The Fairy-Land of Science Lecture I – Part 3

The Fairy-Land of Science Continued ….

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 moment I threw it on the water it called the fairy “chemical attraction’ to help it, and dragged the atoms of oxygen out of the water and joined them to itself. In doing this it also caught part of the hydrogen, but only half, and so the rest was left out in the cold. No, not in the cold! for the potassium and oxygen made such a great heat in clashing together that the rest of the hydrogen became very hot indeed, and sprang into the air to find some other companion to make up for what it had lost. Here it found some free oxygen floating about, and it seized upon it so violently, that they made a burning flame, while the potassium with its newly found oxygen and hydrogen sank down quietly into the water as potash. And so you see we have got quite a new substance potash in the basin; made with a great deal of fuss by chemical attraction drawing different atoms together.

When you can really picture this power to yourself it will help you very much to understand what you read and observe about nature.

Next, as plants grow around you on every side, and are of so much importance in the world, you must also learn something of the names of the different parts of a flower, so that you may understand those books which explain how a plant grows and lives and forms its seeds. You must also know the common names of the parts of an animal, and of your own body, so that you may be interested in understanding the use of the different organs; how you breathe, and how your blood flows; how one animal walks, another flies, and another swims. Then you must learn something of the various parts of the world, so that you may know what is meant by a river, a plain, a valley, or a delta. All these things are not difficult, you can learn them pleasantly from simple books on physics, chemistry, botany, physiology, and physical geography; and when you understand a few plain scientific terms, then all by yourself, if you will open your eyes and ears, you may wander happily in the fairy-land of science. Then wherever you go you will find

“Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

And now we come to the last part of our subject. When you have reached and entered the gates of science, how are you to use and enjoy this new and beautiful land?

This is a very important question for you may make a twofold use of it. If you are only ambitious to shine in the world, you may use it chiefly to get prizes, to be at the top of your class, or to pass in examinations; but if you also enjoy discovering its secrets, and desire to learn more and more of nature and to revel in dreams of its beauty, then you will study science for its own sake as well. Now it is a good thing to win prizes and be at the top of your class, for it shows that you are industrious; it is a good thing to pass well in examinations , for it show that you are accurate; but if you study science for this reason only, do not complain if you find it full, and dry, and hard to master. You may learn a great deal that is useful, and nature will answer you truthfully if you ask you questions accurately, but she will give you dry facts, just such as you ask for. If you do not love her for herself she will never take you to her heart.

This is the reason why so many complain that science is dry and uninteresting. They forget that though it is necessary to learn accurately, for so only we can arrive at truth, it is equally necessary to love knowledge and make it lovely to those who learn, and to do this we must get at the spirit which lies under the facts. What child which loves its mother’s face is content to know only that she has brown eyes, a straight nose, a small mouth, and hair arranged in such and such a manner? No, it knows that its mother has the sweetest smile of any woman living; that her eyes are loving, her kiss is sweet, and that when she looks grave, then something is wrong which must be put right. And it is in this way that those who wish to enjoy the fairy-land of science must love nature.

It is well to know that when a piece of potassium is thrown on water the change which takes place is expressed by the formula K + H2O = KHO + H. But it is better still to have a mental picture of the tiny atoms clasping each other, and mingling so as to make a new substance, and to feel how wonderful are the many changing forms of nature. It is useful to be able to classify a flower and to know that the buttercup belongs to the Family Ranunculaceae, with petals free and definite, stamens hypogynous and indefinite, pistil apocarpous. But it is far sweeter to learn about the life of the little plant, to understand why its peculiar flower is useful to it, and how it feeds itself, and makes its seed. No one can love dry facts;

Part III love dry facts


we must clothe them with real meaning and love the truths they tell, if we wish to enjoy science.
Let us take an example to show this. I have here a branch of white coral, a beautiful, delicate piece of nature’s work. We will begin by copying a description of it from one of those class-books which suppose children to learn words like parrots, and to repeat them with just as little understanding.
“Coral is formed by an animal belonging to the kingdom of Radiates, sub-kingdom Polypes. The soft body of the animal is attached to a support, the mouth opening upwards in a row of tentacles. The coral is secreted in the body of the polyp out of the carbonate of lime in the sea. Thus the coral animalcule rears its polypidom or rocky structure in warm latitudes, and constructs reefs or barriers round islands. It is limited in rage of depth from 25 to 30 fathoms. Chemically considered, coral is carbonate of like; physiologically, it is the skeleton of an animal; geographically, it is characteristic of warm latitudes, especially of the Pacific Ocean.” This description is correct, and even fairly complete, if you know enough of the subject to understand it. But tell me, does it lead you to love my piece of coral? Have you any picture in your mind of the coral animal, its home, or its manner of working?

