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 9 of 12)
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conceivable which otherwise would be incredible. It makes
it conceivable that apparently separate objects, e. g., dis-
tinct people, are really physically united; that things ap-
parently sundered by enormous distances of space are
really quite together; that a person or other object might
pass in and out of a closed room without disturbance of
walls, doors or windows, etc., and if this fourth dimension
were to become a factor of our consciousness it is obvious
that we should have means of knowledge which, to the
ordinary sense, would appear simply miraculous. There is
much, apparently, to suggest that the consciousness at-
tained to by the Indian gfianis in their degree, and by
hypnotic subjects in theirs, is of this fourth dimensional

" As a solid is related to its own surface, so, it would
appear, is the cosmic consciousness related to the ordinary
consciousness. The phases of the personal consciousness
are but different facets of the other consciousness; and
experiences which seem remote from each other in the in-
dividual are perhaps all equally near in the universal.
Space itself, as we know it, may be practically annihilated
in the consciousness of a larger space, of which it is but the
superficies; and a person living in London may not un-
likely find that he has a back door opening quite simply
and unceremoniously out in Bombay."

On the other hand, the mathematicians, looking at it as
a purely speculative idea, have endeavored to arrive at

1 " From Adam's Peak to Elephanta " page 160.


definite conclusions in regard to what would be the condi-
tion of things if the universe really exists in a fourth, or
even in some higher dimension. Professor W. W. R. Ball
tells us that

" the conception of a world of more than three dimensions
is facilitated by the fact that there is no difficulty in imagin-
ing a world confined to only two dimensions which we
may take for simplicity to be plane though equally
well it might be a spherical or other surface. We may
picture the inhabitants of flatland as moving either on the
surface of a plane or between two parallel and adjacent
planes. They could move in any direction along the
plane, but they could not move perpendicularly to it, and
would have no consciousness that such a motion was
possible. We may suppose them to have no thickness,
in which case they would be mere geometrical abstractions ;
or we may think of them as having a small but uniform
thickness, in which case they would be realities."

"If an inhabitant of flatland was able to move in three
dimensions, he would be credited with supernatural powers
by those who were unable so to move ; for he could appear
or disappear at will ; could (so far as they could tell) create
matter or destroy it, and would be free from so many con-
straints to which the other inhabitants were subject that his
actions would be inexplicable to them."

" Our conscious life is in three dimensions, and natur-
ally the idea occurs whether there may not be a fourth
dimension. No inhabitant of flatland could realize what
life in three dimensions would mean, though, if he evolved
an analytical geometry applicable to the world in which
he lived, he might be able to extend it so as to obtain results
true of that world in three dimensions which would be to
him unknown and inconceivable. Similarly we cannot
realize what life in four dimensions is like, though we can
use analytical geometry to obtain results true of that world,
or even of worlds of higher dimensions. Moreover, the
analogy of our position to the inhabitants of flatland en-


ables us to form some idea of how inhabitants of space of
four dimensions would regard us."

" If a finite solid was passed slowly through flatland, the
inhabitants would be conscious only of that part of it which
was in their plane. Thus they would see the shape of the
object gradually change and ultimately vanish. In the
same way, if a body of four dimensions was passed through
our space, we should be conscious of it only as a solid
body (namely, the section of the body by our space) whose
form and appearance gradually changed and perhaps ul-
timately vanished. It has been suggested that the birth,
growth, life, and death of animals, may be explained thus
as the passage of finite four-dimensional bodies through
our three-dimensional space."

Attempts have been made to construct drawings and
models showing a four-dimensional body. The success of
such attempts has not been very encouraging.

Investigators of this class look upon the actuality of a
fourth dimension as an unsolved question, but they hold
that, provided we could see our way clear to adopt it, it
would open up wondrous possibilities in the way of explain-
ing abstruse and hitherto inexplicable physical conditions
and phenomena.

