Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/December 1874/Address Before the American Association I
|ADDRESS BEFORE THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION.|
By Prof. JOSEPH LOVERING.
Instruments in Physical Progress.
WHEN the States-General of France were assembled for the last time at Versailles, after a long interval of inactivity, and an inaugural address was pronounced by the Bishop of Nancy, Mirabeau passed upon his performance the sweeping criticism that he had missed the grandest opportunity ever offered to man for saying something or holding his tongue. And, whenever this Association, comprising not only those who teach, but many who create science, assembles, as it now does, to listen to the address of its retiring president, if he is duly sensible of his responsibility, he would gladly avail himself of Mirabeau's alternative, either of being equal to the occasion or of being silent. But the rule of the Association, adopted in the original draft of the constitution at Philadelphia, and the example of my predecessors which I am unwilling to reverse, leave me no choice; and when I see around me, not the terrible monsters of the French Revolution, maddened by the miseries of a down-trodden country, but calm and high-minded lovers of truth, I feel sure of a just and generous criticism. Welcome, then, the precious opportunity, enjoyed by the president of this Association, of discussing some of the great themes of science before an audience which has for its nucleus the original investigators, discoverers, and inventors in the country, and which, like the sun, is surrounded by an extensive chromosphere only a little less brilliant than the central body by contrast; and let my earnest endeavor be not to abuse or waste the great privilege.
I am confronted on the very threshold of my address by the doubt whether it were better to beat out the little bit of golden thought, for which I have time and capacity, into a thin leaf which shall merely gild the whole vast surface of scientific investigation, even for a single year, or to condense it into a solid though minute globule, only big enough and bright enough to light up some narrow specialty. The general practice which prevails, of selecting a president alternately from the two principal sections into which the Association is divided, will justify me in paying my particular addresses to the physical sciences, knowing that the large and active department of Natural History will be properly treated in its turn by those most competent to do it. Not even the capacious mind of a Goethe, a Humboldt, a Whewell, or a Herbert Spencer, is large enough to give a decent shelter to all the subjects which come within the scope of this Association. At the same time I must say that I sympathize with the remarks made by President Hunt at Indianapolis, when he questioned the propriety of excluding geology from the ranks of the physical sciences; only I would give them a still wider significance. Physical science is distinguished from natural history not so much by its subjects as its methods. In my imagination, I can picture to myself all these subjects as being handled in the same masterly grasp of mechanics and mathematics by which the physical astronomer holds in his hands the history and the destiny of the solar system. What is only a dream or a fancy now may become a reality to the science of the future. Why, asked Cuvier, may not natural history some day have its Newton, to whom the laws of circulation of the sap and the blood will be only as the laws of Kepler? With such an indorser, I may venture to quote these words of a consummate mathematician without fear of their being cast aside by the naturalists as one of Bacon's Idols of the Tribe: "An intelligence which at any given instant should know all the forces by which Nature is urged, and the respective situations of the beings of which Nature is composed, if, moreover, it were sufficiently comprehensive to subject these data to calculation, would include in the same formula the movements of the largest bodies of the universe and those of the slightest atom. Nothing would be uncertain to such an intelligence, and the future, no less than the past, would be present to its eyes." The time has already come when a knowledge of physical laws and familiarity with the instruments of physical research are indispensable to the naturalist. I would not recommend that dissipation of intellectual energy which will make a man superficial in all the sciences but profound in none. But Helmholtz has established, by his own example, the possibility of being an eminent physiologist, and, at the same time, standing in the front rank of physicists and mathematicians. The restlessness of human inquiry will never be satisfied with knowing what things are, until it has also discovered how and why they are, and all the relations of space, time, matter, and force, in all the kingdoms of Nature, have been worked out with mathematical precision.
