Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/June 1881/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE BUFFALO FIELD CLUB.

THERE is urgent need for more general and efficient association for popular scientific improvement. In politics, in religion, in philanthropy, in reform, and in the original extension of science, the key of influence and the secret of success are cooperation; and this is the agency to which we must look for the popular cultivation of science. The best form of associative action for the promotion of self-education in science is, undoubtedly, the field club, and we are gratified to observe that these excellent organizations are multiplying and doing admirable work. We called attention some months since to the proceedings of the Ottawa Club, and are glad now to be able to report the successful organization of a similar club in Buffalo. It is an outgrowth of the botany and geology classes in the Central High School of that city. These classes have for several years made excursions into the country surrounding Buffalo, under the direction of their able instructor. Professor Charles Linden. The working Field Club was organized in the spring of 1880, with over forty members, and proved successful from the beginning. Professor Linden, the director, is an ardent student and a skillful instructor, and seems to have imbued the members with much of his own enthusiasm for science. The field meetings have been attended on all occasions by a majority of the members. In order to systematize their work, the club is organized into sections in botany, geology, and entomology, and they are now busy in providing cases to arrange and preserve whatever has been collected in the field. Several members have nearly complete collections of the local flora and of geological specimens representing the formations of the vicinity; the entomological branch, which begins work this spring under the direction of Professor Kellicott, of the State Normal School, will no doubt make rapid progress during the coming season and contribute to the increasing success of the club.

Experience has shown that these organizations are only too often ephemeral, and are generally weakened by the prolonged interruption of winter when the excitement passes off, and they need to be freshly stimulated every spring. But there is interesting winter work as well as summer work in science. The Buffalo club has therefore held its meetings all along during the winter in the spacious library of the Society of Natural Sciences. At these semi-monthly meetings papers have been read before the club, followed by their discussion, and an exhibition of specimens necessary to illustrate all the main points upon which beginners are in relative ignorance. When needed, the calcium light and screen have been used to enhance the interest pf illustration. The meetings have been well attended by the members, their friends, and local scientists; they have been profitable for instruction, and have kept up an unbroken solicitude for the success of the association.

The twelve papers read at the semi-monthly meetings in the past season were published in the Buffalo "Daily Courier," and were well worthy of being laid before the public. We have been favored with the reports, and have read them all with interest. They are, of course, not of equal merit, nor equally relevant to the strict objects of the club; but, as a whole and as a first trial, they are admirable. Perhaps the best of the essays are those on "The Gorge of the Niagara," "Alaska," "The Catskill Mountains," "Coal," and "The Tulip-Tree." As the club grows older, the thought of its members will no doubt be more concentrated upon objects within their immediate field of observation, and these will become the subjects of exposition at the winter meetings. It would be well, indeed, if members would take up lines of observation to be pursued during the summer, with special reference to their discussion at the winter gatherings of the club. By taking notes and reading up on the subject chosen, and doing the literary part at convenient intervals, the work would be deliberately and carefully done, and, while the student carried on his own self-instruction, the club would be a gainer by improving the standard of its winter performances.

 

 
AGNOSTICTSM AT HARVARD.

The students of Harvard University have been canvassed to ascertain their religious opinions. It has been suspected that this institution, so long the headquarters of Unitarian liberalism, has become pervaded by atheism and agnosticism. But it is now found that the believers in these doctrines are virtually nowhere in this great establishment, and that in fact it is drifting away from rationalistic Unitarianism in the direction of pronounced orthodoxy.

There is a great propensity in this country to count up and see who is ahead. Next to the prime national question, "How many dollars?" the American soul yearns to know "How many votes?" Wherever two or three are gathered together, just before election, they are sure to count noses on the nominations. That there should also be a curiosity to know who is losing, who is gaining, and who leads, in the sphere of religious rivalry, is not surprising, for with our people, next after money-getting and politics, sectarian concernments have the most urgent claims. So the Harvard students were questioned as to their spiritual preferences, with the following results: "College and Law School, 972 men; agnostics, 26; atheists, 7; Baptists, 42; Chinese, 1; Christians, 2; Dutch Reformers, 2; Episcopalians, 275; Hebrews, 10; Lutheran,!; Methodists, 16; nonsectarian, 97; orthodox Congregational, 173; Presbyterians, 27; Quakers, 2; Roman Catholics, 33; Swedenborgians, 20; Unitarians, 214; Universalists, 18; not seen, 6." There has been a great deal of comment and no little congratulation on these unexpected results, but there is one aspect of the matter that we have not seen noticed.

From the point of view of agnosticism there are but two parties in the college, the 26 adherents to that view, and the 940 who do not accept it. The agnostic ground is that religion, in so far as it is supernatural, transcends human intelligence, so that man can really know nothing beyond the phenomenal and the finite. He may imagine much, and believe much, and fancy that he knows, but strictly tested it turns out that his conjectures are not knowledge in the true and proper sense. The position of the agnostic, in short, in regard to other worlds or spheres of existence beyond time, space, and the course of nature, is briefly this: "I know nothing and you know nothing, we neither of us can know anything, and we had better modestly confine our thoughts to the universe which we can know."

Now, as there are only 26 that take this ground, it is only fair to suppose that the other 940 take other and opposite ground; that is, they claim to know in regard to the religious matters of which they profess belief—claim, indeed, that their religious knowledge is the most clear and certain of all their knowledge.

