Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/December 1888/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 34‎ | December 1888

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
A TEST OF NATIONAL MORALITY.

THE forgery of documents for the purpose of giving fictitious support to doctrines or to territorial claims was a device not unknown to antiquity; and very severe has been the condemnation bestowed upon it by virtuous moderns. The fame of the "false decretals" still lingers in the world; and respectable citizens of our own favored time and country are found wondering how a high spiritual authority could ever have consented to rest its claims, even partially, upon so thoroughly delusive a foundation. Circumstances, however, as has been wisely remarked, alter cases; and that which was very shocking when resorted to for the establishment of principles in which one does not believe, may assume a very different character when found available for promoting the success of the political party that has the honor of commanding the same individual's vote. The "campaign lie" has long been known as a favorite political weapon; but nowadays political mendacity seems, in a peculiar manner, to affect the ancient trick of forgery. The last two or three presidential elections have each had their distinguishing forgeries; but the one just concluded brought the forger's art into a greater prominence than ever before. Men made lies and loved them; and other men loved to see the lies in circulation; and others loved to delude themselves with the lies so made and circulated; until it really seemed as if, throughout a considerable portion of the community, the one thing that everybody hated and feared was truth.

And we are a Christian nation! We hold our heads very high in the world. Our morality is not like that of the decaying states of the Old World, but of a much superior type. We have no royal courts among us to spread servility and corruption; our working-classes are taught to look down with infinite contempt on the "pauper labor" of even such a country as England; our political institutions give every man an interest in the state; and such government as we have is "of the people, for the people, by the people." The theory of our institutions, indeed, is very fine, but we are constrained to say that the practice is very miserable. To have political power in our hands, and then to resort, on a large scale, to falsehood—deliberate, unblushing, reiterated falsehood—as a means of influencing elections, is about as shameful a thing, in our opinion, as the sun shines upon. But, can a thing be politically shameful and yet not dangerous? Fraud and violence are close companions. A quarrel over marked cards is very apt to be settled with the pistol or the knife; and, some day, if political fraud should happen to be just a little too triumphant, we might find ourselves precipitated into another civil war.

Why have we such tolerance for campaign lies and liars? Why do respectable gentlemen, prominent in church circles, either help in the invention of such lies or smile complacently at their circulation? Why is the national conscience so dead on this subject? Has it anything to do with the fact that as yet the morality of science—the morality that consists in the strenuous pursuit and conscientious utterance of truth—is so feebly recognized? We have powerful church organizations; the whole land is honey-combed, we may say, with societies for the promotion of a certain type of conventional moral excellence; but what is being done—this, after all, is the question on which the permanence and prosperity of the republic depend— what is being done to make honest citizens? We know lots of smooth-spoken individuals who are very scrupulous about various matters—much interested perhaps in Sabbath observance; strongly opposed to certain forms of amusement for the young; grieved, possibly, to think that there are people bad enough to hope for the salvation of unevangelized heathen—there are plenty such; but where are the people who hate a lie when they see one, and that without regard to the question as to whose interest is served by it? Where are the men who do not want sophistries served up to them in their favorite newspaper, and who are at all times willing to allow fair weight to a fair argument? In this wide land there are doubtless many thousands who have not bowed the knee to the Baal of political trickery, and who have not imprisoned their souls in any narrow and arbitrary scheme of moral doctrine; but, compared with other types, these are few in number. We meet the man full of church-taught scrupulosities ten times for once that we meet a thoroughly open-minded, honest man. We meet the man who is terribly afraid of doctrinal errors ten times for once that we meet the man who detests the campaign lie. Now, there is nothing to be said against scrupulosity in conduct, nor in favor of doctrinal errors; but falsehoods, the makers of falsehoods, the willing beneficiaries and condoners of falsehoods, and all who leave out of their scheme of life the duty of opposing falsehoods in all their shapes and guises can not be too strongly condemned.

Where is the remedy for this dangerous national habit of political lying? It is to be sought in a reorganized national education. Instead of filling the minds of children with fables, as to a large extent we do, we need to cultivate in them the sense for reality by teaching them to know things in their properties and relations, and natural processes in their definiteness and certainty. In other words, science has to take hold of education and remodel it, until it gives us a generation of citizens too intelligent and with too practiced a sense for truth to fall the easy prey that so many thousands now do to the arts of the political trickster. One may be excused for doubting whether at this moment the political honesty of our nation is really on the increase; but we shall hope that the time may come before very long when science shall do for politics and for morality what it has done for our knowledge of the physical world and of human nature, and give us a regenerated state, the outcome of an intellectually nobler type of manhood.