It is a happy circumstance in the history of science, that this vast mechanical problem did not rush upon the mind at once in all its crushing generality. The solar system, with a despotic sun at the centre, competent to overrule all insubordination among planets and comets, and check all eccentricities and jealousies, and so far isolated from neighboring systems as to fear nothing from foreign interferences and entangling alliances, presented a comparatively simple problem; and yet the skill and labor of many generations of mathematicians have not yet closed up the argument upon this first case. On the orbits of this domestic system they have been sharpening their tools for higher and more delicate work. The motions of binary stars have also been brought under dynamical laws, and partially subjected to the rule of gravitation, so far as the astronomer can judge from the best observations which he can make upon those remote objects. But when he launches out, with his instruments and his formulas, into clusters of stars, even those of greatest symmetry, he is wholly at sea, without chart or compass or light-house, and with no other illumination than that which comes from a prophetic demonstration in Newton's "Principia." The mathematician has here to treat, not with an unlimited monarchy, as in the solar system, but with a republic of equal stars, and the dynamical condition of the clusters is involved in all the obscurity of molecular mechanics; for it matters not whether the individual members of a system are atoms or worlds, if the intervening spaces have corresponding magnitudes. Even in astronomy, the inspiration of mechanics and the pride of mathematics, how trifling is the region which has been subjugated to the rigid rules of the exact sciences when compared with the immense territories which remain under the jurisdiction of natural history, and must be studied, if at all, by the methods of the naturalist, though with an inverted microscope!
If, now, we circumscribe our outlook by the line which marks where physical science ends and natural history begins, it will be possible to examine only a few of the salient points in the prospect before us; and what these are will depend upon the point of view which we select. Whewell presents the history of any science at each of its successive epochs as circulating around one powerful mind, which figures as the hero of the drama, and whatever immediately precedes or follows is only the prelude or the closing strain to the great movement. In the philosophy of Comte, every science passes through a theological and metaphysical crisis before it reaches the healthy condition of positive knowledge, and its whole history is written out by him in these three acts. With Buckle, the progress of science, without which there could be no history, is coincident with the advance in civilization; but the action begins with science, and the reaction only comes from external causes. All that science and civilization demand is perfect freedom of thought. The worst enemy of both is the protective spirit in church and state, the former telling men what they must believe, the latter what they must do.
Each of these views of scientific development may be true, but not to the exclusion of all others. Metaphysical blindness or theological prejudice may block the way of science or defame its fair name. It has been stated that six members of the ultra-clerical party at Versailles voted against the appropriation for securing observations of the approaching transit of Venus, because they did not believe in the Copernican system, and this, too, while the echoes of the celebration of the four-hundredth birthday of Copernicus are still resounding over the earth! So, also, circumstances, and even accidents, may shape the course of discovery; the happiest of all accidents, however, being the appearance on the stage of the discoverer himself.
The point of view which I have chosen for reviewing the close and advancing columns of the physical sciences is this: Are there any improvements in the weapons of attack, or have any additions been made to them? These are of two kinds: 1. Instruments for experiment, and 2. The logic of mathematics. These are the lighter and the heavier artillery in this peaceful service.
If we cast a hurried glance over that long period of experimental research which began with Galileo and ended with Davy, we recognize, as the chief instrumentalities by which physical science has been promoted, the telescope, the microscope, the pendulum, the balance, and the voltaic battery. It is not necessary for me to enlarge upon the strength and accuracy which the battery and the balance have given to chemistry, or on the stretch and precision of vision which the telescope and microscope have bestowed on astronomy and physics. These instruments, the veterans of many a hard-fought battle, science still enjoys; not superannuated by their long service, but continually growing in power and usefulness. The little opera-glass with which Galileo first lifted the veil from the skies and awoke the thunders of the Vatican, has blossomed out into the magnificent refractors of Cambridge, Chicago, and Washington. The little reflector with which Newton, by a happy mistake, expected to supplant the lens, has grown into the colossal telescopes of Herschel, Rosse, and the Melbourne Observatory. The spasmodic, momentary action of Davy's batteries, sufficient, however, to inaugurate a new era in chemistry, has been superseded by constant currents, which grumble not at ten hours a day. After lighting up the forelands of a continent during the night, they are fresh to work an ocean-telegraph the next morning. With all my wonder at this mysterious instrument, which serves so faithfully the cause of science and civilization, with renewed admiration of the microscope and the telescope, one of which transforms an invisible speck of matter into a universe, and the other collects the immensity of the heavens into a little celestial globe upon the retina of the eye, I must pause for a moment to eulogize that simplest and most modest of scientific tools, the pendulum.
