Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/November 1882/The Science of the Present Period

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 22 November 1882  (1882) 
The Science of the Present Period
By Emil du Bois-Reymond

THE SCIENCE OF THE PRESENT PERIOD.[1]
By EMIL DU BOIS-REYMOND.

WHILE the memorial days of Frederick the Great and of Leibnitz turn the view of the Academy back to the times of its origin and of its new birth, this festival directs its vision upon the present.

Whoever, having a nature like that of an academician of the old school, prefers to live a contemplative life far from the tumult of the market and the strife of the forum, or even from the stimulating competition of the lecture-room, intent only on the accumulation of the treasures of knowledge, the solution of intellectual problems, the enlargement of his inner circle of thought, he might well at this period long for the undisturbed rest and the quieting gloom of a middle-age Benedictine cell. Happy monks of Monte Casino and of Montserrat! Concealed in the turbid wake of the people's flood, you looked down from your peaceful height upon the world, whose strife and anxieties troubled you not.

But the gates were opened, the walls fell long ago. The bright daylight casts an incongruous illumination upon the rubbish and dust of Faust's study-room. The inexorable to-day no longer allows a peaceful dream-life. We need no Mephistopheles to tempt us into an active career; we are seized with a thousand hands, some rude, some caressing, and the steam-horse instead of the enchanter's cloak is our servant. Our only trouble is to resist these calls, to keep our senses in the whirl that carries us along, to perform the outer work imposed upon us and still be true to the inner work which is our real calling. We can no longer, like our peers of old, freely follow our personal inclinations, only exercising the gifts which God has bestowed upon us. From childhood we belong to the state. Every condition of exemption has vanished. Examinations, military service, and the duties of citizenship, are common to all; and, while one ought not wholly to shun the duties of politics, he may regret the exaggerated prominence which its fruitless excitements, its ephemeral triumphs, and its sharp partisan strifes, have assumed in the culture-life of the day.

And how little quickening, in many respects, is this life of the latest fashion! The hydra of morbidly exaggerated patriotism raises head after head in its circle, and comes between the learned of different lands, who have hitherto felt themselves members of a single community. People who have done nothing for their fame except occasionally to stir themselves lustily, put themselves boastfully and contentiously into the fore-rank of those who have a thousand years of intellectual creation behind them. Instead of dynastic wars, we are threatened with incomparably more shocking race-wars, without the religious wars having ceased much otherwise than in name. Have not the last two years witnessed an agitation the shame of which we considered as unlikely to fall upon us as that of the rack, of trials for witchcraft, or of man-selling? With this, sentimental ignorance, whose well-meaning way can not be distinguished in its effect from slanderous accusation and vicious persecution, has dared to brand as mischievous methods of scientific research which Robert Hooke, in the bosom of the old Royal Society, and the God-fearing Haller, unquestionably used.

But even the later development of scientific life lets few distinguishing traits of itself be recognized. A persistent effort, devotedly directed toward ideal objects, has rarely been pursued to the end by the after-growing generation. A thousand busy workers, renouncing high fame, are daily bringing in a thousand details, unconcerned about inner and outer completeness, caring only to attract attention to themselves for the moment, and to gain the best price for their goods. Instead of honorable alliance, a reckless struggle for existence frequently prevails in a very odious form. The men of one party regard those of the other with the feelings of rival gold-diggers, but with less security, for a kind of law prevails in the diggings. Whoever in them acquires a rich claim is allowed to work it in security, without any other one forcing himself into partnership.

The stream of knowledge is continually dividing itself into more numerous and smaller rills, and there is danger of its getting lost in the sands and marshes. In the onward-pressing haste, every pause for survey or review seems lost time. With historical reflection passed away one of the most fruitful germs of greatness, Carlyle's hero-worship; with comprehensive survey, the possibility of comparing the different branches of science together, and of causing one to illustrate and fructify another. Instead of healthy generalization, the tendency to unrestrained speculation again prevails in Germany. Brought up in abhorrence of false philosophy, we have had to live to see that the generation following us, which we thought we had strictly schooled, is falling back into the faults from which the generation before us scornfully turned away.

