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

. (page 8 of 12)
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 8 of 12)
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would wash away all impurities from common materials
and leave in absolute purity the higher substance, which
constituted the gold of the adepts. But whatever their
particular object may have been, it is well known that much
time and labor were expended in the fruitless search.

The futility of such attempts was very well exposed by
the cynical sceptic, who asked them what kind of vessel
could they provide for holding such a liquid ? If its solvent
powers are such that it dissolves everything, it is very evi-
dent that it would dissolve the very material of the vessel
in which it must be placed.

When hydrofluoric acid became a subject of investigation
it was thought that its characteristics approached, more
nearly than those of any other substance known, to those
of the universal solvent, and the very difficulty above sug-
gested, presented itself strongly to the chemists who ex-
perimented with it. Not only common metals but glass
and porcelain were acted upon by this wonderfully ener-
getic liquid and when attempts were made to isolate the



fluorine, even the platinum electrodes were corroded and
destroyed. Vessels of pure silver and of lead served toler-
ably well, but Davy suggested that the most scientific
method of constructing a containing vessel would be to use
a compound in which fluorine was already present to the
point of saturation. As there is a limit to the amount of
fluorine with which any base can combine, such a vessel
would be proof against its solvent action. I am not aware,
however, that the suggestion was ever carried into actual
practice with success.


HIS singular delusion may have been partly due
to errors of observation, the instruments and
methods of former times having been notably
crude and unreliable. This fact, taken in con-
nection with the wild theories upon which the natural
sciences of the middle ages were based, is a sufficient ex-
planation of some of the extraordinary statements made by
Kircher, Schott, Digby, and ethers.

By palingenesy these writers meant a certain chemical
process by means of which a plant or an animal might be
revived from its ashes. In other words a sort of material
resurrection. Most of the accounts given by the old au-
thors go no further than to assert that by proper methods
the ashes of plants, when treated with water, produce small
forests of ferns and pines. Thus, an English chemist,
named Coxe, asserts that having extracted and dissolved
the essential salts of fern, and then filtered the liquor, he
observed, after leaving it at rest for five or six weeks, a
vegetation of small ferns adhering to the bottom of the
vessel. The same chemist, having mixed northern potash
with an equal quantity of sal ammoniac, saw, some time
after, a small forest of pines and other trees, with which he
was not acquainted, rising from the bottom of the vessel.

And Kircher tells us in his " Ars Magnetica " that he
had a long-necked phial, hermetically sealed, containing
the ashes of a plant which he could revive at pleasure by
means of heat ; and that he showed this wonderful phe-



nomenon to Christina, Queen of Sweden, who was highly
delighted with it. Unfortunately he left this valuable
curiosity one cold day in his window and it was entirely
destroyed by the frost. Father Schott also asserts that
he saw this chemical wonder which, according to his ac-
count, was a rose revived from its ashes. And he adds
that a certain prince having requested Kircher to make
him one of the same kind, he chose rather to give up his
own than to repeat the operation.

Even the celebrated Boyle, though not very favorable to
palingenesy, relates that having dissolved in water some
verdigris, which, as is well known, is produced by combin-
ing copper with the acid of vinegar, and having caused this
water to congeal, by means of artificial cold, he observed, at
the surface of the ice, small figures which had an exact
resemblance to vines.

In this connection it is well to bear in mind that in
Boyle's time almost all vinegar was really what its name
implies sour wine (vin aigre] and verdegris or copper
acetate was generally prepared by exposing copper plates
to the action of refuse grapes which had been allowed to
ferment and become sour. Therefore to him it might not
have seemed so very improbable that the green crystals
which appeared on the surface of the ice were, in reality,
minute resuscitated grape-vines.

