Atlantic Monthly, Volume 6, Issue 35, September, 1860
Author: Various
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"In glancing at the article on 'Meteorology' in the July number of the 'Atlantic Monthly,' I was so struck by the dashing style in which the writer presents what he calls the 'leading principles' of the science, that, in spite of portentous errors, I was tempted to follow his diversified flight to its very close. Reading pencil in hand, I gathered up a long list of mistakes in fact and in philosophy, of which the following specimens, although but the first fruits of a not very critical examination, may serve to illustrate the carelessness—shall I not say ignorance?—of the writer on the topics in regard to which he proposes to enlighten the general reader.

"1. According to our essayist, the weight of the atmosphere is about 43/1000ths that of the globe,—in other words, 1/23d part. Now a simple calculation, or a reference to one of the standard works on Physics, should have taught him that the weight of the entire air is less than one-millionth part of that of the earth,—that is, fifty thousand times less than he states it to be."

[We are quite sure that our (tor-)Mentor is mistaken in assuming a uniform weight for the atmosphere. It differs in different places. During our lecturing-tours, we have frequently observed an involuntary depression of the eyelids (producing almost an appearance of sleep) in a part of the audience, which we were at a loss to attribute to anything but the weight of the atmosphere. Water varies in the same way. It is hardly necessary to say that Lake Wetter derives its name from the superior quality of its dampness.]

"2. Of the specific gravity of the air he seems to be amusingly uncertain,—making it first 833 times and afterwards 770 times less than that of water; and in the same connection he says, in chosen phrase, that 'density, or closeness, is another quality of the atmosphere,'—as if it were its characteristic, and not common to all ponderable matter."

[A very neat way of arriving at specific gravity in its densest form is to distil the "funny column" of a weekly newspaper. To arrive at the desired result in the speediest way, let the operation be performed in what is known among bucolic journalists as a "humorous retort." Density and closeness should not be spoken of as equivalent terms. The former is a common quality of the human skull, rendering it impervious; whereas a man may be very close and yet capable of being stuck,—with bad paper, for example.]

"3. In mentioning the constituents of the atmosphere, he adopts without explanation the loose statement of some of the books, placing carburetted hydrogen on the same footing as to constancy and amount with carbonic acid, and making no allusion to nitric acid. Yet chemistry has shown, that, except in special localities, carburetted hydrogen occurs only as a slight trace, the existence of which in most cases is rather inferred than actually demonstrated, and that it has no important office to perform,—while nitric acid shares with ammonia in the grand function of the nourishment of plants. In a later paragraph the error is aggravated by the assertion, that 'no chemical combination of oxygen and nitrogen has ever been detected in the atmosphere, and it is presumed none will be,'—as if every flash of lightning did not produce a notable quantity of this compound, which, washed down by the rain, may be detected in almost every specimen of rain-water we meet. What would Johnstone, Boussingault, Liebig, and the other agricultural chemists say to this?"

[For complete proof on this head, be struck by lightning. For ourselves, we are convinced, and would rather have some other head taken for an experiment by way of illustration. But any of our readers who is unsatisfied has only to place himself in front of a lightning-express-train with an ordinary conductor. To insure being struck, let the experimenter provide himself amply with patent safety-rods. At least, this result is pretty sure in houses, and is worth trying out of doors.]

"In the same connection he characterizes nitrogen as a substance 'not condensible under fifty atmospheres,' leaving the reader to infer that the preceding ingredient on the list, oxygen, is condensible (liquefiable) within that limit of pressure, and that nitrogen becomes liquid at or above it; whereas neither oxygen nor nitrogen has ever yet been compressed into a liquid, although a force of more than fifty times fifty atmospheres has been brought to act upon them."

[We consider an experiment requiring twenty-five hundred atmospheres, when the thermometer marks 93 deg. in the shade, indictable at common law. To desire more than one, under such circumstances, is unreasonable, and even wicked.]

"4. In referring to the Thermo-barometer as a means of measuring heights, the writer confounds the late Professor Edward Forbes with Professor James D. Forbes, recently of Edinburgh, but now Provost of the University of St. Andrews. The former was a great Zooelogist and Botanist, and did not occupy himself with investigations in Physics; the latter is an eminent Physicist, the author of the viscous theory of Glaciers; and it is he who made the observations here ascribed to the 'Professor Forbes, whose untimely death the friends of science have had so much reason to deplore.' The author adds the further mistake of supposing that the numerical constant, 549 feet for each degree, determined by James Forbes for Scotland, is equally correct for all latitudes."

[This hardly needed confutation. No university requires any numerical constant of height as qualification for a degree; and if they did, 549 feet would be excessive, unless, perhaps, at Warsaw, where everybody is tall enough to end in ski.]

"5. Our essayist discloses but an imperfect inkling of knowledge on the subject of capillarity in barometers, when he speaks of this complex action as equivalent to the attraction between the mercury and the glass tube; and he commits a yet graver mistake, practically speaking, in reiterating the long exploded error, that 'the weight of the atmosphere at the level of the sea is the same all over the world.' No fact in Meteorology is better established than that the mean pressure at the sea-level is different for different latitudes. In the vicinity of Cape Horn the barometer is three-fourths of an inch lower than at the Equator, and according to Schouw the pressure increases from the Equator up to a certain latitude (38 deg.) in both hemispheres, and diminishes thence towards the Poles."

