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Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes By Charles Babbage Characters: 19587

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

There are several reflections connected with the art of making observations and experiments, which may be conveniently arranged in this chapter.


No person will deny that the highest degree of attainable accuracy is an object to be desired, and it is generally found that the last advances towards precision require a greater devotion of time, labour, and expense, than those which precede them. The first steps in the path of discovery, and the first approximate measures, are those which add most to the existing knowledge of mankind.

The extreme accuracy required in some of our modern inquiries has, in some respects, had an unfortunate influence, by favouring the opinion, that no experiments are valuable, unless the measures are most minute, and the accordance amongst them most perfect. It may, perhaps, be of some use to show, that even with large instruments, and most practised observers, this is but rarely the case. The following extract is taken from a representation made by the present Astronomer-Royal, to the Council of the Royal Society, on the advantages to be derived from the employment of two mural circles:-

"That by observing, with two instruments, the same objects at the same time, and in the same manner, we should be able to estimate how much of that OCCASIONAL DISCORDANCE FROM THE MEAN, which attends EVEN THE MOST CAREFUL OBSERVATIONS, ought to be attributed to irregularity of refraction, and how much to THE IMPERFECTIONS OF INSTRUMENTS."

In confirmation of this may be adduced the opinion of the late M. Delambre, which is the more important, from the statement it contains relative to the necessity of publishing all the observations which have been made.

"Mais quelque soit le parti que l'on prefere, il me semble qu'on doit tout publier. Ces irregularites memes sont des faits qu'il importe de connoitre. LES SOINS LES PLUS ATTENTIFS N'EN SAUROIENT PRESERVER LES OBSERVATEURS LES PLUS EXERCES, et celui qui ne produiroit que des angles toujours parfaitment d'accord auroit ete singulierement bien servi par les circonstances ou ne seroit pas bien sincere."-BASE DU SYSTEME METRIQUE, Discours Preliminaire, p. 158.

This desire for extreme accuracy has called away the attention of experimenters from points of far greater importance, and it seems to have been too much overlooked in the present day, that genius marks its tract, not by the observation of quantities inappreciable to any but the acutest senses, but by placing Nature in such circumstances, that she is forced to record her minutest variations on so magnified a scale, that an observer, possessing ordinary faculties, shall find them legibly written. He who can see portions of matter beyond the ken of the rest of his species, confers an obligation on them, by recording what he sees; but their knowledge depends both on his testimony and on his judgment. He who contrives a method of rendering such atoms visible to ordinary observers, communicates to mankind an instrument of discovery, and stamps his own observations with a character, alike independent of testimony or of judgment.


The remarks in this section are not proposed for the assistance of those who are already observers, but are intended to show to persons not familiar with the subject, that in observations demanding no unrivalled accuracy, the principles of common sense may be safely trusted, and that any gentleman of liberal education may, by perseverance and attention, ascertain the limits within which he may trust both his instrument and himself.

If the instrument is a divided one, the first thing is to learn to read the verniers. If the divisions are so fine that the coincidence is frequently doubtful, the best plan will be for the learner to get some acquaintance who is skilled in the use of instruments, and having set the instrument at hazard, to write down the readings of the verniers, and then request his friend to do the same; whenever there is any difference, he should carefully examine the doubtful one, and ask his friend to point out the minute peculiarities on which he founds his decision. This should be repeated frequently; and after some practice, he should note how many times in a hundred his reading differs from his friend's, and also how many divisions they usually differ.

The next point is, to ascertain the precision with which the learner can bisect an object with the wires of the telescope. This can be done without assistance. It is not necessary even to adjust the instrument, but merely to point it to a distant object. When it bisects any remarkable point, read off the verniers, and write down the result; then displace the telescope a little, and adjust it again. A series of such observations will show the confidence which is due to the observer's eye in bisecting an object, and also in reading the verniers; and as the first direction gave him some measure of the latter, he may, in a great measure, appreciate his skill in the former. He should also, when he finds a deviation in the reading, return to the telescope, and satisfy himself if he has made the bisection as complete as he can. In general, the student should practise each adjustment separately, and write down the results wherever he can measure its deviations.

Having thus practised the adjustments, the next step is to make an observation; but in order to try both himself and the instrument, let him take the altitude of some fixed object, a terrestrial one, and having registered the result, let him derange the adjustment, and repeat the process fifty or a hundred times. This will not merely afford him excellent practice, but enable him to judge of his own skill.

The first step in the use of every instrument, is to find the limits within which its employer can measure the SAME OBJECT UNDER THE SAME CIRCUMSTANCES. It is only from a knowledge of this, that he can have confidence in his measures of the SAME OBJECT UNDER DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES, and after that, of DIFFERENT OBJECTS UNDER DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES.

