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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/The Scientific Work of Tyndall

By the Right Hon. LORD RAYLEIGH, F. R. S., etc.,


IT is fitting that the present season should not pass without a reference on these evenings to the work of him whose tragic death a few months since was felt as a personal grief and loss by every member of the Royal Institution. With much diffidence I have undertaken the task to-night, wishing that it had fallen to one better qualified by long and intimate acquaintance to do justice to the theme. For Tyndall was a personality of exceeding interest. He exercised an often magical charm upon those with whom he was closely associated, but when his opposition was aroused he showed himself a keen controversialist. My subject of to-night is but half the story.

Even the strictest devotion of the time at my disposal to a survey of the scientific work of Tyndall will not allow of more than a very imperfect and fragmentary treatment. During his thirty years of labor within these walls lie ranged over a vast field, and accumulated results of a very varied character, important not only to the cultivators of the physical sciences, but also to the biologist. All that I can hope to do is to bring back to your recollection the more salient points of his work, and to illustrate them where possible by experiments of his own devising.

In looking through the catalogue of scientific papers issued by the Royal Society, one of the first entries under the name of Tyndall relates to a matter comparatively simple, but still of some interest. It has been noticed that when a jet of liquid is allowed to play into a receiving vessel, a good deal of air is sometimes carried down with it, while at other times this does not happen. The matter was examined experimentally by Tyndall, and he found that it was closely connected with the peculiar transformation undergone by a jet of liquid which had been previously investigated by Savart. A jet as it issues from the nozzle is at first cylindrical, but after a time it becomes what the physiologists call varicose; it swells in some places and contracts in others. This effect becomes more exaggerated as the jet descends, until the swellings separate into distinct drops, which follow one another in single file. Savart showed that under the influence of vibration the resolution into drops takes place more rapidly, so that the place of resolution travels up closer to the nozzle.

Tyndall's observation was that the carrying down of air required a jet already resolved into drops when it strikes the liquid. I hope to be able to show you the experiment by projection upon the screen. At the present moment the jet is striking the water in the tank previous to resolution into drops, and is therefore carrying down no air. If I operate on the nozzle with a vibrating tuning fork, the resolution occurs earlier, and the drops now carry down with them a considerable quantity of air.

Among the earlier of Tyndall's papers are some relating to ice, a subject which attracted him much, probably from his mountaineering experiences. About the time of which I am speaking Faraday made interesting observations upon a peculiar behavior of ice, afterward called by the name of regelation. He found that if two pieces of ice were brought into contact they stuck or froze together. The pressure required to produce this effect need not be more than exceedingly small. Tyndall found that if fragments of ice are squeezed they pack themselves into a continuous mass. We have here some small ice in a mold, where it can be subjected to a powerful squeeze. The ice under this operation will be regelated, and a mass obtained which may appear almost transparent, and as if it had never been fractured at all. The flow of glaciers has been attributed to this action, the fractures which the stresses produce being mended again by regelation. I should say, perhaps, that the question of glacier motion presents difficulties not yet wholly explained. There can be no doubt, however, that regelation plays an important part.

Another question treated by Tyndall is the manner in which ice first begins to melt under the action of a beam of light passing into it from an electric lamp. Ice usually melts by conducted heat, which reaches first the outside layers. But if we employ a beam from an electric lamp, the heat will reach the ice not only outside but internally, and the melting will begin at certain points in the interior. Here we have a slab of ice which we project upon the screen. We see that the melting begins at certain points, which develop a crystallized appearance resembling flowers. They are points in the interior of the ice, not upon the surface. Tyndall found that when the ice gives way at these internal points there is a formation of apparently empty space. He carefully melted under water such a piece of ice, and found that when the cavity was melted out there was no escape of air, proving that the cavity was really vacuous.

Various speculations have been made as to the cause of this internal melting at definite points, but here again I am not sure if the difficulty has been altogether removed. One point of importance brought out by Tyndall relates to the plane of the flowers. It is parallel to the direction in which the ice originally froze—that is, parallel to the original surface of the water from which it was formed.