The explanation of these facts given by Father Kircher
is worthy of the science of the times. He tells us that
the seminal virtue of each mixture is contained in its salts
and these salts, unalterable by their nature, when put in
motion by heat, rise in the vessel through the liquor in
which they are diffused. Being then at liberty to arrange
themselves at pleasure, they place themselves in that order


in which they would be placed by the effect of vegetation,
or the same as they occupied before the body to which they
belonged had been decomposed by the fire ; in short, they
form a plant, or the phantom of a plant, which has a per-
fect resemblance to the one destroyed.

That the operators have here mistaken for true vegetable
growth the fern-like crystals of the salts which exist in the
ashes of all plants is very obvious. Their knowledge of
plant structure was exceedingly limited and their micro-
scopes were so imperfect that imagination had free scope.
As seen under our modern microscopes, there are few pret-
tier sights than the crystallization of such salts as sal
ammoniac, potassic nitrate, barium chloride, etc. The crys-
tals are actually seen to grow and it would not require a
very great stretch of the imagination to convince one that
the growth is due to a living organism. Indeed, this view
has actually been taken in an article which recently ap-
peared in a prominent magazine. The writer of that article
sees no difference between the mere aggregation of inor-
ganic particles brought together by voltaic action and the
building up of vital structures under the influence of or-
ganic forces. This is simply materialism run mad.

Perhaps the finest illustration of such crystallization is
to be found in the deposition of silver from a solution of
the nitrate as seen under the microscope. A drop of the
solution is placed on a glass slide and while the observer
watches it through a low power, a piece of copper wire or,
preferably, a minute quantity of the amalgam of tin and
mercury, such as is used for " silvering " cheap looking
glasses, is brought into contact with it. Chemical decom-
position at once sets in and then the silver thus deposited
forms one element of a very minute voltaic couple and


fresh crystals of silver are deposited upon the silver already
thrown down. When the illumination of this object under
the microscope is properly managed, the appearance, which
resembles that shown in Fig. 18, is exceedingly brilliant,
and beautiful beyond description.

That imagination played strange pranks in the observa-
tions of the older microscopists is shown by some of the
engravings found in their books. I have now before me a

Fig. 18.

thick, dumpy quarto in which the so-called seminal animal-
cules are depicted as little men and women, and I have no
doubt that, to the eye of this early observer, they had that
appearance. But the microscopists of to-day know better.
Sir Kenelm Digby, whose name is associated with the
Sympathetic Powder, tells us that he took the ashes of
burnt crabs, dissolved them in water and, after subjecting
the whole to a tedious process, small crabs were produced
in the liquor. These were nourished with blood from the


ox, and, after a time, left to themselves in some stream
where they throve and grew large.

Now, although Evelyn, in his diary, declares that " Sir
Kenelm was an errant mountebank," it is quite possible that
he was honest in his account of his experiments and that he
was merely led astray by the imperfection of his instru-
ments of observation. It is more than likely that the
creatures which Digby saw were entomostraca introduced
in the form of ova which, unless a good microscope be used,
are quite invisible. These would develop rapidly and might
easily be mistaken for some species of crab, though, when
examined with proper instruments, all resemblance vanishes.
When let loose in a running stream it would evidently be
impossible to trace their identity and follow their growth.

But while some of these stories may have originated in
errors of observation .this will hardly explain some of the
statements made by those who have advocated this strange
doctrine. Father Schott, in his "Physica Curiosa," gives
an account of the resurrection of a sparrow and actually
gives an engraving in which the bird is shown in a bottle
revived !

Although the subject, of itself, is not worthy of a mo-
ment's consideration, it deserves attention as an illustration
of the extraordinary vagaries into which the human mind
is liable to fall.


HIS curious occult method of curing wounds is
indissolubly associated with the name of Sir
Kenelm Digby (born 1603, died 1665), though
it was undoubtedly in use long before his time.
He himself tells us that he learned to make and apply the
drug from a Carmelite, who had traveled in the east, and
whom he met in Florence, in 1622. The descendants of
Digby are still prominent in England, and O. W. Holmes,
in his " One Hundred Days in Europe," tells us that he
had met a Sir Kenelm Digby, a descendant of the famous
Sir Kenelm of the seventeenth century, and that he could
hardly refrain from asking him if he had any of his ancestor's
famous powder in his pocket.

