Star-Begotten, by H. G. Wells

Chapter Two

Mr. Joseph Davis Learns about Cosmic Rays

1

The Planetarium Club abounds in unexpected conversations. It has a core of scientific men who are mostly devotees of the exact sciences, grave, shy, precise men, but wrapped round them are layers of biologists, engineers, explorers, civil servants, patent lawyers, criminologists, writers, even an artist or so. Almost any subject may be started in the smoking-room where most of the talk goes on, but the feeling against chewed newspaper is strong. Mr. Davis, as he ascended the club steps, made an effort to throw off those vague shadows that oppressed his mind, and to brighten his bearing to the quality that may be reasonably expected of a temperamental optimist.

But as he recrossed the hall from the vestiary to the dining-room he was still undecided whether he should sit at one of the small tables and go on with his state of uneasy deterioration, or take a place at one of the sociable boards. He elected for solitude, but repented as soon as his decision was made, and after his solitary lunch he made a real effort at sociability and joined a talking circle of a dozen men or more between the window and the fire, sitting down next to Foxfield, that hairy, untidy biologist, for whom he had a slightly condescending liking. The talk was rather under the stress of a new member, a parliamentary barrister, who might be almost anything in a few years’ time and manifestly felt as much. This man had been elected before it was realized that he was slightly larger than any one else in the club and disposed to behave accordingly, and his conversational method was rather an elucidatory cross-examination than an original contribution to the interchanges.

‘Tell me,’ he would say and even point a finger. ‘I don’t know anything about these things. Tell me —’

‘Tell me,’ except in the case of monarchs, heirs apparent, and presidents of the United States, is by the standards of the Planetarium atrocious conversational manners. But so far no one in the club had been able to get this point of view over to the new-comer. It would happen sooner or later but so far it had not happened. He was talking now with an air of making out some sort of case against modern physics and demonstrating how entirely more sensible and practical a mind which had passed through the ennobling exercises of Greats and a straightforward legal and political training could be.

‘Atoms and force were good enough for Lucretius and they were good enough for my stinks master when I was a boy. Then suddenly you have to disturb all that. There’s wonderful discoveries, and the air is full of electrons and neutrons and positons.’

‘Positrons,’ a voice corrected.

‘It’s all the same to us. Positrons. And photons and protons and deutrons. Alpha rays and Beta rays and Gamma rays and X rays and Y rays. And they fly about like solar systems and all the rest of it. And the dear old Universe that used to be fixed and stable begins to expand and contract — like God playing a concertina. Tell me — frankly. I suggest to you — it’s a bluff. It’s something out of nothing. It’s just a way of selling us mystery bottles with scientific labels. I ask you.’

He paused with the air of a man who has put a poser.

A small, elderly, but still acutely acid old gentleman was sitting deep in one of the armchairs. The finger had not challenged him, but now he put out a lean hand and spoke with a thin penetrating voice, like a rapier, with the faint glint of a Scotch accent along the edge.

‘You say Tell me — and Tell me. Will you have the grace to listen while I tell ye? And not interrupt?’

And when the slightly outsize member made as if he had something further to say, the old gentleman just raised his hand and said: ‘No. Listen, I tell ye, and told you shall be.’

The rising man, just faintly abashed, assumed an attitude of sceptical and slightly impatient intelligence, looking round the group for support in what he evidently imagined was going to be a duel of wits. Just for a moment he imagined that. And then suddenly he felt like facing twelve implacably hostile jurymen and the first lesson of the Planetarium Club entered into his soul. Not to bounce.

Quietly and unobtrusively he allowed himself to lapse into the pose of the modest best boy in the class who knows that he still has much to learn and who cannot command any one to tell him but is glad to be told.

