passing through a steam-engine was turned into work, for every degree Fahr. added to the temperature of a pound of water, enough work could be done to raise a weight of one pound to a height of 772 feet. The general result is that, though we can not create energy, we may help ourselves to any extent from the great storehouse of nature. Wind and water, the coal-bed and the forest, afford man an inexhaustible supply of available energy.
It used to be considered that there was an absolute break between the different states of matter. The continuity of the gaseous, liquid, and solid conditions was first demonstrated by Andrews in 1862. Oxygen and nitrogen have been liquefied independently and at the same time by Cailletet and Raoul Pictet. Cailletet also succeeded in liquefying air, and soon afterward hydrogen was liquefied by Pictet under a pressure of 650 atmospheres, and a cold of 170º Cent, below zero. It even became partly solidified, and he assures us that it fell on the floor with "the shrill noise of metallic hail." Thus, then, it was shown experimentally that there are no such things as absolutely permanent gases.
The kinetic theory of gases, now generally accepted, refers the elasticity of gases to a motion of translation of their molecules, and we are assured that, in the case of hydrogen at a temperature of 60º Fahr., they move at an average rate of 6,225 feet in a second; while, as regards their size, Loschmidt, who has since been confirmed by Stoney and Sir W. Thomson, calculates that each is at most 50000000 of an inch in diameter.
We can not, it would seem, at present hope for any increase of our knowledge of atoms by any improvement in the microscope. With our present instruments we can perceive lines ruled on glass of 90000 of an inch apart. But, owing to the properties of light itself, the fringes due to interference begin to produce confusion at distances of 74000, and in the brightest part of the spectrum at little more than 90000 they would make the obscurity more or less complete. If, indeed, we could use the blue rays by themselves, their waves being much shorter, the limit of possible visibility might be extended to ; and as Helmholtz has suggested, this perhaps accounts for Stinde having actually been able to obtain a photographic image of lines only 100000 of an inch apart. It would seem, then, that, owing to the physical characters of light, Ave can, as Sorby has pointed out, scarcely hope for any great improvement so far as the mere visibility of structure is concerned, though in other respects, no doubt, much may be hoped for. At the same time, Dallinger and Royston Pigott have shown that, so far as the mere presence of simple objects is concerned, bodies of even smaller dimensions can be perceived.
Sorby is of opinion that in a length of 80000 of an inch there would probably be from 500 to 2,000 molecules——500, for instance, in albumen and 2,000 in water. Even, then, if we could construct microscopes far more powerful than any we now possess, they would not enable us to obtain by direct vision any idea of the ultimate molecules of matter. Sorby calculates that the smallest sphere of organic matter which could be clearly defined with our most powerful microscopes would contain many millions of molecules of albumen and water, and it follows that there may be an almost infinite number of structural characters in organic tissues, which we can at present foresee no mode of examining.
The science of meteorology has made great progress; the weather, which was formerly treated as a local phenomenon, being now shown to form part of a vast system of mutually dependent cyclonic and anti-cyclonic movements. The storm-signals issued at our ports are very valuable to sailors, while the small weather-maps, for which we are mainly indebted to Francis Galton, and the forecasts, which any one can obtain on application, either personally or by telegraph, at the Meteorological Office, are also of increasing utility.
Electricity, in the year 1831, may be considered to have just been ripe for its adaptation to practical purposes; it was but a few years previously, in 1819, that Oersted had discovered the deflective action of the current on the magnetic needle, that Ampère had laid the foundation of electro-dynamics, that Schweitzer had devised the electric coil or multiplier, and that Sturgeon had constructed the first electromagnet. It was in 1831 that Faraday, the prince of pure experimentalists, announced his discoveries of voltaic induction and magneto-electricity, which, with the other three discoveries, constitute the principles of nearly all the telegraph instruments now in use; and in 1834 our knowledge of the nature of the electric current had been much advanced by the interesting experiment of Sir Charles Wheatstone, proving the velocity of the current in a metallic conductor to approach that of the wave of light.
Practical applications of these discoveries were not long in coming to the fore, and the first telegraph-line on the Great Western Railway, from Paddington to West Drayton, was set up in 1838. In America, Morse is said to have commenced to develop his recording instrument between the years 1832 and 1837, while Steinheil, in Germany, during the same period, was engaged upon his somewhat super-refined ink recorder, using for the first time the earth for completing the return circuit; whereas in this country Cooke and Wheatstone, by adopting the more simple device of the double-needle instrument, were the first to make the electric telegraph a practical institution. Contemporaneously with, or immediately succeeding these pioneers, we find in this country Alexander Bain, Breguet in France, Schilling in Russia, and Werner Siemens in Germany, the latter having first, in 1847, among others, made use of gutta-percha as an insulating medium for electric conductors, and thus cleared the way for subterranean and submarine telegraphy. Four years later, in 1851, submarine telegraphy became an accomplished fact through the successful establishment of telegraphic communication between Dover and Calais. Submarine lines followed in rapid succession, crossing the English Channel and the German Ocean, threading their way through the Mediterranean, Black, and Red Seas, until in 1866, after two abortive attempts, telegraphic communication was successfully established between the Old and New Worlds, beneath the Atlantic Ocean.
