Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/November 1872/Sea, Sunlight and Sky

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THERE are many ways in which men have looked at life, the higher kind of life, that ideal which each of us forms in his own mind, to which we each hope that we are always tending. But all these various ideas may for the most part be grouped under two heads: the Ideal of Rest and the Ideal of Work. "Rest, rest!" said a brave old German worker, "shall I not have Eternity to rest in?" That represents one view. "Work, work!" said another; "must I not work now, that I may the better work in Eternal Life?" That represents the other. But, without entering upon the somewhat transcendental question of a future life, these ideas and aspirations have a meaning and reality even in the life which we now live. How do we hope to spend the leisure which old age may some day bring? Or, nearer still, when the day's work is done, and the day itself is not quite spent; or when such holiday as may befall each of us comes round, how do we hope to spend the time? Do we long for mere rest, for that

In which it seemed always afternoon?"

Do we desire to sit us

"down upon the yellow sand
Between the sun and moon upon the shore,"

and sing with the lotus-eaters:

"All things have rest; why should we toil alone,
Nor steep our brows in slumber's holy balm,
Nor hearken what the inner spirit sings.
There is no joy but calm?"

Or do we rather with Ulysses say:

"How dull to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Too little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some [few] suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought."

To which of these two ideals I myself lean has perhaps already betrayed itself; and that being so, I shall venture to consider your presence here a proof that, for this evening at least, you side with me, and that you are willing to spend an hour of your leisure in an intellectual effort to see a little deeper into those phenomena which Nature in this place and at this season displays with such profusion and splendor.

But at the outset I must warn you that we are met by a difficulty, for the surmounting of which you must rely upon yourselves rather than upon me. It is this: the phenomena to which I propose to draw your attention, although taking place nearly every day, and all day long, and in almost every direction, are veiled from our eyes; and it is only by the use of special appliances to aid our eyes that they can be made visible. It will be my business to supply these appliances, and, reproducing on such scale as may be possible within these four walls the optical processes which are going on in the sea and sky outside, to exhibit the hidden phenomena of which I am speaking. But it must be your part to transport yourselves mentally from the mechanism of the lecture-room to the operations of Nature, and by a "scientific use of the imagination" (to adopt what has now become a household word at these meetings) to connect the one with the other.

Now the main point in question is this: that light, when subjected to the very ordinary processes of reflection from smooth surfaces, such as a window, a mahogany table, or the sea itself, or when scattered to us from the deep clear sky, undergoes in many cases some very peculiar changes, the character and causes of which we have come here to investigate. The principal appliance which will be used to detect the existence of such changes, as well as to examine their nature, consists of this piece of Iceland spar, called from the man who first constructed a compound block of the kind—a Nicol's prism, and this plate of quartz or rock crystal; both of which, as you will observe when the light passes through them, are clear, transparent, and colorless, and both of which transmit the direct light from the electric lamp with equal facility, however they may be turned round about the beam of light as an axis.

If, however, instead of allowing the beam to fall directly upon the Nicol, we first cause it to be reflected from this plate of glass, we shall find that the process of reflection has put the light into a new condition. The light is no longer indifferent to the rotation of the Nicol; in one position of the Nicol the light passes as before, but as the instrument is turned round the light gradually fades, and when it is turned through a right angle the light is extinguished. Beyond this position the light reappears, and the same changes of fading and revival are observed in the light for every right angle through which the instrument is turned.

But these phenomena are susceptible of a very beautiful modification by the interposition of this plate of quartz between the reflecting surface and the Nicol. The changes in the light are no longer mere alterations of brightness, but exhibit a succession of colors resembling in their main features those of the rainbow or spectrum.