I must not dwell further upon isolated questions, however interesting, but will pass on at once to our main subject, which may be divided into three distinct parts, relating namely to heat, especially dark radiation, sound, and the behavior of small particles, such as compose dust, whether of living or dead matter.

The earlier publications of Tyndall on the subject of heat are for the most part embodied in his work entitled Heat as a Mode of Motion. This book has fascinated many readers. I could name more than one now distinguished physicist who drew his first scientific nutriment from it. At the time of its appearance the law of the equivalence of heat and work was quite recently established by the labors of Mayer and Joule, and had taken firm hold of the minds of scientific men; and a great part of Tyndall's book may be considered to be inspired by and founded upon this first law of thermodynamics. At the time of publication of Joule's labors, however, there seems to have been a considerable body of hostile opinion, favorable to the now obsolete notion that heat is a distinct entity called caloric. Looking back, it is a little difficult to find out who were responsible for this reception of the theory of caloric. Perhaps it was rather the popular writers of the time than the first scientific authorities. A scientific worker, especially if he devotes himself to original work, has not time to examine for himself all questions, even those relating to his own department, but must take something on trust from others whom he regards as authorities. One might say that a knowledge of science, like a knowledge of law, consists in knowing where to look for it. But even this kind of knowledge is not always easy to obtain. It is only by experience that one can find out who are most entitled to confidence. It is difficult now to understand the hesitation that was shown in fully accepting the doctrine that heat is a mode of motion, for all the great authorities, especially in England, seem to have favored it. Not to mention Newton and Cavendish, we have Rumford making almost conclusive experiments in its support, Davy accepting it, and Young, who was hardly ever wrong, speaking of the antagonistic theory almost with contempt. On the Continent perhaps, and especially among the French school of chemists and physicists, caloric had more influential support.

As has been said, a great part, though not the whole, of Tyndall's work was devoted to the new doctrine. Much relates to other matters, such as radiant heat. Objection has been taken to this phrase, not altogether without reason; for it may be said that when heat it is not radiant, and while radiant it is not heat. The term dark radiation, or dark radiance as Newcombe calls it, is preferable, and was often used by Tyndall. If we analyze, as Newton did, the components of light, we find that only certain parts are visible. The invisible parts produce, however, as great, or greater, effects in other ways than do the visible parts. The heating effect, for example, is vastly greater in the invisible region than in the visible. One of the experiments that Tyndall devised in order to illustrate this fact I hope now to repeat. He found that it was possible by means of a solution of iodine in bisulphide of carbon to isolate the invisible rays. This solution is opaque to light; even the sun could not be seen through it; but it is very fairly transparent to the invisible ultra-red radiation. By means of a concave reflector I concentrate the rays from an arc lamp. In their path is inserted the opaque solution, but in the focus of invisible radiation the heat developed is sufficient to cause the inflammation of a piece of gun cotton.

Tyndall varied this beautiful experiment in many ways. By raising to incandescence a piece of platinum foil, he illustrated the transformatiom of invisible into visible radiation.

The most important work, however, that we owe to Tyndall in connection with heat is the investigation of the absorption by gaseous bodies of invisible radiation. Melloni had examined the behavior of solid and liquid bodies, but not of gaseous. He found that transparent bodies like glass might be very opaque to invisible radiation. Thus, as we all know, a glass screen will keep off the heat of a fire, while if we wish to protect ourselves from the sun, the glass screen will be useless. On the other hand, rock salt freely transmitted invisible radiation. But nothing had been done on the subject of gaseous absorption, when Tyndall attacked this very difficult problem. Some of his results are shown in the accompanying table. The absorption of the ordinary non-condensable, or rather not easily condensable, gases—for we must not talk of non-condensable gases now, least of all in this place—the absorption of these gases is very small; but when we pass to the more compound gases, such as nitric oxide, we find the absorption much greater, and in the case of olefiant gas we see that the absorbing power is as much as 6,000 times that of the ordinary gases.