There is obviously no limit to such speculations, provided
we assume the existence of such conditions as are needed
for our purpose. Too often, however, those who indulge
in such day-dreams begin by assuming the impossible, and
end by imagining the absurd.

We have so little positive knowledge in regard to the
ultimate constitution of matter and even in regard to the
actual character of the objects around us, which are revealed
to us through our senses, that the field in which our imagin-
ation may revel is boundless. Perhaps some day the


humanity of the present will merge itself into a new race,
endowed with new senses, whose revelations are to us, for
the present, at least, utterly inconceivable.

The possibility of such a development may be rendered
more clear if we imagine the existence of a race devoid of
the sense of hearing, and without the organs necessary to
that sense. They certainly could form no idea of sound,
far less could they enjoy music or oratory, such as afford
us so much delight. And, if one or more of our race should
visit these people, how very strange to them would appear
those curious appendages, called ears, which project from
the sides of our heads, and how inexplicable to them would
be the movements and expressions of intelligence which we
show when we talk or sing ? It is certain that no devel-
opment of the physical or mathematical sciences could give
them any idea whatever of the sensations which sound, in
its various modifications, imparts to us, and neither can any
progress in that direction enable us to acquire any idea of
the revelations which a new sense might open up to us.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that the development of new
senses and new sense organs is not only more likely to be
possible, but that it is actually more probable, than any
revelation in regard to a fourth dimension.


HE following is a curious illustration of the errors
to which careless observers may be subject :

Draw a square, like Fig. 19, and divide the sides
into 8 parts each. Join the points of division in
opposite sides so as to divide the whole square into 64
small squares. Then draw the lines shown in black and cut
up the drawing into four pieces. The lines indicating the
cuts have been made quite heavy so as to show up clearly,

Fig. 19.

Fig. 20.

but on the actual card they may be made quite light. Now,
put the four pieces together, so as to form the rectangle
shown in Fig. 20. Unless the scale, to which the drawing
is made is quite large and the work very accurate, it will
seem that the rectangle contains 5 squares one way and
13 the other which, when multiplied together, give 65 for
the number of small squares, being an apparent gain of
one square by the simple process of cutting.


This paradox is very apt to puzzle those who are not
familiar with accurate drawings. Of course, every person of
common sense knows that the card or drawing is not made
any larger by cutting it, but where does the 65th small
square come from ?

On careful examination it will be seen that the line AB,
Fig. 20, is not quite straight and the three parts into which
it is divided are thus enabled to gain enough to make one
of the small squares. On a small scale this deviation from
the straight line is not very obvious, but make a larger draw-
ing, and make it carefully, and it will readily be seen how
the trick is done.


THINK it was the elder Stephenson, the famous
engineer, who told a man who claimed the
honor of having invented a perpetual motion,
that when he could lift himself over a fence by
taking hold of his waist-band, he might hope to accomplish
his object. And the query which serves as a title for this
article has long been propounded as one of the physical
impossibilities. And yet, perhaps, it might be possible to
invent a waist-band or a boot-strap by which this apparently
impossible feat might be accomplished !

Travelers in Mexico frequently bring home beans which
jump about when laid on a table. They are well-known as
"jumping beans" and have often been a puzzle to those
who were not familiar with the facts in the case. Each
bean contains the larva of a species of beetle and this af-
fords a clue to the secret. But the question at once comes
up : " How is the insect able to move, not only itself, but its
house as well, without some purchase or direct contact with
the table?"

The explanation is simple. The hollow bean is elastic
and the insect has strength enough to bend it slightly ;
when the insect suddenly relaxes its effort and allows the
bean to spring back to its former shape, the reaction on
the table moves the bean. A man placed in a perfectly
rigid box could never move himself by pressing on the
sides, but if the box were elastic and could be bent by the
strength of the man inside, it might be made to move.



