Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/November 1875/Meteorology of the Sun and Earth
SINCE the last meeting of the British Association, Science has had to mourn the loss of one of its pioneers, in the death of the veteran astronomer, Schwabe, of Dessau, at a good old age, not before he had faithfully and honorably finished his work. In truth, this work was of such a nature that the worker could not be expected long to survive its completion.
It is now nearly fifty years since he first began to produce daily sketches of the spots that appeared upon the sun's surface. Every day on which the sun was visible (and such days are more frequent in Germany than in this country), with hardly any intermission for forty years, this laborious and venerable observer made his sketch of the solar disk. At length this unexampled perseverance met with its reward in the discovery of the periodicity of sun-spots, a phenomenon which very speedily attracted the attention of the scientific world.
It is not easy to overrate the importance of the step gained when a periodicity was found to rule these solar outbreaks. A priori we should not have expected such a phenomenon. If the old astronomers were perplexed by the discovery of sun-spots, their successors must have been equally perplexed when they ascertained their periodicity. For while all are ready to acknowledge periodicity as one of the natural conditions of terrestrial phenomena, yet every one is inclined to ask what there can be to cause it in the behavior of the sun himself. Manifestly it can only have two possible causes. It must either be the outcome of some strangely hidden periodical cause residing in the sun himself, or must be produced by external bodies, such as planets, acting somehow in their varied positions on the atmosphere of the sun. But whether the cause be an internal or external one, in either case we are completely ignorant of its nature.
We can easily enough imagine a cause operating from the sun himself and his relations with a surrounding medium to produce great disturbances on his surface, but we cannot easily imagine why disturbances so caused should have a periodicity. On the other hand we can easily enough attach periodicity to any effect caused by the planets, but we cannot well see why bodies comparatively so insignificant should contribute to such very violent outbreaks as we now know sun-spots to be.
If we look within we are at a loss to account for the periodicity of solar disturbances, and if we look without we are equally at a loss to account for their magnitude. But, since that within the sun is hidden from our view, it cannot surely be considered blameworthy if astronomers have directed their attention to that without and have endeavored to connect the behavior of sun-spots with the positions of the various planets. Stimulated no doubt by the success which had attended the labors of Schwabe, an English astronomer was the next to enter the field of solar research.
The aim of Mr. Carrington was, however, rather to obtain very accurate records of the positions, the sizes, and the shapes of the various sun-spots than to make a very extensive and long-continued series of observations. He was aware that a series at once very accurate and very extended is beyond the power of a private individual, and can only be undertaken by an established institution. Nevertheless, each sun-spot that made its appearance during the seven years extending from the beginning of 1854 to the end of 1860 was sketched by Mr. Carrington with the greatest possible accuracy, and had also its heliographic position, that is to say its solar latitude and longitude, accurately determined.
One of the most prominent results of Mr. Carrington's labors was the discovery of the fact that sun-spots appear to have a proper motion of their own—those nearer the solar equator moving faster than those more remote. Another was the discovery of changes, apparently periodical, affecting the disposition of spots in solar latitude. It was already known that sun-spots confined themselves to the sun's equatorial regions, but Mr. Carrington showed that the region affected was liable to periodical elongations and contractions, although his observations were not sufficiently extended to determine the exact length of this period.
Before Mr. Carrington had completed his seven years' labors, celestial photography had been introduced by Mr. Warren De la Rue. Commencing with his private observatory, he next persuaded the Kew Committee of the British Association to allow the systematic photography of the sun to be carried on at their observatory under his superintendence, and in the year 1862 the first of a ten years' series of solar photographs was begun. Before this date, however, Mr. De la Rue had ascertained, by means of his photoheliograph, on the occasion of the total eclipse of 1860, that the red prominences surrounding the eclipsed sun belong, without doubt, to our luminary himself.