Relative Absorption at 1 inch Pressure.
Air 1
Oxygen 1
Nitrogen 1
Hydrogen 1
Carbonic acid 972
Nitric oxide 1,090
Ammonia 5,460
Olefiant gas 6,030

There is one substance as to which there has been a great diversity of opinion—aqueous vapor. Tyndall found that aqueous vapor exercises a strong power of absorption—strong relatively to that of the air in which it is contained. This is of course a question of great importance, especially in relation to meteorology. Tyndall's conclusions were vehemently contested by many of the authorities of the time, among whom was Magnus, the celebrated physicist of Berlin. With a view to this lecture I have gone somewhat carefully into this question, and I have been greatly impressed by the care and skill showed by Tyndall, even in his earlier experiments upon this subject. He was at once sanguine and skeptical—a combination necessary for success in any branch of science. The experimentalist who is not skeptical will be led away on a false tack and accept conclusions which he would find it necessary to reject were he to pursue the matter further; if not sanguine, he will be discouraged altogether by the difficulties encountered in his earlier efforts, and so arrive at no conclusion at all. One criticism, however, may be made. Tyndall did not at first describe with sufficient detail the method and the precautions which he used. There was a want of that precise information necessary to allow another to follow in his steps. Perhaps this may have been due to his literary instinct. which made him averse from overloading his pages with technical experimental details.

The controversy above referred to I think we may now consider to be closed. Nobody now doubts the absorbing power of aqueous vapor. Indeed, the question seems to have entered upon a new phase; for in a recent number of Wiedemann's Annalen, Paschen investigates the precise position in the spectrum of the rays which are absorbed by aqueous vapor.

I can not attempt to show you here any of the early experiments on the absorption of vapors. But some years later Tyndall contrived an experiment, which will allow of reproduction. It is founded on some observations of Graham Bell, who discovered that various bodies became sonorous when exposed to intermittent radiation.

The radiation is supplied from incandescent lime, and is focused by a concave reflector. In the path of the rays is a revolving wheel provided with projecting teeth. When a tooth intervenes, the radiation is stopped; but in the interval between the teeth the radiation passes through, and falls upon any object held at the focus. The object in this case is a small glass bulb containing a few drops of ether, and communicating with the ear by a rubber tube. Under the operation of the intermittent radiation the ether vapor expands and contracts; in other words, a vibration is established, and a sound is heard by the observer. But if the vapor were absolutely diathermanous, no sound would be heard.

I have repeated the experiment of Tyndall which allowed him to distinguish between the behavior of ordinary air and dry air. If, dispensing with ether, we fill the bulb with air in the ordinary moist state, a sound is heard with perfect distinctness, but if we drop in a little sulphuric acid, so as to dry the air, the sound disappears.

According* to the law of exchanges, absorption is connected with radiation; so that while hydrogen and oxygen do not radiate, from ammonia we might expect to get considerable radiation. In the following experiment I aim at showing that the radiation of hot coal gas exceeds the radiation of equally hot air.

The face of the thermopile, protected by screens from the ball itself, is exposed to the radiation from the heated air which rises from a hot copper ball. The effect is manifested by the light reflected from a galvanometer mirror. When we replace the air by a stream of coal gas, the galvanometer indicates an augmentation of heat, so that we have before us a demonstration that coal gas when heated does radiate more than equally hot air, from which we conclude that it would exercise more absorption than air.

I come now to the second division of my subject, that relating to sound. Tyndall, as you know, wrote a book on sound, founded on lectures delivered in this place. Many interesting and original discoveries are there embodied. One, that I have been especially interested in myself, is on the subject of sensitive flames. Prof. Le Conte in America made the first observations at an amateur concert, but it was Tyndall who introduced the remarkable high-pressure flame now before you. It issues from a pinhole burner, and the sensitiveness is entirely a question of the pressure at which the gas is supplied. Tyndall describes the phenomenon by saying that the flame under the influence of a high pressure is like something on the edge of a precipice. If left alone, it will maintain itself; but under the slightest touch it will be pushed over. The gas at high pressure will, if undisturbed, burn steadily and erect, but if a hiss is made in its neighborhood it becomes at once unsteady, and ducks down. A very high sound is necessary. Even a whistle, as you see, does not act. Smooth, pure sounds are practically without effect unless of very high pitch.