[The connection between capillarity and the fat of the common bear is well known to all manufacturers of trycoverus compounds, and they are probably right in advertising that grease of this description restores tone to the hair,—of course a fine beary tone. As the weight of the bear depends on his fat, the inference to a bear-ometer is obvious. It is a familiar fact that the bear supports life during hibernation by sucking his paws; but it may not be so generally known that the waste thus induced in the anterior extremities is restored by the moral consciousness of the animal that the fat he is so carefully hoarding is to confer a posthumous blessing on mankind. This is a touching example of the adaptation of means to end, and Shakspeare, the great natural philosopher, has made use of it for one of his most striking metaphors, where he says, "that the thought of something after death must give us paws."]

"6. Discoursing on the elasticity of the air, the writer styles it 'the most compressible of bodies,'—as if it had any advantage in this respect over the numerous other species of gaseous matter. As to the illustration which he gives, namely, that 'a glass vessel full of air, placed under a receiver and then exhausted by the air-pump, will burst into atoms,' we can only say, what every schoolboy knows, that the bursting would be inwards, unless, indeed, our meteorologist means that the external receiver was to be exhausted, and in that case he should so have expressed himself."

[The theory of exhausted receivers is, in our opinion, worthy only of the childhood of science, when chemistry and astronomy were alchemy and astrology, and people would believe anything. In this enlightened age of the universal subscription-paper, exhausted givers are familiar objects, but a receiver who finds the labors of his calling excessive is as non-existent as the harpy, his mythological prototype.]

"7. In regard to the extent to which the compression of air has been actually carried, he tells us that 'Brockhaus says that air has as yet been compressed only into one-eighth of its original bulk.' Is it possible that a writer on Meteorology is unacquainted with the well-known experiments of Dulong and Arago, and the more recent ones of Regnault, in which the compression was three times the amount here stated, or that he requires to be referred to those of Natterer, who, by a powerful condensing apparatus, has lately compressed seven hundred and twenty-six volumes of air into a single volume?"

[Any man who has succeeded in condensing seven hundred and twenty-six volumes into one deserves the applause of the reading public. We trust M. Natterer will extend his benevolent labors to all the great libraries. With the most perfect apparatus of compression, however, we doubt if contemporary literature will yield anything like so high an average as 1 in 726.]

"8. In the paragraphs devoted to the optical relations of the atmosphere, our author has shown a happy faculty for making his subject obscure. After suggesting that the refraction of the rays in the atmosphere may be due to what he calls its 'lenticular outline,' he defines refraction to be 'the bending of a ray passing obliquely from a rarer into a denser medium,'—a good enough popular definition, but for its sad defectiveness. Is he not aware that the light is also bent in penetrating obliquely from a denser into a rarer medium, as in passing from the surface of a low plain to the eye of a spectator on a neighboring mountain, and that the bending is just as great in this direction of its motion as in the other? And does he not know that it changes its course whenever it passes from a vacuum into any ponderable medium or in the opposite direction? In future attempts to make science easy, let him remember that these are all equally instances of refraction, and should be included in its definition.

"Under the same head, we are led to infer that it is only in 'the warm and moist nights of summer,' that 'the moon, as she rises above the horizon, appears much larger than when at the zenith'; and we are taught, in connection with the origin of the mirage and the spectre of the Bracken, that 'rainbows are due to this condition of the atmosphere.' If, instead of rainbows, we may be allowed to read halos, we can understand the writer, who, instead of thinking of summer showers, appears to have had a haze in his mind while penning this and other paragraphs."

[The dictum of our correspondent in regard to light passing from a ponderable medium into a vacuum requires some qualification. An exception should be made of "Spiritual Mediums," who, being flesh and blood, are of course ponderable. Now, if we represent the Medium by A, and the head of any one consulting her by B, there can be no doubt that the latter is an absolute vacuum; but it is demonstrable that nothing like light ever passed from the former to the latter. There is a closer analogy between refracted light and a Brocken spectre than our scientific friend seems willing to admit. For what follows we refer our readers to the remarkable essay of Alderman Moon, "On the Identity of Halocination and Lunacy."]

"9. As our author advances in this branch of his subject, he grows far too profound for our scientific apprehension. Giving him all credit for wishing to be clear, we confess to a sad mystification as to what he calls the 'Polarity of Light,' where a beam is described as 'revolving around poles peculiar to itself' and as producing 'beautiful spectres,' and we want new illumination from him as to his theory of colors. We agree to the statement that 'each object has a particular reflecting surface of its own,' as we cannot see how its particular surface could be the property of another,—but why this should make the surface 'throw back light at its own angle' we do not exactly fathom, and we are puzzled to know which is the owner of the said angle, the light or the surface. No one doubts that 'the modest blush which crimsons the cheek of beauty,' to use the author's words, is caused by a rush of blood to the skin; but how this produces 'a corresponding change in its angle of reflection,' and what such a change has to do with the result, are problems too transcendental for the exact sciences."

[On all questions relating to the Poles we reserve our opinion till the return of Dr. Hayes's expedition. But we think they have little to hope from any future attempt at revolution, especially with such insufficient weapons as their axes, which, though they keep up a constant stir about them, have been long superseded by the improvements of modern military science. We think our correspondent hasty in admitting that "each object has a particular reflecting surface of its own." A little inquiry among his neighbors would have satisfied him that the human brain seldom possesses anything of the kind.]

"But these specimens must suffice as indications of the general character of this attempt at popularizing science. To do this without misleading and confounding the general reader is a task which claims the largest and most exact knowledge, and the greatest perspicuity of statement, no less than a flowing style and felicitous illustration. It is a task in which true success, though apparently frequent, is in reality extremely rare."

"P.S. I had written thus far, when the fire suddenly penetrating, I suppose, to the nervous system of the poodle, he ran off, leaving me in total darkness and with no hope that his tail (like too many in the 'Atlantic') would be continued. By the brief candle of a match I manage to add this, and to subscribe myself

"Yours ever."

* * * * *



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