PART I: Science at the Threshold
CHAPTER IV – The Country that is Not Ours
The last two chapters have served to show the impasse into which human perception and thinking have come – in so far as they have been used for scientific purposes – by virtue of the relationship to the world in which man’s consciousness found itself when it awoke to itself at the beginning of modern times. Now although the onlooker in man, especially in the earliest stage of our period, gave itself up to the conviction that a self-contained picture of the universe could be formed out of the kind of materials available to it, it nevertheless had a dim inkling that this picture, because it lacked all dynamic content, had no bearing on the real nature of the universe. Unable to find this reality within himself, the world-onlooker set about searching in his own way for what was missing, and turned to the perceptible world outside man. Here he came, all unexpectedly, upon … electricity. Scarcely was electricity discovered than it drew human scientific thinking irresistibly into its own realm. Thereby man found himself, with a consciousness completely blind to dynamics, within a sphere of only too real dynamic forces. The following description will show what results this has had for man and his civilization.
First, let us recall how potent a role electricity has come to play in social life through the great discoveries which began at the end of the eighteenth century. To do this we need only compare the present relationship between production and consumption in the economic sphere with what it was before the power-machine, and especially the electrically driven machine, had been invented. Consider some major public undertaking in former times – say the construction of a great mediaeval cathedral. Almost all the work was done by human beings, with some help, of course, from domesticated animals. Under these circumstances the entire source of productive power lay in the will-energies of living beings, whose bodies had to be supplied with food, clothing and housing; and to provide these, other productive powers of a similar kind were required near the same place. Accordingly, since each of the power units employed in the work was simultaneously both producer and consumer, a certain natural limit was placed on the accumulation of productive forces in any one locality.
This condition of natural balance between production and consumption was profoundly disturbed by the introduction of the steam engine; but even so there were still some limits, though of a quite different kind, to local concentrations of productive power. For steam engines require water and coal at the scene of action, and these take up space and need continual shifting and replenishing. Owing to the very nature of physical matter, it cannot be heaped up where it is required in unlimited quantities.
All this changed directly man succeeded in producing energy electro-magnetically by the mere rotation of material masses, and in using the water-power of the earth – itself ultimately derived from the cosmic energies of the sun – for driving his dynamos. Not only is the source of energy thus tapped practically inexhaustible, but the machines produce it without consuming on their own account, apart from wear and tear, and so make possible the almost limitless accumulation of power in one place. For electricity is distinguished from all other power-supplying natural forces, living or otherwise, precisely in this, that it can be concentrated spatially with the aid of a physical carrier whose material bulk is insignificant compared with the energy supplied.
Through this property of electricity it has been possible for man to extend the range of his activity in all directions, far and near. So the balance between production and consumption, which in previous ages was more or less adequately maintained by natural conditions, has been entirely destroyed, and a major social-economic problem created.
In yet another way, and through quite another of its properties, electricity plays an important part in modern life. Not only does it compete with the human will; it also makes possible automatically intelligent operations quite beyond anything man can do on his own. There are innumerable examples of this in modern electrical technology; we need mention here only the photo-electric cell and the many devices into which it enters.
To an ever-increasing, quite uncontrolled degree – for to the mind of present-day man it is only natural to translate every new discovery into practice as soon and as extensively as possible – electricity enters decisively into our modern existence. If we take all its activities into account, we see arising amongst humanity a vast realm of labour units, possessed in their own way not only of will but of the sharpest imaginable intelligence. Although they are wholly remote from man’s own nature, he more and more subdues his thoughts and actions to theirs, allowing them to take rank as guides and shapers of his civilization.
Turning to the sphere of scientific research, we find electricity playing a role in the development of modern thinking remarkably similar to its part as a labour-force in everyday life. We find it associated with phenomena which, in Professor Heisenberg’s words, expose their mutual connexions to exact mathematical thinking more readily than do any other facts of nature; and yet the way in which these phenomena have become known has played fast and loose with mathematical thinking to an unparalleled degree. To recognize that in this sphere modern science owes its triumphs to a strange and often paradoxical mixture of outer accident and error in human thought, we need only review the history of the subject without prejudice.