I will illustrate the importance of the flame as a means of investigation by an experiment in the diffraction of sound. I have here a source of sound, but of pitch so high as to be inaudible. The waves impinge perpendicularly upon a circular disk of plate glass. Behind the disk there is a sound shadow, and you might expect that the shadow would be most complete at the center. But this is not so. When the burner occupies this position the flame flares; but when by a slight motion of the disk the position of the flame is made eccentric, the existence of the shadow is manifested by the recovery of the flame. At the center the intensity of sound is the same as if no obstacle were interposed.

The optical analogue of the above experiment was made at the suggestion of Poisson, who had deduced the result theoretically, but considered it so unlikely that he regarded it as an objection to the undulatory theory of light. Now, I need hardly say, it is regarded as a beautiful confirmation.

It is of importance to prove that the flame is not of the essence of the matter, that there is no need to have a flame, or to ignite it at the burner. Thus, it is quite possible to have a jet of gas so arranged that ignition does not occur until the jet has lost its sensitiveness. The sensitive part is that quite close to the nozzle, and the flame is only an indicator. But it is not necessary to have any kind of flame at all. Tyndall made observations on smoke jets, showing that a jet of air can be made sensitive to sound. The difficulty is to see it, and to operate successfully upon it; because, as Tyndall soon found, a smoke jet is much more difficult to deal with than flames, and is sensitive to much graver sounds. I doubt whether I am wise in trying to exhibit smoke jets to an audience, but I have a special means of projection by which I ought at least to succeed in making them visible. It consists in a device by which the main part of the light from the lamp is stopped at the image of the arc, so that the only light which can reach the screen is light which by diffusion has been diverted out of its course. Thus we shall get an exhibition of a jet of smoke upon the screen, showing bright on a dark ground. The jet issues near the mouth of a resonator of pitch 256. When undisturbed, it pursues a straight course and remains cylindrical. But if a fork of suitable pitch be sounded in the neighborhood, the jet spreads out into a sort of fan, or even bifurcates, as you see upon the screen. The real motion of the jet can not, of course, be ascertained by mere inspection. It consists in a continuously increasing sinuosity, leading after a while to complete disruption. If two forks slightly out of unison are sounded together, the jet expands and re-collects itself, synchronously with the audible beats. I should say that my jet is a very coarse imitation of Tyndall's. The nozzle that I am using is much too large. With a proper nozzle, and in a perfectly undisturbed atmosphere—undisturbed not only by sounds, but free from all draughts—the sensitiveness is wonderful. The slightest noise is seen to act instantly and to bring the jet down to a fraction of its former height.

Another important part of Tyndall's work on sound was carried out as adviser of the Trinity House. When in thick weather the ordinary lights fail, an attempt was made to replace them with sound signals. These are found to vary much in their action, sometimes being heard to a very great distance, and at other times failing to make themselves audible even at a moderate distance. Two explanations have been suggested, depending upon acoustic refraction and acoustic reflection.

Under the influence of variations of temperature refraction occurs in the atmosphere. For example, sound travels more quickly in warm than in cold air. If, as often happens, it is colder above, the upper part of the sound wave tends to lag behind, and the wave is liable to be tilted upward and so to be carried over the head of the would-be observer on the surface of the ground. This explanation of acoustic refraction by variation of temperature was given by Prof. Osborne Reynolds. As Sir G. Stokes showed, refraction is also caused by wind. The difference between refraction by. wind and by temperature variations is that in one case everything turns upon the direction in which the sound is going, while in the second case this consideration is immaterial. The sound is heard by an observer down wind, and not so well by an observer up wind. The explanation by refraction of the frequent failure of sound signals was that adopted by Prof. Henry in America, a distinguished worker upon this subject. Tyndall's investigations, however, led him to favor another explanation. His view was that sound was actually reflected by atmospheric irregularities. He observed, what appears to be amply sufficient to establish his case, that prolonged signals from fog sirens give rise to echoes audible after the signal has stopped. This echo was heard from the air over the sea, and lasted in many cases a long time, up to fifteen seconds. There seems here no alternative but to suppose that reflection must have occurred internally in the atmosphere. In some cases the explanation of the occasional diminished penetration of sound seems to be rather by refraction, and in others by reflection.

