Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/May 1889/Beginnings in Science at Mugby School

BEGINNINGS IN SCIENCE AT MUGBY SCHOOL.[1]
By Dr. J. E. TAYLOR, F. R. S.

JACK HAMPSON was a capital sample of the best traditions of Mugby School. A lad of fourteen, with well-knit limbs, brave, honest-looking, bluish-gray eyes, a good cricketer and swimmer, and not bad at a high jump. He could no more do a mean thing than he could tell a lie; and he could give or take a thrashing if absolutely necessary, although he would be in no hurry for either.

Mugby School has kept the lead in modern educational progress which a former distinguished master introduced many years ago. That master was not content that boys should learn Latin and Greek. He was more anxious they should learn to be Christian gentlemen; to fear and eschew an untruth as they would poison; to be brave and yet gentle; tender toward the weak, not defiant even to the strong. The boys at Mugby School were well acquainted with the lives of the best men of all ages and of all nations, as well as with the most stirring deeds of valor, self-denial, and manly bravery. The noblest thoughts of the wisest men were drawn freely upon for their benefit.

Much of this "new education" was thought an innovation at first; but never before were English lads turned out of school in such high-toned, manly form, or so well able to hold their own at the universities, or in the bigger world outside.

As may be imagined, the wonders of science had not been ignored in such a school. One can hardly believe that modern science is almost included within the present century. All before then, except astronomy, was more or less speculation. Nobody would call Linnæus's system of botany a science, although it was very useful and introductory; nor was geology, zoölogy, nor chemistry. Scientists had only been playing, like children, in the vestibule of the great temple. It may be that we ourselves have not advanced far within the precincts—at least those who study these subjects a hundred years hence may think so. But, at any rate, the amount of knowledge extant concerning the world in which we live, and its ancient and modern inhabitants, is vast compared with what it was when the present century commenced.

At Mugby School, science was an important and also a welcome subject. How welcome it was is best indicated by the fact that the boys got up a Natural History Society among themselves. This was really a self-imposed task, done. out of school-hours. Some of the principal teachers encouraged the lads by becoming members; not that they knew much of natural history or scientific subjects (some of them, indeed, knew nothing at all, and actually learned a good deal from the boys themselves).

Of course, the society was founded on the best models. It was not a bit behind the famous "Royal Society of London" in its equipment. It had its president and vice-president, and its PSM V35 D069 Scale of chub.jpgFig. 1.—Scale of Chub. committee were called "the council." It also published, for the world's benefit, abstracts of the short papers the boys read—the abstracts being nearly as long as the papers. Although its members were not numerous, they felt they bore the weight of the dignity of the society on their shoulders; and, as they were too boyish-manly to be priggish, the training did them no harm.

Well, the society was divided into sections. One section was appointed to collect the plants of the neighborhood—that is, those obtainable during the school half-holidays; another to collect butterflies and moths; a third, beetles; a fourth, birds; a fifth, fossils, etc. They were to publish lists of the plants, birds, insects, and fossils of the district in the "Society's Proceedings"; for, of course, the latter was the name given to the abstracted papers.

The society had only been founded the year before Jack Hampson was sent to Mugby School; so it was in the first zeal and freshness of its youth. Jack didn't like science—it was nothing but a lot of hard, jaw-breaking names, he said, and what was the good of them? He and others had enough of hard words in their daily Latin and Greek tasks. Jack rather snubbed the fellows who volunteered to learn more hard words than were required—he couldn't understand it. What was the good of calling a butter-cup Ranunculus, and a white stone quartz? It was all sham and show!

Now, Jack was a born hunter. He was ardently fond of fishing, and not a bad shot, considering he had been mistrusted, instead of PSM V35 D070 Scale of bleak.jpgFig. 2.—Scale of Bleak. trusted, with a gun. I dare say his skill with the latter would have astonished his father; and I have no doubt a good many ounces of 'bacca found their way into the keeper's pocket before he became so creditable a shot.

