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The Fairy-Land of Science

Arabella B. Buckley


Lecture I The Fairy-Land of Science; How to Enter It;
How to Use It; And How to Enjoy It
Lecture II Sunbeams, and the Work They Do
Lecture III The Aerial Ocean in Which We Live
Lecture IV A Drop of Water on its Travels
Lecture V The Two Great Sculptors - Water and Ice
Lecture VI The Voices of Nature, and How We Hear Them
Lecture VII The Life of a Primrose
Lecture VIII The History of a Piece of Coal
Lecture IX Bees in the Hive
Lecture X Bees and Flowers

Week 1



I HAVE promised to introduce you today to the fairy-land of
science - a somewhat bold promise, seeing that most of you
probably look upon science as a bundle of dry facts, while fairy-
land is all that is beautiful, and full of poetry and
imagination. But I thoroughly believe myself, and hope to prove
to you, that science is full of beautiful pictures, of real
poetry, and of wonder-working fairies; and what is more, I
promise you they shall be true fairies, whom you will love just
as much when you are old and greyheaded as when you are young;
for you will be able to call them up wherever you wander by land
or by sea, through meadow or through wood, through water or
through air; and though they themselves will always remain
invisible, yet you will see their wonderful poet at work
everywhere around you.

Let us first see for a moment what kind of tales science has to
tell, and how far they are equal to the old fairy tales we all
know so well. Who does not remember the tale of the "Sleeping
Beauty in the Wood," and how under the spell of the angry fairy
the maiden pricked herself with the spindle and slept a hundred
years? How the horses in the stall, the dogs in the court-yard,
the doves on the roof, the cook who was boxing the scullery boy's
ears in the kitchen, and the king and queen with all their
courtiers in the hall remained spell-bound, while a thick hedge
grew up all round the castle and all within was still as death.
But when the hundred years had passed the valiant prince came,
the thorny hedge opened before him bearing beautiful flowers; and
he, entering the castle, reached the room where the princess lay,
and with one sweet kiss raised her and all around her to life

Can science bring any tale to match this?

Tell me, is there anything in this world more busy and active
than water, as it rushes along in the swift brook, or dashes over
the stones, or spouts up in the fountain, or trickles down from
the roof, or shakes itself into ripples on the surface of the
pond as the wind blows over it? But have you never seen this
water spell-bound and motionless? Look out of the window some
cold frosty morning in winter, at the little brook which
yesterday was flowing gently past the house, and see how still it
lies, with the stones over which it was dashing now held tightly
in its icy grasp. Notice the wind-ripples on the pond; they have
become fixed and motionless. Look up at the roof of the house.
There, instead of living doves merely charmed to sleep, we have
running water caught in the very act of falling and turned into
transparent icicles, decorating the eaves with a beautiful
crystal fringe. On every tree and bush you will catch the water-
drops napping, in the form of tiny crystals; while the fountain
looks like a tree of glass with long down-hanging pointed leaves.
Even the damp of your own breath lies rigid and still on the
window-pane frozen into delicate patterns like fern-leaves of

All this water was yesterday flowing busily, or falling drop by
drop, or floating invisibly in the air; now it is all caught and
spell-bound - by whom? By the enchantments of the frost-giant
who holds it fast in his grip and will not let it go.

But wait awhile, the deliverer is coming. In a few weeks or
days, or it may be in a few hours, the brave sun will shine down;
the dull-grey, leaden sky will melt before his, as the hedge gave
way before the prince in the fairy tale, and when the sunbeam
gently kisses the frozen water it will be set free. Then the
brook will flow rippling on again; the frost-drops will be shaken
down from the trees, the icicles fall from the roof, the moisture
trickle down the window-pane, and in the bright, warm sunshine
all will be alive again.

Is not this a fairy tale of nature? and such as these it is
which science tells.