Tyndall proved that a single layer of hot air is sufficient to cause reflection, and I propose to repeat his experiment. The source of sound, a toy reed, is placed at one end of one metallic tube, and a sensitive flame at one end of a second. The opposite ends of these tubes are placed near each other, but in a position which does not permit the sound waves issuing from the one to enter the other directly. Accordingly, the flame shows no response. If, however, a pane of glass be held suitably, the waves are reflected back and the flame is excited. Tyndall's experiment consists in the demonstration that a flat gas flame is competent to act the part of a reflector. When I hold the gas flame in the proper position, the percipient flame flares; when the flat flame is removed or held at an unsuitable angle, there is almost complete recovery.

It is true that in the atmosphere no such violent transitions of density can occur as are met with in a flame; but, on the other hand, the interruptions may be very numerous, as is indeed rendered probable by the phenomena of stellar scintillation.


The third portion of my subject must be treated very briefly. The guiding idea of much of Tyndall's work on atmospheric particles was the application of an intense illumination to render them evident. Fine particles of mastic, precipitated on admixture of varnish with a large quantity of water, had already been examined by Brücke. Chemically precipitated sulphur is convenient, and allows the influence of size to be watched as the particles grow. But the most interesting observations of Tyndall relate to precipitates in gases caused by the chemical action of the light itself. This may be illustrated by causing the concentrated rays of the electric lamp to pass through a flask containing vapor of peroxide of chlorine. Within a few seconds dense clouds are produced.

When the particles are very small in comparison with the wave length, the laws governing the dispersion of the light are simple. Tyndall pursued the investigation to the case where the particles have grown beyond the limit above indicated, and found that the polarization of the dispersed light was effected in a peculiar and interesting manner.

Atmospheric dust, especially in London, is largely organic. If, following Tyndall, we hold a spirit lamp under the track of the light from the electric lamp, the dark spaces, resulting from the combustion of the dust, have all the appearance of smoke.

In confined and undisturbed spaces the dust settles out. I have here a large flask which has been closed for some days. If I hold it to the lamp, the track of the light, plainly visible before entering and after leaving the flask, is there interrupted. This, it will be evident, is a matter of considerable importance in connection with organic germs.

The question of the spontaneous generation of life occupied Tyndall for several years. He brought to bear upon it untiring perseverance and refined experimental skill, and his results are those now generally accepted. Guarding himself from too absolute statements as to other times and other conditions, he concluded that under the circumstances of our experiments life is always founded upon life. The putrefaction of vegetable and animal infusions, even when initially sterilized, is to be attributed to the intrusion of organic germs from the atmosphere.

The universal presence of such germs is often regarded as a hypothesis difficult of acceptance. It may be illustrated by an experiment from the inorganic world. I have here, and can project upon the screen, glass pots, each containing a shallow layer of a supersaturated solution of sulphate of soda. Protected by glass covers, they have stood without crystallizing for forty-eight hours. But if I remove the cover, a few seconds or minutes will see the crystallization commence. It has begun, and long needles are invading the field of view. Here it must be understood that with a few exceptions, the crystalline germ required to start the action must be of the same nature as the dissolved salt; and the conclusion is that small crystals of sulphate of soda are universally present in the atmosphere.

I have now completed my task. With more or less success I have laid before you the substance of some of Tyndall's contributions to knowledge. What I could not hope to recall was the brilliant and often poetic exposition by which his vivid imagination illumined the dry facts of science. Some reminiscences of this may still be recovered by the reader of his treatises and memoirs; but much survives only as an influence exerted upon the minds of his contemporaries, and manifested in subsequent advances due to his inspiration.