Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/April 1873/On the Importance of the Cultivation of Science

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 2 April 1873  (1873) 
On the Importance of the Cultivation of Science
By Joseph Henry




APRIL, 1873.


GENTLEMEN: I beg leave to tender you my sincere thanks for the honor you have conferred upon me by inviting me to preside at the farewell banquet to Professor Tyndall. I need scarcely say that it would give me great pleasure to be with you on that interesting occasion, although I would prefer not to occupy the place your partiality would assign to me, since I fear I should not be able, from want of experience, to do justice to so conspicuous a position.

I regret, however, to have to inform you that my official duties in Washington, at this season of the year, are such as to render it improper for me to be absent for even a single day; and, although I deeply sympathize with you in the objects of the banquet, I am obliged very reluctantly to forego the pleasure and profit of accepting your kind invitation.

The objects of this banquet, as I understand them, are, first, to do honor to our illustrious visitor, who has generously devoted so much time and labor to gratify his friends and the public in this country with a course of lectures; and, second, to advocate the claims of abstract science to higher appreciation and more liberal support. In regard to these topics I ask permission to indulge in a few remarks which may not be deemed inappropriate to the occasion. Dr. Tyndall is eminently worthy of all the attention he has received from the people and press of this country, and all the expressions of kindness and regard we can now bestow upon him. As Professor of Physics in the Royal Institution of Great Britain, he is the worthy successor of a series of the most remarkable men of the present century. He is not only a distinguished laborer in the line of original research, but also one of the best living expounders of scientific principles. His books are everywhere read in this country with avidity, and have done more to give precise and definite knowledge of the principles of the sciences of which they treat than any other series of works ever published. Indeed, it is only a master in science who is capable of preparing elementary scientific works. With a modesty—or, perhaps, self-respect—which constitutes a distinguishing trait of the man of true science? Professor Tyndall omitted to mention the fact that many of the phenomena which he presented in his lectures were his own discoveries. In the proposition which he has announced of giving the proceeds of his lectures to advance the cause of abstract science in this country, he has evinced another characteristic of the higher type of the scientist—namely, a paramount regard for his mission and a generous sympathy with humanity, as expressed in an aphorism of the founder of the Smithsonian Institution, that "the man of science is of no country; the world is his country, and mankind his countrymen."

In an age and country which boasts of its intelligence it might seem superfluous to say a word in regard to the importance of the cultivation of science, or, in other words, of a knowledge of the laws of the phenomena of the universe of which we form a part, yet it is lamentably the case that few comparatively, especially among statesmen and politicians, and even among those devoted to literature and the fine arts, properly appreciate the influence of abstract science on the present condition of the civilization of the world. Living in the present, enjoying its innumerable comforts and facilities of life, they do not realize the conditions of the past, or, if they imperfectly realize them, the changes are attributed to fortuitous circumstances really exercising a subordinate influence, or to apparent proximate causes such as the immediate practical application of science to art.

It is only of late years that the investigations of the tendencies and changes of the human family have been systematically studied under the general denomination of anthropology, and its subdivisions of ethnology and archæology. From these studies we may infer that man is a being capable of indefinite moral and intellectual development; not that he is a progressive being from the result of a law of necessary development, but, as it were, providentially so under the influence of certain essential conditions, among which are, first, freedom of intercourse of different peoples, and the ready interchange of thought; second, a prevailing religion which shall enjoin purity, love, justice, and truth; and, third, an ever-increasing knowledge of the laws, or principles, of the changes of the phenomena of Nature which constitute abstract science. That man is not necessarily a progressive being is shown by the fact that large portions of the inhabitants of the world are still in a condition of barbarism, from which they show no indications of emerging, and cannot probably do so except by-influences from without.

Whatever opinion may be adopted as to the origin of man, it cannot be denied that we have descended from a race of ancestors but little elevated above the brute—from naked savages, the denizens of caves, feeding upon wild fruits, devouring shell-fish, or struggling for mere existence with the larger quadrupeds of the times, gradually emerging from this state by the invention of weapons of flint and bone, through long geological periods, into a pastoral condition; thence, again, into a higher state of mental development, which culminated in the civilization of Greece and Rome, in which the true in sentiment, and the beautiful in art, were developed in an astonishing degree. This progress was mainly due to the migratory character of the races which contributed to the condition we have mentioned. Tribes which remain entirely isolated may utilize the suggestions and facilities of life which are afforded them by their localities, and when these are exhausted become permanently stationary, but tribes impelled by want of subsistence, or the desire of conquest to migrate to other localities, as is stated to have been the case with the Aryan race in their migration from the East to the West, gather up the separate civilizations as they advance, and hence, by accretion or intercourse with others, rise to a higher plane. But this mode of advance is limited, and could make no further progress than that exhibited in the brilliant though unsymmetrical civilization of Greece and of Rome. This civilization, though it challenges our admiration and marks an important era in the history of the human race, was deficient in two of the essential elements of further progress, namely—first, in the prevailing influence of the higher and holier morality of Christianity; and, secondly, in that scientific knowledge of the laws of Nature which enables man to control its operations and to employ its energies to effect his purposes in ameliorating the condition of the earth. Without these elements of progress the Romans could not advance beyond a limited degree, and finally fell a prey to their barbarian conquerors.

