Blog #137: Erlichte: On Seeing Sir William Ramsay and John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, in To the Lighthouse

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Sir William Ramsay KCB FRS FRSE (1852–1916) was a Scottish chemist who discovered the noble gases and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904 “in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air” (along with Lord Rayleigh who received the Nobel Prize in Physics that same year for the discovery of argon).

Wikipedia excerpt for Sir William Ramsay

John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, OM, PRS (/?re?li/; 12 November 1842 – 30 June 1919) was an English physicist who, with William Ramsay, discovered argon, an achievement for which he earned the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1904. He also discovered the phenomenon now called Rayleigh scattering, explaining why the sky is blue, and predicted the existence of the surface waves now known as Rayleigh waves. Rayleigh’s textbook, The Theory of Sound, is still referred to by acoustic engineers today.

Wikipedia excerpt for Baron Rayleigh

Because I want to deal with both the particular and the general, this entry is going to be a little cruder and clumsier than most. My last entry took another look at Virginia’s use of Arthur Tansley’s name, and not long before that I also took a longer look at some of the meanings attached to the use of the Sorley name in To the Lighthouse. With this entry, I not only want to deepen and add to my Mr. Ramsay and Paul Rayley speculations; I also want to comment on the cumulative use and effect of these various names in To the Lighthouse.

Back in June of 2012, (blog entry #51) I linked Mr. Ramsay to Sir William Ramsay and Paul Rayley to John Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh. Now, I want to take a closer look at the two Nobel laureates. To that end, I have been browsing the archives of The Times, and I’ve found a number of relevant items. The first is a relatively brief (267 word) December 12, 1904, item titled “The Nobel Prizes” which states:

The Nobel prize for physics has been awarded to Lord Rayleigh, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institute. The Chemistry prize is conferred upon Sir William Ramsay, Professor of Chemistry at University College.

Over twelve years later, The Times for July 24th, 1916, contains an 881 word obituary for Sir William Ramsay, an obituary which mentions his connection to Lord Rayleigh. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the obituary starts by looking at Sir William’s last year as it relates to the war:

We regret to announce that the distinguished chemist Sir William Ramsay died yesterday at his residence at Hazlemere, High Wycombe, after an illness which began to show itself last autumn. Earlier in the year he contributed a number of letter to The Times on cotton and other subjects connected with the war.

It was announced last December that the Austrian Society of Engineers and Architects had expunged the name of Sir William Ramsay from the list of corresponding members. The discussion was heated, one fourth of those present voting against the motion on the grounds that the action should be postponed. Last April, the Lokalanzeiger stated that the Chemical Society had discussed whether Sir W. Ramsay should be struck of the list of hon. members. It was decided to postpone the action until after the war when he would be called upon to defend his criticism of the politics, economics and science of Germany.

The following year, on June 18th, 1917, much of page 3 is given over to a large display advertisement for the Ramsay Memorial Fund. The advertisement talks about the fund’s aim to raise one hundred thousand pounds for research fellowships and the construction of a Ramsay Memorial Laboratory of Engineering Chemistry to be established in connection with University College, London. The Rt. Hon. Lord Rayleigh, O.M., F.R.S., is named as chairman of the fund’s General Committee and, with a donation of one hundred pounds, as one of the preliminary subscribers. The size of the fund is justified, in part, by the statement that “the war has shown the supreme importance of Chemistry in its varied applications to the continued existence of the nation while the war lasts, as well as to its survival in the industrial struggle which must follow the war.”

Lord Rayleigh outlived Sir William Ramsay by just under three years, and when he died the July 2nd, 1919, The Times marked his passing with both an editorial and a 2750 word news item titled “Death of Lord Rayleigh.” The news item mentions his connection to Sir William. The editorial reads as follows:

Lord Rayleigh, whose death we record today, was one of the great Victorians, at once an ornament and a pillar of nineteenth-century science. Senior Wrangler at Cambridge, Fellow of Trinity and a professor, Chancellor of his University, peer and agriculturalist, he was a shining example of that old order of society which is now being weighed in an unfriendly balance. He was born to distinction and achieved greater distinction; born wealthy yet capable of earning a competence in any social scheme that would include brain workers among producers. He discovered argon and was a successful purveyor of milk to the metropolis. His career and achievements, described in detail in another column, [the 2750 word obituary piece which refers to Sir William Ramsay, and which also includes the following statement: 'Londoners are also familiar with milk-shops inscribed “Lord Rayleigh’s Dairies.”'] must give pause to those who would abolish the hereditary leisured class of England and transform the old universities into utilitarian training colleges. Rayleigh’s scientific work was not of a kind that blazed into commercial success, and yet it contributed in no small measure to practical utilities. His investigation of sound waves and his curiosity about the blueness of the skies led to conclusions that saved lives at sea and increased the range of fog-horns. He was no dashing adventurer on the high seas of thought, but a patient scrutinizer, always hand in hand with his fellow-workers. None the less his deliberate studies of the density of nitrogen led him to the discovery of argon, and so opened up new knowledge of the fabric of the universe.

In details and in tone, this editorial is To the Lighthouse material. Chronologically it would have to go in the “Lighthouse” section, yet it is also easy to imagine it as an item read in “The Window” section, an item perused by Cam’s old gentlemen, “crackling in front of them the pages of THE TIMES.” Those old gentlemen would likely have been disturbed and saddened by the tone of the item. This item and others like it help make sense of Mr. Ramsay’s anxieties and of William Bankes’ suspicion that Charles Tansley is dismissive of “old fogies.”

