Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/The History of a Doctrine II

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1049749Popular Science Monthly Volume 34 January 1889 — The History of a Doctrine II1889Samuel Pierpont Langley


By Prof. S. P. LANGLEY.


THE first five years of this century are notable in the history of radiant energy, not only for the work of Leslie, and for the observation by Wollaston, Ritter, and others, of the so-called "chemical" rays beyond the violet, but for the appearance of Young's papers, re-establishing the undulatory theory, which he indeed considered in regard to light, but which was obviously destined to affect most powerfully the theory of radiant energy in general.

We are now in the year 1804, or over a century and a quarter since the corpuscular theory was emitted, and during that time it has gradually grown to be an article of faith in a sort of scientific church, where Newton has come to be looked on as an infallible head, and his views as dogmas, about which no doubt is to be tolerated; but if we could go back to Cambridge in the year 1668, when the obscure young student, in no way conscious of his future pontificate, takes his degree (standing twenty-third on the list of graduates), we should probably find that he had already elaborated certain novel ideas about the undulatory theory of light, which he at any rate promulgates a few years later, and afterward, pressed with many difficulties, altered, as we now know, to an emissive one.

Probably, if we could have heard his own statement then, he would have told how sorely tried he was between these two opinions, and, while explaining to us how the wavering balance came to lean as it did, would have admitted, with the modesty proper to such a man, that there was a great deal to be said on either side. We may, at any rate, be sure that it would not be from the lips of Newton himself that we should have had this announced as a belief which was to be part of the rule of faith to any man of science.

But observe how, if Science and Theology look askance at each other, it is still true that some scientific men and some theologians have, at any rate, more in common than either is ready to admit; for at the beginning of this century Newton's followers, far less tolerant than their master, have made out of this modest man a scientific pontiff, and out of his diffident opinions a positive dogma, till, as years go on, he comes to be cited as so infallible that a questioning of these opinions is an offense deserving excommunication.

This has grown to be the state of things in 1804, when Young, a man possessing something of Newton's own greatness, ventures to put forward some considerations to show that the undulatory theory may be the true one, after all. But the prevalent and orthodox scientific faith was still that of the material nature of light; the undulatory hypothesis was a heresy, and Young a heretic. If his great researches had been reviewed by a physicist or a brother worker, who had himself trodden the difficult path of discovery, he might have been treated at least intelligently; but, then, as always, the camp-followers, who had never been at the front, shouted from a safe position in the rear to the man in the dust of the fight, that he was not proceeding according to the approved rules of tactics; then, as always, these men stood between the public and the investigator, and distributed praise or blame.

If you wish to hear how the scientific heretic should be rebuked for his folly, listen to one who never made an observation, but, having a smattering of everything books could teach about every branch of knowledge, was judged by himself and by the public to be the fittest interpreter to it, of the physical science of his day. I mean Henry Brougham, the future Lord-Chancellor of England, the universal critic, of whom it was observed that, "if he had but known a little law, he would have known a little of everything." He uses the then all-powerful "Edinburgh Review" for his pulpit, and notices Young's great memoir as follows: "This paper contains nothing which deserves the name either of experiment or discovery; and it is, in fact, destitute of every species of merit. ... The paper which stands first is another lecture, containing more fancies, more blunders, more unfounded hypotheses, more gratuitous fictions, ... and all from the fertile yet fruitless brain of the eternal Dr. Young. In our second number we exposed the absurdity of this writer's 'law of interference,' as it pleases him to call one of the most incomprehensible suppositions that we remember to have met with in the history of human hypotheses."

There are whole pages of it, but this is enough; and I cite this passage among many such at command, not only as an example of the way the undulatory theory was treated at the beginning of this century in the first critical journal of Europe, but as another example of the general fact that the same thing may appear intrinsically absurd, or intrinsically reasonable, according to the year of grace in which we hear of it. The great majority, even of students of science, must take their opinions ready-made as to science in general; each knowing, so far as he can be said to know anything at first hand, only that little corner which research has made specially his own. The moral we can all draw, I think, for ourselves.

In spite of such criticism as this, the undulatory hypothesis of light made rapid way, and carried with it, one would now say, the necessary inference that radiant heat was due to undulations also. This was, however, no legitimate inference to those to whom radiant heat was still a fluid; and yet, in spite of all, the modern doctrine now begins to make visible progress.