The Kew observations are not yet finally reduced, but already several important conclusions have been obtained from them by Mr. De la Rue and the other Kew observers. In the first place the Kew photographs confirm the theory of Wilson that sun-spots are phenomena, the dark portions of which exist at a level considerably beneath the general surface of the sun; in other words, they are hollows, or pits, the interior of which is of course filled up with the solar atmosphere. The Kew observers were likewise led to associate the low temperature of the bottom of sun-spots with the downward carriage of colder matter from the atmosphere of the sun, while the upward rush of heated matter was supposed to account for the faculæ or bright patches which almost invariably accompany spots. In the next place the Kew observers, making use not only of the Kew series but of those of Schwabe and Carrington, which were generously placed at their disposal, have discovered traces of the influence of the nearer planets upon the behavior of sun-spots. This influence appears to be of such a nature that spots attain their maximum size when carried by rotation into positions as far as possible remote from the influencing planet that is to say, into positions where the body of the sun is between them and the planet. There is also evidence of an excess of solar action when two influential planets come near together. But, although considerable light has thus been thrown on the periodicity of sunspots, it ought to be borne in mind that the cause of the remarkable period of eleven years and a quarter, originally discovered by Schwabe, has not yet been properly explained. The Kew observers have likewise discovered traces of a peculiar oscillation of spots between the two hemispheres of the sun, and finally their researches will place at the command of the observers the data for ascertaining whether centres of greater and lesser solar activity are connected with certain heliocentric positions.
While the sun's surface was thus being examined both telescopically and photographically, the spectroscope came to be employed as an instrument of research. It had already been surmised by Prof. Stokes, that the vapor of sodium at a comparatively low temperature forms one of the constituents of the solar atmosphere, inasmuch as the dark line D in the spectrum of the sun coincides in position with the bright line given out by incandescent sodium-vapor.
This method of research was greatly extended by Kirchhoff, who soon found that many of the dark lines in the solar spectrum were coincident with the bright lines of sundry incandescent metallic vapors, and a good beginning was thus made toward ascertaining the chemical constitution of the sun.
The new method soon brought forth further fruit when applied in the hands of Huggins, Miller, Secchi, and others, to the more distant heavenly bodies. It was speedily found that the fixed stars had constitutions very similar to that of the sun. But a peculiar and unexpected success was attained when some of the nebulæ were examined spectroscopically. To-day it seems (so rapidly has knowledge progressed) very much like recalling an old superstition to remind you that until the advent of the spectroscope the irresolvable nebulae were considered to be gigantic and remote clusters of stars, the individual members of which were too distant to be separated from each other even with a telescope like that of Lord Rosse. But Mr. Huggins, by means of the spectroscope, soon found that this was not the case, and that most of the nebulae which had defied the telescope gave indications of incandescent hydrogen gas. It was also found by this observer that the proper motions of some of the fixed stars in a direction to or from the earth might be detected by means of the displacement of their spectral lines, a method of research which was first enunciated by Fizeau. Hitherto, in such applications of the spectroscope, the body to be examined was viewed as a whole. It had not yet been attempted to localize the use of this instrument so as to examine particular districts of the sun, as for instance a sun-spot, or the red flames already proved by De la Rue to belong to our luminary. This application was first made by Mr. Lockyer, who in the year 1865 examined a sun-spot spectroscopically, and remarked the greater thickness of the lines in the spectrum of the darker portion of the spot.
Dr. Frankland had previously found that thick spectral lines correspond to great pressure, and hence the inference from the greater thickness of lines in the umbra of a spot is that this umbra or dark portion is subject to a greater pressure; that is to say, it exists below a greater depth of the solar atmosphere than the general surface of the sun. Thus the results derived from the Kew photoheliograph and those derived from the spectroscope were found to confirm each other. Mr. Lockyer next caused a powerful instrument to be constricted for the purpose of viewing spectroscopically the red flames round the sun's border, in the hope that if they consisted of ignited gas the spectroscope would disperse, and thus dilute and destroy the glare which prevents them from being seen on ordinary occasions.
Before this instrument was quite ready these flames had been analyzed spectroscopically by Captain Herschel, M. Janssen, and others, on the occasion of a total eclipse occurring in India, and they were found to consist of incandescent gas, most probably hydrogen. But the latter of these observers (M. Janssen) made the important observation that the bright lines in the spectrum of these flames remained visible even after the sun had reappeared, from which he argued that a solar eclipse is not necessary for the examination of this region.
Before information of the discovery made by Janssen had reached this country, the instrument of Mr. Lockyer had been completed, and he also found that by its means he was able to analyze at leisure the composition of the red flames without the necessity of a total eclipse. An atmosphere of incandescent hydrogen was found to surround our luminary, into which, during the greater solar storms, sundry metallic vapors were injected—sodium, magnesium, and iron, forming the three that most frequently made their appearance.
Here we come to an interesting chemical question.
It had been remarked by Maxwell and by Pierce as the result of the molecular theory of gases that the final distribution of any number of kinds of gas in a vertical direction under gravity is such that the density of each gas at a given height is the same as if all the other gases had been removed, leaving it alone. In our own atmosphere the continual disturbances prevent this arrangement from taking place, but in the sun's enormously extended atmosphere (if, indeed, our luminary be not nearly all gaseous) it appears to hold, inasmuch as the upper portion of this atmosphere, dealing with known elements, apparently consists entirely of hydrogen. Various other vapors are, however, as we have seen, injected from below the photosphere into the solar atmosphere on the occasion of great disturbances, and Mr. Lockyer has asked the question, whether we have not here a true indication of the relative densities of these various vapors derived from the relative heights to which they are injected on such occasions.
This question has been asked, but it has not yet received a definite solution, for chemists tell us that the vapor densities of some of the gases injected into the sun's atmosphere on the occasion of disturbances are, as far as they know from terrestrial observations, different from those which would be indicated by taking the relative heights attained in the atmosphere of the sun. Mr. Lockyer has attempted to bring this question a step nearer to its solution by showing that the vapors at the temperatures at which their vapor densities have been experimentally determined are not of similar molecular constitution, whereas in the sun we get an indication, from the fact that all the elements give us line spectra, that they are in similar molecular states.
Without, however, attempting to settle this question, I may remark that we have here an interesting example of how two branches of science—physics and chemistry—meet together in solar research.
It had already been observed by Kirchhoff that sometimes one or more of the spectral lines of an elementary vapor appeared to be reversed in the solar spectrum, while the other lines did not experience reversal. Mr. Lockyer succeeded in obtaining an explanation of this phenomenon. This explanation was found by means of the method of localization already mentioned.
Hitherto, when taking the spectrum of the electric spark between the two metallic poles of a coil, the arrangements were such as to give an average spectrum of the metal of these poles; but it was found that, when the method of localization was employed, different portions of the spark gave a different number of lines, the regions near the terminals being rich in lines, while the midway regions give comparatively few.
If we imagine that in the midway regions the metallic vapor given off by the spark is in a rarer state than that near the poles, we are thus led to regard the short lines which cling to the poles as those which require a greater density or nearness of the vapor-particles before they make their appearance; while, on the other hand, those which extend all the way between the two poles come to be regarded as those which will continue to make their appearance in vapor of great tenuity.
Now, it was remarked that these long lines were the very lines which were reversed in the atmosphere of the sun. Hence, when we observe a single coincidence between a dark solar line and the bright line or any metal, we are further led to inquire whether this bright line is one of the long lines which will continue to exist all the way between two terminals of that metal when the spark passes.
If this be the case, then we may argue with much probability that the metal in question really occurs in the solar atmosphere; but if, on the other hand, the coincidence is merely between a solar dark line and a short bright one, then we are led to imagine that it is not a true coincidence, but something which will probably disappear on further examination. This method has already afforded us a means of determining the relative amount of the various metallic vapors in the sun's atmosphere. Thus, in some instances all lines are reversed, whereas in others the reversal extends only to a few of the longer lines.
Several new metals have thus been added to the list of those previously detected in the solar atmosphere, and it is now certain that the vapors of hydrogen, potassium, sodium, rubidium, barium, strontium, calcium, magnesium, aluminium, iron, manganese, chromium, cobalt, nickel, titanium, lead, copper, cadmium, zinc, uranium, cerium, vanadium, and palladium, occur in our luminary.
I have spoken hitherto only of telescopic spectroscopy; but photography has been found capable of performing the same good service toward the compound instrument consisting of the telescope and its attached spectroscope, which it had previously been known to perform toward the telescope alone. It is of no less importance to secure a permanent record of spectral peculiarities than it is to secure a permanent record of telescopic appearances. This application of photography to spectrum observations was first commenced on a sufficient scale by Mr. Rutherford, of New York, and already promises to be one of the most valuable aids in solar inquiry.