The peculiar condition to which light must be brought in order that these phenomena may be produced is called polarization; and, although an explanation of its nature must be reserved until later, I beg you to notice that it is effected in this instance by reflection from a plate of glass. A similar effect is produced if light be reflected from many other substances, such as the leaves of trees, particularly ivy, mahogany furniture, windows, shutters, and often roofs of houses, oil-paintings, etc., and last, but not least, the surface of water. In each of these cases the alternations of light and darkness are most strongly marked, and the colors (if a quartz plate be used) are most vivid, or, in technical language, the polarization is most complete, when the light is reflected from each substance at a particular angle. In proportion as the inclination of the light deviates from this angle the colors become fainter, until, when it deviates very greatly, all trace of polarization at last disappears. Without occupying the time necessary to shift our apparatus so as to exhibit this with the glass plate, we may alter the reflecting surface from glass to water, and, by projecting on the screen the beautiful phenomena of liquid waves, make visible the different degrees of polarization produced at the variously-inclined portions of the surfaces of those waves. A tea-tray will serve as well as any thing else to form our little sea, and a periodic tap at one corner will cause ripple enough for our present purpose. The waves now appear bright on the screen, and, although brighter in some parts than in others, they are nowhere entirely dark. But on turning round the Nicol the contrast of light and darkness becomes much stronger than before. Here and there the light is absolutely extinguished; in these parts the polarization is complete, in others incomplete in various degrees. And if the quartz plate be again introduced we have the beautiful phenomena of iris-colored rings playing over the surface of our miniature sea.

Now, that which you see here produced by our lamp and tea-tray, you may see any day under the bright sky of this southern coast. By using an apparatus such as we have here, or a simpler one which I will immediately describe, you may bring out for yourselves these phenomena of color, and thereby detect the profusion of polarization which Nature sheds around us. But, before describing it, there is one peculiar feature of all these experiments which must be noticed namely, that the same results would be produced if we changed the positions of the lamp and the screen. The light which is now polarized by the glass or the water, and examined by the Nicol, might equally well be polarized by the Nicol and examined by the glass or the water. And, therefore, if we find that any contrivance will serve for the one purpose, we may conclude that it will serve equally well for the other.

And now a word about that simpler apparatus. When light falls upon a transparent substance, part is reflected, part transmitted. If, therefore, the reflected part is polarized (and you have already seen that this is sometimes the case), it is not surprising that the transmitted part should be so also. And further, if the polarization by a single reflection or transmission is incomplete, it will become more and more complete by a repetition of the processes. This being so, if we take a pile of glass plates—say half a dozen, more or less, the thinner the better and hold them obliquely before our eye at an angle of about 30 (say one-third of a right angle) to the direction in which we are looking, we shall have all that is necessary to detect the presence of polarization; and if, further, we hold a piece of talc or mica, such as is commonly used as a cover to the globes of gas-burners, beyond the pile of plates, color will be produced in the same general manner as with the quartz, although with some essential difference in detail.

Suppose that we now turn our attention from the sea to the sky, and that on a clear, bright day we sweep the heavens with our apparatus, or polariscope, as it is called, we shall find traces of polarization colors brought out in a great many directions. But if we observe more closely we shall find that the most marked effects are produced in directions at right angles to that of the sun, when, in fact, we are looking across the direction of the solar beams. Thus, if the sun were just rising in the east or setting in the west, the line of most vivid effect would lie on a circle traced over the heavens from north to south. If the sun were in the zenith, or immediately overhead, the most vivid effects would be found round the horizon; while at intermediate hours the circle would shift round at the same rate as the clock, so as always to retain its direction at right angles to that of the sun.

Now, what is it that can produce this effect—or what even produces the light from all parts of a clear sky? The firmament is not a solid sphere or canopy, as was once supposed; it is clear, pure space, with no contents, save a few miles of the atmosphere of our earth, and beyond that the impalpable fluid or ether, as it is called, which is supposed to pervade all space, and to transmit light from the further limits of the stellar universe. But, apart from this ether, which is certainly inoperative to produce the sky appearance as we see it, a very simple experiment will suffice to show that a diffusion, or, as it has been better called, a scattering of light, is due to the presence of small particles in the air. If a beam from the electric lamp, or from the sun if we had it, be allowed to pass the room, its track becomes visible, as is well known by its reflection from the motes or floating bodies, in fact by the dust in the air. But if we clear the air of dust, as I now do by burning it with a spirit-lamp placed underneath, the beam disappears from the parts so cleared, and the space becomes dark. If, therefore, the air were absolutely pure and devoid of matter foreign to it, the azure of the sky would be no longer seen, and the heavens would appear black; the illumination of objects would be strong and glaring on the one side, and on the other their shadows would be deep, and unrelieved by the diffused light to which we are accustomed.