A somewhat analogous result, but depending on different
principles, is attained in certain curious boat races which
are held at some English regattas and which is explained
by Prof. W. W. Rouse Ball, in his " Mathematical Recrea-
tions and Problems." He says that it

" affords a somewhat curious illustration of the fact that
commonly a boat is built so as to make the resistance to
motion straight forward less than that to motion in the
opposite direction.

" The only thing supplied to the crew is a coil of rope,
and they have (without leaving the boat) to propel it from
one point to another as rapidly as possible. The motion
is given by tying one end of the rope to the afterthwart,
and giving the other end a series of violent jerks in a
direction parallel to the keel.

" The effect of each jerk is to compress the boat. Left
to itself the boat tends to resume its original shape, but
the resistance to the motion through the water of the
stern is much greater than that of the bow, hence, on the
whole, the motion is forwards. I am told that in still water
a pace of two or three miles an hour can be thus attained."


|NE of the most interesting books in natural his-
tory is a work on " Insect Architecture," by
Rennie. But if the architecture of insect
homes is wonderful, the engineering displayed
by these creatures is equally marvellous. Long before man
had thought of the saw, the saw-fly had used the same tool,
made after the same fashion, and used in the same way for
the purpose of making slits in the branches of trees so that
she might have a secure place in which to deposit her
eggs. The carpenter bee, with only the tools which nature
has given her, cuts a round hole, the full diameter of her
body, through thick boards, and so makes a tunnel by which
she can have a safe retreat, in which to rear her young.
The tumble-bug, without derrick or machinery, rolls over
large masses of dirt many times her own weight, and the
sexton beetle will, in a few hours, bury beneath the ground
the carcass of a comparatively large animal. All these feats
require a degree of instinct which in a reasoning creature
would be called engineering skill, but none of them are as
wonderful as the feats performed by the spider. This ex-
traordinary little animal has the faculty of propelling her
threads directly against the wind, and by means of her
slender cords she can haul up and suspend bodies which
are many times her own weight.

Some years ago a paragraph went the rounds of the
papers in which it was said that a spider had suspended an
unfortunate mouse, raising it up from the ground, and



leaving it to perish miserably between heaven and earth.
Would-be philosophers made great fun of this statement,
and ridiculed it unmercifully. I know not how true it was,
but I know that it migJit have been true.

Some years ago, in the village of Havana, in the State of
New York, a spider entangled a milk-snake in her threads,
and actually raised it some distance from the ground,
and this, too, in spite of the struggles of the reptile, which
was alive.

By what process of engineering did the comparatively
small and feeble insect succeed in overcoming and lifting up
by mechanical means, the mouse or the snake ? The solution
is easy enough if we only give the question a little thought.

The spider is furnished with one of the most efficient
mechanical implements known to engineers, viz., a strong
elastic thread. That the thread is strong is well known.
Indeed, there are few substances that will support a greater
strain than the silk of the silkworm, or the spider ; careful
experiment having shown that for equal sizes the strength
of these fibers exceeds that of common iron. But notwith-
standing its strength, the spider's thread alone would be
useless as a mechanical power if it were not for its elasticity.
The spider has no blocks or pulleys, and, therefore, it cannot
cause the thread to divide up and run in different directions,
but the elasticity of the thread more than makes up for
this, and renders possible the lifting of an animal much
heavier than a mouse or a snake. This may require a little

Let us suppose that a child can lift a six-pound weight
one foot high and do this twenty times a minute. Furnish
him with 350 rubber bands, each capable of pulling six
pounds through one foot when stretched. Let these bands


be attached to a wooden platform on which stand a pair
of horses weighing 2,100 Ibs., or rather more than a ton.
If now the child will go to work and stretch these rubber
bands, singly, hooking each one up, as it is stretched, in
less than twenty minutes he will have raised the pair of
horses one foot !

We thus see that the elasticity of the rubber bands
enables the child to divide the weight of the horses into
350 pieces of six pounds each, and at the rate of a little less
than one every three seconds, he lifts all these separate pieces
one foot, so that the child easily lifts this enormous weight.