In connection with the spectroscope I ought here to mention the names of Respighi and Secchi, who have done much in the examination of the solar surface from day to day. It is of great importance to the advancement of our knowledge, that two such competent observers are stationed in a country where the climate is so favorable to continued observation.
The examination of the sun's surface by the spectroscope suggests many interesting questions connected with other branches of science. One of these has already been alluded to. I may mention two others put by Mr. Lockyer, premising, however, that at present we are hardly in a position to reply to them. It has been asked whether the very high temperatures of the sun and of some of the stars may not be sufficient to produce the disassociation of those molecular structures which cannot be disassociated by any terrestrial means; in other words, the question has been raised, whether our so-called elements are really elementary bodies.
A third question is of geological interest. It has been asked whether a study of the solar atmosphere may not throw some light upon the peculiar constitution of the upper strata of the earth's surface, which are known to be of less density than the average interior of our planet.
If we have learned to be independent of total eclipses as far as the lower portions of the solar atmosphere are concerned, it must be confessed that as yet the upper portions—the outworks of the sun—can only be successfully approached on these rare and precious occasions. Thanks to the various government expeditions dispatched by Great Britain, by the United States, and by several Continental nations—thanks, also, to the exertions of Lord Lindsay and other astronomers—we are in the possession of definite information regarding the solar corona.
In the first place, we are now absolutely certain that a large part of this appendage unmistakably belongs to our luminary, and in the next place, we know that it consists, in part at least, of an ignited gas giving a peculiar spectrum, which we have not yet been able to identify with that of any known element. The temptation is great to associate this spectrum with the presence of something lighter than hydrogen, of the nature of which we are yet totally ignorant.
A peculiar physical structure of the corona has likewise been suspected. On the whole, we may say that this is the least known, while it is perhaps the most interesting, region of solar research; most assuredly it is well worthy of further investigation.
If we now turn our attention to matters nearer home, we find that there is a difficulty in grasping the facts of terrestrial meteorology no less formidable than that which assails us when we investigate solar outbreaks. The latter perplex us because the sun is so far away, and because also his conditions are so different from those with which we are here familiar; while, on the other hand, the former perplex us because we are so intimately mixed up with them in our daily lives and actions; because, in fact, the scale is so large and we are so near. The result has been that until quite recently our meteorological operations have been conducted by a band of isolated volunteers individually capable and skillful, but from their very isolation incapable of combining together with advantage to prosecute a scientific campaign. Of late, however, we have begun to perceive that, if we are to make any advance in this very interesting and practical subject, a different method must be pursued, and we have already reaped the first fruits of a more enlightened policy; already we have gained some knowledge of the constitution and habits of our atmosphere.
The researches of Wells and Tyndall have thrown much light on the cause of dew. Humboldt, Dové, Buys Ballot, Jelinek, Quetelet, Hansteen, Kupffer, Forbes, Welsh, Glaisher, and others, have done much to give us an accurate knowledge of the distribution of terrestrial temperature. Great attention has likewise been given to the rainfall of Great Britain and Ireland, chiefly through the exertions of one individual, Mr. G. J. Symons.
To Dové we are indebted for the law of rotation of the wind, to Redfield for the spiral theory of cyclones, to Francis Galton for the theory of anti-cyclones, to Buchan for an investigation into the disposition of atmospheric pressure which precedes peculiar types of weather, to Stevenson for the conception of barometric gradients, to Scott and Meldrum for an acquaintance with the disposition of winds which frequently precedes violent outbreaks; and, to come to the practical application of laws, we are much indebted to the late Admiral Fitzroy and the system which he greatly helped to establish for our telegraphic warnings of coming storms.
Again, the meteorology of the ocean has not been forgotten. The well-known name of Maury w ill occur to every one as that of a pioneer in this branch of inquiry. Fitzroy, Leverrier, Meldrum, Toynbee, and others, have likewise done much; and it is understood that the meteorological offices of this and other maritime countries are now busily engaged upon this important and practical subject. Finally, the movements of the ocean and the temperatures of the oceanic depths have recently been examined with very great success in vessels dispatched by her Majesty's government; and Dr. Carpenter has by this means been able to throw great light upon the convection-currents exhibited by that vast body of water which girdles our globe.
It would be out of place to enter here more minutely into this large subject, and already it maybe asked what connection has all this with that part of the address that went before it.
