Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/November 1886/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
AN UNHAPPY "SURVIVAL"

CONSIDERING that we are drawing near to the end of the nineteenth century, and that the thought of our day is supposed, to be more or less dominated by the scientific spirit, it is extraordinary to find certain words and phrases in common use that imply a survival of modes of thought proper only to periods of barbarism. As an example we would cite the word "luck," and all the familiar phrases in which that word is employed. By common consent, apparently, "luck" is a thing not to be defined; but it is none the less spoken of—and that not only by the ignorant and uneducated—as something exercising a real and potent influence on the affairs of men. It is qualified as good or bad: the man who has good luck enjoys the protection, as it were, of a guardian angel; the man who has bad luck is haunted and pursued by a malignant spirit. It is not men only who can be "lucky" or "unlucky"; ships, houses, railway lines, special days, special numbers, special gems, etc., may likewise fall into either category. It is even fashionable to talk about "mascots"—a mascot being an object, animate or inanimate, that contributes to the good fortune of its possessor. Thus we read a few days ago in one of our daily papers of a dog that was, as the traveling public believed, the "mascot" of a steamboat. The rage for horseshoes, as "lucky" things to nail up on one's premises, is perhaps as great as ever it was. Fashionable society, particularly, seems disposed to fondle the superstitions that science is laboring to banish. The light has come into the world, but there are those who neither comprehend it nor wish to comprehend it. Even on the part of men of scientific mind we find occasionally an unguarded use of language suggesting a participation in beliefs which, if seriously presented, they would strenuously condemn. Thus that excellent writer, Mr. S. Laing, author of one of the most interesting and useful books of the present day, "Modern Science and Modern Thought," says, in the concluding chapter of that work, that, if a laboring-man has once saved ten pounds, he may, "if he has any luck, readily make the ten a hundred or even a thousand pounds." Now, we think this an unfortunate expression: the idea it suggests is one which the writer would be the first to repudiate; and yet it might easily be quoted as evidence that even a most enlightened scientific writer recognizes "luck" as an element of success.

There is little use, probably, in arguing with people whose belief in luck is sincere and deep-seated. Such must be left to the education of experience and the influences of the time; and, likely enough, even with these aids, they will not unlearn their errors. But there is another class who, when they use the terms "luck" and "lucky," do so in a careless, indolent manner, or at most with only a half-belief that the words have any real significance. To these it may be well to represent that to talk of "luck" is simply to shuffle out of the responsibility of assigning things to their proper causes; and that, while this careless way of talking may do no special harm to the intelligent man who knows better than to be imposed upon by his own phrases, it does harm to people of less intelligence by confirming them in their delusions. It might perhaps be affirmed, indeed, that no man, however intelligent, can altogether escape harm if he permits himself the habitual use of terms implying degraded forms of belief. There is such a thing as intellectual pitch, which people who want to have their thoughts clean should be careful not to handle.

The career of President Cleveland is often spoken of as a great example of "luck," and this in quarters where one would expect more rational discourse. We imagine that President Cleveland knows pretty well how to account for his so-called luck. He knows that it has been a matter of hard work, of close attention to business, and of presumed identification with a rising popular sentiment in favor of improved political methods. "But," some inveterate believer in luck may urge, "other men have fulfilled all these requirements, and yet have never become Presidents or even Governors. "Why should Cleveland, in particular, have been so successful?" We have here a fine example of one of those questions which, as Mr.Spencer says in his chapter on the "Data of Philosophy," imply very much more than the questioner is aware of. It implies that there are some reasons why the particular man who succeeded should not have succeeded; for, if there were no reasons to the contrary, what is the sense of asking why a man succeeded who had, admittedly, the qualifications for success? No conceivable action of social and political forces could raise every man, or even every qualified man, in a community to presidential rank; and yet some one man must, at every moment, hold that rank. What need, therefore, to suppose that a mysterious influence called "luck" has anything to do with determining the choice of the community? We see what we may call impersonal forces at work which, from their very nature and the conditions under which they operate, must result in the choice of one and the passing over of many others; and yet, when this inevitable result has been arrived at, some people are not satisfied until they have dragged in "luck" to account for it! There are thousands of events that can not be foreseen, the elements on which they depend being too complex for calculation; but none the less are they, and must they be, determined by natural causes. When we cant over a stick of timber, we can predict with certainty how it will fall; partly because the forces brought to bear upon it are of a simple character, and partly because their ratio to the work to be done—to the weight to be moved—is such that a little more or less will not affect the main result. But when we rattle dice in a box, the conditions are reversed: the forces now are many and complex, and are vast in relation to the work to be done. What will be their outcome in the position of the dice on the table, it is altogether beyond human skill to calculate. Were the stick of timber to be hurled from a volcano, carried along by a mighty torrent, or blown up by dynamite, its movements too would become incalculable; but the laws of Nature would not, on that account, lose their hold of it for one moment. Neither do the laws of Nature lose their hold of the dice. There is really no chance in either case; simply an inability on our part to foresee, and therefore to adjust ourselves in advance to, a result which the laws of Nature are working out. If we look closely into the matter, we shall see that all chance occurrences, or what we call such, are simply occurrences lying outside of the range of our calculations, and to which therefore we can only adjust ourselves after the event, whereas, in the case of things we foresee, we make, or may make, our adjustments beforehand. As knowledge increases, and methods of observation and reasoning improve, many things pass from the region of the incalculable to that of the calculable, and, to an infinitely enlarged intelligence, all that appears to us now as most completely fortuitous would appear as the direct and inevitable result of certain interactions of force.