A marked step is taken about 1811 by a young Frenchman, De la Roche, who deserves to be better remembered than he is, for he clearly anticipated some of Melloni's discoveries. De la Roche in particular shows that of two successive screens the second absorbs heat in a less ratio than the first; whence he, before any one else, I believe, derives the just and most important, as well as the then most novel conception, that radiant heat is of different kinds. He sees also that, as a body is heated more and more, there is a gradual and continual advance not only in the amount of heat it sends out, but in the kind, so that, as the temperature still rises, the radiant heat becomes light by imperceptible gradations; and he concludes that heat and light are due to one simple agent, which, as the temperature rises yet more, appears more and more as light, or which, as the luminous radiation is absorbed, reappears as heat. Very little of it, he observes, passes even transparent screens at low temperatures, but more and more does so as the temperature rises. All this is a truism in 1888, but it is admirably new as well as true in 1811; and if De la Roche had not been removed by an early death, his would have not improbably been the greatest name of the century in the history of our subject; an honor, however, which was in fact reserved for another.

The idea of the identity of light and radiant heat had by this time made such progress that the attempt to polarize the latter was made in 1818 by Berard. "We have just seen in Herschel's case how the most sound experiment may lead to a wrong conclusion, if it controverts the popular view. We now have the converse of this in the fact that the zeal of those who are really in the right way may lead to unsound and inconclusive experiment; for Berard experimentally established, as it was supposed, the fact that obscure radiant heat can be polarized. So it can, but not with such means as Berard possessed, and it was not till a dozen years more that Forbes actually proved it. At this time, however fairly we seem embarked on the paths of study which are followed to-day, and while the movement of the main body of workers is in the right direction, it is yet instructive to observe how eminent men are still spending great and conscientious labor, their object in which is to advance the cause, while the effect of it is to undo the little which has been rightly done, and to mislead those who have begun to go right.

As an instance both of this and of the superiority of modern apparatus, we may remark—after having noticed that the ability of obscure heat to pass through glass, if completely established, would be a strong argument in favor of its kinship to light, and that De la Roche and others had indicated that it would do so (in which we now know they were right)—that at this stage, or about 1816, Sir David Brewster, the eminent physicist, made a series of experiments which showed that it would not so pass. Ten years later, in view of the importance of the theoretical conclusion, Baden Powell repeated his observations with great care, and confirmed them, announcing that the earlier experimenters were wrong, and that Brewster was right. Here all these years of conscientious work resulted in establishing, so far as it could be established, a wholly wrong conclusion in place of a right one already gained. It may be added that, with our present apparatus, the passage of obscure radiant heat through glass could be made convincingly evident in an experiment which need not last a single second.

We are now arrived at a time when the modern era begins; and in looking back over one hundred and fifty years, from the point of view of the experimenter himself, with his own statement of the truth as he saw it, we find that the comparison of the progress of science to that of an army, which moves, perhaps with the loss of occasional men, but on the whole victoriously and in one direction, is singularly misleading; and I state this more confidently here, because there are many in this audience who did not get their knowledge of nature from books only, but who have searched for the truth themselves; and, speaking to them, may I not say that those who have so searched know that the most honest purpose and the most patient striving have not been guarantees against mistakes—mistakes which were probably hailed at the time as successes? It was some one of the fraternity of seekers, I am sure, who said, "Show me the investigator who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never made a discovery."

We have seen the whole scientific body, as regards this particular science of radiant energy, moving in a mass, in a wrong direction, for a century; we have seen that individuals in it go on their independent paths of error; and we can only wonder that an era should have come in which such a real advance is made as in ours.

That era has been brought in by the works of many, but more than by any other through the fact that in the year 1801 there came into the world at Parma an infant who was born a physicist, as another is born a poet; nay, more; who was born, one might say, a devotee of one department of physics—that of radiant heat; being affected in his tenderest years with such a kind of precocious passion for the subject as the childish Mozart showed for music. He was ready to sacrifice everything for it; he struggled through untold difficulties, not for the sake of glory or worldly profit, but for radiant heat's sake; and when fame finally came to him, and he had the right to speak of himself, he wrote a preface to his collected researches, which is as remarkable as anything in his works. In this preface he has given us, not a summary of previous memoirs on the subject, not a table of useful factors and formulæ, not anything at all that an English or American scientific treatise usually begins with, but the ingenuous story of his first love, of his boyish passion for this beloved mistress; and all this with a trust in us his readers which is beautiful in its childlike confidence in our sympathy. I must abbreviate and injure in order to quote; but did ever a learned physical treatise and collection of useful tables begin like this before?—

"I was born at Parma, and when I got a holiday used to go into the country the night before and go to bed early, so as to get up before the dawn. Then I used to steal silently out of the house, and run, with bounding heart, till I got to the top of a little hill, where I used to set myself so as to look toward the east." There, he tells us, he used, in the stillness of nature, to wait the rising sun, and feel his attention rapt, less with the glorious spectacle of the morning light itself than with the sense of the mysterious heat which. accompanied its beams, and brought something more necessary to our life and that of all nature than the light itself.

