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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/February 1873/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 2‎ | February 1873



PROF. TYNDALL'S course of lectures in New York has met with a success that is commensurate with the reputation of the lecturer, and the interest of the subject which he selected for popular elucidation. One of the largest halls in the city has been densely crowded throughout the course of six lectures by the most cultivated and intelligent people of New York and the adjacent towns, and he has been listened to with close and absorbing attention throughout. The first lecture tests a man's reputation, and its degree of success is a measure of the desire to see as well as to hear him. As a result, the first performance often dissipates a reputation. The second lecture tests character and capacity, and an extended course applies the test still more rigorously. Had Prof. Tyndall given but a single lecture, however large may have been his audience, it might have been considered as gathered by curiosity; but when a vast auditorium, like that of the Cooper Institute, is packed to the last by the ablest men in all the professions—science, law, medicine, divinity, and education—with many of our strongest and shrewdest men of business, and a large proportion of our most cultivated ladies, the verdict is unequivocal and assured, and the highest compliment possible is paid to the genius and power of the teacher. No such assemblages as have greeted Prof. Tyndall, and followed him with sustained enthusiasm through his course, have ever before been gathered in New York.

But one interpretation can be given to this success, and that is the growing interest in matters of science, and the increasing appreciation of ability in its expounders. If it be said that the auditors were in search of mere pleasurable excitement, it comes to the same thing, for the pleasurable excitement is derived from a prolonged scientific demonstration. Something was due to the attractiveness of the experiments, and much to the felicity of the professor's manner, but there were abundant and gratifying indications of an earnest desire to comprehend the argument, and get a thorough understanding of the phenomena presented. The strength of this feeling has been put to a significant test in the present case. Just before sailing, Prof. Tyndall had exposed himself to the reprobation of a large class of the community by consenting to introduce to the public Dr. Thompson's paper proposing the so-called prayer-gauge. He thus became an object of bitter attack from religious quarters, and so considerable was the feeling aroused that it was said by many the step he had taken would cost him his American audiences. But the strength of public prejudice was over-estimated, and the progress of liberal feeling forgotten. Twenty-five years ago it would have been different; but such has been the conquest of prejudice, and the enlargement of ideas, that Prof. Tyndall's lecture-rooms, in all the cities where he has spoken, have been filled to overflowing with those who are prepared to accept science on its own merits, without mixing up with it questions of theology.

Another circumstance deserves mention in relation to the success of Prof. Tyndall's lectures in New York. His audience came together upon the bare announcement that he would give them a course of lectures. There were none of the usual trumpetings of managers—puffs, placards, show-bills, portraits in the windows, staring sensational advertisements, and the customary arts and tricks by which notoriety is manufactured and "success" secured. It is to the credit of New York intelligence, and evinces a growing appreciation of the intrinsic claims of science, that the customary clap-trap of agents, whose maxim is, "The public must have a certain amount of humbug, you know," was entirely dispensed with in the present instance.

Prof. Tyndall's course of lectures was any thing but child's-play for his audience. Boston, indeed, has complained that they were elementary, if not rudimentary; but Boston is in many things exceptional—there has been no such complaint in other cities. In New York the prevailing criticism has been rather of an opposite kind—not, perhaps, that the lecturer's presentations had been too abstruse for ordinary intelligent apprehension, but that they have been too incomplete to be satisfactory. The phenomena shown have been out of proportion with their explanations, a defect which could only be remedied by giving thirty-six lectures in the place of six. But this was impossible, as Prof. Tyndall's time to tarry with us was short. The method that he has followed, we think, has been very skilfully adapted to the circumstances. There has been a great amount of general reading in books and magazines, and of study in our schools and colleges, upon the subjects he has selected, but the ideas acquired have been vague and unsatisfactory, from lack of observing the actual phenomena that have been read about. The lecturer assumed this state of mind in his hearers, and that the literature of the subject is everywhere accessible for further reference, and he accordingly constructed his course so as to bring under direct observation a wide range of the actual phenomena he had chosen to deal with. These were presented in their beauty and variety, with consummate skill and impressiveness, and as much of elucidation as time allowed. The ideas of many upon the subject of Light, the theory of its nature, and its various complex affections, were clarified and rendered more precise, while many others for the first time witnessed a series of marvellous effects, which gave them a new conception of the exquisite and wonderful play of natural forces, and which will incite them to further study and prepare them for it.