Being confined in my remarks on this occasion to the discussion of the influence of physical science, I can only advert to the ameliorating effect produced by Christianity in its restraining influence on the semi-barbarism which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, and its aid in preserving the learning of the past through the darkness of the middle ages, and must leave to our theological brethren the full discussion of this part of our theme.

It is a fundamental principle of political economy that the physical state of man can only be ameliorated by means of labor, or, in other words, by the transformation of matter from a crude to an artificial condition. But this cannot be effected, except by expending what is called power or energy. In ancient times, almost the elusive source of this energy was muscular force, derived from compulsory human labor; and all the monuments and objects that have been left to us, as marks of ancient civilization, are the results of organized systems of slavery. The rock-sculptures of Elephanta, the Pyramids of Egypt, and the temples of Greece, were all the result of the labor of slaves, directed by the minds of freemen. It is said that a hundred thousand slaves were employed at one time in the construction of the Pyramids of Egypt; one hundred and twenty thousand were engaged in hewing the obelisks of Thebes, and an equal number in digging the ancient canal which joined the Nile and the Red Sea. These slaves were treated as beasts of burden, or as mere machines, of which Athens, in her palmy days, had four hundred thousand, with but twenty thousand freemen.

Now, we owe the abolition of this condition of humanity, in the higher civilized nations of the world at the present day, to the study of the laws of the operations of Nature. By a knowledge of these laws the energies of the elements of Nature are substituted for human labor, and by this substitution mankind is not only relieved from brute-labor, but also given control of energies which enable him to produce effects which could only result from the muscular power of beings of a superior order. It may be shown by a simple calculation that about fifteen tons of anthracite coal burned in the furnace of one of our best steam-engines exerts an energy equal to that of an able-bodied slave, working ten hours a day for thirty years of his active life. It is this substitution of the energies of Nature for the power of human muscle that, as we have said, has abolished slavery and elevated humanity to a higher plane than was ever dreamed of by the wisest sages of ancient times. To illustrate this, a few examples will suffice. As one of these, we may refer to the progress of the arts of locomotion, and the means which science has afforded for the instantaneous interchange of thought between men in the most distant parts of the earth; as another, to the production of clothing fabrics, in which a single individual, directing the energies of an engine of one-man power, is capable of doing three thousand times the work of an ordinary weaver. As a third example, we may point to the art of printing by means of the steam-press, in which a single man will make more copies in a given time of a composition, than a million of ancient transcribers could do. Science is every day creating new arts, and modifying and improving the processes of old ones. We are skeptical as regards the value of lost arts. It is true there are arts which have fallen into disuse, and others which depend upon the skill and patience of the individual, but none, which rests on any lost secret of Nature which science cannot restore.

The results we have mentioned are frequently attributed by superficial observation to immediate practical invention of persons having little or no knowledge of abstract science. But, in regard to this, it must be recollected that our whole civilization is pervaded by a knowledge of facts primarily derived from scientific investigation. Such inventions as those we have alluded to are not produced in a barbarous country, or even in those of a comparative high civilization without science.

If we desire an illustration of the condition of civilization based upon empirical art, upon facts accidentally discovered, or invention without science, we have merely to turn to China and Japan. These countries have long since utilized all the facts and empirical processes the result of accident or simple invention, and have, consequently, remained stationary for thousands of years, and must remain so continually, unless they borrow a knowledge of science from abroad.

It is not, however, merely the material wants of man that are gratified by the results of science; it administers also to his highest intellectual development. Placed in a universe of constant change, on an isolated globe, surrounded by distant celestial objects on all sides, subjected to influences of various kinds, it is a sublime occupation to measure the earth and weigh the planets, to predict their changes, and even to discover the materials of which they are composed; to investigate the causes of the tempest and volcano, to bring the lightning from the clouds, to submit it to experiment by which it shall reveal its character, and to estimate the size and weight of those invisible atoms which constitute the universe of things. It is the pursuit, above all, which impresses us with the capacity of man for intellectual and moral progress, and awakens the human intellect to aspirations for a higher condition of humanity, and gives a pleasurable consciousness to those who successfully pursue it, of contributing, in however small a degree it may be, to such a desirable consummation. The effect of such pursuits on the mind of the individual himself cannot be otherwise than salutary. While it exalts the understanding, it exercises the imagination, and awakens and constantly cherishes a love of truth for its own sake. The man imbued with the proper spirit of science does not seek for immediate pecuniary reward from the practical applications of his discoveries, but derives sufficient gratification from his pursuit and the consciousness of enlarging the bounds of human contemplation, and the magnitude of human power, and leaves to others to gather the golden fruit he may strew along his pathway. This fact is strikingly illustrated in the generous devotion by our illustrious visitor of the proceeds of his labors in this country to the advance of science.