With the eye of science Galileo saw in the leaning Campanile at Pisa, not a freak of architecture, but the opportunity of experimenting on the laws of falling bodies; and, in the adjacent cathedral where others admired the marble pavement or the vaulted roof, the columns, statues, and paintings, his attention was caught by the isochronous vibrations of the chandelier, which during the long centuries has never been absolutely at rest. When it is said that the pendulum has no rival as a standard of length except the metre, that it furnishes an exact measure of time, and that time is an indispensable element in the study of all motion, and also the most available means of obtaining longitude on the earth and right ascension in the heavens, a strong case has been made out for the practical and scientific usefulness of Galileo's discovery. During the long years of doubt in regard to the true figure of the earth, the pendulum maintained the cause of Newton in opposition to the erroneous reports of the geodesists, until Maupertuis, by a new measurement, flattened, as has been pithily said, the earth and the Cassinis at the same time. The shape, rotation, and density of the earth; the diminution of terrestrial gravity with an increase of distance from the centre; the local attractions of mountains, and secrets hidden below the surface of the planet, have been discovered or verified by the declarations of the pendulum, which, whether in motion or at rest, has never tired of serving science. And, in a wider sense, the pendulum has done for the electric and magnetic forces what, in its restricted meaning, it did for gravity. That which Borda failed of accomplishing in the measurement of arcs, the pendulum realizes in its measurement of time: it multiplies its observations, eliminates its own errors, strikes its own average, and presents to science the perfect result. In 1851 a crowd of spectators were assembled in the Pantheon of Paris to witness the first performance by the pendulum of the new part prepared for it by Foucault, in which, obedient to its own inertia, and indifferent to the earth's rotation, it preserves the parallelism of its motion—an experiment startling, though not wholly unanticipated, and which has made a circuit of the earth. The new contrivance of Zöllner promises to indicate changes in the direction of a force as accurately as the common pendulum measures intensity.
Let us now consider what the physicists of our own day, and their immediate predecessors, have added to their rich inheritance of instrumental means, remembering all the time that, however impressive from their novelty these additions may be, and however manifold their applications, they have only supplemented the experimental methods which have been described without supplanting them. For the most part, the later devices would be useless without the coöperation of the earlier ones.
An interesting event in the history of science, which must be known to many of you, has taken place during the current year. In 1824, Poggendorff began to edit the Annalen der Chemie und der Physik. Under his supervision 150 volumes have been issued, containing 8,850 distinct communications from 2,167 different authors, the 193 papers of H. Rose outnumbering those of any other contributor. The history of physical and chemical discovery during the last fifty years might be written out of the materials treasured up in this single journal. In recognition of the signal service which Poggendorff has hereby rendered to science, his friends assumed the editorship of one volume in 1874, which is called the Jubilee volume (Jubelband).
In 1826, Poggendorff described, in Volume VII. of his journal, a device of his own invention for observing with exceeding nicety the movements of a magnetized bar. A mirror was attached to the bar and moved with it. From this mirror a beam of light was reflected into a theodolite. This was the origin of the happy thought of amplifying a trifling motion by making the finger of a long and delicate ray of light serve as a weightless pointer. A few years later, this idea was embodied by the mathematician, Gauss, in an instrument which he called the magnetometer. Since that time it has been continually budding out in new applications, scientific and practical. I need only recall to your recollection the beautiful method of Lissajous for compounding the vibrations of tuning-forks, and tracing in golden lines the curves which are characteristic of different musical intervals and varied phases of vibration. A new chapter has been opened in mechanics for describing and explaining these strange and nameless curves; and, in acoustics, the ear has been dispossessed by the eye of what would seem to be its own by right divine, and it is no longer the best scientific judge of sounds. By new devices Koenig has translated time into space, and made visible the individual vibrations of the invisible air; and, in numerous ways, the mechanism of sound is as real to the eye as the sensation is to the ear.
With a bare allusion to the fact that every message which passes over the cable-telegraph is a tribute of indebtedness to the simple but comprehensive method of Poggendorff, I pass to two other cases of great difficulty and wide significance in which the same method has triumphed. I refer to the determination of the velocity of electricity and the velocity of light.