The Harvard agnostic replies: "The condition and course of things in our university do not look like it. Let us test your claim by reference to that religious doctrine which is here regarded as of leading importance. The lowest and most rudimentary form of intelligence undoubtedly relates to numbers. No human beings have ever been found so incapable that they could not count a little, if no more than three or four fingers. At the very dawn of intelligence there must arise a perception of the difference between one object and two or three objects. Knowledge may be said to begin here, and, as it agrees with all experience, it is beyond all other knowledge exact, fundamental, and sure. Now, when you undertake to rise above nature and experience, and pass into the realm beyond, what success have you in the application of your primary numerical ideas? Is the infinite object of worship one, two, three, or twenty? Our students are divided over the question; and the fluctuations that are observed in regard to it do not favor the notion that it rests on real knowledge. The mass of our students are not agnostics. They say they know. But, while 214 of them declare that the Divine Being is a unit, 589 of the rest deny this simple proposition, and say that the Divine Being is three or something like it. Since the third century the Church has been quarreling over the application of the most elementary arithmetic to the object of divine worship, and the swaying of opinion now indicated in Harvard University shows that the question is just as unsettled as ever. But if men can not agree in applying the very first and simplest steps of numeration in the transcendental sphere, can they be said to have any real 'knowledge' of it, and how can they succeed better in the application of higher ideas?"

But our Harvard agnostic pushes the case still further. He can say: "We have among us 275 Episcopalians, who, with the other orthodox students, make up 589 professed Trinitarians. They are not agnostics, because they 'know' about this matter; and they are not Unitarians, because they are certain that hypothesis implies a false application of primary arithmetic in the premises. They reject the idea of unity applied to the Deity as false, and condemn it as wicked, and maintain that the true hypothesis is that of tri-personality, or of three Divine persons in the Godhead. But when any one of the '589' is pushed a little to explain himself, and make his alleged 'knowledge' clear, he says, ' Forbear! it is a great mystery, above poor human reason,' and that we are not required to understand it. But that is rank agnosticism! A mystery is simply that which can not be known. So our Trinitarians, who begin by declaring their 'knowledge' of the Divine nature, when cross-questioned, take a ready refuge in the unknowable."

 

 
ANOTHER STEP IN EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS.

The great movement of the century to modernize education, and make it conform to the progress of knowledge, is most conspicuously illustrated in England. An old, vigorous, advancing nation, leading in the multifarious work of civilization, and at the same time dominated by conservative habits, and maintaining two ancient, rich, and powerful universities, rooted in the most venerable traditions, England has been well situated for the display of those important changes in which educational progress consists. The tendency of the old universities was to check the growth of thought by a slavish devotion to the learning of antiquity. The spirit of the modern study of nature penetrated them but slowly. Bacon protested against scholastic verbalism, and called men back from the study of words to the study of things. The progress was outside of England's great seats of learning; and, when it had become palpable that they were behind the age and would not do the work demanded, other universities had to be established more in harmony with the state of knowledge. Various institutions were organized, notably the University of London, which accepted more modern standards of scholarship, and gradually recognized the claims of science as a means of education and a basis of university honors. The conflict between ancient and modern studies has continued and is still rife, but there is no doubt as to how the battle is going. We gave an account not long ago of the newly-organized Mason College, in which the comprehensive educational scheme is based upon science, and the old learning is passed by. We observe that another important step is taken in the same direction by the reorganization of Owens College, which is now known as Victoria University. The students of this college have hitherto mostly taken their degrees at the London University. But the right to confer degrees is now granted to the new university, and in drawing up their plans of study the governing body have been guided by the most liberal and enlightened views of education. They have openly repudiated the old superstition that all minds are alike and ought to pursue the same studies, and they proceed, in the language of the Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Greenwood, "upon the fundamental notion that a man of capacity ought to be encouraged to devote himself with a certain amount of concentration to some particular or definite branch of arts or science study." Of course, students can come to Victoria University and take its best degrees without knowing Latin and Greek. There are various courses, and the standard of attainment is to be high and thorough, but Latin and Greek are no longer indispensable to the acquisition of university honors. We have been a long time arriving at the very common-sense view expressed by Mr. Jacob Bright in a discussion on the policy of the university in respect to classics, that "it seemed to him extraordinary if the whole field of science and learning of various kinds apart from Latin and Greek were not enough to form the basis of a sound education."

 

 
HELMHOLTZ'S FARADAY LECTURE.

On Tuesday evening, April 5th, Professor Helmholtz, of the University of Berlin, gave the Faraday Lecture before the Chemical Society at the Royal Institution. As might have been expected, he was greeted by a distinguished audience. Professor Roscoe presided, and, before introducing the eminent German physicist, presented him with the Faraday Medal. The address, notes of which were furnished by Professor Helmholtz to the London press, is reproduced in our pages, and will be carefully read by all interested in chemical physics. It is, perhaps, the most weighty and significant tribute to the genius of Faraday that has yet been made; and at the same time it is itself no slight contribution to physico-chemical theory. It was stated that Faraday, although not a mathematician, had anticipated with great sagacity the results of electro-chemical research by the trained mathematicians of the present generation. Professor Helmholtz's original speculations were thus referred to by Dr. Roscoe: "Upon Faraday's well known law of electrolysis he has founded a new electro-chemical theory which reveals to us chemists conclusions of the utmost importance. He tells us, as the result of the application of the modern theory of electricity to Faraday's great experimental law, that the atom of every chemical element is always united with a definite, unvarying quantity of electricity. Moreover—and this is most important—that this definite amount of electricity attached to each atom stands in close connection with the combining power of the atom which modern chemistry terms quantivalence. For, if the amount of electricity belonging to the monad atom be taken as a unit, then that of the dyad atom is two, of the triad atom, three, and so on. Hence, then, thanks first to Faraday and now to Helmholtz, chemists have now a new and unlooked-for confirmation of one of their most important doctrines from the science of electricity."