Chapter 16

The Practical instances


There are 2 defects in practice, and as many divisions of important instances.

Practice is either deceptive or too laborious. It is generally deceptive (especially after a diligent[231] examination of natures), on account of the power and actions of bodies being ill defined and determined.

Now the powers and actions of bodies are defined and determined either by space or by time, or by the quantity at a given period, or by the predominance of energy; and if these four circumstances be not well and diligently considered, the sciences may indeed be beautiful in theory, but are of no effect in practice. We call the four instances referred to this class, mathematical instances and instances of measure.

Practice is laborious either from the multitude of instruments, or the bulk of matter and substances requisite for any given work. Those instances, therefore, are valuable, which either direct practice to that which is of most consequence to mankind, or lessen the number of instruments or of matter to be worked upon. We assign to the three instances relating to this class, the common name of propitious or benevolent instances. We will now separately discuss these seven instances, and conclude with them that part of our work which relates to the prerogative or illustrious instances.

21. The instances of the rod or rule or the the instances of completion or non ultrà.

45 The powers and motions of bodies do not act and take effect through indefinite and accidental, but through limited and certain spaces;

These must be understood and noted in every nature which is investigated, not only to prevent deception, but to render practice more extensive and efficient. For it is sometimes possible to extend these powers, and bring the distance, as it were, nearer, as in the example of telescopes.

Many powers act and take effect only by actual touch, as[232] in the percussion of bodies, where the one does not remove the other, unless the impelling touch the impelled body. External applications in medicine, as ointment and plasters, do not exercise their efficacy except when in contact with the body. Lastly, the objects of touch and taste only strike those senses when in contact with their organs.

Other powers act at a distance, though it be very small, of which but few have as yet been noted, although there be more than men suspect; this happens (to take everyday instances) when amber or jet attracts straws, bubbles dissolve bubbles, some purgative medicines draw humors from above, and the like. The magnetic power by which iron and the magnet, or two magnets, are attracted together, acts within a definite and narrow sphere, but if there be any magnetic power emanating from the earth a little below its surface, and affecting the needle in its polarity, it must act at a great distance.

Again, if there be any magnetic force which acts by sympathy between the globe of the earth and heavy bodies, or between that of the moon and the waters of the sea (as seems most probable from the particular floods and ebbs which occur twice in the month), or between the starry sphere and the planets, by which they are summoned and raised to their apogees, these must all operate at very great distances.[144]

some conflagrations and the kindling of flames take place at very considerable distances with particular substances, as they report of the naphtha of Babylon. Heat, too, insinuates itself at wide distances, as does also cold, so that the masses of ice which are broken off and float upon the Northern Ocean, and are borne through the Atlantic to the coast of Canada, become perceptible by the inhabitants, and strike them with cold from a distance.

Perfumes also (though here there appears to be always some corporeal emission) act at remarkable distances, as is experienced by persons sailing by the coast of Florida, or parts of Spain, where there are whole woods of lemons, oranges, and other odoriferous plants, or rosemary and marjoram bushes, and the like. Lastly, the rays of light and the impressions of sound act at extensive distances.

Yet all these powers, whether acting at a small or great distance, certainly act within definite distances, which are well ascertained by nature, so that there is a limit depending either on the mass or quantity of the bodies, the vigor or faintness of the powers, or the favorable or impeding nature of the medium, all of which should be taken into[234] account and observed. We must also note the boundaries of violent motions, such as missiles, projectiles, wheels and the like, since they are also manifestly confined to certain limits.

Some motions and virtues are to be found of a directly contrary nature to these, which act in contact but not at a distance; namely, such as operate at a distance and not in contact, and again act with less force at a less distance, and the reverse. Sight, for instance, is not easily effective in contact, but requires a medium and distance; although I remember having heard from a person deserving of credit, that in being cured of a cataract (which was done by putting a small silver needle within the first coat of the eye, to remove the thin pellicle of the cataract, and force it into a corner of the eye), he had distinctly seen the needle moving across the pupil. Still, though this may be true, it is clear that large bodies cannot be seen well or distinctly, unless at the vertex of a cone, where the rays from the object meet at some distance from the eye. In old persons the eye sees better if the object be moved a little further, and not nearer. Again, it is certain that in projectiles the impact is not so violent at too short a distance as a little afterward.[145] Such are the observations to be made on the measure of motions as regards distance.

There is another measure of motion in space which must[235] not be passed over, not relating to progressive but spherical motion—that is, the expansion of bodies into a greater, or their contraction into a lesser sphere. For in our measure of this motion we must inquire what degree of compression or extension bodies easily and readily admit of, according to their nature, and at what point they begin to resist it, so as at last to bear it no further—as when an inflated bladder is compressed, it allows a certain compression of the air, but if this be increased, the air does not suffer it, and the bladder is burst.

