Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy - John F. W. Herschel - E-Book

Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy E-Book

John F. W. Herschel

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The situation of man on the globe he inhabits, and over which he has obtained the control, is in many respects exceedingly remarkable. Compared with its other denizens, he seems, if we regard only his physical constitution, in almost every respect their inferior, and equally unprovided for the supply of his natural wants and his defence against the innumerable enemies which surround him. No other animal passes so large a portion of its existence in a state of absolute helplessness, or falls in old age into such protracted and lamentable imbecility. To no other warm-blooded animal has nature denied that indispensable covering without which the vicissitudes of a temperate and the rigours of a cold climate are equally insupportable; and to scarcely any has she been so sparing in external weapons, whether for attack or defence. Destitute alike of speed to avoid and of arms to repel the aggressions of his voracious foes; tenderly susceptible of atmospheric influences; and unfitted for the coarse aliments which the earth affords spontaneously during at least two thirds of the year, even in temperate climates,-man, if abandoned to mere instinct, would be of all creatures the most destitute and miserable.

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Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy


Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy

John F. W. Herschel




OF MAN REGARDED AS A CREATURE OF INSTINCT, OF REASON, AND SPECULATION. GENERAL INFLUENCE OF SCIENTIFIC PURSUITS ON THE MIND.(1.)The situation of man on the globe he inhabits, and over which he has obtained the control, is in many respects exceedingly remarkable. Compared with its other denizens, he seems, if we regard only his physical constitution, in almost every respect their inferior, and equally unprovided for the supply of his natural wants and his defence against the innumerable enemies which surround him. No other animal passes so large a portion of its existence in a state of absolute helplessness, or falls in old age into such protracted and lamentable imbecility. To no other warm-blooded animal has nature denied that indispensable covering without which the vicissitudes of a temperate and the rigours of a cold climate are equally insupportable; and to scarcely any has she been so sparing in external weapons, whether for attack or defence. Destitute alike of speed to avoid and of arms to repel the aggressions of his voracious foes; tenderly susceptible of atmospheric influences; and unfitted for the coarse aliments which the earth affords spontaneously during at least two thirds of the year, even in temperate climates,—man, if abandoned to mere instinct, would be of all creatures the most destitute and miserable. Distracted by terror and goaded by famine; driven to the most abject expedients for concealment from his enemies, and to the most cowardly devices for the seizure and destruction of his nobler prey, his existence would be one continued subterfuge or stratagem;—his dwelling would be in dens of the earth, in clefts of rocks, or in the hollows of trees; his food worms, and the lower reptiles, or such few and crude productions of the soil as his organs could be brought to assimilate, varied with occasional relics, mangled by more powerful beasts of prey, or contemned by their more pampered choice. Remarkable only for the absence of those powers and qualities which obtain for other animals a degree of security and respect, he would be disregarded by some, and hunted down by others, till after a few generations his species would become altogether extinct, or, at best, would be restricted to a few islands in tropical regions, where the warmth of the climate, the paucity of enemies, and the abundance of vegetable food, might permit it to linger.(2.) Yet man is the undisputed lord of the creation. The strongest and fiercest of his fellow-creatures,—the whale, the elephant, the eagle, and the tiger,—are slaughtered by him to supply his most capricious wants, or tamed to do him service, or imprisoned to make him sport. The spoils of all nature are in daily requisition for his most common uses, yielded with more or less readiness, or wrested with reluctance, from the mine, the forest, the ocean, and the air. Such are the first fruits of reason. Were they the only or the principal ones, were the mere acquisition of power over the materials, and the less gifted animals which surround us, and the consequent increase of our external comforts, and our means of preservation and sensual enjoyment, the sum of the privileges which the possession of this faculty conferred, we should after all have little to plume ourselves upon. But this is so far from being the case, that every one who passes his life in tolerable ease and comfort, or rather whose whole time is not anxiously consumed in providing the absolute necessaries of existence, is conscious of wants and cravings in which the senses have no part, of a series of pains and pleasures totally distinct in kind from any which the infliction of bodily misery or the gratification of bodily appetites has ever afforded him; and if he has experienced these pleasures and these pains in any degree of intensity, he will readily admit them to hold a much higher rank, and to deserve much more attention, than the former class. Independent of the pleasures of fancy and imagination, and social converse, man is constituted a speculative being; he contemplates the world, and the objects around him, not with a passive, indifferent gaze, as a set of phenomena in which he has no further interest than as they affect his immediate situation, and can be rendered subservient to his comfort, but as a system disposed with order and design. He approves and feels the highest admiration for the harmony of its parts, the skill and efficiency of its contrivances. Some of these which he can best trace and understand he attempts to imitate, and finds that to a certain extent, though rudely and imperfectly, he can succeed,—in others, that although he can comprehend the nature of the contrivance, he is totally destitute of all means of imitation;—while in others, again, and those evidently the most important, though he sees the effect produced, yet the means by which it is done are alike beyond his knowledge and his control. Thus he is led to the conception of a Power and an Intelligence superior to his own, and adequate to the production and maintenance of all that he sees in nature,—a Power and Intelligence to which he may well apply the term infinite, since he not only sees no actual limit to the instances in which they are manifested, but finds, on the contrary, that the farther he enquires, and the wider his sphere of observation extends, they continually open upon him in increasing abundance; and that as the study of one prepares him to understand and appreciate another, refinement follows on refinement, wonder on wonder, till his faculties become bewildered in admiration, and his intellect falls back on itself in utter hopelessness of arriving at an end.(3.) When from external objects he turns his view upon himself, on his own vital and intellectual faculties, he finds that he possesses a power of examining and analysing his own nature to a certain extent, but no farther. In his corporeal frame he is sensible of a power to communicate a certain moderate amount of motion to himself and other objects; that this power depends on his will, and that its exertion can be suspended or increased at pleasure within certain limits; buthowhis will acts on his limbs he has no consciousness: and whence he derives the power he thus exercises, there is nothing to assure him, however he may long to know. His senses, too, inform him of a multitude of particulars respecting the external world, and he perceives an apparatus by which impressions from without may be transmitted, as a sort of signals to the interior of his person, and ultimately to his brain, wherein he is obscurely sensible that the thinking, feeling, reasoning being he callshimself, more especially resides; but by what means he becomes conscious of these impressions, and what is the nature of the immediate communication between that inward sentient being, and that machinery, his outward man, he has not the slightest conception.