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Thoughts on natural philosophy and the origin of life : with a new reading of Newton's first law online

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" Plato is my friend, but truth is a greater friend."

" The best of all proofs, is to set out the fact descriptively so that
it can be seen to be a fact." Oliver Hea-uuide.


Entered at Stationers Hall.




THE author desires to explain that the method in
which he has attacked the great problem with
which this treatise deals was settled for him by
the fact that it was the discovery of Radium by
Madame Curie, and the philosophic explanations of
Professors Rutherford and Soddy with regard to
radium phenomena, that enabled him to jump to the
apprehension of the speed theory of material com-
bination, which has formed the germ from which this
sketch of a true natural philosophy has developed.

His acknowledgments and thanks are due to the
many eminent men, at home or abroad, living or dead,
who have helped him by their books, their delicate
and difficult experiments, their wonderful calculations
and clever practical work. The living are too truly
great to be offended by the efforts of another, how-
ever humble, to solve, as far as may be, with their
assistance, the great unsolvable. Write with diffidence
for the great he must ; but their greatness only gives
him confidence, because he knows that he is taking
his pearls to a right market, where they can be tested
and appreciated, where their beauty will please and
their purity entrance.

In referring to Sir Isaac Newton the author has no
desire to belittle his genius. Sir Isaac was a giant ;
but like other great men he made mistakes. It would
be unwise to accept and perpetuate what is untrue.

The author hopes that he will succeed in interesting
the reader, and again cause him to be enraptured with


Thoughts on Natural Philosophy.

the wondrous work of nature. If the same feeling
is aroused of pleased and awed amazement at the
exceeding and marvellous beauty of it all, as has been
felt by him while thinking and writing, he will not
have published his thoughts in vain.


THROUGHOUT the ages there have been many
*philosophers great and small. The word
" Plato " may for convenience be taken to
express and include the sum of them. Then, as
scientific inquirers, we may well have for our device
the well-known quotation : " Plato is my friend, but
truth is a greater friend." We are searchers after
truth, we revere our teachers ; but not all our affec-
tionate reverence or awe of great men, living or dead,
can stay us in our quest. Truth alone is sovereign.

We must philosophise, for either we ought to
philosophise, or, if we ought not, we must philosophise
in order to demonstrate that we ought not to

We all agree that the ordinary operations of nature
are carried on under the rule of what we term " natural
law." It is my endeavour to elucidate that law, or
mode of procedure.

The nomenclature adopted is that of the radium
experimenters, because I wished to state the case as
stated by them. There is not any magic in t names ;
and it does not much matter what you call a thing so
long as the term is clearly denned at the start, and
you abide by that term and definition throughout the
argument. Scientific terms are but words applied to
temporary arrangements of matter caused by the

* An interesting and learned resume of past philosophies may
be found in Professor Alfred Weber's admirable " History of
Philosophy," published by Longmans, Green & Co.

t The word atom was applied in error to what was supposed to be,
uncombined matter. The atomic theory is safe.

Thoughts on Natural Philosophy.

speed, weight, and movements of material portions.
This is to be remembered in order that we do not get
lost in a forest of names, or allow scientific terms to
obscure our vision of the reality and cause of things.

Natural philosophy does not belong entirely to
scientific experimentalists and mathematicians. When
the first have made their delicate and difficult experi-
ments, and the others have worked out their intricate
problems, then, if either or both of them commence to
construct a system of philosophy, the logicians come
in, and it is their high duty to test the reasoning of
the philosophers. If that reasoning cannot stand the
necessary tests, the philosophy must be cast aside, no
matter who may be its author. The work of the
logician is necessary, because some of the suggestions
of learned men are fit only for Alice in Wonderland,
where a thing can be a pussy-cat and not a pussy-cat
at the same time.