But now, instead of trying to master this dry, hard passage, take Mr. Huxley’s penny lecture on ‘Coral and Coral Reefs,’ and with the piece of coral in your hand try really to learn its history. You will then be able to picture to yourself the coral animal as a kind of sea-anemone, something like those which you have often seen, like red, blue, or green flowers, putting out feelers in sea-water on our coasts, and drawing in the tiny sea-animals to digest them in that bag of fluid which serves the sea-anemone as a stomach. You will learn how this curious jelly animal can split itself in two, and so form two polyps, or send a bud out of its side and so grow up into a kind of “tree or bush of polyps,” or how it can hatch little eggs inside it and throw out young ones from its mouth, provided with little hairs, by means of which they swim to new resting-places. You will learn the difference between the animal which builds up the red coral as its skeleton, and the group of animals which build up the white; and you will look with new interest on our piece of white coral, as you read that each of those little sups on its stem with delicate divisions like the spokes of a wheel has been the home of a separate polyp, and that from the sea-water each little jelly animal has drunk in carbonate of lime as you drink in sugar dissolved in water, and then has used it grain by grain to build that delicate cup and add to the coral tree.

We cannot stop to examine all about coral now, we are only learning how to learn, but surely our specimen is already beginning to grow interesting; and when you have followed it out into the great Pacific Ocean, where the wild waves dash restlessly against the coral trees, and have seen these tiny drops of jelly conquering the sea and building huge walls of stone against the rough breakers, you will hardly rest till you know all their history. Look at that curious circular island in the picture, covered with palm trees; it has a large smooth lake in the middle, and the bottom of this lake is covered with blue, red, and green jelly animals, spreading out their feelers in the water and looking like beautiful flowers, and all round the outside of the island similar animals are to be seen washed by the sea waves. Such islands as this have been build entirely by the coral animals, and the history of the way in which the reefs have sunk gradually down, as the tiny creatures added to them inch by inch, is as fascinating as the story of the building of any fairy palace in the days of old. Read all this, and then if you have no coral of your own to examine, go to the British Museum and see the beautiful specimens in the glass cases there, and think that

part III b and thing that they

they have been built up under the rolling surf by the tiny jelly animals; and then coral will become a real living thing to you, and you will love the thoughts it awakens.

But people often ask, what is the use of learning all this? If you do not feel by this time how delightful it is to fill your mind with beautiful pictures of nature, perhaps it would be useless to say more. But in this age of ours, when restlessness and love of excitement pervade so many lives, is it nothing to be taken out of ourselves and made to look at the wonders of nature going on around us? Do you never feel tired and “out of sorts,” and want to creep away from your companions, because they are merry and you are not? Then is the time to read about the starts, and how quietly they keep their course from age to age; or to visit some little flower, and ask what story it has to tell; or to watch the clouds, and try to imagine how the winds drive them across the sky. No person is so independent as he who can find interest in a bare rock, a drop of water, the foam of the sea, the spider on the wall, the flower underfoot or the starts overhead. And these interests are open to everyone who enters the fairy-land of science.

Moreover, we learn from this study to see that there is a law and purpose in everything in the Universe, and it makes us patient when we recognize the quiet noiseless working of nature all around us. Study light, and learn how all colour, beauty, and life depend on the sun’s rays; note the winds and currents of the air, regular even in their apparent irregularity, as they carry heat and moisture all over the world. Watch the water flowing in deep quiet streams, or forming the vast ocean; and then reflect that every drop is guided by invisible forces working according to fixed laws. See plants springing up under the sunlight, learn the secrets of plant life, and how their scents and colours attract the insects. Read how insects cannot live without plants, nor plants without the flitting butterfly or the busy bee. Realize that all this is worked by fixed laws, and that out of it (even if sometimes in suffering and pain) springs the wonderful universe around us. And then say, can you fear for your own little life, even though it may have its troubles? Can you help feeling a part of this guided and governed nature? or doubt that the power which fixed the laws of the stars and of the tiniest drop of water – that made the plant draw power from the sun, the tine coral animal its food from the dashing waves; that adapted the flower to the insect and the insect to the flower – is also moulding your life as part of the great machinery of the universe, so that you have only to work, and to wait, and to love?

We are all groping dimly for the Unseen Power, but no one who loves nature and studies it can ever feel alone or unloved in the world. Facts, as mere facts, are dry and barren, but nature is full of life and love, and her calm unswerving rule is tending to some great though hidden purpose. You may call this Unseen Power what you will – may lean on it in loving, trusting faith, or bend in reverent and silent awe; but even the little child who lives with nature and gazes on her with open eye, must rise in some sense or other through nature to nature’s God.

part 3 end

Go to Lecture 2 – Part 1 here.