In connection with this great enterprise, and with many investigations and suggestions of a highly scientific and important character, the name of Sir William Thomson will ever be remembered. The ingenuity displayed in perfecting the means of transmitting intelligence through metallic conductors, with the utmost dispatch and certainty as regards the record obtained, between two points hundreds and even thousands of miles apart, is truly surprising. The instruments devised by Morse, Siemens, and Hughes have also proved most useful.
Duplex and quadruplex telegraphy, one of the most striking achievements of modern telegraphy, the result of the labors of several inventors, should not be passed over in silence. It not only serves for the simultaneous communication of telegraphic intelligence in both directions, but renders it possible for four instruments to be worked irrespectively of one another, through one and the same wire connecting to distant places.
Another more recent and perhaps still more wonderful achievement in modern telegraphy is the invention of the telephone and microphone, by means of which the human voice is transmitted through the electric conductor, by mechanism that imposes through its extreme simplicity. In this connection the names of Reiss, Graham Bell, Edison, and Hughes, are those chiefly deserving to be recorded.
While electricity has thus furnished us with the means of flashing our thoughts by record or by voice from place to place, its use is now gradually extending for the achievement of such quantitative effects as the production of light, the transmission of mechanical power, and the precipitation of metals. The principle involved in the magneto-electric and dynamo-electric machines, by which these effects are accomplished, may be traced to Faraday's discovery in 1831 of the induced current, but their realization to the labors of Holmes, Siemens, Pacinotti, Gramme, and others. In the electric light, gas-lighting has found a formidable competitor, which appears destined to take its place in public illumination, and in lighting large halls, works, etc., for which purposes it combines brilliancy and freedom from obnoxious products of combustion, with comparative cheapness. The electric light seems also to threaten, when subdivided in the manner recently devised by Edison, Swan, and others, to make inroads into our dwelling-houses.
By the electric transmission of power we may hope some day to utilize at a distance such natural sources of energy as the Falls of Niagara, and to work our cranes, lifts, and machinery of every description by means of sources of power arranged at convenient centers. To these applications the brothers Siemens have more recently added the propulsion of trains by currents passing through the rails, the fusion in considerable quantities of highly refractory substances, and the use of electric centers of light in horticulture as proposed by Werner and William Siemens. By an essential improvement by Faure of the Planté secondary battery, the problem of storing electrical energy appears to have received a practical solution, the real importance of which is clearly proved by Sir W. Thomson's recent investigation of the subject. It would be difficult to assign the limits to which this development of electrical energy may not be rendered serviceable for the purposes of man.
As regards mathematics, I have felt that it would be impossible for me, even with the kindest help, to write anything myself. Mr. Spottiswoode, however, has been so good as to supply me with the following memorandum:
In a complete survey of the progress of science during the half-century which has intervened between our first and our present meeting, the part played by mathematics would form no insignificant feature. To those, indeed, who are outside its enchanted circle it is difficult to realize the intense intellectual energy which actuates its devotees, or the wide expanse over which that energy ranges. Some measure, however, of its progress may perhaps be formed by considering, in one or two cases, from what simple principles some of the great recent developments have taken their origin.
Consider,, for instance, what is known as the principle of signs. In geometry we are concerned with quantities such as lines and angles; and in the old systems a proposition was proved with reference to a particular figure. This figure might, it is true, be drawn in any manner within certain ranges of limitation; but if the limits were exceeded, a new proof, and often a new enunciation, became necessary. Gradually, however, it came to be perceived (e. g., by Carnot, in his "Géometrie de Position") that some propositions were true even when the quantities were reversed in direction. Hence followed a recognition of the principle (of signs) that every line should be regarded as a directed line, and every angle as measured in a definite direction. By means of this simple consideration, geometry has acquired a power similar to that of algebra, viz., of changing the signs of the quantities and transposing their positions, so as at once, and without fresh demonstration, to give rise to new propositions.
To take another instance. The properties of triangles, as established by Euclid, have always been considered as legitimate elements of proof; so that, when in any figure two triangles occur, their relations may be used as steps in a demonstration. But, within the period of which I am speaking, other general geometrical relations, e. g., those of a pencil of rays, or of their intersection with a straight line, have been recognized as serving a similar purpose. With what extensive results this generalization has been attended, the "Géometrie Supérieure" of the late M. Chasles, and all the superstructure built on Anharmonic Ratio as a foundation, will be sufficient evidence.
