Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/April 1873/Editor's Table
|←Sketch of Professor Henry||Popular Science Monthly Volume 2 April 1873 (1873)
WHEN The Popular Science Monthly started, the public were informed that it would be published a year at any rate, and go on if fairly sustained; our second volume is now completed, and we are happy to announce that the enterprise will be continued, and gives promise of permanence. It was entered upon as an experiment, and generally thought to be a hopeless one. The quality of those periodicals which reach great circulation was pointed out as evidence of what the people demand, and we had the most discouraging assurances that they will not sustain a solid and really instructive magazine, which requires them to think. Believing, however, that there are large numbers who would gladly support such a monthly if they could get it, we determined to give them the chance, and have been justified in the result. Our Monthly is not only a success, but it has succeeded on its own merits alone. All the clap-trap artifices for rushing into a big circulation have been avoided: the public have neither been bribed by premiums, nor tempted by cheapness, nor lured by large promises, nor stunned by pictorial display, nor deafened by the trumpetings of self-praise, such as usually accompany the advent of new periodicals. We entered quietly upon the undertaking, and with its announcement the first number was ready, so that people might judge of it themselves. In our prospectus we said: The Popular Science Monthly will contain instructive and attractive articles and abstracts of articles, original, selected, and illustrated, from the leading scientific men of different countries, giving the latest interpretations of natural phenomena, explaining the applications of science to the practical arts, and to the operations of domestic life.
"It is designed to give especial prominence to those branches of science which help to a better understanding of the nature of man; to present the claims of scientific education, and the bearings of science upon questions of society and government; how the various subjects of current opinion are affected by the advance of scientific inquiry will also be considered." We appeal to the two volumes of the Monthly now completed in proof that these pledges have been fairly redeemed.
In stating that our enterprise is an undoubted success, it will, of course, not be understood that we have a circulation at all comparable with that of the leading periodicals devoted to light literature, but it is greater than was anticipated, and is steadily increasing. The undertaking has, moreover, met with wide sympathy and warm encouragement from the most intelligent class of readers throughout the country. There has been an almost unanimous expression of opinion on the part of individuals and the press that The Popular Science Monthly has met an urgent public need, that it is the most valuable magazine now before the American public, and deserves an extensive patronage. For all these kind expressions, and for the substantial support which has accompanied them, we return to our friends the most cordial thanks.
But, while our work has been thus far approved, we are far from claiming that it has been perfect. It has the imperfections which are incident to a new project in a new field, and which it will require time and experience to remove. We intend to improve it in several important features. While pursuing the general plan now entered upon, we expect to enlarge its resources, to make more prominent the applications of science to common life, to give a more popular form to its discussions, and, in short, to make it a magazine that no family with brains in it can afford to do without.
Our object will continue to be to furnish a higher grade of reading for purposes of public instruction. In this matter the press of the country has been false to its trust. We have an educational system that brings the whole mass of the people up to the reading-point, and hardly carries them beyond it. The school-master, when he has done with them, hands his pupils over to the editors, and the Dailies, Weeklies, and Monthlies, go on with the work of education. In the school they are taught to worship books, and to consider print and wisdom as synonymous, so that there arises a superstition that mere reading is an intellectual virtue. Were the supreme object of education to make customers for newspapers, our system could hardly be improved. But how does the press meet its responsibilities and use its power? With rare exceptions, it must be said, by ministering to popular weaknesses. Editors fill their pages with worthless gossip, with interminable comment on passing frivolities, with trashy and demoralizing fictions, with the lies, libels, and multitudinous inanities of politics, and with endless, ambitious writing on every empty topic that will serve to make a sensation and beguile the reader without the exertion of thought. It is not in this way that the serious work of public education is to be carried forward. Excess of reading without regard to its quality is a pernicious dissipation, and, besides wasting precious time, it disqualifies those who indulge in it from that serious effort of thought which is the first condition of mental improvement. The main purpose in starting our magazine was to do something to counteract this baneful influence, to contribute something toward elevating the standard of popular reading, and to promote the higher ends of education by diffusing valuable knowledge, and making accessible the productions of the world's ablest thinkers.
