Reply to Critics
"A New Story of the Stars"
Christchurch: H. A. Cooper, "Bijou" Printing Office, 212, Colombo St.1895
Reply to Critics.
I wish to express to the numerous editors of Europe, America, and Australasia who have reviewed the pamphlet, "A new Story of the Stars," my sincere thanks for the entirely favourable and often lengthy notice they have given to the theory of "Partial Impact." There are but two reviewers that even suggest any amendment to it. One of these stands in remarkably good company. He finds exactly the same difficulty that the eminent astronomer, Proctor, did when I explained the theory to him. The other critic makes an objection that is exactly the opposite. The Launceston Examiner in a review of over a column has the following: "All this seems probable enough, but there is one point on which further explanation would be welcome. If two heavenly bodies approach each other so closely as to graze and shear off a portion from the surface of each, it seems incredible that they should separate and continue in opposite directions. Would not gravitation, which deflected their orbits sufficiently to produce collision, inevitably lead to a complete commingling of their respective masses? Perhaps this objection, page 4 if it may be called such, will be set at rest in subsequent treatises. With great force Professor Bickerton says:—'A scientific theory that has been able to explain, to correlate, and classify a vast number of facts is considered to be demonstrated when it foretells unknown phenomena of great complexity and unexpected character,' The theory of impact has done this in a large number of cases besides that of Nova Aurigae. Here we must leave a question that is full of interest in the hope that Professor Bickerton's latest appeal to other astronomers to study and test his theory will be accepted, and lead to the widening of our knowledge of the visible universe."
The objection, that if cosmic bodies grazed they could not escape coalescence was exactly the one offered by Proctor. After a long argument he admitted that the enormous velocity acquired by years of attraction could not be destroyed by a slight graze. But of course when the graze is very large the attraction would cause a whirling coalescence. But even when Proctor saw that a partial impact would not stop the stars he told me that he could accept my theory. He said "When we consider the incredible distance between the stars, the chance of impact would be toe small to be worth considering. But Proctor did not know the greatness of the number of the stars. Photography has shown us that the number is ten times as great as he supposed. And Sir Robert Ball believes page 5 the number of dead suns to far outnumber those that emit light. Again Proctor did not think of the enormous increase of probability of impact due to the mutual attraction of the stars. Probably no astronomer is now living who would think the stars so few and far between that they would never impact. This theory suggests that each star may impact once in about one hundred million years.
The Melbourne Liberator, in one of a series of articles devoted to this theory, has the following objection:—The editor says, "I am of opinion that neither body is affected in the slightest degree by the collision, except that each has a slice taken from it by the other." This would be true were shearing the only retarding force. In the New Zealand Transactions of the Philosophical Institute for 1880, page 160, I show that the available energy is at least one hundred millions of million times greater than that required to shear the bodies, were both as hard as iron. The chief cause of both the heating and the rotation is the entanglement of material from the other body. In cut 4 of the diagram, printed in 1879, and accompanying this pamphlet, this entanglement is shown. There is consequently retardation and heating along the line of section. In the middle body there is unbalanced momentum, causing it to spin.
I have to thank Mr. Symes for the very careful study which the detection of page 6 this principle shews he has given to the subject.
I was agreeably surprised to find how clearly the "Thought Value" of a scientific theory is apprehended by journalists. In a singularly lucid article, entitled "A Master Key to the Cosmos," the South Canterbury Times says:—"Thought requires a foundation of knowledge. . . . But the value of such facts is soon exhausted. A master-key to the mystery of the greatness, the splendour, the multitudinousness, and the variety of the heavens is wanted, to open a way for fertile consideration. The desideratum appears to have been supplied by the theory of 'Partial Impact.'"
It expresses its astonishment that the scientific world should have neglected so prolific a thought. "Why, we cannot conceive any more than Mr. Bickerton himself can." After giving a very able summary of the arguments in favour of the theory, it says:—"Their unwillingness to listen is as extraordinary a phenomenon in its way as any of those the Professor has sought to explain.
The Bradford Daily Argus says "Shall we have to recast our notions as to the scheme of the universe? It almost seems so. Hitherto it has been as accepted belief that planets and suns and systems are all hastening to one endless death, and the blackness of everlasting night But from a transplanted Briton in New page 7 Zealand—Professor Bickerton, of Canterbury College, Christchurch, comes a newer and more hopeful faith. He has evolved a theory of 'Constructive Impact' which, whilst it offers a plausible explanation of the astronomical problems presented by variable stars, and the new stars which flare into startling brilliance for a few brief astronomical hours, to subside again into obscurity or disappear entirely, also provides for an endless cycle of birth, maturity and death on the part of stars; akin to that which we see around us in organic life."
