CELESTIAL WASTE OR WEALTH?
EARLY on Tuesday or Wednesday morning some 240,000 small bodies called shooting stars passed the earth in n cluster, penetrating the upper regions of its atmosphere, and exhibiting the most brilliant colours—red, white, and blue. There is no doubt that somewhere between the 11th and 14th November the earth shoots through a ring of innumerable fragments of planetary matter, many of which pass so near us that, revolving as they do round the sun with an average velocity of some 35 miles a second,—say 3,600 times more rapidly than an ordinary express train,—through the excessively rarefied air at a height of from 5a to 70 miles above the earth, they produce by their sudden con- densation of that air the light which we call the light of shooting stars. The spectacle produced when these phenomena are clearly seen and in their greatest abundance, as they were on Tuesday night, is like a brilliant display of celestial fireworks. Humboldt and Bonpland, who were at Cumana (in Venezuela, South America) on the 12th November in the last year of the last century (1799), tell us that between two and five in the morning the sky was covered with innumerable luminous trains which incessantly traversed the sky from north to south, presenting the appearance of fireworks let off at an enormous height,—large meteors, having sometimes an apparent diameter of one and a half times that of the moon, blending their trains with the long luminous and phosphorescent paths of the shooting stars. The same splendid spectacle was wit- nessed in Brazil, Labrador, Greenland, parts of Germany, and French Guiana.* Mr. Newton, an American astronomer, believes, after careful observation and calculation, that there are some seven millions and a half of these small bodies which traverse the atmo- sphere daily, and which would be visible on a clear night to an observer somewhere or other on the surface of the earth with the naked eye alone ; nay that if all the meteors which could be seen in one clear, dark night, supposing the globe of the earth were a single living retina, and were aided by a powerful telescope applied all round it, were numbered, they could not be fewer than four hundred millions. The 240,000 or so which we see in such splendid masses somewhere near the 13th of November are but a single, closely concentrated group, apparently belonging to the same fragment of planet. It is calculated that within the space occupied by the earth with its atmosphere, there are always, at any single moment, some 13,000 ,snudl bodies called shooting stars whioh would be under favourable circumstances visible to the' naked eye, and at least forty times as many that would be visible to telescopic observers under the same circumstances.
• See 1e Heavens. By Galllemln. Edited by Lookyer. London : Bentley. And all these, it must be remembered, touch the margin of the terrestrial atmosphere, for it is by the collision with it that the light is emitted. They are far too near the earth to catch the light of the sun during our night. Not a few such planetary fragments may, it is believed, have been attracted out of their own solar orbits into the earth's sphere of attraction, and become permanent satellites attending upon us, though too small and too near for ordinary observation. M. Guillemin tells us in his book on "the Heavens" that a French astronomer, M. Petit, of Toulouse, assigns to one such body a period of revolution round the earth of three hours and twenty minutes at a distance of 5,000 miles. So that if he is right, we have a little satellite at a distance of not much above a single radius of the earth,—not so far from its surface as Calcutta is from London,—which whirls round us in less than a sixth part of our own day. And if he is right in this case, the chances are that there are many more such minute specks whirling round our heads at greater or less distances. The magnitudes of these most diminutive of all known planets,—the existence of which we for the most part should not suspect but for their flashing fire when they meet our atmosphere,—are- exceed- ingly trifling. Mr. Herschel belieVes most shooting stars to weig,h no more than two ounces ; and the largest calculated meteor is said to weigh about two hundredweight.
What strikes us most in considering these minute astronomical phenomena is the enormous amount of apparently waste plane- tary matter lavished upon space by the divine plan. Now, there was a time, and that not very long Ago, when it was thought almost irreligious to talk of waste material in the universe at all. The moon, which is, of course, vastly bigger than all the enormous number of terrestrial meteors put together, is, as almost all astro- nomers now believe, a great cinder, where no life is ; but then the moon is considered as answering the clear purpose of lighting up the terrestrial night for half the year or so, so that even though not subservient to any lunar life of its own, it is fitted with a pur- pose which prevents its being classed as waste material. But it will scarcely be supposed that the meteors which in such enormous numbers penetrate our atmosphere, and are so seldom seen, being too scattered in space and time indeed to attract much notice except at one or two remarkable periods, exist only for the sake of the celestial fireworks which are now and then visible on a moonless August and November night. They are really to the astronomical universe what the mites which dance in the sunbeam are to a single ray of light,—for the most part unobserved and unobservable. If they are not to be called waste as- tronomical material, it is only because there is nothing waste in the universe at all. But at all events they are to the organized matter of worlds like ours what the sparks of metal which a smith strikes out of the red-hot iron on his anvil, and which fly off to mingle again with the crust of the earth, are to the moulded iron which enters into the machinery of civilization, and is used to plough that crust so as to render it infinitely more productive and fuller of vital stimulus to human power. " Waste " maybe, no doubt, as we were all taught in childhood, a false and profane idea. Still it has a meaning. Though nothing be absolutely wasted, that which is mere potentiality is waste as compared with that which is in full use. The desert is waste compared with land which bears much fruit. The undiscovered mine is waste power compared with the worked and discovered mine. The sea was waste while no one knew how to sail on it, as compared with the same sea when it became the pathway of nations. And in this sense, at least, the scattered billions of ounces of meteoric matter which make occasional shows of fireworks in autumn nights, are waste compared with the same matter organized into worlds capable of sustaining such life as that of our earth. Or look at that other enormous scale of what (in this sense) we may call waste, which Sir John Herschel in one of his beautiful scientific essays has put so powerfully,—waste of the sun's light and heat. The earth, he reminds us, occupies only the 75, 000th part of the circumference of the circle which it describes about the sun, "so that 75,000 of such earths, at that distance and in that circle, placed side by side, would all be equally well warmed and lighted,—and then that is only in one plane. But there is the whole sphere of space above and below unoccupied, at any single part of which if an earth were placed at the same distance, it would receive the same amount of light and heat. Take all the planets together, great and small, the light and heat they receive is only one 227-millionth part of the whole quantity thrown out by the sun. All the rest escapes into free space and is lost among the stars, or does there some other work that we know not of. Of the small fraction thus utilized in our system, the earth takes for its share only one-tenth part, or less than one 2,000-millionth part of -the whole supply." Here is "natural selection" on s truly magnificent scale :—One 227-millionth part of the sun's light and heat possibly utilized by selected spheres ; only one 2,000-millionth part certainly utilized by a world of which we have knowledge, and of this, again, an enormous portion partially lost in desert heats and polar ice. Are we to call it waste or wealth which not only of "fifty seeds," but possibly even of two thousand millions, "brings," as the Poet Laureate says, "but one to bear," and even that only in part?