Once more, the algebraical expression for a line or a plane involves two sets of quantities, the one relating to the position of any point in the line or plane, and the other relating to the position of the line or plane in space. The former set alone were originally considered variable, the latter constant. But as soon as it was seen that either set might at pleasure be regarded as variable, there was opened out to mathematicians the whole field of duality within geometry proper, and the theory of correlative figures which is destined to occupy a prominent position in the domain of mathematics.
Not unconnected with this is the marvelous extension which the transformation of geometrical figures has received very largely from Cremona and the Italian school, and which in the hands of our countrymen Hirst and the late Professor Clifford has already brought forth such abundant fruit. In this, it may be added, there lay—dormant, it is true, and long unnoticed—the principle whereby circular may be converted into rectilinear motion, and vice versa—a problem which, until the time of Peaucillier, seemed so far from solution, that one of the greatest mathematicians of the day thought that he had proved its entire impossibility. In the hands of Sylvester, of Kempe, and others, this principle has been developed into a general theory of link-work, on which the last word has not yet been said.
If time permitted, I might point out how the study of particular geometric figures, such as curves and surfaces, has been in many instances replaced by that of systems of figures infinite in number, and, indeed, of various degrees of infinitude. Such, for instance, are Plücker's complexes and congruences. I might describe also how Riemann taught us that surfaces need not present simple extension without thickness, but that, without losing their essential geometric character, they may consist of manifold sheets; and that our conception of space, and our power of interpreting otherwise perplexing algebraical expressions, become immensely enlarged.
Other generalizations might be mentioned, such as the principle of continuity, the use of imaginary quantities, the extension of the number of the dimensions of space, the recognition of systems in which the axioms of Euclid have no place. But as these were discussed in a recent address, I need not now do more than remind you that the germs of the great calculus of quaternions were first announced by their author, the late Sir W. R. Hamilton, at one of our meetings.
Passing from geometry proper to the other great branch of mathematical machinery, viz., algebra, it is not too much to say that within the period now in review there has grown up a modern algebra, which to our founders would have appeared like a confused dream, and whose very language and terminology would be as an unknown tongue.
Into this subject I do not propose to lead you far. But, as the progress which has been made in this direction is certainly not less than that made in geometry, I will ask your attention to one or two points which stand notably prominent.
In algebra we use ordinary equations involving one unknown quantity; in the application of algebra to geometry we meet with equations, representing curves or surfaces, and involving two or three unknown quantities respectively; in the theory of probabilities, and in other branches of research, we employ still more general expressions. Now, the modern algebra, originating with Cayley and Sylvester, regards all these diverse expressions as belonging to one and the same family, and comprises them all under the same general term "qualities." Studied from this point of view, they all alike give rise to a class of derivative forms, previously unnoticed, but now known as invariants, covariants, canonical forms, etc. By means of these, mathematicians have arrived not only at many properties of the quantics themselves, but also at their application to physical problems. It would be a long and perhaps invidious task to enumerate the many workers in this fertile field of research, especially in the schools of Germany and of Italy; but it is perhaps the less necessary to do so, because Sylvester, aided by a young and vigorous staff at Baltimore, is welding many of these results into a homogeneous mass in the classical memoirs which are appearing from time to time in the "American Journal of Mathematics."
In order to remove any impression that these extensions of algebra are merely barren speculations of ingenious intellects, I may add that many of these derivative forms, at least in their elementary stages, have already found their way into the text-books of mathematics; and one class in particular, known by the name of determinants, is now introduced as a recognized method of algebra, greatly to the convenience of all those who become masters of its use.
In the extension of mathematics it has happened more than once that laws have been established so simple in form, and so obvious in their necessity, as scarcely to require proof. And yet their application is often of the highest importance in checking conclusions which have been drawn from other considerations, as well as in leading to conclusions which, without their aid, might have been difficult of attainment. The same thing has occurred also in physics; and notably in the recognition of what has been termed the "law of the conservation of energy."
Energy has been defined to be "the capacity, or power, of any body, or system of bodies, when in a given condition, to do a measurable quantity of work." Such work may either change the condition of the bodies in question, or it may affect other bodies; but in either case energy is expended by the agent upon the recipient in performance of the work. The law then states that the total amount of energy in the agents and recipients taken together remains unaltered by the changes in question.
Now, the principle on which the law depends is this—"that every kind of change among the bodies may be expressed numerically in one standard unit of change," viz., work done, in such wise that the result of the passage of any system from one condition to another may be calculated by mere additions and subtractions, even when we do not know how the change came about. This being so, all work done by a system may be expressed as a diminution of energy of that system, and all work done upon a system as an accession of energy. Consequently, the energy lost by one system in performance of work will be gained by another in having work done upon it, and the total energy, as between the two systems, will remain unchanged.
