Lectures to Women on Physical Science

Original Text: 
Lewis Campbell, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, with a selection from his correspondence and occasional writings and a sketch of his contributions to science (London: Macmillan, 1882): 631-33. QC 16 M4C3 Gerstein Library
PLACE. -- A small alcove with dark curtains.
The class consists of one member.
2        And streams through narrow perforations,
3    The long beam trails o'er pasteboard scales,
4        With slow-decaying oscillations.
5Flow, current, flow, set the quick light-spot flying,
6Flow current, answer light-spot, flashing, quivering, dying,
7    O look! how queer! how thin and clear,
8        And thinner, clearer, sharper growing
9    The gliding fire! with central wire,
10        The fine degrees distinctly showing.
11Swing, magnet, swing, advancing and receding,
12Swing magnet! Answer dearest, What's your final reading?
13    O love! you fail to read the scale
14        Correct to tenths of a division.
15    To mirror heaven those eyes were given,
16        And not for methods of precision.
17Break contact, break, set the free light-spot flying;
18Break contact, rest thee, magnet, swinging, creeping, dying.
Professor Chrschtschonovitsch, Ph.D., "On the C. G. S. system of Units."
19Prim Doctor of Philosophy
20    Front academic Heidelberg!
21Your sum of vital energy
23Your liveliest motion might be reckoned
25"The air," you said, in language fine,
26    Which scientific thought expresses,
28    On each square centimetre presses --
29The air, and I may add the ocean,
30Are nought but molecules in motion."
31Atoms, you told me, were discrete,
32    Than you they could not be discreter,
33Who know how many Millions meet
34    Within a cubic millimetre.
35They clash together as they fly,
36But you! -- you cannot tell me why.
37And when in tuning my guitar
38    The interval would not come right,
39"This string," you said, "is strained too far,
41And then you told me, as I sang,
43You gabbled on, but every phrase
45The only song you deigned to praise
47"And even there," you said, "collision
48Was not described with due precision."
49"In the invariable plane,"
51You seized my hand -- you gave me pain,
52    By torsion of a wrist so supple;
53You told me what that wrench would do, --
54"'Twould set me twisting round a screw."
55Were every hair of every tress
56    (Which you, no doubt, imagine mine),
57Drawn towards you with its breaking stress --
58    A stress, say, of a megadyne,
59That tension I would sooner suffer
60Than meet again with such a duffer!


0] Professor (Sir) William Thomson, inventor of a sensitive device that detects and characterizes an electric current by its intensity and direction. Back to Line
1] A poem imitating Tennyson's " The splendour falls on castle walls." Back to Line
18] "C.G.S. system -- the system of units founded on the centimetre, gramme, and second. See report of Committee on units. Brit. Ass. Report for 1873, p. 222." (Note by Maxwell.) Back to Line
22] "Erg -- the energy communicated by a dyne, acting through a centimetre" (note by Maxwell). Back to Line
24] "Tenth-metre = 1 metre X 10 -10" (note by Maxwell). Back to Line
27] "Megadyne = 1 dyne X 106. It is somewhat more than the weight of a kilogramme" (note by Maxwell). Back to Line
40] "Dyne -- the force which, acting on a gramme for a second, would give a velocity of a centimetre per second. The weight of a gramme is about 980 dynes" (note by Maxwell). Back to Line
42] "See Sound and Music, by Sedley Taylor, p. 89" (note by Maxwell). Back to Line
44] shoddy: "Worthless material made to look like what is of superior quality" (OED). Back to Line
46] Maxwell's homage to Robert Burns' poem, "Comin thro' the Rye." Back to Line
50] "See Poinset, Théorie nouvelle de la rotation des corps" (note by Maxwell). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: