Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/October 1876/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
FURTHER CONCERNING THE "SOUND" CONTROVERSY.

SOME months ago, as our readers will remember, there appeared in the Nation, by an anonymous writer, a scandalous attack upon Prof. Tyndall. He was accused of treating Prof. Henry dishonorably; and the accusation was so garnished with insulting insinuations as to convey the impression that Prof. Tyndall is not above ignoring and suppressing other people's valuable work which he desires to profit by himself. It was a matter of painful surprise to many that any man could be found, in this country, to make such charges on no better grounds than were alleged against an eminent and absent gentleman of hitherto unsullied character; or that any respectable American newspaper would lend itself to their publication. For this was one of those palpable cases in which some decisive weight should have been allowed to character at the outset. While on the one hand charges were raised of which the proof was not furnished, and a specious case was made out by unscrupulous ingenuity which was calculated to mystify and prejudice ordinary readers, on the other hand the imputations against Prof. Tyndall were specially contradicted and discredited by the quality of his whole life. He was eminently not the man to do the things alleged. The intimate friend and successor of Faraday, and for the last twenty-five years Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Royal Institution of Great Britain, his life and works have been in an eminent degree public and conspicuous. An assiduous investigator in various branches of physics, he has published freely in the Transactions of the Royal Society; a clear and vigorous writer, appreciating the necessity of improving popular scientific literature, he has also written copiously for the public, on many of the most recent and exciting questions of science. Perhaps there is not another eminent man of science, in any country, whose intellectual life has been more open to scrutiny than that of Prof. Tyndall. Yet with this prolonged and intense exposure of his mental work to a world sufficiently censorious—and though often in sharp conflict with other investigators—his reputation as a man of the strictest honor in relation to all the rights and claims of his scientific co-laborers lias been unquestioned.

Moreover, those best acquainted with Prof. Tyndall know that his solicitude in doing justice to his scientific brethren, as evinced in difficult circumstances, is so earnest as to be almost morbid. No man is freer from petty jealousies, or the narrowing influence of national bias, than he. Attaching a serious meaning to the common sentiment that "science is of no country," he has stemmed the violent currents of local feeling in his own, and aimed to be just and generous to foreigners when their claims have been depreciated by British scientists. This is perfectly understood by all who are familiar with recent scientific controversy. His championship of the German Mayer, the Savoyard Rendu, and the American Agassiz, when their rights as discoverers were denied by his own countrymen, showed the breadth of his sympathies and the strength of his sense of justice. Nor is it improper here to add that he came to this country to help on the work of science, moved by no low or sordid considerations. He resisted social solicitations in a way that was not a little misinterpreted, that he might do the work he had undertaken in the best manner; and contributed all that he got from half a year's hard labor to assist in the scientific education of worthy young men of this country for whose special aid there had been, hitherto, no provision.

We submit that these considerations should have been sufficient to protect Prof. Tyndall from the gross assault in the Nation, which could not be replied to until a sensation-seeking press had scattered the calumnious charges from one end of the country to the other. Something, we say again, was due to character, that should have prevented the diffusion of such aspersions until they had been thoroughly looked into, and the party most concerned had been consulted. We appeal to every candid reader, if it would not have been a fairer proceeding for the editor to have sent the article to Prof. Tyndall, if he thought it worth attention, and to have asked him what it meant, that the defense might have accompanied the attack, had he still thought the matter proper for publication.

The case has now assumed a different aspect. The anonymous writer in the Nation has recently rehashed and amplified his statement, put his name to it, and published it in the New York Tribune. It is noteworthy that, while the writer announces himself to have been an assistant of Prof. Henry, he recognizes the necessity of disavowing all complicity on the part of that gentleman in these assaults upon Tyndall. It would have been well if this had been thought of a little earlier; and there is no reason for. the disclaimer now that should not have impelled Prof. Henry to protect himself from misapprehension, by following the publication of the article in the Nation by a prompt statement of the fact that he had nothing whatever to do with it.

