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Endeavour’s Fall #26: Professor Phineus Beecher

May 21, 2017




…whether that cause be some central body (such as is the magnet in the centre of the magnetic force or the earth in the centre of the gravitating force), or anything else that does not yet appear.

-Lord Isaac Newton, PBUH


The Professor and the old lady escorted Sam and Adams through a dark hallway.  Sam could not believe how many books were in the house.  They lined the hallway.  They lined the walls.  Piles of books covered most of the end tables.  Sam’s head was swimming.  What had happened to Jack?  He could hardly think of anything else.  Finally they sat in a cluttered study. The Professor sent Mrs. Hatch out.  The three sat quietly watching each other.

 “This is Harvard?” Sam finally asked, looking at the wall of books.

 The Professor coughed.  “Oh, no.  Well, I suppose it is part of it.  This is just my house.  The classrooms and libraries surround us here.”

 “I see,” said Sam sullenly.  “We studied without so many books, back at home.”

 “You studied at home, did you?” asked the Professor.  “Now that is interesting.”

 “Sam here is the one I wanted you to talk to,” said Adams.  “He’s the one that saw the Star Chamber use their locomotive.”

 “Well, then he was a good choice for a lookout, even if his Tory friend perhaps was not,” said the Professor.  “Yes indeed electricity is a subject they do not like us to speak of much.”

 “They?” asked Sam.

 “The Star Chamber.  Up in the woods you would not have much opportunity to run into them, but here at the College they are a regular presence.  They regularly attend my lectures, you could say.”

 “I had never heard of them before,” said Sam.

 “Then you are fortunate indeed,” said the Professor.  “They are the self-proclaimed protectors of what is safe and what is not safe to learn.”

 “Safe to learn?” asked Sam.

 “Well of course,” said the Professor.  “Where have you been studying, if you have not been taught about this?”  He looked at Adams, who just shrugged.

 “He’s a kid we picked up in Albany,” she said.  “As far as I can tell, he has real knack with the line and he asks a lot of questions about our mainspring.”

 The Professor looked closely at Sam’s face.  His eyes shone with a sudden brightness.  “Outside Albany, you say?” he muttered.  “You wouldn’t happen to be from Switch, would you?” 

 Sam was nervous to be suddenly talking to this strange old man about things so close to home.  “No,” he replied.  That was true enough, in a manner of speaking.  “Never heard of it,” he added for good measure.  That was not so true.

 “Odd,” said the Professor.  “You do remind me of someone… if I could put my finger on it…”

 Sam squirmed under his scrutiny.

 “Listen Professor,” said Adams, “perhaps that is a conversation we could have some other time?”

 “Of course, of course,” said the Professor.  “We do not have a whole semester, do we?”

 The old man rose and pulled a single leather bound volume from his over-stuffed shelf.  The other books immediately closed over the empty space.

 “Let us start with magnets.  It is no secret that a magnetic needle can guide us across the earth, or the heavens.  But Newton wrote little about why that happens, or how.” 

 Sam perked up immediately.  “Definition V says that magnetism is a centripetal force and Definition VI says that magnetic force varies in proportion to distance,”  he said, “of course Newton wrote about magnets!”

 The Professor’s eyes lit up again.  “I see you have studied a bit!  Well, then of course you also have read in Definition VIII that Newton classified magnetic forces with gravity.”

 “Right,” said Sam, slowly, “he said magnetic attraction is like gravitational attraction.”

 “But why then, my friend, does Corollary V claim that gravity is of a different nature than the power of magnetism?  How do we explain that difference?”

 Sam shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I have experimented with magnets once or twice, but not enough to figure that out.”

 “You study and perform experiments?” asked the Professor.  “Would this be at your school?”

 “No, I barely went to school at all,” said Sam.  “Most of this we did at home.”

 “That makes more sense,” said the Professor.  “If your father was a student… Was it at your home, I imagine, that you saw the Star Chamber and their engine?”

 Sam looked from the Professor to Adams and back.  “My father and my mother taught us,” he said.  “I still don’t know what happened to them both.”  Sam felt his throat tighten up.

 “There, there, my boy,” said the Professor.  He put his hand on Sam’s shoulder.  To Adams he said, “This is quite an interesting boy you have brought me, Miss Emily.  I wish we had more time to talk.”

 He cleared this throat and shuffled through the pages of his book.  “The rub about magnets is that it appears Lord Newton never penetrated their secrets.”

 Adams looked towards the door instinctively.

 “No, no, don’t worry, it is quite safe to talk in here,” said the Professor, “if we keep our voices low.  Of course the Star Chamber does not want us questioning Lord Newton, or looking beyond where he did.  That never changes.  But we get quite good at talking about precisely what he said and did.”

 The Professor seemed to find a page he was looking for.  “In later works, Newton implied that magnetic forces are carried by the fluids emanating from the magnet itself.   But, he never comes out and says it.  Nor does he explain how these fluids act on a compass needle while bypassing the glass above the needle.”

 “That does seem odd, when you put it that way,” said Sam. “If Newton could not explain them, then what chance do we have?”

 “That’s right, what chance could we have,” echoed the Professor, smiling sadly.  “Why, none of course.  Anyone that even spoke of such a thing would be burned at the stake or disposed of in some other barbaric fashion.  Much like my friend Ricker, after he wrote this book here.”

© J. O. Evans 2017. All Rights Reserved.