When Wheatstone devised and executed the ingenious experiment of producing three electrical sparks, not strictly at the same instant, but after the brief interval required by electricity to travel over one-quarter of a mile of copper wire, and then observing, not the sparks themselves, but their images, as seen in a mirror revolving with the prodigious volocity of 800 turns in a single second, and from the prolongation and relative displacement of these images deducing the velocity of electricity, the duration of the electrical light, and the duality in the direction of the transmitted disturbance, he delighted the brotherhood of science by the skill and boldness of his attempt, and astonished it by the extravagance of his results. For twenty years no one ventured to repeat the difficult experiment. When it was finally tried by Feddersen, and more recently by our own associate, Rood, the values which they assigned to the duration of the electrical light, and which could not be challenged, made still the wonder grow. So far as this mode of experimenting concerns the velocity of electricity, Wheatstone stands alone, and his estimate of this velocity (the largest known velocity in the universe unless we count in the velocity of gravitation) has never been brought to a second trial. Indirectly, it has been tested by some of the operations conducted upon land and ocean lines of telegraph. When the local times of two places are compared by means of electro-magnetic signals, sent alternately in opposite directions, the difference of longitude and the transmission-time of electricity can be disentangled from one another, by the strategy of mathematics, and the most probable value computed for each. The velocity which has been calculated from these longitude-campaigns falls far below that credited to Wheatstone. The apparent discrepancy is explained by a misinterpretation of Wheatstone's experiment. An experiment which proves that electricity runs through one-quarter of a mile of wire at the rate of 288,000 miles a second, does not justify the inference that it would move over 288,000 miles in one second. Anomalous as the case may be, electricity has no velocity in the ordinary sense. The transmission-time of the electrical disturbance is proportioned to the square of the distance to be traveled. Therefore, the velocity has no constant fixed value, but varies with the length of the journey. This law, which is deduced from the mathematical theory of Ohm, introduces order among the experiments, where, otherwise, there would be chaos. It is not surprising that Wheatstone and the readers whom he addressed were misled by the original facts. Few men who have rendered signal services to science, and who have finally reached the highest pinnacle of fame, have suffered more from poverty and neglect, and waited longer for a recognition of their merits, than the modest student of Nuremberg. The slender volume which will perpetuate his name was indeed published at Berlin in 1827, and antedates Wheatstone's experiments by seven years. But the book was treated with contempt by a minister of state, to whom Ohm presented a copy, at his University of Cologne, and was first brought to the notice of English readers in 1841, when an English translation of it was effected through the agency of the British Association, and the Copley medal was presented to Ohm by the Royal Society of London. As late as 1860, when the same work was rendered into French, the translator admits that the mathematical theory of Ohm on the galvanic circuit, the elements of which have since rapidly circulated in popular text-books, was almost unknown in France, that high seat of science. If the serene but steady light of mathematics had not been dimmed by the blaze of experimental successes, and the teachings of Ohm had been heeded sooner, the science of electricity would have been the gainer, and the men of science would have been saved the mortification of treating the electro-magnetic telegraph as an impracticability.
When Wheatstone was a candidate to fill a vacancy in the corresponding members of the French Institute, it was objected that he had only made a brilliant experiment, but had not discovered a new principle. Arago came to his rescue, and asserted that he had introduced a powerful and fertile method of experimentation which would be felt in other sciences besides electricity. The French physicist lost no time in devising means for making good these claims. If it could be proved experimentally that the velocity of light was greater in air than in water, a capital fact in the contending theories of light would be settled forever. Arago planned the experiment and pressed its feasibility upon the Academy of Sciences with all the power and eloquence of his nature. At last he roused two younger physicists to undertake what his growing infirmities prevented him from doing with his own hands. The result declared in favor of undulations, and a fatal blow was dealt to the corpuscular theory of light which had vexed science since the days of Newton. If Fizeau and Foucault drew their inspiration from Arago, they owed their success to nothing except their own skill in devising and executing. Having tried the temper of their steel on this easier problem, they were ready for the grand attack, which was, to measure the absolute velocity of light.
The instrumental arrangements of these two experimentalists agreed only in the part which each borrowed from Poggendorff; the details differed so widely as to give to whatever agreement might appear in their results the force of an irresistible argument for their accuracy. The velocity of light, as found by Fizeau in 1849 by the artificial eclipses which the teeth of his revolving wheel produced, exceeds by about six per cent, the velocity which Foucault obtained, in 1862, with the moving mirror. The arithmetical mean of the two values comes very close to the astronomer's estimate of the velocity of light. But this simple average is precluded unless it can be proved that the two experiments are entitled to equal weight. The internal evidence, expressed by what mathematicians call the probable error, manifested a decisive preference for Foucault's result, and it has met with general acceptance. The soundness of the scientific judgment in this case has been placed beyond all cavil by Cornu, who has recently repeated Fizeau's experiment, with additional precautions, and resolved the discord into a marvelous accord. Fizeau's experiment, in spite of the numerical defect, was hailed as one of the grandest triumphs of experimental skill. In 1856 he received the prize of 30,000 francs which the Emperor of France had founded, to be given for the work or the discovery which, in the opinion of the five academies of the Institute, has conferred the greatest honor and service upon the nation. Hitherto, it had been supposed that nothing short of an interstellar or an interplanetary space was a match for the enormous velocity of light. And yet one physicist, by using a distance of less than six miles, and another, without going outside of his laboratory, have discovered what astronomers had searched heaven and earth to find out.