Now, setting aside the dust, of which we may hope that there is but little on the downs behind your town, or out to sea in front, there are always minute particles of water floating in the atmosphere. These vary in size from the great rain-drops which fall to earth on a sultry day, through the intermediate forms of mist and of fine, fleecy cloud, to the absolutely invisible minuteness of pure aqueous vapor which is present in the brightest of skies. It is these particles which scatter the solar rays, and suffuse the heavens with light. And it is a curious fact, established by Prof. Tyndall while operating with minute traces of gaseous vapors (which I can only notice in passing, because it belongs only in part to our present subject), that while coarse particles scatter rays of every color equally—in other words, scatter white light—finer particles scatter fewer rays from the red end of the spectrum, while the finest scatter only those from the blue end. And, in accordance with this law, clouds are white, clear sky is blue.

But besides this fact, viz., that light scattered laterally from fine particles is blue, the same philosopher perceived that light so scattered is polarized; and by that observation he again connected the celestial phenomena described above with laboratory experiments.

By a slight modification of his experiment, due to Prof. Stokes, I hope to make this visible to the audience. It will probably be in your recollection that when polarized light passed through a Nicol, its intensity is unaltered when the Nicol is in one position, but it is destroyed when it is in another at right angles to the first. I now pass the beam from the electric lamp through a tube of water containing a few drops of mastic dissolved in alcohol. The mixture so formed holds fine particles of mastic in a state of suspension; these scatter the light laterally, so as to be visible, I hope, to the entire audience. And if we were to examine with a Nicol this scattered light, we should find the phenomena of polarization. But, better still, we can cause the light to pass through the Nicol before being scattered, and produce the same effect, not only upon the particular part to which our eye is directed, but upon the whole body of scattered light. As the Nicol is turned, the light seen laterally begins to fade; and when the instrument has been turned through a right angle, the only parts remaining visible are those which are reflected from the larger impurities floating in the water independently of the mastic. An effect still more beautiful, and at the same time more instructive, can be produced by interposing, as was done in the case of reflection, a plate of quartz between the Nicol and the medium which causes polarization. The whole beam is now suffused with color, the tint of which changes, as did the tints on the waves, while the Nicol is turned round. And not only so, but while the Nicol remains at rest, the tints are to be seen scattered in a regular and definite order in different directions about the sides of the beam. This may be shown by reflecting from a looking-glass a side of the beam not visible directly, and by comparing the tint seen by reflection with that seen direct. But this radial distribution of colors may also be shown in a more striking manner, by putting together two half-plates of quartz of the kinds which have the property of distributing the colors in opposite orders, and by observing the result along the line of junction. The compound plate here used is known by the name of a biquartz, and affords one of the most delicate tests of the presence of polarized light. In this case, when the Nicol is turned round, the colors of the two halves follow one another in opposite orders; and as each series is completed twice in a revolution of the Nicol, the halves of the quartz will be of the same color four times in a revolution—twice of one color and twice of its complementary.

The colors which we have here seen are those which would be observed, as before remarked, upon examining a clear sky in a position at right angles to that of the sun: and the exact tint visible will depend upon the position in which we hold the Nicol, as well as upon that of the sun. Suppose, therefore, we direct our apparatus to that part of the sky which is all day long at right angles to the sun, that is, to the region about the north-pole of the heavens (accurately to the north-pole at the vernal and autumnal equinox); then, if on the one hand we turn the Nicol round, say in a direction opposite to that of the sun's motion, the colors will change in a definite order; if, on the other, we hold it fixed, and allow the sun to move round, the colors will change in a similar manner. And thus, in the latter case, we might conclude the position of the sun, or, in other words, the time of day, by the colors so shown. This is the principle of Sir Charles Wheatstone's polar clock; one of the few practical applications which this branch of polarization has yet found. The action of such a clock may be thus roughly shown: There is now projected upon the screen a dial-plate, in which the hours are arranged in their usual order, but are crowded together into half their usual space, viz., twelve hours occupy half instead of the entire circle. The inner part of the disk is covered with a plate of selenite (mica would serve the purpose equally well), which is capable of revolving about its centre, and which, as you see, in a particular position shows color more strongly than in any other. An hour-hand is roughly drawn upon the plate. The apparatus here used is furnished with two Nicol's prisms, the hinder one of which imitates the polarizing effect of the sun, while that in front is the instrument with which we should examine the north-pole of the sky. The whole is now so arranged that when the plate shows brightest color the hand points to XII., say noon. As the back Nicol is turned round, say as the sun begins to sink, the color fades; and when the plate is turned so as to restore the color, the hand points to I. Similarly, as the back Nicol is turned gradually farther, representing the passage of the sun westward during the afternoon, the position of the plate giving the strongest color, as indicated by the hand, corresponds to the successive hours of the dial; and when the Nicol has been turned through 90°, that is, when the sun has reached the horizon, the hand has moved from XII. to VI. In this way, as its inventor has remarked, a dial may be constructed which will work equally well in sunshine or in shade, or even when the sun itself is overcast, provided only that there be a patch of clear sky to the north.