(4.) Again, when he contemplates still more attentively the thoughts, acts, and passions of this his sentient intelligent self, he finds, indeed, that he can remember, and by the aid of memory can compare and discriminate, can judge and resolve, and, above all, that he is irresistibly impelled, from the perception of any phenomenon without or within him, to infer the existence of something prior which stands to it in the relation of acause, without which it would not be, and that this knowledge of causes and their consequences is what, in almost every instance, determines his choice and will, in cases where he is nevertheless conscious of perfect freedom to act or not to act. He finds, too, that it is in his power to acquire more or less knowledge of causes and effects according to the degree of attention he bestows upon them, which attention is again in great measure a voluntary act; and often when his choice has been decided on imperfect knowledge or insufficient attention, he finds reason to correct his judgment, though perhaps too late to influence his decision by after consideration. A world within him is thus opened to his intellectual view, abounding with phenomena and relations, and of the highest immediate interest. But while he cannot help perceiving that the insight he is enabled to obtain into this internal sphere of thought and feeling is in reality the source of all his power, the very fountain of his predominance over external nature, he yet feels himself capable of entering only very imperfectly into these recesses of his own bosom, and analysing the operations of his mind,—in this as in all other things, in short, “a being darkly wise;” seeing that all the longest life and most vigorous intellect can give him power to discover by his own research, or time to know by availing himself of that of others, serves only to place him on the very frontier of knowledge, and afford a distant glimpse of boundless realms beyond, where no human thought has penetrated, but which yet he is sure must be no less familiarly known to that Intelligence which he traces throughout creation than the most obvious truths which he himself daily applies to his most trifling purposes. Is it wonderful that a being so constituted should first encourage a hope, and by degrees acknowledge an assurance, that his intellectual existence will not terminate with the dissolution of his corporeal frame, but rather that in a future state of being, disencumbered of a thousand obstructions which his present situation throws in his way, endowed with acuter senses, and higher faculties, he shall drink deep at that fountain of beneficent wisdom for which the slight taste obtained on earth has given him so keen a relish?(5.) Nothing, then, can be more unfounded than the objection which has been taken,in limine, by persons, well meaning perhaps, certainly narrow-minded, against the study of natural philosophy, and indeed against all science,—that it fosters in its cultivators an undue and overweening self-conceit, leads them to doubt the immortality of the soul, and to scoff at revealed religion. Its natural effect, we may confidently assert, on every well constituted mind is and must be the direct contrary. No doubt, the testimony of natural reason, on whatever exercised, must of necessity stop short of those truths which it is the object of revelation to make known; but, while it places the existence and principal attributes of a Deity on such grounds as to render doubt impossible, it unquestionably opposes no natural or necessary obstacle to further progress: on the contrary, by cherishing as a vital principle an unbounded spirit of enquiry, and ardency of expectation, it unfetters the mind from prejudices of every kind, and leaves it open and free to every impression of a higher nature which it is susceptible of receiving, guarding only against enthusiasm and self-deception by a habit of strict investigation, but encouraging, rather than suppressing, every thing that can offer a prospect or a hope beyond the present obscure and unsatisfactory state. The character of the true philosopher is to hope all things not impossible, and to believe all things not unreasonable. He who has seen obscurities which appeared impenetrable in physical and mathematical science suddenly dispelled, and the most barren and unpromising fields of enquiry converted, as if by inspiration, into rich and inexhaustible springs of knowledge and power on a simple change of our point of view, or by merely bringing to bear on them some principle which it never occurred before to try, will surely be the very last to acquiesce in any dispiriting prospects of either the present or future destinies of mankind; while, on the other hand, the boundless views of intellectual and moral as well as material relations which open on him on all hands in the course of these pursuits, the knowledge of the trivial place he occupies in the scale of creation, and the sense continually pressed upon him of his own weakness and incapacity to suspend or modify the slightest movement of the machinery he sees in action around him, must effectually convince him that humility of pretension, no less than confidence of hope, is what best becomes his character.(6.) But while we thus vindicate the study of natural philosophy from a charge at one time formidable, owing to the pertinacity and acrimony with which it was urged, and still occasionally brought forward to the distress and disgust of every well constituted mind, we must take care that the testimony afforded by science to religion, be its extent or value what it may, shall be at least independent, unbiassed, and spontaneous. We do not here allude to such reasoners as would make all nature bend to their narrow interpretations of obscure and difficult passages in the sacred writings: such a course might well become the persecutors of Galileo and the other bigots of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but can only be adopted by dreamers in the present age. But, without going these lengths, it is no uncommon thing to find persons, earnestly attached to science and anxious for its promotion, who yet manifest a morbid sensibility on points of this kind,—who exult and applaud when any fact starts up explanatory (as they suppose) of some scriptural allusion and who feel pained and disappointed when the general course of discovery in any department of science runs wide of the notions with which particular passages in the Bible may have impressed themselves. To persons of such a frame of mind it ought to suffice to remark, on the one hand, that truth can never be opposed to truth, and, on the other, that error is only to be effectually confounded by searching deep and tracing it to its source. Nevertheless, it were much to be wished that such persons, estimable and excellent as many of them are, before they throw the weight of their applause or discredit into the scale of scientific opinion on such grounds, would reflect, first, that the credit and respectability ofanyevidence may be destroyed by tampering with itshonesty; and, secondly, that this very disposition of mind implies a lurking mistrust in its own principles, since the grand and indeed only character of truth is its capability of enduring the test of universal experience, and coming unchanged out of every possible form offairdiscussion.(7.) But if science may be vilified by representing it as opposed to religion, or trammelled by mistaken notions of the danger of free enquiry, there is yet another mode by which it may be degraded from its native dignity, and that is by placing it in the light of a mere appendage to and caterer for our pampered appetites. The question “cui bono” to what practical end and advantage do your researches tend? is one which the speculative philosopher who loves knowledge for its own sake, and enjoys, as a rational being should enjoy, the mere contemplation of harmonious and mutually dependent truths, can seldom hear without a sense of humiliation. He feels that there is a lofty and disinterested pleasure in his speculations which ought to exempt them from such questioning; communicating as they do to his own mind the purest happiness (after the exercise of the benevolent and moral feelings) of which human nature is susceptible, and tending to the injury of no one, he might surely allegethisas a sufficient and direct reply to those who, having themselves little capacity, and less relish for intellectual pursuits, are constantly repeating upon him this enquiry. But if he can bring himself to descend from this high but fair ground, and justify himself, his pursuits, and his pleasures in the eyes of those around him, he has only to point to the history of all science, where speculations, apparently unprofitable, have, in innumerable instances, been