With the larger portion of the communication to the Tribune we have no concern, as its four closely-printed columns are chiefly occupied in trumping up new and petty imputations against Prof. Tyndall that are wholly unworthy of notice. Borrowing a hint from the tactics of our political canvass, the writer seems to think that the way to substantiate one charge is to pile up more. But the case, as now even more fully presented, has not a leg to stand upon. In fact, the writer has put an end to it himself by attempting to give his proofs. We have said that the article in the Nation made charges without giving the evidence; that evidence is now forthcoming, and, as we shall see, instead of sustaining, refutes the charges and explodes the case.

Prof. Tyndall had said in his book on "Sound" that Dr. Derham's paper, published in 1708, and which contains the views which have generally prevailed upon the subject since, "marks the latest systematic inquiry into the causes which affect the intensity of sound in the atmosphere," up to the time of his own investigations in 1873. This period he characterizes as a blank. He does not deny that facts of importance had been observed in the interval, or that partial inquiries had been made leading to valuable conclusions; but the "blank" is declared to consist in the absence of any "systematic inquiry into causes," such, of course, as generally lead, when ably conducted, to the reconciliation of conflicting views, and the establishment of principles which are entitled to take their place in the body of scientific knowledge. To this the writer in the Nation replied that Prof. Henry had made such systematic inquiries, and that Prof. Tyndall knew it from a paper which he heard Prof. Henry read in Washington. The evidence of the charges against Prof. Tyndall of "ignoring" or "suppressing" the work of Henry, or of taking advantage of it in his own subsequent investigation, is, therefore, to be found in this paper, if anywhere. The writer of the article in the Nation did not adduce the article, although his whole case rested upon it. Challenged for his evidence, he now brings it forward in the Tribune, makes extracts from it, and states what else it contained; and we now give his whole reference to it, italics and all:

"Prof. Henry prefaced his paper on that occasion with the following reference to Dr. Tyndall' s presence: 'The communication which I propose to make this evening is brought forward at this time especially on account of the presence of Dr. Tyndall, he being connected with the lighthouse system of Great Britain, while the facts I have to state are connected with the lighthouse service of the United States, and must therefore be of interest to our distinguished visitor. The facts I have to present form part of a general report to be published by the United States Lighthouse Board.'

"After briefly treating on the prevalence of fogs upon the American coast, Prof. Henry proceeded to consider their scientific relations to fog-signaling, and remarked as follows:

"'In studying this subject it becomes a question of importance to ascertain whether waves of sound, like those of light, are absorbed or stifled by fog; on this point, however observers disagree. At first sight, from the very striking analogy which exists in many respects between light and sound, the opinion has largely prevailed that sound is impeded by fog. But those who have not been influenced by this analogy have in some instances adopted the opposite opinion that sound is better heard during a fog than in clear weather. To settle this question definitely the Lighthouse Board have directed that at two lighthouses on the route from Boston to St. Johns the fog-signals shall be sounded every day on which the steamboats from these ports pass the station, both in clear and foggy weather, the pilots on board these vessels having, for a small gratuity, engaged to note the actual distance of the boat when the sound is first heard on approaching the signal, and is last heard on receding from it. The boats above mentioned estimate their distance with considerable precision by the number of revolutions of the paddle-wheel, as recorded by the indicator of the engine, and it is hoped by this means to definitely decide the point in question. We think it highly probable that fog does somewhat diminish the penetrating power of sound, or, in other words, produce an effect analogous to the propagation of light. But when we consider the extreme minuteness of the particles of water constituting the fog, as compared with the magnitude of the waves of sound, the analogy does not hold except in so small a degree as to be of no practical importance, or, in other words, the existence of fog is a true, but, we think, an insufficient, cause of diminution of sound, which view is borne out by the great distance at which our signals are heard during a dense fog. Another cause, which without doubt is a true one, of the diminution of the penetrating power of sound is the varying density of the atmosphere, from heat and moisture, in long distances. The effect of this, however, would apparently be to slightly distort the wave of sound rather than to obliterate it. However this may be, we think, from all the observations we have made, the effect is small in comparison with another cause, vis., that of the influence of wind. During a residence of several weeks at the sea-shore, the sound of the breakers at a distance of about a mile in no case appeared to be coincident with the variations of an aneroid barometer or a thermometer, but in every instance it was affected by the direction of the wind. The variation in the distinctness of the sound of a distant instrument as depending on the direction of the wind is so marked that we are warranted in considering it the principal cause of the inefficiency in certain cases of the most powerful fog-signals.