Up to this point we have reproduced in an experimental fashion the general every-day phenomena, both celestial and terrestrial, which give rise to polarization; and we have given such general account of them as will serve to connect them together, and to show that they all belong to one system of laws affecting the nature of light. I should, however, regret, and I feel confident that you would share in that regret, if we were to leave the subject with its surface as it were merely scratched, and without any attempt to penetrate deeper into its substance. With your permission, therefore, we will devote such time as you may be still willing to grant me to a few elementary experiments in polarization, which, while certainly not less beautiful than those which you have already seen, will, perhaps, better illustrate the nature of the processes which we are now trying to investigate.

Polarized light, as indicated at the outset, is distinguished from common light by the presence of certain peculiarities not ordinarily found, and these peculiarities are to be detected only by means of special instruments. Light which has been reflected or transmitted at particular angles from various substances, light which has been scattered by small particles, is found to be in this peculiar condition. So likewise is light which has passed through this transparent piece of Iceland spar, or Nicol's prism, as it is called. Yet the light which has so passed through, and which is now projected on the screen, is to the unaided eye in no way different from the same light before its passage. Nevertheless, if we examine or analyze it by means of a second Nicol, we shall find the peculiarity of its condition revealed. For if either of the Nicols be turned gradually round (and remember that they are both transparent, colorless blocks of crystal) the light gradually fades until, when it has been turned through a right angle, the light is absolutely extinguished. On turning the Nicol farther the light revives, and afterward again fades, in such a manner that in a complete revolution the light is twice at its brightest, and twice is extinguished. Now, light is due to extremely small and rapid vibrations of a very subtle medium, which is supposed to pervade all space. The fact that vibrations (i. e., motions to and fro) in one direction can produce waves advancing in another will be familiar to all of you who have watched the movement of a cork floating on the sea. You will have noticed that the cork has simply moved up and down, or nearly so, while the waves have passed, as it were, under it, along the surface of the water.

Now, in order to make clearer to our minds how this wave-motion is produced, I will throw the electric light upon a machine devised for the purpose. You now see a horizontal row of knobs. As the slider is pushed in, the knobs at one end begin to rise in succession until each has in turn attained its greatest elevation. Immediately after reaching its highest position it begins to descend; so that the knobs first rise and then fall in regular succession, and continue to rise and fall in the same manner so long as the motion is continued. Each of the knobs, beginning from number one, is thus successively at the highest position, while at the same moment those immediately before and behind it are at lower positions. And as the knob which is at the highest position represents what we call the crest of the wave, the crest will pass successively along all the knobs, beginning from the first. Thus the waves are transmitted along the line, while the vibrations take place across it. If the line of knobs represent the direction of a ray, their motions will represent the vibrations and waves to which the light is supposed to be due. In ordinary light these vibrations may take place in any directions perpendicular to the ray; and the effect of the crystal of which the Nicol is made, is to restrict these vibrations to a particular direction. In the arrangement now before you the first Nicol causes the vibrations to be altogether horizontal. When the second Nicol is placed similarly to the first, it will obviously have no further effect upon the light; but if it be turned through an angle, it will transmit only vibrations inclined to the horizontal at that angle; that is, only such part of the original horizontal vibrations as can be brought into the inclined direction; in other words, it will transmit only part of the light. And as the inclination is increased the part of the light transmitted will diminish, until, when the second Nicol is in a position to transmit only vertical vibrations (i. e., when it has turned through a right angle), the light will vanish. Such is an explanation of this fundamental experiment in polarization on the principle of what is called the Wave Theory of Light; and I have ventured to give it in some detail, because it is the key to all others, and forms a starting-point for any who may desire to go further in the subject; and it is a remarkable feature in this Wave Theory of Light that the results of many other experimental combinations, to some of which we will now proceed, might be predicted upon the principles already laid down.

