Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/March 1873/The Recent Progress of Natural Science


ON the occasion of the celebration at Breslau of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Prof. Goeppert's presidency of the Silesian Society for National Culture, Prof. Ferdinand Cohn delivered an address, characterized by eloquence of the highest kind, on the above subject. As the wanderer, he said, who is climbing toward a high mountain-peak, feels from time to time the desire to stand still a little, and look back on the way over which he has passed, to enjoy the wider outlook which he gains from his higher stand-point, so, he thinks, there are moments in the uninterrupted progress of science, when we long in some measure to strike a balance, and see how much acquired property the present puts aside as useless, how much it uses only for temporary purposes, and how many enduring acquisitions have been made.

Dr. Cohn refers, no doubt with justice and some pardonable pride, to the foremost place held by Germany, during the last quarter of a century, in the march of science. At the same time he awards due praise to other European states, and above all to England, which, during that time and more particularly at present, he thinks, abounds in men of the highest eminence, whose scientific achievements stand prominently out on account of their astonishing energy, clearness, depth, and independence of thought. Still, we cannot but admit that Dr. Cohn is right in asserting that Germany is free from the dilettanteism which abounds in this country, and that as a rule science in Germany is both far more wide-spread and far more thorough than it is among ourselves, and that the opportunities furnished there to all classes for scientific study at the ordinary educational establishments have until recently left us almost nowhere. But, happily, signs of the beginning of the end of this state of things among us are becoming rife.

After briefly referring to the intellectual awakening of Germany along with the rest of Europe at the time of the Reformation, and showing how this start forward was, especially in the case of Germany, in a great measure frustrated by the Thirty Years' War, Dr. Cohn pays a high and justly-merited tribute to France, and especially to Paris, on account of the supreme place she took during the first thirty or forty years of the present century in nearly all the sciences. The glory of France in this direction has, however, he thinks, departed, and Germany is becoming daily more and more the intellectual centre of the world. Had Dr. Cohn written his lecture now, he might have somewhat modified his language; for, within the last few months, the signs have been many, that in the direction of science the French are determined to try to hold their own with the foremost in Europe. Their professors are prosecuting an amount of research which puts our own to shame, while they are at the same time forming a school of investigators. We do not grudge to Germany all the praise she well deserves, and the influence which the results of German research exercise on other nations is likely to urge them to such vigorous and determined efforts, that, sooner or later, science and every other progressive influence shall be "great gainers." Meantime, however, Germany is doubtless in the ascendant.

In the year 1845 appeared the first volume, and in 1846 the second, of Humboldt's "Cosmos." As comprising a view of the whole created universe depicted with the most wonderful sympathy, the book is as it were a canon forming a key to every thing that was known of Nature at the time. No man was then more suited for such work than was in the highest degree A. von Humboldt. A "Divina Commedia" of science, the "Cosmos" embraced the whole universe in its two spheres, heaven and earth. Under the leadership of the great searcher of Nature, as Dante once by the hand of Virgil, we climb from the depths of the universe, with its farthest nebulæ and double stars, down through the star depths to which belongs our solar system, to the air-and sea-enveloped earth, where form, temperature, and magnetic condition, are unveiled to us; then to the wealth of organic life, which, stimulated by the light, unfolds itself on its surface. It is an overwhelming picture of Nature, of surpassing beauty of outline, abounding in grand perspective, with the most careful execution of the smallest detail.

But we cannot conceal from ourselves that the "Cosmos," published twenty-five years ago, is in many of its parts now antiquated, not merely because it is wanting in many facts which have since been discovered, but most particularly because Humboldt was ignorant of some highly-important questions which have since taken their place in the foreground of scientific discussion, while our scheme of the universe during the last ten years has been considerably modified by the introduction of new and influential ideas. Any one, who to-day would attempt to recast the "Cosmos," must proceed like the Italian architect who took the pillars and blocks of the broken temples of antiquity, added new ones, and rebuilt the whole after a new plan.

There are three discoveries which, during the last quarter of a century, have entirely changed the position of natural science: the mechanical equivalent of heat, spectrum analysis, and the Darwinian theories.