Digby was a student of chemistry, or at least of the
chemistry of those days, and wrote books of Recipes and
the making of " Methington [metheglin or mead ?] Syder,
etc." He was, as we have seen in the previous article,
a believer in palingenesy and made experiments with a view
to substantiate that strange doctrine. Evelyn calls him an
"errant quack," and he may have been given to quackery,
but then the loose scientific ideas of those days allowed a
wide range in drawing conclusions which, though they seem
absurd to us, may have appeared to be quite reasonable to
the men of that time.

From his book on the subject, 1 we learn that the wound

1 Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy. With
Instructions how to make the said Powder. Rendered faithfully out of
French into English by R. White, Gent. London, 1658.



was never to be brought into contact with the powder. A
bandage was to be taken from the wound, immersed in the
powder, and kept there until the wound healed.

This beats the absent treatment of Christian Science !

The powder was simply pulverized vitriol, that is, ferric
sulphate, or sulphate of iron.

There was another and probably an older method of
using sympathetic powders and salves ; this was to apply
the supposed curative to the weapon which caused the
wound, instead of the wound itself. In the " Lay of the
Last Minstrel," Scott gives an account of the way in which
the Lady of Buccleuch applied this occult surgery to the
wound of William of Deloraine :

44 She drew the splinter from the wound,

And with a charm she stanched the blood.

She bade the gash be cleansed and bound:

No longer by his couch she stood ;
But she has ta'en the broken lance.

And washed it from the clotted gore,

And salved the splinter o'er and o'er.
William of Deloraine, in trance,
Whene'er she turned it round and round
Twisted as if she galled his wound.

Then to her maidens she did say,
That he should be whole man and sound,

Within the course of a night and day.
Full long she toiled, for she did rue

Mishap to friend so stout and true." 1

That no direct benefit could have been derived from
such a mode of treatment must be obvious, but De Morgan
very plausibly claims that in the then state of surgical and
medical knowledge, it was really the very best that could
have been adopted. His argument is as follows : " The
1 Canto III. Stanza 23.


sympathetic powder was that which cured by anointing the
weapon with its salve instead of the wound. I have been
long convinced that it was efficacious. The directions
were to keep the wound clean and cool, and to take care of
diet, rubbing the salve on the knife or sword. If we re-
member the dreadful notions upon drugs which prevailed,
both as to quantity and quality, we shall readily see that
any way of not dressing the wound, would have been use-
ful. If the physicians had taken the hint, had been careful
of diet, etc., and had poured the little barrels of medicine
down the throat of a practicable doll, they would have had
their magical cures as well as the surgeons. Matters are
much improved now ; the quantity of medicine given, even
by orthodox physicians, would have been called infinitesi-
mal by their professional ancestors. Accordingly, the
College of Physicians has a right to abandon its motto,
which is, Ars longa, vita brevis, meaning, Practice is long,
so life is short."

As set forth by Digby and others, the use of the Powder
of Sympathy is free from all taint of witchcraft or magic,
but, in another form, it was wholly dependent upon incanta-
tions and other magical performances. This idea of sym-
pathetic action was even carried so far as to lead to attempts
to destroy or injure those whom the operator disliked. In
some cases this was done by moulding an image in wax
which, when formed under proper occult influences, was
supposed to have the power of transferring to the victim
any injuries inflicted on the image. Into such images pins
and knives were thrust in the hope that the living original
would suffer the same pains and mutilations that would be
inflicted if the knives or pins were thrust into him, and
sometimes the waxen form was held before the fire and


allowed to melt away slowly in the hope that the prototype
would also waste away, and ultimately die. Shakespeare
alludes to this in the play of King John. In Act v., Scene
4, line 24, Melun says :

" A quantity of life

Which bleeds away, even as a form of wax,
Resolveth from his figure 'gainst the fire ? "

And Hollinshed tells us that "it was alleged against
Dame Eleanor Cobham and her confederates that they had
devised an image of wax, representing the king, which, by
their sorcerie, by little and little consumed, intending
thereby, in conclusion, to waste and destroy the king's

In these cases, however, the operator always depended
upon certain occult or demoniacal influences, or, in other
words, upon the art of magic, and therefore examples of
this kind do not come within the scope of the present
volume. In the case of the Powder of Sympathy the
results were supposed to be due entirely to natural causes.



