There Is Something Fascinating About Science

Sorry, readers, for my neglect of these pages over the past few days. I’ve hardly looked at a computer, or read the news, since Wednesday, and I will say that I’m a better man for it.

Until I get caught up, and find myself actually having something to write about, here’s a little nugget from America’s greatest prose stylist. In the following passage, excerpted from Life on the Mississippi (page 120), Mark Twain discusses the river’s habit of cutting shortcuts through its meandering course from time to time, sometimes shortening itself by tens of miles at a stroke. He also demonstrates his understanding of the geological theory of “gradualism“, which was quite new at the time.

Once there was a neck opposite Port Hudson, Louisiana, which was only half a mile across, in its narrowest  place. You could walk across there in fifteen minutes; but if you made the journey  around the cape on a raft, you traveled thirty-­five miles to accomplish the same thing. In  1722 the river darted through that neck, deserted its old bed, and thus shortened itself thirty-­five miles. In the same way it shortened itself twenty-­five miles at Black Hawk Point in 1699. Below Red River Landing, Raccourci cutoff was made (forty or fifty  years ago, I think). This shortened the river twenty­-eight miles. In our day, if you travel  by river from the southernmost of these three cutoffs to the northernmost, you go only  seventy miles. To do the same thing a hundred and seventy-­six years ago, one had to go a  hundred and fifty­-eight miles! — a shortening of eighty-­eight miles in that trifling distance. At some forgotten time in the past, cutoffs were made above Vidalia, Louisiana; at island 92; at island 84; and at Hale’s Point. These shortened the river, in the aggregate, seventy-­seven miles.

Since my own day on the Mississippi, cutoffs have been made at Hurricane Island; at island 100; at Napoleon, Arkansas; at Walnut Bend; and at Council Bend. These shortened the river, in the aggregate, sixty­-seven miles. In my own time a cutoff was made at American Bend, which shortened the river ten miles or more.

Therefore, the Mississippi between Cairo and New Orleans was twelve hundred and fifteen miles long one hundred and seventy­-six years ago. It was eleven hundred and eighty after the cutoff of 1722. It was one thousand and forty after the American Bend cut­off. It has lost sixty­seven miles since.  Consequently its length is only nine hundred and seventy-­three miles at present.

Now, if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and ‘let on’ to prove what  had occurred in the remote past by what had occurred in a given time in the recent past, or what will occur in the far future by what has occurred in late years, what an  opportunity is here! Geology never had such a chance, nor such exact data to argue from! Nor ‘development of species,’ either! Glacial epochs are great things, but they are vague — vague. Please observe:

In the space of one hundred and seventy-­six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty­-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower  Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and  stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing­rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-­two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-­quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual  board of aldermen.

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

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  1. Andrew E. says


    That is an excellent quote from Twain. Thanks for sharing. And if you want some this kind of thing raised to a power, see Fr. Seraphim Rose’s commentary on the Book of Genesis.

    Posted May 28, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
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    Posted October 6, 2013 at 1:43 am | Permalink