Since, in the year 1842, an unknown physician in a Swabian country-town, Dr. Mayer, of Heilbronn, pointed out that a hammer 424 kilogrammes in weight, which falls from the height of a metre on an anvil, raises the heat of the latter by one degree centigrade, and that by this process of bringing a falling motion to a stand-still it is converted into a fixed quantity of heat—since then has science gained a new conception of the conditions of matter and of the powers of Nature. This new doctrine appears in the mechanical theory of heat announced by Joule, Krönig, Maxwell, and Clausius, in the doctrine of the conservation of energy of Helmholtz and Thomson, and by means of the brilliant writings of Tyndall it has become the common property of the educated world. Electricity and magnetism, heat and light, muscular energy and chemical attraction, motion, and mechanical work—all forces in the universe are only different forms of one and the same power, which has dwelt from the first in matter in invariable quantity, neither increased nor diminished; not the least trifle of it can be annihilated or created. Only the phenomenal forms of power are changeable; light can be converted into a chemical equivalent, this again into heat, heat into motion, and indeed a fixed quantity of one force always and only into an equivalent quantity of another. In like manner also the quantity of matter has remained unchanged from the beginning; not the least particle or molecule can be annihilated or created out of nothing, and only in the transformation of perishable bodies are the molecules formed into ever-new combinations. What we distinguish as natural forces are only movements of molecules, for the least particles of matter out of which bodies are composed are not inseparably united to each other, but are loosely held together and in continuous whirling and undulatory motion; according to the swiftness and width of undulation of the molecule will this motion of our nerves be regarded, now as sound, now as heat, then as light or as color. Moreover, the chemical union of the elements of matter, the attractive power of gravitation in all the bodies of the universe, are but varied forms of this universal motive force. The unity and permanency of substance with its two attributes, matter and force, and their innumerable modifications, which go to form the bodies of the universe, were in the first instance enunciated as a philosophical maxim by the great thinker Spinoza. Now it is established as a philosophic fact by means of exact measure and weight.

Again, on the inner organization of the system of the universe has unexampled light been thrown by the wonderful researches which were begun in 1859 by two men, united by the closest bonds of a friendship which bore rich fruit for science. After the light of the sun had, in the third decade of this century, been brought into the service of art by Nièpce and Daguerre, Bunsen and Kirchhoff compelled it also to render service to chemistry and astronomy. Like those magicians of the legend who, through the power of their knowledge, compelled the spirits of the elements to disclose their most recondite secrets, the genius of these men compelled the rays of light imprisoned in the spectrum apparatus to make revelation of things in the world of stars which the curiosity of men had deemed forever inaccessible. Already had Kirchhoff ascertained what terrestrial elements were present in the sun's atmosphere, and what were not; quite recently has it been discovered that there is even present in the sun a substance (helium) which hitherto has been unknown on the earth. Moreover, also, the inner structure of the sun, the distribution of its incandescent, liquid, and gaseous parts, its luminous and colored envelop, the nature of its spots and protuberances—all this is no longer a play-ground for fantastic imaginings, but the subject of exact research. Since the great eclipse of 1868, Lockyer and Janssen, Zöllner, Huggins, and Father Secchi, have observed, day after day, storms, whirlwinds, flame-sheaves, outbursts of burning hydrogen to the height of 20,000 miles: thus has been developed an entirely new science—the meteorology of the sun. Moreover, on other obscure regions of the heavens, on the physical and chemical conditions, even on the laws of the movements of the fixed and double stars, on nebulæ and milky ways, on planets and comets, on zodiacal and northern lights, has spectrum analysis thrown its enlightening rays. No less by rigorous mathematical method, through which astronomy, even at an earlier period, had been brought to a certain amount of perfection, has she in the most recent time enjoyed an unexpected triumph, by solving, through the researches of Schiaparelli, the riddle of the comets, in being able to recognize the identity of their nature with that of the swarms of shooting-stars whose remarkable brilliancy long ago made them universally known.


During the last quarter of a century, the history of the formation of our earth has assumed a new aspect. When the "Cosmos" appeared, the opinion prevailed that our earth, once a globe of liquid fire, became covered with a crust of congealed scoria?, on which, by-and-by, the first animal-and plant-life made its appearance. After an almost infinite length of time, during which the Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian strata were deposited, a terrible catastrophe, affecting simultaneously the whole earth, so completely destroyed the first palæozoic life, that not a single species survived the universal devastation. Upon the lifeless expanse, it was supposed, appeared then the Secondary Fauna and Flora, entirely unconnected with and different from the extinguished one, until, after frequent repetitions of the same process at longer or shorter intervals, man made his appearance, and along with him all existing plants and animals: with him begins the Historical Period, whose duration has not exceeded 6,000 years. The causes of these world-wide revolutions geology sought in the violent reaction of the molten interior against the once extremely slender crust.

In opposition to these views, the opinion peculiarly associated with the name of Lyell has made way, that no violent revolutions, returning at intervals, destroyed the external structure of the earth and all the life it sustained, but that all changes even in the earliest times affected only the earth's surface, and that these could only be the results of the same powers of Nature which are actively at work on the earth at the present time; and that, moreover, the gradual but ever active powers of water, of air, and of chemical change, have perhaps had a greater share in accomplishing these transformations than the fierce heat of subterranean masses of lava. The explorers of the buried remains of plants and animals show it to be impossible that all life in those geological formations could have been destroyed simultaneously, for many species are common at several stages; in particular, many existing animals and plants reach far back into the primitive world. Man himself could be shown to have been contemporary with many extinct species of plants and animals, and therefore his age on the earth must be extended back to an indefinite period. Man was witness to that inundation which buried the plains of the old and the new world under the waves of the sea of ice. Even in the immediately preceding period, when the sub-tropical elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus, disported themselves in the lignite woods of Middle Europe, have traces of mankind been found. Only in the most recent times has a foundation been laid for the prehistoric records of mankind, by means of which we may be able to obtain a knowledge of the state of civilization, weapons, implements, and dwellings, of that primitive race.