A few have criticised the Monthly as containing too much foreign matter; but our aim is to get the best, be it foreign or domestic. In the interests of truth we have to guard against the "bias of patriotism," and all who do this will recognize that the leading intellectual work of the world is now done in Europe. A spurious patriotism fosters national jealousies and teaches us that foreigners are our enemies; but, in the sphere of science, the selfish and paltry antagonisms of men can be forgotten, and to talk about is impertinent. Our allegiance is to the age and to the growing spirit of liberality, which is its greatest honor. But we shall guard against undervaluing American scientific thought, and would refer to the present contents of the Monthly in attestation of this purpose.
Again thanking our friends for their generous encouragement, we ask for its continuance, and an increase of their efforts to promote the diffusion of our magazine. As it was for the people to decide whether it should be sustained, so it will be for them to enlarge the sphere of its usefulness by extending its circulation, and thus enabling us to carry out our plans for its improvement.
Mr. Parke Godwin, of the Evening Post, was chosen to speak for the press at the Tyndall banquet; but he saw fit to throw his toast behind him, and take up a more ambitious róle. He used the occasion to give a lesson to the scientific gentlemen present as to the proper limit of their inquiries. He staked out the ground within which all is legitimate, and beyond which all is mere fantastic pseudo-science and subversive of religious faith. It has ever been a favorite occupation with outsiders to instruct the investigators of Nature where they must stop, so that scientific progress has largely consisted in levelling barriers and establishing the rights of inquiry in forbidden places. Moreover, at each step of advance the pioneers of research have been bidden to stand, in the name of religion; so that in breaking down these restrictions advancing science has been simply widening the scope and liberty of religion itself.
Mr. Godwin may now speak with safety of the "roaring furnaces of the sun," but, for suggesting that the sun is a mass of incandescent matter Anaxagoras was accused of impiety and banished. Hipparchus, for making a catalogue of the stars, was denounced as impious. Galileo, for inquiring into the celestial motions, was anathematized as a heretic. Newton's theory of gravitation was branded as an atheistic attempt to explain the universe without the intervention of God. The early anatomists were charged with impiety for dissecting the human body. The first geologists incurred theological denunciation, and the abhorrence of the pious, as seeking to undermine the Bible and overthrow Christianity. But in each of these cases it turned out that the alarm of the religious was groundless, and every one of the departments of knowledge that science has created, the theologians, as soon as they got through denouncing it, have turned to account for their own purposes. But it seems that there is a class that cannot even learn in the school of experience. The next great step of progressive thought, the synthesis of the sciences, the unification of their facts and principles by the most comprehensive laws, so as to arrive at the philosophy of Nature on the basis of actual knowledge, is sternly contested, and we are to have the fight over again with the descendants of the old enemies of investigation, and on exactly the same grounds. Again, men of science are bidden to stand lest God be driven from the universe. Mr. Godwin appears as the champion of imperilled faith, and his speech is reëchoed and applauded by the press as a well-timed defence of religion against the inroads of "irreligious science." Let us briefly examine his argument.
After mentioning some examples of spurious science, Mr. Godwin says: "These are conjectures that impose upon us their own fantastic offspring for the legitimate heirs of science. Science is exact and certain and authoritative, because dealing with fact and the systematic coördination of facts only. She does not wander away into the void inane. She has nothing to do with questions of primal origin nor of ultimate destinies; not because they are unimportant questions, or insoluble, but because they transcend her instruments and her methods. She leaves them to philosophy, which proceeds not by demonstration and proof but by insight, by intuition and by moral reasoning; or she leaves them to revelation, in whose supernal light alone they can be properly illuminated and fully seen."
To avoid being misled, a correction or two is here necessary, before considering Mr. Godwin's main position. He says that science is exact, which is quite true of the "exact sciences," but is not true of all science. It is not true of those in which the phenomena do not admit of precise measurement, such as biology, psychology, and sociology, which are nevertheless clear and certain in their truths and as strictly sciences as any other. He says that science deals with "facts and the coördination of facts only." But facts can neither be determined nor coördinated except by the constant use of theories and hypotheses. Science consists in the interpretation of facts, and this always begins with hypothetical conjecture; while the progress of science is nothing else than the growth of hypothesis and of theory by which facts are put in their proper relations.