The man who talks of luck, meaning anything by it, simply throws dust in his own eyes, and blinds himself to the natural and ascertainable causes on which many results of more or less importance to himself depend. He blames his luck, when he should blame some specific short-coming in his own conduct. He attributes another man's success to luck when he should attribute it to prudence, ability, or character. There is a vast amount of "luck" in being always ready to take advantage of opportunities. It is a happy thing to have one's lamp trimmed and burning; and a most unhappy thing to have to go off in quest of oil when the hour of the festivity arrives. Some would call the first a case of good luck, and the latter a case of bad luck; but we fail to see why such outlandish terms should be applied to preparedness on the one hand and unpreparedness on the other. As we have already said, we must make allowance in life for the unforeseen and uncontrollable; but the general law holds good that he who wisely calculates what admits of calculation, and wisely controls what admits of being controlled, will place his life and happiness on sound foundations. Such a man will have little reason to complain of luck and little disposition to praise it. We suggested, last month, a theme for teachers in our public schools; we suggest, this month, another—the folly of trusting to luck, and the almost equal folly, on the part of those who do not believe in luck, of talking as if they did.

 

 
THE RECENT EARTHQUAKE.

The earthquake of the night of the 31st of August, by which the city of Charleston, South Carolina, suffered severely, was generally felt throughout the States east of the Mississippi River, extending along the Atlantic coast from the Gulf of Mexico to Northern New England, and being perceptibly felt in several towns on the Mississippi. It was more strongly felt in the South than in the North, and the center of most violent manifestation was at Charleston, or near it. In other parts of the country the strength of the shock varied without any obvious rule, spots at a very short distance from one another feeling it in very different degrees. The time of the shock was fixed at about 9*54 Eastern standard time, while the gradual retardation in going west showed that the propagation of the movement was generally in that direction. At Charleston, the earthquake was extraordinarily severe. Many buildings were destroyed, the historic churches of St.Michael and St.Philip were ruined, between fifty and one hundred persons were killed, telegraphic communication was interrupted, and the streets were so filled with rubbish, or so dangerous in consequence of the imminence of tottering walls, that business was suspended for several days. Hardly a house in the city, it was said, escaped injury, and many were so shaken and cracked that a hard blow would bring them to the ground. The shock was equally severe at Summerville, where the whole business part of the town was wrecked, and several lives were lost. At Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River, the lenses in the lighthouse were broken, and the machinery of the lamps was disarranged, while the water was so agitated that the approach of a tidal wave was for a time apprehended. At Cleveland, Ohio, clocks whose pendulums swung east and west stopped at half-past nine, local time. The most coherent observations of the phenomenon were made at Washington in the Signal-Service Office, and by Mr.McGee, of the Geological Survey, and Professor Simon Newcomb, At the Signal-Service Office four shocks were noticed, of which the first lasted forty seconds and was most severe. The first of the three or four shocks mentioned at Charleston was also the most severe and was the ono that did the principal damage. The second shock lasted four seconds, and the third and fourth shocks were very light. Professor Newcomb observed three shocks, the first of which he fixed at 9.53.20. Mr.McGee, after the culmination of the first shock, timed the phenomena, improvising a seismoscope out of a tumbler of water placed on a stand, and a rude seismometer out of the high head-board of his bedstead. The following is the record of his observations:

"Time of culmination of first shock (seventy-fifth meridian) 9.5412; duration of first shock (estimated), eighty seconds; time of termination of same, 9.55; time of termination of the slight tremor, 10.00 (several slight tremors followed but were not timed); time of recommencement of continuous tremors, 10.08; time of culmination of the second shock, 10.0912; duration of second shock, about thirty seconds; time of termination of second series of tremors, 10.13. The direction of vibration, as indicated by the improvised seismoscope, was a little north of east, but there was an indeterminate vertical component in the undulation plainly perceptible in the motions of liquids and of articles of furniture. Roughly, the upward impulse in each vibration appeared to be one third or one half of the lateral impulse.