There are, however, strong grounds for supposing that the meteorology of the sun and that of the earth are intimately connected together. Mr. Broun has shown the existence of a meteorological period connected apparently with the sun's rotation; five successive years' observations of the barometer at Singapore all giving the period 25.74 days. Mr. Baxendell, of Manchester, was, I believe, the first to show that the convection-currents of the earth appear to be connected somehow with the state of the sun's surface as regards spots; and still more recently, Mr. Meldrum, of the Mauritius Observatory, has shown by a laborious compilation of ships' logs, and by utilizing the meteorological records of the island, that the cyclones in the Indian Ocean are most frequent in years when there are most sun-spots. He likewise affords us grounds for supposing that the rainfall, at least in the tropics, is greatest in years of maximum solar disturbance.
M. Poey has found a similar connection in the case of the West Indian hurricanes; and, finally, Piazzi Smyth, Stone, Köppen, and still more recently, Blanford, have been able to bring to light a cycle of terrestrial temperature having apparent reference to the condition of the sun.
Thus, we have strong matter-of-fact grounds for presuming a connection between the meteorology of our luminary and that of our planet, even although we are in complete ignorance as to the exact nature of this bond.
If we now turn to terrestrial magnetism, the same connection becomes apparent.
Sir Edward Sabine was the first to show that the disturbances of the magnetism of the earth are most violent during years of maximum sun-spots. Mr. Broun has shown that there is likewise a reference in magnetic phenomena to the period of the sun's rotation about his axis, an observation recently confirmed by Hornstein; and still more recently, Mr. Broun has shown that the moon has an action upon the earth's magnetism which is not altogether of a tidal nature, but depends, in part, at least, upon the relative position of the sun and moon.
I must trust to your forbearance if I now venture to bring forward considerations of a somewhat speculative nature.
We are all familiar with the generalization of Hadley, that is to say, we know there are under-currents sweeping along the surface of the earth from the poles to the equator, and upper-currents sweeping back from the equator to the poles. We are likewise aware that these currents are caused by the unequal temperature of the earth; they are in truth convection-currents, and their course is determined by the positions of the hottest and coldest parts of the earth's surface. We may expect them, therefore, to have a reference not so much to the geographical equator and poles as to the hottest and coldest regions. In fact, we know that the equatorial regions, into which the trade-winds rush and from which the anti-trades take their origin, have a certain annual oscillation depending upon the position of the sun, or, in other words, upon the season of the year. We may likewise imagine that the region into which the upper-currents pour themselves is not the geographical pole, but the pole of greatest cold.
In the next place we may imagine that these currents, as far as regards a particular place, have a daily oscillation. This has, I believe, been proved as regards the lower-currents or trade-winds, which are more powerful during the day than during the night, and we may therefore expect it to hold good with regard to the upper-currents or anti-trades; in fact, we cannot go wrong in supposing that they also, as regards any particular place, exhibit a daily variation in the intensity with which they blow.
Again, we are aware that the earth is a magnet. Let us not now concern ourselves about the origin of its magnetism, but rather let us take it as it is. We must next bear in mind that rarefied air is a good conductor of electricity; indeed, according to recent experiments, an extremely good conductor. The return-trades that pass above from the hotter equatorial regions to the poles of cold, consisting of moist rarefied air, are therefore to be regarded in the light of good conductors crossing lines of magnetic force; we may therefore expect them to be the vehicle of electric currents. Such electric currents will of course react on the magnetism of the earth. Now, since the velocity of these upper-currents has a daily variation, their influence, as exhibited at any place upon the magnetism of the earth, may be expected to have a daily variation also.
The question thus arises, Have we possibly here a cause which may account for the well-known daily magnetic variation? Are the peculiarities of this variation such as to correspond to those which might be expected to belong to such electric currents? I think it may be said that, as far as we can judge, there is a likeness of this kind between the peculiarities of these two things, but a more prolonged scrutiny will of course be essential before we can be absolutely certain that such currents are fitted to produce the daily variation of the earth's magnetism.
