Cornhill Magazine,  7 (1863), 542–45.

Notes on Science

[George H Lewes]


Regular Feature, Review-Essay


Alchemy, Physiological Chemistry, Philosophy, Vitalism, Physics, Heat, Ether, Lecturing, Astronomy, Light, Measurement, Prognostication, Hydrography

    After detailing the paradoxical 'dream of the alchemists [...] to discover an universal solvent, or alcahest', which, as Johann von L Kunckel pointed out, would 'dissolve all vessels' in which it was contained, Lewes venerates the powers of 'Nature, the supersubtle alchemist', who 'contrives [...] to effect this paradox, by giving the stomach an alcahest for all animal tissues, which is nevertheless contained in a vessel formed of animal tissues. The gastric juice is a solvent to tissues in the stomach, but it is not turned against the stomach itself'. Several diverse hypotheses have been put forward to explain this apparent paradox. Indeed, a 'numerous class of physiologists, who, from their philosophic method, may be called metaphysiologists', finding that gastric fluids sometimes attacked the stomachs of dead bodies but not those of the living, 'at once jumped to the conclusion that the mystery was referable to the Vital Principle, which was said to have the "power of controlling chemical agency"'. Being a 'profound mystery, amenable to no known test', the concept of 'the Vital Principle has the common advantage of the unknown', but 'unfortunately for the metaphysiologists, this controlling power over chemical agency is one of the few things which cannot be predicated in the present case', as can be seen clearly in the fact that the 'Vital Principle does not prevent acids from burning the skin'. (542). An explanation which has more 'to commend it to the attention of investigators' has recently been propounded at the Royal Society by Frederick W Pavy. He avers that the 'essential condition of the digestive action is a sufficient acidity; but the lining membranes of the living stomach are so abundantly supplied with currents of blood, which is alkaline, that they are protected against the digestive action of the gastric juice'. Lewes, however, cautions as to whether 'due allowance has been made for the fact of the presence of food in the stomach whenever the gastric juice is present', and calls for further observations of the effect of 'an abundant secretion in an empty stomach'. Notes that 'our brilliant physicist, Professor Tyndall' has 'made some curious revelations of the invisible' while lecturing 'on Radiant Heat, at the Royal Institution'. (543) Tyndall's bold assertions concerning the 'invisible vapour—that is, the watery atoms floating in the air' which 'oppose barriers to the waves of ether' will 'open the eyes of astonishment, but they rest on vigorous evidence'. As Tyndall's lecture shows, the 'vapour of our moist atmosphere is a blanket, not less necessary for the fruitful earth than clothing is for the earth's proudest inhabitant'. After reflecting on how Jean B L Foucault's 'important discovery that the velocity of Light is less than was supposed [...] must alter almost all astronomical calculations', Lewes asks, 'Is it not piquant to reflect that by the property of an imponderable, the weight of a mighty planet may be determined?'. (544) Likewise, it is 'one of the triumphs of science to foresee—not simply to see unborn consequences, but to assert the vision of invisible existences. Bessel is the creator of the astronomy of the invisible; and the creation promises to be fruitful'. After all, Bessel's calculation of the existence of 'a large mass of invisible matter, probably a planet' that interferes with the proper motion of the star Sirius, at which 'Even Humboldt jested', has since been proven correct by the observations of Christian A F Peters and Alvan G Clark, and such 'remarkable confirmation of abstract prevision naturally excited great rejoicing'. (545)

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