Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/April 1894/The Late Professor Tyndall

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A MONO the various penalties entailed by ill-health, a not infrequent one is the inability to pay the last honors to a valued friend; and sometimes another is the undue postponement of such tribute to his memory as remains possible. Of both these evils I have just had experience.

It was, I think, in 1852 that Prof. Tyndall gave at the Royal Institution the lecture by which he won his spurs: proving, as he then did, to Faraday himself, that he had been wrong in denying diamagnetic polarity. I was present at that lecture; and when introduced to him very shortly after it, there commenced one of those friendships which enter into the fabric of life and leave their marks. Though both had pronounced opinions about most things, and though neither had much reticence, the forty years which have elapsed since we first met witnessed no interruption of our cordial relations. Indeed, during recent years of invalid life suffered by both of us, the warmth of nature characteristic of him has had increased opportunity for manifesting itself. A letter from him, dated November 25th, inquiring my impressions concerning the climate of this place (St. Leonards), raised the hope that something more than intercourse by correspondence would follow; but before I received a response to my reply there came the news of the sad catastrophe.

I need not dwell on the more conspicuous of Prof. Tyndall's intellectual traits, for these are familiar to multitudes of readers. His copiousness of illustration, his closeness of reasoning, and his lucidity of statement, have been sufficiently emphasized by others. Here I will remark only on certain powers of thought, not quite so obvious, which have had much to do with his successes. Of these the chief is "the scientific use of the imagination." He has himself insisted upon the need for this, and his own career exemplifies it. There prevail, almost universally, very erroneous ideas concerning the nature of imagination. Superstitious peoples, whose folklore is full of tales of fairies and the like, are said to be imaginative; while nobody ascribes imagination to the inventor of a new machine. Were this conception of imagination the true one, it would imply that, whereas children and savages are largely endowed with it, and whereas it is displayed in a high degree by poets of the first order, it is deficient in those having intermediate types of mind. But, as rightly conceived, imagination is the power of mental representation, and is measured by the vividness and truth of this representation. So conceived, it is seen to distinguish not poets only, but men of science; for in them, too, "imagination bodies forth the forms [and actions] of things unknown" It does this in an equal, and sometimes even in a higher degree; for, strange as the assertion will seem to most, it is nevertheless true that the mathematician who discloses to us some previously unknown order of space-relations, does so by a greater effort of imagination than is implied by any poetic creation. The difference lies in the fact that, whereas the imagination of the poet is exercised upon objects of human interest and his ideas glow with emotion, the imagination of the mathematician is exercised upon things utterly remote from human interest, and which excite no emotion: the contrasted appreciations of their respective powers being due to the circumstance that whereas people at large can follow, to a greater or less extent, the imaginations of the poet, the imaginations of the mathematician lie in a field inaccessible to them, and practically non-existent.

This constructive imagination (for we are not concerned with mere reminiscent imagination), here resulting in the creations of the poet and there in the discoveries of the man of science, is the highest of human faculties. With this faculty Prof. Tyndall was largely endowed. In common with successful investigators in general, he displayed it in forming true conceptions of physical processes previously misinterpreted or uninterpreted; and, again, in conceiving modes by which the actual relations of the phenomena could be demonstrated; and, again, in devising fit appliances to this end. But to a much greater extent than usual, he displayed constructive imagination in other fields. He was an excellent expositor; and good exposition implies much constructive imagination. A pre-requisite is the forming of true ideas of the mental states of those who are to be taught; and a further pre-requisite is the imagining of methods by which, beginning with conceptions they possess, there may be built up in their minds the conceptions they do not possess. Of constructive imagination as displayed in this sphere, men at large appear to be almost devoid; as witness the absurd systems of teaching which in past times, and in large measure at present, have stupefied, and still stupefy, children by presenting abstract ideas before they have any concrete ideas from which they can be drawn. Whether as lecturer or writer. Prof. Tyndall carefully avoided this vicious practice.

In one further way was his constructive imagination exemplified. When at Queenwood College he not only took care to set forth truths in such ways and in such order that the comprehension of them developed naturally in the minds of those he taught—he did more: he practiced those minds themselves in constructive imagination. He so presented his problems as to exercise their powers of investigation. He did not, like most teachers, make his pupils mere passive recipients, but made them active explorers.

