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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

The "New" Scientific Subject

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The "New" Scientific Subject is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published in The British Journal of Photography on 20 july 1883.

Conan Doyle was replying to an article of the same title written by W. Harding in the previous week issue.


The "New" Scientific Subject

Gentlemen, — I read with some interest and considerable surprise an article which appeared, under the above heading, in THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY last week. I then read it again. After a short lapse of time, and a medical examination which reassured me as to the state of my intellect, I perused it for the third time; but I felt it would be a tempting of Providence to go deeper into the matter. Will Mr. Harding Warner consent to throw a "photosphere or luminous halo" round this Delphic utterance of his? Or are we to understand that it is a colossal practical joke which leaves in the shade Artemus Ward's description of the silver mine?

Mr. Warner cites as facts things which are incorrect, and that in a crisp and epigrammatic way which is delightful. From these so-called facts he draws inferences which, even if they were facts indeed, would be illogical, and upon these illogical inferences draws deductions which, once more, no amount of concession would render tenable. Let us for curiosity's sake brace ourselves for a mental effort, and wade along in Mr. Warner's trail, in the hope of picking up some little scrap of meaning.

Mr. Warner begins by the pretty broad assertion that "all bodies — especially such as are magnets, crystals, man [!], and even the light of the sun and heavenly bodies — are polarised." There may be some arguments as to how far such bodies may be polarised — though I believe that in physics the term is only applicable to light — but the use of the present tense and the offhanded looseness of the remark makes the sentence sound more like an extract from a nightmare of Professor Tyndall's than a sober scientific statement. There follows an incoherent allusion to "the polarity of colour" (whatever that may mean) and an account of some sensitive subjects who on placing their hands over "the poles of a crystal" were sensible of a "tepid breath," by which, I presume, the gentleman means a warm current of air — a curious circumstance, if true, but without the smallest bearing upon the subject at issue, if there can be said to be any subject at issue.

Mr. Warner then runs off upon another tack, and we might quote the bard that "this is a more beautiful song than the other." He tells us that scientific men have discovered a force in all living things which they have named "Od." What scientific men? At the risk of being flippant I should submit that it is very odd that such a force should be mentioned in no text-book of science. Can it be that the all-comprehensive syllable of the Hindoos, "Om" (if I remember right), is running in the gentleman's mind? He is an authority upon the subject, and favours us with a few jottings which he made in his note-book some twelve years ago. After running over a few rudiments of science, everyday commonplaces, such as that there are two envelopes round the earth, one emitting light and named a "photosphere," and the other "shedding forth rays of colour" named a "chromosphere" — both facts guaranteed by "men of science" — he brings us to something a little more off the beaten track. By virtue of "Od," says the note-book, all things animate and inanimate emit rays of colour which affect the sensitive plate, and more especially the gelatine-bromide plate. Unfortunately for the credit of the note-book, gelatine-bromide plates did not exist twelve years ago. But, apart from this minor consideration, was ever such an extraordinary statement promulgated in a scientific journal? Colour according to this, is entirely independent of and separate from light. It is colour and not light which makes an impression upon a plate. Might I humbly submit that if all things emit this force, and if this force affects all plates "to a greater or less degree," how is a gelatino-bromide plate ever to be manufactured or, above all, stored? It is a waste of energy, however, to argue seriously against such assertions.

Mr. Warner gives us some other interesting particulars about "Od." He is gallant, and gives the fairer sex credit for possessing a large share of the commodity. Flowers possess it also. They give out light through it. Everything else affected gives out colour in contradistinction to light. But it is just these little irregularities which give the charm to the whole dissertation. When Mr. Warner asserts, however, that it is clear that flowers emit light through "Od" from the presence of a smell (flippancy again suggests odour) he really transcends himself. The statement is so gloriously and symmetrically absurd that it appears absolutely brutal to suggest such botanical considerations as volatile oils, &c., especially in the face of the chirpy self-content with which Mr. Warner remarks in the next line that "these things are easy of proof, as must be apparent to any well-ordered mind." Alas! for my poor cerebrum!

Let us take another delicious specimen of this gentleman's method of reasoning. Here are two of the crisp statements in which he indulges:- (1) Cleanliness induces to an abundance of "Od." (2) People who have this force are especially fond of the colour blue. Now if we put the "Od" out of both questions, as being a common factor in the equation, we have it put seriously forward that clean people are especially fond of the colour blue — and this not as a mere playful hypothesis, but with the utmost confidence and dogmatism. I can only say that I have seen a procession of a certain well-known temperance organisation which would throw doubt upon the assertion.

I can hardly do justice to Mr. Warner's originality and daring in this hastily-written critique. Let me cull a few choice specimens of the flowers of science which lie scattered over the remainder of his communication. "The right side of every person is warmer than the left." It isn't; but no matter. "Odic impressions are either disagreeably warm or agreeably cool." There is something disagreeably cool in Mr. Warner's method of laying down the law. The gentleman gives us an experiment within the reach of all, which puts the existence of this galvanico-electro-hysterico-magnetic power beyond all cavil or argument. "If you hold up your leg," he says in his guileless way, "you find your foot grow cold. This is due to `Od.' " If we had not been told we might have attributed it to the action of gravity upon the circulation of the blood. It is well to get at facts. Mr. Warner has another splendid illustration of the strange latent powers of "Od." It causes uneasiness and aversion at meeting some people, while others you may meet with indifference or pleasure. I have no doubt that if the gentleman observed a dialogue between the tax-gatherer and myself he would be surprised at the amount of "Od" which would be evolved. The last paragraph of Mr. Warner's letter I deprecate entirely as being out of place and in bad taste.

In conclusion: let me say that I know nothing of Mr. Warner, and that I should be most grieved to hurt his feelings in any way. Every man has a right to have his hobby, and to ride it, too, as long as he does not ride anyone down with it. When, however, a communication which abounds in scientific errors appears in an eminent scientific journal, it is not right that it should be allowed to pass uncorrected or unchallenged. Let Mr. Warner mature his views for another twelve years or so, and then give them light more logically and less dogmatically, while producing some show of reason for the faith that is in him.

A. CONAN DOYLE, M.B.




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