No book of recent times, Dr. Cohn thinks, has influenced to such an extent the aspects of modern natural science, as Charles Darwin's work "On the Origin of Species," the first edition of which appeared in 1859. For, even to so late a period, was the immutability of species believed in; so long was it accepted as indubitable that all the characteristics which belong to any species of plants and animals were transmitted unaltered through all generations, and were under no circumstances changeable; so long did the appearance of new fauna and flora remain one of the impenetrable mysteries of science. He who would not believe that new species of animals and plants, from the yeast-fungus to the mammalia, had been crystallized parentless out of transformed materials, was shut up to the belief that in primeval time an omnipotent act of creation, or, as it may be otherwise expressed, a power of Nature, at present utterly unknown, interfered with the regular progress of the world's development; yea, according to the researches of D'Orbigny and Elie de Beaumont, twenty-seven different acts of creation must have followed each other previous to the appearance of man—but, after that, no more. It was Darwin who lifted natural science out of this dilemma, by advancing the doctrine that the animals and plants of the late geological eras no more appeared all at once upon the scene, than those of the preceding epochs simultaneously and suddenly disappeared; on the contrary, these are the direct descendants of former species, which gradually in the course of an exceedingly long period, through adaptation to altered conditions of life, through the struggle for existence, through natural and sexual selection, Lave been changed into the new species. Prof. Cohn does not doubt but that Darwin and his school may have over-estimated the reach of the explanations given by him to account for the transmutation of species, and especially the importance of natural and sexual selection, but the fundamental fact has been established, and will remain so for all future time. This fact is, that the collective life of the earth, from the beginning even until now, and from the fungus-cell up to man, represents a single series which has never once been broken, whose members through direct propagation have proceeded out of each other, and in the course of a vast period have been developed into manifold and, on the whole, perfect forms.

The sciences which are concerned with life have during late years been cultivated on all sides; even in earlier years Cuvier and Jussieu had done as much for zoology and botany as the state of discovery in their time permitted, but since 1858 the boundaries of both kingdoms have been widely extended by the labors of Carpenter, Huxley, and Pourtales.

After referring to the researches of Goethe in the last century, and those of Bauer and of Johannes Müller in the present, in reference to the physiology of plants and animals, Prof. Cohn says it was only in our own time, and first in 1843 in Schleiden's "Grundzügen der Wissenschaftlichen Botanik," that the new principle was followed out; the principle, namely, that all vegetable phenomena and all the various forms of plants proceed from the life and the development of their cells. After Schwann discovered that animal bodies also were built up from an analogous cell, mainly by Virchow was then developed from this principle the modern cellular physiology and pathology which trace the condition both of healthy and diseased men and animals back to the life-function of their cells. But, as the lecturer says, to attempt to follow out the advances made by science in these directions during the last twenty-five years would require a large volume, and cannot be done in the space of a lecture or an article.

Even the cell itself has been changed. Until Schleiden's time it was a little bleb filled with fluid; we now regard it as a soft glutinous body constructed out of the albuminous protoplasm first distinguished by Mohl in 1845, and which is covered with a cellular integument, as the oyster is with its cell. After waxing eloquent over the cell as an entity, an "ego" by itself, and its relations to the outer world, Prof. Cohn says that science now teaches us that there is only one life and one cell, the cell of plants and of animals being essentially the same. The most highly-developed animal differs from the simplest plant only in the number and greater development of the matter composing the cells, but, above all, to the more complete elaboration (Arbeitstheilung), and the stricter subordination of the separate cells to the collective life of the organism. Between the two extremes of the living world, the yeast-fungus and man, there is the same difference as there is between a group of individual men who do not know how to organize their strength, and a strictly-disciplined, well-ordered army suitably-formed and well armed, and which, by the strict subordination of the many wills to the central authority, is always equal to the highest achievements.

It is true that these scientific researches into biology have left as yet the most important questions unsolved. It is not yet possible to regard all life-processes as simple modifications of the other forces of Nature and to ascertain their mechanical equivalents; we cannot yet convert absolute heat or light into life; and, although chemistry is daily doing more and more to bridge over the gaping chasm which once separated the organic and inorganic systems, it has not yet succeeded in finding out the precise matter which exclusively supports the life-process, on which alone the cells subsist. Thus, then, the beginning of life is still wrapped in obscurity.