After an able discussion of the theory, the article concludes: "There are other directions in which Professor Bickerton's theory fits into ascertained phenomena, but we have said sufficient to indicate its ingenuity and plausibility. The matter is certainly one which deserves the close attention of astronomers, and it is interesting to the general public as another illustration of the truth underlying the old proverb, that there is nothing new under the sun. Even the sun and the stars may not be new for aught we know, but may have gone through endless cycles, beginning with the nebular condition as chaotic masses of heated gas, and passing through all phases until the condition of passive death—as shewn by our moon—is reached, to be again revivified, reduced to the nebular condition again by other stars ¡with which they have collided.page 8
"There is nothing inherently improbable in the theory, and no substantial reason why the same birth, growth and death of planets should not go on for all eternity But how immeasurable does the apparent length of eternity extend when æons represented by the birth and life and death and rebirth of solar systems are the ticking of its pendulum?"
The Evening News, Detroit, at the end of an article of over a column, says:-"To persons of common education the theory is satisfactory. If it is not safe factory to the astronomers, they ought to tell us, the world, why not. The subject is too far-reaching and too fascinating to be permitted to become the plaything of [unclear: me] fancy and the laity have begun to embrace it."
Many of the writers in the smaller papers say that they have not the training to scientifically criticise the theory. But if precision of statement and accuracy of thought are any test of a scientific habit of mind, most of the writers are better prepared than many specialists ar[unclear: e] criticise the induction, for it is essentially generic. It carries us beyond the ides of visible matter at one end of the scale; and it travels further than science has generally gone, as to the nature of the movement[unclear: s] the molecules of gases. Not tha[unclear: t] suggests any new force or any new property of matter. It simply takes us a [unclear: fsteps] further on in the same directi[unclear: on] page 9 the well trodden roads of science lead us. Nor is the new path difficult. It is only remarkable in the richness and wonder of the view it opens out to our understanding; neither is it a great achievement to have travelled these few paces. If I have found what a critic has called, "The master-key of the cosmos," it lay very plain before me, for, as another critic says, "The theory is beautiful in its simplicity." Again, with regard to the capacity to judge, the critics themselves admit that in respect of a new theory a generally well educated man is more likely to be free from prejudice than a specialist. This is more markedly the case when the subject considered is one of cosmic importance.
But if the smaller papers have no writer of scientific training on their staff, surely such cannot be the case with papers like the Birmingham Daily Gazette, the Bradford Argus, the Albany Argus, N.Y., the Detroit Evening News, or the Philadelphia Record, with its daily circulation of over 150,000, the second largest in the United States. The scientific writer of this last paper, in a letter thanking me for the pamphlet, tells me he hopes to devote other articles to the subject, and many of the other papers ask me for further notes.
I do not know of a criticism in any scientific journal. The Scientific American, Nature, The English Mechanic and page 10 other such journals, have published letter and articles on the subject that have been sent to them, but I know of no scientific sent publication that has debated the subject.
If "silence gives consent," the scientific world has accepted the theory of [unclear: Parti] Impact, although it has neglected to use it in its investigations.
Many thousands of papers have been sent to all the chief scientific men, scientific societies and journals of the world; fully half a million columns of newspaper articles and criticisms have been printed and circulated. Many of these criticisms boldly state that the subject must be debated. As the Birmingham Gazette puts it, at the end of a long leader on the subject "No middle course is possible in this matter. The fallacy of his reasoning must be exposed, or his conclusions must be accepted."
The Rochester Democrat, N.Y. advises me to be patient, but not too patient "Too great patience," it says, "caused the young mathematician, Adams, to rest content when the astronomer royal contemptuously pigeon-holed his elaborate mathematical calculations showing that a phones existed outside the orbit of Uranus. The French computer, Leverrier, made similer calculations and got the credit for the discovery of the planet, Neptune. After the discovery, the calculations by Adams were recalled, and the scientific men of England have been trying ever since to page 11 shew that the neglected paper entitled him to credit as a discoverer." The case of Adams, quoted by the Democrat, does not stand alone. The whole history of science is full of the stolid indifference of the learned to even great generalisations.
In a criticism on this theory of impact, the editor of the Otago Times says:—"The scorn of various kinds of professors has been the reward of teachers and prophets from Socrates down to Galileo."
In connection with this stolid indifference, the editor of the Tribune, in quoting an interesting letter of Galileo's, says:—"Most originators of new theories have had to contend against similar apathy. . . . Great geometricians and chemists, such as Gilbert and Bacon; astronomers like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Tycho Brahe; philosophers of such calibre as Kant and Descartes, have all known what it was either to be openly and cruelly persecuted, or, still worse, quietly and systematically ignored. It seems as though the astronomical world to-day were as unwilling to look into the theory of Partial Impact as were the philosophers and professors at the time of Galileo to take even a look through his telescope. It was this almost brutal indifference which drew from the grand old investigator, when writing to Kepler, the following enthusiastic vet sarcastic expressions:—'Oh, my dear Kelper, how I wish we could have one page 12 hearty laugh together! Here at Padua is the principal professor of philosophy whom I have repeatedly and urgently requested to look at the moon and planets through my glass, which he persistently refuses to do. Why are you not here? What shouts of laughter we should have at this glorious folly! And to hear the professors of philosophy at Pisa labouring before the grand duke with logical arguments as if with magical incantations to charm the new planets out of the sky.'"