If a plate of crystal, such as selenite, be placed between the two Nicols, and turned round in its own plane, it will be found that in certain positions at right angles to one another no effect is produced. These may be called neutral positions. In all other positions the field is tinted with color, which is most brilliant when the plate has been turned through half a right angle from a neutral position. If one of the Nicols be turned, the selenite remaining still, the color will fade and entirely vanish when the Nicol has turned through half a right angle. After this position the complementary color will begin to appear, and will be brightest when the Nicol has completed a right angle.

The colors so produced depend upon the thickness of the plate; thus, if we take a plate of selenite merely split and not ground to a uniform thickness, we shall have a variety of tints indicating the thickness of each particular part; or we may, by a careful arrangement of suitable thicknesses, produce a colored pattern of delicacy and variety dependent only upon the skill with which the pieces have been worked.

A plate of the same crystal worked into a concave form is interesting as showing not only that the colors are dependent upon the thickness, but also that when, with an increasing or diminishing thickness of crystal, they have run through their cycle, they begin again; in other words, that the phenomenon is periodic. The field is then covered with a series of concentric rings, each of which is tinted with colors in a regular order.

In all these instances it is clear, from the experiments themselves, as well as from other experiments which form no part of our present subject, that the modifications which light undergoes are due to the internal structure of the crystals used. And it becomes a question of interest whether it be not possible, by some mechanical process, performed upon a non-cystalline substance, such as glass, so far to imitate a crystalline structure as to reproduce some of the optical results already shown. For this purpose let us take a bar of glass. On interposing it in its natural state between the Nicols when crossed, we find that no effect is produced in the dark field upon the screen. If, however, I merely press it as though with the intention of bending or breaking it, there will be at once brought about a condition of strain capable of affecting the vibrations of the ray falling upon it, to such a degree that some of them will find their way through the screen. And this result may be explained on precisely the same mechanical principles as in the case of the crystal. The effect may be heightened by placing the piece of glass in a vice, and screwing it up so as to bend or compress it to a greater degree than was possible by the hand alone. When this is done the direction and even the relative amount of torsion or compression of the different parts will be noted down as it were by the forms and hues of the figures thrown upon the screen.

The same kind of effect is shown by a piece of glass unevenly heated; but better still by glass which has been rapidly and unevenly cooled—unannealed glass, as it is called. In the pieces now before you, the outside, having become first cooled and solidified, has formed a rigid framework, to which all the interior has been obliged to conform. The interior parts have consequently undergone strains and pressures in different directions and in different degrees, in accordance with which each part has become the subject of a definite internal molecular arrangement; and these, by each in its own way, modifying the light which they transmit, give rise to the figures now before you.

I will conclude this series of experiments by one which, although not so beautiful or striking as those which you have already seen, is still interesting as bringing the subject home to us, and as the only application of polarization to commercial life which has yet been made. You will recollect the brilliant sequence of color shown by a quartz plate when submitted to polarized light. Well, the effects produced by that quartz plate are also produced by not only some other crystals, but, what is very remarkable, also by many of their solutions, e. g., by that of sugar. Into this tube I have put a solution of sugar; when it is placed before the lamp, polarization colors are shown on the screen, while the liquid itself remains colorless. If the solution be strengthened by the addition of more sugar, the tints vary; and, by accurate observation of the colors for different positions of the Nicol, the strength of the solution may be determined. An instrument constructed with proper means of registering these phenomena with accuracy is called a saccharometer.