As these facts imply. Prof. Tyndall's thoughts were not limited to physics and allied sciences, but passed into psychology; and though this was not one of his topics, it was a subject of interest to him. Led as he was to make excursions into the science of mind, he was led also into that indeterminate region through which this science passes into the science of being; if we can call that a science of which the issue is nescience. He was much more conscious than physicists usually are that every physical inquiry, pursued to the end, brings us down to metaphysics, and leaves us face to face with an insoluble problem. Sundry propositions which physicists include as lying within their domain do not belong to physics at all, but are concerned with our cognitions of matter and force: a fact clearly shown by the controversy at present going on about the fundamentals of dynamics. But in him the consciousness that there here exists a door which, though open, science can not pass through, if not always present, was ever ready to emerge. Not improbably his early familiarity with theological questions given him by the controversy between Catholicism and Protestantism, which occupied his mind much during youth, may have had to do with this. But whatever its cause, the fact, as proved by various spoken and written words, was a belief that the known is surrounded by an unknown, which he recognized as something more than a negation. Men of science may be divided into two classes, of which the one, well exemplified in Faraday, keeping their science and their religion absolutely separate, are untroubled by any incongruities between them; and the other of which, occupying themselves exclusively with the facts of science, never ask what implications they have. Be it trilobite or be it double-star, their thought about it is much like the thought of Peter Bell about the primrose. Tyndall did not belong to either class; and of the last I have heard him speak with implied scorn.

Being thus not simply a specialist but in considerable measure a generalist, willingly giving some attention to the organic sciences, if not largely acquainted with them, and awake to "the humanities," if not in the collegiate sense, yet in a wider sense—Tyndall was an interesting companion; beneficially interesting to those with brains in a normal state, but to me injuriously interesting, as being too exciting. Twice I had experience of this. When, after an injury received while bathing in a Swiss mountain-stream, he was laid up for some time, and, on getting back to England, remained at Folkestone, I went down to spend a few days with him. "Do you believe in matter?" was a question which he propounded just as we were about to bid one another goodnight after a day's continuous talking. Ever since a nervous breakdown in 1855, over my second book, talking has told upon me just as much as working, and has had to be kept within narrow limits; so that persistence in this kind of thing was out of the question, and I had to abridge my stay. Once more the like happened when, after the meeting of the British Association at Liverpool, we adjourned to the Lakes. Gossip, which may be carried on without much intellectual tax, formed but a small element in our conversation. There was almost unceasing discussion as we rambled along the shore of Windermere, or walked up to Rydal Mount (leaving our names in the visitors' book), or as we were being rowed along Grasmere, or when climbing Loughrigg on our way back. Tyndall's intellectual vivacity gave me no rest, and after two utterly sleepless nights I had to fly.

I do not think that on these occasions, or on any other occasion, politics formed one of our topics. Whether this abstention resulted by accident or whether from perception that we should disagree, I can not say—possibly the last. Our respective leanings may be in part inferred from our respective attitudes toward Carlyle. To me, profoundly averse to autocracy, Carlyle's political doctrines had ever been repugnant. Much as I did, and still do, admire his marvelous style and the vigor, if not the truth, of his thought—so much so that I always enjoy any writing of his, however much I disagree with it—intercourse with him soon proved impracticable. Twice or thrice, in 1851-'52, 1 was taken to see him by Mr. G. H. Lewes; but I soon found that the alternatives were—listening in silence to his dogmas, sometimes absurd, or getting into a hot argument with him, which ended in our glaring at one another; and as I did not like either alternative I ceased to go. With Tyndall, however, the case seems to have been different—possibly because of greater tolerance of his political creed and his advocacy of personal government. The rule of the strong hand was not, I fancy, as repellent to Tyndall as to me; and, indeed, I suspect that, had occasion offered, he would not have been reluctant to exercise such rule himself. Though his sympathies were such as made him anxious for others' welfare, they did not take the direction of anxiety for others' freedom as the means to their welfare; and hence he was, I suppose, not in pronounced antagonism with Carlyle on these matters. But divergent as our beliefs and sentiments were in earlier days, there has been in recent days mutual approximation. A conversation with him, some years since, made it manifest that personal experience had greatly shaken the faith he previously had in public administrations, and made him look with more favor on the view of State-functions held by me. On the other hand, my faith in free institutions, originally strong (though always joined with the belief that the maintenance and success of them is a question of popular character), has in these later years been greatly decreased by the conviction that the fit character is not possessed by any people, nor is likely to be possessed for ages to come. A nation of which the legislators vote as they are bid, and of which the workers surrender their rights of selling their labor as they please, has neither the ideas nor the sentiments needed for the maintenance of liberty. Lacking them, we are on the way back to the rule of the strong hand in the shape of the bureaucratic despotism of a socialist organization, and then of the military despotism which must follow it; if, indeed, some social crash does not bring this last upon us more quickly. Had we recently compared notes, I fancy that Tyndall and I should have found ourselves differing but little in our views concerning the proximate social state, if not of the ultimate social state.

