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320. By the term Experience, in physical science, we designate, according to a suggestion of Herschel's, our means of becoming acquainted with the material universe and the laws which regulate it. In general the actions which we see ever taking place around us are complex, or due to the simultaneous action of many causes. When, as in astronomy, we endeavour to ascertain these causes by simply watching their effects, we observe ; when, as in our laboratories, we interfere arbitrarily with the causes or circumstances of a phenomenon, we are said to experiment.
321. For instance, supposing that we are possessed of instrumental means of measuring time and angles, we may trace out by successive observations the relative position of the sun and earth at different instants; and (the method is not susceptible of any accuracy, but is alluded to here only for the sake of illustration) from the variations in the apparent diameter of the former we may calculate the ratios of our distances from it at those instants. We have thus a set of observations involving time, angular position with reference to the sun, and ratios of distances from it; sufficient (if numerous enough) to enable us to discover the laws which connect the variations of these co-ordinates.
Similar methods may be imagined as applicable to the motion of any planet about the sun, of a satellite about its primary, or of one star about another in a binary group.
322. In general all the data of Astronomy are determined in this way, and the same may be said of such subjects as Tides and Meteorology. Isothermal Lines, Lines of Equal Dip or Intensity, Lines of No Declination, the Connexion of Solar Spots with Terrestrial Magnetism, and a host of other data and phenomena, to be explained under the proper heads in the course of the work, are thus deducible from Observation merely. In these cases the apparatus for the gigantic experiments is found ready arranged in Nature, and all that the philosopher has to do is to watch and measure their progress to its last details.
323. Even in the instance we have chosen above, that of the planetary motions, the observed effects are complex; because, unless possibly in the case of a double star, we have no instance of the undisturbed action of one heavenly body on another; but to a first approximation the motion of a planet about the sun is found to be the same as if no other bodies than these two existed; and the approximation is sufficient to indicate the probable law of mutual action, whose full confirmation is obtained when, its truth being assumed, the disturbing effects thus calculated are allowed for, and found to account completely for the observed deviations from the consequences of the first supposition. This may serve to give an idea of the mode of obtaining the laws of phenomena, which can only be observed in a complex form; and the method can always be directly applied when one cause is known to be pre-eminent.
324. Let us take a case of the other kind that in which the effects are so complex that we cannot deduce the causes from the observation of combinations arranged in Nature, but must endeavour to form for ourselves other combinations which may enable us to study the effects of each cause separately, or at least with only slight modification from the interference of other causes.
A stone, when dropped, falls to the ground; a brick and a boulder, if dropped from the top of a cliff at the same moment, fall side by side, and reach the ground together. But a brick and a slate do not; and while the former falls in a nearly vertical direction, the latter describes a most complex path. A sheet of paper or a fragment of gold-leaf presents even greater irregularities than the slate. But by a slight modification of the circumstances, we gain a considerable insight into the nature of the question. The paper and gold-leaf, if rolled into balls, fall nearly in a vertical line. Here, then, there are evidently at least two causes at work, one which tends to make all bodies fall
, and that vertically; and another which depends on the form and substance of the body, and tends to retard its fall and alter its vertical direction. How can we study the effects of the former on all bodies without sensible complication from the latter? The effects of Wind, etc., at once point out what the latter cause is, the air (whose existence we may indeed suppose to have been discovered by such effects); and to study the nature of the action of the former it is necessary to get rid of the complications arising from the presence of air. Hence the necessity for Experiment. By means of an apparatus to be afterwards described, we remove the greater part of the air from the interior of a vessel, and in that we try again our experiments on the fall of bodies; and now a general law, simple in the extreme, though most important in its consequences, is at once apparent—viz. that all bodies, of whatever size, shape, or material, if dropped side by side at the same instant, fall side by side in a space void of air. Before experiment had thus separated the phenomena, hasty philosophers had rushed to the conclusion that some bodies possess the quality of heaviness, others that of lightness, etc. Had this state of things remained, the law of gravitation, vigorous though its action be throughout the universe, could never have been recognized as a general principle by the human mind.
Mere observation of lightning and its effects could never have led to the discovery of their relation to the phenomena presented by rubbed amber. A modification of the course of Nature, such as the bringing down of atmospheric electricity into our laboratories, was necessary. Without experiment we could never even have learned the existence of terrestrial magnetism.
325. In all cases when a particular agent or cause is to be studied, experiments should be arranged in such a way as to lead, if possible, to results depending on it alone; or, if this cannot be done, they should be arranged so as to increase the effects due to the cause to be studied till these so far exceed the unavoidable concomitants, that the latter may be considered as only disturbing, not essentially modifying, the effects of the principal agent.
Thus, in order to find the nature of the action of a galvanic current upon a magnetized needle, we may adopt either of these methods. For instance, we may neutralize the disturbing effects of the earth's magnetism on the needle by properly placing a magnetized bar in its neighbourhood. This is an instance of the first method.
Or we may, by increasing the strength of the current, or by coiling the wire many times about the needle (as will be explained when we describe the galvanometer), multiply the effects of the current so that those of the earth's magnetism may be negligible in comparison.
326. In some cases, however, the latter mode of procedure is utterly deceptive—as, for instance, in the use of multiplying condensers for the detection of very small electro-motive forces. In this case the friction between the parts of the condenser often produces more electricity than that which is to be measured, so that the true results cannot be deduced: a feeble positive charge, for instance, may be trebled, neutralized, or even changed to a negative one, by variations of manipulation so delicate as to be undiscoverable, and therefore unavoidable. 327. We thus see that it is uncertain which of these methods may
be preferable in any particular case; and indeed, in discovery, he is the most likely to succeed who, not allowing himself to be disheartened by the non-success of one form of experiment, carefully varies his methods, and thus interrogates in every conceivable manner the subject of his investigations.
