Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/October 1903/Shorter Articles and Correspondence

1414354Popular Science Monthly Volume 63 October 1903 — Shorter Articles and Correspondence1903



There was one feature of the aurora of August 21, as seen from York Harbor, Maine, of so extraordinary a character as to deserve permanent record. I refer to the arch extending from east to west with its pendant comet-like attachments as shown in the illustration, which last, though unskilfully drawn, gives a fairly correct diagrammatic representation of the phenomenon.

An Unusual Aurora Borealis.

It was a clear starlit night with a low bank of cloud along the northwestern horizon. No moon. The display began between 7 and 8 p. m., with the usual nebulous luminosity in the northern sky with occasional streaks shooting upwards. These gradually became fainter and of but little interest, when, at 9.30 p. m., there appeared a magnificent arch spanning the heavens from east to west, the top of the arch being a little north of the zenith, and almost overhead. As shown in the diagram at least three fourths of the eastern half of the arch consisted of a pale, only half-luminous column of visible streaks, the band being perhaps as wide as the diameter of a full moon appears to be. The western segment of the arch presented a most extraordinary and magnificent spectacle.

Beginning a little east of the zenith and continuing almost to the western horizon, there appeared what might easily be likened to a string of tremendous comets. These pennants of light, however—unlike comets—were more brilliant at their bases, less so at their apices. Their bases were directed upwards, their points down. They were constantly changing, appearing and disappearing, but not very rapidly. Some would remain a minute or more without much variation. The number varied from ten to fifteen. They were shorter toward the zenith, longer toward the horizon. At the western end of the arch, one long half-luminous streak shot up obliquely (as shown in the figure) and remained for some minutes after the arch itself had disappeared. The arch lasted from 9.30 to nearly 10 p.m.

In size the comet-like pendants appeared about as wide at their bases as the diameter of a full moon, and four or five times such a diameter in length. I reach this estimate by comparing my own conception with those of several others who made observations at the same time.

It should be noted that no visible connection existed between the arch and the nebulous masses and streaks of light near the northern horizon.

In looking at the diagram the reader may well conceive it to be too toy-like and artificial to come within the range of truth or possibility, but so was the arch itself. No one could have conceived such a display to be either natural or possible. To some it suggested a festive arch adorned with luminous cornucopias, like a Christmas decoration. Those of us who a few weeks before had obtained telescopic views of Barelli's comet with some difficulty, seemed now to be rewarded by nature exhibiting a whole string of far more brilliant comets for our special delectation. The kind and degree of luminosity appeared to be almost exactly like that of the comet when seen through a good glass.

The splendor and magnificence of the display were beyond description; startlingly beautiful. The spectacle seemed almost to overstep the modesty of nature, but its coming unheralded during the majestic silence of the night served to banish so unjust a thought. Surprise, delight, admiration and awe—these were the feelings that thrilled with pleasure those of us who witnessed the sublime and mysterious scene—a scene that few of us will ever see again.

The last we saw of this aurora was at midnight when a diffuse light behind a low bank of cloud near the northern horizon gave the appearance as of a moon about to rise. But a medical acquaintance—Dr. S. W. Allen—who was out at 2 a.m. saw shimmering waves of iridescent light streaming radially upwards from the horizon towards a central point at the zenith, a not very unusual phenomenon which many of us have seen once or more during the last half century.

Auroral arches from east to west have been observed in the Arctic regions; double and triple ones are recorded by Mr. E. B. Baldwin in Peary's 'Northward over the Great Ice,' vol. 2, p. 191 et seq., but in this country they are certainly very unusual. Baldwin describes one in which the arch formed itself into a luminous curtain, and the curtain folds knotted 'themselves into a series of electric balls suspended in the same arch-order' (p. 198). These globes of light may have had some approaching resemblance to the comet-like pennants of light I have endeavored to describe.

A. F. A. King.


To the Editor: In the first two paragraphs of Sir Oliver Lodge's admirable address entitled 'Modern Views on Matter,' published in the August number of this journal, he alludes to a distinction between the scientific aspects and the philosophical aspects of his subject and hastens to disclaim any qualifications for discussing the latter. Thus in the first paragraph he says:

The nature of matter has been regarded by philosophers from many points of view, but it is not from any philosophic standpoint that I presume in this university to ask you to consider the subject under my guidance.

And in the second paragraph he adds:

If I may venture to say so, it is the more philosophic side of physics which has always seemed to me the most suitable for study in this university; and although I disclaim any competence for philosophic treatment, in the technical sense, yet I doubt not that the new views, in so far as they turn out to be true views, will have a bearing on the theory of matter in all future writings on philosophy; besides exercising a profound effect on the pure science of physics and chemistry, and perhaps having some influence on certain aspects of biology also.

The course which Sir Oliver followed on the occasion of this Romanes Lecture is not without eminent precedent. Many a man of science has acknowledged subserviency to philosophy on similar occasions; and there is no doubt that the most of us have inherited a belief in the inferiority of science to philosophy. But the question I would ask is whether such subserviency and such belief are any longer justified and hence dignified?

This, of course, raises squarely the question of the distinction between science and philosophy. I assume, however, that it is unnecessary to thrash over old straw here and now. Brushing aside pseudo-science and barren philosophy, what is the distinction, if any, between sound science and sane philosophy?

If one applies the scientific method of investigation to scientists and to philosophers of the modern types he will find, I think, that they are very much alike and that neither claims any superiority over the other. It would appear also that the two words science and philosophy are now very frequently used as synonymous in spite of their widely differing shades of meaning.

Why then should we prolong distinctions which are no longer tenable? Why, to return to the Romanes Lecture, should we be asked to entertain the hypothesis that some Oxford philosopher is more likely to see straight with respect to the intricate properties of matter than Sir Oliver himself? How much, in fact, has all philosophy, in the sense in which Sir Oliver uses the word, contributed to our knowledge of matter? There was a time when every obscure professor of 'moral' or 'mental' philosophy was held, by common consent of the educated, more competent to judge of the philosophic aspects of the 'Origin of Species' than Charles Darwin. But have we not outlived that time, and is not a relapse to the ways of that time, even for the purposes of compliment, reprehensible?


[The point of our correspondent appears to be well taken. But possibly Sir Oliver Lodge's compliment implied that experimental science has been neglected at Oxford.—Ed.]