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This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 185 pages of information about The Fairy-Land of Science.

In order to see how powerful the sun’s rays are, you have only to take a magnifying glass and gather them to a point on a piece of brown paper, for they will set the paper alight.  Sir John Herschel tells us that at the Cape of Good Hope the heat was even so great that he cooked a beefsteak and roasted some eggs by merely putting them in the sun, in a box with a glass lid!  Indeed, just as we should all be frozen to death if the sun were sold, so we should all be burnt up with intolerable heat if his fierce rays fell with all their might upon us.  But we have an invisible veil protecting us, made — of what do you think?  Of those tiny particles of water which the sunbeams draw up and scatter in the air, and which, as we shall see in Lecture IV, cut off part of the intense heat and make the air cool and pleasant for us.

Week 4

We have now learnt something of the distance, the size, the light, and the heat of the sun — the great source of the sunbeams.  But we are as yet no nearer the answer to the question, What is a sunbeam? how does the sun touch our earth?

Now suppose I with to touch you from this platform where I stand, I can do it in two ways.  Firstly, I can throw something at you and hit you — in this case a thing will have passed across the space from me to you.  Or, secondly, if I could make a violent movement so as to shake the floor of the room, you would feel a quivering motion; and so I should touch you across the whole distance of the room.  But in this case no thing would have passed from me to you but a movement or wave, which passed along the boards of the floor.  Again, if I speak to you, how does the sound reach you ear?  Not by anything being thrown from my mouth to your ear, but by the motion of the air.  When I speak I agitate the air near my mouth, and that makes a wave in the air beyond, and that one, another, and another (as we shall see more fully in Lecture VI) till the last wave hits the drum of your ear.

Thus we see there are two ways of touching anything at a distance; 1st, by throwing some thing at it and hitting it; 2nd, by sending a movement of wave across to it, as in the case of the quivering boards and the air.

Now the great natural philosopher Newton thought that the sun touched us in the first of these ways, and that sunbeams were made of very minute atoms of matter thrown out by the sun, and making a perpetual cannonade on our eyes.  It is easy to understand that this would make us see light and feel heat, just as a blow in the eye makes us see starts, or on the body makes it feel hot:  and for a long time this explanation was supposed to be the true one.  But we know now that there are many facts which cannot be explained on this theory, though we cannot go into them here.  What we will do, is to try and understand what now seems to be the true explanation of the sunbeam.

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