‘These things boil down,’ said the old gentleman. ‘I’ve lectured about them for years. And followed the changes. When one gets old one has to be concise and it’s fortunate I’ve had some practice in packing my statements. Still I’ll have to take five minutes. I’ll do all I can for you. Those Oxford teachers of yours — for it’s Oxford you come from — probably left your mathematical philosophy in a worst state than they found it when you came up from your English public school — if indeed your formula-dodging schoolmasters gave you any mathematical understanding at all even there — so I may not be able to explain everything to you. Some bits I’ll just have to tell you — as you put it. But it’s really quite simple and credible stuff they’ve made of it in the last twenty-five years, Rutherford and Bragg and Niels Bohr and the rest of those fellows, and the younger people find no difficulty about it at all.’

And with that and a galling air of careful simplification he proceeded to unfold a compact modern view of space and time and the movements of things therein. ‘Don’t ask me what electricity is,’ he said, ‘and I’ll tell you everything else as we have it up to date. It’s none so complicated as you think and there’s never a contradiction.’

And very neatly he took his nucleus, twisted up his atoms with electrons and neutrons round the central proton, and sent them eddying into a world of throbbing photons. Then he ran his hand along the sixty-odd octaves of the spectrum from the hundred-yard electro-magnetic undulations beyond the longest radio length through heat rays and light rays to X rays and Gamma rays, smacked a few atoms together, shot them through with helium atoms, and described the results, and by way of epilogue gave a lucid word to those flying sub-atomies, the cosmic rays.

‘After all, it’s none so confused,’ he said, and indeed the pictures that arose as one listened to his slightly remonstrating, very persuasive Scotch intonation had the music of ripples and wavelets, of dancing reflections upon the side of a ship, of the concentric colour rings of films on water, of every sort of pleasant patterning and logical ornamentation. He made dead matter dance and circle, set to partners, interfere, shimmer, glow, become iridescent and mysteriously endowed with energy. The atoms of our fathers seemed by contrast like a game of marbles abandoned in a corner of a muddy playground on a wet day. He even had a cautious word for the young neutrinos, the latest aspirants to his dance in the atomic assembly-rooms. The one or two men who were experts in the subject listened, pleased to hear the A B C of their subject so lucidly delivered, and the rest were glad to check up their vague impressions of these fluctuating modern conceptions.

‘And where do we come in?’ asked someone. ‘Where is thought and the soul in all this?’

‘Just a film, just a thin zone of reflection halfway in the scale of size between those electrons and the stars.’

2

Davis followed that compact discourse in a mood of unusual self-forgetfulness. It was, he found, as refreshing as good drink, and as little likely to linger in the system. And even the new member betrayed a certain humility in his attention.

But he still felt it was his duty to himself to talk.

‘Those cosmic rays of yours,’ he said. ‘They are the most difficult part of your story. They aren’t radiations. They aren’t protons. What are they? They go sleeting through the universe incessantly, day and night, going from nowhere to nowhere. For the life of me I find that hard to imagine.’

‘They must come from somewhere,’ said a quiet little man with an air of producing a very special contribution to the discussion.

‘We note their existence,’ said the old gentleman. ‘We watch them but we draw no premature conclusions. They are infinitesimal particles flying at an inconceivable velocity. They come from all directions of outer space. And that’s as much as we know about them. If I put out my finger like that for a second or so, there’s only just a dozen or so gone through it in a second. And no harm done. Which is just as well. There’s more up above us in the outer atmosphere. But fortunately they get reflected and absorbed. You know we have a sort of filtering halo about the earth, a sort of cloak of electrons, which keeps off any excess of these radiations.’

‘That Heaviside layer,’ a stout rufous man, who had apparently been asleep, interpolated.

‘And what may that be?’ asked the barrister.

‘It’s a beautiful sample of scientific terminology,’ said the stout rufous man still somnolently. ‘This Heaviside layer, so far as I can understand it, is called so, because firstly it isn’t heavy, secondly it hasn’t any side, and thirdly it is almost as much a layer as — as a rheumatic chill or a glow of indignation. Go on, Professor.’

His eyes, which had been partly open, closed again.