Again, who has not heard of Catskin, who came out of a hollow
tree, bringing a walnut containing three beautiful dresses - the
first glowing as the sun, the second pale and beautiful as the
moon, the third spangled like the star-lit sky, and each so fine
and delicate that all three could be packed into a walnut shell;
and each one of these tiny structures is not the mere dress but
the home of a living animal. It is a tiny, tiny shell-palace
made of the most delicate lacework, each pattern being more
beautiful than the last; and what is more, the minute creature
that lives in it has built it out of the foam of the sea, though
he himself is nothing more than a drop of jelly.

Lastly, anyone who has read the 'Wonderful Travellers' must
recollect the man whose sight was so keen that he could hit the
eye of a fly sitting on a tree two miles away. But tell me, can
you see gas before it is lighted, even when it is coming out of
the gas-jet close to your eyes? Yet, if you learn to use that
wonderful instrument the spectroscope, it will enable you to tell
one kind of gas from another, even when they are both ninety-one
millions of miles away on the face of the sun; nay more, it will
read for you the nature of the different gases in the far distant
stars, billions of miles away, and actually tell you whether you
could find there any of the same metals which we have on the

We might find hundreds of such fairy tales in the domain of
science, but these three will serve as examples, and we much pass
on to make the acquaintance of the science-fairies themselves,
and see if they are as real as our old friends.

Tell me, why do you love fairy-land? what is its charm? Is it
not that things happen so suddenly, so mysteriously, and without
man having anything to do with it? In fairy-land, flowers blow,
houses spring up like Aladdin's palace in a single night, and
people are carried hundreds of miles in an instant by the touch
of a fairy wand.

And then this land is not some distant country to which we can
never hope to travel. It is here in the midst of us, only our
eyes must be opened or we cannot see it. Ariel and Puck did not
live in some unknown region. On the contrary, Ariel's song is

"Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat's back I do fly,
After summer, merrily."

The peasant falls asleep some evening in a wood and his eyes are
opened by a fairy wand, so that he sees the little goblins and
imps dancing around him on the green sward, sitting on mushrooms,
or in the heads of the flowers, drinking out of acorn-cups,
fighting with blades of grass, and riding on grasshoppers.

So, too, the gallant knight, riding to save some poor oppressed
maiden, dashes across the foaming torrent; and just in the
middle, as he is being swept away, his eyes are opened, and he
sees fairy water-nymphs soothing his terrified horse and guiding
him gently to the opposite shore. They are close at hand, these
sprites, to the simple peasant or the gallant knight, or to
anyone who has the gift of the fairies and can see them. but the
man who scoffs at them, and does not believe in them or care for
them, he never sees them. Only now and then they play him an
ugly trick, leading him into some treacherous bog and leaving him
to get out as he may.

Now, exactly all this which is true of the fairies of our
childhood is true too of the fairies of science. There are
forces around us, and among us, which I shall ask you to allow me
to call fairies, and these are ten thousand times more wonderful,
more magical, and more beautiful in their work, than those of the
old fairy tales. They, too, are invisible, and many people live
and die without ever seeing them or caring to see them. These
people go about with their eyes shut, either because they will
not open them, or because no one has taught them how to see.
They fret and worry over their own little work and their own
petty troubles, and do not know how to rest and refresh
themselves, by letting the fairies open their eyes and show them
the calm sweet picture of nature. They are like Peter Bell of
whom Wordsworth wrote:-

"A primrose by a river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more."

But we will not be like these, we will open our eyes and ask,
"What are these forces or fairies, and how can we see them?"

Just go out into the country, and sit down quietly and watch
nature at work. Listen to the wind as it blows, look at the
clouds rolling overhead, and waves rippling on the pond at your
feet. Hearken to the brook as it flows by, watch the flower-buds
opening one by one, and then ask yourself, "How all this is
done?" Go out in the evening and see the dew gather drop by drop
upon the grass, or trace the delicate hoar-frost crystals which
bespangle every blade on a winter's morning. Look at the vivid
flashes of lightening in a storm, and listen to the pealing
thunder: and then tell me, by what machinery is all this
wonderful work done? Man does none of it, neither could he stop
it if he were to try; for it is all the work of those invisible
forces or fairies whose acquaintance I wish you to make. Day and
night, summer and winter, storm or calm, these fairies are at
work, and we may hear them and know them, and make friends of
them if we will.