By these capital experiments the science of optics has achieved its own independence. Let us see what they have done, at the same time, for astronomy. The sequences in the eclipses of Jupiter's moons are modified by the velocity of light. The aberration of starlight is a measure of the ratio between the velocity of light and the velocity of the earth. For nearly two centuries our knowledge of the velocity of light leaned upon one or the other of these relations. If the velocity of light can be known from experiment, the problem may be reversed and the distance of the sun given to the astronomer. As soon as it appeared that Foucault's estimate of the velocity of light fell short of the astronomical valuation by about three per cent., it was certain that either the experiment was in error, or the received aberration was too small, or the reputed distance of the sun was too large. An error of three per cent, in the experiment or in the aberration was inadmissible. But it was conceivable that the distance of the sun should be at fault, even to this extent. The popular announcement that Foucault had picked a flaw in the astronomer's work was not correct. Astronomers had always known what those who pinned their scientific faith on text-books did not expect—that the problem of finding the sun's distance was an exceedingly delicate case, and that an ominous cloud of uncertainty hung over their wisest conclusions. Whenever it is possible to interrogate Nature in more ways than one, Science is not satisfied with a single answer, nor with all the answers unless they agree. The transit of Venus, the parallax of Mars, and the tables of the moon, each can tell the sun's distance. But their testimony was contradictory, and neither one at all times repeated the same story. The question was, which to believe. Since 1824, when Encke published his exhaustive computations on the last transits of Venus, the distance which they assigned to the sun has been acquiesced in as the most probable. But the moon, as has been said, has always been a thorn in the sides of mathematicians. While practical and theoretical astronomers have been reducing its motions to stricter discipline, the suspicion has been steadily gaining strength in their minds that the distance adopted from the transits was too large. The effect of Foucault's experiment was, to intensify the doubt. The case of the twin transits of the last century, thought to have been closed forever by Encke, has recently been opened again by the astronomer Stone. When Venus has nearly entered upon the sun, the moment of interior contact is preluded by the formation of a slender ligature (called the black drop) between the nearest parts of the two disks—caused, perhaps, by irradiation. One observer has recorded the time when this ligature began, another the time when it was broken. In working up the observations of the last transits, both classes were not combined indiscriminately. Mr. Stone has reexamined the documents, classified differently the materials, and extracted from them two new and independent values for the sun's parallax. The reconciliation which he has suddenly brought about between the experiments of Cornu and Foucault, the motions of the moon, and the transits of Venus, is as perfect as it is surprising. Nevertheless, the approaching transits of Venus, the earliest of which is close upon us, will be welcomed, if not as the only possible way of solving a hard problem, at least for the confirmation which is demanded by a solution already reached; for able astronomers have dissented from the interpretation put upon the records by Stone. The minds of observers have been prepared for what their eyes are to see, in December, 1874, by the experimental rehearsal of the black drop, and the photographer's box will arrest the planet in the very act.
The consequences of Foucault's experiment, substantiated as it may be by the best astronomical evidence, are as far-reaching as the remotest stars and nebula?. The sun's distance is the astronomer's metre, through which masses, diameters, and distances, are proportioned out to planets, comets, and stars. If the sun's distance is cut down by three per cent., there must be a general contraction in all the physical constants of the universe. The earth only is immediately exempt from this liability. But, if, as modern science teaches, the earth lives only by the triple radiation from the sun, then an earlier doom has been written for the earth also. Geology is no longer allowed to cut its garment from the past duration of unlimited extent. The numerical estimates of physical science, with a large margin of uncertainty, assign limits between which alone geology has free play. Whatever tends to reduce or enlarge those limits must be of interest to the geologist as well as to the astronomer.
