The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
by Anonymous

2014 September 8

Mersehead RSPB Reserve, Dumfries and Galloway, November 2011. Filmed by Ron Jackson. [3 min.]

Bayly's Beach, New Zealand, June 2011. Filmed by Marcus Liddell. [2 min.]


[Unsigned article in Popular Science 4, 565 (1872).]

The anonymous author's words are in bold.

LET us consider the views entertained by our ancestors for centuries on the goose question : we may gather lessons from it that will be very applicable to-day.

They believed for five hundred years that a certain kind of goose was of vegetable origin, and grew on trees.

The story is ancient and obscure, and much ingenuity has been spent in explaining it. Without attempting to reconcile its contradictions, or account for its origin, we will only here give a brief outline of the tradition.

Belonging to that division of the animal kingdom known as articulates or jointed animals, there is a class called crustaceans, from the crust-like shell with which the body and legs are covered, and of which lobsters, crabs, and shrimps are examples. Among these is a group known as "Cirripedia," from the cirri, or curls of hair, in which their long and slender feet terminate. They are inclosed in a more or less conical shell, and some of them are "pedunculated" ; that is, their main body hangs from a stalk, pedicle, or peduncle, of varying length, which permits of some degree of motion. They attach themselves to floating objects, as plank, worm-eaten fragments of wreck, ships' sides, and sometimes to the cuticle of the whale. These creatures are more familiarly known as barnacles, and Fig. 1 represents a pendent group of common ship-barnacles, which are described as having "a flesh-colored, translucent, wrinkled stem, possibly more than a foot long, and from this stem there dangles a triangular, pearly-shelled fish, the valves of which, bordered with the most lovely orange, from time to time open and disclose several pairs of curling feelers."

The soft part within this shell, in old times, used to be mistaken for a little bird.

There is in England a well-known species of goose called the barnacle-goose. "It is a winter migrant on the east coast; its summer home, where it breeds, being the high latitudes of Northern Europe. It is a very handsome species, a vegetable-feeder, and excellent eating." Now, it would seem to be a very simple matter to end the story by saying that it was long believed that barnacle-geese had their origin in the barnacle-shells we have just referred to, but the case is more complex ; the shells bearing the geese were believed to grow on trees.

This belief, that the barnacle-shell is transformed into the barnacle-goose, was well established, as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and was referred to and contradicted both by Albertus Magnus and by Roger Bacon. That the opinion was held as a firm reality is sufficiently proved by the fact that barnacle-geese were allowed to be eaten during Lent, under the idea that they were not fowl, but fish --- an elastic zoology that served to widen ecclesiastical dietetics, although to the scandal of the more strict, as the practice was inveighed against with great unction by Sir Giraldus Cambrensis, who treated the subject, in the twelfth century, in his "Topographia Hiberniæ." Michel Drayton refers to it, in his "Polyolbion" [ Song XXVII, 305ff]:

The barnacles with them, which, wheresoe'er they breed ---
On trees or rotten ships --- yet to my fens for feed
Continually they come, and chief abode do make,
And very hardly forced my plenty to forsake.

Baptista Porta refers to it, about the year 1500, and Count Meyer devoted a volume to it --- "Volucris Arborea."

The earliest published statement, by an eye-witness, is contained in the "Cosmograph and Description of Albion," of Hector Boëce, while the earliest pictorial illustration of the goose-tree, and its animal fruiting, is contained in the "Cosmographia Universalis " of Sebastian Munster, printed at Basel, 1572.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, Turner, the English ornithologist, wrote as follows : "Nobody has ever seen the nest or egg of the barnacle ; nor is this marvelous, inasmuch as it is without parents, and is spontaneously generated in the following manner : When, at a certain time, an old ship, a plank, or a pine mast rots in the sea, something like fungus at first breaks out thereupon, which at length puts on the manifest form of birds. Afterward, these are clothed with feathers, and at last become living and flying fowl. Should this appear to any one to be fabulous, we might adduce the testimony not only of the whole people who dwell on the coasts of England, Ireland, and Scotland, but also that of the illustrious historiographer Gyraldus, who has written so eloquently of the history of Ireland, that the barnacles are produced in no other way. But since it is not very safe to trust to popular reports, and as I was, considering the singularity of the thing, rather skeptical even with respect to tlie testimony of Gyraldus --- while I was thinking over the subject --- I consulted Octavian, an Irish clergyman, whose strict integrity gave me the utmost confidence in him, as to whether he considered Gyraldus worthy to be trusted in what he had written. This clergyman then professed himself ready to take his oath upon the Gospels, that what Gyraldus had recorded of the generation of this bird was most true ; for he himself had seen with his eyes, and also handled those half-formed birds ; and he said further that, if I remained a couple of months longer in London, he would have some sent to me." --- (Turner's "Avium Præcip. Hist." art. "Ansr.")