Mr. Godwin avers that science has nothing to do with questions of "primal origin," by which he means, as we gather from a passage to be directly quoted, questions of the origin of the universe* the origin of our earth, the origin of plants and animals, the origin of man and his institutions. This is certainly an extraordinary statement to put forth to the scientific men of the present day. And that a great problem of Nature which is soluble, is yet not a problem of science, but belongs to a method which "proceeds not by demonstration and proof," is a statement that will be equally surprising. As for the method of "insight," "intuition," "moral reasoning," and "revelation," it had been tried on the phenomena of Nature for thousands of years, and it was exactly because it had broken down that the method of science arose. The order of the universe has been discovered by demanding "demonstration and proof;" but on what ground is it assumed that the problem of the present operations of the universe is of a different nature from the problem of its past operations? The order of Nature is one and continuous, and the same method which has given us a knowledge of its present workings can alone be competent to give us the knowledge of its past workings. Science is the coördination of facts, that is, putting them in order, but they must be coördinated in their sequences as well as in their coexistences — in time as well as in space. Nor is it any more possible to study the present in Nature, without going back to the past which has created it, than it is to do the same thing in political affairs. It is now well recognized that our knowledge of existing things is profoundly dependent upon our knowledge of the way they have been produced. The present phase of astronomical science embraces the problem of the formation of the solar and stellar systems. What is geology but a history of the formation of the earth? Zoology has been revolutionized by modern embryological studies. The psychological point of view is now that of the development of mind. Philology has become a science through the study of lingual origins; and sociological science has at its foundation the problem of the origin and growth of social activities and organizations. Questions of origin, of derivation, and of transformations in time, are, in fact, the supreme characteristics of the science of the nineteenth century.
Mr. Godwin forbids it. He might as well forbid the flow of the Gulf Stream; it cannot be arrested till the study of cause and effect is ruled out of the scientific court as an illegitimate procedure. The study of origins is the highest issue of ages of scientific preparation, and the ripening of science into an authentic philosophy.
Of Mr. Godwin's three or four examples of illegitimate science, here is one. He says: "Then there is another of these outside teachers of science, but this one is entitled to the highest respect — though I think he rides a hobby beyond the capacity of the creature to carry — who contrives a vast process of cosmic evolutions, who tells us that a great while ago — ten thousand years — no, a hundred million of millions of millions of years ago — a nebulous gas was diffused through the immensity of space, which first twisted itself into a solar system, then into a world, then into layers of mineral strata, then into vegetable spirales, into animal motions, into human vortices called societies, into iliads, parthenons, and Shakespeares, and at last into a grand philosophy of evolution — the crown and consummation of the whole; which may all he true, though the birth strikes me as hardly worthy of so long and so tremendous a parturition."
Mr. Godwin declares that the doctrine of Evolution, of which he seems to have a very tortuous conception, is an instance of illegitimate science. The nebular hypothesis is its first and remotest "twist," and so Kant, Laplace, Herschel, Huggins, and a multitude of other astronomers who have contributed to its establishment are to be pitched over the enclosure as pseudo-scientists! If the reader will glance at the excellent paper of Prof. Leconte in the preceding pages, on the Nebular Hypothesis, he will quickly see what Mr. Godwin's opinion in this matter is worth.