There is only one gift we must have before we can learn to know
them - we must have imagination. I do not mean mere fancy, which
creates unreal images and impossible monsters, but imagination,
the power of making pictures or images in our mind, of that which
is, though it is invisible to us. Most children have this
glorious gift, and love to picture to themselves all that is told
them, and to hear the same tale over and over again till they see
every bit of it as if it were real. This is why they are sure to
love science it its tales are told them aright; and I, for one,
hope the day may never come when we may lose that childish
clearness of vision, which enables us through the temporal things
which are seen, to realize those eternal truths which are unseen.

If you have this gift of imagination come with me, and in these
lectures we will look for the invisible fairies of nature.

Watch a shower of rain. Where do the drops come from? and why
are they round, or rather slightly oval? In our fourth lecture
we shall se that the little particles of water of which the
raindrops are made, were held apart and invisible in the air by
heat, one of the most wonderful of our forces* or fairies, till
the cold wind passed by and chilled the air. Then, when there
was no longer so much heat, another invisible force, cohesion,
which is always ready and waiting, seized on the tiny particles
at once, and locked them together in a drop, the closest form in
which they could lie. Then as the drops became larger and larger
they fell into the grasp of another invisible force, gravitation,
which dragged them down to the earth, drop by drop, till they
made a shower of rain. Pause for a moment and think. You have
surely heard of gravitation, by which the sun holds the earth and
the planets, and keeps them moving round him in regular order?
Well, it is this same gravitation which is a t work also whenever
a shower of rain falls to the earth. Who can say that he is not
a great invisible giant, always silently and invisibly toiling in
great things and small whether we wake or sleep?

*(I am quite aware of the danger incurred by using this word
"force", especially in the plural; and how even the most modest
little book may suffer at the hands of scientific purists by
employing it rashly. As, however, the better term "energy" would
not serve here, I hope I may be forgiven for retaining the much-
abused term, especially as I sin in very good company.)

Now the shower is over, the sun comes out and the ground is soon
as dry as though no rain had fallen. Tell me; what has become of
the rain-drops? Part no doubt have sunk into the ground, and as
for the rest, why you will say the sun has dried them up. Yes,
but how? The sun is more than ninety-one millions of miles away;
how has he touched the rain-drops? Have you ever heard that
invisible waves are travelling every second over the space
between the sun and us? We shall see in the next lecture how
these waves are the sun's messengers to the earth, and how they
tear asunder the rain-drops on the ground, scattering them in
tiny particles too small for us to see, and bearing them away to
the clouds. Here are more invisible fairies working every moment
around you, and you cannot even look out of the window without
seeing the work they are doing.

If, however, the day is cold and frosty, the water does not fall
in a shower of rain; it comes down in the shape of noiseless
snow. Go out after such a snow-shower, on a calm day, and look
at some of the flakes which have fallen; you will see, if you
choose good specimens, that they are not mere masses of frozen
water, but that each one is a beautiful six-pointed crystal star.
How have these crystals been built up? What power has been at
work arranging their delicate forms? In the fourth lecture we
shall see that up in the clouds another of our invisible fairies,
which, for want of a better name, we call the "force of
crystallization," has caught hold of the tiny particles of water
before "cohesion" had made them into round drops, and there
silently but rapidly, has moulded them into those delicate
crystal starts know as "snowflakes".

And now, suppose that this snow-shower has fallen early in
February; turn aside for a moment from examining the flakes, and
clear the newly-fallen snow from off the flower-bed on the lawn.
What is this little green tip peeping up out of the ground under
the snowy covering? It is a young snowdrop plant. Can you tell
me why it grows? where it finds its food? what makes it spread
out its leaves and add to its stalk day by day? What fairies are
at work here?