The triumph of Prof. Tyndall, so far from being his first lecture with all its advantages of novelty, was really his last lecture, and what is more, the concluding part of it, which was without experiments. He closed his course by an estimate of the work, and a statement of the claims of original investigators, and this was listened to by his vast audience with a close and almost breathless attention, which attested both the intellectual quality of the assemblage and their interest in the highest scientific objects and themes.


To the question "Who is the most intellectual woman that has yet appeared?" a variety of answers will probably be returned; but to the question "Who is the most scientific woman that has yet appeared?" but one answer will be given; it is—"Mary Somerville." Not only was she a woman of eminent capacity, but, what is very remarkable, her mental vigor was prolonged to a period surpassing by many years the allotted life of man. The first work that made her name known to the world was in 1826, and her last book, an able treatise in two volumes, was published forty-three years later, in 1869, and that long interval was fruitful in works of ability in different departments of science.

Mrs. Somerville died at Naples November 29th, within rather less than a month of the ninety-second anniversary of her birth. Her maiden name was Mary Fairfax; she was of Scotch ancestry and an admiral's daughter. She was twice married, first to Captain Greig, of the Russian Navy, an officer of scientific accomplishments, and to whom she is said to have owed the mathematical and physical culture which subsequently made her name illustrious as the wife of Dr. William Somerville. She became first known by a paper in the Philosophical Transactions, printed in 1820, describing her experiments on the magnetizing power of the more refrangible solar rays. "In her experiments, sewing-needles were rendered magnetic by exposure for two hours to the violet ray, and the magnetic virtue was communicated in still shorter time when the violet rays were concentrated by means of a lens. The indigo rays were found to possess a magnetizing power almost to the same extent as the violet; and it was observed, though in a less degree, in the blue and green rays. It is wanting in the yellow, orange, and red. Needles were like-wise rendered magnetic by the sun's rays transmitted through green and blue glass." Such is the statement made by Dr. Turner in his old chemistry, but he adds that "the accuracy of the experiments had been doubted, and that the result must therefore be regarded as one of the disputed points in science." Dr. J. W. Draper went over the subject in 1835, with the sunlight of Virginia, and, although adopting far more delicate methods than Mrs. Somerville, failed to produce the alleged effects.

In 1831 Mrs. Somerville published "The Mechanism of the Heavens," an abridgment and attempted popularization of Laplace's "Mécanique Céleste," which she was induced to undertake by Lord Brougham. The "Connection of the Physical Sciences," perhaps her most valuable work, was issued in 1834, and her "Physical Geography" in 1838. Her last work, on "Molecular and Microscopical Science," published when she was near ninety years of age, is beyond doubt the most remarkable exploit of her life. It is a survey of what has recently been done in the field of Molecular Physics, describes the brilliant discoveries in dialysis and atmolysis, the crystalline and colloid states of matter, spectrum analysis in its celestial applications, the microscopical structure of the vegetable world, and the physics of organization, and all in a constantly clear and often an attractive style. Mrs. Somerville was the recipient of many honors on account of her scientific labors. She received a pension from the Government, was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, at the same time with Miss Caroline Herschel, received a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society, and had her bust placed in the library of the Royal Society. She maintained her interest in the movements of the scientific world, was supplied with the latest works in various branches of knowledge, and kept up her correspondence with many of the leading mathematicians and physicists, to within a few weeks of her death. It has to be added that Mrs. Somerville did not neglect the lighter accomplishments and tastes of her youth, but continued her painting, and music, and even her lace-work and other feminine trifles.