Finally, the complaint is generally set up that the more munificently laboratories and seminaries are founded, the more richly means are poured out for scientific journeys and enterprises, the more indifferent do youth hold themselves toward the treasures and expenditures which might in our time, alas! have greatly benefited us; and the more rare are phenomena which surpass mediocrity.

To these dubious prognostications for science is added the view of the transformation of human life by the later development of industrial art, which is taking place on a far grander scale than that which was inspired by the discovery of America and the inventions of gunpowder and printing. The abundance of means and of forces brought into play by this agency reacts through innumerable concatenations on all circles and levels of society, and the final victory of utilitarianism, whose precepts, moreover, were always clear to the multitude, seems near.

Thus an evil time is foreboded for pure science, without any definite hope for an immediate turn of the wheel. It is about as if one lived in the midst of a gradual, constant, self-completing change, such as the earth used to suffer in primitive geological times, when, in the course of physical, geographical, and climatic alterations, one so-called period of creation gave way to another, and as if the past of the perishing creation fell to us. The academies would then represent, as it were, transitional forms between the earlier and the new creation, with the excuses for their existence growing continuously more doubtful, just as we may find examples of a similar character in the vegetable and animal kingdoms. In fact, one does not need an ear of extraordinary delicacy to hear the jealous questions: For what are those stiff figures in the midst of the rushing life-stream that does not regard them? Of what use is a golden book in the midst of the general Democritizing? or, to pronounce the catch-word of the times, why a ring of scholars? Such are the terms in which a modern Heraclite an adept in that worldly wisdom culminating in pessimism, which is praised as the newest phase of German philosophy, might express himself to-day. We Berlin Academicians may, perhaps, be permitted to adhere to the optimism of our founder.

To judge correctly concerning the present position of science, of the single observer and the learned bodies, one must betake himself, as it were, to a height above the clatter of the individual combats, whence he can watch the course of the battle, the grouping of the advancing masses, the closing circle of victory, and the unfolding of the plan; and a modern popular contest is harder to view comprehensively than a Homeric skirmish. From a proper point of view is observed the comforting, exalting opposite of that which, only partially beheld and imperfectly comprehended in the narrower circle of vision, was before lamented. Never was science, remotely viewed, so rich in the sublimest generalizations. Never did it represent a more magnificent unity in its objects and its results. Never did it advance more rapidly, with a more definite consciousness of its purposes, and with mightier methods, and never did a more active co-operation exist between its different branches. And, finally, never had academies so evident a vocation, or did ours, at least, exercise a greater influence.

So unjust is the accusation that contemporary science is split up into details, that we have to go back to Newton's time to find an example of an enlargement of our theoretical conceptions, like that which was effected by the enunciation of the doctrines of the persistence of energy and motion, and of the mechanical theory of heat. As, at the former time, the fall of bodies, the motion of the stars, the refraction of light, capillarity, the ebb and flow of the tides, were recognized to be expressions of the same properties of matter, so now, through the labors of our generation of investigators, the same principle has been made to include the totality of the phenomena accessible to experiment, methodical observation, and calculation; mechanics, acoustics, optics, the Proteus electricity, heat, and the elastic phenomena of the gases and steam. This principle is not merely, like universal gravity, an experimental proposition; it conforms to the ultimate fundamental condition of our intellect. Hence its value as an aid to invention; therefore it extends far beyond the limit of its strict verification. It permits us to weigh the ether and measure the atoms. The circulation of the waters over the earth, kept up by the force of the sun's light, falls under it as well as the circulation, similarly maintained, of matter through plants and animals. Forward and backward along the "corridors of time," as the Royal Astronomer of Ireland recently expressed himself in a sharp metaphor, it leads the way, and answers that very practical question for the thinker about the beginning and end of the world, with a reservation of the limits of error, as if we were dealing with measurements in the laboratory. The same wizard's-formula lends itself to practical instruction in the ordinary sense, and shows the machinist how he may reach a desired result in the shape of mechanical force, the electrical current, or light, with the smallest quantity of coal. Inorganic and organic chemistry, separated from the beginning, now find an all-ruling principle in the quantivalence of atoms.