Many writers call attention to the similarity of ideas in recent scientific, articles to those propounded so many years ago in my papers.
Thus the London correspondent of the Press writes:—"A very able and interesting paper on Professor Bickerton's (of Christchurch) "New Theory of the Cosmos" has appeared in that popular science magazine "The English Mechanic and World of Science," It has been read with a good deal of interest, and has brought the remarkable "Partial Impact" or "Tangential Impact" theory of Professor Bickerton prominently before the English scientific world. . . . One good result achieved is that the date of Professor Bickerton's conception is now placed on English record, so that the borrowed (not to say plagiaristic) character of any recent promulgations of the idea becomes plainly manifest."
The identity of the ideas is beyond page 13 question; yet I am quite unwilling to think there is conscious plagiarism. In fact, my experience of scientific workers compels me to believe that there is neither the conscious plagiarism nor the "conspiracy of silence," suggested by my critics. A journal tells us, "We have ourselves heard learned professors of mathematics and physics laugh consumedly over this theory, of which they offer no criticism; but what is left for the envious to do but laugh when they can 'detect no flaw in the reasoning.'"
Still I am bound to say it is probable these professors do honestly believe the matter is one to be laughed at. The name "Partial Impact," although it expresses exactly what I wanted to emphasize, yet apparently when first heard has a comic sound. It seems to suggest, as a high official said, that "Cosmic Philosophy" needed the "s" left out in the first word. In fact, even some of my friends think the title unfortunate; yet fifteen years has not brought me a more expressive one.
The critic of the Press, in an article so flattering that I dare not reprint it, says, that "for a long time, with Gilbert I could only say, 'It sounds very funny but I don't know what it means.'" So that, although professors may have "laughed consumedly," yet I believe they honestly thought there was Something to laugh at.
It is easy to picture one of them taking up a paper on impact and saying to page 14 a friend: "Poor fellow! I'll just glance through it to show him the fallacy, you know." Then one can imagine him reading one after another of its clear and explicit statements, and, as he sought for the fallacy, his thoughts, like a string puzzle taken the wrong way, would become more and more entangled. Then he would feel worried, and say: "I wonder where the fallacy is. Of course it's somewhere, but still I can't see it just now. I'll loot at it a little more carefully another time."
But the time never comes. Then it happens that Partial Impact is talked about in his presence and, as the critic says, "What is left for him to do but to laugh?" Therefore I believe the editor has erred in stating that it is—"Clearly a conspiracy of silence."
Still it is mischievous. I can undoubtedly trace the loss of good opportunities of launching the theory to such silence and laughter. Of the other charges of plagiarism in the recent scientific articles, in all that I have seen the identity is clearly unconscious. The ideas pointed out are undoubtedly contained in the papers on Impact, but so simple are its fundamental scientific principles that the only wonder is that the ideas have not been worked out years ago. Then, again, even should the writers have got the thoughts from papers I have sent them, the germs of ideas often lie so long without growing into tangible theories that when they do so the writer page 15 does not know whence they come. However, it is very encouraging to see how close the thinkers of Europe and America are to the scientific Eldorado, and the many nuggets of thought they have already found must quickly direct them to the prolific bed-rock of the fundamental ideas of Partial Impact.
It is curious to see how many eminent men have touched these ideas without realizing their richness. Sir Robert Ball can scarcely escape the discovery much longer. He already sees that the doctrine of probability proves the vastness of the number of dead suns; he sees that the near approach of such dead suns must have produced, by either grazing impact or tidal action, the amazing phenomena of Nova Aurigæ; he sees in that the piece of my theory that I have called "Selective Escape," and that Dr. G. Johnstone Stoney has struck upon "A most recent and most remarkable idea." This idea is that molecules may have velocity enough to escape a cosmic body altogether, and that the less the mass of the body, the higher the temperature, and the lighter the molecules are, the more likely they are to get away, Thus Sir Robert Ball has all the primary facts of the induction at his finger ends, he has only to coalesce them and the marvellous series of phenomena that Partial Impact reveals will unfold itself before his mind.
Many workers perceive some of the page 16 truths. Miss Agnes Clerke, Professor Flammarian, Sir John Lubbock, Professor Pickering and others have touched the theory in some of its parts, and they are delighted with the beauty of the fragment they have seen; but none seem to have the grasp that Sir Robert Ball has over its many principles. It would not surprise me to find, even at this moment, when I am penning these lines, that the idea has dawned upon his mind, and that he is as delightedly viewing the marvellous panorama it displays, as I was fourteen years ago.