In the sketch he has recently given of our late friend, who was one of the small group known as the x Club, Prof. Huxley has given some account of that body. Further particulars may not unfitly be added; one of which may come better from me than from him. The impression that the club exercised influence in the scientific world (not wholly without basis, I think) was naturally produced by such knowledge as there eventually arose of its composition. For it contained four presidents of the British Association, three presidents of the Royal Society, and among its members who had not filled these highest posts there were presidents of the College of Surgeons, of the Mathematical Society, and of the Chemical Society. Out of the nine I was the only one who was fellow of no society, and had presided over nothing. I speak in the past tense, for, unhappily, the number of members is reduced to five, who are now scattered, and of these only three are in good health. For years past the difficulties in the way of meeting have been growing greater, and the club is practically dead. But the detail of most interest which Prof. Huxley has not given, concerns a certain supplementary meeting which, for many years, took place after the close of our session. This lasted from October in each year to June in the next, and toward the close of June we had a gathering in the country to which the married members brought their wives; raising the number on some occasions to fifteen. Our programme was to leave town early on Saturday afternoon, in time for a ramble or a boating excursion before dinner; to have on the Sunday a picnic in some picturesque place adjacent to our temporary quarters; and, after dinner that evening, for some to return to town, while those with less pressing engagements remained until the Monday morning. Two of our picnics were held under Burnham Beeches, one or more on St. George's Hill, Weybridge, and another in Windsor Forest. As our spirits in those days had not been subdued by years, and as we had the added pleasure of ladies' society, these gatherings were extremely enjoyable. If Tyndall did not add to the life of our party by his wit he did by his hilarity. But my special motive for naming these rural meetings of the x is that I may mention a fact which, to not a few, will be surprising and perhaps instructive. We sometimes carried with us to our picnic a volume of verse, which was duly utilized after the repast. On one occasion, while we reclined under the trees of Windsor Forest, Huxley read to us Tennyson's "Œnone," and on another occasion we listened to Tyndall's reading of Mrs. Browning's poem, "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." The vast majority of people suppose that science and poetry are antagonistic. Here is a fact which may perhaps cause some of them to revise their opinions.

From the impressions of Tyndall which these facts indirectly yield, let me return to impressions more directly yielded. Though it is scarcely needful to say anything about his sincerity, yet it can not properly be passed over, since it was a leading trait in his nature. It has been conspicuous to all, alike in his acts and his words. The Belfast address to the British Association exhibited his entire thought on questions which most men of science pass over from prudential considerations. But in him there was no spirit of compromise. It never occurred to him to ask what it was politic to say, but simply to ask what was true. The like has of late years been shown in his utterances concerning political matters—shown, it may be, with too great an outspokenness. This outspokenness was displayed, also, in private, and sometimes perhaps too much displayed; but every one must have the defects of his qualities, and where absolute sincerity exists, it is certain now and then to cause an expression of a feeling or opinion not adequately restrained. But the contrast in genuineness between him and the average citizen was very conspicuous. In a community of Tyndalls (to make a wild supposition) there would be none of that flabbiness characterizing current thought and action no throwing overboard of principles elaborated by painful experience in the past, and adoption of a hand-to-mouth policy unguided by any principle. He was not the kind of man who would have voted for a bill or a clause which he secretly believed would be injurious, out of what is euphemistically called "party loyalty," or would have endeavored to bribe each section of the electorate by ad captandum measures, or would have hesitated to protect life and property for fear of losing votes. What he saw right to do he would have done, regardless of proximate consequences.