In the foregoing remarks it is not our wish to disparage any other pursuit, or to diminish the love of ancient literature, but, on the contrary, we would cherish whatever tends to develop the human mind. We would carefully preserve the knowledge of the past, and transmit it to posterity, enlarged by the achievements of the present. We hold that every age of the world has had its mission, and has left its impress upon all the ages that have followed. The lessons taught by the Greeks have not been forgotten. The examples of beauty and the vestiges of truth they have bequeathed to us, still exist to ameliorate the condition and improve the moral character of a thousand times greater number of individuals than was effected by them in the palmy days of Hellenic development. But we should not unduly exalt the past, or claim for it a superiority over the present. There never was a time in which the realms of actual thought were so extended as at present, nor when so many individuals were occupied in the contemplation of abstract truths.

Such being the results proceeding from science as we have stated, it appears strange that so little encouragement is given to its prosecution, and that it should not be more liberally fostered by governments and wealthy individuals. In a new country like this, where a whole continent is to be subdued, and there is so great a demand for the practical application of science to art, it is not surprising that the great principles which underlie these applications while they can be borrowed from Europe should not at first receive much attention; but, since our country has become so much advanced in wealth and in intelligence, this state of things should no longer exist, and it is therefore proper on an occasion like this to call public attention to the importance and wants of abstract science.

In this country, science is almost exclusively prosecuted by those engaged in the laborious and exhaustive employment of imparting instruction. Science among us brings comparatively little emolument, and is accompanied with but little honor. High talents are therefore driven into other pursuits more remunerative and more favored with popular applause. Those who from a love of truth would pursue it for its own sake are so overworked with the drudgery of elementary teaching, and so poorly supplied with the implements of investigation, that it is not surprising that science has made comparatively little advance among us, but that, under existing conditions, it should have made so much. What is especially wanted at present is an improvement in our higher institutions of learning, and on this point permit me to dwell a few moments.

Three things are essential to a well-constituted college or university: 1. An unencumbered, free endowment, which shall liberally provide for the support of the faculty, and defray all the expenses of the operations of the establishment; 2. A faculty consisting of men of profound learning and powers of original thought and fluent expression; and—3. A full supply of all the objects and implements of instruction and research. I say a "free endowment," in contradistinction to one invested in buildings intended for external display more than for internal use, as is unhappily too often the case in this country.

The faculty should be men of intrinsic worth, chosen, not on account of influential connections, social position, denominational predelictions, nor for any vague popular reputation, but especially in the line of science, from having given evidence of their power in the way of original research. A man of this class must be possessed of enthusiasm which in a measure he can scarcely fail to impart to his pupils. The latter, again, by a reflex action, will stimulate the teacher to new efforts. Furthermore, the reputation of the teacher is shared by his pupils; and to have sat under the instruction of a Cuvier, a Laplace, a Faraday, or a Herschel, is no small recommendation. It is to the men of which the faculties of the German universities are composed, that those establishments owe their reputation, and they are the attraction which draws pupils from every part of the world to these centres of high intelligence. But men of this character "are not made" but, like poets, "born." Profound learning is not sufficient; however versed a man may be in the knowledge of others, he is not of the first order unless he be endowed with the peculiar mental powers which enable him to originate new truths. When such men are found—and they exist in every community in a certain, perhaps small ratio, they should be consecrated to the advancement and diffusion of knowledge. They should be secured by our colleges and universities, and all the facilities given them for original investigation. They should be relieved from the drudgery of drilling in the elementary branches, and be assisted by tutors in the general instruction, being themselves only called upon to give a limited number of lectures on the general principles of the branch of knowledge under their care.

Again, no college or university is properly equipped that is not furnished with a complete series of the objects and implements of instruction and research. In regard to instruction, the impressions made through the eye are the most definite and indelible, and may serve as nuclei around which by association to group facts and suggestions the most varied.

In science, to present the actual phenomena of Nature and reproduce them before the eye of the pupil, instead of giving him a mere description of them, is as different in effect, as travelling in a foreign country is from merely obtaining a knowledge of it through the writings of others.

In reference to original research, as well as to higher instruction in science, besides apparatus of illustration, instruments of precision are required, without which the power of the investigator, however gifted, must be greatly limited.