There are two cases, or conditions, of energy which, although substantially the same, are for convenience regarded separately. These may be illustrated by the following example: Work may be done upon a body, and energy communicated to it, by setting it in motion, e. g., by lifting it against gravity. Suppose this to be done by a spring and detent; and suppose, further, the body, on reaching its highest point, to be caught so as to rest at that level on a support. Then, whether we consider the body at the moment of starting, or when resting on the support, it has equally received an accession of energy from the spring, and is therefore equally capable of communicating energy to a third body. But in the one case this is due to the motion which it has acquired, and in the other to the position at which it rests, and to its capability of falling again when the support is removed. Energy in the first of these states is called "Energy of Motion," or "Kinetic Energy," and that in the second state, "Energy of Position," or "Potential Energy." In the case supposed, at the moment of starting, the whole of the energy is kinetic; as the body rises, the energy becomes partly potential and partly kinetic; and when it reaches the highest point the energy has become wholly potential. If the body be again dropped, the process is reversed.
The history of a discovery, or invention, so simple at first sight, is often found to be more complicated the more thoroughly it is examined. That which at first seems to have been due to a single mind proves to have been the result of the successive action of many minds. Attempts more or less successful in the same direction are frequently traced out; and even unsuccessful efforts may not have been without influence on minds turned toward the same object. Lastly, also, germs of thought, originally not fully understood, sometimes prove in the end to have been the first stages of growth toward ultimate fruit. The history of the law of the conservation of energy forms no exception to this order of events. There are those who discern even in the writings of Newton expressions which show that he was in possession of some ideas which, if followed out in a direct line of thought, would lead to those now entertained on the subjects of energy and of work. But, however this may be, and whosoever might be reckoned among the earlier contributors to the general subject of energy, and to the establishment of its laws, it is certain that within the period of which I am now speaking, the names of Séguin, Clausius, Helmholtz, Mayer, and Colding, on the Continent, and those of Grove, Joule, Rankine, and Thomson, in this country, will always be associated with this great work.
I must not, however, quit this subject without a passing notice of a conclusion to which Sir William Thomson has come, and in which he is followed by others who have pursued the transformation of energy to some of its ultimate consequences. The nature of this will perhaps be most easily apprehended by reference to a single instance. In a steam-engine, or other engine, in which the motive power depends upon heat, it is well known that the source of power lies not in the general temperature of the whole, but merely on the difference of temperature between that of the boiler and that of the condenser. And the effect of the condenser is to reduce the steam issuing from the boiler to the same temperature as the condenser. When this is once done, no more work can be got out of the engine, unless fresh heat be supplied from an outside source to the boiler. The heat originally communicated to the boiler has become uniformly diffused, and the energy due to that difference is said to have been dissipated. The energy remains in a potential condition as regards other bodies; but as regards the engine, it is of no further use. Now, suppose that we regard the entire material universe as a gigantic engine, and that after long use we have exhausted all the fuel (in its most general sense) in the world; then all the energy available will have become dissipated, and we shall have arrived at a condition of things from which there is no apparent escape.
Professor Frankland has been so good as to draw up for me the following account of the progress of chemistry during the last half-century: Most of the elements had been discovered before 1830, the majority of the rarer elements since the beginning of the century. In addition to these the following five have been discovered, three of them by Mosander, viz.: lanthanum in 1839, didymium in 1842, and erbium in 1843. Ruthenium was discovered by Claus in 1843, and niobium by Rose in 1844. Spectrum analysis has added five to the list, viz.: cæsium and rubidium, which were discovered by Bunsen and Kirchhoff in 1860; thallium, by Crookes in 1861; indium, by Reich and Richter in 1863; and gallium, by Lecoq de Boisbaudran in 1875.
As regards theoretical views, the atomic theory, the foundation of scientific chemistry, had been propounded by Dalton (1804-1808). The three laws which have been chiefly instrumental in establishing the true atomic weights of the elements—the law of Avogadro (1811), that equal volumes of gases, under the same conditions of temperature and pressure, contain equal numbers of molecules; the law of Dulong and Petit (1819), that the capacities for heat of the atoms of the various elements are equal; and Mitscherlich's law of isomorphism (1819), according to which equal numbers of atoms of elements belonging to the same class may replace each other in a compound without altering the crystalline form of the latter—had been enunciated in quick succession; but the true application of these three laws., though in every case distinctly stated by the discoverers, failed to be generally made, and it was not till the rectification of the atomic weights by Cannizzaro, in 1858, that these important discoveries bore fruit.