As mechanics and physics discovered their guiding star in the persistence of energy, and chemistry in the theory of equivalents, so is the sphere of life composed by the theory of descent into a picture which brings within a single frame the immense abundance of forms of the present with the invisible traces of the most remote past. The ban of the Cuvierian theory, to which Johann Müller opposed himself, is broken. Instead of the lifeless system of the older schools, that Darwinian tree, in whose evergreen crown man himself is only a branch, waves before us. As zoölogical gardens and stations are to 1 collections of animals, stuffed or preserved in alcohol, as botanical gardens to herbariums, so is the new knowledge of plants and animals, biology, to the older science. A development-history, as it were, of the transition of individual types from one into another, it leads back through paleontology and geology to the fiery-liquid youth of our planet, and hence extends its hand in the nebular hypothesis to the theory of the persistence of energy, while anthropology, ethnology, and the history of the primitive ages lay the bridge to linguistics, the theory of knowledge, and the historical sciences. The examination of the vital processes, physiology, has stripped off the larva-casing of vitalism, and has burst from its cocoon as applied physics and chemistry. While the physiologists of Germany during the first half of the century, and those of England and France in part till to-day, were engaged only with morphology, and at most with experiments on animals, for a generation past all the intellectual and instrumental aids of the physicist, all the arts of the chemist, have been naturalized in the physiological laboratory, and have been thereby much augmented. Nothing better illustrates the lively interworking of the different branches of science, at the present time, than that the investigation into original generation has helped surgery to the greatest progress it has made since Ambroise Paré, and pathology to a conception of the nature of the most destructive infectious disease, pulmonary tuberculosis.

Sciences, also, whose circles once hardly intersected, have approached each other. The triumph of the inductive method rendered historians and philologists like Thomas Buckle and Max Müller anxious to make themselves masters of its advantages, for it was evident that the difference between their activity and that of the naturalist was not fundamentally very great: of course not, for induction is, in practice, only sound reason sagaciously applied. To the interworking of archaeological and scientific labors we owe a well-founded acquisition of recent times, the study of the primitive condition of mankind, created jointly by the Danish scholars Forchhammer, Steenstrup, Thomsen, and Worsaae, which is in many cases more interesting than real history.

It would be superfluous to extend the painting of this picture. We have given enough to show that the view that regards the science of the present as having been seduced into by-ways, and as being dissipated among special investigations definitely separated from each other, and that the notion that it is lacking in general ideas, that the wood can not be seen for the trees, are deceptive. It is, however, probable that no more such comprehensive theories as those of the persistence of energy and of descent will appear during the next decade, because a third theory of such moment is now hardly conceivable. We may therefore well repeat what Dove said, at about the middle of the last century, that "the impulse which science received in Newton's time, through the co-operation of his great talents, was not responded to by a proportionately rapid progress in the following period. Time was needed to elaborate the thoughts which had been so grandly aroused in the different fields, to adjust them in detail to the  phenomena, to fill up the interior of the outlined scheme, which more accurate observations unfolded in continually increasing richness." Contemporaneously with the general thoughts requiring elaboration, have arisen such new methods of research as spectral analysis and chronoscopy, making possible conclusions that had not before been thought of. Not only have the world's trade—likewise greatly enlarged to beyond any extent which it had previously attained—and numerous scientific journeys contributed an overwhelming mass of new materials to the observing sciences, but an inexhaustible treasury has long been accessible to them at the zoölogical stations. The excavations methodically carried on unobtrusively, at different points of the old grounds of culture, are inundating antiquaries with a flood of discoveries, enough to engage the industry of generations.

What can be more desirable than for hosts of laborers, satisfying themselves with the solution of minute problems, to be occupying all the places with their restless activity? Why should there not be in the pursuit of science, as in a factory, men at the vise giving valuable service, even if they do not know what is to be done with the piece at which they are filing; foremen who know how to adjust the parts, yet are not informed as to the destination of the whole; and still further sighted, more deeply initiated masters? Art also laments the lack of prominent talent under the generally elevated condition of culture; aside from casual instances of the production of talent, it may be that we are only deceived through the unremarked gradation of so many fellow-workers. The superfluity of aids at our command naturally causes a depreciation of these workers, in accordance with the accepted law of the statics of the passions. Finally, if by the force of precarious social conditions there are not only absolutely but also relatively more young men to whom science is not the exalted, heavenly goddess, but a milch-cow, that is but a small matter to the great whole. In this, as in many other human affairs, ethical and æsthetical demands unfortunately concur only in the second line.