"The rate of vibration was measured on the high, swinging head-board of a bedstead during the second shock, and found to be one hundred and fifteen or one hundred, and twenty per minute. During the second shock the head-board, eight and a half feet high, swung through an arc of from one half to three quarters of an inch. It was estimated that the amplitude of oscillation during the earlier shock was twice or thrice as great."

Mr.Richard Randolph, civil engineer, of Baltimore, gives the time of the first shock as 9.5312. The oscillations in his room were emphasized by the synchronous beating of some object in his bedroom, which upon examination he found to be the tapping of the door of a wardrobe, and that, he observes, could only be produced with an east-and-west oscillation. To reproduce the tappings with the intensity and period that marked them during the earth-movement required a movement of half an inch at six and a half feet from the floor, for a complete oscillation. At Rochester, New York, a magnetic storm was observed to be raging all the morning of September 1st. It was observed, at the Signal-Service Office in Washington, that the self-registering wind-vane showed a horizontal mark preceding and subsequent to the shaking, denoting a mild, steady breeze, but, for the thirty or forty seconds of most violent shaking, the marks indicated great and rapid agitations of the registering-pencil. Captain Vogel, of the steamer city of Palatka, observed at sea, twelve miles off Port Royal, "a terrible rumbling sensation," which lasted about a minute and a half. There had been a heavy sea from the southeast, but when the rumbling began the wave-motion ceased and the waters remained perfectly quiet until the rumbling stopped, when the wave-motion again became manifest. The depth of the water at Charleston has not been greatly affected; but, according to Captain Boutelle, it has been increased by from six inches to a foot. Fainter shocks have been reported from Charleston as occurring nearly every day since the principal catastrophe.

 

 
THE BRITISH AND FRENCH ASSOCIATIONS.

The meetings of the British and French Associations this year were successful from both scientific and material points of view. The city of Birmingham, where the British Association met, provided so well for the accommodation and entertainment of its guests, that Mr.Galton, in seconding the usual vote of thanks to the people, said that the meeting would stand prominent in regard to comfort as well as to its scientific qualities. In the latter feature it stood very high. The programme in every section was full to excess, so that, while usually all the sections have finished their work on the Tuesday, and some of them on the Monday, five sections had this year to meet on the Wednesday. In all, three hundred and eighty-eight papers and reports were brought forward, the larger numbers of which were, in mathematics eighty-four, and geology seventy-seven. A new feature, and one the introduction of which was crowned with unexpected success, was that of provision for the discussion in some of the sections of subjects of unusual and pressing importance. The discussions on this plan in the joint meetings of the Physical and Biological Sections on color-vision, and in the Geographical Section on geographical education, were particularly edifying. Another discussion which followed the reading of a paper by Mr. Seebohn, on the theory of physiological selection, recently announced by Dr. Romanes, in which Professors Michael Foster and Newton and Francis Darwin took part, showed that the prevailing sentiment of the section was still in favor of Mr. Darwin's view and against Dr. Romanes's proposed modification of it. Another instructive discussion was on the existence of a pre-glacial man. About the usual proportion of the papers read were of a technical or special character, and a few were perhaps hardly at home in such a body as this; but the very full reports of the meetings in the London "Times," occupying about twenty-five columns, show how much was said and done that was of such living interest and value as to appeal to the general public. The addresses of the sectional presidents, of the essential features of which we give abstracts in another place, were for the most part attractive and intelligible presentations of the particular fields of research in which their authors are engaged. Public interest in the meetings may be gauged by the fact of the sale of twenty-five hundred membership tickets. Appropriations of thirteen hundred pounds sterling were made in encouragement of research in numerous fields. The meeting of the French Association was held at Nancy, under the presidency of M. Friedel, the chemist, and was marked by a numerous attendance and the presentation of a good list of papers, indicating a healthy growth. The secretary reported that three hundred and forty-two contributions had been presented at the Grenoble meeting of last year—being within forty-six of the number offered at the British Association this year. The treasurer presented reports showing that the financial strength of the Association and its consequent power for usefulness were steadily increasing.