In organic chemistry the views most generally held about the year 1830 were expressed in the radical theory of Berzelius. This theory, which was first stated in its electro-chemical and dualistic form by its author in 1817, received a further development at his hands in 1834, after the discovery of the benzoyl-radical by Liebig and Wöhler. In the same year (1834), however, a discovery was made by Dumas, which was destined profoundly to modify the electro-chemical portion of the theory, and even to overthrow the form of it put forth by Berzelius. Dumas showed that an electro-negative element, such as chlorine, might replace, atom for atom, an electro-positive element like hydrogen, in some cases without much alteration in the character of the compound. This law of substitution has formed a necessary portion of every chemical theory which has been proposed since its discovery, and its importance has increased with the progress of the science. It would take too long to enumerate all the theoretical views which have prevailed at various times during the past fifty years; hut the theory which along with the radical theory has exercised most influence on the development of the views now held, is the theory of types, first stated by Dumas (1839), and developed in a different form and amalgamated with the radical theory by Gerhardt and Williamson (18481852). It is, however, the less necessary to refer in detail to these views, seeing that in the now prevailing theory of atomicity we possess a generalization which, while greatly extending the scope of chemical science in its power of classifying known and predicting unknown facts, includes all that was valuable in the generalizations which preceded it. The study of the behavior of organo-metallic compounds in chemical reactions led to the conclusion that various metallic elements possess a definite capacity of saturation with regard to the number of atoms of other elements with which they can combine, and demonstrated this regularity of atom-fixing power in the case of zinc, tin, arsenic, and antimony. A serious obstacle, however, in the way of determining the true atomicities of the elements was the general employment of the old so-called equivalent weights, which were by most chemists confounded with the atomic weights. This difficulty was removed by the rectification of the atomic weights, which, though begun by Gerhardt as early as 1842, met for a long time with but little recognition, and was not completed till the subject was taken up by Cannizzaro in 1858. The law of atomicity has given to chemistry an exactness which it did not previously possess, and since its discovery and recognition chemical research has moved very much on the lines laid down by this law.
Chemists have been engaged in determining, by means of decompositions, the molecular architecture, or constitution as it is called, of various compounds, natural and artificial, and in verifying by synthesis the correctness of the views thus arrived at.
It was long supposed that an impassable barrier existed between inorganic and organic substances: that the chemist could make the former in his laboratory, while the latter could only be produced in the living bodies of animals or plants—requiring for their construction not only chemical attractions, but a supposed "vital force." It was not until 1828 that Wöhler broke down this barrier by the synthetic production of urea, and since his time this branch of science in the hands of Hofmann, Wurtz, Berthelot, Butlerow, and others, has made great strides.
Innumerable natural compounds have thus been produced in the laboratory—ranging from bodies of relatively simple constitution, such as the alcohols and acids of the fatty series, to bodies of such complex molecular structure as alizarine (the principal coloring-matter of madder), coumarine (the odoriferous principle of the Tonka bean), vanilline, and indigo. The problem of the natural alkaloids has also been attacked, in some cases with more than partial success. Methylconine, which occurs along with coninc in the hemlock, has been recently prepared artificially by Michael and Gundelach, this being the first instance of the synthesis of a natural alkaloid. A proximate synthesis of atropine, the alkaloid of the deadly nightshade, has been accomplished by Ladenburg. It seems further probable that at no distant date the useful alkaloids, such as quinine, may also be synthesized, inasmuch as quinoline, one of the products of the decomposition of quinine and of some of the allied bases, has recently been prepared by Skraup by a method which admits of its being obtained in any quantity.
Much also has been done in the way of building up compounds the existence of which was predicted by theory. Indeed, the extent to which hitherto undiscovered substances can be predicated is doubtless the greatest triumph achieved by chemists during the past fifty years. As yet, however, only the statical side of chemistry has been developed. While the physicist has been engaged in tracing, for the gaseous condition at least, the paths of the molecules and calculating their velocities, the chemist, whose business is with the atoms within the molecule, can point to no such scientific conquests. All that he knows concerning the intramolecular atoms and all that he expresses in his constitutional formulæ is, the particular relation of union in which each of these atoms stands to the others—which of them are directly united (as he expresses it) to other given atoms, and which of them are in indirect union. Of the relative positions in space occupied by these atoms, and of their modes of motion, he is absolutely ignorant. In like manner, in a chemical reaction, the initial and final conditions of the reacting substances are known, but the intermediate stages—the modes of change—are for the most part unexplained.
Owing to a feeling that no number, however great, of successfully solved problems of constitutional chemistry (as at present understood), and no number of syntheses, however brilliant, of natural compounds could raise chemistry above the statical stage—that the solution of the dynamical problem can not be arrived at by purely chemical means—has led many chemists to approach the subject from the physical side. The results which the physico-chemical methods, as exemplified in the laws already alluded to of Dulong and Petit, Avogadro, and Mitscherlich, have yielded in the past, offer the best guarantee of their success in the future. And the advantages of many of the physical methods are obvious. Every purely chemical examination—whether proximate or ultimate—of a compound, presupposes the destruction of the substance under examination: the chemist "murders to dissect." But observations on the action of a substance on the rays of light, on the relative volumes occupied by molecular quantities of a substance, on its velocity of transpiration in the liquid or gaseous state—these teach us the habits of the living substance. The rays of light which have threaded their way between the molecules of a body have undergone, in contact with these molecules, various specific and measurable changes, the nature and amount of which are assuredly conditioned by the mass, form, and other properties of the molecules: the plane of polarization has been caused to rotate; a particular degree of refraction has been imparted; or rays of certain wave-lengths have been removed by absorption, their absence being manifested by bands in the absorption spectrum of the substance. The volumes occupied by molecular quantities are dependent partly on the size of the molecules and partly on that of the intermolecular spaces.
