The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Fragments of a Chat with Tante.

by A. Johnston, M. D.
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 756-761

This chat arose out of a remark made to the pupils of the H. of E. [House of Education] with regard to the unwholesomeness of cast-iron stoves, especially under certain circumstances, where, namely, the stove is allowed to become red-hot, in which case a very deadly gas, carbon monoxide, passes through the pores of the stove into the atmosphere of the apartment, wherat one of the pupils expressed surprise that a gas could get through such a solid body as cast-iron, which was answered by the remark that all bodies are porous, succeeded by a request from the same pupil that some proof of this should be adduced.

The evidence that the ultimate particles of substances--all substances whatsoever--are not in actual contact, i.e., that there are interstices between them is derived partly from experiment, [As for instance, that of the Florentine philosophers in their attempt to compress water contained in a thick globe of gold, where the water, after a certain amount of pressure had been applied, exuded through the pores of the gold.] and is partly the result of deducto ["Deductive" reasoning="A priori" reasoning, i.e., reasoning from assumed premises.]--inductive ["Inductive" reasoning="A posteriori" reasoning, i.e., reasoning from ascertained facts.] reasoning.

All matter is divided into 1, solid; 2, liquid; 3, gaseous. In the first the attractive force between the particles is in excess of the repulsive force; in the second they are about equally balanced; in the third the repulsive force is greatly in excess of the attractive.

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Well, then, we find as the result of experiment that heat expands and cold contracts all substances, with the exception of the three named (antimony and, under certain circumstances, water and iron) even to the extent, aided by increased pressure, of liquifying every gas known, and in the case of some, of actually solidifying them, every increase of cold being attended by a progressive diminution in volume. Seeing then the effect of cold in diminishing the bulk of all substances, whether gaseous, liquid, or solid, in their several degrees, and supposing us to take the most solid body known, at a given temperature, and cool it down to a lower temperature, it follows that, at this lower temperature, it will occupy a less bulk than at the previous higher temperature, and it likewise further follows (as we feel justified in assuming, knowing the beyond all comparison greater expansive and contractive effect of heat and cold upon gases than upon solids) that the diminution of bulk has been mainly due to a diminution of size of the interstices between the ultimate particles of the substance, bringing them into closer relation to each other, but yet not into absolute contact, as is proved by the fact that every further decrease in temperature will still further diminish the bulk of the substance in question. In fact, were it possible to obtain the requisite conditions--namely, a sufficiently low temperature and sufficiently great pressure, or the latter even without the former--it is theoretically conceivable that we could compress this globe into a millionth part of its present bulk, just as Archimedes said, "Give me a fulcrum and I'll undertake to move the world." And, conversely, we are justified by analogy in believing that, could we remove pressure and raise the temperature sufficiently high, we could bring every substance on the globe, even the most solid, into a gaseous form.

Again, another intensely interesting thought is, that the term "solidity," like almost every term in language, is a relative term, i.e. relative to the point of view from which it is looked at. What, for instance, could be more solid (i.e., opposing resistance) than iron or copper, viewed relatively to man in his present earthly organisation or environment? What, on the other hand, could be more unsolid (to coin a word) from the same point of view, than atmospheric air? It is invisible, intangible, and it may almost be said to be non-existent, when at rest, from the view-point of our senses; but instead of looking at these substances (copper and air) from the view-point of man in his present environment, let us look at them from the view-point of electricity, and we shall see how completely their qualities or properties are reversed: We shall find that copper is almost absolutely, as it were, transparent--absolutely unsolid (i.e., opposing no obstacle whatever) relatively to electricity, which will traverse 3000 miles of it in a second of time, while atmospheric air--which is, to man as regards his senses, almost a thing of nought--is to electricity, on the other hand, a comparatively solid body. The most powerful electric discharge, say in a thunderstorm, can traverse but a comparatively small space of air, and could we completely deprive the air of moisture, that distance would probably be reduced to one-twentieth or even less, so that atmospheric air may be looked upon as practically a solid body from the view-point of electricity.

These considerations have an intensely practical bearing. Most, if not all of us are disposed to dwell overmuch in the things of sense, and for that reason chiefly, experience, many of us at least, an almost unsuperable difficulty in realising, i.e., in making real, substantial, solid to their apprehension the things which are not of sense--the things which are unseen and eternal; and it seems to me that a little reflection on the considerations here brought forward would tend materially to help them out of their difficulty.

Let them but imagine--and their imagination may not, as I take it, be so very far removed from the truth--let them imagine that the future tenement of the soul, designated by St. Paul "The Spiritual body," is composed of electricity, or some modification of electricity, we are in a position to see at once, from the considerations just put forward, that while, from the viewpoint of such a spiritual body, the things of sense here below, which are to the eye of sense so very real, will, and must be, to the eye of a spiritual body so constituted, shadowy, unreal, unsubstantial, unsolid; the things, on the other hand, apprehended, for the most part by faith alone on this side, will, over there, be the only solid, enduring realities.