HIS subject has now found its way not only into
semi-scientific works but into our general litera-
ture and magazines. Even our novel-writers
have used suggestions from this hypothesis as
part of the machinery of their plots so that it properly
finds a place amongst the subjects discussed in this

Various attempts have been made to explain what is
meant by "the fourth dimension," but it would seem that
thus far the explanations which have been offered are, to
most minds, vague and incomprehensible, this latter condi-
tion arising from the fact that the ordinary mind is utterly
unable to conceive of any such thing as a dimension which
cannot be defined in terms of the three with which we are
already familiar. And I confess at the start that I labor
under the superlative difficulty of not being able to form
any conception of a fourth dimension, and for this incapac-
ity my only consolation is, that in this respect I am not alone.
I have conversed upon the subject with many able mathe-
maticians and physicists, and in every case I found that
they were in the same predicament as myself, and where I
have met men who professed to think it easy to form a
conception of a fourth dimension, I have found their ideas,
not only in regard to the new hypothesis, but to its corre-



lations with generally accepted physical facts, to be nebu-
lous and inaccurate.

It does not follow, however, that because myself and
some others cannot form such a clear conception of a fourth
dimension as we can of the third, that, therefore, the theory
is erroneous and the alleged conditions non-existent. Some
minds of great power and acuteness have been incapable
of mastering certain branches of science. Thus Diderot,
who was associated with d'Alembert, the famous mathe-
matician, in the production of " L'Encyclopedie," and who
was not only a man of acknowledged ability, but who, at one
time, taught mathematics and wrote upon several mathe-
matical subjects, seems to have been unable to master the
elements of algebra. The following anecdote regarding
his deficiency in this respect is given by Thiebault and
indorsed by Professor De Morgan : At the invitation of
the Empress, Catherine II, Diderot paid a visit to the
Russian court. He was a brilliant conversationalist and
being quite free with his opinions, he gave the younger
members of the court circle a good deal of lively atheism.
The Empress herself was very much amused, but some of
her councillors suggested that it might be desirable to
check these expositions of strange doctrines. As Cathe-
rine did not like to put a direct muzzle on her guest's tongue,
the following plot was contrived. Diderot was informed
that a learned mathematician was in possession of an al-
gebraical demonstration of the existence of God and would
give it to him before all the court if he desired to hear it.
Diderot gladly consented, and although the name of the
mathematician is not given, it is well known to have been
Euler. He advanced toward Diderot, and said in French,
gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction : " Monsieur,


- = x t therefore, God exists; reply!" Diderot, to

whom algebra was Hebrew, was embarrassed and discon-
certed, while peals of laughter rose on all sides. He asked
permission to return to France at once, which was granted.
Even such a mind as that of Buckle, who was generally
acknowledged to be a keen-sighted thinker, could not form
any idea of a geometrical line that is, of a line without
breadth or thickness, a conception which has been grasped
clearly and accurately by thousands of school-boys. He
therefore asserts, positively, that there are no lines without
breadth, and comes to the following extraordinary conclu-
sions :

" Since, however, the breadth of the faintest line is so
slight as to be incapable of measurement, except by an
instrument under the microscope, it follows that the as-
sumption that there can be lines without breadth is so
nearly true that our senses, when unassisted by art, can
not detect the error. Formerly, and until the invention of
the micrometer, in the seventeenth century, it was im-
possible to detect it at all. Hence, the conclusions of the
geometrician approximate so closely to truth that we are
justified in accepting them as true. The flaw is too minute
to be perceived. But that there is a flaw appears to me
certain. It appears certain that, whenever something is
kept back in the premises, something must be wanting
in the conclusion. In all such cases, the field of inquiry
has not been entirely covered; and part of the preliminary
facts being suppressed, it must, I think, be admitted that
complete truth be unattainable, and that no problem in
geometry has been exhaustively solved." 1

The fallacy which underlies Mr. Buckle's contention is
thus clearly exposed by the author of " The Natural His-
tory of Hell."

