Page:ONCE A WEEK JUL TO DEC 1860.pdf/214

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206
[August 18, 1860.
ONCE A WEEK.

By degrees the delusion passes away from the minds of children in a civilised country, that every object has a conscious or at least a sensitive life of its own; but even in our own land we cannot say that all persons get beyond this stage. There is an Irish island where a stone, shaped like a short pillar, is actually worshipped. The women periodically dress it in a woollen petticoat or wrapper; and then the men pray to it to send them wrecks! This is the Fetishism of the rude African and low Hindoo. Our children are led up out of it; but the wild Irish out in the Western main, and the Africans in Soudan, have hitherto rested in that primitive state.

Next, we supposed each object to be a complete, individual thing,—a unit which we had only to take as it stood. We made no inquiry about it, because we did not conceive that there was anything to inquire about. A man was that man: a table was that table: air was air, and water water: and we could count existing things, and make an inventory of the furniture of nature, if only we could count up to the sum of such a multitude. It was an advance when we understood that anything was made up of necessary parts; and yet more when those parts were seen to grow out of each other. A tree appeared in a somewhat fresh light when we were shown that it had grown out of a seed or a root, and that the buds and leaves grew out of the wood. At this stage we were capable of some serviceable notion of the structure of the human or other animal body, so as to perceive what the heart and lungs were for, and how the limbs were moved, and what a delicate structure the eye is. Still, all this advance threw no light at all upon the constitution of bodies, and caused no inquiry into their material, and what was going on there. The regions of Physics and Chemistry were not yet even dreamed of. A table was still a table, with nothing more to be said about it; and the air, and the water, and the fire were in the same case. To be sure, there were incidents which might puzzle us. When a felled tree in time began to rot, that was no great wonder. The damp from the ground might well cause fungi to grow; and it was natural that insects should infest it. The case of a decayed cheese was not much more difficult. Somebody had told us that the mould was a vegetation, like the moss on a damp wall: and as for the mites, some creature or other must have laid eggs in the cheese. These sorts of decay might be accounted for: but what were we to say to milk and broth and beer turning sour? If we were told that it was the heat that did it, or time (standing too long), we could only take it as a fact to be believed because everybody said so, and not from any understanding how it was.

There may have been different ways of first obtaining the notion that the universe was not an abode furnished with articles large and small, each complete and unchanging after being once made till it was worn out; but an infinite region so all alive with ever-acting forces that no atom remains for one second of time unaffected by some of those forces; so that forms which appear to us rigid, and substances which seem to us hard and impenetrable, are, in fact, incessantly fluctuating, falling away, rushing together, subject to eternal change and mutation, never pausing, while so silent and invisible as to be concealed from us till reason opens our senses to the truth. At the beginning of the disclosure, we can manage the mechanical facts before we know what to make of the chemical. We can take in and believe any marvels about the changes in the structure and position of bodies caused by the operation of forces. We ignorantly fancy we know what forces must be, and can imagine anything that is set before us that is at all in analogy with what we ourselves can do by exertions of force. We can blow feathers, and knock billiard balls, and produce a vacuum (or what we call so) in tubes, and pull india-rubber, and so forth: and thus some of the leading ideas of Physics are easily received, and, while making a considerable impression, leave room for a deeper. It was a prodigious gain to have heard about the solar system; and, as wiser people have done before us, we adopted the terms “gravitation,” “heat” (which we called “caloric”), as meaning actual principles or agents, and went on very pleasantly accounting for everything we saw or felt that was wrought by “forces” or “elements.” A great entertainment was opened to us in this way; and our minds had certainly expanded in a very desirable way. But all that we had gained in amusement, all the benefit of new conceptions about mechanical action, and the relation of different bodies to each other, was a mere introduction to the mental changes wrought by the first conception of chemical action. That there should be constant action on the form and arrangement of bodies was a wonderful revelation; but how immeasurably more astonishing was the notion of change in substance itself! Under this view we saw all nature always melting, flowing, dissolving, recomposing,—till the whole frame, and every object in it, seemed to our mind’s eye fluid and transparent, whirling and spinning with eternal movement in every particle, and each form losing its limits, and its materials blending with forces that have no form, but pass through all to work upon substance. But I must stop; or inexperienced readers may fancy the first glimpse of science is the last of reason. It must suffice, then, that the whole aspect and notion of nature are changed into a scene of intense life and utterly new beauty by the disclosure of the mere object and scope of natural philosophy, and especially of Chemistry. It does not follow from this that Chemistry is the highest branch of natural philosophy, but only that it is the most striking at the first moment to minds to which all science is new and strange.

It is not surprising that natural philosophers should have been eminent men in every stage of human society. A man who was not frightened at an eclipse when his neighbours were frantic with terror was a distinguished man; and when he could foretell one, he became preter-human. A man who could measure time and height by a shadow, or turn one substance into another in a crucible, or create new arts by his science, was sometimes a miracle-worker, sometimes a sorcerer, sometimes a sage, sometimes a beloved teacher;