Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealanders and Science

12 — Gifford

page 125


In 1851 a young clergyman of the Church of England took over the cure of souls in the vast but ill-paid parish of Labrador. He and his wife laboured through the long ice-bound winters and brief summers in the country round and about the Straits of Belle-Isle. Their first child, a daughter, was born there, and with them braved the dangers of the ice-sled and the kayak in their parochial visitings. However, after ten years the gentleman pardonably hungered for the comforts of civilisation, and in 1861 the family set sail via England for the amenities of their new parish, Waitaki. So on Good Friday 1861 on the ship Zealandia, somewhere off the Cape of Good Hope, Algernon Charles Gifford was born. He spent his early years in Oamaru and received his primary education at the Grammar School there. His earliest memories centre round a father, who craved for sunshine, and an old grey horse, on which the father patrolled his large parish.

In 1876 the boy was sent to England to get the page 126benefit of an English education. The first four years be spent at a church school, Denston in Staffordshire, whence he gained a sizarship to St John's College, Cambridge, and there specialised in mathematics, more particularly astronomical mathematics. To this day he does not know whether there were any professors of mathematics at Cambridge. The only tuition he received took the form of a bi-weekly attendance for less than an hour each time at the rooms of his tutor, W. H. Besant, a man who had written text-books, particularly in hydrostatics and mechanics. The audience comprised six men more or less interested in mathematics, one of them being Matthews, already an m.a., who became Senior Wrangler in Gifford's year, and the other five virtually beginners. The tuition consisted in the polite enquiry from the tutor as to whether any difficulties had been encountered in the interim. The consequent queries from the five were absurdly easy to Besant and Matthews, and those from Matthews were as Greek to the five. The rest of the time Gifford read in his rooms. His only relaxation was a weekly game of football, and to his vast astonishment he was awarded his college colours in that sport. Amazement succeeded astonishment in Gifford when he graduated Fourteenth Wrangler in 1880 and won the Herschel Prize for astronomical mathematics. I must, however, warn you that this trite commentary on the advantages of an English education was given me by page 127Gifford himself and that 'Gifford of Wellington' (to give him the title he is accorded in scientific publications and circles) is much of an iconoclast.

In 1883 Waitaki High School was founded, and Gifford became the mathematical master. He was there for six years until in 1889 he was tempted to Christ's College, Christchurch, where he taught for three years. Christ's College had never been prominent in mathematics, until J. K. H. Inglis (now professor of chemistry at Otago) and A. E. Flower raised its status in that subject during Gifford's time there. His period of office, however, terminated in 1892. These years in Christchurch were to prove momentous, since it was there, in 1889, that Gifford came in contact with Bickerton and found his life work in the rationalisation and proof of the theory of partial impact. In 1895, not long after Firth's transfer from Christ's College to the headmastership of Wellington College, Gifford became mathematical master at Wellington, and the long and happy associations of thirty-two years began.

The science of astronomy had its beginnings in the observation of the stars and the charting of their movements. A 'desire to see things as they are and to see them whole' can of course manifest itself in such observations. Such a desire to see things whole is, however, only a beginning. The science of astronomy finds its legitimate heights in the desire to give a rational explanation of the origin, evolution, and page 128future of the visible universe. The complete solution is of course too vast and too ambitious for human enterprise to cope with, but steps in the formation and progress should be within the scope of our finding. The astronomer's job is to make intelligent guesses at the problem and to check the validity of these guesses by mathematical and mechanical considerations.

Certain progress has been made. The Chaldeans, the Egyptians, and the Greeks knew the proper movements of most of the constellations, while Aristarchus determined the relative movements of the solar system. The invention and development of the telescope increased the scope and reliability of such observations, and a chart of the galaxy is not now difficult to construct. Newton, Leibniz, and Laplace gave us the law of gravitation and the processes of the calculi, and these enabled us to define completely the motion of the planets and to learn something of the motion of the stars in general. The spectroscope taught us a great deal concerning the elements of which the stars are composed and gave us valuable information in many cases concerning their temperatures and velocities. The mass and volume of the stars can also be ascertained in many cases. This is the framework on which astronomers must build their theories of the universe.

One of the most striking features of the visible universe is the fact that the mass of stars and nebulae page 129of which it is composed lie almost in one plane, and the same applies to the sun and planets of our solar system. Any theory of the universe must therefore agree with this fact, since the regularity is so marked as to He well beyond the range of chance.