‘You said,’ said the examining barrister, ‘that fortunately they are kept off. Why — fortunately? May I ask?’

‘My thankfulness may have been a little unwarranted,’ said the old gentleman. ‘But these cosmic rays have a lot of energy, considering their size. They knock atoms about when they hit them. And we and our belongings are made of atoms. A lot of them, a great lot of them, a real douche of cosmic rays, might cause all sorts of tissue diseases, blow up mines, strike the matches in our pockets. But as it is they don’t often hit even one atom — quantitatively they’re more ineffective even than that infinitesimal quantity of radiation that is always coming up from the radium in the earth; and so Nature is able to clean up any little speck of mess that occurs.’

‘Not always,’ said Foxfield suddenly.

‘I’ve heard of that idea you’re alluding to, Mr. Foxfield,’ said the old gentleman. ‘You mean that idea about the chromosomes.’

‘Now tell me,’ said the barrister, relapsing for a moment. ‘I’ve heard somewhere before of this idea you’re speaking of. I’m told these cosmic rays affect — what is it you call them? — mutations.’

‘I have no doubt of it,’ said Foxfield.

‘You’ll find no physicist to encourage you,’ said the old gentleman.

‘Or contradict me,’ said Foxfield.

‘Aye, aye,’ said the old gentleman cheerfully. ‘It’s a case of not proven.’

‘But what is this?’ asked Davis. ‘Do you mean that these — these cosmic rays may affect heredity — inheritance?’

‘I should be inclined to say they must,’ said Foxfield.

‘But why them in particular?’ asked the barrister.

‘Because we have eliminated almost every other possible cause for changes in the chromosomes.’

‘It’s a most extraordinary thing,’ said the rufous man, slowly waking up and passing by swift stages from sleepiness to a bright alertness.

‘The chromosomes,’ said Foxfield, ‘the germinal elements, have very complicated and enormous molecules. They are rather elaborately protected from most types of disturbance. They have a sort of independence of the parent body. They go their way alone.’

‘Transmission of acquired characteristics strictly forbidden,’ someone interjected.

‘It seems to be. But the X rays, the Gamma rays, and particularly these cosmic rays can get through, and so, I reason, they must get through — to start something fresh. Since something fresh is always being started.’

And now it was Foxfield’s turn to answer intelligent questions and give a brief lecture.

He summarized the new realizations of the past twenty-five years about mutations and survival almost as expertly as the old professor had elucidated his atoms. He showed how the changing of species bit by bit, by imperceptible gradations, which the early Darwinians had stressed, had given place in modern evolutionary theory to a realization of the frequency of extensive simultaneous sports and mutations. And there was nothing in the circumstances of an animal species which could explain these sports and mutations. And so it was that Foxfield was compelled to think they were produced by some penetrating exterior force.

‘But why not Providence?’ asked the quiet man.

‘Because the vast majority of these mutations are aimless and useless,’ said Foxfield.

‘And so, having eliminated everything else,’ said the barrister, ‘you lay the burden of change and mutation — and in fact all the responsibility for evolution — on those little cosmic rays! Countless myriads fly by and miss. Then one hits — Ping! Ping! — and we get a double-headed calf or a superman.’

‘What an unsettled universe it is!’ said someone.

3

And then suddenly the rufous man was touched by fantasy. His sleepiness had fallen from him altogether. He sat up brightly now. ‘Look here!’ he said. ‘I’ve got an idea! Suppose —’

He paused. He produced that ‘suppose’ like a juicy fruit and hovered with his hand in the air for a voluptuous moment before he squeezed the juice from it.

‘Suppose these cosmic rays come from Mars!’

‘They come, I tell ye, from every direction,’ said the old professor.