The duty of the physical chemist is to endeavor to co-ordinate his physical observations with the known constitution of compounds as already determined by the pure chemist. This endeavor has in various branches of physical chemistry been to some extent successful. Le Bel has found that among organic compounds those only possess action on the plane of polarized light which contain at least one asymmetric carbon-atom—that is to say, a carbon-atom which is united to four different atoms or groups of atoms. The researches of Landolt, of Gladstone, and of Brühl on the specific refraction of organic liquids, have shown that from the known constitution of a liquid organic compound it is possible to calculate its specific refraction. Noel Hartley, in an examination of the absorption spectra of organic liquids for the ultra-violet rays, has demonstrated that certain molecular groupings are represented by particular absorption bands, and this line of inquiry has been extended with very interesting results to the ultra-red rays by Abney and Festing. It is obvious that these methods may in turn be employed to determine the unknown constitution of substances. The same holds true of the investigations of Kopp with regard to the molecular volumes of liquids at their boiling-points, in which he has established the remarkable fact that some elements always possess the same atomic volume in combination, whereas, in the case of certain other elements, the atomic volume varies in a perfectly definite manner with the mode of combination. This investigation has lately been extended with the best results by Thorpe and by Ramsay. Thermo-chemistry, also, which for a long time, at least as regards that portion which relates to the heat of formation of compounds, consisted chiefly of a collection of single equations, each containing three unknown quantities, is beginning to be interpreted by Julius Thomsen, whose experimental work in this field is well known. Many other methods of physico-chemical research are being successfully prosecuted at the present day, but it would go beyond the bounds of this summary even to enumerate these.
The concordant results obtained by these widely differing methods show that those chemists who have devoted themselves, frequently amid the ridicule of their more practical brethren, to ascertaining by purely chemical methods the constitution of compounds, have not labored in vain. But the future doubtless belongs to physical chemistry.
In connection with the rectification of the atomic weights it may be mentioned that a so-called natural system of the elements has been introduced by Mendelejeff (1869), in which the properties of the elements appear as a periodic function of their atomic weights. By the aid of this system it has been possible to predict the properties and atomic weights of undiscovered elements, and in the case of known elements to determine many atomic weights which had not been fixed by any of the usual methods. Several of these predictions have been verified in a remarkable manner. A periodicity in the atomic weights of elements belonging to the same class had been pointed out by Newlands about four years before the publication of Mendelejeff's memoir.
In mechanical science the progress has not been less remarkable than in other branches. Indeed, to the improvements in mechanics we owe no small part of our advance in practical civilization, and of the increase of our national prosperity during the last fifty years. This immense development of mechanical science has been to a great extent a consequence of the new processes which have-been adopted in the manufacture of iron, for the following data with reference to which I am indebted to Captain Douglas Galton. About 1830, Neilson introduced the hot blast in the smelting of iron. At first a temperature of 600º or 700º Fahr. was obtained, but Cowper subsequently applied Siemens's regenerative furnace for heating the blast, chiefly by means of fumes from the black furnace, which were formerly wasted; and the temperature now practically in use is as much as 1,400º, or even more: the result is a very great economy of fuel and an increase of the output. For instance, in 1830, a blast-furnace with the cold blast would probably produce 130 tons per week, whereas now 600 tons a week are readily obtained.
Bessemer, by his brilliant discovery, which he first brought before the British Association at Cheltenham in 1856, showed that iron and steel could be produced by forcing currents of atmospheric air through fluid pig-metal, thus avoiding for the first time the intermediate process of puddling iron, and converting it by cementation into steel. Similarly, by Siemens's regenerative furnace, the pig-metal and iron ore are converted directly into steel, especially mild steel for shipbuilding and boilers; and Whitworth, by his fluid compression of steel, is enabled to produce steel in the highest condition of density and strength of which the metal is capable. These changes, by which steel can be produced direct from the blast-furnace instead of by the more cumbersome processes formerly in use, have been followed by improvements in manipulation of the metal.