The discovery of electricity has so far been accomplished in four clearly distinct stages. The first extends from the time when men first knew of electrical phenomena to the beginning of the natural scientific age; the second includes the seventeenth and the greater part of the eighteenth centuries; the third begins with Galvani’s discovery and closes with the first observations of radiant electricity; and the fourth brings us to our own day. We shall here concern ourselves with a few outstanding features of each phase, enough to characterize the strange path along which man has been led by the discovery of electricity.
Until the beginning of modern times, nothing more was known about electricity, or of its sister force, magnetism, than what we find in Pliny’s writings. There, without recognizing a qualitative distinction between them, he refers to the faculty of rubbed amber and of certain pieces of iron to attract other small pieces of matter. It required the awakening of that overruling interest in material nature, characteristic of our own age, for the essential difference between electric and magnetic attraction to be recognized. The first to give a proper description of this was Queen Elizabeth’s doctor, Gilbert. His discovery was soon followed by the construction of the first electrical machine by the German Guericke (also known through his invention of the air pump) which opened the way for the discovery that electricity could be transmitted from one place to another.
It was not, however, until the beginning of the eighteenth century that the crop of electrical discoveries began to increase considerably: among these was the recognition of the dual nature of electricity, by the Frenchman, Dufais, and the chance invention of the Leyden jar (made simultaneously by the German, von Kleist, and two Dutchmen, Musschenbroek and Cunaeus). The Leyden jar brought electrical effects of quite unexpected intensity within reach. Stimulated by what could be done with electricity in this form, more and more people now busied themselves in experimenting with so fascinating a force of nature, until in the second third of the century a whole army of observers was at work, whether by way of profession or of hobby, finding out ever new manifestations of its powers.
The mood that prevailed in those days among men engaged in electrical research is well reflected in a letter written by the Englishman, Walsh, after he had established the electric nature of the shocks given by certain fishes, to Benjamin Franklin, who shortly before had discovered the natural occurrence of electricity in the atmosphere:
‘I rejoice in addressing these communications to You. He, who predicted and shewed that electricity wings the formidable bolt of the Atmosphere, will hear with attention that in the deep it speeds a humbler bolt, silent and invisible; He, who analysed the electrical Phial, will hear with pleasure that its laws prevail in animate Phials; He, who by Reason became an electrician, will hear with reverence of an instinctive electrician, gifted in his birth with a wonderful apparatus, and with the skill to use it.’ (Phil. Trans. 1773.)
Dare one believe that in electricity the soul of nature had been discovered? This was the question which at that time stirred the hearts of very many in Europe. Doctors had already sought to arouse new vitality in their patients by the use of strong electric shocks; attempts had even been made to bring the dead back to life by such means. . In a time like ours, when we are primarily concerned with the practical application of scientific discoveries, we are mostly accustomed to regard such flights of thought from a past age as nothing but the unessential accompaniment of youthful, immature science, and to smile at them accordingly as historical curiosities. This is a mistake, for we then overlook how within them was hidden an inkling of the truth, however wrongly conceived at the time, and we ignore the role which such apparently fantastic hopes have played in connexion with the entry of electricity into human civilization. (Nor are such hopes confined to the eighteenth century; as we shall see, the same impulse urged Crookes a hundred years later to that decisive discovery which was to usher in the latest phase in the history of science, a phase in which the investigating human spirit has been led to that boundary of the physical-material world where the transition takes place from inert matter into freely working energy.)
If there was any doubt left as to whether in nature the same power was at work which, in animal and man, was hidden away within the soul, this doubt seemed finally to have been dispelled through Galvani’s discovery that animal limbs could be made to move electrically through being touched by two bits of different metals. No wonder that ‘the storm which was loosed in the world of the physicists, the physiologists and the doctors through Galvani’s publication can only be compared with the one crossing the political horizon of Europe at the same time. Wherever there happened to be frogs and two pieces of different metals available, everyone sought proof with his own eyes that the severed limbs could be marvellously re-enlivened.’1
Like many of his contemporaries, Galvani was drawn by the fascinating behaviour of the new force of nature to carry on electrical experiments as a hobby alongside his professional work, anatomical research. For his experiments he used the room where his anatomical specimens were set out. So it happened that his electrical machine stood near some frogs’ legs, prepared for dissection. By a further coincidence his assistant, while playing with the machine, released a few sparks just when some of the specimens were in such contact with the surface beneath them that they were bound to react to the sudden alteration of the electric field round the machine caused by its discharge. At each spark the frogs’ legs twitched. What Galvani saw with his own eyes seemed to be no less than the union of two phenomena, one observed by Franklin in the heights of the atmosphere, the other by Walsh in the depths of the sea.