If it be asked how she contrived to do these things which are such consumers of time, while also making such extensive scientific acquisitions, the reply is, first, that she was a woman of great capacity and great industry; and, second, that her scientific work was by no means of that highest or creative kind which is produced only by genius and requires the concentration of a life within a narrow sphere of effort. We prefer, however, to abstain from estimating Mrs. Somerville's intellectual character, but will quote the opinions expressed upon this subject by her own countrymen. The Saturday Review says:
"A final lesson of importance is forced upon us by the retrospect of so exceptional a career. We may hear it asked Low, in the face of powers of intellect and capacity for brain-work such as these, it can be pretended that the minds of women are essentially inferior to those of men. There are, it may be, those among us who would see in this highly-endowed and eloquent expositor of Nature a female Humboldt or Laplace. Far be it from us to speak disparagingly in a case in which the estimate of undoubted merit is enhanced by the sense of recent loss. Still in the balance of truth we must not allow affectionate regard to prevail over judicial candor, or gallantry outweigh critical and sober sense. No one would have been more prompt than Mrs. Somerville herself to disown any idea of intellectual rivalry between the sexes. It was in no sense as a rival to the great discoverers in science, or even as the author or setter-forth of truths novel and original, but simply as the interpreter and expounder in a popular form of what the masters of scientific truth, each in his own province of research, had brought to light, that she set herself her distinctive task. What the laureate has said of the passions of mankind and womankind applies, as experience shows, no less truly to their respective intellects. It is not invidious, still less discourteous, in us to say that the one is to the other as moonlight is to sunlight. Receptive, bright, and keen, the mind of woman may give back or diffuse the rays of knowledge for the source or emanation of which a stronger and more originative power is necessary. The knowledge of mathematics displayed in the 'Mechanism of the Heavens' took the world by surprise because it was that of a woman. Women have made themselves names before now in exact science, even among its higher branches. Maria Agnesi, we cannot forget, was Professor of Mathematics at Bologna in the last century, and Sophie Germain, whose works in pure and applied mathematics won her the Academy's medal, excited the esteem and wonder of the leading savants of France. But the high places of science, the seats of supreme authority and prime origination, exalted and few, are for a class apart."

A writer in the London Athenæum remarks:

"It is not too much to say that, the chief value of her version of Laplace's masterpiece resides in the fact that the work exhibits an unmistakable proof of her mathematical power. It it difficult to conceive that any student of science could profit by the study of the work. As a first introduction to celestial mechanism it fails, because all the portions which present any difficulty are left uninterpreted: while to the more advanced student the work is useless, because such explanations as are given relate to the simpler parts of the subject. But it is impossible to rise from the perusal of the work without feeling that Mrs. Somerville herself had fully grasped the meaning of the great mathematician, and had followed his reasoning even where it had led him to the highest range of the modern methods of analysis. At the same time, it must be admitted that nothing in this work suggests the idea that Mrs. Somerville possessed in any considerable degree the inventive power which is the distinguishing attribute of great mathematicians. When we consider her work in other branches of science, a similar quality of mind is discernible. We cannot recall any experimental researches of hers which were characterized by originality, or any passage in her writings suggesting new ideas on the scientific questions which she discussed. She possessed but little power of generalization; and we believe it is this peculiarity of mind rather than any want of distinctness in expression which has led to the defect characterizing her attempts to popularize science. It is not commonly recognized, but is nevertheless the fact, that the perfect concatenation of ideas throughout a chapter or section of a science treatise is altogether more important than distinctness of expression in individual sentences, desirable though the latter quality necessarily is. But in Mrs. Somerville's science writings there is a want of sequence; and this is seen not merely in her general treatment of her subjects, but even in paragraphs and sentences. We may take the following sentence from her latest work, 'Molecular and Microscopic Science,' as a noteworthy instance. Endeavoring to prove the eternity of the soul, she says: 'To suppose that the vital spark is evanescent while there is every reason to believe that the atoms of matter are imperishable, is admitting the superiority of mind over matter; an assumption altogether at variance with the result of geological sequence; for Sir Charles Lyell observes that sensation, instinct and sensation of the higher mammalia bordering on reason, and lastly, the improvable reason of man himself, presents us with a picture of the ever-increasing dominion of mind over matter.' The readers whom the popularizer of science addresses are more apt to be perplexed by a non sequitur such as this than by mere verbal peculiarities."