A History of Science, III - Modern Development of the Physical Sciences
by Henry Smith Williams
With the present book we enter the field of the distinctively modern. There is no precise date at which we take up each of the successive stories, but the main sweep of development has to do in each case with the nineteenth century. We shall see at once that this is a time both of rapid progress and of great differentiation. We have heard almost nothing hitherto of such sciences as paleontology, geology, and meteorology, each of which now demands full attention. Meantime, astronomy and what the workers of the elder day called natural philosophy become wonderfully diversified and present numerous phases that would have been startling enough to the star-gazers and philosophers of the earlier epoch.
Thus, for example, in the field of astronomy, Herschel is able, thanks to his perfected telescope, to discover a new planet and then to reach out into the depths of space and gain such knowledge of stars and nebulae as hitherto no one had more than dreamed of. Then, in rapid sequence, a whole coterie of hitherto unsuspected minor planets is discovered, stellar distances are measured, some members of the starry galaxy are timed in their flight, the direction of movement of the solar system itself is investigated, the spectroscope reveals the chemical composition even of suns that are unthinkably distant, and a tangible theory is grasped of the universal cycle which includes the birth and death of worlds.
Similarly the new studies of the earth's surface reveal secrets of planetary formation hitherto quite inscrutable. It becomes known that the strata of the earth's surface have been forming throughout untold ages, and that successive populations differing utterly from one another have peopled the earth in different geological epochs. The entire point of view of thoughtful men becomes changed in contemplating the history of the world in which we live—albeit the newest thought harks back to some extent to those days when the inspired thinkers of early Greece dreamed out the wonderful theories with which our earlier chapters have made our readers familiar.
In the region of natural philosophy progress is no less pronounced and no less striking. It suffices here, however, by way of anticipation, simply to name the greatest generalization of the century in physical science—the doctrine of the conservation of energy.