John Tyndall

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It is as fatal as it is cowardly to blink facts because they are not to our taste.

John Tyndall (August 2, 1820December 4, 1893) was an Irish physicist.


Scientific addresses (1870)[edit]

Knowledge once gained casts a faint light beyond its own immediate boundaries.
  • Knowledge once gained casts a faint light beyond its own immediate boundaries.
    • On the Methods and Tendencies of Physical Investigation, p. 7.

Faraday as a Discoverer (1868)[edit]

Faraday was not slow to anger, but he completely ruled his own spirit, and thus, though he took no cities, he captivated all hearts
  • The experimental researches of Faraday are so voluminous, their descriptions are so detailed, and their wealth of illustration is so great, as to render it a heavy labour to master them. The multiplication of proofs, necessary and interesting when the new truths had to be established, are however less needful now when these truths have become household words in science.
    • Preface to the Second Edition (December 1869).
  • A point highly illustrative of the character of Faraday now comes into view. He gave an account of his discovery of Magneto-electricity in a letter to his friend M. Hachette, of Paris, who communicated the letter to the Academy of Sciences. The letter was translated and published ; and immediately afterwards two distinguished Italian philosophers took up the subject, made numerous experiments, and published their results before the complete memoirs of Faraday had met the public eye. This evidently irritated him. He reprinted the paper of the learned Italians in the Philosophical Magazine accompanied by sharp critical notes from himself. He also wrote a letter dated Dec. 1,1832, to Gay Lussac, who was then one of the editors of the Annales de Chimie in which he analysed the results of the Italian philosophers, pointing out their errors, and' defending himself from what he regarded as imputations on his character. The style of this letter is unexceptionable, for Faraday could not write otherwise than as a gentleman; but the letter shows that had he willed it he could have hit hard. We have heard much of Faraday's gentleness and sweetness and tenderness. It is all true, but it is very incomplete. You cannot resolve a powerful nature into these elements, and Faraday's character would have been less admirable than it was had it not embraced forces and tendencies to which the silky adjectives "gentle" and "tender" would by no means apply. Underneath his sweetness and gentleness was the heat of a volcano. He was a man of excitable and fiery nature; but through high self-discipline he had converted the fire into a central glow and motive power of life, instead of permitting it to waste itself in useless passion. "He that is slow to anger" saith the sage, "is greater than the mighty, and he that ruleth his own spirit than he that taketh a city." Faraday was not slow to anger, but he completely ruled his own spirit, and thus, though he took no cities, he captivated all hearts.
    • "Points of Character", p. 37.

Fragments of Science, Vol. II (1879)[edit]

Life is a wave, which in no two consecutive moments of its existence is composed of the same particles.
  • Life is a wave, which in no two consecutive moments of its existence is composed of the same particles.
    • Vitality.
  • The mind of man may be compared to a musical instrument with a certain range of notes, beyond which in both directions we have an infinitude of silence.
    • Matter and Force.
  • The brightest flashes in the world of thought are incomplete until they have been proved to have their counterparts in the world of fact.
    • Scientific Materialism.
  • It is as fatal as it is cowardly to blink facts because they are not to our taste.
    • Science and Man.
  • Charles Darwin, the Abraham of scientific men — a searcher as obedient to the command of truth as was the patriarch to the command of God.
    • Science and Man.
  • Religious feeling is as much a verity as any other part of human consciousness; and against it, on the subjective side, the waves of science beat in vain.

New Fragments (1892)[edit]