It all depends rather on the fact that something is accomplished, less on how it is done. The more industriously and at the more places anything is done from those motives, the more speedily does the apparent interruption pass off, and the more securely and broadly is the basis laid for new advances. It may be years or decades, the time will come when investigation will collect her energies, no longer scattered through a swarm of questions demanding priority of solution, for the attack upon the highest problems now before us: What is gravity? what is electricity? What is the mechanism of chemical combustion? And what is the constitution of the elements that have not been decomposed? It will solve them, for, the more definitely we set the limits of the knowledge of nature, the more securely can we build on the possibility of knowledge within those limits. Beyond those problems open others; and so again and again in the infinity of the periodic turns in the development-course of human knowledge.

The unparalleled spectacle to which Paris invited the civilized world last fall not only shows that science is exercising its binding force in spite of popular discords, but it at the same time teaches, better than all words, that, if the recent brilliant development of technics has dulled the taste for pure science, it has on the other hand compensated a thousand-fold for this injury. The electrical apparatus of thirty years ago filled a large room; that of to-day, generally illustrated by several specimens, filled a world's Exhibition-Building. Eilhard Mitscherlich has remarked of Herr Wiedeman's treatise on galvanism and electro-magnetism that nothing speaks more eloquently of the power of the human mind than that book filled with the clear facts which physicists have procured. Deep in thought we walked, keeping these words in mind, through the magic palace of the Elysian Fields, illuminated by the electric light, and ventilated by electrical machinery. We sometimes speak slightingly of Americanism, intimating that it bears utilitarianism on its shield. But who does not feel a patriotic pressure for old Europe at the wonders of the telephone and the phonograph? or at the report of the confirmation by Asaph Hall, with Alvah Clark's objective, of the discovery of the astronomers of Laputa? Hardly a year passes but that the newspapers report some new magnificent institution for purposes of pure science which American public spirit has called into life through private means, in a manner that is known on this side of the water only in England. The names of American historians, thinkers, and philologists are known along with the best, and are particularly dear to this Academy. We must accustom ourselves to the thought that, as the economical center of gravity of the civilized world lies already, like the center of gravity of a double star, between the old and the new continents, in the Atlantic ocean, so also will the scientific center of gravity in time move strongly toward the west. Enough: Europe may look out lest its science may be in more danger from the militarism which is forced upon it by the chauvinsm of all nationalities than American science from utilitarianism.

In one point, indeed, we may well reckon that leadership will not so soon be wrested from us. The co-operation of a body supported by the state, already fully composed into a permanent organization, representing in the highest possible degree the aggregate of knowledge, whose age and famous past give weight to its decisions, is a force not to be created overnight, even with the most ample means and efforts. Ingenious inventors, single though ever so worthy scholars and investigators, can not take the place of academies in the scientific life of a nation. It was a simple thing that the telephone should be discovered; remarkable that the explanation of it was reserved for members of our Academy. At the time of their foundation the older academies entirely constituted the scientific world. In the universities, the so-called professional faculties had quite the upper hand over the philosophical, and in them classical philology predominated. The academies had intercourse with each other, but hardly exerted any influence on the outer world, which was strangely out of sympathy with them, except through their prize problems. Even in the comparatively idyllic conditions of the first half of the century, they limited themselves chiefly to the fulfillment of their inner calling, to their own scientific labors.