After referring in this connection to the transmission of epidemics among plants, animals, and man, and to the microscopical labors of Leeuwenhoek, Ehrenberg, Gagniard-Latour, Schwann, and Kützing, Prof. Cohn goes on to say that the investigators of the present time, to whom Pasteur has given a powerful impulse, have been the first to establish beyond doubt that without Bacteria no putrefaction, and without yeast-fungi no fermentation takes place; that this decomposition is accomplished only through the sustenance and living activity of those microscopic cells.

Many a mystery of life will doubtless be unfolded to us if our opticians during the next twenty-five years should manage to raise the power of the microscope in the same proportion as in the previous quarter of a century, in which it has been at least quadrupled. The best microscope of Schick and Plossl in 1846 did not magnify more than 500 diameters; the "immersion-lens xv." of Hartnack over 2,000 diameters. Still Dr. Cohn does not venture to hope that during the next twenty-five years all the questions of science which are at present being agitated will be solved. As one veil after another is lifted, we find ourselves behind a still thicker one, which conceals from our longing eyes the mysterious goddess of whom we are in search.

Dr. Cohn, in concluding his eloquent address, attempts to point out the characteristics which distinguish the present from the past generation. In the former epoch, students confined their researches to single and carefully marked-off divisions of Nature, without any regard to the neighboring and closely-allied regions, which must necessarily lead to the one-sided view that these divisions belong to Nature herself. In the present generation, on the other hand, the several physical sciences have entered into the closest organic union. Physics and chemistry, along with mathematical astronomy and geology, have been blended into a new science—the history of the development of worlds; palæontology, systematic botany, and zoology, have been joined into a united science of organisms; the physiology of plants and of animals have become coalesced in universal biology; the boundary between the organic and inorganic aspects of Nature is being ever more and more obliterated, and out of the several natural sciences a single uniform, universal natural science is being constructed.

But the deeper natural science penetrates from outward phenomena to universal laws, the more she lays aside her former fear to test the latest fundamental questions of being and becoming (Sein und Werden), of space and time, of matter and force, of life and spirit, by the scale of the inductive method, and the more confidently she lifts her views concerning the universe out of the cloudy atmosphere of hypothesis into the clear ether of theory grounded on fact, so much the more will the gap be narrowed which since Kant has separated science from philosophy. Schiller's advice to philosophers and men of science—

"Feindschaft sei zwischen euch; noch ist das Bündniss zu frühe;

Nur wenn in Kampf ihr euch trennt, dann wird die Wahrheit enthült,"

has been followed for more than half a century, to the gain of the natural sciences, but often to the injury of philosophy, which would knock away the firm ground from under our feet. But since Herbart and Schopenhauer, and especially through Hartmann's labors, have the two chief drifts of the work of the human mind been approaching; and if natural science has a mission to mould the future of our race, she must court the purifying influence of philosophical criticism; and this mission, in Dr. Cohn's estimation, the science of the future cannot reject. Its importance rests not merely in the much interesting and useful information which can be made available to trade and industry, for daily economy and universal civilization; she must build a sure foundation for our collective view of the universe, for our knowledge of ultimate and highest things. It must be no longer the case that even our most educated classes, in consequence of insufficient education, have neither interest nor intelligence for the pursuit and acquisition of scientific knowledge. Moreover, science will be no more able to shun battle with other systems of the universe which have been hallowed by the traditions of a thousand years, than were Socrates and Aristotle, Copernicus and Galileo. Victory will lie on the side of truth.

But if anxious souls should fear that, with the advance of a scientific knowledge of the universe among the people, would come a breaking up of political and social order, let them be assured by the teaching of history. When we perceive the flash of an electric spark, we certainly do not take it for a bolt darted by the revengeful Jupiter; and, as the vault of heaven is resolved into air and light, so also must the Olympus be shattered which was built thereon. But the ideas of the true, the beautiful, and the good, remain unshaken; they have been all the more firmly established, for they have been deduced from the order of the universe and from the mind of man himself. And that the pursuit of natural science does not lead to materialism, and in no way injures the ideal mind, is vouched for by the case of Alexander von Humboldt himself, who, even in extreme old age, kept up his love for research and power of work as well as his lively susceptibility for and energetic share in all the noble pursuits of mankind.

Dr. Cohn concludes his lecture, so brimful of true eloquence founded on sober fact, with a high compliment to the many worthy qualities of the president of the Silesian Society, Dr. Goeppert. Such a man as he is said to be, the lecturer truly says, may hope, like Goethe, Humboldt, and other previous philosophers, to maintain, to the utmost limit of existence, life, heart, and spirit, full of the freshness of youth, and, moreover, in later generations be honored as a true guardian of the highest good of grateful mankind.—Nature.