John Phin.

The seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels online

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Online LibraryJohn PhinThe seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels → online text (page 1 of 12)
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IN the following pages I have endeavored to give a sim-
ple account of problems which have occupied the attention
of the human mind ever since the dawn of civilization, and
which can never lose their interest until time shall be no
more. While to most persons these subjects will have but
an historical interest, yet even from this point of view they
are of more value than the history of empires, for they are
the intellectual battlefields upon which much of our prog-
ress in science has been won. To a few, however, some of
them may be of actual practical importance, for although
the schoolmaster has been abroad for these many years, it
is an unfortunate fact that the circle-squarer and the per-
petual-motion-seeker have not ceased out of the land.

In these days of almost miraculous progress it is difficult
to realize that there may be such a thing as a scientific im-
possibility. I have therefore endeavored to point out
where the line must be drawn, and by way of illustration
I have added a few curious paradoxes and marvels, some
of which show apparent contradictions to known laws of
nature, but which are all simply and easily explained when
we understand the fundamental principles which govern each

In presenting the various subjects which are here dis-
cussed, I have endeavored to use the simplest language
and to avoid entirely the use of mathematical formulae, for



I know by large experience that these are the bugbear of
the ordinary reader, for whom this volume is specially in-
tended. Therefore I have endeavored to state everything
in such a simple manner that any one with a mere common
school education can understand it. This, I trust, will ex-
plain the absence of everything which requires the use of
anything higher than the simple rules of arithmetic and the
most elementary propositions of geometry. And even this
I have found to be enough for many lawyers, physicians,
and clergymen who, in the ardent pursuit of their profes-
sions, have forgotten much that they learned at college.
And as I hope to find many readers amongst intelligent
mechanics, I have in some cases suggested mechanical
proofs which any expert handler of tools can easily carry

As a matter of course, very little originality is claimed
for anything in the book, the only points that are new
being a few illustrations of well-known principles, some of
which had already appeared in " The Young Scientist " and
" Self-education for Mechanics." Whenever the exact
words of an author have been used, credit has always
been given ; but in regard to general statements and ideas,
I must rest content with naming the books from which I
have derived the greatest assistance. Ozanam's " Recrea-
tions in Science and Natural Philosophy," in the editions
of Hutton (1803) and Riddle (1854), has been a storehouse
of matter. Much has been gleaned from the " Budget of
Paradoxes " by Professor De Morgan and also from Profes-
sor W. W. R. Ball's " Mathematical Recreations and Prob-
lems." Those who wish to inform themselves in regard to
what has been done by the perpetual -motion -mongers must
consult Mr. Dirck's two volumes entitled "Perpetuum


Mobile " and I have made free use of his labors. To these
and one or two others I acknowledge unlimited credit.

Some of the marvels which are here described, although
very old, are not generally known, and as they are easily
put in practice they may afford a pleasant hour's amusement
to the reader and his friends.






Introductory Note i

I Squaring the Circle 9

II The Duplication of the Cube 30

III The Trisection of an Angle 33

IV Perpetual Motion 36

V The Transmutation of Metals Alchemy 79

VI The Fixation of Mercury 92

VII The Universal Medicine and the Elixir of Life .... 95


Perpetual or Ever-burning Lamps 100

The Alkahest or Universal Solvent 104

Palingenesy 106

The Powder of Sympathy in


The Fourth Dimension 117

How a Space may be apparently Enlarged by merely chang-
ing its Shape 126

Can a Man Lift Himself by the Straps of his Boots? .... 128

How a Spider Lifted a Snake 130

How the Shadow may be made to move backward on the Sun-
dial 133

How a Watch may be used as a Compass 134

Micrography or Minute Writing. Writing so fine that the
whole Bible, if written in characters of the same size,
might be inscribed twenty-two times on a square inch . . 136



Illusions of the Senses 149

Taste and Smell ... 15

Sense of Heat 15

Sense of Hearing 15

Sense of Touch One Thing Appearing as Two 151

How Objects may be apparently Seen through a Hole in the

Hand 156

How to See (apparently) through a Solid Brick 158


The Chess-board Problem l6 3

The Nail Problem l6 4

A Question of Population J ^5

How to Become a Millionaire l66

The Actual Cost and Present Value of the First Folio Shake-
speare l68

Arithmetical Puzzles I 7

Archimedes and His Fulcrum I7 1





HE difficult, the dangerous, and the impossible have
always had a strange fascination for the human
mind. We see this every day in the acts of boys
who risk life and limb in the performance of
useless but dangerous feats, and amongst children of larger
growth we find loop-the-loopers, bridge-jumpers, and all
sorts of venture-seekers to whom much of the attraction
of these performances is undoubtedly the mere risk that is
involved, although, perhaps, to some extent, notoriety and
money-making may contribute their share. Many of our
readers will doubtless remember the words of James Fitz-
James, in " The Lady of the Lake " :

Or, if a path be dangerous known
The danger's self is lure alone.