These principles are applicable to almost all instruments. If a person is desirous of ascertaining heights by a mountain barometer, let him begin by adjusting the instrument in his own study; and having made the upper contact, let him write down the reading of the vernier, and then let him derange the UPPER adjustment ONLY, re-adjust, and repeat the reading. When he is satisfied about the limits within which he can make that adjustment, let him do the same repeatedly with the lower; but let him not, until he knows his own errors in reading and adjusting, pronounce upon those of the instrument. In the case of a barometer, he must also be assured, that the temperature of the mercury does not change during the interval.

A friend once brought to me a beautifully constructed piece of mechanism, for marking minute portions of time; the three-hundredth parts of a second were indicated by it. It was a kind of watch, with a pin for stopping one of the hands. I proposed that we should each endeavour to stop it twenty times in succession, at the same point. We were both equally unpractised, and our first endeavours showed that we could not be confident of the twentieth part of a second. In fact, both the time occupied in causing the extremities of the fingers to obey the volition, as well as the time employed in compressing the flesh before the fingers acted on the stop, appeared to influence the accuracy of our observations. From some few experiments I made, I thought I perceived that the rapidity of the transmission of the effects of the will, depended on the state of fatigue or health of the body. If any one were to make experiments on this subject, it might be interesting, to compare the rapidity of the transmission of volition in different persons, with the time occupied in obliterating an impression made on one of the senses of the same persons. For example, by having a mechanism to make a piece of ignited charcoal revolve with different degrees of velocity, some persons will perceive a continuous circle of light before others, whose retina does not retain so long impressions that are made upon it.


Scientific inquiries are more exposed than most others to the inroads of pretenders; and I feel that I shall deserve the thanks of all who really value truth, by stating some of the methods of deceiving practised by unworthy claimants for its honours, whilst the mere circumstance of their arts being known may deter future offenders.

There are several species of impositions that have been practised in science, which are but little known, except to the initiated, and which it may perhaps be possible to render quite intelligible to ordinary understandings. These may be classed under the heads of hoaxing, forging, trimming, and cooking.

OF HOAXING. This, perhaps, will be better explained by an example. In the year 1788, M. Gioeni, a knight of Malta, published at Naples an account of a new family of Testacea, of which he described, with great minuteness, one species, the specific name of which has been taken from its habitat, and the generic he took from his own family, calling it Gioenia Sicula. It consisted of two rounded triangular valves, united by the body of the animal to a smaller valve in front. He gave figures of the animal, and of its parts; described its structure, its mode of advancing along the sand, the figure of the tract it left, and estimated the velocity of its course at about two-thirds of an inch per minute. He then described the structure of the shell, which he treated with nitric acid, and found it approach nearer to the nature of bone than any othe

r shell.

The editors of the ENCYCLOPEDIE METHODIQUE, have copied this description, and have given figures of the Gioenia Sicula. The fact, however, is, that no such animal exists, but that the knight of Malta, finding on the Sicilian shores the three internal bones of one of the species of Bulla, of which some are found on the south-western coast of England, [Bulla lignaria] described and figured these bones most accurately, and drew the whole of the rest of the description from the stores of his own imagination.

Such frauds are far from justifiable; the only excuse which has been made for them is, when they have been practised on scientific academies which had reached the period of dotage. It should however be remembered, that the productions of nature are so various, that mere strangeness is very far from sufficient to render doubtful the existence of any creature for which there is evidence; [The number of vertebrae in the neck of the plesiosaurus is a strange but ascertained fact] and that, unless the memoir itself involves principles so contradictory, as to outweigh the evidence of a single witness, [The kind of contradiction which is here alluded to, is that which arises from well ascertained final causes; for instance, the ruminating stomach of the hoofed animals, is in no case combined with the claw-shaped form of the extremities, frequent in many of the carniverous animals, and necessary to some of them for the purpose of seizing their prey] it can only be regarded as a deception, without the accompaniment of wit.

FORGING differs from hoaxing, inasmuch as in the latter the deceit is intended to last for a time, and then be discovered, to the ridicule of those who have credited it; whereas the forger is one who, wishing to acquire a reputation for science, records observations which he has never made. This is sometimes accomplished in astronomical observations by calculating the time and circumstances of the phenomenon from tables. The observations of the second comet of 1784, which was only seen by the Chevalier D'Angos, were long suspected to be a forgery, and were at length proved to be so by the calculations and reasonings of Encke. The pretended observations did not accord amongst each other in giving any possible orbit. But M. Encke detected an orbit, belonging to some of the observations, from which he found that all the rest might be almost precisely deduced, provided a mistake of a unity in the index of the logarithm of the radius vector were supposed to have been made in all the rest of the calculations. ZACH. CORR. ASTRON. Tom. IV. p. 456.

Fortunately instances of the occurrence of forging are rare.

TRIMMING consists in clipping off little bits here and there from those observations which differ most in excess from the mean, and in sticking them on to those which are too small; a species of "equitable adjustment," as a radical would term it, which cannot be admitted in science.