Galvani, as he himself describes, proceeded with immense enthusiasm to investigate systematically what accident had thus put into his hands.2 He wanted first to see whether changes occurring naturally in the electrical condition of the atmosphere would call forth the same reaction in his specimens. For this purpose he fastened one end of an iron wire to a point high up outside his house; the lower end he connected with the nervous substance of a limb from one of his specimens, and to the foot of this he attached a second wire whose other end he submerged in a well. The specimen itself was either enclosed in a glass flask in order to insulate it, or simply left lying on a table near the well. And all this he did whenever a thunderstorm was threatening. As he himself reported: ‘All took place as expected. Whenever the lightning flashed, all the muscles simultaneously came into repeated and violent twitchings, so that the movements of the muscles, like the flash of the lightning, always preceded the thunder, and thus, as it were, heralded its coming.’ We can have some idea of what went on in Galvani’s mind during these experiments if we picture vividly to ourselves the animal limbs twitching about every time the lightning flashed, as if a revitalizing force of will had suddenly taken possession of them.
In the course of his investigations – he carried them on for a long time – Galvani was astonished to observe that some of his specimens, which he had hung on to an iron railing by means of brass hooks, sometimes fell to twitching even when the sky was quite clear and there was no sign of thunder. His natural conclusion was that this must be due to hitherto unnoticed electrical changes in the atmosphere. Observations maintained for hours every day, however, led to no conclusive result; when twitchings did occur it was only with some of the specimens, and even then there was no discoverable cause. Then it happened one day that Galvani, ‘tired out with fruitless watching’, took hold of one of the brass hooks by which the specimens were hung, and pressed it more strongly than usual against the iron railing. Immediately a twitching took place. ‘I was almost at the point of ascribing the occurrence to atmospheric electricity,’ Galvani tells us. All the same he took one of the specimens, a frog, into his laboratory and there subjected it to similar conditions by putting it on an iron plate, and pressing against this with the hook that was stuck through its spinal cord. Immediately the twitching occurred again. He tried with other metals and, for checking purposes, with non-metals as well. With some ingenuity he fixed up an arrangement, rather like that of an electric bell, whereby the limbs in contracting broke contact and in relaxing restored it, and so he managed to keep the frog in continuous rhythmical movement.
Whereas Galvani had been rightly convinced by his earlier observations that the movement in the specimens represented a reaction to an electric stimulus from outside, he now changed his mind. In the very moment of his really significant discovery he succumbed to the error that he had to do with an effect of animal electricity located somewhere in the dead creature itself, perhaps in the fashion of what had been observed in the electric fishes. He decided that the metal attachment served merely to set in motion the electricity within the animal.
Whilst Galvani persisted in this mistake until his death, Volta realized that the source of the electric force, as in the first of Galvani’s observations, must still be sought outside the specimens, and himself rightly attributed it to the contacting metals. Guided by this hypothesis, Volta started systematic research into the Galvanic properties of metals, and presently succeeded in producing electricity once more from purely mineral substances, namely from two different metals in contact with a conductive liquid.
This mode of producing electricity, however, differed from any previously known in allowing for the first time the production of continuous electrical effects. It is this quality of the cells and piles constructed by Volta that laid open the road for electric force to assume that role in human civilization which we have already described. That Volta himself was aware of this essentially new factor in the Galvanic production of electricity is shown by his own report to the Royal Society:
‘The chief of my results, and which comprehends nearly all the others, is the construction of an apparatus which resembles in its effects, viz. such as giving shocks to the arms, &c, the Leyden phial, and still better electric batteries weakly charged; . . . but which infinitely surpasses the virtue and power of these same batteries; as it has no need, like them, of being charged beforehand, by means of a foreign electricity; and as it is capable of giving the usual commotion as often as ever it is properly touched.’