328. A most important remark, due to Herschel, regards what are called residual phenomena. When, in an experiment, all known causes being allowed for, there remain certain unexplained effects (excessively slight it may be), these must be carefully investigated, and every conceivable variation of arrangement of apparatus, etc., tried; until, if possible, we manage so to exaggerate the residual phenomenon as to be able to detect its cause. It is here, perhaps, that in the present state of science we may most reasonably look for extensions of our knowledge; at all events we are warranted by the recent history of Natural Philosophy in so doing. Thus, to take only a very few instances, and to say nothing of the discovery of electricity and magnetism by the ancients, the peculiar smell observed in a room in which an electrical machine is kept in action, was long ago observed, but called the 'smell of electricity,' and thus left unexplained. The sagacity of Schönbein led to the discovery that this is due to the formation of Ozone, a most extraordinary body, of enormous chemical energies; whose nature is still uncertain, though the attention of chemists has for years been directed to it.
329. Slight anomalies in the motion of Uranus led Adams and Le Verrier to the discovery of a new planet; and the fact that a magnetized needle comes to rest sooner when vibrating above a copper plate than when the latter is removed, led Arago to what was once called magnetism of rotation, but has since been explained, immensely extended, and applied to most important purposes. In fact, this accidental remark about the oscillation of a needle led to facts from which, in Faraday's hands, was evolved the grand discovery of the Induction of Electrical Currents by magnets or by other currents. We need not enlarge upon this point, as in the following pages the proofs of the truth and usefulness of the principle will continually recur. Our object has been not so much to give applications as methods, and to show, if possible, how to attack a new combination, with the view of separating and studying in detail the various causes which generally conspire to produce observed phenomena, even those which are apparently the simplest.
330. If, on repetition several times, an experiment continually gives different results, it must either have been very carelessly performed, or there must be some disturbing cause not taken account of. And, on the other hand, in cases where no very great coincidence is likely on repeated trials, an unexpected degree of agreement between the results of various trials should be regarded with the utmost suspicion, as probably due to some unnoticed peculiarity of the apparatus employed. In either of these cases, however, careful observation cannot fail to detect the cause of the discrepancies or of the unexpected agreement, and may possibly lead to discoveries in a totally unthought-of quarter. Instances of this kind may be given without limit; one or two must suffice.
331. Thus, with a very good achromatic telescope a star appears to have a sensible disc. But, as it is observed that the discs of all stars appear to be of equal angular diameter, we of course suspect some common error. Limiting the aperture of the object-glass increases the appearance in question, which, on full investigation, is found to have nothing to do with discs at all. It is, in fact, a diffraction phenomenon, and will be explained in our chapters on Light.
Again, in measuring the velocity of Sound by experiments conducted at night with cannon, the results at one station were never found to agree exactly with those at the other; sometimes, indeed,
the differences were very considerable. But a little consideration led to the remark, that on those nights in which the discordance was greatest a strong wind was blowing nearly from one station to the other. Allowing for the obvious effect of this, or rather eliminating it altogether, the mean velocities on different evenings were found to agree very closely.
332. It may perhaps be advisable to say a few words here about the use of hypotheses, and especially those of very different gradations of value which are promulgated in the form of Mathematical Theories of different branches of Natural Philosophy.
333. Where, as in the case of the planetary motions and disturbances, the forces concerned are thoroughly known, the mathematical theory is absolutely true, and requires only analysis to work out its remotest details. It is thus, in general, far ahead of observation, and is competent to predict effects not yet even observed—as, for instance, Lunar Inequalities due to the action of Venus upon the Earth, etc. etc., to which no amount of observation, unaided by theory, would ever have enabled us to assign the true cause. It may also, in such subjects as Geometrical Optics, be carried to developments far beyond the reach of experiment; but in this science the assumed bases of the theory are only approximate, and it fails to explain in all their peculiarities even such comparatively simple phenomena as Halos and Rainbows; though it is perfectly successful for the practical purposes of the maker of microscopes and telescopes, and has, in these cases, carried the construction of instruments to a degree of perfection which merely tentative processes never could have reached.
334. Another class of mathematical theories, based to a certain extent on experiment, is at present useful, and has even in certain cases pointed to new and important results, which experiment has subsequently verified. Such are the Dynamical Theory of Heat, the Undulatory Theory of Light, etc. etc. In the former, which is based upon the experimental fact that heat is motion, many formulae are at present obscure and uninterpretable, because we do not know what is moving or how it moves. Results of the theory in which these are not involved, are of course experimentally verified. The same difficulties exist in the Theory of Light. But before this obscurity can be perfectly cleared up, we must know something of the ultimate, or molecular, constitution of the bodies, or groups of molecules, at present known to us only in the aggregate.
335. A third class is well represented by the Mathematical Theories of Heat (Conduction), Electricity (Statical), and Magnetism (Permanent). Although we do not know how Heat is propagated in bodies, nor 'what Statical Electricity or Permanent Magnetism are, the laws of their forces are as certainly known as that of Gravitation, and can therefore like it be developed to their consequences, by the application of Mathematical Analysis. The works of Fourier",
1 Théorie Analytique de la Chaleur. Paris, 1822.