The inventions of Cort and others were known long before 1830, but we were then still without the most powerful tool in the hands of the practical metallurgist, viz., Nasmyth's steam-hammer. Steel can be produced as cheaply as iron was formerly; and its substitution for iron, as railway material and in ship-building, has resulted in increased safety in railway-traveling, as well as in economy, from its vastly greater durability. Moreover, the enlarged use of iron and steel, which has resulted from these improvements in its make, has led to the adoption of mechanical means to supersede hand-labor in almost every branch of trade and agriculture, by which the power of production has been increased a hundred-fold, while at the same time much higher precision has been obtained. Sir Joseph Whitworth has done more than any one else to perfect the machinery of this country by the continued efforts he has made, during nearly half a century, to introduce accuracy into the standards of measurement in use in workshops. He tells us that, when he first established his works, no two articles could be made accurately alike or with interchangeable parts. He devised a measuring apparatus, by which his workmen in making standard gauges are accustomed to take measurements to the a 20000 of an inch.
In its more immediate relation to the objects of this Association, the increased importance of iron and steel has led to numerous scientific investigations into their mechanical properties and into the laws which govern their strength; into the proper distribution of the material in construction; and into the conditions which govern the friction and adhesion of surfaces. The names of Eaton Hodgkinson, Fairbairn, Barlow, Rennie, Scott Russell, Willis, Fleeming Jenkin, and Galton, are prominently associated with these inquiries.
The introduction of iron has, moreover, had a vast influence on the works of both the civil and military engineer. Before 1830, Telford had constructed an iron suspension turnpike-road bridge of 560 feet over the Menai Straits; but this bridge was not adapted to the heavy weights of locomotive-engines. At the present time, with steel at his command, Mr. Fowler is engaged in carrying out the design for a railway-bridge over the Forth, of two spans of 1,700 feet each that is to say, of nearly one third of a mile in length. In artillery, bronze has given place to wrought-iron and steel; the 68-pound shot, which was the heaviest projectile fifty years ago, with its range of about 1,200 yards, is being replaced by a shot of nearly a quarter-ton weight, with a range of nearly five miles; and the armor-plates of ships are daily obtaining new developments.
But it is in railroads, steamers, and the electric telegraph, that the progress of mechanical science has most strikingly contributed to the welfare of man. To the latter I have already referred. As regards railways, the Stockton and Darlington Railway was opened in 1825; but the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, perhaps the first truly passenger line, dates from 1830; while the present mileage of railways is over 200,000 miles, costing nearly £4,000,000,000 sterling. It was not until 1838 that the Sirius and Great Western first steamed across the Atlantic. The steamer, in fact, is an excellent epitome of the progress of the half-century; the paddle has been superseded by the screw; the compound has replaced the simple engine; wood has given place to iron, and iron in its turn to steel. The saving in dead weight, by this improvement alone, is from ten to sixteen per cent. The speed has been increased from nine knots to fifteen, or even more. Lastly, the steam-pressure has been increased from less than five pounds to seventy pounds per square inch, while the consumption of coal has been brought down from five or six pounds per horse-power to less than two. It is a remarkable fact that not only is our British shipping rapidly on the increase, but it is increasing relatively to that of the rest of the world. In 1860 our tonnage was 5,700,000 against 7,200,000; while it may now be placed as 8,500,000 against 8,200,000; so that considerably more than half the whole shipping of the world belongs to this country.
If I say little with reference to economic science and statistics, it is because time, not materials, is wanting.
I scarcely think that, in the present state of the question, I can be accused of wandering into politics if I observe that the establishment of the doctrine of free trade as a scientific truth falls within the period under review.
In education some progress has been made toward a more rational system. When I was at a public school^ neither science, modern languages, nor arithmetic formed any part of the school system. This is now happily changed. Much, however, still remains to be done. Too little time is still devoted to French and German, and it is much to be regretted that even in some of our best schools they are taught as dead languages. Lastly, with few exceptions, only one or two hours on an average are devoted to science. We have, I am sure, none of us any desire to exclude or discourage literature. What we ask is that, say, six hours a week each should be devoted to mathematics, modern languages, and science, an arrangement which would still leave twenty hours for Latin and Greek. I admit the difficulties which schoolmasters have to contend with; nevertheless, when we consider what science has done and is doing for us, we can not but consider that our present system of education is, in the words of the Duke of Devonshire's commission, little less than a national misfortune.
In agriculture the changes which have occurred in the period since 1831 have been immense. The last half-century has witnessed the introduction of the modern system of subsoil drainage founded on the experiments of Smith, of Deanston. The thrashing and drilling machines were the most advanced forms of machinery in use in 1831. Since then there have been introduced the steam-plow; the mowing machine; the reaping-machine, which not only cuts the corn but binds it into sheaves; while the steam-engine thrashes out the grain and builds the ricks. Science has thus greatly reduced the actual cost of labor, and yet it has increased the wages of the laborer.
It was to the British Association, at Glasgow, in 1841, that Baron Liebig first communicated his work "On the Application of Chemistry to Vegetable Physiology," while we have also from time to time received accounts of the persevering and important experiments which Mr. Lawes, with the assistance of Dr. Gilbert, has now carried on for more than forty years at Rothamsted, and which have given so great an impulse to agriculture by directing attention to the principles of cropping, and by leading to the more philosophical application of manures.