Each spider's thread acts like one of the elastic rubber
bands. Let us suppose that the mouse or the snake weighed
half an ounce and that each thread is capable of supporting
a grain and a half. The spider would have to connect the
mouse with the point from which it was to be suspended
with 150 threads, and if the little quadruped was once
swung off his feet, he would be powerless. By pulling
successively on each thread and shortening it a little, the
mouse or snake might be raised to any height within the
capacity of the building or structure in which the work was
done. So that to those who have ridiculed the story we
may justly say: "There are more things in heaven and
earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy."

What object the spider could have had in this work I
am unable to see. It may have been a dread of the harm
which the mouse or snake might work, or it may have been
the hope that the decaying carcass would attract flies which
would furnish food for the engineer. I can vouch for the
truth of the snake story, however, and the object of this
article is to explain and render credible a very extraordinary
feat of insect engineering.





N the twentieth chapter of II Kings, at the
eleventh verse we read, that "Isaiah the prophet
cried unto the Lord, and he brought the shadow
ten degrees backward, by which it had gone
down in the dial of Ahaz."

It is a curious fact, first pointed out by Nonez, the
famous cosmographer and mathematician of the sixteenth
century, but not generally known, that by tilting a sun-dial
through the proper angle, the shadow at certain periods of
the year can be made, for a short time, to move backwards
on the dial. This was used by the French encyclopaedists
as a rationalistic explanation of the miracle which is related
at the opening of this article.

The reader who is curious in such matters will find direc-
tions for constructing "a dial, for any latitude, on which
the shadow shall retrograde or move backwards," in
Ozanam's " Recreations in Science and Natural Philosophy,"
Riddle's edition, page 529. Professor Ball in his "Mathe-
matical Recreations," page 214, gives a very clear explana-
tion of the phenomenon. The subject is somewhat too
technical for these pages.


EVERAL years ago a correspondent of " Truth "
(London) gave the following simple directions for
finding the points of the compass by means of
the ordinary pocket watch : " Point the hour hand
to the sun, and south is exactly half way between the hour
hand and twelve on the watch, counting forward up to
noon, but backward after the sun has passed the meridian."
Professor Ball, in his " Mathematical Recreations and
Problems," gives more complete directions and explanations.
He says :

" The position of the sun relative to the points of the
compass determines the solar time. Conversely, if we
take the time given by a watch as being the solar time
(and it will differ from it only by a few minutes at the
most), and we observe the position of the sun, we can find
the points of the compass. To do this it is sufficient to
point the hour-hand to the sun and then the direction which
bisects the angle between the hour and the figure XII will
point due south. For instance, if it is four o'clock in the
afternoon, it is sufficient to point the hour-hand (which
is then at the figure IIII) to the sun, and the figure II on
the watch will indicate the direction of south. Again, if
it is eight o'clock in the morning, we must point the hour-
hand (which is then at the figure VIII) to the sun, and the
figure X on the watch gives the south point of the compass.

" Between the hours of six in the morning and six in
the evening the angle between the hour and XII, which
must be bisected is less than 180 degrees, but at other times
the angle to be bisected is greater than 180 degrees; or per-
haps it is simpler to say that at other times the rule gives
the north point and not the south point.

"The reason is as follows: At noon the sun is due



south, and it makes one complete circuit round the points
of the compass in 24 hours. The hour-hand of a watch
also makes one complete circuit in 12 hours. Hence, if
the watch is held with its face in the plane of the ecliptic,
and the figure XII on the dial is pointed to the south, both
the hour-hand and the sun will be in that direction at noon.
Both move round in the same direction, but the angular
velocity of the hour-hand is twice as great as that of the
sun. Hence the rule. The greatest error due to the neglect
of the equation of time is less than 2 degrees. Of course,
in practice, most people would hold the face of the watch
horizontal, and in our latitude (that of London) no serious
error would thus be introduced.