Whilst Volta’s success was based on avoiding Galvani’s error, his apparatus nevertheless turned out inadvertently to be a close counterpart of precisely that animal organ which Galvani had in mind when misinterpreting his own discoveries! That Volta himself realized this is clear from the concluding words in his letter:
‘This apparatus, as it resembles more the natural organ of the torpedo, or of the electrical eel, than the Leyden Phial or the ordinary electric batteries, I may call an artificial electric organ.’
This new method of producing continuous electrical effects had far-reaching results, one of which was the discovery of the magnetic properties of the electric current by the Dane, Oersted – once again a purely accidental discovery, moving directly counter to the assumptions of the discoverer himself. About to leave the lecture room where he had just been trying to prove the non-existence of such magnetic properties (an attempt seemingly crowned with success), Oersted happened to glance once more at his demonstration bench. To his astonishment he noticed that one of his magnetic needles was out of alignment; evidently it was attracted by a magnetic field created by the current running through a wire he had just been using, which was still in circuit. Thus what had escaped Oersted throughout his planned researches – namely, that the magnetic force which accompanies an electric current must be sought in a direction at right angles to the current – a fortuitous event enabled him to detect.
These repeated strokes of chance and frequently mistaken interpretations of the phenomenon thus detected show that men were exploring the electrical realm as it were in the dark; it was a realm foreign to their ordinary ideas and they had not developed the forms of thought necessary for understanding it. (And this, as our further survey will show, is still true, even to-day.)
In our historical survey we come next to the researches of Faraday and Maxwell. Faraday was convinced that if electrical processes are accompanied by magnetic forces, as Oersted had shown, the reverse must also be true – magnetism must be accompanied by electricity. He was led to this correct conviction by his belief in the qualitative unity of all the forces of nature – a reflexion, as his biography shows, of his strongly monotheistic, Old Testament faith. Precisely this view, however – which since Faraday natural science has quite consciously adopted as a leading principle – will reveal itself to us as a fundamental error.
It seems paradoxical to assert that the more consistently human thought has followed this error, the greater have been the results of the scientific investigation of electricity. Precisely this paradox, however, is characteristic of the realm of nature to which electricity belongs; and anyone earnestly seeking to overcome the illusions of our age will have to face the fact that the immediate effectiveness of an idea in practice is no proof of its ultimate truth.
Another eloquent example of the strange destiny of human thought in connexion with electricity is to be found in the work of Clark Maxwell, who, starting from Faraday’s discoveries, gave the theory of electricity its mathematical basis. Along his purely theoretical line of thought he was led to the recognition of the existence of a form of electrical activity hitherto undreamt of – electro-magnetic vibrations. Stimulated by Maxwell’s mathematical conclusions, Hertz and Marconi were soon afterwards able to demonstrate those phenomena which have led on the one hand to the electro-magnetic theory of light, and on the other to the practical achievements of wireless communication.
Once again, there is the paradoxical fact that this outcome of Maxwell’s labours contradicts the very foundation on which he had built his theoretical edifice. For his starting-point had been to form a picture of the electro-magnetic field of force to which he could apply certain well-known formulae of mechanics. This he did by comparing the behaviour of the electrical force to the currents of an elastic fluid – that is, of a material substance. It is true that both he and his successors rightly emphasized that such a picture was not in any way meant as an explanation of electricity, but merely as an auxiliary concept in the form of a purely external analogy. Nevertheless, it was in the guise of a material fluid that he thought of this force, and that he could submit it to mathematical calculation. Yet the fact is that from this starting-point the strict logic of mathematics led him to the discovery that electricity is capable of behaviour which makes it appear qualitatively similar to … light!
Whilst practical men were turning the work of Faraday and Maxwell to account by exploiting the mechanical working of electricity in power-production, and its similarity to light in the wireless communication of thought, a new field of research, with entirely new practical possibilities, was suddenly opened up in the last third of the nineteenth century through the discovery of how electricity behaves in rarefied air. This brings us to the discovery of cathode rays and the phenomena accompanying them, from which the latest stage in the history of electricity originated. And here once more, as in the history of Galvani’s discoveries, we encounter certain undercurrents of longing and expectation in the human soul which seemed to find an answer through this sudden, great advance in the knowledge of electricity – an advance which has again led to practical applications of the utmost significance for human society, though not at all in the way first hoped for.
