The Life of Sir William Crookes

The Life of Sir William Crookes

by Gerry Vassilatos

IN the pantheon of our qualitative science there stand a grand assembly of highly venerated persons, the mere mention of whose names is sufficient to evoke inexpressible sentiments. Some of these have been justly venerated to a station which is not inordinate, being of such grand stature in their achievements that to deny them due homage would be unjust. We note that a few of these distinguished ones so deeply touched each their generation, that whole epochs became intimately associated with their names alone. How beautiful and fitting that we find it often quite impossible to mention certain scientific periods without first recalling them, name by name. These are the doorkeepers of an epoch, who names must first be acknowledged, evoked so to speak, before being permitted entry into their realms of knowledge. No greater earthly glory can be acquired by mortals.


The Royal Society had gathered to hear a lecture by one of the most eminent members who had ever blessed their halls. After having been announced by the president of the Society, the principle speaker walked to the large proscenium area, took his place behind the wide demonstration table and began to speak in a fervent, ringing voice. He was elderly, formally dressed in a black waistcoat of a former time. The loose black evening cravat wrapped the high white collar, and neatly, framed the now radiant face.

Bright and cherubic, in glittering spectacles, the guest looked down for a brief moment. It was as if he lingered in some wonderful clear peace, awaiting an inner impulse to speak. His trimmed silvery moustache and the pointed silvery beard lent an otherworldly air, and as he looked up again all eyes came to rest upon the curious elfin figure. This was not the first time that the assembled members of the Royal Society had seen the wonderful Sir William Crookes. No one present in that assembly could have long remained ignorant of the man standing before them. Sir William and his mysterious investigations into Radiant Matter had captivated the greatest minds of his time. And while most believed that the aetheric implications of his work had been explained away, there remained a lingering suspicion among a dwindling membership that he had eluded them all with a far deeper secret.

“When I was asked a month or two ago to illustrate in this theatre some of my recent researches on high vacua, I exclaimed how is it possible to bring such a subject worthily before a Royal Institution audience when none of the experiments can be seen more than a few feet off?” Two former decades had passed since his first demonstrations on Radiant Matter were given. It might as well now have been a former age. So rapidly had the scientific movement taken the industrial world, that the famed Crookes Tube seemed to be an antiquated and elementary device. But perhaps then, few had actually comprehended the full meaning of that simple “antique.”

He once believed that he had been careful about elucidating these matters. He also believed that his original dissertation, presented in 1879, had been clear and forthright to the illustrious Society. There was no reason for him to doubt his proficiency in the lecture hall. How far can facts be twisted, taken from fact and distorted into rumors? But over the long decades, he sadly observed a peculiar reaction which repeatedly worked to dispel any new advancements in thought. There were those Society members who, after both having seen his classic demonstrations, somehow failed to sustain the precise message which had been delivered to them. This strange principle maintained an arrested consciousness in the scientific ranks of the Society, rendering them incapable of philosophical progress. And without first appreciation for philosophical principles, there would never be true scientific progress.

“Like a traveler exploring some distant country, the wonders of which have hitherto been known through reports and rumors of a vague and distorted character, so for years I have been occupied in pushing an enquiry into a territory of natural knowledge which offers almost virgin soil to the scientific man”. The majority were now unable to hear the simplest ofhis statements without somehow automatically “reinterpreting” his ideas. This automatic process consistently obscured topics which opened to the more vitalistic aspects of natural lore. This degenerative process obscured the real impost of his work, that which literally claimed to point a way toward a vision of deeper dimensions. But in them, he perceived a growing ignorance, which was not so much a darkness of intellectual resource, but a darkness of intellectual use.

The amount of factual information had increased beyond the ability of science to remember all that had been observed. But the manner in which these facts were reorganized and reinterpreted which deeply distressed Sir William. “Are we to investigate nothing till we know it to be possible?” In his estimation, science was on the verge of an important divergence, one which limited scope by a stringent doctrine. It would thus become polarized, on the one hand opening up to new awareness, yet on the other resisting change.

“It is not reason which convinces a man, unless a fact is repeated so frequently that the impression becomes like a habit of mind.” What he now recognized was far worse than scientific agnosticism. Having miscarried the vision which had been faithfully delivered to them, the younger generation of “scientifics” had chosen a selective number of facts, and certainly not the philosophy. It was rather like being given a lovely rose bush.. cutting off a few roses, and then killing the shrub! The eradication ofall things pre-modem seemed more important to the young scientific revolutionaries than the reverence of learning, of knowledge, and of a deeper vision.

But this revulsion of all things pre-modem manifested an unmistakable tendency to repulse and repudiate themes which were Vitalistic. And the lifelong theme of Sir William Crookes was a Vitalistic theme.

“With all my senses alert and ready to convey information, believing as I do that we have by no means exhausted all knowledge or fathomed the depths of all physical forces.” So here stood the very personification of that antique worldview, and the Hall was never more divided in their opinion of his presence near the proscenium. Having well comprehended the present dilemma, Sir William fully intended to baffle the minds of his younger antagonists. “The consciousness of my senses, both of touch and sight.. .and these having corroborated by the senses of all present… are not lying witness when they testify against my preconceptions.”

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