And in commenting on the old-time game laws of England,
Froude, the historian, says : " Although the old forest
laws were terrible, they served only to enhance the excite-
ment by danger."

That which is true of physical dangers holds equally true
in regard to intellectual difficulties. Professor De Mor-
gan tells us, in his "Budget of Paradoxes," that he once
gave a lecture on " Squaring the Circle" and that a
gentleman who was introduced to it by what he said, re-
marked loud enough to be heard by all around : " Only


prove to me that it is impossible and I will set about it
this very evening."

Therefore it is not to be wondered at that certain very
difficult, or perhaps impossible problems have in all ages
had a powerful fascination for certain minds. In that
curious olla podrida of fact and fiction, "The Curiosities
of Literature," D'Israeli gives a list of six of these prob-
lems, which he calls "The Six Follies of Science." I do
not know whether the phrase " Follies of Science " origi-
nated with him or not, but he enumerates the Quadrature
of the Circle ; the Duplication, or, as he calls it, the
Multiplication of the Cube ; the Perpetual Motion ; the
Philosophical Stone ; Magic, and Judicial Astrology, as
those known to him. This list, however, has no classical
standing such as pertains to the " Seven Wonders of the
World," the "Seven Wise Men of Greece," the "Seven
Champions of Christendom," and others. There are some
well-known follies that are omitted, while some authorities
would peremptorily reject Magic and Judicial Astrology as
being attempts at fraud rather than earnest efforts to dis-.
cover and utilize the secrets of nature. The generally
accepted list is as follows :

1. The Quadrature of the Circle or, as it is called in

the vernacular, " Squaring the Circle."

2. The Duplication of the Cube.

3. The Trisection of an Angle.

4. Perpetual Motion.

5. The Transmutation of the Metals.

6. The Fixation of Mercury.

7. The Elixir of Life.

The Transmutation of the Metals, the Fixation of Mer-
cury, and the Elixir of Life might perhaps be properly


classed as one, under the head of the Philosopher's Stone,
and then Astrology and Magic might come in to make up
the mystic number Seven.

The expression " Follies of Science " does not seem a
very appropriate one. Real science has no follies. Neither
can these vain attempts be called scientific follies because
their very essence is that they are unscientific. Each one
is really a veritable "Will-o'-the-Wisp " for unscientific
thinkers, and there are many more of them than those that
we have here named. But the expression has been adopted
in literature and it is just as well to accept it. Those on
the list that we have given are the ones that have become
famous in history and they still engage the attention of a
certain class of minds. It is only a few months since a
man who claims to be a professional architect and techni-
cal writer put forth an alleged method of " squaring the
circle," which he claims to be " exact "; and the results of
an attempt to make liquid air a pathway to perpetual
motion are still in evidence, as a minus quantity, in the
pockets of many who believed that all things are pos-
sible to modern science. And indeed it is this false idea
of the possibility of the impossible that leads astray the
followers of these false lights. Inventive science has
accomplished so much many of her achievements being
so astounding that they would certainly have seemed
miracles to the most intelligent men of a few generations
ago that the ordinary mind cannot see the difference be-
tween unknown possibilities and those things which well-
established science pronounces to be impossible, because
they contradict fundamental laws which are thoroughly
established and well understood.

Thus any one who would claim that he could make a


plane triangle in which the three angles would measure
more than two right angles, would show by this very claim
that he was entirely ignorant of the first principles of
geometry. The same would be true of the man who
would claim that he could give, in exact figures, the diag-
onal of a square of which the side is exactly one foot or
one yard, and it is also true of the man who claims that
he can give the exact area of a circle of which either the
circumference or the diameter is known with precision.
That they cannot both be known exactly is very well
understood by all who have studied the subject, but that
the area, the circumference, and the diameter of a circle
may all be known with an exactitude which is far in
excess of anything of which the human mind can form
the least conception, is quite true, as we shall show when
we come to consider the subject in its proper place.

These problems are not only interesting historically
but they are valuable as illustrating the vagaries of the
human mind and the difficulties with which the early in-
vestigators had to contend. They also show us the bar-
riers over which we cannot pass, and they enforce the
immutable character of the natural laws which govern
the world around us. We hear much of the progress of
science and of the changes which this progress has
brought about, but these changes never affect the funda-
mental facts and principles upon which all true science is
based. Theories and explanations and even practical
applications change or pass away, so that we know them
no more, but nature remains the same throughout the
ages. No new theory of electricity can ever take away
from the voltaic battery its power, or change it in any
respect, and no new discovery in regard to the constitution


of matter can ever lessen the eagerness with which carbon
and oxygen combine together. Every little while we
hear of some discovery that is going to upset all our pre-
conceived notions and entirely change those laws which
long experience has proved to be invariable, but in
every case these alleged discoveries have turned out to
be fallacies. For example, the wonderful properties of
radium have led some enthusiasts to adopt the idea
that many of our old notions about the conservation of
energy must be abandoned, but when all the facts are
carefully examined it is found that there is no rational
basis for such views. Upon this point Sir Oliver Lodge
says :