But the writer to whom we are most indebted for authentic information upon this interesting subect is Gerarde, the father of English botany, and author of the "Herbal," a ponderous work of 1,500 pages, from which the cut Fig. 2 is taken. He says: "What our eyes have seen, and hands have touched, we shall declare. There is a small island in Lancashire, called the Pile of Flounders, wherein are found broken pieces of old and bruised ships, some whereof have been cast thither by shipwreck, and also the trunks and bodies, with the branches, of old and rotten trees, cast up there likewise ; whereon is found a certain spume, or froth, that in time breedeth unto certain shells, in shape like those of the mussel, but sharper pointed, and of a whitish color, wherein is contained a thing in form like a lace of silk finely woven, as it were, together, of a whitish color ; one end whereof is fastened unto the inside of the shell, even as the fish of oysters and mussels are ; the other end is made fast unto the belly of a rude mass or lump, which in time cometh to the shape and form of a bird. When it is perfectly formed the shell gapeth wide open, and the first thing that appeareth is the aforesaid lace or string ; next come the legs of the bird hanging out, and as it groweth greater it openeth the shell by degrees, till at length it has all come forth, and hangeth only by the bill. In short space after it cometh to full maturity, and falleth into the sea, where it gathereth feathers, and groweth to a fowl bigger than a mallard and lesser than a goose, having black legs, and bill or beak, and feathers black and white, spotted in such manner as our magpie, called in some places pie-annet, which the people of Lancashire call by no other name than tree-goose ; which place aforesaid, and of all those places adjoining, do so much abound therewith, that one of the best is bought for threepence. For the truth thereof, if any doubt, may it please them to repair to me, and I shall satisfy them by the testimony of good witnesses."

["The Pile of Flounders" is a misprint, (perhaps a deliberate one for comic effect?). Gerarde actually writes "the Pile of Foulders", by which he undoubtedly means "Piel de Fouldrey", an island off the Furness Peninsula in what is now Cumbria. Piel today is barely inhabited, but draws tourists with a dramatic ruined castle mentioned by Wordsworth and a regionally famous pub.]

Again says Gerarde : "The historie whereof to set foorth according to the woorthiness and raritie thereof, woulde not onely require a large and peculiar volume, but also a deeper search into the bowels of Nature than my intended purpose wil suffer me to wade into, my insufficiencie also considered, leaving the historie thereof rough-hewen unto some excellent men, learned in the secrets of Nature, to be both fined and refined ; in the mean space take it as it falleth out, the naked and bare truth, though unpolished."

Portstewart Strand, Northern Ireland, July 2011. [1 min.]

When the Royal Society of England had been established fifteen years, this fable was accepted, and described in the Philosophic Transactions, [12, 925] in 1677, by Sir Robert Murray [actually Moray], who says : "Being on the island of Uist (East) I saw lying upon the shore a cut of a large fir-tree, about two and half feet in diameter, and nine or ten feet long, which had lain so long out of the water that it was very dry, and most of the shells that had formerly covered it were worn or rubbed off. Only on the parts that lay next the ground there still hung multitudes of little shells. This barnacle-shell is thin about the edges, and about half as thick as broad. Every one of the shells has some cross-seams or sections, which, as I remember, divide it into five parts. These parts are fastened one to another with such a film as mussel-shells have. These shells are hung at the tree by a neck, longer than the shell, of a kind of filmy substance, round and hollow, and curved not unlike the windpipe of a chicken, spreading out broader to where it is fastened to the tree, from which it seems to draw and convey the matter which serves for the growth and vegetation of the shell and little bird within it. In every shell that I opened I found a perfect sea-fowl : the little bill, like that of a goose, the eyes marked, the head, neck, breast, wings, tail, and feet formed ; the feathers everywhere perfectly shaped, and blackish-colored ; and the feet like those of other water-fowl, to my best remembrance."

Many conjectures have been offered as to the origin of this strange myth, and Max Müller suggests the hypothesis that it came from the early misapplication of terms. He remarks : "No man would have suspected Linnæus of having shared the vulgar error, nevertheless he retained the name Atiatifera, or duck-bearing, as given to the shell, and that of Bernicula, as given to the goose."

Here the article ends abruptly, leaving readers to decide for themselves how pre-1700 observers could possibly have been so unreliable. While this piece retains the usual Whiggish tone, the intellectual anarchist Charles Fort would soon be suggesting that such "damned" data as absurd observations of vegetable geese pose a challenge to the foundations of knowledge : either science is unreliable (because people see what they expect to see) or reality itself is malleable. In the Twentieth Century, the latter possibility appealed mainly to anti-scientific "post-modernist" philosophers, but the former would, rather surprisingly, become widely accepted on paper by scientists themselves. It has always struck me as rather odd that so many scientists call themselves "Kuhnians" and claim to expect the overturning of paradigms, without any perceptible effect on the actual daily practise of their work. In the Twenty-first Century, the rise of "multiverse physics" has yet to impact the wider culture or even the awareness of scientists working in fields other than cosmology and the foundations of quantum mechanics. That will inevitably change.

An experiment that no-one in the Middle Ages ever performed?