The idea that not only mankind, but nature, would perish though the light continued, if this was divorced from heat, made a profound impression, he tells us, on his childish mind. The statement that such an idea could enter with dominating force into the mind of a child will perhaps seem improbable to most. It will, however, be comprehensible enough to some here, I have no doubt.

Is there some ornithologist present who remembers a quite infantile attraction which birds possessed for him above all the rest of the animated creation; some chemist whose earliest recollections are of the strange and quite abnormal interest he found as a child in making experimental mixtures of every kind of accessible household fluid and solid; some astronomer who remembers when a very little creature that not only the sight of the stars, but of any work on astronomy, even if utterly beyond his childish comprehension, had an incomprehensible attraction for him? I will not add to the list. There are, at any rate, many here who will understand and believe Melloni when he tells how this radiant heat, commonplace to others, was wonderful to his childish thought, and wrought a charm on it such that he could not see wood burn in a fireplace, or look at a hot stove, without its drawing his mind, not to the fire or iron itself, but to the mysterious effluence which it sent.

This was the youth of genius; but let not any fancy that genius in research is to be argued from such premonitions alone, unless it can add to them that other qualification of genius which has caused it to be named the faculty of taking infinite pains. Melloni's subsequent labors justified this last definition also; but I can not speak of them here, further than to say that, after going over a large part of his work myself, with modern methods and with better apparatus, he seems to me the man, of all great students of our subject, who, in reference to what he accomplished, made the fewest mistakes.

Melloni is very great as an experimenter, and owes much of his success to the use of the newly invented thermopile, which is partly his own. I can here, however, speak only of his results, and of but two of these—one generally known; the other, and the more important, singularly little known, at least in connection with him. The first is the full recognition of the fact, partly anticipated by De la Roche, that radiant heat is of different kinds, that the invisible emanations differ among themselves just as those of light do. Melloni not only established the fact, but invented a felicitous term for it, which did a great deal to stamp it on recognition—the term "thermochrose," or heat-color, which helps us to remember that, as the visible and apparently simple emanation of light is found to have its colors, so radiant heat, the invisible but apparently simple emanation, has what would be colors to an eye that could see them. This result is well known in connection with Melloni.

The other and the greater, which is not generally known as Melloni's, is the generalization that heat and light are effects of one and the same thing, and merely different manifestations of it. I translate this important statement as closely as possible from his own words. They are that "Light is merely a series of calorific indications sensible to the organs of sight, or Vice Versa, the radiations of obscure heat are veritable invisible radiations of light." The italics and the capitals are Melloni's own. He wishes to have no ambiguity about his announcement behind which he may take shelter; and he had so firm a grasp of the great principle that, when his first attempts to observe the heat of the moon failed, he persevered, because this principle assured him that where there was light there must be heat. This statement was made in 1843, and ought, I think, to insure to Melloni the honor of being the first to distinctly announce this great principle. The announcement passed apparently unnoticed, in spite of his acknowledged authority; and the general belief not merely in different entities in the spectrum, but in a material caloric, continued as strong as ever. If you want to see what a hold on life error has, and how hard it dies, turn to the article "Heat," in the eighth edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica," where you will find the old doctrine of caloric still in possession of the field in 1853; and still later, in the generally excellent "English Encyclopædia" (edition of 1867), the doctrine of caloric is, on the whole, preferred to the undulatory hypothesis. It is very probable that a searcher might find many traces of it yet lingering among us; so that Giant Caloric is not, perhaps, even yet quite dead, though certainly grown so crazy, and stiff in the joints, that he can now harm pilgrims no more.

