Six Lectures on Light / Delivered In The United States In 1872-1873
PREFACE TO THE FOURTH EDITION
In these Lectures I have sought to render clear a difficult but profoundly interesting subject. My aim has been not only to describe and illustrate in a familiar manner the principal laws and phenomena of light, but to point out the origin, and show the application, of the theoretic conceptions which underlie and unite the whole, and without which no real interpretation is possible.
The Lectures, as stated on the title-page, were delivered in the United States in 1872-3. I still retain a vivid and grateful remembrance of the cordiality with which they were received.
My scope and object are briefly indicated in the 'Summary and Conclusion,' which, as recommended in a former edition, might be, not unfitly, read as an introduction to the volume.
USES OF EXPERIMENT
EARLY SCIENTIFIC NOTIONS
SCIENCES OF OBSERVATION
KNOWLEDGE OF THE ANCIENTS REGARDING LIGHT
DEFECTS OF THE EYE
RECTILINEAL PROPAGATION OF LIGHT
LAW OF INCIDENCE AND REFLECTION
STERILITY OF THE MIDDLE AGES
DISCOVERY OF SNELL
PARTIAL AND TOTAL REFLECTION
VELOCITY OF LIGHT
ROEMER, BRADLEY, FOUCAULT, AND FIZEAU
PRINCIPLE OF LEAST ACTION
DESCARTES AND THE RAINBOW
NEWTON'S EXPERIMENTS ON THE COMPOSITION OF SOLAR LIGHT
HIS MISTAKE AS REGARDS ACHROMATISM
SYNTHESIS OF WHITE LIGHT
YELLOW AND BLUE LIGHTS PRODUCE WHITE BY THEIR MIXTURE
COLOURS OF NATURAL BODIES
MIXTURE OF PIGMENTS CONTRASTED WITH MIXTURE OF LIGHTS.
§ 1. Introduction
Some twelve years ago I published, in England, a little book entitled the 'Glaciers of the Alps,' and, a couple of years subsequently, a second book, entitled 'Heat a Mode of Motion.' These volumes were followed by others, written with equal plainness, and with a similar aim, that aim being to develop and deepen sympathy between science and the world outside of science. I agreed with thoughtful men1 who deemed it good for neither world to be isolated from the other, or unsympathetic towards the other, and, to lessen this isolation, at least in one department of science, I swerved, for a time, from those original researches which have been the real pursuit and pleasure of my life.
The works here referred to were, for the most part, republished by the Messrs. Appleton of New York,2 under the auspices of a man who is untiring in his efforts to diffuse sound scientific knowledge among the people of the United States; whose energy, ability, and single-mindedness, in the prosecution of an arduous task, have won for him the sympathy and support of many of us in 'the old country.' I allude to Professor Youmans. Quite as rapidly as in England, the aim of these works was understood and appreciated in the United States, and they brought me from this side of the Atlantic innumerable evidences of good-will. Year after year invitations reached me3 to visit America, and last year (1871) I was honoured with a request so cordial, signed by five-and-twenty names, so distinguished in science, in literature, and in administrative position, that I at once resolved to respond to it by braving not only the disquieting oscillations of the Atlantic, but the far more disquieting ordeal of appearing in person before the people of the United States.
This invitation, conveyed to me by my accomplished friend Professor Lesley, of Philadelphia, and preceded by a letter of the same purport from your scientific Nestor, the celebrated Joseph Henry, of Washington, desired that I should lecture in some of the principal cities of the Union. This I agreed to do, though much in the dark as to a suitable subject. In answer to my inquiries, however, I was given to understand that a course of lectures, showing the uses of experiment in the cultivation of Natural Knowledge, would materially promote scientific education in this country. And though such lectures involved the selection of weighty and delicate instruments, and their transfer from place to place, I determined to meet the wishes of my friends, as far as the time and means at my disposal would allow.
§ 2. Subject of the Course. Source of Light employed
Experiments have two great uses—a use in discovery, and a use in tuition. They were long ago defined as the investigator's language addressed to Nature, to which she sends intelligible replies. These replies, however, usually reach the questioner in whispers too feeble for the public ear. But after the investigator comes the teacher, whose function it is so to exalt and modify the experiments of his predecessor, as to render them fit for public presentation. This secondary function I shall endeavour, in the present instance, to fulfil.
Taking a single department of natural philosophy as my subject, I propose, by means of it, to illustrate the growth of scientific knowledge under the guidance of experiment. I wish, in the first place, to make you acquainted with certain elementary phenomena; then to point out to you how the theoretical principles by which phenomena are explained take root in the human mind, and finally to apply these principles to the whole body of knowledge covered by the lectures. The science of optics lends itself particularly well to this mode of treatment, and on it, therefore, I propose to draw for the materials of the present course. It will be best to begin with the few simple facts regarding light which were known to the ancients, and to pass from them, in historic gradation, to the more abstruse discoveries of modern times.
All our notions of Nature, however exalted or however grotesque, have their foundation in experience. The notion of personal volition in Nature had this basis. In the fury and the serenity of natural phenomena the savage saw the transcript of his own varying moods, and he accordingly ascribed these phenomena to beings of like passions with himself, but vastly transcending him in power. Thus the notion of causality—the assumption that natural things did not come of themselves, but had unseen antecedents—lay at the root of even the savage's interpretation of Nature. Out of this bias of the human mind to seek for the causes of phenomena all science has sprung.
We will not now go back to man's first intellectual gropings; much less shall we enter upon the thorny discussion as to how the groping man arose. We will take him at that stage of his development, when he became possessed of the apparatus of thought and the power of using it. For a time—and that historically a long one—he was limited to mere observation, accepting what Nature offered, and confining intellectual action to it alone. The apparent motions of sun and stars first drew towards them the questionings of the intellect, and accordingly astronomy was the first science developed. Slowly, and with difficulty, the notion of natural forces took root in the human mind. Slowly, and with difficulty, the science of mechanics had to grow out of this notion; and slowly at last came the full application of mechanical principles to the motions of the heavenly bodies. We trace the progress of astronomy through Hipparchus and Ptolemy; and, after a long halt, through Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler; while from the high table-land of thought occupied by these men, Newton shoots upwards like a peak, overlooking all others from his dominant elevation.
But other objects than the motions of the stars attracted the attention of the ancient world. Light was a familiar phenomenon, and from the earliest times we find men's minds busy with the attempt to render some account of it. But without experiment, which belongs to a later stage of scientific
Among whom may be especially mentioned the late Sir Edmund Head, Bart., with whom I had many conversations on this subject.
At whose hands it gives me pleasure to state I have always experienced honourable and liberal treatment.
One of the earliest of these came from Mr. John Amory Lowell of Boston.