But there was not much fishing about Mugby; or, rather, they were such little things that Jack felt ashamed of pulling them out, and so he slipped them in again, although they never seemed to grow any bigger. This was a wise act on their part, if they had only known the unconscious chivalry of Jack's nature, which hated

PSM V35 D070 Scale of eel.jpg
Fig. 3.—Scale of Eel.

taking advantage of a weak thing. Then as to shooting—first, he hadn't a gun, and, if he had possessed one, the rules of the school would have precluded his using it. Next, what was there to shoot? The small birds in the hedges? Any cad could do that! Sneak after the poor beggars behind hedges, and then bang at a robin, a wren, a yellow-hammer, or a tit, and perhaps blow it to pieces! That was not good enough. Partridge and pheasant shooting. Jack thought, are hardly much better sport, only you can eat them.

Of course, there was the excitement of cricket and foot-ball, hare-and-hounds, paper-chases, hurdle-racing, jumping—not only not bad, but altogether good and brave and manly sports. But, somehow, a lad of superior mental abilities wants something else.

Now, the scientist is also a hunter. He traces his descent from Nimrod—he is a hunter before the Lord. He roams through the stellar universe for his prey—hunts for stars, comets, planets. He is not daunted because he did not live on the world when it was young, millions of years ago; for he makes up for it by hunting the remains of the animals and plants that lived during countless

PSM V35 D071 Scales of roach and dace.jpg
Fig. 4.—Scale of Roach. Fig. 5.—Scale of Dace.

ages, and which have long been buried in the rocks of the earth's crust as fossils. He hunts for flowering plants and animals in all parts of the earth; braves heat and cold, hunger and thirst, wounds and death, in his ardent search for them. The structures of rocks do not escape his mineralogical hunting, nor the composition of any sort of substance, organic or inorganic, his chemical analysis. He hunts down stars thousands of millions of miles away with his telescope, and creatures less than the fifteen-thousandth part of an inch long with his microscope. Was there ever such a great hunter? This hunting instinct began scores of thousands of years ago, when the hairy, naked Palæolithic men hunted extinct hairy elephants and rhinoceroses. It has been developed until it has assumed the high intellectual pleasure of roaming through God's great creation, and of confirming the ancient writer's conclusion—"Lo, there is no end to it!"

Of all these things Jack Hampson had never heard a word. Perhaps he had occasionally listened to a few joking remarks PSM V35 D072 Scale of gudgeon.jpgFig. 6.—Scale of Gudgeon. about Darwin and our "being descended from monkeys" at his father's dinner-table. But his father (who was anything but a wealthy man these hard agricultural times, although he farmed his own estate) had not much time for considering the discoveries of modern science. Their echoes faintly reached him occasionally, but never touched him seriously. Not only were the times bad, but his family was large, and it was not without a stretch that Jack was sent to Mugby School, rather more than twenty miles off. His brother (Jack's uncle) was better off, because he had no family; and the uncle also had more leisure, and, what is more, was really a man of a literary and scientific turn of mind.

All school-boys make friends at school. Nobody has ever analyzed PSM V35 D072 Scale of bream.jpgFig. 7.—Scale or Bream. the process of friend-making among boys. It is as mysterious as genuine love-making. Friendships—at least, boys' friendships—are also made "at first sight." Live in a public school a few years, and you will find it out. You might just as well tell a boy to make friends with a certain other boy, as order him to make love a few years later with your female selection. And yet what issues of life depend on those boyish friendships made at school! They are often more durable than marriages. They survive success, disaster, and disease. Not unfrequently, they are prolonged to the second and third generation. If there is one thing more difficult to explain concerning instincts than another, it is the instinct of boys' friendships.

How Jack Hampson—big-limbed, broad-backed Jack—came to take up, the very day he arrived at Mugby, with little Willie Ransome, PSM V35 D073 Scale of loach.jpgFig. 8.—Scale of Loach. I can not tell. There is something in the doctrine of contrasts; doubtless Willie was as great a contrast to Jack as you would have found in the whole school—rather undersized, weakly, but nevertheless a brave and truthful boy. He was fond of books—a trifle too fond, for it would have done him good to have got away from them a little. The chief feature about Willie was his large, bright, inquiring eyes, and his altogether affectionate disposition. He took to Jack at once, and Jack to him. Never before was there a better illustration of "friendship at first sight."