‘Including Mars. Yes, Mars, that wizened elder brother of the planet Earth. Mars, where intelligent life has gone far beyond anything this planet has ever known. Mars, the planet which is being frozen out, exhausted, done for. Some of you may have read a book called The War of the Worlds — I forget who wrote it — Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, one of those fellows. But it told how the Martians invaded the world, wanted to colonize it, and exterminate mankind. Hopeless attempt! They couldn’t stand the different atmospheric pressure, they couldn’t stand the difference in gravitation; bacteria finished them up. Hopeless from the start. The only impossible thing in the story was to imagine that the Martians would be fools enough to try anything of the sort. But —’

He held up his hand and wagged his fingers with pleasure at his idea.

‘Suppose they say up there: “Let’s start varying and modifying life on the earth. Let’s change it. Let’s get at the human character and the human brain and make it Martian-minded. Let’s stop having children on this rusty little old planet of ours, and let’s change men until they become in effect our children. Let’s get spiritual children there.” D’you see? Martian minds in seasoned terrestrial bodies.’

‘And so they start firing away at us with these cosmic rays!’

‘And presently,’ said the rufous man, almost gobbling with the excitement of his idea, ‘presently when they have got the world Martianized —’

‘I never heard such nonsense,’ said the old professor and got up to go away. ‘I tell ye these cosmic rays come from every direction.’

‘And why shouldn’t they use a sort of shrapnel?’ said the rufous man to his retreating back. ‘Shells full of these cosmic rays, so to speak, with a back-lash. Nothing impossible in that, is there?’

The old professor’s back made no reply. And yet it had a certain eloquence.

‘They’d probably begin with wild mutations,’ somebody suggested after a pause; ‘and then get more accurate.’

‘It may have been going on for a long time,’ said the quiet man, helpful as ever.

‘You’re assuming of course that they know a lot more about us than we know about them,’ said the rising barrister.

‘And isn’t that easily possible?’ the rufous man countered. ‘Mars is the older planet. Far beyond us along the line of evolution. What we know is nothing to what they must know. They may be as able to look through us as we are to take a microscope and look through an amoeba. And when they have got the world Martianized, when they’ve started a race here with minds like their own and yet with bodies fit for earth, when they have practically interbred with us and ousted our strain, then they’ll begin to send along their treasures, their apparatus — grafting their life on ours. Making men into their heirs and their continuations. Eh? Am I talking nonsense, Foxfield? Am I talking nonsense?’

‘The jokes of today may become the facts of tomorrow,’ said Foxfield. ‘Nonsense pro tem, let us say.’

‘I’m beginning to believe my own story,’ said the rufous man. ‘With your endorsement. It’s wonderful.’

‘But tell me,’ said the lawyer, also a little excited by this strange idea, ‘is there any evidence in confirmation? Any evidence at all? For example — has there been any increase of freaks and monsters in the world in the last few years?’

‘It’s only recently that there has been any attempt to give a statistical account of abnormalities and mutations,’ said Foxfield. ‘Monstrosities are hushed up — human monstrosities particularly. Even animal-breeders have a sort of shame about them, and wild creatures kill strange offspring instinctively. Every living creature seems to want to breed true. But from the fruitfly and plants and so on we know there is an amount of variation going on — much larger than everyday people imagine.’

‘Mostly unfavourable variation though?’ asked the barrister.

‘Ninety-nine and nine-tenths per cent,’ said Foxfield. ‘With no survival value at all. Chance. Like the wildest experimenting. . . . ’

4

Now this was the last kind of stuff to which an anxious prospective parent on the verge of neurasthenia ought to have listened.

And yet is it not out of accidents and disasters and fantastic twists of the mind that the greatest discoveries of science and the profoundest revelation of Nature’s processes have come? Things long unsuspected may be laid bare by a jest. The jokes of today may become the facts of tomorrow, even as Foxfield had said.

As Mr. Joseph Davis walked home from the Planetarium Club he seemed to hear and see those cosmic rays, flashing like tracer bullets, singing like arrows, gleaming and vanishing like falling stars, through the world about him. You might wrap yourself from them, the old professor had remarked, in solid lead, and still they got through to you.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30