Logic may be described as a means of testing
reasoning (or reasoning) by letters ; and mathematics
as a means of testing reasoning (or reasoning) by
figures. They are both efficacious when rightly used ;
but on a subject of such great complexity as natural
philosophy it is well for the mathematician and experi-
menter to have the assistance of the logician.

The necessity appears to exist of stating definitely
(they being essentially different), that M is always M ;
and that S is always S, in logic, science and philosophy.
The magnifying of M enormously, or reducing it
greatly, does not alter the fact that it is M ; and not
any chance or possibility can change it into S. The
disassociation of the atom does not make the dis-
associated portions any the less matter, if reduced to
the smallest possible size they are still matter, if by

Thoughts on Natural Philosophy.

any possibility they could be made smaller than the
smallest possible (an evident absurdity) they would
not be. Mass if it could become no mass would be
nothing. This basis of rational reasoning must be
maintained at all costs, or the so-called logic, science
or philosophy becomes mere nonsense.

Physical Theory. *The enunciation of any one
physical law and the rational development of its con-
sequences, constitute a partial physical theory. The
assemblage of all the laws which belong to one class
of phenomena, forms a more general physical theory ;
but it will be readily understood that these different
laws may be merely corollaries of a single law. The
discovery of this single law, when it exists, marks a
decided step in the progress of physical science. Thus
Newton is supposed to have traced to a single law
termed gravitation all the movements of our planetary
system, as well as those of bodies which fall to the
surface of the earth.

In like manner the different partial theories of
optics are rigorous consequences of the properties
attributed to a fluid called ether, with which we sup-
pose space to be filled, and whose vibrations serve for
the propagation of light and heat.

This work of synthesis has gradually progressed,
and these last few years have been marked by very
successful efforts in this direction. It should be
considered as the true object of physical science in
general, and the highest generalization will have been
attained when it has been demonstrated that all the
physical agents which have hitherto been regarded
as distinct, are merely transformations of one and the
same primordial agent.

* Deschanel.

8 Thoughts on Natural Philosophy.

Sir Isaac Newton had not the advantage of all the
wealth of scientific data to assist him that we possess
to-day, and his genius was therefore all the more
remarkable. It is not surprising that, at the period
in which he lived, and in the difficult circumstances in
which he worked, he made mistakes ; such as, amongst
others, of exalting his idea of gravitation too highly
and expecting too much therefrom. Not even
he could compel nature to act according to his
thoughts, she moveth in her own inimitable way, cal-
culate and write as we will. Our wisdom is to learn
of her.

Sir Isaac Newton had his doubts. He at one time
thought of endeavouring to account for orbital pheno-
mena by differences of pressure in the ether, but did
not publish a theory on the subject.

Matter moves.

In Newton's Principia the first law is that " Every
body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion
in a straight line, except in so far as it may be com-
pelled by impressed forces to change that state."

Let us transpose the wording as follows: Every
body continues in its state of uniform motion in a
straight line, or in its state of rest, except in so far as
it may be compelled by impressed forces to change
that state.

The reason that the law as transposed is more cor-
rectly stated is as follows: It is acknowledged by
scientific inquirers that in scientific matters we must
reason from the known to the unknown. The only
state of rest known to us is a relative and occasional
state. Take a book between the two hands, apply an
upward and a downward pressure ; when the pressure
is equal in opposite directions a state of equilibrium

TJioitgJits on Natural Philosophy.

will result, and the book will be at rest. The force that
causes this state of rest is energy exercised in opposite
directions. What is true of the book is true of other
matter. Energy (or material motion) causes the state
of rest, therefore energy (or material motion) must be
the original thing, and rest a secondary matter or
effect. To take the effect as the basis of an argu-
ment or system of philosophy, and then invent some
imaginary force (which, after all, can only be a name,
a word, a no-force) to account for phenomena caused
by a force already in existence is fallacious and

The first, law should therefore be that : Every body
continues in its state of uniform motion in a straight
line or in its state of rest, except in so far as it may be
compelled by motion or force to change those states.