1 "History of Civilization in England." American edition, Vol.
II, page 342.


"If it be conceded that lines have breadth, then all we
have to do is to assign some definite breadth to each line
say the one-thousandth of an inch and allow for it.
But the lines of the geometer have no breadth. All the
micrometers of which Mr. Buckle speaks depend, either
directly or indirectly, upon lines for their graduations, and
the positions of these lines are indicated by rulings or
scratches. Now, in even the finest of these rulings, as,
for example, those of Nobert or Fasoldt, where the ruling
or scratching, together with its accompanying space,
amounts to no more than the one hundred and fifty thou-
sandth part of an inch, the scratch has a perceptible breadth.
But this broad scratch is not the line recognized by the
microscopist, to say nothing of the geometer. The true
line is a line which lies in the very center of this scratch
and it is certain that this central line has absolutely no
breadth at all." l

It must be very evident that if Mr. Buckle's contention
that geometrical lines have breadth were true, then some
of the fundamental axioms of geometry must be false. It
could no longer hold true that " the whole is equal to all its
parts taken together," for if we divide a square or a circle
into two parts by means of a line which has breadth, the
two parts cannot be equal to the whole as it formerly was.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Buckle's lines are saw-cuts, not
geometrical lines. Geometrical points, lines, and surfaces,
have no material existence and can have none. An ideal
conception and a material existence are two very different

A very interesting book 2 has been written on tbe move-
ments and feelings of the inhabitants of a world of two di-
mensions. Nevertheless, if we know anything at all, we
know that such a world could not have any actual existence

1 "The Natural History of Hell," by John Phillipson, page 37.
* " Flatland," by E. A. Abbott. London, 1884.


and when we attempt to form any mental conception of it
and its inhabitants, we are compelled to adopt, to a certain
extent, the idea of the third dimension.

But at the same time we must remember that since the
ordinary mechanic and the school-boy who has studied ge-
ometry, find no difficulty in conceiving of points without
magnitude, lines without breadth, and surfaces without
thickness conceptions which seem to have been impos-
sible to Buckle, a man of acknowledged ability it may be
possible that minds constituted slightly differently from
that of myself and some others, might, perhaps, be able to
form a conception of a fourth dimension.

Leaving out of consideration the speculations of those
who have woven this idea into romances and clay-dreams we
find that the hypothesis of a fourth dimension has been
presented by two very different classes of thinkers, and
the discussion has been carried on from two very different

The first suggestion of this hypothesis seems to have
come from Kant and Gauss and to have had a purely meta-
physical origin, for, although attempts have been made to
trace the idea back to the famous phantoms of Plato, it is
evident that the ideas then advanced had nothing in com-
mon with the modern theory of the existence of a fourth
dimension. The first hint seems to have been a purely
mathematical one and did not attract any very general at-
tention. It was, however, seized upon by a certain branch
of the transcendentalists, closely allied to the spiritualists,
and was exploited by them as a possible explanation of
some curious and mysterious phenomena and feats exhibited
by certain Indian and European devotees. This may have
been done merely for the purpose of mystifying and con-


founding their adversaries by bringing forward a striking
illustration of Hamlet's famous dictum "

''There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

A very fair statement of this view is thus given by
Edward Carpenter : 1

" There is another idea which modern science has been
familiarizing us with, and which is bringing us towards
the same conception that, namely, of the fourth dimen-
sion. The supposition that the actual world has four
space-dimensions instead of three makes many things

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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 8 of 12)