We have proved this by a more delicate experiment. We took a metal bell, of a light and thin sort, such as is used for salt-cellars, and immersed it in a basin of water, so as to carry the air contained in its interior down with it to the bottom of the basin. We had first, however, placed a small globe at the bottom of the basin, over which we placed the bell. The result was, that if the globe were small compared with the interior of the bell, the air would contract itself, and be compressed without being forced out, but if it were too large for the air readily to yield to it, the latter became impatient of the pressure, raised the bell partly up, and ascended in bubbles.

To prove, also, the extension (as well as the compression) which air admits of, we adopted the following method:—We took a glass egg, with a small hole at one end; we drew out the air by violent suction at this hole, and then closed the hole with the finger, immersed the egg in water, and then removed the finger. The air being constrained by the effort made in suction, and dilated beyond its natural state, and therefore striving to recover and contract itself (so that if the egg had not been immersed in water, it would have drawn in the air with a hissing sound), now drew in[236] a sufficient quantity of water to allow the air to recover its former dimensions.[146]

Rare bodies (such as air) admit of considerable contraction, as has been before observed; but tangible bodies (such as water) admit of it much less readily, and to a less extent. We investigated the latter point by the following experiment:

We had a leaden globe made, capable of containing about two pints, wine measure, and of tolerable thickness, so as to support considerable pressure.

We poured water into it through an aperture, which we afterward closed with melted lead, as soon as the globe was filled with water, so that the whole became perfectly solid. We next flattened the two opposite sides with a heavy hammer, which necessarily caused the water to occupy a less space, since the sphere is the solid of greatest content; and when hammering failed from the resistance of the water, we made use of a mill or press, till at last the water, refusing to submit to a greater pressure, exuded like a fine dew through the solid lead. We then computed the extent to which the original space had been reduced, and concluded that water admitted such a degree of compression when constrained by great violence.

The more solid, dry or compact bodies, such as stones, wood and metals, admit of much less, and indeed scarcely any perceptible compression or expansion, but escape by breaking, slipping forward, or other efforts; as appears in bending wood, or steel for watch-springs, in projectiles, hammering and many other motions, all of which, together[237] with their degrees, are to be observed and examined in the investigation of nature, either to a certainty, or by estimation, or comparison, as opportunity permits.

22. The instances of the course or the water instances

46 We borrow our expression from the water hour-glasses employed by the ancients instead of those with sand.

They are such as measure nature by the moments of time, as the last instances do by the degrees of space. For all motion or natural action takes place in time, more or less rapidly, but still in determined moments well ascertained by nature. Even those actions which appear to take effect suddenly, and in the twinkling of an eye (as we express it), are found to admit of greater or less rapidity.

In the first place, then, we see that the return of the heavenly bodies to the same place takes place in regular times, as does the flood and ebb of the sea. The descent of heavy bodies toward the earth, and the ascent of light bodies toward the heavenly sphere, take place in definite times,[147] according to the nature of the body, and of the medium through which it moves. The sailing of ships, the motions of animals, the transmission of projectiles, all[238] take place in times the sums of which can be computed. With regard to heat, we see that boys in winter bathe their hands in the flame without being burned; and conjurers, by quick and regular movements, overturn vessels filled with wine or water, and replace them without spilling the liquid, with several similar instances. The compression, expansion and eruption of several bodies, take place more or less rapidly, according to the nature of the body and its motion, but still in definite moments.

In the explosion of several cannon at once (which are sometimes heard at the distance of thirty miles), the sound of those nearest to the spot is heard before that of the most distant. Even in sight (whose action is most rapid), it is clear that a definite time is necessary for its exertion, which is proved by certain objects being invisible from the velocity of their motion, such as a musket-ball; for the flight of the ball is too swift to allow an impression of its figure to be conveyed to the sight.

This last instance, and others of a like nature, have sometimes excited in us a most marvellous doubt, no less than whether the image of the sky and stars is perceived as at the actual moment of its existence, or rather a little after, and whether there is not (with regard to the visible appearance of the heavenly bodies) a true and apparent time, as well as a true and apparent place, which is observed by astronomers in parallaxes.

It appeared so incredible to us, that the images or radiations of heavenly bodies could suddenly be conveyed through such immense spaces to the sight, and it seemed that they ought rather to be transmitted in a definite time.[148] That doubt, however[239] (as far as regards any great difference between the true and apparent time), was subsequently completely set at rest, when we considered the infinite loss and diminution of size as regards the real and apparent magnitude of a star, occasioned by its distance, and at the same time observed at how great a distance (at least sixty miles) bodies which are merely white can be suddenly seen by us.

The light of the heavenly bodies not only far surpasses the vivid appearance of white, but even the light of any flame (with which we are acquainted) in the vigor of its radiation. The immense velocity of the bodies themselves, which is perceived in their diurnal motion, and has so astonished thinking men, that they have been more ready to believe in the motion of the earth, renders the motion of radiation from them (marvellous as it is in its rapidity) more worthy of belief.

