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A History of Science, Volume 5(of 5) by Williams

Herschel studied the sun spots


Again,

how elementary seems the teaching of Her-schel, wonderful though it was in its day, when compared with our present knowledge of the sidereal system as outlined in the theories of Sir Norman Lock-yer. Herschel studied the sun-spots, for example, with assiduity, and even suggested a possible connection between sun-spots and terrestrial weather. So far, then, he would not be surprised on hearing the announcement of Professor Lockyer's recent paper before the Royal Society on the connection between sun-spots and the rainfall in India. But when the paper goes on to speak of the actual chemical nature of the sun-spots, as tested by a spectroscope; to tell of a "cool" stage when the vapor of iron furnishes chief spectrum lines, and of a "hot" stage when the iron has presumably been dissociated into unknown "proto-iron" constituents--then indeed does it go far beyond the comprehension of the keenest eighteenth-century intellect, though keeping within the range of understanding of the mere scientific tyro of to-day.

Or yet again, consider a recent paper contributed by Professor Lockyer to the Royal Society, entitled "The New Star in Perseus: Preliminary Note"--referring to the new star that flashed suddenly on the vision of the terrestrial observers at more than first magnitude on February 22, 1901. This "star," the paper tells us, when studied by its spectrum, is seen to be due to the impact of two swarms of meteors out in space--swarms moving in different

directions "with a differential velocity of something like seven hundred miles a second." Every astronomer of to-day understands how such a record is read from the displacement of lines on the spectrum, as recorded on the photographic negative. But imagine Sir William Herschel, roused from a century's slumber, listening to this paper, which involves a subject of which he was the first great master. "Ebulae," he might say; "yes, they were a specialty of mine; but swarms of meteors--I know nothing of these. And 'spectroscopes,' 'photographs'--what, pray, are these? In my day there were no such words or things as spectroscope and photograph; to my mind these words convey no meaning."

But why go farther? These imaginings suffice to point a moral that he who runs may read. Of a truth the march of science still goes on as it has gone on with steady tread throughout the long generations of the Royal Society's existence. If the society had giants among its members in the days of its childhood and adolescence, no less are there giants still to keep up its fame in the time of its maturity. The place of England among the scientific constellations is secure through tradition, but not through tradition alone.

III. THE ROYAL INSTITUTION AND THE LOW-TEMPERATURE RESEARCHES

FOUNDATION AND FOUNDER

"GEORGE THE THIRD, by the Grace of God King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc., to all to whom these presents shall come, greeting. Whereas several of our loving subjects are desirous of forming a Public Institution for diffusing the knowledge and facilitating the general introduction of Useful Mechanical Inventions and Improvements; and for teaching, by Courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments, the Application of Science to the Common Purposes of Life, we do hereby give and grant"--multifarious things which need not here be quoted. Such are the opening words of the charter with which, a little more than a century ago, the Royal Institution of Great Britain came into existence and received its legal christening. If one reads on he finds that the things thus graciously "given and granted," despite all the official verbiage, amount to nothing more than royal sanction and approval, but doubtless that meant more in the way of assuring popular approval than might at first glimpse appear. So, too, of the list of earls, baronets, and the like, who appear as officers and managers of the undertaking, and who are described in the charter as "our right trusty and right well-beloved cousins," "our right trusty and well-beloved counsellors," and so on, in the skilfully graduated language of diplomacy. The institution that had the King for patron and such notables for officers seemed assured a bright career from the very beginning. In name and in personnel it had the flavor of aristocracy, a flavor that never palls on British palate. And right well the institution has fulfilled its promise, though in a far different way from what its originator and founder anticipated.


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