those from which great practical applications have emanated. What, for instance, could be more so than the dry speculations of the ancient geometers on the properties of the conic sections, or than the dreams of Kepler (as they would naturally appear to his contemporaries) about the numerical harmonies of the universe? Yet these are the steps by which we have risen to a knowledge of the elliptic motions of the planets and the law of gravitation, with all its splendid theoretical consequences, and its inestimable practical results. The ridicule attached to “Swing-swangs” in Hooke’s time1did not prevent him from reviving the proposal of thependulumas a standard of measure, since so effectually wrought into practice by the genius and perseverance of Captain Kater;—nor did that which Boyle encountered in his researches on the elasticity and pressure of the air act as any obstacle to the train of discovery which terminated in the steam-engine. The dreams of the alchemists led them on in the path of experiment, and drew attention to the wonders of chemistry, while they brought their advocates (it must be admitted) to merited contempt and ruin. But in this case it was moral dereliction which gave to ridicule a weight and power not necessarily or naturally belonging to it: but among the alchemists were men of superior minds, who reasoned while they worked, and who, not content to grope always in the dark, and blunder on their object, sought carefully in the observed nature of their agents for guides in their pursuit. To these we owe the creation of experimental philosophy.(8.) Not that it is meant, by any thing above said, to assert that there is no such thing as a great or a little in speculative philosophy, or to place the solution of an enigma on a level with the developement of a law of nature, still less to adopt the homely definition of Smith2, that a philosopher is a person whose trade it is to do nothing, and speculate on every thing. The speculations of the natural philosopher, however remote they may for a time lead him from beaten tracks and every-day uses, being grounded in the realities of nature, have all, of necessity, a practical application,—nay more, such applications form the very criterions of their truth, they afford the readiest and completest verifications of his theories;—verifications which he will no more neglect to test them by than an arithmetician would omit toprovehis sums, or a cautious geometer to try his general theorems by particular cases.3(9.) After all, however, it must be confessed, that to minds unacquainted with science, and unused to consider the mutual dependencies of its various branches, there is something neither unnatural nor altogether blamable in the ready occurrence of this question of direct advantage. It requires some habit of abstraction, some penetration of the mind with a tincture of scientific enquiry, some conviction of the value of those estimable and treasured principles which lie concealed in the most common and homely facts,—some experience, in fine, of success in developing and placing them in evidence, announcing them in precise terms, and applying them to the explanation of other facts of a less familiar character, or to the accomplishment of some obviously useful purpose:—to cure the mind of this tendency to rush at once upon its object, to undervalue the means in over-estimation of the end, and while gazing too intently at the goal which alone it has been accustomed to desire, to lose sight of the richness and variety of the prospects that offer themselves on either hand on the road.(10.) We must never forget that it is principles, not phenomena,—the interpretation, not the mere knowledge of facts,—which are the objects of enquiry to the natural philosopher. As truth is single, and consistent with itself, a principle may be as completely and as plainly elucidated by the most familiar and simple fact, as by the most imposing and uncommon phenomenon. The colours which glitter on a soap-bubble are the immediate consequence of a principle the most important from the variety of phenomena it explains, and the most beautiful, from its simplicity and compendious neatness, in the whole science of optics. If the nature of periodical colours can be made intelligible by the contemplation of such a trivial object, from that moment it becomes a noble instrument in the eye of correct judgment; and to blow a large, regular, and durable soap-bubble may become the serious and praiseworthy endeavour of a sage, while children stand round and scoff, or children of a larger growth hold up their hands in astonishment at such waste of time and trouble. To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling. From the least of nature’s works he may learn the greatest lessons. The fall of an apple to the ground may raise his thoughts to the laws which govern the revolutions of the planets in their orbits; or the situation of a pebble may afford him evidence of the state of the globe he inhabits, myriads of ages ago, before his species became its denizens.(11.) And this is, in fact, one of the great sources of delight which the study of natural science imparts to its votaries. A mind which has once imbibed a taste for scientific enquiry, and has learnt the habit of applying its principles readily to the cases which occur, has within itself an inexhaustible source of pure and exciting contemplations:—one would think that Shakspeare had such a mind in view when he describes a contemplative man as finding all nature eloquent—the very trees, the brooks, and the stones reading to him lessons of deep and serious import. Accustomed to trace the operation of general causes, and the exemplification of general laws, in circumstances where the uninformed and unenquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders: every object which falls in his way elucidates some principle, affords some instruction, and impresses him with a sense of harmony and order. Nor is it a mere passive pleasure which is thus communicated. A thousand questions are continually arising in his mind, a thousand subjects of enquiry presenting themselves, which keep his faculties in constant exercise, and his thoughts perpetually on the wing, so that lassitude is excluded from his life, and that craving after artificial excitement and dissipation of mind, which leads so many into frivolous, unworthy, and destructive pursuits, is altogether eradicated from his bosom.(12.) It is not one of the least advantages of these pursuits, which, however, they possess in common with every class of intellectual pleasures, that they are altogether independent of external circumstances, and are to be enjoyed in every situation in which a man can be placed in life. The highest degrees of worldly prosperity are so far from being incompatible with them, that they supply inestimable advantages for their pursuit, and that sort of fresh and renewed relish which arises partly from the sense of contrast, partly from experience of the peculiar pre-eminence they possess over the pleasures of sense in their capability of unlimited increase and continual repetition without satiety or distaste. They may be enjoyed, too, in the intervals of the most active business; and the calm and dispassionate interest with which they fill the mind renders them a most delightful retreat from the agitations and dissensions of the world, and from the conflict of passions, prejudices, and interests in which the man of business finds himself involved. There is something in the contemplation of general laws which powerfully induces and persuades us to merge individual feeling, and to commit ourselves unreservedly to their disposal; while the observation of the calm, energetic regularity of nature, the immense scale of her operations, and the certainty with which her ends are attained, tends, irresistibly, to tranquillize and re-assure the mind, and render it less accessible to repining, selfish, and turbulent emotions. And this it does, not by debasing our nature into weak compliances and abject submission to circumstances, but by filling us, as from an inward spring, with a sense of nobleness and power which enables us to rise superior to them; by showing us our strength and innate dignity, and by calling upon us for the exercise of those powers and faculties by which we are susceptible of the comprehension of so much greatness, and which form, as it were, a link between ourselves and the best and noblest benefactors of our species, with whom we hold communion in thoughts and participate in discoveries which have raised them above their fellow-mortals, and brought them nearer to their Creator.