" There is absolutely no ground for the popular and gra-
tuitous surmise that radium emits energy without loss or
waste of any kind, and that it is competent to go on for-
ever. The idea, at one time irresponsibly mooted, that it
contradicted the principle of the conservation of energy,
and was troubling physicists with the idea that they must
overhaul their theories a thing which they ought always
to be delighted to do on good evidence this idea was a
gratuitous absurdity, and never had the slightest founda-
tion. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that radium
and the other like substances are drawing upon their own
stores of internal atomic energy, and thereby gradually dis-
integrating and falling into other and ultimately more stable
forms of matter."

One would naturally suppose that the extensive diffusion
of sound scientific knowledge which has taken place during
the century just past, would have placed these problems
amongst the lumber of past ages ; but it seems that some
of them, particularly the squaring of the circle and per-
petual motion, still occupy considerable space in the atten-
tion of the world, and even the futile chase after the


"Elixir of Life" has not been entirely abandoned. In-
deed certain professors who occupy prominent official po-
sitions, assert that they have made great progress towards
its attainment. In view of such facts one is almost driven
to accept the humorous explanation which De Morgan has
offered and which he bases on an old legend relating to the
famous wizard, Michael Scott. The generally accepted
tradition, as related by Sir Walter Scott in his notes to
the " Lay of the Last Minstrel," is as follows :

" Michael Scott was, once upon a time, much embar-
rassed by a spirit for whom he was under the necessity of
rinding constant employment. He commanded him to
build a 'cauld,' or darn head across the Tweed at Kelso ;
it was accomplished in one night, and still does honor to
the infernal architect. Michael next ordered that Eildon
Hill, which was then a uniform cone, should be divided
into three. Another night was sufficient to part its summit
into the three picturesque peaks which it now bears. At
length the enchanter conquered this indefatigable demon,
by employing him in the hopeless task of making ropes out
of sea-sand."

Whereupon De Morgan offers the following exceedingly
interesting continuation of the legend :

" The recorded story is that Michael Scott, being bound
by contract to procure perpetual employment for a num-
ber of young demons, was worried out of his life in invent-
ing jobs for them, until at last he set them to make ropes
out of sea-sand, which they never could do. We have
obtained a very curious correspondence between the wizard
Michael and his demon slaves ; but we do not feel at liberty
to say how it came into our hands. We much regret that
we did not receive it in time for the British Association.
It appears that the story, true as far as it goes, was never
finished. The demons easily conquered the rope difficulty,
by the simple process of making the sand into glass, and


spinning the glass into thread which they twisted. Michael,
thoroughly disconcerted, hit upon the plan of setting some
to square the circle, others to find the perpetual motion,
etc. He commanded each of them to transmigrate from
one human body into another, until their tasks were done.
This explains the whole succession of cyclometers and all
the heroes of the Budget. Some of this correspondence is
very recent; it is much blotted, and we are not quite sure
of its meaning. It is full of figurative allusions to driving
something illegible down a steep into the sea. It looks
like a humble petition to be allowed some diversion in the
intervals of transmigration; and the answer is:

" 'Rumpat et serpens iter institutum*

a line of Horace, which the demons interpret as a direction
to come athwart the proceedings of the Institute by a sly

And really those who have followed carefully the history
of the men who have claimed that they had solved these
famous problems, will be almost inclined to accept De
Morgan's ingenious explanation as something more than a
mere " skit." The whole history of the philosopher's stone,
of machines and contrivances for obtaining perpetual motion,
and of circle-squaring, is permeated with accounts of the
most gross and obvious frauds. That ignorance played an
important part in the conduct of many who have put forth
schemes based upon these pretended solutions is no doubt
true, but that a deliberate attempt at absolute fraud was the
mainspring in many cases cannot be denied. Like Dou-
sterswivel\s\ "The Antiquary," many of the men who ad-
vocated these delusions may have had a sneaking suspicion
that there might be some truth in the doctrines which they
promulgated ; but most of them knew that their particular
claims were groundless, and that they were put forward for
the purpose of deceiving some confiding patron from whom


they expected either money or the credit and glory of having
done that which had been hitherto considered impossible.