This is the brilliant career, in electricity, optics, astronomy, and geology, of the little mirror, cradled in the laboratory of Poggendorff, and which has not yet seen its fiftieth birthday.
In making this exhibit of the instrumental appliances of modern physics, I will simply name the polariscope, the stereoscope, and the instruments in photography, and hurry on to the spectroscope.
The steps by which the spectroscope has attained its preëminent rank among the instruments of the physicist and the astronomer were taken at long intervals. A whole century intervened between Newton's experiments with the prism and Wollaston's improvement. The substitution of a long and narrow slit for the round hole in the window-shutter was enough to reveal the presence of the two boldest dark lines in the solar spectrum. Wollaston stood on the threshold of a rich development in science, but neither he nor his compeers were ready for it, and what he saw, novel as it was, attracted little attention. Spectrum analysis, in relation to light itself, began when Frauenhofer published, in 1817, in the memoirs of the Bavarian Academy, an account of his experiments on the direct and reflected rays of the sun, on starlight, and various artificial sources of light, dispersing the rays by prisms of fine Munich glass and then receiving them into a theodolite. Frauenhofer repeated some of his experiments in the presence of the younger Herschel, but for many years he had the field wholly to himself. A paper by Herschel on the colors of artificial flames acquires a new interest from what has been done more recently. Between 1830 and 1860, numerous physicists, among whom are the well-known names of Brewster, Miller, Wheatstone, Powell, Stokes, Gladstone, Becquerel, Masson, Van der Willigen, Plücker, and Angström, were at work upon the facts connected with the emission of light by incandescent bodies and its absorption by gases and vapors. As early as 1830, Simms had placed a lens in front of the prism, with the slit in the focus, and another lens behind the prism to form an image of the slit.
The first hint of that pregnant fact, the reversal of the bright spectrum-bands of flames, came from Foucault in 1849. His experiment was repeated at Paris, in 1850, in the presence of Sir William Thomson. It was reserved for a young physicist of Heidelberg, who was not born until seven years after Frauenhofer laid the foundations, to place the keystone upon the structure on which many hands had labored, by demonstrating, in 1860, the law which is the theoretical basis of the chemistry of the heavens. Kirchhoff, with admirable frankness, is careful to say that this law had been anticipated by others, especially by Angström and Balfour Stewart, although it had not been sharply stated or severely proved. It is a singular fact that the mechanical explanation of the law, as it has been expounded by Kirchhoff, Angström, and Stokes, was partially enunciated one hundred years ago by the mathematician Euler, when he said that every substance absorbs light of the special wave-length which corresponds to the vibration of its smallest particles. The 11th of July, 1861, will be ever memorable in the history of science as being the day on which Magnus read, before the Berlin Academy, Kirchhoff's memoir on the chemical constitution of the sun's atmosphere, and the existence in it of familiar substances found upon the earth. Speedily, spectroscopes were multiplied, modified, and improved, and became indispensable auxiliaries in the workshop, the laboratory, and the observatory. It is not necessary to enlarge upon what this instrument has done for common chemistry, in hunting out the minutest traces of common substances and detecting new ones. The physician, the physiologist, the zoologist, the botanist, and the technologist, have shared with the chemist and the physicist the services of this powerful analyst. But it is the highest prerogative of the spectroscope to be able to make a chemical analysis of celestial bodies, upon the single condition that they give to it their light. Polarization can only say whether any portion of this light is reflected. The motions which the telescope uncovers may decide in favor of a central attraction, but it is silent as to the intensity of this attraction unless the moving body belongs to the solar system. The universality of a gravitation may be proved, but not the universality of the very gravitation which pervades our own system, except by an argument from analogy. We see that one star differs from another star in glory. But what the other differences or resemblances are we know not, without the spectroscope. Henceforth astronomy possesses a new instrument of discovery, and also a new tribunal to which all speculations about the sun and the stars, the aurora and the zodiacal light, the meteors and the comets, must be brought and by which they must be judged.
