Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Doctor Brewer’s Guide to Science - Katherine Langrish

A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar (with an appendix of questions without answers) by the Rev. Dr Brewer, Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
Thirty-Eighth Edition
Above 300,000 copies of this work in circulation
Here then, is a book of popular scientific knowledge which was clearly selling in vast numbers in the second half of the 19th century. My husband has had the book on his shelves for years and we're rather fond of it, but I knew nothing about the author (other than the stated fact that he was a clergyman) until I looked him up on Wiki as I was writing this and discovered that - lo and behold! - he's the Dr Brewer of  'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable', which is of course far better known, has gone through many a new edition and is, I hope, considerably more reliable. The good Doctor was born in 1810 and died in 1897 and this, his book of facts (or non-facts) about science, was first published in 1848.

He sets out his educational aim in the ‘Preface':

No science is more generally interesting that that which explains the common phenomena of life. We see that salt and snow are both white, a rose red, leaves green and the violet a deep purple, but how few persons ever ask the reaon why!  We know that a flute produces a musical sound, and cracked bell a discordant one – that fire is hot, ice cold, and a candle luminous – that water boils when subjected to heat and freezes from cold; but when a child looks up into our face and asks us ‘why?’ – how many times is it silenced with a frown or called very foolish for asking such silly questions! The object of this book is to explain above 2000 of these questions (which are often more easily asked than answered) in language so simple that a child may undestand it, yet not so foolish as to offend the scientific.

Brewer adds a personal anecdote about hearing a child ask her father ‘Why is the kettle so black with smoke?’

Her papa answered, ‘Because it has been on the fire.’ ‘But,’ (urged the child) ‘what is the good if its being black?’ The gentleman replied, ‘Silly child – you ask very foolish questions – sit down and hold your tongue.’

His defence of childish curiosity is very disarming. All the same, the Doctor’s own answers are often not very much more helpful, as can be seen from the following tautological set of Q&As on the very first page:

Q.           What is HEAT ?
A.           That which produces the sensation of warmth.

Q.           How is this sensation produced?
A.           Simply by an exchange of temperature with some substance warmer than ourselves.

Some previously unimpressed reader of the book has commented in light pencil at the top of this page: ‘When he doesn’t know the answer, it is the “Will of God”.’ 

Q.           What is LIGHT?
A.           The unknown cause of visibility. The most usual method of obtaining artificial light is combustion accompanied with flame.

Feeling perhaps that this wasn’t quite enough, Dr Brewer adds a more in-depth footnote which ends with a perhaps lucky flourish in the general direction of the truth:

The two theories of light most usually received are those of Newton and Huyghens.  According to Sir Isaac Newton, luminous particles of an elastic imponderable fluid, called ether, dart in all directions from the surface of light-giving bodies like the sun. Much the same as an odour from a flower. According to Huyghens [sic], the aforesaid ether is merely a vehicle, or medium of light, just as air is a medium of sound […] but it is highly probable that that ere long electricity or magnetism will be found to be the cause of light, and that the notion of a luminous ether will be wholly discarded. 

To cite only 17th century scientists in the late 19th is what you might call super-cautious. Michael Faraday had proposed in 1847 that light might be an electro-magnetic vibration, and this was borne out by James Clerk Maxwell in 1865, so Dr Brewer is a long way from cutting-edge science here. Still, he does at least show some inklings of awareness of modern developments. (And I do rather like that doubtful yet poetic image of the sun as some sort of cosmic dandelion, exuding light as a rose exudes perfume.)

Sometimes it looks as though his Q&As have been designed to point a moral rather than to address any likely question or genuine curiosity:

Q.           Why are shoes HOTTER for being DUSTY?
A.           Because dull, dusty shoes will absorb heat from the the sun, earth and air; but shoes brightly polished, throw off the heat of the sun by reflection.

Here’s an odd one.

Q.           Shew the wisdom of GOD in making grass, the leaves of trees, and ALL VEGETABLES, excellent radiators of heat.
A.           As vegetables require much moisture, and would often perish without a plentiful deposit of dew, God wisely made them to radiate heat freely, so as to condense the vapour (which touches them) into dew.

There are other oddities:

Q.           Why does the savour of delicious food make the mouth of a hungry man WATER?
A.           Because the salivary glands are excited by the savour of the food. This is a wise provision of GOD, who thus excites the flow of saliva by the odour of the food, before it is needful to masticate and swallow it.  

And I can’t figure this one out at all:

Q.           Why are the ILL-FED instinctively averse to CLEANLINESS?
A.           Because cleanliness increases hunger, which they cannot allay by food.

I’m sorry, what? And sometimes Dr Brewer simply gets things wrong, as when he claims that hail is caused by rain passing ‘in its descent through a cold bed of air, and being frozen into ice.’ The person with the pencil has noted critically in the margin: ‘Rain forced upwards into colder air’.  And I do feel that, especially by the year 1880, the Doctor really should have been able to do better than this set of Miscellaneous Questions near the end of the book. 

Q.           Why do the BUBBLES in a CUP of TEA range round the SIDES of the CUP?
A.           Because the cup attracts them.

Q.           Why do the BUBBLES of a CUP OF TEA follow a tea spoon?
A.           Because the tea spoon attracts them.

Q.           Why are the sides of a pond covered with LEAVES, while the middle of the pond is quite CLEAR?
A.           Because the shore attracts the leaves to itself.

Q.           Why do all fruits, etc, (when severed from the tree) FALL TO THE EARTH?
A.           Because the earth attracts them.              

Oh dear. Perhaps he was getting tired.

Dr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer


Sue Bursztynski said...

Perhaps he should have stuck to Phrase and Fable. It can't be for nothing that this is what we have heard of him for! ;-)

CBCA Shortlist 5 and 6: Captain Jimmy Smith Discovers Third Grade and Dragonfly Song

catdownunder said...

Absolutely fascinating!

Leslie Wilson said...

What fun!