In what I have said in regard to science in this country, I do not wish to be understood as undervaluing what has already been done. Indeed, in view of the small encouragement which has been given and the limited facilities which have been afforded, the contributions which have been made from this country, especially in the line of astronomy, geology, geodesy, topography, and natural history, are numerous and important. At the commencement of the General Government, in the union of the several States, a large demand was made for a certain degree of practical astronomical knowledge in determining the boundaries of the different States, and Territories; and, later, the establishment of the Coast Survey, and an Engineering Bureau, has tended to keep up an interest in investigations relative to these subjects. The wide extent of our national domain, and the gigantic scale on which its geological formations are presented, have served as the basis of valuable contributions to geology, mineralogy, botany, and zoology. The contributions that have been made within the last forty years to meteorology, especially in the simultaneous observations over the large extent of our country, and the subsequent comparison of results, have materially assisted in developing the laws of storms, and have almost advanced meteorology to the character of an exact science. While there have been no especial facilities for prosecuting chemistry or physics, yet American researches in these lines have not been un-fruitful of results worthy of a place in the history of science.

But whatever maybe said as regards the value of the contributions of this country to the scientific knowledge of the day, it must be admitted that there is a great popular craving among us for a knowledge of the results of scientific investigation, and that in no other part of the world could Prof. Tyndall have been more highly appreciated or more enthusiastically welcomed.

It must be to him a source of high gratification to have his sympathies so widely extended, and his kindly feelings so warmly reciprocated. There is a spirit of improvement awakened in this country in regard to scientific investigation which I doubt not will be stimulated into more active exercise by the visit of our illustrious friend, which will induce men who, by the exercise of peculiar talents, have accumulated wealth, to endow institutions for the special cultivation of scientific investigation, and to set apart with liberal support as the priests or interpreters of Nature, those who by special mental endowment are capable of benefiting their fellow-men by the discovery of new principles.

We trust the time is not far distant when the grand philosophical vision of the father of modern science, which has waited so long for its fulfilment, will be realized, "by the union and coöperation of all in building up and perfecting that House of Solomon" (as Bacon quaintly termed it), "the end of which is the knowledge of causes and of the secret motions of things, and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire to the effecting of all things possible."

While we have endeavored to show that abstract science is entitled to high appreciation and liberal support, we do not claim for it the power of solving questions belonging to other realms of thought. What we would claim for it, however, in addition to liberal appreciation and support, is, that it may be untrammelled in its investigations so long as they are conducted with the single intention of the discovery of truth, and according to the strict methods of inductive philosophy. Much harm has been done by the antagonism which has sometimes arisen between the expounders of science on the one hand, and those of theology on the other, and we would deprecate the tendency which exhibits itself in certain minds to foster feelings antagonistic to the researches into the phenomena of Nature, for fear they should disprove the interpretations of Holy Writ made long before the revelations of physical science, which might serve for a better exegesis of what has been revealed; and also the tendency in other minds to transcend the known, and to pronounce dogmatically as to the possibility of modes of existence on which physical research has not, and we think never can throw, positive light. We freely admit that the laws which relate to dead matter apply equally well to all living organic bodies, but we are constrained at the same time to believe in the existence of a mysterious something lying beyond this, working through the laws of Nature as it were by immediate intelligence and by prearrangement, producing results marked in the future by evidences of design.

The analogy between crystallization and organization has never impressed me as being well founded. If we allow the existence of atoms endowed with the simple force of attraction in right lines, these must, of mathematical necessity, group themselves in geometrical figures—three forming an equilateral plane triangle, four a solid tetrahedron, and so on. But this is very different from the case of atoms spontaneously grouping themselves in the form of eyes, ears, and limbs, instruments of optics, of acoustics, and of locomotion, or organs of thought and emotion.

In all cases of transformation of organic matter, a definite amount of potential energy is expended; for example, in the incubation of an egg, a considerable portion of the material within the shell runs down from an organic condition in combining with the oxygen of the atmosphere, into carbonic acid and water, and in this evolves the power or energy necessary to build up the future animal out of the remaining material.

The work accomplished in this operation is at the expense of the energy evolved by the chemical action; that is, this energy instead of evolving heat or other mechanical motions, when suffered to expend itself without direction, is, in this case, employed in accomplishing results of intellectual character, or, in other words, precisely such as are produced when the energy of coal is employed by an intelligent being in manufacturing articles intended for useful purposes. Again, when we pass from the phenomena of life to those of mental and moral emotions, we enter a region of still more absolute mystery, in which our light becomes darkness, and we are obliged to bow in profound humiliation, acknowledging that the highest flights of science can only reach the threshold of the temple of faith. Gentlemen, I have restricted my remarks to a few divisions of the general subject of the importance of the cultivation of science, and leave it to others to develop other points of the same subject in their bearing on the welfare of man.

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  1. Letter to the Committee of Arrangements of the Farewell Banquet to Professor Tyndall, at Delmonico's, New York, February 4, 1873.