THROUGH all ages men have asked, What is worth while? The answer has been, at least from those not stupefied by pessimism, that many things are worth the while: happiness, self-respect, health, friendship, honor, wealth, all these are worth having, and any work that helps to secure them deserves the undertaking. It is the old question of what man should try to attain, and about it many a system of philosophy has reared itself, though for the most part on shaking legs.
Through this conflict of opinion we have come to pride ourselves upon being practical, even to such an extent as to consider abnormal any one who does not share this quality. To be practical means to be able to turn knowledge to useful account, to make of it some rather immediate application. With us Americans to be practical means too often to make and save money, forgetting that money is only a tool. Personally I would hold that man to be most practical who gets the most happiness out of life. But at the present we are concerned only with the question, that may seem a paradox, how can pure science be a practical undertaking?
Science in the strict sense, or pure science, is the search for the explanation of things. It is not the collecting of statistics, nor the cataloguing of them, nor the construction of systems, for however much these operations may help science, they do not compose it. Science is the light that points out what different phenomena have in common, and establishes their origins and changes. To-day the term is often taken in vain, as when we speak of pugilistic, tonsorial and domestic science, which shows that the general idea of it is any special skill or knowledge. But pure science, as strictly used, is much more than either skill or knowledge, it is explanation without any thought of immediate application to human needs.
How, then, is pure science practical, when it avowedly seeks no quick useful end? It is so, as its records show, by serving as the pioneer that makes possible utilitarian ends, it breaks a road through the unknown for application to follow. For not until science has given the explanation can we turn that explanation to use. And the examples that I shall proceed to relate show clearly that the pursuit of pure science has made possible many of the benefits that we now enjoy.