(13.)Science is the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one. The knowledge of reasons and their conclusions constitutesabstract, that of causes and their effects, and of the laws of nature,natural science.

(14.) Abstract science is independent of a system of nature,—of a creation,—of every thing, in short, except memory, thought, and reason. Its objects are, first, those primary existences and relations which we cannot even conceive not tobe, such as space, time, number, order, &c.; and, secondly, those artificial forms, or symbols, which thought has the power of creating for itself at pleasure, and substituting as representatives, by the aid of memory, for combinations of those primary objects and of its own conceptions,—either to facilitate the act of reasoning respecting them, or as convenient deposits of its own conclusions, or for their communication to others. Such are, first,language, oral or written; its conventional forms, which constitute grammar, and the rules for its use in argument, in which consists the logic of the schools; secondly,notation, which, applied tonumber, isarithmetic,—and, to the more general relations of abstract quantity or order, isalgebra; and, thirdly, that higher kind of logic, which teaches us to use our reason in the most advantageous manner for the discovery of truth; which points out the criterions by which we may be sure we have attained it; and which, by detecting the sources of error, and exposing the haunts where fallacies are apt to lurk, at once warns us of their danger, and shows us how to avoid them. This greater logic may be termedrational4; while, to that inferior department which is conversant with words alone, the epithetverbal5may, for distinction, be applied.