First there is the hidden fairy "life," and of her even our
wisest men know but little. But they know something of her way
of working, and in Lecture VII we shall learn how the invisible
fairy sunbeams have been buy here also; how last year's snowdrop
plant caught them and stored them up in it's bulb, and how now in
the spring, as soon as warmth and moisture creep down into the
earth, these little imprisoned sun-waves begin to be active,
stirring up the matter in the bulb, and making it swell and burst
upwards till it sends out a little shoot through the surface of
the soil. Then the sun-waves above-ground take up the work, and
form green granules in the tiny leaves, helping them to take food
out of the air, while the little rootlets below are drinking
water out of the ground. The invisible life and invisible
sunbeams are busy here, setting actively to work another fairy,
the force of "chemical attraction," and so the little snowdrop
plant grows and blossoms, without any help from you or me.

Week 2

One picture more, and then I hope you will believe in my fairies.
From the cold garden, you run into the house, and find the fire
laid indeed in the grate, but the wood dead and the coals black,
waiting to be lighted. You strike a match, and soon there is a
blazing fire. Where does the heat come from? Why do the coals
burn and give out a glowing light? Have you not read of gnomes
buried down deep in the earth, in mines, and held fast there till
some fairy wand has released them, and allowed them to come to
earth again? Well, thousands and millions of years ago, those
coals were plants; and like the snowdrop in the garden of to-day,
they caught the sunbeams and worked them into their leaves. Then
the plants died and were buried deep in the earth and the
sunbeams with them; and like the gnomes they lay imprisoned till
the coals were dug out by the miners, and brought to your grate;
and just now you yourself took hold of the fairy wand which was
to release them. You struck a match, and its atoms clashing with
atoms of oxygen in the air, set the invisible fairies "heat" and
"chemical attraction" to work, and they were soon busy within the
wood and the coals causing their atoms too to clash; and the
sunbeams, so long imprisoned, leapt into flame. Then you spread
out your hands and cried, "Oh, how nice and warm!" and little
thought that you were warming yourself with the sunbeams of ages
and ages ago.

This is no fancy tale; it is literally true, as we shall see in
Lecture VIII, that the warmth of a coal fire could not exist if
the plants of long ago had not used the sunbeams to make their
leaves, holding them ready to give up their warmth again whenever
those crushed leaves are consumed.

Now, do you believe in, and care for, my fairy-land? Can you see
in your imagination fairy 'Cohesion' ever ready to lock atoms
together when they draw very near to each other: or fairy
'Gravitation' dragging rain-drops down to the earth: or the fairy
of 'Crystallization' building up the snow-flakes in the clouds?
Can you picture tiny sunbeam-waves of light and heat travelling
from the sun to the earth? Do you care to know how another
strange fairy, 'Electricity,' flings the lightning across the sky
and causes the rumbling thunder? Would you like to learn how the
sun makes pictures of the world on which he shines, so that we
can carry about with us photographs or sun-pictures of all the
beautiful scenery of the earth? And have you any curiosity about
'Chemical action,' which works such wonders in air, and land, and
sea? If you have any wish to know and make friends of these
invisible forces, the next question is

How are you to enter the fairy-land of science?

There is but one way. Like the knight or peasant in the fairy
tales, you must open you eyes. There is no lack of objects,
everything around you will tell some history if touched with the
fairy wand of imagination. I have often thought, when seeing
some sickly child drawn along the street, lying on its back while
other children romp and play, how much happiness might be given
to sick children at home or in hospitals, if only they were told
the stories which lie hidden in the things around them. They
need not even move from their beds, for sunbeams can fall on them
there, and in a sunbeam there are stories enough to occupy a
month. The fire in the grate, the lamp by the bedside, the water
in the tumbler, the fly on the ceiling above, the flower in the
vase on the table, anything, everything, has its history, and can
reveal to us nature's invisible fairies.