I feel that, in quitting Section F so soon, I owe an apology to our fellow-workers in that branch of science, but I doubt not that my shortcomings will be more than made up for by the address of their excellent President, Mr. Grant-Duff, whose appointment to the governorship of Madras, while occasioning so sad a loss to his friends, will unquestionably prove a great advantage to India, and materially conduce to the progress of science in that country.
Moreover, several other subjects of much importance, which might have been referred to in connection with these latter sections, I have already dealt with under their more purely scientific aspect.
Indeed, one very marked feature in modern discovery is the manner in which distinct branches of science have thrown, and are throwing, light on one another. Thus the study of geographical distribution of living beings, to the knowledge of which our late general secretary, Mr. Sclater, has so greatly contributed, has done much to illustrate ancient geography. The existence of high northern forms in the Pyrenees and Alps points to the existence of a period of cold when Arctic species occupied the whole of habitable Europe. Wallace's line—as it has been justly named after that distinguished naturalist—points to the very ancient separation between the Malayan and Australian regions; and the study of corals haslight upon the nature and significance of atolls and barrier-reefs.
In studying the antiquity of man, the archæologist has to invoke the aid of the chemist, the geologist, the physicist, and the mathematician. The recent progress in astronomy is greatly due to physics and chemistry. In geology the composition of rocks is a question of chemistry; the determination of the boundaries of the different formations falls within the limits of geography; while paleontology is the biology of the past.
And now I must conclude. I fear I ought to apologize to you for keeping you so long, but still more strongly do I wish to express my regret that there are almost innumerable researches of great interest and importance which fall within the last fifty years (many even among those with which our Association has been connected) to which I have found it impossible to refer. Such for instance are, in biology alone, Owen's memorable report on the homologies of the vertebrate skeleton; Carpenter's laborious researches on the microscopic structure of shells; the reports on marine zoology by Allman, Forbes, Jeffreys, Spence Bate, Norman, and others; on Kent's Cavern by Pengelly; those by Duncan on corals; Woodward on crustaceæ; Carruthers, Williamson, and others on fossil botany, and many more. Indeed, no one who has not had occasion to study the progress of science throughout its various departments can have any idea how enormous—how unprecedented—the advance has been.
Though it is difficult, indeed impossible, to measure exactly the extent of the influence exercised by this Association, no one can doubt that it has been very considerable. For my own part, I must acknowledge with gratitude how much the interest of my life has been enhanced by the stimulus of our meetings, by the lectures and memoirs to which I have had the advantage of listening, and, above all, by the many friendships which I owe to this Association.
Summing up the principal results which have been attained in the last half-century we may mention (over and above the accumulation of facts) the theory of evolution, the antiquity of man, and the far greater antiquity of the world itself; the correlation of physical force and the conservation of energy; spectrum analysis and its application to celestial physics; the higher algebra and the modern geometry; lastly, the innumerable applications of science to practical life as, for instance, in photography, the locomotive-engine, the electric telegraph, the spectroscope, and most recently the electric light and the telephone.
To science again we-owe the idea of progress. The ancients, says Bagehot, "had no conception of progress; they did not so much as reject the idea; they did not even entertain it." It is not, I think, now going too far to say that the true test of the civilization of a nation must be measured by its progress in science. It is often said, however, that great and unexpected as the recent discoveries have been, there are certain ultimate problems which must ever remain unsolved. For my part, I would prefer to abstain from laying down any such limitations. When Park asked the Arabs what became of the sun at night, and whether the sun was always the same, or new each day, they replied that such a question was childish, and entirely beyond the reach of human investigation. I have already mentioned that, even as lately as 1842, so high an authority as Comte treated as obviously impossible and hopeless any attempt to determine the chemical composition of the heavenly bodies. Doubtless there are questions, the solution of which we do not as yet see our way even to attempt; nevertheless the experience of the past warns us not to limit the possibilities of the future.
But, however this may be, though the progress made has been so rapid, and though no similar period in the world's history has been nearly so prolific of great results, yet, on the other hand, the prospects of the future were never more encouraging. We must not, indeed, shut our eyes to the possibility of failure: the temptation to military ambition; the tendency to over-interference by the state; the spirit of anarchy and socialism—these and other elements of danger may mar the fair prospects of the future. That they will succeed, however, in doing so, I can not believe. I can not but feel confident hope that fifty years hence, when perhaps the city of York may renew its hospitable invitation, my successor in this chair—more competent, I trust, that I have been to do justice to so grand a theme—will have to record a series of discoveries even more unexpected and more brilliant than those which I have, I fear so imperfectly, attempted to bring before you this evening. For one great lesson which science teaches is, how little we yet know, and how much we have still to learn.
- Presidential address before the York Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.