(15.) A certain moderate degree of acquaintance with abstract science is highly desirable to every one who would make any considerable progress in physics. As the universe exists in time and place; and as motion, velocity, quantity, number, and order, are main elements of our knowledge of external things and their changes, an acquaintance with these, abstractedly considered, (that is to say, independent of any consideration of the particular things moved, measured, counted, or arranged,) must evidently be a useful preparation for the more complex study of nature. But there is yet another recommendation of such sciences as a preparation for the study of natural philosophy. Their objects are so definite, and our notions of them so distinct, that we can reason about them with an assurance, that the words and signs used in our reasonings are full and true representatives of the things signified; and, consequently, that when we use language or signs in argument, we neither, by their use, introduce extraneous notions, nor exclude any part of the case before us from consideration. For example: the words space, square, circle, a hundred, &c., convey to the mind notions so complete in themselves, and so distinct from every thing else, that we are sure when we use them we know and have in view the whole of our own meaning. It is widely different with words expressing natural objects and mixed relations. Take, for instance, iron. Different persons attach very different ideas to this word. One who has never heard of magnetism has a widely different notion ofironfrom one in the contrary predicament. The vulgar, who regard this metal as incombustible, and the chemist, who sees it burn with the utmost fury, and who has other reasons for regarding it as one of the most combustible bodies in nature;—the poet, who uses it as an emblem of rigidity; and the smith and engineer, in whose hands it is plastic, and moulded like wax into every form;—the jailer, who prizes it as an obstruction, and the electrician, who sees in it only a channel of open communication by which that most impassable of obstacles, the air, may be traversed by his imprisoned fluid, have all different, and all imperfect, notions of the same word. The meaning of such a term is like a rainbow—every body sees a different one, and all maintain it to be the same. So it is with nearly all our terms of sense. Some are indefinite, as hard or soft, light or heavy (terms which were at one time the sources of innumerable mistakes and controversies); some excessively complex, as man, life, instinct. But, what is worst of all, some, nay most, have two or three meanings; sufficiently distinct from each other to make a proposition true in one sense and false in another, or even false altogether; yet not distinct enough to keep us from confounding them in the process by which we arrived at it, or to enable us immediately to recognise the fallacy when led to it by a train of reasoning, each step of which wethinkwe have examined and approved. Surely those who thus attach two senses to one word, or superadd a new meaning to an old one, act as absurdly as colonists who distribute themselves over the world, naming every place they come to by the names of those they have left, till all distinctions of geographical nomenclature are confounded, and till we are unable to decide whether an occurrence stated to have happened at Windsor took place in Europe, America, or Australia.6

(16.) It is, in fact, in this double or incomplete sense of words that we must look for the origin of a very large portion of the errors into which we fall. Now, the study of the abstract sciences, such as arithmetic, geometry, algebra, &c., while they afford scope for the exercise of reasoning about objects that are, or, at least, may be conceived to be, external to us; yet, being free from these sources of error and mistake, accustom us to the strict use of language as an instrument of reason, and by familiarizing us, in our progress towards truth, to walk uprightly and straight-forward on firm ground, give us that proper and dignified carriage of mind which could never be acquired by having always to pick our steps among obstructions and loose fragments, or to steady them in the reeling tempest of conflicting meanings.

(17.) But there is yet another point of view under which some acquaintance with abstract science may be regarded as highly desirable in general education, if not indispensably necessary, to impress on us the distinction between strict and vague reasoning, to show us what demonstration reallyis, and to give us thereby a full and intimate sense of the nature and strength of the evidence on which our knowledge of the actual system of nature, and the laws of natural phenomena, rests. For this purpose, however, a very moderate acquaintance with the more elementary branches of mathematics may suffice. The chain is laid before us, and every link is submitted to our unreserved examination, if we have patience and inclination to enter on such detail. Hundreds have gone through it, and will continue to do so; but, for the generality of mankind, it is enough to satisfy themselves of the solidity and adamantine texture of its materials, and the unreserved exposure of its weakest, as well as its strongest, parts. If, however, we content ourselves with this general view of the matter, we must be content also to take on trust, that is, on the authority of those who have examined deeper, every conclusion which cannot be made apparent to our senses. Now, among these there are many so very surprising, indeed apparently so extravagant, that it is quite impossible for any enquiring mind to rest contented with a mere hearsay statement of them,—we feel irresistibly impelled to enquire further into their truth. What mere assertion will make any man believe, that in one second of time, in one beat of the pendulum of a clock, a ray of light travels over 192,000 miles, and would therefore perform the tour of the world in about the same time that it requires to wink with our eyelids, and in much less than a swift runner occupies in taking a single stride? What mortal can be made to believe, without demonstration, that the sun is almost a million times larger than the earth? and that, although so remote from us, that a cannon ball shot directly towards it, and maintaining its full speed, would be twenty years in reaching it, it yet affects the earth by its attraction in an inappreciable instant of time?—a closeness of union of which we can form but a feeble, and totally inadequate, idea, by comparing it to any material connection; since the communication of an impulse to such a distance, by any solid intermedium we are acquainted with, would require, not moments, but whole years. And when, with pain and difficulty we have strained our imagination to conceive a distance so vast, a force so intense and penetrating, if we are told that the one dwindles to an insensible point, and the other is unfelt at the nearest of the fixed stars, from the mere effect of their remoteness, while among those very stars are some whose actual splendour exceeds by many hundred times that of the sun itself, although we may not deny the truth of the assertion, we cannot but feel the keenest curiosity to knowhowsuch things were ever made out.

