The Fairy-Land of Science Lecture I – Part 2

The Fairy-Land of Science Continued ….

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.

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

part II metal potassiuma 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?

Go to Lecture 1-Part 3 here.