 

 
WORK AT THE LICK OBSERVATORY.

The great thirty-six-inch telescope of the Lick Observatory has not only more than satisfied the most confident anticipations of what it would be able to do, it has taken the astronomical world by surprise with its revelations. It is not too much to say that it has opened up new vistas of creation, and given to the eye of man so much wider and deeper a range in the universe that, as Prof. Holden, the director of the observatory, has remarked, when looking through this telescope the observer must view objects as if seen for the first time. Celestial phenomena present an appearance, in many cases, so different from that familiar to observers with less powerful instruments that the impression they make is entirely new.

Of course, primarily, the great size and exquisite figuring of the giant object-glass must have the credit for all this, and yet much (very much more, probably, than the general public imagine) is due to the director and his able assistants. Prof. Holden has applied the unrivaled equipment of Mount Hamilton Observatory to the observation of the heavens in a broad-minded way that is decidedly refreshing and encouraging by contrast with the manner in which the powers of some great telescopes have been misapplied and frittered away. There are some astronomers who seem to be fearful of nothing so much as that they may be suspected of having done, or said, or seen something interesting. Prof. Holden does not belong in that category, and it is exceedingly gratifying to know that the most powerful telescope on our planet is in the hands of a man who will use it for the broadening of our knowledge of the universe, even at the risk of contributing to the fund of "popular" information.

The discoveries that Prof. Holden has already announced to the world, in the few months since the Lick telescope was first turned upon the sky, are of surpassing interest. We note first the observations of nebula, and particularly of the well-known "ring nebula" in Lyra, one of the most attractive of celestial objects even with a telescope of moderate size. In that singular creation Prof. Holden has discovered a marvelous coexistence of rings of stars and nebular ovals, evidently intimately related to one another in a manner that is in the highest degree significant. Then, too, in the nebula known as 37 H 4 in the constellation Draco, Prof. Holden and one of his assistants, Mr. Schaeberle, appear to have discovered a phenomenon of an entirely new order. There a central star is surrounded by ovals of nebular matter which have assumed the form of a helix, and Prof. Holden himself suggests that this spiral or screw-shaped formation appears to have resulted from the emanation of the nebulous stuff from a body that was revolving around the central star while that star itself was moving swiftly through space. His observations promise to make us acquainted with other objects belonging to this same mysterious class.

The director of the Lick Observatory has not scorned to apply its powers to the scrutiny of the well-worn and familiar features of the dead and barren moon, and there too he has found something new and interesting. He believes he has solved the mystery of Sir William Herschel's lunar volcanoes, which that great observer imagined he had actually beheld in fiery eruption.

Some of the most interesting astronomical discoveries of recent years relate to the planet Mars, and foremost are the observations of Schiaparelli, of Milan, on those curious features of the planet's disk which have been called, from their form and their apparent connection with the Martian seas, "canals," Last summer Perrotin, of Nice, announced that one of the Martian continents named Libya had apparently been inundated by a neighboring sea. Not a few astronomers have doubted the existence of these comparatively minute markings and changes upon Mars, because they could not see them themselves. But Prof. Holden and his assistants turned the monster telescope upon Mars with the most interesting results. They confirmed the existence of Schiaparelli's "canals," though they did not see any of them double (doubtless owing to unfavorable conditions), and they found that Libya was still there, unsubmerged. These observations were made some months after those of M. Perrotin; and Prof. Holden suggests that the partial disappearance of Libya, which Perrotin ascribed to an inundation, may have been due rather to some such phenomenon as a veil of clouds in the atmosphere of Mars. At any rate, what were supposed to be such cloud-masses have previously been observed on Mars.

We have called attention to these various observations in order to show in what manner the Lick telescope is being used, as well as to indicate briefly some of the results already attained. We congratulate Prof. Holden and the University of California upon the splendid success of this great astronomical enterprise. The spirit of James Lick, if it can comprehend terrestrial doings while his body lies under the pier of the great telescope, must be moved with gratification at the complete fulfillment of his desire to build a telescope that should surpass all others in its achievements.