The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 47 of 188

His love of each particular experiment, and his eager zeal not to lose the fruit of it, came out markedly in these crossing experiments–in the elaborate care he took not to make any confusion in putting capsules into wrong trays, etc., etc. I can recall his appearance as he counted seeds under the simple microscope with an alertness not usually characterising such mechanical work as counting. I think he personified each seed as a small demon trying to elude him by getting into the wrong heap, or jumping away altogether; and this gave to the work the excitement of a game. He had great faith in instruments, and I do not think it naturally occurred to him to doubt the accuracy of a scale or measuring glass, etc. He was astonished when we found that one of his micrometers differed from the other. He did not require any great accuracy in most of his measurements, and had not good scales; he had an old three-foot rule, which was the common property of the household, and was constantly being borrowed, because it was the only one which was certain to be in its place–unless, indeed, the last borrower had forgotten to put it back. For measuring the height of plants he had a seven-foot deal rod, graduated by the village carpenter. Latterly he took to using paper scales graduated to millimeters. For small objects he used a pair of compasses and an ivory protractor. It was characteristic of him that he took scrupulous pains in making measurements with his somewhat rough scales. A trifling example of his faith in authority is that he took his “inch in terms of millimeters” from an old book, in which it turned out to be inaccurately given. He had a chemical balance which dated from the days when he worked at chemistry with his brother Erasmus. Measurements of capacity were made with an apothecary’s measuring glass: I remember well its rough look and bad graduation. With this, too, I remember the great care he took in getting the fluid-line on to the graduation. I do not mean by this account of his instruments that any of his experiments suffered from want of accuracy in measurement, I give them as examples of his simple methods and faith in others–faith at least in instrument-makers, whose whole trade was a mystery to him.

A few of his mental characteristics, bearing especially on his mode of working, occur to me. There was one quality of mind which seemed to be of special and extreme advantage in leading him to make discoveries. It was the power of never letting exceptions pass unnoticed. Everybody notices a fact as an exception when it is striking or frequent, but he had a special instinct for arresting an exception. A point apparently slight and unconnected with his present work is passed over by many a man almost unconsciously with some half-considered explanation, which is in fact no explanation. It was just these things that he seized on to make a start from. In a certain sense there is nothing special in this procedure, many discoveries being made by means of it. I only mention it because, as I watched him at work, the value of this power to an experimenter was so strongly impressed upon me.

Another quality which was shown in his experimental works was his power of sticking to a subject; he used almost to apologise for his patience, saying that he could not bear to be beaten, as if this were rather a sign of weakness on his part. He often quoted the saying, “It’s dogged as does it;” and I think doggedness expresses his frame of mind almost better than perseverance. Perseverance seems hardly to express his almost fierce desire to force the truth to reveal itself. He often said that it was important that a man should know the right point at which to give up an inquiry. And I think it was his tendency to pass this point that inclined him to apologise for his perseverance, and gave the air of doggedness to his work.

He often said that no one could be a good observer unless he was an active theoriser. This brings me back to what I said about his instinct for arresting exceptions: it was as though he were charged with theorising power ready to flow into any channel on the slightest disturbance, so that no fact, however small, could avoid releasing a stream of theory, and thus the fact became magnified into importance. In this way it naturally happened that many untenable theories occurred to him; but fortunately his richness of imagination was equalled by his power of judging and condemning the thoughts that occurred to him. He was just to his theories, and did not condemn them unheard; and so it happened that he was willing to test what would seem to most people not at all worth testing. These rather wild trials he called “fool’s experiments,” and enjoyed extremely. As an example I may mention that finding the cotyledons of Biophytum to be highly sensitive to vibrations of the table, he fancied that they might perceive the vibrations of sound, and therefore made me play my bassoon close to a plant. (This is not so much an example of superabundant theorising from a small cause, but only of his wish to test the most improbable ideas.)

The love of experiment was very strong in him, and I can remember the way he would say, “I shan’t be easy till I have tried it,” as if an outside force were driving him. He enjoyed experimenting much more than work which only entailed reasoning, and when he was engaged on one of his books which required argument and the marshalling of facts, he felt experimental work to be a rest or holiday. Thus, while working upon the ‘Variations of Animals and Plants,’ in 1860-61, he made out the fertilisation of Orchids, and thought himself idle for giving so much time to them. It is interesting to think that so important a piece of research should have been undertaken and largely worked out as a pastime in place of more serious work. The letters to Hooker of this period contain expressions such as, “God forgive me for being so idle; I am quite sillily interested in this work.” The intense pleasure he took in understanding the adaptations for fertilisation is strongly shown in these letters. He speaks in one of his letters of his intention of working at Drosera as a rest from the ‘Descent of Man.’ He has described in his ‘Recollections’ the strong satisfaction he felt in solving the problem of heterostylism. And I have heard him mention that the Geology of South America gave him almost more pleasure than anything else. It was perhaps this delight in work requiring keen observation that made him value praise given to his observing powers almost more than appreciation of his other qualities.

For books he had no respect, but merely considered them as tools to be worked with. Thus he did not bind them, and even when a paper book fell to pieces from use, as happened to Muller’s ‘Befruchtung,’ he preserved it from complete dissolution by putting a metal clip over its back. In the same way he would cut a heavy book in half, to make it more convenient to hold. He used to boast that he made Lyell publish the second edition of one of his books in two volumes instead of one, by telling him how he had been obliged to cut it in half. Pamphlets were often treated even more severely than books, for he would tear out, for the sake of saving room, all the pages except the one that interested him. The consequence of all this was, that his library was not ornamental, but was striking from being so evidently a working collection of books.

He was methodical in his manner of reading books and pamphlets bearing on his own work. He had one shelf on which were piled up the books he had not yet read, and another to which they were transferred after having been read, and before being catalogued. He would often groan over his unread books, because there were so many which he knew he should never read. Many a book was at once transferred to the other heap, either marked with a cypher at the end, to show that it contained no marked passages, or inscribed, perhaps, “not read,” or “only skimmed.” The books accumulated in the “read” heap until the shelves overflowed, and then, with much lamenting, a day was given up to the cataloguing. He disliked this work, and as the necessity of undertaking the work became imperative, would often say, in a voice of despair, “We really must do these books soon.”

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