The ordinary tests of generosity are very defective. As rightly measured, generosity is great in proportion to the amount of self-denial entailed; and where ample means are possessed large gifts often entail no self-denial. Far more self-denial may be involved in the performance, on another's behalf, of some act which requires time and labor. In addition to generosity under its ordinary form, which Prof. Tyndall displayed in unusual degree, he displayed it under a less common form. He was ready to take much trouble to help friends. I have had personal experience of this. Though he had always in hand some investigation of great interest to him, and though, as I have heard him say, when he had bent his mind to a subject he could not with any facility break off and resume it again, yet, when I have sought his scientific aid—information or critical opinion—I never found the slightest reluctance to give me his undivided attention. Much more markedly, however, was this kind of generosity shown in another direction. Many men, while they are eager for appreciation, manifest little or no appreciation of others, and still less go out of their way to express it. With Tyndall it was not thus: he was eager to recognize achievement. Notably in the case of Faraday, and less notably, though still conspicuously, in many cases, he has bestowed much labor and sacrificed many weeks in setting forth others' merits. It was evidently a pleasure to him to dilate on the claims of fellow-workers.

But there was a derivative form of this generosity calling for still greater eulogy. He was not content with expressing appreciation of those whose merits were recognized, but he spent energy unsparingly in drawing public attention to those whose merits were unrecognized; and time after time, in championing the causes of such, he was regardless of the antagonisms he aroused and the evils he brought on himself. This chivalrous defense of the neglected and the ill-used has been, I think, by few, if any, so often repeated. I have myself more than once benefited by his determination, quite spontaneously shown, that justice should be done in the apportionment of credit; and I have with admiration watched like actions of his in other cases cases—in which no consideration of nationality or of creed interfered in the least with his insistance on equitable distribution of honors.

In thus undertaking to fight for those who were unfairly dealt with, he displayed in another direction that very conspicuous trait which, as displayed in his Alpine feats, has made him to many persons chiefly known—I mean courage, passing very often into daring. And here let me, in closing this sketch, indicate certain mischiefs which this trait brought upon him. Courage grows by success. The demonstrated ability to deal with dangers produces readiness to meet more dangers, and is self-justifying where the muscular power and the nerve habitually prove adequate. But the resulting habit of mind is apt to influence conduct in other spheres, where muscular power and nerve are of no avail—is apt to cause the daring of dangers which are not to be met by strength of limb or by skill. Nature, as externally presented in precipices, iceslopes, and crevasses, may be dared by one adequately endowed; but Nature, as internally presented in the form of physical constitution, may not be thus dared with impunity. Prompted by high motives, Tyndall tended too much to disregard the protests of his body. Over-application in Germany caused at one time absolute sleeplessness for, I think he told me, more than a week; and this, with kindred transgressions, brought on that insomnia by which his after-life was troubled, and by which his powers of work were diminished; for, as I have heard him say, a sound night's sleep was followed by marked exaltation of faculty. And then, in later life, came the daring which, by its results, brought his active career to a close. He conscientiously desired to fulfill an engagement to lecture at the Royal Institution, and was not to be deterred by fear of consequences. He gave the lecture, notwithstanding the protest which for days before his system had been making. The result was a serious illness, threatening, as he thought at one time, a fatal result; and, notwithstanding a year's furlough for the recovery of health, he was eventually obliged to resign his position. But for this defiance of Nature there might have been many more years of scientific exploration, pleasurable to himself and beneficial to others; and he might have escaped that invalid life which for a long time past he had to bear.

In his case, however, the penalties of invalid life had great mitigations—mitigations such as fall to the lot of but few. It is conceivable that the physical discomforts and mental weariness which ill-health brings may be almost compensated, if not even quite compensated, by the pleasurable emotions caused by unflagging attentions and sympathetic companionship. If this ever happens, it happened in his case. All who have known the household during these years of nursing are aware of the unmeasured kindness he has received without ceasing. I happen to have had special evidence of this devotion on the one side and gratitude on the other, which I do not think I am called upon to keep to myself, but rather to do the contrary. In a letter I received from him some half-dozen years ago, referring, among other things, to Mrs. Tyndall's self-sacrificing care of him, he wrote: "She has raised my ideal of the possibilities of human nature."


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  1. Reprinted by permission from McClure's Magazine.