Interest in the phenomena arising when electricity passes through gases with reduced pressure had simultaneously taken hold of several investigators in the seventies of the nineteenth century. But the decisive step in this sphere of research was taken by the English physicist, William Crookes. He was led on by a line of thought which seems entirely irrelevant; yet it was this which first directed his interest to the peculiar phenomena accompanying cathode rays; and they proved to be the starting-point of the long train of inquiry which has now culminated in the release of atomic energy.3
In the midst of his many interests and activities, Crookes was filled from his youth with a longing to find by empirical means the bridge leading from the world of physical effects to that of superphysical causes. He himself tells how this longing was awakened in him by the loss of a much-beloved brother. Before the dead body he came to the question, which thereafter was never to leave him, whether there was a land where the human individuality continues after it has laid aside its bodily sheath, and how that land was to be found. Seeing that scientific research was the instrument which modern man had forged to penetrate through the veil of external phenomena to the causes producing them, it was natural for Crookes to turn to it in seeking the way from the one world into the other.
It was after meeting with a man able to produce effects within the corporeal world by means of forces quite different from those familiar to science, that Crookes decided to devote himself to this scientific quest. Thus he first came into touch with that sphere of phenomena which is known as spiritualism, or perhaps more suitably, spiritism. Crookes now found himself before a special order of happenings which seemed to testify to a world other than that open to our senses; physical matter here showed itself capable of movement in defiance of gravity, manifestations of light and sound appeared without a physical source to produce them. Through becoming familiar with such things at seances arranged by his mediumistic acquaintance, he began to hope that he had found the way by which scientific research could overstep the limits of the physical world. Accordingly, he threw himself eagerly into the systematic investigation of his new experiences, and so became the father of modern scientific spiritism.
Crookes had hoped that the scientists of his day would be positively interested in his researches. But his first paper in this field, ‘On Phenomena called Spiritual’, was at once and almost unanimously rejected by his colleagues, and as long as he concerned himself with such matters he suffered through their opposition. It passed his understanding as a scientist why anything should be regarded in advance as outside the scope of scientific research. After several years of fruitless struggle he broke off his investigations into spiritism, deeply disillusioned at his failure to interest official science in it. His own partiality for it continued, however (he served as President of the Society for Psychical Research from 1896-9), and he missed no opportunity of confessing himself a pioneer in the search for the boundary-land between the worlds of matter and spirit. Through all his varied scientific work the longing persisted to know more of this land.
Just as Crookes had once sought to investigate spiritism scientifically, so in his subsequent scientific inquiries he was always something of a spiritist. He admitted, indeed, that he felt specially attracted by the strange light effects arising when electricity passes through rarefied gases, because they reminded him of certain luminous phenomena he had observed during his spiritistic investigations. Besides this, there was the fact that light here showed itself susceptible to the magnetic force in a way otherwise characteristic only of certain material substances. Accordingly, everything combined to suggest to Crookes that here, if anywhere, he was at the boundary between the physical and the superphysical worlds. No wonder that he threw himself into the study of these phenomena with enthusiasm.
He soon succeeded in evoking striking effects – light and heat, and also mechanical – along the path of electricity passing invisibly through the tube later named after him. Thus he proved for the first time visibly, so to say, the double nature – material and supermaterial – of electricity. What Crookes himself thought about these discoveries in the realm of the cathode rays we may judge from the title, ‘Radiant Matter’, or ‘The Fourth State of Matter’, which he gave to his first publication about them. And so he was only being consistent when, in his lectures before the Royal Institution in London, and the British Association in Sheffield in 1879, after showing to an amazed scientific audience the newly discovered properties of electricity, he came to the climax of his exposition by saying: ‘We have seen that in some of its properties Radiant Matter is as material as this table, whilst in other properties it almost assumes the character of Radiant Energy. We have actually touched here the borderland where Matter and Force seem to merge into one another, the shadowy realm between Known and Unknown, which for me has always had peculiar temptations.’ And in boldly prophetic words, which time has partly justified, he added, ‘I venture to think that the greatest scientific problems of the future will find their solution in this Borderland, and even beyond; here, it seems to me, lie Ultimate Realities, subtle, far-reaching, wonderful.’