So far as I know, no physicist of eminence reasserted Melloni's principle till J. W. Draper, in 1872. Only sixteen years ago, or in 1872, it was almost universally believed that there were three different entities in the spectrum, represented by actinic, luminous, and thermal rays. Draper remarks that a ray consists solely of ethereal vibrations whose lost vis viva may produce either heat or chemical change. He uses Descartes's analogy of the vibration of the air, and sound; but he makes no mention either of Descartes or of Melloni, and speaks of the principle as leading to a modification of views then "universally" held. Since that time the theory has made such rapid progress that, though some of the older men in England and on the European continent have not welcomed it, its adoption among all physicists of note may be said to be now universal, and a new era in our history begins with it. I mean by the recognition that there is one radiant energy which appears to us as "actinic," or "luminous," or "thermal" radiation, according to the way we observe it. Heat and light, then, are not things in themselves, but, whether different sensations in our own bodies or different effects in other bodies, are merely effects of this mysterious thing we call radiant energy, without doing more in this than give a name to the ignorance which still hangs over the ultimate cause.

I am coming down dangerously near our own time—dangerously for one who would be impartial in dealing with names of those living and with controversies still burning. In such a brief review of this century's study of radiant energy in other forms than light, it has been necessary to pass without mention the labors of such men as Pouillot and Becquerel in France, of Tyndall in England, and of Henry in America. It has been necessary to omit all mention of those who have advanced the knowledge of radiant energy as light, or I should have had to speak of labors so diverse as those of Fraunhofer, of Kirchhoff, of Fresnel, of Stokes, of Lockyer, and many more. I have made no mention, in the instructive history of error, of many celebrated experimental researches; in particular of such a problem as the measurement of solar heat, great in importance, but apparently most simple in solution, yet which has now been carried on from generation to generation, each experimenter materially altering the result of his predecessor, and where our successors will probably correct our own results in time. I have not spoken of certain purely experimental investigations, like those of Dulong and Petit, which have involved immense and conscientious labor, and have apparently rightly earned the name of "classic" from one generation, only to be recognized by the next as leading to wholly untrustworthy results, and leaving the work to be done again with new methods, guided by new principles.

In these instances, painstaking experiments have proved insufficient, less from want of skill in the investigator than from his ignorance of principles not established in time to enable him to interpret his experiments; but, if there were opportunity, it would be profitable to show how inexplicably sometimes error flourishes, grows, and maintains an apparently healthy appearance of truth, without having any root whatever. Perhaps I may cite one instance of this last from my own experience. About fifteen years ago it was generally believed that the earth's atmosphere acted exactly the part of the glass in a hot-bed, and that it kept the planet warm by exerting a specially powerful absorption on the infra-red rays.

I had been trained in the orthodox scientific church, of which I am happy to be still a member; but I had acquired perhaps an almost undue respect, not only for her dogmas, but for her least sayings. Accordingly, when my own experiments did not agree with the received statement, I concluded that my experiments must be wrong, and made them all over again, till spring, summer, autumn, and winter had passed, each season giving its own testimony; and this for successive years. The final conclusion was irresistible, that the universal statement of this alleged well-known fact (inexplicable as this might seem, in so simple a matter) was directly contradicted by experiment.

I had some natural curiosity to find how every one knew this to be a fact; but search only showed the same statement (that the earth's atmosphere absorbed dark heat like glass) repeated everywhere, with absolutely nowhere any observation or evidence whatever to prove it, but each writer quoting from an earlier one, till I was almost ready to believe it a dogma superior to reason, and resting on the well-known "Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, creditum est."

Finally, I appear to have found its source in the writings of Fourier, who, alluding to De Saussure's experiments (which showed that dark heat passed with comparative difficulty through glass), observes that, if the earth's atmosphere were solid, it would act as the glass does. Fourier simply takes this (in which he is wholly wrong) for granted; but as he is an authority on the theory of heat, his words are repeated without criticism, first by Poisson, then by others, and then in the text-books; and, the statement gaining weight by age, it comes to be believed absolutely, on no evidence whatever, for the next sixty years, that our atmosphere is a powerful absorber of precisely those rays which it most freely transmits.

The question of fact here, though important, is, I think, quite secondary to the query it raises as to the possible unsuspected influence of mere tradition in science, when we do not recognize it as such. Now, the Roman Church is doubtless quite logical in believing in traditions, if these are recommended to the faithful by an infallible guide; but are we, who have no infallible guide, quite safe in believing all we do, with our fond persuasion that in the scientific body mere tradition has no weight?

In even this brief sketch of the growth of the doctrine of radiant energy, we have perhaps seen that the history of the progress of this department of science is little else than a chapter in that larger history of human error which is still to be written, and which, it is safe to say, would include illustrations from other branches of science as well as my own.