That which is in the most 'accurate sense " waste " is not the Joss of force, which is never lost, but its misapplication. When, for instance, bread which is made for eating is scattered on the earth, in places where it does not even feed the birds, it is clear that the labour spent upon it might have been applied otherwise, and that the substance of the earth itself would have been no loser. So when nervous power, which might be spent on intellectual ends or on the acquisition of a mastery over thought and will, is expended in -mere fidgety superstitions like Dr. Johnson's that he must touch every rail in the railings which he passed of a morning, that is wasted genius, because it is genius misapplied. But when a beam of light 'which, as we suppose, might be used to warm and light some sensi- tive organization is dismissed into the spaces among the stars, or a -seed which might, as we suppose, produce an ear of corn or an oak, rots back again into the general substance of the earth, or a planetary world which might, as we suppose, become the abode of thinking beings, splits up into minute fragments which only pro- duce celestial fireworks not often visible to sentient beings,—we have no means at all of knowing that any power has been mis- applied or that any intention has failed of its effect. Who is to say which is the point of fulfilled destiny for any natural constitu- tion ? If the seed reaches the stage of flowering, but the flower -does not produce fresheeeds, is that at all less of an apparent failure -of intention than when the seed itself decays without flowering? If the beam of light is absorbed by some planetary body, but only by such a barren one as the moon is supposed to be, and does not -reach any sensitive organization, is that leas of an apparent failure 'of capacity than if it passed away into space ? Or if, again, it -does light and warm, say a race of mammoths now extinct, but not any higher creature, or a man who uses the force so put into him for an evil purpose, is that again any less a failure of capacity than if it had been lost in space ? Or if a world is created capable -of supporting life in fishes only, as it is supposed was once the case with our earth, is that less a failure of apparent planetary capacity than if it had been barren and incapable of sustaining life of any kind ? The truth forced upon us by the wider' and -wider knowledge of the universe which science gives, is that the :numbers of any created thing are almost in inverse proportion to its dignity in the divine plan,—that on every lower level of exist- ence there are multitudes of specimens of creative power that have gone no further—and that have been intended, of course, to go no further,-46r every one that has been created above them by adding to the qualities which they possessed some other or others that give them a new and distinguishing beauty -or value. This is, in fact, all that Mr. Darwin's theory comes to. It does not 'show us the why, but it does show us the _fact that each fresh' rise in creative beauty or power is built up from a level of inferior capacities which we only learn (and that falsely) to think of as failures or rejections, because we have seen what greater thing might, under Certain specially favour- able conditions, grow out of like beginnings. These, however, would -only be "waste," in ease we could conceive of the divine intention having fallen short of its purpose in them. They really -are proofs of wealth, and not of waste, if we suppose them to have -been created for precisely what they are, clear landmarks of the -creative plan, which compel us to note how the absence of some -one or more apparently very insignificant conditions,—say, as re- gards worlds, the absence of an atmosphere,—marks the turning point of creative purpose, and determines to a lower rank that which might in every other respect have seemed destined for a ingher. We hold the quantity of so-called waste in the universe, that is, of agencies which we are 'accustomed under given conditions to see devoted to higher ends, but which are also lavished richly en lower without producing or tending-to produce these higher ends, to be really a lesson of the highest isignificance to fis. Providence is more prolific of the lower than the higher, to make rational and free beings,,---in their small way, too, creators,--see how easy it is for us to stop at the lower, how difficult to reach the higher, and by how fine a line the one is discriminated from the other. Seeds that do not grow are far more numerous than seeds that do ; flowers' that do not seed are more numerous than flowers that do ; light which is not seen, heat which is not felt, is far more abundant than the light which enters sentient eyes, and heat
which warms sentient bodies ; planets which are barren, are in all probability far more numerous than planets which have life upon them ; the higher the creative energy of God, the rarer is it ; economy grows in proportion as the various divine agencies con- verge, and come to a focus. Of time and matter, of light and heat, of force and motion, God confesses Himself prodigal, but the higher the nature created, the more does He impress upon us that every line and shade of discrimination makes a difference, and may make the difference between stationariness and progress. In the mere material universe God seems to us as prodigal as a generous man will be of mere gold,—only taking care that it is not created for evil. But of all intellectual and moral agencies He is economical, making us feel that a higher and higher value attaches to the smallest distinctions, the further we advance towards sharing His purposes and nature.