No one can read these words of Crookes without hearing again, as an undertone, the question which had forced itself on him at the bedside of his dead brother, long before. All that is left of the human being whom death has taken is a heap of substances, deserted by the force which had used them as the instrument of its own activity. Whither vanishes this force when it leaves the body, and is there any possibility of its revealing itself even without occupying such a body?
Stirred by this question, the young Crookes set out to find a world of forces which differ from the usual mechanical ones exercised by matter on matter, in that they are autonomous, superior to matter in its inert conglomeration, yet capable of using matter, just as the soul makes use of the body so long as it dwells within it. His aim was to secure proof that such forces exist, or, at any rate, to penetrate into the realm where the transition from matter to pure, matter-free force takes place. And once again, as in Galvani’s day, electricity fascinated the eyes of a man who was seeking for the land of the soul. What spiritism denied, electricity seemed to grant.
The aversion to spiritism which Crookes met with in contemporary science was, from the standpoint of such a science, largely justified. Science, in the form in which Crookes himself conceived it, took for granted that the relationship of human consciousness to the world was that of external onlooking. Accordingly, if the scientist remained within the limits thus prescribed for consciousness, it was only consistent to refuse to make anything beyond these limits an object of scientific research.
On the other hand, it says much for the courage and open mindedness of Crookes that he refused to be held back from what was for him the only possible way of extending the boundaries of science beyond the given physical world. Moreover, it was only natural that in his search for a world of a higher order than the physical he should, as a man of his time, first turn his attention to spiritistic occurrences, for spiritism, as it had come over to Europe from America in the middle of the nineteenth century, was nothing but an attempt by the onlooker-consciousness to learn something in its own way about the supersensible world. The spiritist expects the spirit to reveal itself in outwardly perceptible phenomena as if it were part of the physical world. Towards the end of his life Crookes confessed that if he were able to begin again he would prefer to study telepathic phenomena – the direct transference of thought from one person to another – rather than the purely mechanical, or so-called telekinetic, expressions of psychic forces. But although his interest was thus turning towards a more interior field of psychic investigation, he remained true to his times in still assuming that knowledge about the world, whatever it might be, could be won only by placing oneself as a mere onlooker outside the object of research.
The stream of new discoveries which followed Crookes’s work justified his conviction that in cathode ray phenomena we have to do with a frontier region of physical nature. Still, the land that lies on the other side of this frontier is not the one Crookes had been looking for throughout his life. For, instead of finding the way into the land whither man’s soul disappears at death, Crookes had inadvertently crossed the border into another land – a land which the twentieth-century scientist is impelled to call ‘the country that is not ours’.
The realm thrown open to science by Crookes’s observations, which human knowledge now entered as if taking it by storm, was that of the radioactive processes of the mineral stratum of the earth. Many new and surprising properties of electricity were discovered there – yet the riddle of electricity itself, instead of coming nearer, withdrew into ever deeper obscurity.
The very first step into this newly discovered territory made the riddle still more bewildering. As we have said, Maxwell’s use of a material analogy as a means of formulating mathematically the properties of electro-magnetic fields of force had led to results which brought electricity into close conjunction with light. In his own way Crookes focused, to begin with, his attention entirely on the light-like character of electric effects in a vacuum. It was precisely these observations, however, as continued by Lenard and others, which presently made it necessary to see in electricity nothing else than a special manifestation of inert mass.
The developments leading up to this stage are recent and familiar enough to be briefly summarized. The first step was once more an accident, when Roentgen (or rather one of his assistants) noticed that a bunch of keys, laid down by chance on top of an unopened box of photographic plates near a cathode tube, had produced an inexplicable shadow-image of itself on one of the plates. The cathode tube was apparently giving off some hitherto unknown type of radiation, capable of penetrating opaque substances. Roentgen was an experimentalist, not a theorist; his pupils used to say privately that in publishing this discovery of X-rays he attempted a theoretical explanation for the first and only time in his life – and got it wrong!