The advantage of this amended law is that you are
dealing with known things, and in their right order,
and do not have to imagine fanciful ideas.

This amended law agrees with my axiom that " Two
portions of matter, moving *adjacent at equal rates of
speed along a straight line, must continue to move
together as long as their rates of speed remain equal,
and they do not receive any interference."

This is the fundamental law of material combina-
tion. When they meet other portions of matter and
clash, they combine to execute the work of moving the
other portions, or are moved, as the case may be ; but
either way they combine to exercise force and do

The birds in the air, the fishes in the water, animals
on land, and all moving things illustrate the truth of
the axiom. As long as they move adjacent to one

* This includes parallel adjacency.

io Thoughts on Natural Philosophy,

another, at equal rates of speed, along a straight line,
without interference, they keep together.

Matter, having motion, must have speed and direc-
tion, and therefore eventually adjacency.

Some may object that if matter had been projected
from points along a straight line at sufficient speed
it would continue so to progress infinitely, without
adjacency and collision ; and this no doubt is true.
But it is only necessary to state the objection for it to
be eliminated from the discussion. Matter has now
adjacency and collision, therefore as it could not have
had it under the supposed conditions of the objection,
it is certain that matter has never (either originally or
at any time) taken wholly that mode of progression.

The only other line is the curve, and around any
imaginable figure we can draw an imaginary curve, or
circle ; and for our purpose the curve or curves must
permit if necessary of infinite extension from the
centre to the circumference. It is therefore clear that
the portions of matter must have moved (either
originally or always) through points in an imaginary
circle or circles. The necessity does not exist to bore
the reader with long mathematical calculations, the
thing is so simple that the calculations and drawings
can be made at will. But it is abundantly clear that
as the portions of matter moved through points in the
circle or circles they must eventually have had
adjacency and collision ; and as a result spin, and
vortical movement and force, followed by gravitation,
electricity and magnetism, together with all the natural
phenomena with which we are acquainted, including
the sensations of heat and light, as the result of
material motion.

Experiment has proved the existence of a consider-

Thoughts OIL Natural Philosophy. 1 1

able condensation of energy within the atoms; and
we know from observation of radio active and
electrical phenomena that the quantity of this energy
must be enormous. The energy before the combina-
tion into atom, molecule, etc., was cnce free, and the
granules of matter must, consequently, have travelled
at terrific speed ; and moving through points in a circle
or circles must when they clashed have produced so
high a temperature as to give by their motion the
necessary logical and mathematical basis for the
nebular hypothesis of Laplace. A short account of
this hypothesis is given in the Encyclopaedia Britan-
nica, as follows :

The nebular theory is a famous hypothesis which
has been advanced with the view of accounting for the
origin of the solar system. *It is emphatically a
speculation ; it cannot be demonstrated by observation
or established by mathematical calculation. Yet the
boldness and the splendour of the nebular theory have
always given it a dignity not usually attached to a
doctrine which has so little direct evidence in its favour.
It will also be admitted that from the very nature
of the case- a theory of the origin of the solar system
must be devoid of direct testimony. All we could
expect to find would be features in that system whose
existence the theory would account for ; or possibly
by looking at other systems we might observe them in
phases suggesting the early phases of our own system.
It is hard to see what other kind of evidence would be
attainable. Now as a matter of fact our system does
present many most striking features which could be
accounted for by the nebular theory, and the theory

*This was written before the publication of my theory.

12 Thoughts on Natural Philosophy.

also derives as much corroboration from the study of
other systems as we could reasonably expect. Hence,
as all attainable evidence is on the whole in favour of
the nebular theory (though here and there there are
exceptional phenomena) astronomers have generally
regarded this theory with considerable approval.