We shall there find, as expressed by a beautiful poet of our time, that

      "Thoughts are spirit-things, realities upon the other side."

This is a solemn and solemnising consideration, that the only possessions we can carry with us to the world beyond, are our thoughts and the product of our thoughts. I say, "and the product of our thoughts," meaning thereby our character, which our thoughts are greatly influential in moulding, and this statement will derive increased emphasis if we bear in mind the etymological signification of the word "character." [Greek (Greek symbols) = An engraving.] which I dwelt upon at some length in our second chat, and try to personify each one of our thoughts as a sculptor bearing in his hand a graving-tool, wherewith he makes his mark for good or for evileither a line of beauty, or a line of deformity, and that too for all time.

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Do you know the sun's distance from the earth? When I was a youth it was said to be 95,000,000 miles. Within the last few years the distance is stated at 92,000,000 miles.

What causes the difference in the calculation of the distance? It is due to our previous ignorance of facts, which we now know, chiefly through the labours of the German physiologists, Helmholtz, Baxt, and Donders. We used to assume that the various operation of our nervous system were instantaneously performed, but now we know that it is not so. In different persons the various operations take different lengths of time, and the time required in each individual is called the "personal equation" of that individual. Taking a large number of persons, and striking an average, the result stands thus:--

The sun's distance is ascertained by calculations made from the transit of Venus over the sun's disc. The astronomer takes his stand, with his eye to the telescope, waiting to record the transit of the planet. He reports it as touching a given point at a certain time.

How much of error has entered into his report? It has been found by numbers of experiments performed by the above-named physiologists that it takes about one-sixtieth of a second for a sensuous impression to reach the brain through the optic nerve; about one-thirty-sixth of a second to think the simplest thought about it; about one-seventieth of a second to frame a volition; and for the mandate of his will to pass from his brain to his hands, and touch a spring to register the time, it takes on-fiftieth of a second. All these added together make somewhat less than half a second. Correct the observer's report by this fraction, and you will be as near the truth as possible. But owning to that having been ignored in days only lately gone by, we were in error as to the sun's distance by nearly 3,000,000 (three million) miles.

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Did you ever reflect upon the fact, which has been approximately demonstrated within only a comparatively few years past, that no particle of matter ever passes out of being; it merely changes its form. Likewise, no force, once generated, ever passes out of existence; it too merely changes its form. Matter, animal or vegetable, "decays," as the phrase is, i.e., is changed into its component elements, for the most part gaseous, a large part of which is, as you know, absorbed by plant-life again in the shape of carbon dioxide. Likewise, as I have said, no force, once generated, ever passes out of existence; it merely changes its form; thus motion may become heat, heat may be changed into electricity, electricity into magnetism, or vice versa, and so on and so on, but it will not become, through all time, one iota the less.

If, then, not one iota is ever lost, if not even a particle of inanimate matter is ever lost, how can we but shudder at the blasphemy of the thought that any human soul can ever be lost from out the All-Father's hand?

Did you ever reflect upon what becomes of a heap of quick-lime spread upon the land in autumn for agricultural purposes? It dies, to all intents and purposes as truly as our physical body dies--i.e., it ceases to exist as it was before, which is all that death ever means; it merely changes its form, and scarcely even that to our unaided senses, though chemistry can easily detect the changes. Within twenty-four hours it becomes carbonate of calcium. Subsequently it becomes converted into phosphate, nitrate, and other salts of calcium, which undergo a resurrection in the next year's crop, entering into the composition of all the cereal grains, &c., thus becoming converted into a higher form of being. Assume that this vegetable is eaten by an animal, and we have the same duplex truth again illustrated, namely the death of the vegetable and its resurrection into a higher form of lifethe animal. Assume that this animal is eaten by man, and you have the same truth, or rather truths, again shown forth; but as man is at the summit of the scale of animal being, no further advance on the animal plane is possible. Whatever advance there is in store for him, must be on another plane, namely, the spiritual. Hence St. Paul says, "There is a natural [Greek word] (psychical) body and there is a spiritual [Greek word] body," meaning thereby that each individual brings with him, at his entrance into earth-life, the two bodies, the "natural," or "carnal," or psychical body, and the "spiritual" body, intersphered, so to speak, in the former, each of which grows with the growth of the other, the act of death simply consisting of the laying aside of the carnal body, as a worn-out garment which has served its time-purpose, and the uprising or resurrection therefrom of the spiritual body, incorruptible, and that fadeth not away--the future tenement of the soul.

So you see all death--even the death of the lowest form of being, that of the mineral--implies resurrection, and resurrection, moreover, to a higher form of being.

Sir John Herschel has shown, by arithmetical calculation, that accepting the Biblical chronology and the descent of man from a single pair, and assuming that no single individual had died since the Edenic epoch, not merely would every square foot on the face of the globe be covered by human beings, but they would be standing on each other's heads to the height of 134 feet, from which showing of the matter, even apart from other considerations, it must be abundantly evident that death must have been part of the providential scheme of economy of the world.

Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023