It was at the commencement of the spring term that the friends came to Mugby School. Without knowing it, but fortunately for PSM V35 D073 Scale of minnow.jpgFig. 9.—Scale of Minnow. them and for the whole school, a fine, enthusiastic young fellow had been appointed "science teacher." The term sounds vague, but so do all terms if too strictly analyzed. The boys dubbed him "professor," and thereby unconsciously gave him higher rank than his confréres, who were only "teachers." It would have been impossible for a young man to have been selected better fitted for such a post. Nothing gets hold of boys sooner than enthusiasm. Boys are naturally enthusiastic. There is no better proof of vitality, even in an old man, than that he continues to be enthusiastic about anything intellectual.

Willie Ransome's father was a village doctor, and it was hoped Willie would some day help his father in his increasingly larger, but not increasingly profitable, rounds. Willie entered the science class the first term. His father was a man of scientific tastes, with little leisure to indulge them. But he had already inoculated his only son with a love for such subjects. Willie, however, had never before been drawn within the magic circle of enthusiasm PSM V35 D074 Scale of perch.jpgFig. 10.—Scale of Perch. for them, and his highly sensitive temperament was fixed by the professor's descriptions and demonstrations immediately. Before the term was half over, he was a member of the society, and doing his best to "collect" for the society's museum.

Jack had many a hearty laugh over this disposition to hoard up a lot of old stones and things, and give them hard names. More than once he was asked to attend a society's meeting—for each member had the privilege of introducing a friend—but he always shirked it. "No," he said; "they are not my sort."

One wet evening, however, Willie Ransome got Jack to go,PSM V35 D074 Scale of common carp.jpgFig. 11.—Scale of Common Carp. just because there was nothing else to do. There was a short paper being read on "Fish-Scales," and a number of them were mounted for microscopical examination, of course with a low power, say inch and half-inch. Anything relating to fish or fishing was certain to gain Jack's attention, therefore a better subject could not have been selected to engage his notice. Besides, Jack had never yet even looked through a microscope! He felt a bit ashamed of this now; but there were a couple of microscopes present, and Jack determined to have a good look through them. The scales of different sorts of British fishes were on view. Of course, fish-scales are common enough; but who would think that each kind has its own pattern of scale, and that you could tell a species of fish by its scales?

The paper showed that the scales of fishes were composed of the same material, chitine, as the feathers of birds, or the hair and nails of animals—a kind of substance only found in the animal kingdom, and never in the vegetable; that these scales are developed in little pockets in the fish's skin, which you can plainly see for yourself when a herring is scaled. They are arranged all over the fish's body like the tiles covering a roof, partly over-lapping each other, as is seen by one part of the scale being often PSM V35 D075 Scale of pike.jpgFig. 12.—Scale of Pike. different from the other.

Jack looked through the microscope and was delighted. He was always a reverent-minded boy, and the sight broke on his mind like a new revelation. How exquisitely chaste and beautiful were the markings, lines, dots, and other peculiarities I Then the scales which run along the middle line of the fish were shown him, and theducts perforating them, out of which the mucus flows to anoint the fish's body, and thus reduce the friction of its rapid movement through the water. The lad was half bewildered at the possibility of the new knowledge. "Could anybody get to know about these things?" he asked Willie, who told him of course he could, if he would only take a little trouble.

"But," said his young friend, "I would advise you to get a pocket-magnifier first, and begin to examine with that. Some fellows begin right off with a powerful microscope they get their governors to buy them, and they work it like mad for a month or two, and then get tired of it. Fact is, they never learned the art of observing."

"What do you mean by that?" said Jack.

"Why, getting into the habit of looking about you, keeping your eyes open, and quickly spotting anything unusual. Fancy a fellow beginning to use magnifying glasses of thousands of times before he has begun to use his own eyes! Use your own eyes first, then get a little extra help in the shape of a shilling pocket-lens, and by and by you will be able to use a real microscope, and enjoy using it too."

This was rather a long lecture for Willie to give, or for Jack PSM V35 D076 Scale of grayling.jpgFig. 13.—Scale of Grayling. to listen to. He wouldn't have listened if it had not been for what he had just seen. He said nothing, but he made up his mind he would get one of these useful shilling magnifiers. Willie usually had a country walk during the school half-holiday, and Jack had often been invited to accompany him; but he didn't care to go "humbugging after grubs and weeds," he said. Now, however, he invited himself, and somewhat surprised his friend by stating he wanted to go with him.

 

  1. From advance-sheets of "The Playtime Naturalist," in press of D. Appleton & Co.