Laplace was the first authority to attempt any solution of the problem, but this theory of the aggregation of rotating nebulae into planets is too diffuse and formless for modem consumption. The Americans, Chamberlin and Moulton, in the early years of this century found the nebular hypothesis untenable. They claimed that the sun, long ago, if not now, was in an eruptive state and constantly ejected huge masses which normally fell back into the parent body. As briefly explained by Gifford in Scientia, September 1932: 'The planets have arisen from dynamic encounter of our sun and another star. This star, passing at a distance, stimulated the sun to eject to great distances portions of its mass, each bolt, as it was thrown off, separating into nuclei and scattered fragments. The passing star then drew these into orbits, until the whole of the scattered material had a concurrent orbital organisation.'

Jeans and Jeffreys upheld what is known as the tidal theory. Jeans believes that the solar system was formed by the slow passing of a huge star within about the sun's diameter of its surface, the sun being then dark and cold and of extremely low density. The gravitational influence of this visitor raised enormous tides page 130and quakings on the primeval sun, and huge masses were torn from its surface. This relieved the pressure below, and a stream of gaseous matter shot out from the sun. This filament condensed into colossal drops and so formed the planets. Jeffreys agrees with Jeans in part, but he shows that the conditions of a slow encounter cannot be realised, and that a transitional one is incapable of producing a solar system. Jeffreys now considers that attention should be paid to the older theory of an actual collision.

None of these theories can satisfactorily account for all the known phenomena in the solar system. Bickerton, however, offered a plausible explanation, so plausible indeed that modern theorists often do not know that their hypotheses were in some sort anticipated by him. Puzzled by the sudden appearance of a nova in the Swan in 1876, he endeavoured to account for this new star which flared to extraordinary brilliance in a few days and faded away almost as quickly. This led him to develop a new theory of the universe.

It was on 4 July 1878, a date that must become historical in the world of science, that Bickerton read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury his paper 'On Temporary and Variable Stars' in which the main facts of the theory of partial impact were first announced. This was followed by seven other papers before the end of 1880, and in these were revealed all the brilliant guesses that it has been the life work of page 131Gifford to systematise and prove. The salient points of this theory are roughly as follows:

1.Collisions between stellar bodies are probable from their motion alone.
2.This probability is greatly increased when their motions are varied by their mutual gravitational attraction.
3.Virtually every collision of this kind between bodies whose masses are not greatly dissimilar must take the form of a glancing blow.
4.In such cases of partial impact a portion is sheared off each of the impacting masses to form a third body.
5.This third body is immediately raised to an enormous temperature by the work done in the collision.
6.Such partial impacts with the formation of a third body tend to favour the collection of all stellar bodies into one plane.
7.This theory of partial impact agrees with all the observed astronomical facts attending the birth of novae and explains the origin of temporary, variable, and double stars. As elaborated by modern theorists, it forms the basis of an explanation of the origin of all planetary systems including the solar system.
8.This theory, with the alternate conversions of heat and kinetic energy and the alternate aggregation and breaking up of huge bodies, is the only one that pictures a universe with rhythmic recurring cycles of like conditions. The forbidding spectacle of a dead page 132universe, consisting of a uniform mass of cold and stationary particles, that is so repugnant to the scientific mind, has no place in the implications of the theory of partial impact.

This is a summary of the theory put forward in the rambling, discursive and self-repeating papers and books of Professor Bickerton. The Romance of the Earth (1900), The Romance of the Heavens (1901), The Birth of Worlds and Systems (1911) were among his publications, the last two dealing with his favourite topic. Anyone conversant with the science of mechanics will see that a tremendous amount of mathematical investigation is necessary before any of his statements can be accepted as proved. It was here that Bickerton failed, for he was a poor mathematician with little faculty for exact arithmetic. His mistakes in the simplest problems of addition or subtraction were the standing joke of the back row in his classes. The professor, however, had an extraordinary faculty for a mental graphic arithmetic of his own. After looking at a long collection of complicated figures on the board, Bickerton would close his eyes for a few seconds and then dreamily announce that the final answer was about 430,000. No one in the class could tell offhand whether the answer would be closer to 0 or 40,000,000, but excited calculators would soon whisper some such figure as 437,618 round the amazed audience. This faculty was inadequate however to win for the theory of partial impact acceptance page 133in a cold world of science. Gifford, with his flair for astronomical mathematics and his enormous industry and patience, was the man for this work.