(18.) The foregoing are among those results of scientific research which, by their magnitude, seem to transcend our powers of conception. There are others, again, which, from their minuteness, would appear to elude the grasp of thought, much more of distinct and accurate measurement. Who would not ask for demonstration, when told that a gnat’s wing, in its ordinary flight, beats many hundred times in a second? or that there exist animated and regularly organized beings, many thousands of whose bodies laid close together would not extend an inch? But what are these to the astonishing truths which modern optical enquiries have disclosed, which teach us that every point of a medium through which a ray of light passes is affected with a succession of periodical movements, regularly recurring at equal intervals, no less than five hundred millions of millions of times in a single second! that it is by such movements, communicated to the nerves of our eyes, that we see:—nay more, that it is thedifferencein the frequency of their recurrence which affects us with the sense of the diversity of colour; that, for instance, in acquiring the sensation of redness our eyes are affected four hundred and eighty-two millions of millions of times; of yellowness, five hundred and forty-two millions of millions of times; and of violet, seven hundred and seven millions of millions of times per second.7Do not such things sound more like the ravings of madmen, than the sober conclusions of people in their waking senses?

(19.) They are, nevertheless, conclusions to which any one may most certainly arrive, who will only be at the trouble of examining the chain of reasoning by which they have been deduced; but, in order to do this, something beyond the mere elements of abstract science is required. Waving, however, such instances as these, which, after all, are rather calculated to surprise and astound than for any other purpose, it must be observed that it is not possible to satisfy ourselves completely that wehavearrived at a true statement of any law of nature, until, setting out from such statement, and making it a foundation of reasoning, we can show, by strict argument, that the facts observed must follow from it as necessary logical consequences, andthis, not vaguely and generally, but with all possible precision in time, place, weight, and measure.

(20.) To do this, however, as we shall presently see, requires in many cases a degree of knowledge of mathematics and geometry altogether unattainable by the generality of mankind, who have not the leisure, even if they all had the capacity, to enter into such enquiries, some of which are indeed of that degree of difficulty that they can be only successfully prosecuted by persons who devote to them their whole attention, and make them the serious business of their lives. But there is scarcely any person of good ordinary understanding, however little exercised in abstract enquiries, who may not be readily made to comprehend at least the general train of reasoning by which any of the great truths of physics are deduced, and the essential bearings and connections of the several parts of natural philosophy. There are whole branches too and very extensive and important ones, to which mathematical reasoning has never been at all applied; such as chemistry, geology, and natural history in general, and many others, in which it plays a very subordinate part, and of which the essential principles, and the grounds of application to useful purposes, may be perfectly well understood by a student who possesses no more mathematical knowledge than the rules of arithmetic; so that no one need be deterred from the acquisition of knowledge, or even from active original research in such subjects, by a want of mathematical information. Even in those branches which, like astronomy, optics, and dynamics, are almost exclusively under the dominion of mathematics, and in which no effectual progress can be made withoutsomeacquaintance with geometry, the principalresultsmay be perfectly understood without it. To one incapable of following out the intricacies of mathematical demonstration, the conviction afforded by verified predictions must stand in the place of that purer and more satisfactory reliance which a verification of every step in the process of reasoning can alone afford, since every one will acknowledge the validity of pretensions which he is in the daily habit of seeing brought to the test of practice.

(21.) Among the verifications of this practical kind which abound in every department of physics, there are none more imposing than the precise prediction of the greater phenomena of astronomy; none, certainly, which carry a broader conviction home to every mind from their notoriety and unequivocal character. The prediction of eclipses has accordingly from the earliest ages excited the admiration of mankind, and been one grand instrument by which their allegiance (so to speak) to natural science, and their respect for its professors, has been maintained; and though strangely abused in unenlightened ages by the supernatural pretensions of astrologers, the credence given even to their absurdities shows the force of this kind of evidence on men’s minds. The predictions of astronomers are, however, now far too familiar to endanger the just equipoise of our judgment, since even the return of comets, true to their paths and exact to the hour of their appointment, has ceased to amaze, though it must ever delight all who have souls capable of being penetrated by such beautiful instances of accordance between theory and facts. But the age of mere wonder in such things is past, and men prefer being guided and enlightened, to being astonished and dazzled. Eclipses, comets, and the like, afford but rare and transient displays of the powers of calculation, and of the certainty of the principles on which it is grounded. A page of “lunar distances” from the Nautical Almanack is worth all the eclipses that have ever happened for inspiring this necessary confidence in the conclusions of science. That a man, by merely measuring the moon’s apparent distance from a star with a little portable instrument held in his hand, and applied to his eye, even with so unstable a footing as the deck of a ship, shall say positively, within five miles, where he is, on a boundless ocean, cannot but appear to persons ignorant of physical astronomy an approach to the miraculous. Yet, the alternatives of life and death, wealth and ruin, are daily and hourly staked with perfect confidence on these marvellous computations, which might almost seem to have been devised on purpose to show how closely the extremes of speculative refinement and practical utility can be brought to approximate. We have before us an anecdote communicated to us by a naval officer8, distinguished for the extent and variety of his attainments, which shows how impressive such results may become in practice. He sailed from San Blas on the west coast of Mexico, and after a voyage of 8000 miles, occupying 89 days, arrived off Rio de Janeiro, having, in this interval, passed through the Pacific Ocean, rounded Cape Horn, and crossed the South Atlantic, without making any land, or even seeing a single sail, with the exception of an American whaler off Cape Horn. Arrived within a week’s sail of Rio, he set seriously about determining, by lunar observations, the precise line of the ship’s course and its situation in it at a determinate moment, and having ascertained this within from five to ten miles, ran the rest of the way by those more ready and compendious methods, known to navigators, which can be safely employed for short trips between one known point and another, but which cannot be trusted in long voyages, where the moon is the only sure guide. The rest of the tale we are enabled by his kindness to state in his own words:—“We steered towards Rio de Janeiro for some days after taking the lunars above described, and having arrived within fifteen or twenty miles of the coast, I hove to at four in the morning till the day should break, and then bore up; for although it was very hazy, we could see before us a couple of miles or so. About eight o’clock it became so foggy that I did not like to stand in farther, and was just bringing the ship to the wind again before sending the people to breakfast, when it suddenly cleared off, and I had the satisfaction of seeing the great Sugar Loaf Rock, which stands on one side of the harbour’s mouth, so nearly right ahead that we had not to alter our course above a point in order to hit the entrance of Rio. This was the first land we had seen for three months, after crossing so many seas and being set backwards and forwards by innumerable currents and foul winds.” The effect on all on board might well be conceived to have been electric; and it is needless to remark how essentially the authority of a commanding officer over his crew may be strengthened by the occurrence of such incidents, indicative of a degree of knowledge and consequent power beyond their reach.