That which has weighed most with us, however, is, that if there were any considerable interval of time between the reality and the appearance, the images would often be interrupted and confused by clouds formed in the meantime, and similar disturbances of the medium. Let this suffice with regard to the simple measures of time.

It is not merely the absolute, but still more the relative measure of motions and actions which must be inquired into, for this latter is of great use and application. We perceive that the flame of firearms is seen sooner than the sound is heard, although the ball must have struck the air before the flame, which was behind it, could escape: the reason of which is, that light moves with greater velocity[240] than sound. We perceive, also, that visible images are received by the sight with greater rapidity than they are dismissed, and for this reason, a violin string touched with the finger appears double or triple, because the new image is received before the former one is dismissed. Hence, also, rings when spinning appear globular, and a lighted torch, borne rapidly along at night, appears to have a tail. Upon the principle of the inequality of motion, also, Galileo attempted an explanation of the flood and ebb of the sea, supposing the earth to move rapidly, and the water slowly, by which means the water, after accumulating, would at intervals fall back, as is shown in a vessel of water made to move rapidly. He has, however, imagined this on data which cannot be granted (namely, the earth’s motion), and besides, does not satisfactorily account for the tide taking place every six hours.

An example of our present point (the relative measure of motion), and, at the same time, of its remarkable use of which we have spoken, is conspicuous in mines filled with gunpowder, where immense weights of earth, buildings, and the like, are overthrown and prostrated by a small quantity of powder; the reason of which is decidedly this, that the motion of the expansion of the gunpowder is much more rapid than that of gravity,[149] which would resist it, so that the former has terminated before the latter has commenced. Hence, also, in missiles, a strong blow will not carry them so far as a sharp and rapid one. Nor could a small portion of animal spirit in animals, especially in such[241] vast bodies as those of the whale and elephant, have ever bent or directed such a mass of body, were it not owing to the velocity of the former, and the slowness of the latter in resisting its motion.

In short, this point is one of the principal foundations of the magic experiments (of which we shall presently speak), where a small mass of matter overcomes and regulates a much larger, if there but be an anticipation of motion, by the velocity of one before the other is prepared to act.

Finally, the point of the first and last should be observed in all natural actions. Thus, in an infusion of rhubarb the purgative property is first extracted, and then the astringent; we have experienced something of the same kind in steeping violets in vinegar, which first extracts the sweet and delicate odor of the flower, and then the more earthy part, which disturbs the perfume; so that if the violets be steeped a whole day, a much fainter perfume is extracted than if they were steeped for a quarter of an hour only, and then taken out; and since the odoriferous spirit in the violet is not abundant, let other and fresh violets be steeped in the vinegar every quarter of an hour, as many as six times, when the infusion becomes so strengthened, that although the violets have not altogether remained there for more than one hour and a half, there remains a most pleasing perfume, not inferior to the flower itself, for a whole year. It must be observed, however, that the perfume does not acquire its full strength till about a month after the infusion. In the distillation of aromatic plants macerated in spirits of wine, it is well known that an aqueous and useless phlegm rises first, then water containing more of the spirit, and, lastly, water containing more of the[242] aroma; and many observations of the like kind, well worthy of notice, are to be made in distillations. But let these suffice as examples.[150]

23. Instances of quantity or the doses of nature

47 These are measure the powers by the quantity of bodies, and point out the effect of the quantity in the degree of power.

in the first place, some powers only subsist in the universal quantity, or such as bears a relation to the confirmation and fabric of the universe. Thus the earth is fixed, its parts fall. The waters in the sea flow and ebb, but not in the rivers, except by the admission of the sea. Then, again, almost all particular powers act according to the greater or less quantity of the body. Large masses of water are not easily rendered foul, small are. New wine and beer become ripe and drinkable in small skins much more readily than in large casks. If a herb be placed in a considerable quantity of liquid, infusion takes place rather than impregnation; if in less, the reverse. A bath, therefore, and a light sprinkling, produce different effects on the human body. Light dew, again, never falls, but is dissipated and incorporated with the air; thus we see that in breathing on gems, the slight quantity of moisture, like a small cloud in the air, is immediately dissolved. Again, a piece of the same magnet does not attract so much iron as the whole magnet did. There are some powers where the smallness of the quantity is of more avail; as in boring, a sharp point pierces more readily than a blunt one; the diamond, when pointed, makes an impression on glass, and the like.

We must not be contented with a vague result, but inquire into the exact proportion of quantity requisite for a particular exertion of power; for one would be apt to suppose that the power bears an exact proportion[244] to the quantity; that if a leaden bullet of one ounce, for instance, would fall in a given time, one of two ounces ought to fall twice as rapidly, which is most erroneous. Nor does the same ratio prevail in every kind of power, their difference being considerable. The measure, therefore, must be determined by experiment, and not by probability or conjecture.

Lastly, we must in all our investigations of nature observe what quantity, or dose, of the body is requisite for a given effect, and must at the same time be guarded against estimating it at too much or too little.

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