The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27
Let me ask you to make the effort that is necessary in order to form an idea, inadequate though it must be, of the universe as it presents itself to the student of science in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Astronomical spaces and geological times are so vast that without some artificial aids the mind fails to apprehend them. The phrase "a million of miles "or "a million of years "conveys no definite conception of distance or of time to a mind of ordinary capacity, and yet it is in such conceptions that the chief value of both sciences consists. I will use, with your permission, a measure of space which most of us can grasp, and I will invite you by its aid to try to get a distinct idea of interplanetary and interstellar spaces.
Those of us who have come to Australia from Great Britain have a tolerably definite idea of half the compass of the globe we inhabit, and thereby of its whole circumference. Now, think of this fact—a ray of light will travel a distance of nearly eight times round the earth in a second of time; it will take more than eight minutes, or four hundred and eighty seconds, to pass from the sun to the earth; that is to say the distance of the earth from the sun is something more than three thousand eight hundred times the length of a girdle round the earth. If we pause to reflect on this we shall get some idea of the enormous distance of our planet from the sun. Now, let us take in this further fact, that the planet Neptune, the most distant from the sun of all the planets, is more than thirty times further from the sun than is the earth. It taxes severely our powers of thought to stretch the mind so as to be able to conceive this idea of the magnitude of the space occupied by the sun and its attendant planets, and yet this idea, when it has been reached by a great effort, is only preparatory to the apprehension of the infinitely vaster spaces beyond the limits of the solar system.
To get a notion of these spaces I must ask you to make another effort of thought. One of the two stars called the Pointers, the page 10 farthest from the Southern Cross, is the nearest to our sun of all the fixed stars. Now let us reflect on this fact which comparatively recent science tells us. The light which enters our eyes as we look at this star on any night, although it has travelled during every second of time at the rate of nearly eight times the earth's circumference, has taken three and a-half years to come to us from this star. Here is another and perhaps a better mode of getting a conception of the distances of the fixed stars. It consists in reducing in imagination the vast size of our solar system to some very small space with which we are quite familiar. Let us, for example, assume in imagination that the 5,700,000,000 miles, which is nearly the length of the greater axis of the orbit of the planet Neptune, is compressed into that small part of Collins-street that lies between Swanston-street and Elizabeth-street, or say .about five hundred and twenty feet, and then let us consider what lies outside our solar system so reduced. The nearest of all the fixed stars, the Pointer a Centauri, will then be seen at a distance of nearly three hundred and fifty miles from our sun; another of the few fixed stars whose distance can be measured, Sirius, will be seen at a distance of about fourteen hundred miles; while extending beyond and beyond, upon all sides, and, so far as we can judge, at corresponding vast distances from each other, three hundred and twenty-four thousand fixed stars have had their places mapped out in the heavens by the astronomer, and, as Mr. Proctor told us when he visited Melbourne some years ago, not less than one hundred millions of such suns or solar systems have been revealed to our eyes by Lord Ross's telescope.
These stupendous discoveries of modern science, in regard to space, have been accompanied during the last century by discoveries equally stupendous, though not by any means so certain or precise in regard to time. The evidence yielded by the earth's strata points with reasonable certainty to the conclusion that man has existed on the earth during a period anterior to history of about two hundred thousand years, and that the age of the earth itself must be measured, not by thousands of years, but by scores, and even by hundreds of millions of years.
Both astronomy and geology have surely revealed to us clear proofs of ascertained and unchangeable law, of design and increasing purpose, of slow and steady progress, and also, I think, in animated nature, of benevolent if stern discipline. The earth and all the other planets revolve, and have revolved for millions of years, round the sun in the same direction, in similar elliptic orbits, at rates of progress that vary in accordance with unvarying laws, and in periods related to each other by a fixed proportion of times and distances. Kepler's great discoveries are know to us by long verified experience, and are held by us with a minutely accurate certainty, far transcending the certainty we can feel with regard to anything under the immediate cognisance of our senses; and hence we necessarily feel an undoubting confidence in scientific predictions of events still in the future, and in scientific generalisations which may be as yet only highly probable.page 11
In illustration of this, consider the instance of a verified and of an unverified scientific prophecy that occurred quite recently. It was announced many years ago that the planet Venus would begin to pass between the earth and the sun on the 8th day of December, 1874, at 14 h. 45 m. 57 s. Greenwich mean time, and preparations were made, as you will remember, by the Governments of several European countries, in reliance on this exact prediction, to take observations in different places, with the view of ascertaining more accurately the earth's distance from the sun. On the day and at the hour and the minute and the second foretold the transit commenced. Again, the same event was predicted to occur on the 6th day of last December, and again the prediction was exactly fulfilled. And now, when we are told by astronomers that another, and the next, transit of Venus will take place 121 years hence, in the year 2,004, on the 7th day of June, beginning at 17 h. 3 m. and 43 s. Greenwich mean time, can we have any doubt that, supposing no catastrophe occurs in the meantime to either planet, our children in the fourth or fifth generation will see the same phenomenon that we have seen, on the day and at the minute and the second of time foretold?
The same order, the same unvarying action, the like steadfast purpose and constant exercise of developing power are observable in the history of plant and animal life upon this planet, as revealed by geology; formless matter changing into crystallised inorganic matter, inorganic matter developing into organic matter instinct with life, plants, and animals of various degress of complex structure with corresponding degrees of internal life, following one another in ascending scale, until now, in these latest days, man, God's last, and undoubtedly His greatest work on this earth, has been reached—
"One first matter all,
Endued with various forms, various degrees
Of substance, and in things that live, of life
But more refined, more spirituous, and pure,
As nearer to Him placed, or nearer tending,
Each in their several active spheres assigned,
Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
Proportioned to each kind."
The student who at present contemplates these vast results of modern science is another and a totally different man from the mediaeval student. It is not so much a change as a revolution that his mind and its concepts have undergone. To him man no longer appears to be the centre of all things, but one of the smallest of the works of God, although also the most wonderful and the grandest of those that are known to us, as is shown by the marvellous capacity displayed by him in the act of discovering his littleness. To the same student God also is presented in an entirely new and inexpressibly grander form of conception; anthropomorphism, or the representation of God in the likeness of man, is no longer possible in any shape; arbitrary dealing, capricious favour, vengeful punishment, sudden passionate change, are attributes that are wholly unthinkable in regard to the Creator by an educated layman in the present day, page 12 who sees with open eyes and ponders upon the vastness and the duration of the works of God, and the majestic simplicity of His unvarying action.