"In the remainder of his paper, as read in the presence of Prof. Tyndall, the chairman of the Lighthouse Board applied the hypothesis of Prof. Stokes to an explanation of certain abnormal phenomena of sound which had been observed during the course of his systematic inquiries with regard to the causes which affect the intensity of sound."

The reader now has the whole case before him. This is the substance of what Prof. Tyndall listened to in Washington, and for not recognizing which, to the credit of American science, in his book on sound, he has been the subject of a bitter and persistent newspaper attack. Prof. Tyndall says that the reading of the document left him in mental perplexity, and we are certainly not surprised at his state of mind. The subject, it is to be remembered, was not new to him. He had been for years engaged in the scientific service of the English Lighthouse Department; he had been an explorer in the field of acoustics, and was familiar with the history of the subject. He knew that it was involved in obscurity, that observations disagreed, and that there was much theoretical conflict about it. Nothing seemed established, and he states that Prof. Henry's paper left him still in an intellectual fog in regard to the whole question. The reader will see that the statement is pervaded by doubt. Conflicting opinions are given, and the prominent question was yet to be decided by the aid of Boston pilots. Finally, a conjecture, thrown out by an English physicist, is invoked for the explanation of anomalous effects observed. Clearly it was a case for further and formidable work which required to be met by a comprehensive, systematic, and thorough-going research. Prof. Henry's paper settled nothing. That it was without value as a contribution to science, we by no means assert; but every one can see that it was not the product of a full, methodical, and exhaustive inquiry, such as the subject urgently demanded and had not yet received from any source. The observations of Humboldt, early in the century, on the passage of sound, were important, as Prof. Tyndall himself attests, but to characterize them as a "systematic inquiry into the causes which affect the intensity of sound in the atmosphere" is simply absurd. Humboldt confined himself to one branch of the investigation, and whole tracts of it he did not touch.

Prof. Tyndall was, therefore, abundantly justified in assuming that the blank of 167 years had not been filled up; and, being deeply interested in the subject, and having command of the means for an elaborate course of researches upon it, he determined to enter fully into the inquiry, with the hope of dispelling some of the uncertainty which clouded it.

He took up the question from a purely scientific point of view, not to improve the art of fog-signaling or arrive at any immediate practical results valuable to the navigator, but simply to test theories, explain phenomena, harmonize discrepancies, and advance acoustical science. He attacked the problem of the "causes" which affect the intensity of sound in the air with a single-mindedness, a rigor of method, and a completeness of resources, that had never before been employed upon it. His researches went on in a double series, on the coast and in the laboratory. Using the facilities furnished by the Government at home, and sending abroad for the best that could be supplied, he carried on his observations and experiments on a large scale from the South Foreland Station, scrutinizing and testing the various views and suggestions that had been proposed, and arriving at new and important conclusions in regard to the causes of which he was in search. He then subjected these conclusions to elaborate experimental verification by newly-devised apparatus, and original researches in the Royal Institution, with the attainment of results which will probably take their permanent place among the principles of acoustical science. At any rate, the subject, with its accumulated difficulties, had never before received so efficient a sifting and overhauling; and it was this that Prof. Tyndall meant, and had a right to mean, by the phrase "systematic inquiry into causes," in which he characterized his work. The writer in the Tribune can entertain his own views as to what that phrase signifies in dealing with the phenomena of Nature, but Prof. Tyndall will be perfectly easy in leaving this matter to the judgment of scientific men.