For fifty years he has devoted all the time he could spare from his teaching and his family life to solitary thought and calculation. He has endeavoured to develop and prove points put forward by Bickerton, and to put the latter's theories into mathematical form. From Bickerton's speculations on whirling coalescence, the possibilities of which he himself did not appear to realise, Gifford has derived a theory of the origin of the solar system. Stars are only bright suns for so many million years after an encounter. Gifford explains the origin of the solar system by the almost complete collision of two suns, one of which is denser than the other. 'During the encounter,' says Gifford in Scientia, January 1938, 'the stars endeavour to change places, with the result that the greater part of both is whirled into a single mass, the axis of which is at rest, whilst the speed of rotation of the remainder increases outwards. The outer tides, and all the matter not involved in the clash, pass on, leaving the scene of the encounter in orbits of rather high eccentricity which all lie close to the plane of mutual approach. . . . Large masses with comparatively high speeds are flung from the lighter star, denser and smaller ones with lower speeds leave the heavier one. All, as they roll along the surface before breaking away acquire a new rotation which is combined with page 134any that each mass previously possessed. The central mass, heated to a high temperature by the collision, is soon surrounded by a vast whirling atmosphere, through which the nuclei of the future planets, and all the other fragments, have to plough their way. . . . Collisions, especially numerous at first, must occur between masses on the outward journey and others then returning. Each collision reduces the radial motion without affecting that at right angles to it. The eccentricity of the orbits is thus reduced. The nebulous atmosphere around the newly-formed sun also plays its part, especially near perihelion.' The swirl tends to throw the fragments into one plane, but the original rotations of the two suns before collision upset this slightly so that the planets do not move in quite the same plane.

To Gifford encounter is the life principle of the universe. It explains why all the stars we know appear to rotate. Gifford cannot accept the forlorn view of Jeans, who says, 'We believe that the Universe is not a permanent structure. It is living its life, and travelling the road from birth to death just as we are. For science knows no change except the change of growing older, and no progress except progress to the grave.' Like Bickerton, Gifford believes in the immortality of the stars. 'The more the heavens are studied,' he says, 'the more clearly does it appear that stars are revivified by stellar encounters, and that even such vast systems as the spiral nebulae are reformed and page 135given new life by colliding with one another.' He concludes his article on The Immortality of the Universe thus: 'Viewed in this way we see in Nature no imperfection and no seed of decay. The present appears no longer as a passing stage in a slow march towards death, but as a glorious scene in the cycle of the eternal heavens.'

Gifford's latest publication in the Journal of Science and Technology is an attack on the tidal theory. He shows that suns like our own, approaching each other, would draw no tidal forces until they were very close together. Under the most favourable circumstances, there would be no more than eighteen minutes in which the tidal forces could work, and this would be insufficient to set in motion a solar system. Although Jeans still holds to the tidal theory, Jeffreys is now adopting that of grazing impact.

Another theory of which Gifford is an outstanding exponent, is the meteoric theory of the origins of the surface features of the moon. The earth and moon, he considers, were separated from the sun at almost the same time. The earth however was still molten when both earth and moon were bombarded by meteorites. These meteorites therefore left no permanent imprint on the earth, but exploded violently on the cooler crust of the moon, raising the ringed crater formations which cover its surface. Gifford does not accept the more orthodox volcanic explanation of the moon's craters.

page 136

Gifford has published in many papers, including such New Zealand publications as the Hector Observatory hector Bulletins, the New Zealand Astronomical Society Bulletins, the Journal of Science and Technology, besides the international Scientia and the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has read innumerable papers and delivered countless lectures, including the lecture for the Donovan Trustees of Australia, in 1934. Gifford invariably supports his theories by involved mathematical data, and every calculation is expressed graphically and numerically. He corresponds with the leading astronomers of the English-speaking world. He would consider his life fulfilled if he could gain general credence for the remarkable guesses made by Bickerton in this little country sixty years ago.

In his own field of stellar physics Gifford is the most alert and searching mind of the day, and that field is the highest branch of science. Some may enquire into the collisions of the electrons and the atoms, others into the occurrence of wild hybrids in our forests, still others into the ceaseless sculpture of the apparently eternal mountains by ice, wind, and rain; but surely it can be affirmed that the investigation of 'The Genesis of Worlds and Systems' (to quote the title of Bickerton's address in 1879) offers, in the words of Tyndall, 'a field for the noblest exercise of what, in contrast with the knowing faculties, may be called the creative faculties of man'.

page break