John Campbell’s Solar System

September 16th, 2007

Seventy-one years ago John Campbell, future pivotal, legendary editor of “Astounding/Analog” SF magazine (1938-1971), was just another writer – actually two because he used “Don A. Stuart” as a pseudonym. He was fresh out of University with a physics degree and embarked on a series of monthly fact articles about the Solar System that lasted 18 months. Even 71 years later the series is surprisingly insightful and not woefully dated, unlike the fiction from the same era.

John Campbell’s Solar System

One particularly striking bit of ‘alternative history’ is this little passage…

IN 1666 the hated fourth law of light attracted Newton’s attention, and he tried an experiment to prove that white light is a blend of colored light. He admitted sunlight through a round hole to a prism, getting then the familiar colors, ranging smoothly, gradually, featurelessly, from violet through blue, green, yellow, orange to red. By means of a second prism he showed that they could be recombined to a beam of white light. Newton proved white light was compounded of colored. It was a great discovery.

For the fourth law of light is the law of the spectroscope. By it, to-day, the secret language of light may be read; by it, light talks like a garrulous old maid at a gossip’s tea party. It tells all the secrets of the universe. By it we can analyze the Sun and the million-billion-mile-distant star; we sample the air of Jupiter and Mars; and we time the speed of the moving stars. By it we analyze the minerals of Earth or star.

In 1666 America was a howling wilderness, where Puritan Pilgrims held on by tooth and toenail to a narrow strip of seacoast. England had just overthrown Cromwell. Men sought unicorns for their magic, cure-all horns. Oxygen was not to be dreamed of for a century and more. Chemistry, the basis of modern civilization, was alchemy, and men sought the philosophers’ stone.

In 1666 Newton, the man who developed the law of gravity from idle speculation on a falling apple, used a round opening to produce his spectrum, and got round images of the Sun in every color, smoothly overlapping and featureless. A spectroscope uses exactly the same apparatus save that they have a thin, hairline slit, so that each color is thrown in a hairline, sharply distinguishable mark of light.

Literally, by a hairline Newton missed the spectroscope. Had he used a slit, the spectrum of the Sun would have been bright colors crossed by mysterious black bands and lines. He could not have left that mystery untouched. He would have found that sodium thrown on a candlewick would produce bright-yellow lines matching exactly two powerful dark lines in the mysterious solar spectrum. Calcium would have given him red lines, copper and other metals —

Chemistry would have started up like a stung rabbit from spectroscopy, not test tubes! Oxygen in a year, not a century and a half. The elements of the rocks in months.

But spectroscopy waited untouched from 1666 to 1802. Can you conceive what an alien world this might have been had a man who mastered gravity, calculus and the laws of motion used that slit, the one great thing that challenges gravity for supremacy in teaching mankind?

…a particularly appropos alt.history as Newton investigated alchemy thoroughly to try to discern the fundamental laws underpining its concrete findings. In the end he failed and chemistry needed almost 150 years for Dalton’s atomic theory to revolutionise its methodology and organise its finding’s with an over-arching conceptual structure. But what if Newton had discovered the absorption lines in the spectrum first? Incredible scientific advances would have occurred 170 years early and the world would’ve had scientific chemistry before the Industrial Revolution, perhaps bypassing many of the dead ends.

Postscript

One downside that occurred to me, if chemistry arrived early via spectroscopy, was the fate of SF. Much of the early excitement of science fiction was the prospect of nearby alien life on the planets. If Campbell could pronounce the Solar System mostly dead in the 1930s after the first spectroscopic examinations of the planets, then early spectroscopy might have strangled the babe in its crib. Knowing the planets to be utterly unlike Earth by 1800, say, would have led to the still-birth of spaceflight. Missiles might have been developed, and flight, but with nothing to visit nearby, the major impetus behind the western inventors of the Space Race – the thought of Martians and Venusians amongst American, British & German space enthusiasts in the 1920s-40s – might have killed their efforts. No Goddard, von Braun, Ley, Oberth, and Clarke, to name a few.

But that may not have been the ‘kiss of death’ I’ve imagined for Russian space enthusiasts – Tsiolkovsky was of the opinion that ETIs were rare in the Universe, but that did nothing to dampen the passions of Russian wannabe cosmonauts. Perhaps the Soviets would have developed liquid fuel rockets before the Nazis? That alt.history would have been very different indeed with Stalin’s Russia bombarding the upstart fascists with Tsiolkovskyan liquid-fuelled missiles…