 

 
THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION AT BUFFALO.

The meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which began August 23d and lasted a week, has been unusually successful. There was a strong attendance of members, and a greater number than at any previous session of foreigners distinguished in science. A large number of papers were contributed to the proceedings, several of them important and of marked originality. Prof. Rogers presided with characteristic dignity and grace, and the retiring president, Prof, Hilgard, gave an instructive address, devoted mainly to his own department of study, and giving a sketch of the progress of the scientific measurements and mapping of the earth.

And the meeting was a success socially as well as scientifically. The citizens of Buffalo extended their hospitality in the most liberal manner to members and visitors, and the local committee made efficient arrangements for the accommodation of all who desired it. There were the usual receptions, which were largely attended and much enjoyed. It is given to but few places to favor their guests with so pleasant a treat as a day at Niagara Falls.

The Buffalo people owe their best thanks to Mr. Secretary Grote, of their young Academy of Sciences, for his efficient agency in securing the meeting to their town on this memorable year, as Philadelphia was a powerful rival for the honor. It is through this little scientific society, which has had to struggle on with insufficient means, sustained by a few who were heartily interested, that the citizens of Buffalo have been roused to invite the convention and to extend to its members so cordial a welcome. We hope that the stimulus thus given to the public interest in scientific subjects will bear permanent fruit and result in establishing the Buffalo Academy upon a liberal and permanent foundation.

But, while Buffalo has done its duty admirably toward the Association, has the Association in turn done its duty to Buffalo? Is duty in such a case a wholly one-sided thing, or are men of science such lions that they pay off their hosts by their bare presence? We do not suppose that the hospitable Buffalonians had an eye to what was to be got back from their guests, but obligations were nevertheless incurred, and it is proper to inquire how they were met. The citizens of that town, having no experience, did as those of other towns always do on these occasions—promised themselves great pleasure in attending the sessions of the Association. They drifted in freely at the opening meetings, but, after being peppered for an hour with unintelligible terms, they generally withdrew in a quiet way, and with their ardor cooled for discussions that could but little interest people at large.

The obvious logic of the case must have been that, although this scientific convocation was occupied with its own avowed and proper business, yet so far as ordinary outside folks were concerned it was something of a "sell." Now, we venture to think that this is all wrong, and if the American Association for the Advancement of Science were more liberally managed, it would recognize an important duty that it owes the public in each city where it is invited to hold its sessions. Granting that its strict and special aim is the advancement of science by original contributions to its various branches, and that its proper work is necessarily technical, and to be carried on in the little meetings of the scientists themselves, it is nevertheless true that there is a side of science in which the public is deeply concerned, and such a body as this, which goes annually from city to city, and has a great power of influencing the people for good, has no right to ignore its responsibility. The people are constantly appealed to by scientific men to give their money, while they live and when they die, for carrying on scientific investigations that are necessarily and largely expensive. Scientific men, in fact, must depend upon the public, and be supported by it. They, therefore, incur obligations, and cannot escape them. If science is a beneficent agency for all, if scientific truth requires to be diffused that every grade of society may reap its benefits in some form, then men of science, who have the knowledge and the capacity to present it in familiar and popular forms, are bound to do what they can according to their gifts and opportunities to promote these objects. The American Scientific Association, every time it enters a new city to hold its meeting, should contribute something useful and valuable for the instruction and enlightenment of all classes. It is a peculiar opportunity which should not be thrown away, and there are always men present competent to do the work, and who would cheerfully enter into it if it were a part of the regular arrangements of the Association. The British Association has done its duty in this respect for years. It has provided for the delivery of outside lectures, popular lectures, lectures to working-men given to the people in large halls, by the best talent of the body, and such gentlemen as Carpenter, Tyndall, Spottiswoode, Frankland, Huxley, Roscoe, and others, have not hesitated to do their share of the work when called upon. Notwithstanding all our talk of progress and the education of the people, the old monarchical and aristocratic country is far ahead of us in these matters. The American Association seems strangely indifferent to this aspect of its usefulness. It shirks its palpable duty in giving impulse and direction to general scientific education, and this omission to provide instructive lectures for the people at its yearly meetings seems further to show that it cares nothing about scientific teaching in any shape for public purposes.