However, this accidental discovery had far-reaching consequences. It drew attention to the fluorescence of minerals placed in the cathode tube; this inspired Becquerel to inquire whether naturally fluorescent substances gave off anything like X-rays, and eventually – yet again by accident – he came upon certain uranium compounds. These were found to give off a radiation similar to X-rays, and to give it off naturally and all the time. Soon afterwards the Curies succeeded in isolating the element, radium, an element which was found to be undergoing a continuous natural disintegration. The way was now clear for that long series of experiments on atomic disintegration which led finally to the splitting of the nucleus and the construction of the atomic bomb.
A typical modern paradox emerges from these results. By restricting his cognitive powers to a field of experience in which the concept of force as an objective reality was unthinkable, man has been led on a line of practical investigation the pursuit of which was bound to land him amongst the force-activities of the cosmos. For what distinguishes electric and sub-electric activities from all other forces of physical nature so far known to science, is that for their operation they have no need of the resistance offered by space-bound material bodies; they represent a world of pure dynamics into which spatial limitations do not enter.
Equally paradoxical is the situation of theoretical thinking in face of that realm of natural being which practical research has lately entered. We have seen that this thinking, by virtue of the consciousness on which it is founded, is impelled always to clothe its ideas in spatial form. Wherever anything in the pure spatial adjacency of physical things remains inexplicable, resort is had to hypothetical pictures whose content consists once more of nothing but spatially extended and spatially adjacent items. In this way matter came to be seen as consisting of molecules, molecules of atoms, and atoms of electrons, protons, neutrons, and so forth.
In so far as scientific thought has held to purely spatial conceptions, it has been obliged to concentrate on ever smaller and smaller spatial sizes, so that the spatially conceived atom-picture has finally to reckon with dimensions wherein the old concept of space loses validity. When once thinking had started in this direction, it was electricity which once more gave it the strongest impulse to go even further along the same lines.
Where we have arrived along this path is brought out in a passage in Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World. There, after describing the modern picture of electrons dancing round the atomic nucleus, he says: ‘This spectacle is so fascinating that we have perhaps forgotten that there was a time when we wanted to be told what an electron is. This question was never answered. No familiar conceptions can be woven round the electron; it belongs to the waiting list.’ The only thing we can say about the electron, if we are not to deceive ourselves, Eddington concludes, is: ‘Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.’4
Let us add a further detail from this picture of the atom, as given in Eddington’s Philosophy of Physical Science. Referring to the so-called positron, the positive particle regarded as the polar opposite of the negative electron, he remarks: ‘A positron is a hole from which an electron has been removed; it is a bung-hole which would be evened up with its surroundings if an electron were inserted. … You will see that the physicist allows himself even greater liberty than the sculptor. The sculptor removes material to obtain the form he desires. The physicist goes further and adds material if necessary – an operation which he describes as removing negative material. He fills up a bung-hole, saying he is removing a positron.’ Eddington thus shows to what paradoxical ideas the scientist is driven, when with his accustomed forms of thought he ventures into regions where the conditions necessary for such forms no longer exist; and he concludes his remarks with the following caution: ‘Once again I would remind you that objective truth is not the point at issue.’
By this reminder Eddington shows how far science has reconciled itself to the philosophic scepticism at which man’s thinking had arrived in the days of Hume. In so far as the above remark was intended to be a consolation for the bewildered student, it is poor comfort in the light of the actions which science has let loose with the help of those unknown entities. For it is just this resignation of human thought which renders it unable to cope with the flood of phenomena springing from the sub-material realm of nature, and has allowed scientific research to outrun scientific understanding.
1 E. du Bois-Raymond: Investigations into Animal Electricity (1884). Galvani published his discovery when the French Revolution had reached its zenith and Napoleon was climbing to power.
2 The above account follows A. J. von Oettingen’s edition of Galvani’s monograph, De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari.
3 For what follows see The Life of Sir William Crookes, by E. E. Fournier D’Albe (London, 1923).
4 Eddington’s italics. See also, in this respect, Professor White head’s criticism of the hypothetical picture of the electron and its behaviour.
- CHAPTER III – The Onlooker’s Philosophic Malady
- CHAPTER V – The Adventure of Reason