There are very remarkable features in the solar
system which point unmistakably to some common
origin of many of the different bodies which it con-
tains. We must at once put the comets out of view.
It does not appear that they bear any testimony on
either side of the question. We do not know whether
the comets are really indigenous to the solar system
or whether they may not be merely imported into the
system from the depths of space. Even if the comets
be indigenous to the system, they may, as many
suppose, be merely ejections from the sun, or in any
case their orbits are exposed to such tremendous
perturbations from the planets that it is quite unsafe
from the present orbit of a comet to attempt any
estimate of what that orbit may have been countless
ages ago. On all these grounds we must put the
comets on one side for the present, and discuss the
nebular theory without any reference thereto. But
even with this omission we still muster in the solar
system from two to three hundred bodies almost
every one of which pronounces distinctly, though with
varying emphasis, in favour of the nebular theory.
The first great fact to which we refer is the common
direction in which the planets revolve around the sun.
This is true not only of the great planets Mercury,
Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and
Neptune ; it is also true of the host of more than two
hundred small planets. All these bodies perform

Thoughts on Natural Philosophy. 13

their revolution in the same direction. It is also
extremely remarkable that all the great planets and
many of the small ones have their orbits very nearly
in the same plane, and nearly circular in form. Viewed
as a question in probabilities, we may ask what the
chance is that out of two hundred and fifty bodies
revolving around the sun all shall be moving in one
direction. If the direction of movement were merely
decided by chance, the probability against such an
arrangement is of stupendous magnitude. It is repre-
sented by the ratio of unity to a number containing
about sixty figures, and so we are at once forced to the
conclusion that this remarkable feature of the planetary
motions must have some physical explanation. In
a minor degree this conclusion is strengthened by
observing the satellites. Discarding those of Uranus,
in which the orbits of the satellites are highly
inclined to the ecliptic, and in which manifestly some
exceptional though unknown influences have been at
work, we may say that the satellites revolve around
the primaries also in the same direction ; while, to
make the picture complete, we find that the planets, so
far as they can be observed, rotate on their axis in the
same manner.

The nebular theory here steps in and offers an ex-
planation of this most remarkable uniformity. Laplace
supposed that our sun had once a stupendous nebulous
atmosphere which extended so far out as to fill all the
space at present occupied by the planets. This
gigantic nebulous mass, of which the sun was only
the central and somewhat more condensed portion, is
supposed to have a movement of rotation on its axis.
There is no difficulty in conceiving how a nebula, quite
independently of any internal motion of its parts, shall

14 Thoughts on Natural Philosophy.

also have had as a whole a movement of rotation. In
fact a little consideration will show from the law of
probabilities that it is infinitely probable that such an
object should really have some movement of rotation,
no matter by what causes the nebula may have
originated. As this vast mass cooled it must by the
laws of heat have contracted towards the centre, and
as it contracted it must, according to a well-known
law of dynamics, rotate more rapidly. The time would
then come when the centrifugal force on the outer
parts of the mass would more than counterbalance the
attraction of the centre, and thus we would have the
outer parts left as a ring. The inner portion will still
continue to contract, the same process will be
repeated, and thus a second ring will be formed. We
have thus grounds for believing that the original
nebula will separate into a series of rings all revolving
in the same direction with a central nebulous mass in
the interior. The materials of each ring would continue
to cool and to contract until they passed from the
gaseous to the liquid condition. If the consolidation
took place with comparative uniformity we might then
anticipate the formation of a vast multitude of small
planets such as those we actually do find in the region
between the orbit of Mars and that of Jupiter. More
usually, however, the ring might be expected not to
be uniform, and therefore to condense in some parts
more rapidly than in others. The effect of such
contraction would be to draw into a single mass the
materials of the ring, and thus we would have a planet
formed, while the satellites of that planet would be
developed from the still nascent planet in the same
way as the planet itself originated from the sun. In
this way we account most simply for the uniformity