Some of the questions here discussed have been called
" scientific impossibilities " an epithet which many have
considered entirely inapplicable to any problem, on the
ground that all things are possible to science. And in
view of the wonderful things that have been accomplished
in the past, some of my readers may well ask : "Who shall
decide when doctors disagree ? "

Perhaps the best answer to this question is that given by
Ozanam, the old historian of these and many other scientific
puzzles. He claimed that " it was the business of the
Doctors of the Sorbonne to discuss, of the Pope to decide,
and of a mathematician to go straight to heaven in a per-
pendicular line ! "

In this connection the words of De Morgan have a deep
significance. Alluding to the difficulty of preventing men
of no authority from setting up false pretensions and the
impossibility of destroying the assertions of fancy specula-
tion, he says : " Many an error of thought and learning has
fallen before a gradual growth of thoughtful and learned
opposition. But such things as the quadrature of the circle,
etc., are never put down. And why ? Because thought
can influence thought, but thought cannot influence self-
conceit ; learning can annihilate learning ; but learning
cannot annihilate ignorance. A sword may cut through an
iron bar, and the severed ends will not reunite ; let it go
through the air, and the yielding substance is whole again
in a moment."



NDOUBTEDLY one of the reasons why this
problem has received so much attention from
those whose minds certainly have no special lean-
ing towards mathematics, lies in the fact that
there is a general impression abroad that the governments
of Great Britain and France have offered large rewards for
its solution. De Morgan tells of a Jesuit who came all the
way from South America, bringing with him a quadrature
of the circle and a newspaper cutting announcing that a
reward was ready for the discovery in England. As a
matter of fact his method of solving the problem was
worthless, and even if it had been valuable, there would
have been no reward.

Another case was that of an agricultural laborer who
spent his hard-earned savings on a journey to London, car-
rying with him an alleged solution of the problem, and who
demanded from the Lord Chancellor the sum of one hun-
dred thousand pounds, which he claimed to be the amount
of the reward offered and which he desired should be
handed over forthwith. When he failed to get the money
he and his friends were highly indignant and insisted that
the influence of the clergy had deprived the poor man of
his just deserts !

And it is related that in the year 1788, one of these de-
luded individuals, a M. de Vausenville, actually brought an



action against the French Academy of Sciences to recover
a reward to which he felt himself entitled. It ought to be
needless to say that there never was a reward offered
for the solution of this or any other of the problems which
are discussed in this volume. Upon this point De Mor-
gan has the following remarks :

" Montucla says, speaking of France, that he finds three
notions prevalent among the cyclometers [or circle-squar-
ers]: i. That there is a large reward offered for success;

2. That the longitude problem depends on that success;

3. That the solution is the great end and object of geometry.
The same three notions are equally prevalent among the
same class in England. No reward has ever been offered
by the government of either country. The longitude
problem in no way depends upon perfect solution; existing
approximations are sufficient to a point of accuracy far
beyond what can be wanted. And geometry, content with
what exists, has long pressed on to other matters. Some-
times a cyclometer persuades a skipper, who has made land
in the wrong place, that the astronomers are in fault for
using a wrong measure of the circle ; and the skipper thinks
it a very comfortable solution! And this is the utmost
that the problem ever has to do with longitude."

In the year 1775 the Royal Academy of Sciences of
Paris passed a resolution not to entertain communications
which claimed to give solutions of any of the following
problems : The duplication of the cube, the trisection of
an angle, the quadrature of a circle, or any machine an-
nounced as showing perpetual motion. And we have
heard that the Royal Society of London passed similar
resolutions, but of course in the case of neither society did
these resolutions exclude legitimate mathematical investi-
gations the famous computations of Mr. Shanks, to
which we shall have occasion to refer hereafter, were sub-
mitted to the Royal Society of London and published in


their Transactions. Attempts to "square the circle,"
when made intelligently, were not only commendable but
have been productive of the most valuable results. At the
same time there is no problem, with the possible exception
of that of perpetual motion, that has caused more waste of
time and effort on the part of those who have attempted
its solution, and who have in almost all cases been ignorant
both of the nature of the problem and of the results which
have been already attained. From Archimedes down
to the present time some of the ablest mathemati-
cians have occupied themselves with the quadrature, or,
as it is called in common language, "the squaring of the
circle " ; but these men are not to be placed in the same
class with those to whom the term " circle-squarers " is
generally applied.

As already noted, the great difficulty with most circle-
squarers is that they are ignorant both of the nature of
the problem to be solved and of the results which have
been already attained. Sometimes we see it explained as
the drawing of a square inside a circle and at other times
as the drawing of a square around a circle, but both these
problems are amongst the very simplest in practical geo-
metry, the solutions being given in the sixth and seventh
propositions of the Fourth Book of Euclid. Other defini-
tions have been given, some of them quite absurd. Thus
in France, in 1753, M. de Causans, of the Guards, cut a
circular piece of turf, squared it, and from the result de-
duced original sin and the Trinity. He found out that the
circle was equal to the square in which it is inscribed, and

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Online LibraryJohn PhinThe seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels → online text (page 1 of 12)