source: (1897)
  • [T]he Christian philosopher of to-day has larger capacities and fuller knowledge than the Israelite of the time of Moses. What the one accepted as literal truth the other cannot accept save as a myth or figure. The children of Israel received without idealisation the statements of their great lawgiver. To them the tables of the law were true tablets of stone, prepared, engraved, broken, and re-engraved; while the graving tool which thus inscribed the law was held undoubtingly to be the finger of God. To us such conceptions are impossible. We may by habit use the words, but we attach to them no definite meaning.
  • To Principal Caird... imaging of the Unseen is of inestimable value. It furnishes an objective counterpart to religious emotion, permanent but plastic—capable of indefinite change and purification in response to the changing thoughts and aspirations of mankind.
  • The Apocrypha... ought to be bound up with all your Bibles; it contains much that is beautiful and wise, and there is in history nothing finer than the description of Eleazar's end.
  • Almost every faith can point to its rejoicing martyrs.
  • The strength of faith is... no proof of the objective truth of faith.
  • I leave it to you to compare this Christian hero [Paul] with some of the 'freethinkers' of our own day, who, 'more intolerant than the intolerance they deprecate,' flaunt in public their cheap and trumpery theories of the great Apostle and the Master whom he served.
  • Christian love was not the feeling which long animated the respective followers of Peter and Paul.
    We who have been born into a settled state of things can hardly realise the commotion out of which this tranquillity has emerged. We have, for example, the canon of Scripture already arranged for us. But to sift and select these writings from the mass of spurious documents afloat at the time of compilation was a work of vast labour, difficulty, and responsibility. The age was rife with forgeries. Even good men lent themselves to these pious frauds, believing that true Christian doctrine, which of course was their doctrine, would be thereby quickened and promoted. There were gospels and counter-gospels; epistles and counter-epistles—some frivolous, some dull, some speculative and romantic, and some so rich and penetrating, so saturated with the Master's spirit, that, though not included in the canon, they enjoyed an authority almost equal to that of the canonical books.
  • When arguments or proofs were needed, whether on the side of the Jewish Christians or of the Gentile Christians, a document was discovered which met the case, and on which the name of an apostle, or of some authoritative contemporary of the apostles, was boldly inscribed. The end being held to sanctify the means, there was no lack of manufactured testimony.
  • The Christian world seethed not only with apocryphal writings, but with hostile interpretations of writings not apocryphal.
  • Then arose the sect of the Gnostics—men who know — who laid claim to the possession of a perfect science, and who, if they were to be believed, had discovered the true formula for what philosophers called 'the Absolute.' But these speculative Gnostics were rejected by the conservative and orthodox Christians of their day as fiercely as their successors the Agnostics —men who don't know—are rejected by the orthodox in our own.
  • With terrible jolts and oscillations the religious life of the world has run down 'the ringing grooves of change.' A smoother route may have been undiscoverable. At all events it was undiscovered.
  • Some years ago I found myself in discussion with a friend who entertained the notion that the general tendency of things in this world is towards equilibrium, the result of which would be peace and blessedness to the human race. My notion, was that equilibrium meant... death. No motive power is to be got from heat, save during its fall from a higher to a lower temperature, as no power is to be got from water save during its descent from a higher to a lower level. Thus also life consists, not in equilibrium, but in the passage towards equilibrium. In man it is the leap from the potential through the actual to repose.
  • [K]nowledge and progress are the fruits of action.
  • [T]he enunciation of a thought in advance of the moment provokes dissent or evokes approval, and thus promotes action. The thought may be unwise; but it is only by discussion, checked by experience, that its value can be determined.
  • Discussion, therefore, is one of the motive powers of life, and, as such, is not to be deprecated.
  • The yoke of religion has not always been easy, nor its burden light—a result arising, in part from the ignorance of the world at large, but more especially from the mistakes of those who had the charge and guidance of a great spiritual force, and who guided it blindly.
  • [W]aste in intellect may be as much an incident of growth as waste in nature.
  • Christ found the religions of the world oppressed almost to suffocation by the load of formulas piled upon them by the priesthood. He removed the load, and rendered respiration free. He cared little for forms and ceremonies, which had ceased to be the raiment of man's spiritual life. To that life he looked, and it he sought to restore.
  • Science, which is the logic of nature, demands proportion between the house and its foundation. Theology sometimes builds weighty structures on a doubtful base.
  • That there were 'weeds' in the Bible requiring to be kept out of sight was to me... a new revelation. I take little pleasure in dwelling upon the errors and blemishes of a book rendered venerable to me by intrinsic wisdom and imperishable associations. But...when its passages are invoked to justify the imposition of a yoke, irksome because unnatural, we are driven in self-defence to be critical.
  • Religion lives not by the force and aid of dogma, but because it is ingrained in the nature of man. ...the moulds have been broken and reconstructed over and over again, but the molten ore abides in the ladle of humanity.
  • [O]f the future form of religion little can be predicted. Its main concern may possibly be to purify, elevate, and brighten the life that now is, instead of treating it as the more or less dismal vestibule of a life that is to come.
  • The Sabbath being regarded as a shadow or type of that heavenly repose which the righteous will enjoy when this world has passed away, 'so these six days of creation are so many periods or millenniums for which the world and the toils and labours of our present state are destined to endure.' The Mosaic account was thus reduced to a poetic myth... But if this symbolic interpretation, which is now generally accepted, be the true one, what becomes of the Sabbath day? It is absolutely without ecclesiastical meaning. The man who was executed for gathering sticks on that day must therefore be regarded as the victim of a rude legal rendering of a religious epic.
  • We ought not to judge superior men without reference to the spirit of their age. This is an influence from which they cannot escape, and so far as it extenuates their errors it ought to be pleaded in their favour.
  • [T]he most fatal error that could be committed by the leaders of religious thought is the attempt to force into their own age conceptions which have lived their life, and come to their natural end in preceding ages.
  • History is the record of a vast experimental investigation—of a search by man after the best conditions of existence.
  • To legislation... the Puritans resorted. Instead of guiding, they repressed, and thus pitted themselves against the unconquerable impulses of human nature. Believing that nature to be depraved, they felt themselves logically warranted in putting it in irons. But they failed; and their failure ought to be a warning to their successors.