Increasingly my lighthouse tunneling is more and more concerned with the intertextuality of To the Lighthouse. Already I’ve looked at how Virginia used texts by Grimm, Cowper, Elton, Scott and Shakespeare, and future tunnels will look at Bennett, Browne (of siren fame), Conrad, Elliot, Homer, and Tolstoy, as well as Browne (the other one), De Quincey, Eliot, Joyce, Mansfield, Mirrlees, Pater, Proust, and others yet to be discovered. The Times is every bit as important as all of these texts. While a full exploration of The Times tunnel is an impossibility, awareness of it is a necessity. Awareness of The Times, as well as of the many other newspapers and periodicals which Virginia is known to have read, adds further depth and texture to To the Lighthouse. Particularly disturbing, even if not surprising, is how thoroughly and intensely the war permeates all aspects of life between 1914 and 1918, and beyond.

Virginia, as her essays, letters, diaries and scrapbooks prove, was a careful and avid reader of The Times and, what is more, The Times is repeatedly flagged in To the Lighthouse—often in a critical way. In “The Windows” section, there is the trivial article in The Times about the number of Americans who visit Shakespeare’s house every year. In “The Lighthouse” section, Cam thinks of the old gentlemen reading The Times, “all in a muddle, about something some one had said about Christ, or hearing that a mammoth had been dug up in a London street, or wondering what Napoleon was like.” The Times is repeatedly associated with the “old gentlemen,” an association given added bite by the dismissive thought which William Bankes imputes to Charles Tansley: “Poor old fogies, you’re hopelessly behind the times.” The literal lurks humorously behind the figurative in this remark.

Before ending with a reflection about science, To the Lighthouse, and The Times, I want to mention one more Times item which may well have again brought Sir William Ramsay and to Baron Rayleigh to Virginia’s attention. On October 10th, 1924, the “Books of the Day” column reviewed Lord Rayleigh: Life of a Great Physicist by his son, Robert John Strutt, 4th Baron Rayleigh. The review mentioned Rayleigh’s work with Ramsay.

To see traces of Sir William Ramsay and Baron Rayleigh in To the Lighthouse greatly deepens the scientific aspect of To the Lighthouse. This is especially true if one also sees traces of Arthur Tansley the ecologist, William Bankes the egyptologist, and Joseph Banks the biologist. Just as the fabric of The Times contained news and speculations about science, so too does To the Lighthouse. Christina Alt has already used the collecting habits of the Ramsay children, and William Bankes career as a botanist to make insightful and rewarding comments about Virginia’s engagement with biology and ecology (Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature, 2010). To see Rayleigh and Ramsay in To the Lighthouse should lead to similarly rewarding thoughts about Virginia’s understanding of chemistry and physics. Virginia’s science went far beyond what she learned from John Tyndall or James Jeans. Paul Rayley’s dazed repetition of “Lights, lights, lights,” does far more than connect him to Fleance and Banquo. (Did Virginia, I wonder, know that Lord Rayleigh was also president of the Essex County Chess Association?) The repeated descriptions of beams and rays of light, together with the intense descriptions of colour and colour changes need to be re-read and re-thought with respect to science. Even if Virginia claimed that she meant nothing by the lighthouse, the scientific and technological aspects of the lighthouse have to be emphasized.

As a starting point for further thinking about science in To the Lighthouse, here is a Times article from February 28th, 1910. Presumably the old gentlemen would have read it as well:

“Colours of Sea and Sky”

The Friday evening lecture at the Royal Institution was given by Lord Rayleigh, whose subject was the “Colours of Sea and Sky.” Sir William Crookes was in the chair.

Lord Rayleigh pointed out that for the colour of a liquid to be seen properly the light must go through it; hence a deep-coloured liquid did not readily show its colour. The application of this fact to the colour of the sea was direct. The colour of the sea was often supposed to be a beautiful blue; that no doubt was what was seen in certain circumstances, but it was due, not to the intrinsic colour of the water but to the reflection of the sky. The deep blue colour of the sea often came out well when the water was rippled, because then, of the light seen reflected by the observer, more came from the zenith than would be the case if the water was perfectly smooth. With bigger waves, again, it was easy to recognize that the front slope of the wave showed the best blue. The true colour of the sea might be seen in rough weather, when looking through a wave with the sun behind it the observer would perceive no blue but a fully-developed green. In shallow water the reflection of light from the bottom revealed the true colour of the water, except so far as it was affected by the colour of the bottom itself. Davy was probably the first to state that the colour of water was blue, a conclusion also arrived at by Bunsen. The Belgian physicist Spring made elaborate experiments with water contained in tubes so long as 26 meters, and he described the colour as a beautiful blue, comparable only to the purest blue of the sky. But the water must be pure or it looked green or even yellow. Another inquirer into the question was Aufsess, and one of his observations was that for the blue and violet end of the spectrum water was almost completely transparent, which would sufficiently explain its blue colour. Lord Rayleigh himself had carried out some experiments with tubes 12ft long, and he pointed out the importance of the light used for illuminating them, since a little blue in that light made a great difference to the blueness of the colour perceived in them. Experimenting with water from Capri and from Suez he got a colour which might complimentarily be called blue, but rather was greenish blue, while that from the Seven Stones Lightship, off the Cornish coast, gave a full green. With carefully distilled water he got only the same degree of blueness as with the water from Capri and Suez. Turning to the blueness of the sky, he upheld the view that it was due to the dispersal of light by small particles. Spring’s view that it was due to the effect of chemical matter in the air acting by absorption he thought was disproved by the fact that the setting sun was red, not blue, though it might be that constituents of the atmosphere, such as oxygen, acted as a secondary cause. It was a question of interest what kind of particles caused the effect. The general idea was that it was dust, particles of water, &c., but he thought there was no reason to doubt that for the most part the blue of the sky was due to the dispersal of light by the actual molecules of air.

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