Only you must with to see them. If you go through the world
looking upon everything only as so much to eat, to drink, and to
use, you will never see the fairies of science. But if you ask
yourself why things happen, and how the great God above us has
made and governs this world of ours; If you listen to the wind,
and care to learn why it blows; if you ask the little flower why
it opens in the sunshine and closes in the storm; and if when you
find questions you cannot answer, you will take the trouble to
hunt out in books, or make experiments to solve your own
questions, then you will learn to know and love those fairies.

Mind, I do not advise you to be constantly asking questions of
other people; for often a question quickly answered is quickly
forgotten, but a difficulty really hunted down is a triumph for
ever. For example, if you ask why the rain dries up from the
ground, most likely you will be answered, "that the sun dries
it," and you will rest satisfied with the sound of the words.
But if you hold a wet handkerchief before the fire and see the
damp rising out of it, then you have some real idea how moisture
may be drawn up by heat from the earth.

A little foreign niece of mine, only four years old, who could
scarcely speak English plainly, was standing one morning near the
bedroom window and she noticed the damp trickling down the
window-pane. "Auntie," she said, "what for it rain inside?" It
was quite useless to explain to her in words, how our breath had
condensed into drops of water upon the cold glass; but I wiped
the pane clear, and breathed on it several times. When new drops
were formed, I said, "Cissy and auntie have done like this all
night in the room." She nodded her little head and amused
herself for a long time breathing on the window-pane and watching
the tiny drops; and about a month later, when we were travelling
back to Italy, I saw her following the drops on the carriage
window with her little finger, and heard her say quietly to
herself, "Cissy and auntie made you." Had not even this little
child some real picture in her mind of invisible water coming
from her mouth, and making drops upon the window-pane?

Then again, you must learn something of the language of science.
If you travel in a country with no knowledge of its language, you
can learn very little about it: and in the same way if you are to
go to books to find answers to your questions, you must know
something of the language they speak. You need not learn hard
scientific names, for the best books have the fewest of these,
but you must really understand what is meant by ordinary words.

For example, how few people can really explain the difference
between a solid, such as the wood of the table; a liquid, as
water; and a gas, such as I can let off from this gas-jet by
turning the tap. And yet any child can make a picture of this in
his mind if only it has been properly put before him.

All matter in the world is made up of minute parts or particles;
in a solid these particles are locked together so tightly that
you must tear them forcibly apart if you with to alter the shape
of the solid piece. If I break or bend this wood I have to force
the particles to move round each other, and I have great
difficulty doing it. But in a liquid, though the particles are
still held together, they do not cling so tightly, but are able
to roll or glide round each other, so that when you pour water
out of a cup on to a table, it loses its cuplike shape and
spreads itself out flat. Lastly, in a gas the particles are no
longer held together at all, but they try to fly away from each
other; and unless you shut a gas in tightly and safely, it will
soon have spread all over the room.

A solid, therefore, will retain the same bulk and shape unless
you forcibly alter it; a liquid will retain the same bulk, but no
the same shape if it be left free; a gas will not retain either
the same bulk or the same shape, but will spread over as large a
space as it can find wherever it can penetrate. Such simple
things as these you must learn from books and by experiment.

Then you must understand what is meant by chemical attraction;
and though I can explain this roughly here, you will have to make
many interesting experiments before you will really learn to know
this wonderful fairy power. If I dissolve sugar in water, though
it disappears it still remains sugar, and does not join itself to
the water. I have only to let the cup stand till the water
dries, and the sugar will remain at the bottom. There has been
no chemical attraction here.

But now I will put something else in water which will call up the
fairy power. Here is a little piece of the metal potassium, one
of the simple substances of the earth; that is to say, we cannot
split it up into other substances, wherever we find it, it is
always the same. Now if I put this piece of potassium on the
water it does not disappear quietly like the sugar. See how it
rolls round and round, fizzing violently with a blue flame
burning round it, and at last goes off with a pop.

What has been happening here?

You must first know that water is made of two substances,
hydrogen and oxygen, and these are not merely held together, but
are joined to completely that they have lost themselves and have
become water; and each atom of water is made of two atoms of
hydrogen and one of oxygen.

Now the metal potassium is devotedly fond of oxygen, and the

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