Besides the daily and yearly periodic changes in these upper convection-currents we should also expect occasional and abrupt changes forming the counterparts of those disturbances in the lower strata with which we are familiar. And these may be expected in like manner to produce non-periodic occasional disturbances of the magnetism of the earth. Now, it is well known that such disturbances do occur; and, further, that they are most frequent in those years when cyclones are most frequent; that is to say, in years of maximum sun-spots. In one word, it appears to be a tenable hypothesis to attribute at least the most prominent magnetic changes to atmospheric motions taking place in the upper regions of the atmosphere where each moving stratum of air becomes a conductor moving across lines of magnetic force; and it was Sir William Thomson, I believe, who first suggested that the motion of conductors across the lines of the earth's magnetic force must be taken into account in any attempted explanation of terrestrial magnetism.
It thus seems possible that the excessive magnetic disturbances which take place in years of maximum sun-spots may not be directly caused by any solar action, but may rather be due to the excessive meteorological disturbances which are likewise characteristic of such years. On the other hand, that magnetic and meteorological influence which Mr. Broun has found to be connected with the sun's rotation points to some unknown direct effect produced by our luminary, even if we imagine that the magnetic part of it is caused by the meteorological. Mr. Broun is of opinion that this effect of the sun does not depend upon the amount of spots on his surface.
In the next place, that influence of the sun, in virtue of which we have most cyclones and greater meteorological disturbance in the years of maximum spots, cannot, I think (as far as we know at present), be attributed to a change in the heating power of the sun. We have, no doubt, traces of a temperature effect which appears to depend upon the sun-period, but its amount is very small, whereas the variation in cyclonic disturbance is very great. We are thus tempted to associate this cyclone-producing influence of the sun with something different from his light and heat. As far, therefore, as we can judge, our luminary would appear to produce three distinct effects upon our globe. In the first place, a magnetic and meteorological effect, depending somehow upon his rotation; secondly, a cyclonic effect, depending somehow upon the disturbed state of-his surface; and, lastly, the well-known light and heat effect with which we all are familiar.
If we now turn to the sun, we find that there are three distinct forms of motion which animate his surface-particles. In the first place, each particle is carried round by the rotation of our luminary. Secondly, each particle is influenced by the gigantic meteorological disturbances of the surface, in virtue of-which it may acquire a velocity ranging as high as one hundred and thirty or one hundred and forty miles a second; and lastly, each particle, on account of its high temperature, is vibrating with extreme rapidity, and the energy of these vibrations communicated to us by means of the ethereal medium produces the well-known light and heat effect of the sun.
Now, is it philosophical to suppose that it is only the last of these three motions that influences our earth, while the other two produce absolutely no effect? On the contrary, we are, I think, compelled, by considerations connected with the theory of energy, to attribute an influence, whether great or small, to the first two as well as to the last.
We are thus led to suppose that the sun must influence the earth in three ways, one depending on his rotation, another on his meteorological disturbance, and a third by means of the vibrations of his surface-particles.
But we have already seen that, as a matter of fact, the sun does appear to influence the earth in three distinct ways—one magnetically and meteorologically, depending apparently on his period of rotation; a second cyclonically, depending apparently on the meteorological conditions of his surface; and a third, by means of his light and heat.
Is this merely a coincidence, or has it a meaning of its own? We cannot tell, but I may venture to think that, in the pursuit of this problem, we ought to be prepared at least to admit the possibility of a threefold influence of the sun.
Even from this very meagre sketch of one of the most interesting and important of physical problems, it cannot fail to appear that while a good deal has already been done, its progress in the future will very greatly depend on the completeness of the method and continuity of the observations by which it is pursued. We have here a field which is of importance not merely to one, or even to two, but almost to every conceivable branch of research.
Why should we not erect in it a sort of science-exchange, into which the physicist, the chemist, and the geologist, may each carry the fruits of his research, receiving back in return some suggestion, some principle, or some other scientific commodity that will aid him in his own field? But to establish such a mart must be a national undertaking, and already several nations have acknowledged their obligations in this respect.
Already the German Government have established a Sonnenwarte, the mere building and equipment of which is to cost a large sum. With an appreciation of what the spectroscope has done for this inquiry, the first directorship was offered to Kirchhoff, and, on his declining it, Herr Vogel has been placed in charge. In France, also, a physical observatory is to be erected at Fontenay, on an equal, if not greater scale, of which Janssen has already accepted the directorship; while in Italy there are at least three observatories exclusively devoted to this branch of research. Nor must we forget that in this country the new observatory at Oxford has been so arranged that it can be employed in such inquiries. But what has England as a nation done?