(22.) But even such results as these, striking as they are, yet fall short of the force with which conviction is urged upon us when, through the medium of reasoning too abstract for common apprehension, we arrive at conclusions which outrun experience, and describe beforehand what will happen under new combinations, or even correct imperfect experiments, and lead us to a knowledge of facts contrary to received analogies drawn from an experience wrongly interpreted or overhastily generalised. To give an example:—every body knows that objects viewed through a transparent medium, such as water or glass, appear distorted or displaced. Thus, a stick in water appears bent, and an object seen through a prism or wedge of glass seems to be thrown aside from its true place. This effect is owing to what is called therefractionof light; and a simple rule discovered by Willebrod Snell enables any one to say exactlyhow muchthe stick will be bent, andhow far, and in whatdirection, the apparent situation of an object seen through the glass will deviate from the real one. If a shilling be laid at the bottom of a basin of water and viewed obliquely, it will appear to be raised by the water; if instead of water spirits of wine be used it will appear more raised; if oil, still more:—but in none of these cases will it appear to be thrownasideto therightorleftof its true place, however the eye be situated. Theplane, in which are contained the eye, the object, and the point in the surface of the liquid at which the object is seen, is an upright orverticalplane; and this is one of the principal characters in theordinary refractionof light, viz. that the ray by which we see an object through a refracting surface, although it undergoes a bending, and is, as it were, broken at the surface, yet, in pursuing its course to the eye, does notquit a plane perpendicular to the refracting surface. But there are again other substances, such as rock-crystal, and especially Iceland spar, which possess the singular property ofdoublingthe image or appearance of an object seen through them in certain directions; so that instead of seeing one object we see two, side by side, when such a crystal or spar is interposed between the object and the eye; and if a ray or small sunbeam be thrown upon a surface of either of these substances, it will be split into two, making an angle with each other, and each pursuing its own separate course,—this is calleddouble refraction. Now, of these images or doubly refracted rays, one always follows the same rule as if the substance were glass or water: its deviation can be correctly calculated by Snell’s law above mentioned, and it does not quit the plane perpendicular to the refracting surface. The other ray, on the contrary, (which is therefore said to have undergoneextraordinary refraction)doesquit that plane, and the amount of its deviation from its former course requires for its determination a much more complicated rule, which cannot be understood or even stated without a pretty intimate knowledge of geometry. Now, rock-crystal and Iceland spar differ from glass in a very remarkable circumstance. They affect naturally certain regular figures, not being found in shapeless lumps, but in determinate geometrical forms; and they are susceptible of being cleft or split much easier in certain directions than in others—they have agrainwhich glass has not. When other substances having this peculiarity (and which are calledcrystallizedsubstances) were examined, they were all, or by far the greater part, found to possess this singular property ofdouble refraction; and it was very natural to conclude, therefore, that the same thing took place in all of them, viz. that of the two rays, into which any beam of light falling on the surface of such a substance was split, or of the two images of an object seen through it,oneonly was turned aside out of itsplaneandextraordinarilyrefracted, while the other followed theordinaryrule. Accordingly this was supposed to be the case; and not only so, but from some trials and measurements purposely made by a philosopher of great eminence, it was considered to be a fact sufficiently established by experiment.

(23.) Perhaps we might have remained long under this impression, for the measurements are delicate, and the subject very difficult. But it has lately been demonstrated by an eminent French philosopher and mathematician, M. Fresnel, that, granting certainprinciplesor postulates, all the phenomena of double refraction, including perhaps the greatest variety of facts that have ever yet been arranged under one general head, may be satisfactorily explained and deduced from them by strict mathematical calculation; andthat, when applied to the cases first mentioned, these principles give a satisfactory account of thewantof the extraordinary image;thatwhen applied to such cases as those of rock-crystal or Iceland spar, they also give a correct account of both the images, and agree in their conclusions with the rules before ascertained for them: but so far from coinciding with that part of the previous statement, which would make these conclusions extend to all crystallised substances, M. Fresnel’s principles lead to a conclusion quite opposite, and point to afactwhich had never been observed, viz. that in by far the greater number of crystallized substances which possess the property of double refraction,neitherof the images follows the ordinary law, but both undergo a deviation from their original plane. Now this had never been observed to be the case in any previous trial, and all opinion was against it. But when put to the test of experiment in a great variety of new and ingenious methods, it was found to be fully verified; and to complete the evidence, the substances on whose imperfect examination the first erroneous conclusion was founded, having been lately subjected to a fresh and more scrupulous examination, the result has shown the insufficiency of the former measurements, and proved in perfect accordance with the newly discovered laws. Now it will be observed in this case, first, that, so far from the principles assumed by M. Fresnel being at all obvious, they are extremely remote from ordinary observation; and, secondly, that the chain of reasoning by which they are brought to the test is one of such length and complexity, and the purely mathematical difficulty of their application so great, that nomeregood common sense, no general tact or ordinary practical reasoning, would afford the slightest chance of threading their mazes. Cases like this are the triumph of theories. They show at once how large a part pure reason has to perform in our examination of nature, and how implicit our reliance ought to be on that powerful and methodical system of rules and processes which constitute the modern mathematical analysis, in all the more difficult applications of exact calculation to her phenomena.