This fraud is not perhaps so injurious (except to the character of the trimmer) as cooking, which the next paragraph will teach, The reason of this is, that the AVERAGE given by the observations of the trimmer is the same, whether they are trimmed or untrimmed. His object is to gain a reputation for extreme accuracy in making observations; but from respect for truth, or from a prudent foresight, he does not distort the position of the fact he gets from nature, and it is usually difficult to detect him. He has more sense or less adventure than the Cook.

OF COOKING. This is an art of various forms, the object of which is to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy.

One of its numerous processes is to make multitudes of observations, and out of these to select those only which agree, or very nearly agree. If a hundred observations are made, the cook must be very unlucky if he cannot pick out fifteen or twenty which will do for serving up.

Another approved receipt, when the observations to be used will not come within the limit of accuracy, which it has been resolved they shall possess, is to calculate them by two different formulae. The difference in the constants employed in those formulae has sometimes a most happy effect in promoting unanimity amongst discordant measures. If still greater accuracy is required, three or more formulae can be used.

It must be admitted that this receipt is in some instances rather hazardous: but in cases where the positions of stars, as given in different catalogues, occur, or different tables of specific gravities, specific heats, &c. &c., it may safely be employed. As no catalogue contains all stars, the computer must have recourse to several; and if he is obliged to use his judgment in the selection, it would be cruel to deny him any little advantage which might result from it. It may, however, be necessary to guard against one mistake into which persons might fall.

If an observer calculate particular stars from a catalogue which makes them accord precisely with the rest of his results, whereas, had they been computed from other catalogues the difference would have been considerable, it is very unfair to accuse him of COOKING; for-those catalogues may have been notoriously inaccurate; or-they may have been superseded by others more recent, or made with better instruments; or-the observer may have been totally ignorant of their existence.

It sometimes happens that the constant quantities in formulae given by the highest authorities, although they differ amongst themselves, yet they will not suit the materials. This is precisely the point in which the skill of the artist is shown; and an accomplished cook will carry himself triumphantly through it, provided happily some mean value of such constants will fit his observations. He will discuss the relative merits of formulae he has just knowledge enough to use; and, with admirable candour assigning their proper share of applause to Bessel, to Gauss, and to Laplace, he will take THAT mean value of the constant used by three such philosophers, which will make his own observations accord to a miracle.

There are some few reflections which I would venture to suggest to those who cook, although they may perhaps not receive the attention which, in my opinion, they deserve, from not coming from the pen of an adept.

In the first place, it must require much time to try different formulae. In the next place it may happen that, in the progress of human knowledge, more correct formula: may be discovered, and constants may be determined with far greater precision. Or it may be found that some physical circumstance influences the results, (although unsuspected at the time) the measure of which circumstance may perhaps be recovered from other contemporary registers of facts. [Imagine, by way of example, the state of the barometer or thermometer.] Or if the selection of observations has been made with the view of its agreeing precisely with the latest determination, there is some little danger that the average of the whole may differ from that of the chosen ones, owing to some law of nature, dependent on the interval between the two sets, which law some future philosopher may discover, and thus the very best observations may have been thrown aside.

In all these, and in numerous other cases, it would most probably happen that the cook would procure a temporary reputation for unrivalled accuracy at the expense of his permanent fame. It might also have the effect of rendering even all his crude observations of no value; for that part of the scientific world whose opinion is of most weight, is generally so unreasonable, as to neglect altogether the observations of those in whom they have, on any occasion, discovered traces of the artist. In fact, the character of an observer, as of a woman, if doubted is destroyed.

The manner in which facts apparently lost are restored to light, even after considerable intervals of time, is sometimes very unexpected, and a few examples may not be without their use. The thermometers employed by the philosophers who composed the Academia Del Cimento, have been lost; and as they did not use the two fixed points of freezing and boiling water, the results of a great mass of observations have remained useless from our ignorance of the value of a degree on their instrument. M. Libri, of Florence, proposed to regain this knowledge by comparing their registers of the temperature of the human body and of that of some warm springs in Tuscany, which have preserved their heat uniform during a century, as well as of other things similarly circumstanced.

Another illustration was pointed out to me by M. Gazzeri, the Professor of Chemistry at Florence. A few years ago an important suit in one of the legal courts of Tuscany depended on ascertaining whether a certain word had been erased by some chemical process from a deed then before the court. The party who insisted that an erasure had been made, availed themselves of the knowledge of M. Gazzeri, who, concluding that those who committed the fraud would be satisfied by the disappearance of the colouring matter of the ink, suspected (either from some colourless matter remaining in the letters, or perhaps from the agency of the solvent having weakened the fabric of the paper itself beneath the supposed letters) that the effect of the slow application of heat would be to render some difference of texture or of applied substance evident, by some variety in the shade of colour which heat in such circumstances might be expected to produce. Permission having been given to try the experiment, on the application of heat the important word reappeared, to the great satisfaction of the court.

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