But the foregoing passage has a further significance; it gives an interesting clew to Mr. Godwin's estimate of the value of the universe. It is not worth production by so tedious a process as that of Evolution; but, if got up in six days—indefinite periods being excluded—Mr. Godwin would probably allow that it is worth cost. Estimates of the natural world will of course vary with the knowledge of it. The first valuation was made in times of blank ignorance of Nature, and still harmonizes with that state of mind. Yet Mr. Godwin's position evinces progress, because in the pre-scientific ages Nature was not only despised as worthless, but hated as worse than worthless. The whole scheme was regarded as under a divine curse, and its students were put into prison and punished in various ways. We are past all that now, and Nature is considered as of some interest and fit enough to be studied by those who like it—if they will consent to have bits in their mouths and be kept within suitable bounds. There has been progress, because the dispensation of hate has been succeeded by that of indifference; but still the devotion of men of science to the study of Nature is a popular puzzle. It is not yet looked upon as the highest occupation of the human mind to extend our knowledge of the order of things around us. On the part of classes still called educated, there survives an ill-concealed contempt for the mental pursuits of mere collectors, observers, and experimenters. It is not now so bad as when in England Lady Glanville's will was attempted to be set aside on the ground of lunacy, evinced by no other evidence than a fondness for collecting insects; yet enthusiastic naturalists who ransack field and forest, mountain and sea, are still regarded as a class apart—as eccentric objects of curiosity, not to be compared in dignity with the students of art, literature, and metaphysics. So much of the old spirit continues that, as objects of thought and in the education of to-day, the works of man are ranked as superior to the works of God. Nor is it by any means considered so very desirable to know all about Nature. Large numbers of the cultivators of sentimental literature still protest that, if the world were once understood, it would no longer be worth living in. The heads of college-bred people are still filled with old childish fictions which are fondly cherished, and science, because it would clear away the mountains of this rubbish, in which the seekers after a liberal education are still made to delve, is dreaded as a desolating agency that would bereave us of all that is most refining and ennobling in culture. In his speech, Mr. Godwin goes off with double objurgation, as follows: "'Great God!" as Wordsworth says—
. . . . "'Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled on a creed outworn;
Now, this may be all very well for callow sophomores; but when old fellows, who ought to have been weaned from this pagan nonsense long ago, take to whining about their forlornness, with nothing remaining but God's universe, the case becomes pitiable. This is the second time that Prof. Tyndall has been gravely told across the table in New York by after-dinner orators that they would go back to heathenism rather than accept the science that his presence suggested—a striking comment on the value which these defenders of the faith attach to the religion of civilization. But let people be suckled where they please; as for our own spiritual lactation we prefer to get it from the revelations of modern science rather than from the Jack-and-a-Beanstalk tomfooleries of pagan mythology.
No! the alarm-bell is rung at the progress of science in the present age to but little purpose. The worth of the universe must rise as its grandeurs are comprehended, and our joy in its harmony and beauty will be heightened the more deeply it is understood.
"I grieve not that ripe knowledge takes away
Nor are religious considerations to be invoked to deter men of science from their exalted work, for the single-minded pursuit of truth is an intrinsically religious act. No limits are to be tolerated but those imposed by Nature herself, and up to those limits the work must be pressed as a sacred duty. For, if, as we believe, science is but a record of the Divine operations in matter, there is devoutness in scientific investigation, and to push it to the farthest possible boundaries becomes a matter of clear religious obligation.
The article of Dr. Barnard, characterizing our educational system, and the brief statement of Prof. Agassiz's opinion in regard to New-England education, both of which will be found elsewhere in our pages, are commended to the very special attention of the burning advocates of compulsory education. According to these, all that our educational system lacks of perfection is a suitable appendage of policemen and constables to drive everybody into the school-houses, that they may be compelled to participate in its blessings. In their view, the only difficulty remaining is a defective will, and a perverse and contumacious spirit, which can only be dealt with by law-warrants and bludgeons. In so far as compulsory education is merely a kind of street-cleaning, a scraping together of refuse and vagabond children in places where something can be done to humanize them, it may be admissible; but there are very serious grounds of protest against coercion being carried farther. If our so-called educational system be defective to its very roots, a total inversion of the method of Nature, and a violation of the constitution of the mind, as Dr. Barnard declares, or if it be a crude vestige of old mediæval ignorance and stupidity, as Prof. Agassiz maintains, there is evidently a good deal to do before police-officers can be properly invoked to force it down people's throats. The logic, of course, is short from the establishment of State education, and its maintenance by compulsory taxation, to its enforcement upon everybody by legal coercion. But State education has its evils, and not the least of them is that it gets the benefit of our idolatry of government and the blind admiration of the "institutions of our country," which are believed to be the most perfect under the sun. But "first be sure you are right, and then go ahead" is a golden motto, and, if applied in this case, will postpone for some time the crusade of the coercionists. As long as our school-system is open to such indictments as those of Messrs. Barnard and Agassiz, which will be sustained by every intelligent critic who looks into it, we submit that the question of compulsion is premature; if any system is to be enforced, let it be a rational one.