Thou gilts 011 Natural Philosophy. 15

in the direction in which the planets revolve and for
the mutual proximity of the planes in which their orbits
are contained. The rotation of ^he planets on their
axes is also explained, for at the time of the first
formation of the planet it must have participated in
the rotation of the whole nebula, and by the subse-
quent contraction of the planet the speed with which
the rotation was performed must have been accelerated.
There is quite a different method of approaching
the subject, which leads in a very striking manner to
conclusions practically identical with those we have
just sketched. We may commence by dealing with
the sun as we find it at the present moment, and then
reasoning back to what must have been the case in
the earlier epochs of the history of our system. The
stupendous daily outpour of heat from the sun at the
present time is really, when properly studied, a
profound argument in support of the nebular theory.
The amount of the sun's heat has been estimated. We
receive on the earth less than one two-thousand-
millionth part of the whole radiation. It would seem
that the greater part of the rest of that torrent flows
away to be lost in space. Now what supplies this
heat ? We might at first suppose that the sun was
really a mightily heated body radiating out its heat as
white hot iron does, but this explanation cannot be
admitted in face of the notorious fact that there is no
historical evidence that the sun is growing colder.
We have not the slightest reason to think that the
radiation from the sun is measurably weaker now than
it was a couple of thousand years ago, yet it can be
shown that, if the sun were merely radiating heat as
simply a hot body, then it would cool some degrees
every year, and must have cooled many thousands of

Thoughts on Natural Philosophy.

degrees within the time covered by historical records.
We therefore conclude that the sun has some other
source of heat than that due simply to incandescence.
We can also conceive that the heat of the sun might
be supplied by something analogous to combustion.
It would take 20 tons of coal a day burned on each
square foot of the sun's surface to supply the daily
radiation. Even if the sun were made of one mass of
fuel as efficient as coal, that mass must be entirely
expended in a few thousand years. We cannot there-
fore admit that the source of the heat in the sun is
to be found in any chemical combination taking place
in its mass. Where then can we find an adequate
supply of heat ? Only one external source can be
named : the falling of meteors into the sun must yield
some heat just as the flash of a shooting star yields
some heat to our atmosphere, but the question is
whether the quantity of heat obtainable from the
shooting stars is at all adequate for the purpose. It
can be shown that unless a quantity of meteors in
collective mass equal to our moon were to plunge into
the sun every year the supply of heat could not be
sustained from this source. Now there is no reason
to believe that meteors in anything like this quantity
can be supplied to the sun, and therefore we must
reject this source as also inadequate.

The truth about the sun's heat appears to be that
the sun is really an incandescent body losing heat, but
that the operation of cooling is immensely retarded
owing to a curious circumstance due jointly to the
stupendous mass of the sun and to a remarkable law
of heat. It is of course well known that if energy
disappears in one form it reappears in another, and
this principle applied to the sun will explain the
famous difficulty.

Thoughts on Natural Philosophy. 17

As the sun loses heat it contracts, and every pair of
particles in the sun are nearer to each other after the
contraction than they were before. The energy due
to their separation is thus less in the contracted state
than in the original state, and as that energy cannot
be lost it must reappear in heat. The sun is thus
slowly contracting ; but as it contracts it gains heat by
the operation of the law just referred to, and thus the
further cooling and further contraction of the sun
is protracted until the additional heat obtained is
radiated away. In this way we can reconcile the fact
that the sun is certainly losing heat with the fact that
the change in temperature has not been large enough
to be perceived within historic times.

It can be shown that, the sun is at present contract-
ing, so that its diameter diminishes four miles every
century. This is of course an inappreciable distance
when compared with the diameter of the sun, which
is nearly a million of miles, but the significance for
our present purpose depends upon the fact that this
contraction is always taking place. A thousand years
ago the sun must have had a diameter 40 miles greater
than at present, ten thousand years ago that diameter

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Online LibraryA BiddlecombeThoughts on natural philosophy and the origin of life : with a new reading of Newton's first law → online text (page 1 of 6)