I leave it to the naturalists to assign a value to the alleged anticipations of Darwin by the geometer Maupertuis, who was said to have died just before he was going to make monkeys talk. The whims and conceit of Lord Monboddo are not worthy of notice. Lamarck began life as a soldier, was a meteorologist as far and as long as Napoleon would allow him to be; perhaps he was a botanist from choice, but he was made a zoölogist, in spite of himself, by the revolutionary Convention. He was as brave in science as in war; but he expected to create it, by a simple effort of thought. Having demolished the modern chemistry, he turned his iconoclastic zeal into natural history. His philosophy of zoölogy was published a few years after the cosmogony of Laplace; in which the mathematician broaches the theory of evolution as a mechanical doctrine, capable of explaining certain characteristics of the solar system, about which the law of gravitation is silent. Whoever reads the stately chapters of Laplace, on the stability of the planets and the safeguards of the comets, will easily recognize expressions which are the mechanical equivalents of the principles of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. The elder Herschel hazarded the speculation that the clusters of stars and the nebulas which his devouring telescope had picked up, by hundreds, on the verge of the visible heavens, were genuine suns assembled under the organizing power of gravitation; and that the varieties in size, shape, and texture, were produced by differences of age and distance. The imagination of Herschel and other astronomers has taken a loftier flight. To them many of the nebulae are not clusters of stars, but unborn solar systems, waiting for that consolidation by which planets are evolved and a central sun is formed, and destined thus to repeat the cosmogony of the home system. Comte claims that he has raised the nebular hypothesis to the rank of positive science. He supposes the stupendous enginery of evolution to be reversed. He follows, with his mathematics, the expanding sun backward into chaos, until it has absorbed into its bosom even the first-born among the planets, and finds, at every stage, numerical confirmation of what Laplace threw out as a plausible conjecture. As Mr. Mill and other writers of note have accepted this authority, it should be understood that Comte has never published the data or the process of his computations. By whatever other inspiration he arrived at his conclusion, he was not brought to it by his mathematics. He has said all that is necessary to show that he ignored all the difficulties of the problem, and dodged the only solution that could give satisfaction. The cosmogony of Laplace, with all its fascination, must be excluded from exact mechanics and remanded back to its original place in natural history, by the side of the more general nebular hypothesis of Herschel. All other cosmogonies which poetry or science have invented are childish in comparison with this; and no one would desire to banish it from science altogether, until it is disproved or displaced by. something better. Instead of deciding, it must share the fate of the all-embracing cosmical speculation of Halley. How uncertain that fate is we may be taught by the frequency with which the preponderance of evidence has shifted from one side to the other, during the last fifty years. The irresolvability of many of the nebula, by powerful telescopes, led Herschel to espouse the cause of a diffuse primeval matter, out of which worlds were fashioned. No wonder that, in particular cases, the negative evidence was sometimes turned into positive evidence on the other side, by improvements in telescopes. Although every nebula which deserted from the nebular hypothesis strengthened the suspicion that the remaining irresolvability was purely optical, a sufficient amount of negative evidence would probably have always existed to create more than a doubt in the minds of many astronomers. On the discovery of spectrum analysis, observers rallied around it, in the hope of finding an escape from the dilemma; and this new hope has not been disappointed. The continuous spectra of some nebulæ prove them to be suns, enveloped in more or less of atmosphere. The broken spectra of other nebulæ show that they are in the condition of an incandescent gas. The classification which the spectroscope makes of the nebulæ corresponds so well with their telescopic appearance as to justify the confidence which one class of astronomers had in their way of deciding on the truth of the nebular hypothesis. While the spectroscope has manifested varieties of material, color, temperature, and consolidation in nebulæ and stars, both single and composite, beyond any thing which the perfected telescope could ever have revealed, it has at the same time found enough of earth in all of them to make man feel at home anywhere in the visible universe. The fact that certain well-known substances on this planet pass current everywhere in Nature, leads irresistibly to the conclusion that all the specimens came originally from the same mint. It is the legitimate office of science to reduce the more complex to the simple; to explain, if possible, the existing state of matter by an anterior state. The nebular hypothesis, which attempts to do this, no longer starts from a conjecture but a reality, viz., the existence of diffused incandescent vapor; and science will hold on to it, until a better theory of mechanical development is found.