These experiments may be multiplied almost indefinitely, and many a long winter evening might be spent in following polarization into other branches of science upon which it has something to say. For example, on examining a variety of vegetable and animal tissues, slices of wood, fronds of fern, scales of fish, hair, horn, mother-of-pearl, etc., with a suitable polariscope, we should find that they exhibit, internally, definite structural characters, capable of affecting the light, which they transmit in the same general way as do crystals. Or again, if we were to apply the principles established in an early part of this lecture to the conditions of sky, aspect, and time of day under which the photographer notices that he can obtain the most perfect image in his picture, we should find that they correspond with those which will furnish him with daylight in the most perfectly polarized condition.

Once more, among the many and curious phenomena which are visible during a solar eclipse, there is one which has longer than any other refused to lift its veil to the solicitations of science. I mean that halo of light, or corona as it is called, which extends beyond the dark disk of the moon, beyond those red flames of burning gas which the researches of Lockyer, of Janssen, and of others, have brought almost home to us, far away for millions of miles into distant regions of space. It was preëminently to investigate this phenomenon that the last Eclipse Expedition, furnished with funds by her Majesty's Government at the instance of this British Association, was sent out. And upon this investigation all the powers of the twin instruments of modern times, the spectroscope and the polariscope, were turned. The spectroscope could tell us the nature of the substances to the combustion of which the light is due, and even the conditions of temperature and of pressure under which the combustion is taking place; but it could not disentangle those parts of the phenomenon which are due to direct, from those which are due to reflected or to scattered light. It was for the polariscope to tell us whether the corona is a terrestrial effect—a mere glare, in fact, from our own atmosphere—or a true solar phenomenon; and in the latter issue, whether any of it is due to direct rays from incandescent matter, or all of it to rays originating in such incandescent matter below, but scattered laterally from gases which have cooled in the upper regions surrounding the sun. This question has not even yet received a definitive answer. But the brief account given within the last few days by Mr. Lockyer, in anticipation of his more complete digest of the voluminous reports from the various branches of the Expedition, seems to justify us in the conclusion that the corona is substantially a solar phenomenon due not to direct but to reflected or scattered rays.

The principle upon which the polariscope enables us to make these refined distinctions in such far-off phenomena is, after all, very simple. If the corona were due wholly to the effect of our atmosphere on such light as reaches us during a total eclipse of the sun, the whole of that light would be similarly affected, because it comes very nearly from the same part of the heavens. In other words, its polarization would be uniform, and the corona, when examined by a Nicol and quartz, would appear of a uniform color. But if the phenomenon were wholly due to the sun and its surroundings, the light would be affected, if at all, differently in different directions drawn outward (like spokes or radii of a wheel) from the sun as a centre. In other words, its polarization would be arranged spokewise, or, to use the technical term, radially; and the corona, when examined as before, would vary in color on different sides of the sun.

I have already drawn largely, perhaps too largely, upon your patience. But it will not have been without purpose that, besides witnessing the exhibition of a few experiments, you should have seen, at least in outline, what manner of thing a scientific investigation is. Well, whatever it is (and I will not weary you with a dry statement of its processes), the foundation of it must always be laid in careful, accurate, and intelligent observation of facts. And it is a consideration which may well stir the hearts of us outsiders of science, especially on an occasion when we come face to face with some of the greatest philosophers of our time, that any one of us, by practising his eye and riveting his attention, may contribute some natural fact, some fragment of knowledge, to the common stock. And surely has not this a particular significance and importance to us, at a period when, by shortening the hours of labor, more leisure, as we may hope, will be at the command of many? It will, I take it, be our own fault if we spend that leisure in walking through dry places seeking rest; for, to those who have the eyes to see and the spirit to discern, the world is neither dry nor barren; but rather, it is like the mountain as it appeared to the servant of the prophet when his eyes were opened, full of beauty and wonder, of mystery and power—full of hosts from all nations, striving manfully onward to promised lands of knowledge and of truth, and waging ceaseless warfare against ignorance and prejudice, and the long train of evils which are consequent upon them. And if, as the eventide of life draws on, our eye wax dim, and our step grow weary, so that we can no longer follow, we may still lay us down to rest in some unknown spot, in the full confidence that others will not be wanting to fill our places and gain fresh ground, though we may not live to see it.—Nature.