Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/350

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
340
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

stract work was consciously for the benefit of the community, and he ever sought opportunity to make its results directly available. In promoting the interests of the people of his adopted State he incidentally accomplished much for a larger community by helping it to an appreciation of the essential beneficence of the scientific study of nature and man. As an individual he was a diligent and successful laborer in the field which the association cultivates, and when the association selected him as its standard-bearer it made choice of one who was peculiarly its representative.

The subject to which I shall invite your attention this evening is by no means novel, but might better be called perennial or recurrent; for the problem of our earth's age seems to bear repeated solution without loss of vigor or prestige. It has been a marked favorite, moreover, with presidents and vice-presidents, retiring or otherwise, when called upon to address assemblies whose fields of scientific interest are somewhat diverse—for the reason, I imagine, that while the specialist claims the problem as his peculiar theme of study, he feels that other denizens of the planet in question may not lack interest in the early lore of their estate.

The difficulty of the problem inheres in the fact that it not only transcends direct observation, but demands the extrapolation or extension of familiar physical laws and processes far beyond the ordinary range of qualifying conditions. From whatever side it is approached, the way must be paved by postulates, and the resulting views are so discrepant that impartial onlookers have come to be suspicious of these convenient and inviting stepping stones.

That vain expectation may not be aroused, I admit at the outset that I have not solved the problem and shall submit to you no estimates. My immediate interest is in the preliminary question of the available methods of approach, and it leads to the consideration of the ways, or the classes of ways, in which the measurement of time has been accomplished or attempted.

Of the artificial devices employed in practical horology there are two so venerable that their origins are lost in the obscurity of legendary myth. These are the clepsydra and the taper. In the clepsydra advantage is taken of the approximately uniform rate at which water escapes through a small orifice, and time is measured by gaging the loss of water from a discharging vessel or the gain in a receiving vessel. The hour-glass is one of its latest forms, in which sand takes the place of water. The taper depends for its value as a timepiece on the approximate uniformity of combustion when the area of fuel exposed to the air is definitely regulated. It survives chiefly in the prayer stick and safety fuse, but the graduated candle is perhaps still used to regulate monastic vigils.