The life of the universe as conceived by man from the earliest ages to the present time
|The life of the universe|
My book, " Worlds in the Making," has been received with such general approval that I do not know how to express my thanks adequately. The work has called forth the most varied questions both from friends and strangers. Many of these questions concern the correctness of the manifold cosmogonic conceptions which were more general in the past than now.
These questions, as well as other circumstances, induced me to trace the historical development of cosmogonic ideas from ancient days up to the time of Newton. I have become so profoundly interested in this research that I venture to think the public will be glad to read how the grand speculations of our age have been evolved from the primitive, childlike and incoherent notions of our ancestors in bygone ages. " Nur durch Werden," Haeckel says, ' wird das Gewordene erkannt. A true understanding of phenomena can only be acquired by the stud}^ of the history of their evolution." Haeckel possibly went too far with this statement.
The modern chemist need not know all the phantasms of the alchemists. But nobody will question that the study of the views and reasoning of past ages sheds a remarkable light on the views of our own age. The most interesting feature in such research is perhaps that it enables us to trace the rudiments of our modern theories from the shadowy notions of antiquity. We watch the fate of theses, ob- serve how they changed with their surroundings, how they competed with other doctrines, how they decayed, to gain strength again and to eclipse their rivals, and how they alone retained sufficient vigour finally.
This comparative his- torical study impresses us also with the soundness and reliability of modern opinions. " -We further observe with deep satisfaction how evolution progresses at an unprecedented rate in our days. Human intellect was hibernating for a hundred thousand years, and man did not learn more in any domain than what the lowest races know at present. During the space of scarcely ten thousand years which we assign to the history of civilisation, much greater progress has no doubt been made than during the whole of the pre-historic ages.
There was a sad cultural retrogression during the Middle Ages. Yet we may assert that we have advanced more in the last thousand years than in all the previous ages together. And again, with all admiration for the eminent work which Laplace and Herschel did a hundred years ago, we may assert that the last hundred years have helped us on more than the nine hundred previous years.
The application of the mechanical theory of heat to cosmogonic problems alone has done more to elucidate those problems than all the previous investigations, and when we think of the vast fields which spectrum analysis and the study of thermal radiation, of the radiation pressure, and of radioactivity have opened up to us, the balance will decidedly turn in favour of the past century. It is true that we cannot anticipate the judgment which the future may pass on the real achievements of the present age. Yet no scientist will dispute the fact that science has never advanced so rapidly as in our time.
When we ask ourselves, how such extraordinary strides could have been made in natural philosophy, especially in its application to cosmogonic problems, we may reason somewhat as follows: During the dawn of civilisation, man lived in small tribes which had grown out of families. The sum total of the knowledge and experience which the tribe had acquired, independently of other tribes, could not but be limited.
The most intelligent man of the tribe, the medicine man, made the best use of his knowledge with the object of ruling the others. Only his trusted confidants were allowed to gain an insight into the science to which he owed his superior position. Successive generations could not add much to that treasure of knowledge. Matters improved when the tribes united to nations. The wise men formed a relatively large cast of priests, who trained in schools those whom they wished to initiate. People had meanwhile learned to put their knowledge and thoughts down in writing. But the written document demanded laborious preparation; the few manuscripts were carefully preserved in the temples. It was not 3'et deemed wise to impart knowledge to the people; learning was venerated as something supernatural. Yet great progress was made. The Egyptian priests seem to have been the intellectual leaders; to them, the Greek philosophers were indebted for a great deal of their learning.
We have all the more admiration for this period of scientific eminence, as a profound reaction soon set in. The manuscripts no longer remained the exclusive property of the priesthood, but became accessible to others, though only to the wealthy. The slaves, who, when Greece and Rome were at their prime, constituted the majority of the people, were not allowed to participate in the spreading of intelligence; the few learned slaves who had to copy manuscripts formed an exception. Manual labour and consequently experimental research was considered unworthy of the free citizen and were left to slaves; that was a baneful prejudice.
The philosophical school at Athens, moreover, deprecated the study of nature; philosophers of that school later became eminent leaders in the Christian Church, and the Middle Ages could not shake off their detrimental influence. Decline and stagnation followed.
With the discovery of the art of printing and the general intellectual awakening, the contempt of experimental work vanished again. Progress was slow, however, in the struggle against deeply rooted prejudices and for want of co-operation between the different investigators. When these obstacles had been overcome, the number of workers and their means of research multiplied. Hence the grand advance of our time.
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