« PreviousContinue »
gen to aggregate in woody fibre. If the sun's rays fall upon a surface of sand, the sand is heated, and finally radiates away as inuch heat as it receives; let the same rays fall upon a forest; then the quantity of heat given back is less than that received, for a portion of the sunlight is invested in the building of the trees. We have already seen how heat is consumed in forcing asunder the atoms of bodies; and how it reappears, when the attraction of the separated atoms comes again into play. The precise considerations. which we then applied to heat, we have now to apply to light, for it is at the expense of the solar light that the chemical decomposition takes place. Without the sun, the reduction of the carbonic acid and water cannot be effected; and, in this act, an amount of solar energy is consumed, exactly equivalent to the molecular work done.
Combustion is the reversal of this process of reduction, and all the energy invested in a plant reappears as heat, when the plant is burned. I ignite this bit of cotton, it bursts into flames; the oxygen again unites with its carbon, and an amount of heat is given out, equal to that originally sacrificed by the sun to form the bit of cotton. So also as regards the 'deposits of dynamical efficiency' laid up in our coal strata; they are simply the sun's rays in a potential form. We dig from our pits, annually, more than a hundred million tons of coal, the mechanical equivalent of which is of almost fabulous vastness. The combustion of a single pound of coal, in one
1 Lecture V.
minute, is equal to the work of three hundred horses for the same time. It would require nearly one hundred and fifty millions of horses, working day and night with unimpaired strength for a year, to perform an amount of work equivalent to the energy which the sun of the Carboniferous epoch invested in one year's produce of our coal pits.
The farther we pursue this subject, the more its interest and its wonder grow upon us. You have learned how a sun may be produced by the mere exercise of gravitating force; that by the collision of cold dark planetary masses the light and heat of our central orb, and also of the fixed stars, may be obtained. But here we find the physical powers, derived or derivable from the action of gravity upon dead matter, introducing themselves at the very root of the question of vitality. We find in solar light and heat the very mainspring of vegetable life.
Nor can we halt at the vegetable world, for it, mediately or immediately, is the source of all animal life. Some animals feed directly on plants, others feed upon their herbivorous fellow-creatures; but all, in the long run, derive life and energy from the vegetable world; all, therefore, as Helmholtz has remarked, may trace their lineage to the sun. In the animal body the carbon and hydrogen of the vegetable are again brought near the oxygen from which they had been divorced, and which is now supplied by the lungs. Reunion takes place, and animal heat is the result. Save as regards intensity, there is no difference between the combustion that thus goes on within
us, and that of an ordinary fire. The products of combustion are in both cases the same, namely, carbonic acid and water. Looking then at the physics of the question, we see that the formation of a vegetable is a process of winding up, while the formation of an animal is a process of running down. This is the rhythm of Nature as applied to animal and vegetable life.
But is there nothing in the human body to liberate it from that chain of necessity which the law of conservation coils around inorganic nature? Look at two men upon a mountain side, with apparently equal physical strength; the one will sink and fail, while the other scales the summit. Has not volition, in this case, a creative power? Physically considered, the law that rules the operations of a steam-engine rules the operations of the climber. For every pound raised by the former, an equivalent quantity of its heat disappears; and for every step the climber ascends, an amount of heat, equivalent jointly to his own weight and the height to which it is raised, is lost to his body. The strong will can draw largely upon the physical energy furnished by the food; but it can create nothing. The function of the will is to apply and direct, not to create.1
I have just said that, as a climber ascends a mountain, heat disappears from his body; the same statement applies to animals performing work. It would appear to follow from this, that the body ought to grow colder, in the act of climbing or of working,
See "Muscular Heat in Relation to Work," p. 83.
whereas universal experience proves it to grow The solution of this seeming contradiction is found in the fact, that when the muscles are exerted, augmented respiration, and increased chemical action, set in. The fan which urges oxygen into the fire within is more briskly moved; and thus, though heat actually disappears as we climb, the loss is more than covered by the increased activity of the chemical processes.
By means of a modification of the thermo-electric pile, Becquerel and Breschet proved heat to be developed in a muscle when it contracts. Billroth and Fick have also found that in the case of persons who die of tetanus, the temperature of the muscles is sometimes nearly eleven degrees Fahrenheit in excess of the normal temperature. Helmholtz has shown that the muscles of dead frogs, in contracting, produce heat; and an extremely important result as regards the influence of contraction has been obtained by Ludwig and his pupils. Arterial blood, you know, is charged with oxygen: when this blood passes through a muscle in an ordinary uncontracted state, it is changed into venous blood which still retains about 7 per cent. of oxygen. But if the arterial blood pass through a contracted muscle, it is almost wholly deprived of its oxygen, the quantity remaining amounting, in some cases, to only 1 per Another result of the augmented combustion within the muscles when in a state of activity, is an increase in the amount of carbonic acid expired from the lungs. Dr. Edward Smith has shown that the
quantity of this gas expired during periods of great exertion may be five times that expired in a state of repose.
The grand point permanent throughout all these considerations is, that nothing new is created in physical nature. We can make no movement which is not accounted for by the contemporaneous extinction of some other movement. And how complicated soever the motions of animals may be, whatever may be the change which the molecules of our food undergo within our bodies, the whole energy of animal life consists in the falling of the atoms of carbon and hydrogen and nitrogen from the high level which they occupy in the food, to the low level which they occupy when they quit the body. But what has enabled the carbon and the hydrogen to fall? What first raised them to the level which rendered the fall possible? We have already learned that it is the sun. Not only is the sun chilled, that we may have our external fires, but he is likewise chilled, that we may have our internal warmth and our powers of locomotion.
The subject is of such vast importance, and is so sure to tinge the whole future course of philosophic thought, that I will dwell upon it a little longer, and endeavour, by reference to analogical processes, to give you a clearer idea of the part played by the sun. in vital actions. We can raise water by mechanical action to a high level; and that water, in descending by its own gravity, may be made to assume a variety of forms, and to perform various kinds of mechanical work. It may be made to fall in cascades, rise