Quotes about Tyndall[edit]

  • When the Pope can go to the extreme of fulminating anathemas against all who maintain the liberty of the press and of speech, or who insist that in the conflict of laws, civil and ecclesiastical, the civil law should prevail, or that any method of instruction solely secular, may be approved; (Encyclical of 1864) and Mr. Tyndall, as the mouthpiece of nineteenth century science, says, ". . . the impregnable position of science may be stated in a few words: we claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory" ("Fragments of Science")—the end is not difficult to foresee.
  • In his Fragments of Science Tyndall makes the following sad confession: "If you ask me whether science has solved, or is likely in our day to solve the problem of this universe, I must shake my head in doubt." If moved by an afterthought, he corrects himself later, and assures his audience that experimental evidence has helped him to discover, in the opprobrium-covered matter, the "promise and potency of every quality of life," he only jokes. It would be as difficult for Professor Tyndall to offer any ultimate and irrefutable proofs of what he asserts, as it was for Job to insert a hook into the nose of the leviathan.
  • It has lately been the fashion to speak of "the untenable conceptions of an uncultivated past." As though it were possible to hide behind an epigram the intellectual quarries out of which the reputations of so many modern philosophers have been carved! Just as Tyndall is ever ready to disparage ancient philosophers — for a dressing-up of whose ideas more than one distinguished scientist has derived honor and credit — so the geologists seem more and more inclined to take for granted that all of the archaic races were contemporaneously in a state of dense barbarism.
  • The soul, which is immortal, has an arithmetical, as the body has a geometrical, beginning. This beginning, as the reflection of the great universal ARCHÆUS, is self moving, and from the centre diffuses itself over the whole body of the microcosm. It was the sad perception of this truth that made Tyndall confess how powerless is science, even over the world of matter. "The first marshalling of the atoms, on which all subsequent action depends, baffles a keener power than that of the microscope." "Through pure excess of complexity, and long before observation can have any voice in the matter, the most highly trained intellect, the most refined and disciplined imagination, retires in bewilderment from the contemplation of the problem. We are struck dumb by an astonishment which no microscope can relieve, doubting not only the power of our instrument, but even whether we ourselves possess the intellectual elements which will ever enable us to grapple with the ultimate structural energies of nature."
  • There may be more truth in the adventurous pangenesis of Darwin — whom Tyndall calls a "soaring speculator" — than in the cautious, line-bound hypothesis of the latter; who, in common with other thinkers of his class, surrounds his imagination "by the firm frontiers of reason." The theory of a microscopic germ which contains in itself "a world of minor germs," soars in one sense at least into the infinite. It oversteps the world of matter, and begins unconsciously busying itself in the world of spirit.

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