An interesting question, which has waited thousands of years even to be asked, and may wait still longer for an all-sufficient answer, relates to the motion of what were once called the fixed stars. If numbers count for any thing, this is the grandest problem which can be presented to the mind of the astronomer. The argument from probabilities, which reposes on a substantial mathematical foundation, is loud in affirming some kind of motion, and repudiates the notion of absolute rest. We must place the stars outside the pale of science, and where no process of reasoning can reach them, or we must suppose that they subscribe to the universal law of all matter which we know, and exert attractive or repulsive forces upon each other. There may be one solitary body, or more probably an ideal point of space, the centre of gravity of the material universe, around which there is equilibrium, but everywhere else there must be motion. Though distance may reduce the effect of each one of the forces to a minimum, in the aggregate their influence will not be insignificant. The sun must share the common lot of the stars unless we repeat the folly of ancestral science, at which we now smile, and transfer the throne of the heaven of matter from the earth to the centre of our own little system. If the sun move, a new order of parallactic motion springs up in sidereal astronomy. The process of elimination requires the mathematician to calculate the direction and velocity of the motion of the sun which will leave behind it the smallest unexplained residuum; and this remainder is the motion of the stars themselves. The delicacy of the problem lies in the minuteness of the quantities to be observed, and in the assumptions which must be made in regard to the distances of the stars, only a few of which have been positively computed from parallax. However, a result has been reached, highly probable in the sun's case, but which can be converted into absolute values for other stars only so fast as their individual distances are discovered. Here, again, physics and chemistry, with the spectroscope in hand, have come to the aid of astronomy and geometry. Should it appear that the conclusions from spectrum analysis must be questioned, the attempt was brave, and even a defeat would be honorable.
In 1675 a Danish astronomer observed the novel fact that the frequency in the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites fluctuated with the motion of 'the planet to or from the earth. He hit upon a happy explanation, viz., that the swift light takes more or less time to telegraph the astronomical news across the omnipresent lines of force. This early observation is the avant-coureur of a host of others which have slowly followed in close array. That of a blind musician comes next. He noticed, in 1835, that the pitch of a steam-whistle, on the Lowell Railroad, fell suddenly as the locomotive passed him. Unfortunately, Munroe's observation was never published, although he sought and found an explanation of what was then a strange fact. In this case, the whistle sends the message, the waves of sound transmit it, and the ear is the register; but the changing distance modifies the time. In 1842, Doppler, of Prague, was led, by theoretical considerations, to formulate the proposition, now known in science as Doppler's principle: that the color of light and the pitch of sound, as they tell upon the senses, are changed by the relative velocity of the observer and the origin of the disturbance. In 1845, Buy Ballot made experiments upon the railroads in the Netherlands, and Scott Russell repeated them on English railroads, which confirmed the theory in the case of sound. In the application of the theory to color, few astronomers will be willing to follow Doppler in all his extravagances.
If it be true, theoretically, that the relative velocity of light, the wave-length of transmission, and the period of oscillation in the ether, are altered by the relative motion of the observer and the place from which the undulation starts, it is obvious that all other velocities have but a small chance in competition with the velocity of light, and that slight changes of color, if physically real as Doppler supposed, would fail of being recognized even by the eye of a painter. To interpose the spectroscope, and observe the change of refrangibility by the displacement of the sharp lines of the spectrum, was a lucky escape from this embarrassment. After Huggins had tried his hand at this new method, with a small telescope, upon the brightest of all the stars, he was supplied by the Royal Society of London with a larger instrument to pursue the investigation. The results of his spectroscopic inquiry into the motions of many stars have been published. Where these results have conflicted with the foregone conclusions of astronomy, Huggins has not hesitated to arraign the accuracy of astronomical data and methods. I have freely admitted the delicacy and difficulty of the geometrical process. The spectroscopic analysis, when applied to the same problem, walks upon slippery ground and must take heed lest it also fall. The alleged displacement is a nice quantity, and instrumental sources of error have been pointed out which may explain away the whole of it. I lay no stress upon the large difference between Vogel and Huggins in the quantity of motion which spectrum analysis ascribes to Sirius, inasmuch as the direction of the motion is the same. We do not yet know all the elements which the earth contains. The spectroscope has already added four to the number. There is reason to think that the stars, though having some substances in common with the earth and sun, are not without their peculiarities. The lines in the stellar spectra may be out of position, not because they are the displaced lines of sodium, magnesium, and hydrogen, but in consequence of novelties in the gaseous atmospheres of the stars. Still, there will be a presumption, perhaps a probability, in favor of Huggins's deduction, if it rests on a sound basis of theory. If there is any weakness in the physical and mathematical foundation of his argument, gratifying as it is to the imagination and the aspirations of science, the whole superstructure must fall.
- ↑ Retiring Address before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at the Hartford meeting, August 14, 1874, by the ex-president.