 

 
THE AIR IN COURTS OF JUSTICE.

Judge Monell is dead; and we are informed he died of the foul air of the court-rooms in which he had officiated. Why should court-rooms poison those who frequent them, like Calcutta Black-Holes? We have not been often in such places, but we were never in a court-room yet that we did not think a fit subject for the action of the grand-jury as an indictable nuisance from its bad ventilation. Lawyers seem to be a good deal behind the age in the appreciation of pure air. When the chemists have gone to different places after samples of foul air, they generally report the worst from court-rooms. The way these are constituted for breathing-purposes is an excellent example of the way things are generally done by Government. Court-houses are built by the State, and usually with a large regardlessness of expense. But they are the work of architects, and are constructed more for external ornament than internal use. They please the eye of the passer with their stateliness, and asphyxiate the judges within. Money is profusely spent, and the building unfit to be used. And so with all places where politicians congregate, and Government provides the edifice. There came a wail from Washington during the last session that our Congressmen were being stifled by the bad ventilation of the House of Representatives. Millions upon millions have been put into the structure, and the whole world is called upon to come and admire its grand proportions and imposing effect, while the legislators within are being suffocated. The best Government in the world strangles its lawgivers with mephitic gases instead of allowing them to breathe pure air. But, before sickness and death can come by poisonous inhalations, there are stages of atmospheric deterioration in which the mind only is affected. The brain, the immediate instrument of thought and feeling, receives and requires the largest proportion of pure arterialized blood of any portion of the body. This is necessary to its functions, so that we cannot think, remember, compare, reason, and judge well, except in pure air, which maintains the mind's organ in its highest vigor and keenest action. Long before judges die and Congressmen take sick they must pass through this stage of cerebral depression, blunting of the sensibilities, and perversion and deadening of the mental operations. How much of the stupidity of legislation and the miscarriage of its judicial application may be due to the muddled brains of lawmakers and judges from breathing the pestilential air of legislative halls and courts of justice, it may be impossible to tell, but the inquiry is suggestive. It is also pertinent to ask, What sort of education can these parties have had, to submit to these conditions, even to the destruction of health and life?

 

 
THE "CONFLICT" AND THE "WAR-FARE."

The anxiety with which historic works on the relations of science and religion are now sought is a fact of special interest, and we think it a salutary symptom of the state of the public mind. Science has opened the question, and the world is taking hold of it in earnest. "The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science," by Dr. Draper, while being most vigorously pooh-poohed by those who did not like it, has steadily made its way, through translation, into nearly all the Continental countries, and is at last so loudly called for even in benighted Spain that two editions of it by rival publishers are reported as having appeared in Madrid. What possible or conceivable hope is there that religion and science in that country can ever be brought into genuine amity until there is first an intelligent recognition of what have been their past relations? President White's brief but telling sketch of "The Warfare of Science," though first widely circulated in the pages of this magazine, had to be reprinted, and in a few weeks has reached a third edition in this country, while it has been republished in England, and will undoubtedly be translated, as it deserves to be, into the chief European tongues. The merit of these works, and the secret of their success, are not more due to the ability with which they have been prepared, or the manly and fearless tone with which they discuss questions of the gravest importance, than to their opportune appearance and adaptation to the wants of a rapidly widening audience of thinking people in all countries. War-literature is always popular, but it is beginning to be seen that there are wars of opinion and conflicts of ideas carried on in the intellectual world which have at least an equal interest with the narratives of military campaigns and the records of carnage on fields of battle.

 

 

It is but an act of justice to Dr. Deems, of this city, to state that he replied to the article of Mr. Boyd in the June Monthly, entitled "Science and the Logicians." We were compelled to decline publishing the reply to cut off a controversy that would have consumed more space than we can allow to such discussions.