" In the southern hemisphere, or in any tropical country
where at noon the sun is due north, the rule will give the
north point instead of the south."


INUTE works of art have always excited the
curiosity and commanded the admiration of the
average man. Consequently Cicero thought it
worth while to record that the entire Illiad of
Homer had been written upon parchment in characters so
fine that the copy could be enclosed in a nutshell. This
has always been regarded as a marvelous feat.

There is in the French Cabinet of Medals a seal, said to
have belonged to Michael Angelo, the fabrication of which
must date from a very remote epoch, and upon which fifteen
figures have been engraved in a circular space of fourteen
millimeters (.55 inch) in diameter. These figures cannot
be distinguished by the naked eye.

The Ten Commandments have been engraved in charac-
ters so fine that they could be stamped upon one side of a
nickle five-cent piece, and on several occasions the Lord's
Prayer has been engraved on one side of a gold dollar, the
diameter of which is six-tenths of an inch. I have also
seen it written with a pen within a circle which measured
four-tenths of an inch in diameter.

In the Harleian manuscript, 530, there is an account of a
"rare piece of work, brought to pass by Peter Bales, an
Englishman, and a clerk of the chancery." Disraeli tells
us that it was " The whole Bible in an English walnut, no
bigger than a hen's egg. The nut holdeth the book : there
are as many leaves in his little book as in the great Bible,



and he hath written as much in one of his little leaves as
a great leaf of the Bible."

By most people, such achievements are considered mar-
vels of skill, and the newspaper accounts of them which are
published always attract special attention. And it must
be acknowledged that such work requires good eyes, steady
nerves, and very delicate control of the muscles. But with
ordinary writing materials there are certain mechanical
limitations which must prevent even the most skilful from
going very far in this direction. These limitations are im-
posed by the fiber or grain of the paper and the construc-
tion of the ordinary pen, neither of which can be carried
beyond a certain very moderate degree of fineness. Of
course, the paper that is chosen will be selected on account
of its hard, even-grained surface, and the pen will be chosen
on account of the quality of its material and its shape, and
the point is always carefully dressed on a whetstone so as
to have both halves of the nib equal in strength and length,
and the ends smooth and delicate. When due preparation
has been made, and when the eyes and nerves of the writer
are in good condition, the smallness of the distinctly read-
able letters that may be produced is wonderful. And in
this connection it is an interesting fact that in many me-
chanical operations, writing included, the hand is far more
delicate than the eye. That which the unaided eye can
see to write, the unaided eye can see to read, but the hand,
without the assistance or guidance of the eye, can produce
writing so minute that the best eyes cannot see to read it,
and yet, when viewed under a microscope, it is found to
compare favorably with the best writing of ordinary size.
And those who are conversant with the more delicate
operations of practical mechanics, know that this is no ex-


ceptional case. The only aid given by the eye in the case
of such minute writing is the arrangement of the lines,
otherwise the writing could be done as well with the eyes
shut as open.

Since the mechanical limitations which we have noted
prevent us from going very far with the instruments and
materials mentioned, the next step is to adopt a finer sur-
face and a sharper point. These conditions may be found
in the fine glazed cards and the metal pencils or styles used
by card writers. In these cards the surface is nearly homo-
geneous, that is to say, free from fibers, and the point of
the metal pencil may be made as sharp as a needle, but to
utilize these conditions to the fullest extent, it is necessary
to aid the eye, and a magnifier is, therefore, brought into
use. Under a powerful glass the hand may be so guided
by the eye that the writing produced cannot be read by the
unaided vision.

The specimens of fine writing thus far described have
been produced directly by the hand under the guidance
either of a magnifier or the simple sense of motion. Just
how far it would be possible to go by these means has
never been determined, so far as I know, but those who

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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 9 of 12)