Cornhill Magazine,  6 (1862), 537–51.

Our Survey of Literature and Science

[George Hooper], [John F W Herschel] and [George H Lewes]


Regular Feature, Review-Essay


Gas Chemistry, Botany, Progress, Error, Anaesthesia, Physiology, Physiological Chemistry, Astronomy, Instruments, Photography, Measurement, Extra-Terrestrial Life, Mathematics, Geology

Publications cited:

Savory 1862 , Herschel 1858

    Reports that 'our most charming and plausible generalizations', such as the 'universally-admitted theory of a regular balance between the processes of animal and vegetable life', are continually being proved by the 'progress of science' to be 'at fault'. Experiments performed by the 'eminent chemist' Jean B J D Boussingault have shown the 'error' of Nicolas T de Saussure's observation that after decomposing the carbonic acid that they received from the air 'plants in sunlight [...] gave out the oxygen; thus purifying the atmosphere, and rendering it breathable by animals'. After repeating 'Saussure's investigations on the more accurate methods of our day', Bousingault found that, as well as oxygen, an oxide of carbon is also 'exhaled like so much indigestible food'. (545) This experimental 'discovery', moreover, 'perfectly [...] tallies with familiar experience. Every one knows the oppressive and even dangerous influence of plants in a closed room—especially the bed-room'. Carbonic acid itself, the presence of which in the animal body will 'lower, and finally suspend, the vital activity', may 'be reckoned among the anæsthetic agents', and 'not only is it to be ranked beside ether and chloroform in potency, but above them in utility, since it is the most harmless of all anæsthetics'. (546) Notes that after 'having for many years enjoyed an almost uncontested approval from physiologists and chemists [...] Liebig's theory of food is now becoming less and less accepted among real investigators; that is to say, among men who, loyal to fact, are able to resist the seduction of a facile formula which seems to explain the mystery, but really leaves it untouched'. This 'brilliant but delusive generalization', which holds that animals require nitrogenous food 'to build up the fabric' and non-nitrogenous food to 'keep up the temperature of their bodies', has been refuted by a 'long array of facts and arguments' (547), to which William S Savory has recently added. In fact, 'Liebig's theory was not founded on any precise investigations, but was simply a deduction from certain chemical premises, supported by random facts drawn from the reports of travellers [...] and such like sources', and, as such, it cannot stand up to any 'rigorous scrutiny'. The 'beautiful' stereoscopic plates of the moon produced by Warren De La Rue have revealed an 'apparent anomaly of figure' which suggests that the shape of the moon's 'surface [...] is not that of a perfect sphere, alike throughout'. (548) The stereoscopes have been subjected to 'careful and rigorous microscopic measurement', and they seem to support Peter A Hansen's observation of 'an elongation of the lunar axis in the direction of the earth', which 'would fully account for the total absence both of air and of water on the side of the moon turned towards us, and would be quite compatible with the abundant existence of both, and of a habitable hemisphere on the other side' (548–49). Comments that the 'mathematical theory of the subject [...] is very simple [...] and one of no small interest', but adds in parentheses '(though for obvious reasons we cannot here enter into it)'. Gives a brief account of the work of 'Russian geodesists' who have 'established the existence of a local deviation to the extraordinary amount of nineteen seconds within a very short distance' of Moscow that cannot be explained by the existence of anything 'deserving the name of a mountain in the neighbourhood'. Notes the remarkable appearance of 'a third comet within four years', although the 'present visitor', while 'a fine and conspicuous object', cannot compete with 'its great predecessors of 1858 and 1861'. (550)

© Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Project, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, 2005 - 2020

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