It is so hard to find out the truth by looking at the past. The process of time obscures the truth and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist out of malice or flattery. — Plutarch

Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson


When viewing the Grand March Past in the preceding chapter, we paid attention to the order in which the different Heroes of Science crossed the stage of life; we did not consider the length of time each actor remained upon the stage.

It may be a surprise to some readers to learn that a string of seven individual actors links up the time of Copernicus with the present day. Copernicus had just quitted the stage when Tycho Brahe stepped on, and in the case of Tycho and the other five men forming this chain, one had not disappeared until the succeeding actor was already on the stage; this will be seen from a glance at the following note:—

COPERNICUS passed away only three years before the birth of
TYCHO BRAHE. At the time of Tycho's death
GALILEO was nearly forty years of age.
SIR ISAAC NEWTON was born in the year in which Galileo died.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN was twenty years of age when Newton died.
SIR HUMPHRY DAVY was a schoolboy of twelve at Franklin's death.
LORD KELVIN was a bright boy of five years when Davy passed away.

Thus by seven steps we get back to the close of the Middle Ages. We know that during the Middle Ages Science made practically no progress, and that the fault lay in the people believing that they must first of all find the causes before they could understand the effects. They would have considered that they were degrading their pure philosophy if they had condescended to study mere phenomena.

Going back through the Middle Ages we pass Roger Bacon, and before him the Arabian Scientists, and finally we reach the point of real progress, before the time of Christ, with which we set out.

To some people any date B.C. seems to be approaching infinity, or at least to be a good way towards the beginning of things, whereas the time of William the Conqueror takes us nearly half-way back to the time of Christ. Indeed, the beginning of the Christian era is very, very recent compared to the advent of man upon this planet.

It is natural that the lives of Galileo, Newton, and Kelvin stand out more prominently than the others in this account of the Heroes of Science.

These three great men lived seventy-eight, eighty-five, and eighty-three years respectively, and in the majority of cases the lives of all our heroes were well above the average life of men. Out of the list of fifty-three men given in the Appendix (page 339), no less than thirty-five passed the allotted span of threescore years and ten.

When we think of the amount of work done by these men, surely we must be convinced that hard work—apart from worry—will never kill a man, and that if we wish to have a long and happy life, the best we can do is to work hard and keep one's mind alive to all the interests of mankind. Of course, this will not guarantee long life, for there are many outside causes with which we have to contend. On the other hand, a life of indolence or mere pleasing of oneself cannot be a really happy one, though it may drag out beyond the allotted span. One of the great poets of the eighteenth century (Cowper) has said:

"An idler is a watch that wants both hands,

As useless if it goes as if it stands."

When we consider the enormous advance which has been made in scientific knowledge, and when we think of the wide field still to be explored, surely we shall not grudge any grants that the State may give towards Scientific Investigation. It is a matter of national importance to us. We wish to be in the forefront, not only in the number of Dreadnoughts we possess.