In Prigogine and Stenger’s book, the New Alliance, they claim that chemistry was tremendously boosted by Buffon. There was a period in the 1770s when certain French scientists, like D’Alembert, began to consider the Newtonian system to be faulty, due to various discrepencies they thought they had found, experimentally. Buffon, however, was having none of it, and in refuting the anti-Newtonians on the theoretical level, he suggested that the universality of gravity had not yet been taken up by chemists, who had clung tenaciously to an old fashioned system of “attractions”. The mathematical faults that D’Alembert felt he had found merely pointed to the need for further research under the grand Newtonian umbrella.
“… and if, up to this day, we have regarded the laws of affinity as different from those of gravity, the fault lies in not having well conceived them, grasped them, embrassed this object in all its extension. The figure which, among celestial bodies, hardly does anything by the law of the action of bodies one upon the other, because the distance is so vast, does everything, on the contrary, when the distance is very small or non-existent.”
It is through the research that was pursued under this unifying charter that, in the beginning of the century, brought about the discovery of radioactivity. Buffon’s comparison was almost literally transferred to the atom in Bohr’s theory of 1913, although I doubt Bohr ever read Buffon. It was in this context that the wave became one of science’s reigning symbols. From 1900 until the 1930s, waves were much in the news, and not only due to physics, but due, as well, to technology. The wave was associated with the radio, and the radio promoted a view of the world as a sphere of invisible waves. In 1919, Victor Tausk’s famous essay, On the Origin of the Influencing Machine in schizophrenia, he points to a recurrent image in schizophrenia, in which patients claim that a kind of devise exists that influences the patient’s and other’s thoughts and feelings. In a footnote on the devise, Tausk notes that “It produces, as well as removes, thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient’s knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain.” The patient isn’t the only one – as radios came on the market, it was the rare customer whose “knowledge of physics” could explain how they worked. But that they worked by means of waves (rather than, mostly, rays – I think one could probably trace a change from rays to waves, the effect of cultural themes, in the 19th century) was something all knew.
I am not quoting Tausk to intentionally pathologize Virginia Woolf, although I’m afraid that, given our knowledge of her breakdowns, I am a bit. However, Woolf’s own texts are not reticent about what she experienced during periods of mental disorientation, and I don’t think one can discount these experiences in the way she wrote, the themes she elaborated.
Heinrich Hertz, the man who discovered radio waves, spoke, in general terms, of replacing such terms as energy and force in mechanics with his threefold categories of time, space and mass, and deriving his mechanics of “hidden mass” and “hidden movement” from these – much to the dismay of philosophers like Mach. That hiddenness, that invisibility, combines with the notion of waves to create a certain popular mythology. Oliver Lodge, who took Hertz’s theory, popularized it in England, and arguably made the first radio receiver, was as famous, in the 1920s, as a parapsychology researcher. He took the model of the radio very far – in the twenties, he propounded the theory that the eye “is like a revieving instrument for detecting radio waves of an extremely short and definite length. It was the first wireless receiving set employed by man.”
With authorities like Lodge – authority-eccentrics – using the notion of invisible waves to reinforce a rather pre-scientific world view, I hope I am not pathologizing Woolf by suggesting that both her illness and her peculiar awareness of contemporary fact made waves an irresistable image of the stability-in-instability that she was after. I have not been able to find out when she first bought her own wireless set. But there is a quotation in her diary from 1918 that shows how radio waves, voices, and information come together in a complex. She records a meeting with a high government official, who tells her about the latest developments on the front in France.
“I tried to think it extraordinary but I found it difficult – extraordinary, I mean, to be in touch with one who was in the very center of the very center, sitting in a little room at Downing St. where, as he said, the wireless messages are racing through from all over the world, a million miles a minute. Where you have constantly to settle off hand questions of enormous difficulty and important – where the fate of armies does more or less hang upon what two or three elderly gentlemen decide…”
This crisscrossing of messages, and the sorting of them, is reproduced and suitably transformed in many passages in Jacob’s room where an entire collectivity is taken into account, with the authorial voice wandering among it, and commenting on the enormous difficulty and incompleteness of knowing where to begin, how to penetrate, what it means. This is a collectivity in which Jacob floats. It is to the decisions of two or three elderly gentlemen, who take this collectivity, this Europe, to war, that Jacob is eventually sacrificed.
This, then, are some of the significations of the wave. The wave is the form taken by what is in motion, whereas the room is a retreat from what is in motion – this, at least, is one of the values their opposition has in Jacob’s room. You can be mounted on a wave, but not for very long. Woolf has a description of Jacob’s attempt to hunt like the gentry which seems, almost,to derive from Muybridge’s famous series of photos. It gives us, or me at least, the kind of wave reference which I think goes all the way through the novel:
A few moments before a horse jumps it slows, sidles, gathers itself
together, goes up like a monster wave, and pitches down on the further
side. Hedges and sky swoop in a semicircle. Then as if your own body ran
into the horse's body and it was your own forelegs grown with his that
sprang, rushing through the air you go, the ground resilient, bodies a
mass of muscles, yet you have command too, upright stillness, eyes
accurately judging. Then the curves cease, changing to downright hammer
strokes, which jar; and you draw up with a jolt; sitting back a little,
sparkling, tingling, glazed with ice over pounding arteries, gasping:
"Ah! ho! Hah!" the steam going up from the horses as they jostle
together at the cross-roads, where the signpost is, and the woman in the
apron stands and stares at the doorway. The man raises himself from the
cabbages to stare too.
So Jacob galloped over the fields of Essex, flopped in the mud, lost the
hunt, and rode by himself eating sandwiches, looking over the hedges,
noticing the colours as if new scraped, cursing his luck.”