Some years since, at the Norwich meeting of this Association, a movement was set on foot by Colonel Strange, which resulted in the appointment of a royal commission on the advancement of science, with the Duke of Devonshire as chairman. This commission have quite recently reported on the steps that ought in their opinion to be taken for the advancement of scientific research.
One of their recommendations is expressed in the following words:
If the men of science of this country who procured the appointment of this commission, and who subsequently gave evidence before it, will now come forward to support its recommendations, it can hardly be doubted that these will be speedily carried into effect.
But other things besides observations are necessary, if we are to pursue with advantage this great physical problem.
One of these is the removal of the intolerable burden that has hitherto been laid upon private meteorologists and magneticians. Expected to furnish their tale of bricks, they have been left to find their own straw. Nothing more wretched can be imagined than the position of an amateur—that is to say, a man who pursues science for the love of it, and is unconnected with any establishment—who has set himself to promote observational inquiries, whether in meteorology or magnetism.
He has first to obtain with great expenditure of time or money, or both, copies of the individual observations taken at some recognized institution. He has next to reduce these in the way that suits his inquiry; an operation again consuming time and demanding means. Let us suppose all this to be successfully accomplished, and a valuable result obtained. It is doubtless embodied in the transactions of some society, but it excites little enthusiasm, for it consists of something which cannot be repeated by every one for himself like a new and interesting experiment. Yet the position of such men has recently been improved. Several observatories and other institutions now publish their individual observations; this is done by our Meteorological Office, while Dr. Bergsma, Dr. Neumayer, and Mr. Broun, are recent examples of magneticians who have adopted this plan. The publication of the work of the latter is due to the enlightened patronage of the Rajah of Travancore, who has thus placed himself in front of the princes of India, and given. them an example which it is to be hoped they will follow. But this is only one step in the right direction; another must consist in subsidizing private meteorologists and magneticians in order to enable them to obtain the aid of computers in reducing the observations with which they have been furnished. The man of science would thus be able to devote his knowledge, derived from long study, to the methods by which results and the laws regulating them are to be obtained; he could be the architect and builder of a scientific structure without being forced to waste his energies on the work of a hodman.
Another hindrance consists in our deficient knowledge as to what observations of value in magnetism and meteorology have already been made. We ought to have an exhaustive catalogue of all that has been done in this respect in our globe, and of the conditions under which the various observations will be accessible to outside inquirers. A catalogue of this kind has been framed by a committee of this Association, but it is confined to the dominions of England, and requires to be supplemented by a list of that which has been done abroad.
A third drawback is the insufficient nature of the present facilities for the invention and improvement of instruments, and for their verification.
We have, no doubt, advanced greatly in the construction of instruments, especially in those which are self-recording. The names of Brooke, Robinson, Welsh, Osier, and Beckley, will occur to us all as improvers of our instruments of observation. Sir W. Thomson has likewise adapted his electrometer to the wants of meteorology. Dr. Roscoe has given us a self-recording actinometer, but a good instrument for observing the sun's heat is still a desideratum. It ought likewise to be borne in mind that the standard mercurial thermometer is by no means a perfect instrument.
In conclusion, it cannot be doubted that a great generalization is looming in the distance—a mighty law we cannot yet tell what, that will reach us, we cannot yet say when. It will involve facts hitherto inexplicable, facts that are scarcely received as such because they appear opposed to our present knowledge of their causes. It is not possible perhaps to hasten the arrival of this generalization beyond a certain point; but we ought not to forget that we can hasten it, and that it is our duty to do so. It depends much on ourselves, our resolution, our earnestness; on the scientific policy we adopt, as well as on the power we may have to devote ourselves to special investigations, whether such an advent shall be realized in our day and generation, or whether it shall be indefinitely postponed. If governments would understand the ultimate material advantages of every step forward in science, however inapplicable each may appear for the moment to the wants or pleasures of ordinary life, they would find reasons patent to the meanest capacities for bringing the wealth of mind, now lost on the drudgery of common labors, to bear on the search for those wondrous laws which govern every movement, not only of the mighty masses of our system, but of every atom distributed throughout space.—Nature.
- Opening Address in Section A, at the Bristol Meeting of the British Association.