(24.) To take an instance more within ordinary apprehension. An eminent living geometer had proved by calculations, founded on strict optical principles, that in thecentre of the shadowof a small circular plate of metal, exposed in a dark room to a beam of light emanating from avery small brilliant point, there ought to be no darkness,—in fact,no shadowat that place; but, on the contrary, a degree of illumination precisely as bright as if the metal plate were away. Strange and even impossible as this conclusion may seem, it has been put to the trial, and found perfectly correct.9

(25.) We shall now proceed to consider more particularly, and in detail,—

I. The nature and objects immediate and collateral of physical science, as regarded in itself, and in its application to the practical purposes of life, and its influence on the well-being and progress of society.

II. The principles on which it relies for its successful prosecution, and the rules by which a systematic examination of nature should be conducted, with examples illustrative of their influence.

III. The subdivision of physical science into distinct branches, and their mutual relations.



(26.)The first thing impressed on us from our earliest infancy is, that events do not succeed one another at random, but with a certain degree of order, regularity, and connection;—some constantly, and, as we are apt to think, immutably,—as the alternation of day and night, summer and winter,—others contingently, as the motion of a body from its place, if pushed, or the burning of a stick if thrust into the fire. The knowledge that the former class of eventshasgone on, uninterruptedly, for ages beyond all memory, impresses us with a strong expectation that it will continue to do so in the same manner; and thus our notion of anorder of natureis originated and confirmed. If every thing were equally regular and periodical, and the succession of events liable to no change depending on our own will, it may be doubted whether we should ever think of looking for causes. No one regards the night as the cause of the day, or the day of night. They are alternate effects of a common cause, which their regular succession alone gives us no sufficient clue for determining. It is chiefly, perhaps entirely, from the other or contingent class of events that we gain our notions of cause and effect. From them alone we gather that there are such things as laws of nature. The very idea of a law includes that of contingency. “Si quis mala carmina condidisset, fuste ferito;” if such a case arise, such a course shall be followed,—if the match be applied to the gunpowder, it will explode. Every law is a provision for cases whichmayoccur, and has relation to an infinite number of cases that never have occurred, and never will. Now, it is this provision,à priori, for contingencies, this contemplation of possible occurrences, and predisposal of what shall happen, that impresses us with the notion of alawand acause. Among all the possible combinations of the fifty or sixty elements which chemistry shows to exist on the earth, it is likely, nay almost certain, thatsomehave never been formed; that some elements, in some proportions, and under some circumstances, have never yet been placed in relation with one another. Yet no chemist can doubt that it isalready fixedwhat they will do when the case does occur. They will obey certain laws, of which we know nothing at present, but which mustbealready fixed, or they could not be laws. It is not by habit, or by trial and failure, that they will learn what to do. When the contingency occurs, there will be no hesitation, no consultation;—their course will at once be decided, and will always be the same if it occur ever so often in succession, or in ever so many places at one and the same instant. This is the perfection of a law, that it includes all possible contingencies, and ensures implicit obedience,—and of this kind are the laws of nature.

(27.) This use of the wordlaw, however, our readers will of course perceive has relation to us as understanding, rather than to the materials of which the universe consists as obeying, certain rules. To obey a law, to act incompliancewith a rule, supposes an understanding and a will, a power of complying or not, in the being who obeys and complies, which we do not admit as belonging to mere matter. The Divine Author of the universe cannot be supposed to have laid down particular laws, enumerating all individual contingencies, which his materials have understood and obey,—this would be to attribute to him the imperfections of human legislation;—but rather, by creating them, endued with certain fixed qualities and powers, he has impressed them in their origin with thespirit, not theletter, of his law, and made all their subsequent combinations and relations inevitable consequences of this first impression, by which, however, we would no way be understood to deny the constant exercise of his direct power in maintaining the system of nature, or the ultimate emanation of every energy which material agents exert from his immediate will, acting in conformity with his own laws.

(28.) The discoveries of modern chemistry have gone far to establish the truth of an opinion entertained by some of the ancients, that the universe consists of distinct, separate, indivisibleatoms, or individual beings so minute as to escape our senses, except when united by millions, and by this aggregation making up bodies of even the smallest visible bulk; and we have the strongest evidence that, although there exist great and essential differences in individuals among these atoms, they may yet all be arranged in a very limited number of groups or classes, all the individuals of each of which are, to all intents and purposes,exactly alike