But—and here I ask pardon if I speak of myself—I have been led to review the labors of other searchers from this standpoint, because I had first learned, out of personal experience, that the most painstaking care was no guarantee of final accuracy; that to labor in the search for a truth with such endless pains as a man might bestow if his own salvation were in question did not necessarily bring the truth; and because, seeking to see whether this were the lot of other and greater men, I have found that it was, and that, though no one was altogether forsaken of the Truth he sought (or, on the whole review of his life as a seeker, but might believe he had advanced her cause), yet there was no criterion by which it could be told at the time whether, when after long waiting there came in view what seemed once more her beautiful face, it might not prove, after all, the mockery of error; and probably the appeal might be made to the experience of many investigators here with the question, "Is it not so?"

What then? Shall we admit that truth is only to be surely found under the guidance of an infallible church? If there be such a church, yes! Let us, however, remember that the church of science is not such a one, and be ready to face all the consequences of the knowledge that her truths are put forward by her as provisional only, and that her most faithful children are welcome to disprove them. What then, again? Shall we say that the knowledge of truth is not advancing? It is advancing, and never so fast as to-day; but the steps of its advance are set on past errors, and the new truths become such stepping-stones in turn.

To say that what are truths to one generation are errors to the next, or that truth and error are but different aspects of the same thing to our poor human nature, may be to utter truisms; but truisms which one has verified for one's self out of a personal experience are apt to have a special value to the owner; and these lead, at any rate, to the natural question, "Where is then the evidence that we are advancing in reality, and not in our own imagination?"

There are many here who will no doubt heartily subscribe to the belief that there is no absolute criterion of truth for the individual, and admit that there is no positive guarantee that we, with this whole generation of scientific men, may not, like our predecessors, at times go the wrong way in a body, yet who believe as certainly that science as a whole, and this branch of it in particular, is advancing with hitherto unknown rapidity. In asking to be included in this number, let me add that to me the criterion of this advance is not in any ratiocination, not in any a priori truth, still less in the dictum of any authority, but in the undoubted observation that our doctrine of radiant energy is reaching out over nature in every direction, and proving itself by the fact that through its aid nature obeys us more and more; proving itself by such, material evidence as is found in the practical applications of the doctrine, in the triumphs of modern photography, in the electric lights in our streets, and in a thousand ways which I will not pause to enumerate.

And here I might end, hoping that there may be some lessons for us in the history of what has been said. I will venture to ask the attention to one more, perhaps a minor one, but of a practical character. It is that in these days, when the advantage of organization is so fully realized, when there is a well-founded hope that by co-operation among scientific men knowledge may be more rapidly increased, and when in the great scientific departments of government and elsewhere there is a tendency to the formation of the divisions of a sort of scientific army—a tendency which may be most beneficially guided—that at such a time we should yet remember that, however rapidly science changes, human nature remains much the same; and (while we are uttering truisms) let us venture to say that there is a very great deal of this human nature even in the scientific man, whose best type is one nearly as unchanging as this nature itself, and one which can not always advantageously be remodeled into a piece of even the most refined bureaucratic mechanism, but will work effectively only in certain ways, and not always at the word of command, nor always best in regiments, nor always best under the best of discipline.

Finally, if I were asked what I thought were the next great steps to be taken in the study of radiant heat, I should feel unwilling to attempt to look more than a very little way in advance. Immediately before us, however, there is one great problem waiting solution. I mean the relation between temperature and radiation; for we know almost nothing of this, where knowledge would give new insight into almost every operation of nature, nearly every one of which is accompanied by the radiation or reception of heat, and would enable us to answer inquiries now put to physicists in vain by every department of science, from that of the naturalist as to the enigma of the brief radiation of the glowworm, to that of the geologist who asks as to the number of million years required for the cooling of a world.

When, however, we begin to go beyond the points which seem, like this, to invite our very next steps in advance, we can not venture to prophesy; for we can hardly discriminate among the unlimited possibilities which seem to open before a branch of knowledge which deals especially with that radiant energy which sustains, with our own being, that of all animated nature, of which humanity is but a part. If there be any students of Nature here, who, feeling drawn to labor in this great field of hers, still doubt whether there is yet room, surely it may be said to them. "Yes, just as much room as ever, as much room as the whole earth offered to the first man"; for that field is simply unbounded, and everything that has been done in the past is, I believe, as nothing to what remains before us.

The days of hardest trial and incessant bewildering error in which your elders have wrought seem over. You "in happier ages born" you of the younger and the coming race, who have a mind to enter in and possess it, may, as the last word here, be bidden to indulge in an equally unbounded hope.


  1. President's address before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at Cleveland, Ohio, August 15, 1888. Reprinted from "Science."