In view of the constant pressure of forces of every kind and degree, of the atomistic division of labor around us, of the unregulated assumptions, the short memory, of the overwhelmingly commonplace life of the present generation, the academies have an outer vocation in addition to their inner one. It is their duty to preserve the bond of connection in the division of labor, to have a look to the welfare of knowledge in the flight of the phenomena of the day. They should bring into competition with the dangerous enticements of technics, the charm of pure knowledge. Her sacred instrument, method, is in their care; but in Germany, where the false gods of perverted speculation are constantly finding willing Baal-servitors, it is especially incumbent on them to throw these idols out wherever they are smuggled in, and to drive away their priests. The necessary complement of an externally acting influence of the Academy is a no less vivid reaction from without upon the Academy, an interaction for the maintenance of which an alert organ, ready for the combat, is needed. The venerable but somewhat unwieldy form in which our body has comfortably moved for some tens of years could not satisfy such a demand of this "rapid, giddy-footed time." Our slowly and irregularly appearing "Monatsberichte," which were overwhelmed in the struggle for light and air with numerous active special journals, could not perform this service.

The Academy has, therefore, made some quite important changes in its arrangements and in the course of its business, which last year received the sanction of our immediate protector, his Majesty the Emperor and King. Among other things it has doubled the number of its class sittings, at the expense of the general meetings, and, in order to keep pace with the rise of new branches of science, it has quadrupled the number of its ordinary members. Following the time honored example of its renowned sister of Paris, it has decided, not without opposition, on a kind of publication of its proceedings, which by means of weekly reports of meetings (Sitzungsberichte) shall satisfy the desire of members as well as of strangers for the most speedy information of its transactions. Our arrangement still leaves it possible to afford a place also for the former more complete and less urgent statements. The external appearance of the new "Berichte," and we hope its contents also, will be worthy of the first scientific body in the empire; and, in order to afford to the mathematico-scientific circle of readers the part of the substance of the reports most nearly interesting them in a more acceptable form, the Physico-mathematical Section has decided to prepare an extract from these reports under the title of "Mathematical and Scientific Communications."

Rarely do important and accessible questions, at least in natural science, now remain long unworked. The system of the putting of prize questions, and the coronation of the best answer, is therefore less adapted to our time than that of rewarding excellent, already published efforts, which is usual with the practical English. Partly on account of the tenor of the bequests to which the means for many of its prizes are due, partly for other reasons, the Academy has adhered essentially to the former way of awarding prizes. It will simply hereafter offer higher prizes at longer intervals, and it reserves the right, in case a prize question is not satisfactorily answered, to award the amount of the prize as a testimonial of honor to the author of a meritorious essay, not more than three years old, upon the same subject. It is determinative of the character of the Academy that it is under the protection of the state, and its authority is supported by that of the state so far as such a thing is conceivable and desirable in scientific matters. The state thus demonstrates the sympathy which it has with science, as such, with ideal efforts. It expresses this immediately by the means which it puts at the disposition of the Academy for scientific purposes. It has been too little recognized, amid the tumult of the great events of the time, that one of the first applications which the Prussian state made of its lately enlarged resources was to increase the annual subsidy of the Academy. Through the turn for the better thereby effected in the circumstances of the Academy were produced the works which now appear almost yearly on all branches of science with our support; the researches of all kinds, from epigraphic and diplomatic to micrographic and paleontological studies, for which we supply means; and the steamboat of the zoölogical station at Naples, the expense of which we share with the state. Around the Academy are crystallized several literary enterprises, the fame of which is reflected upon it, as well as endowments and institutes, whose resources accrue to its benefit so far as it has the more or less immediate disposition of them. Hardly ever are we without travelers who are making collections in remote parts of the world in our name and by our order, or interrogating Nature or the monuments of antiquity on the spot. The names of the travelers of the Humboldt Stiftung, to speak only of them, Hensel, Schweinfurth, Buchholtz, Hilderbrandt, Sachs, are in the mouths of all experts, and are associated with extremely important results. The Academy will shortly hear, in accordance with our new order of business, the reports which are now to be brought in concerning the progress of those investigaions and the work of a part of the societies and institutions associated with it. The opinion that its influence was never greater than at this moment will be fully confirmed by the creditable series of these reports.

The first of all the academies, that Platonic one of which Herr Curtius lately gave an eloquent sketch in this place, arose in a free state. Since its birth no republican commonwealth has brought forth a lasting and important work of the kind. According to M. de Candolle's statistics, Switzerland has, from the middle of the last to the middle of the present century, contributed, relatively, the largest contingent of the foreign and corresponding members of the Paris and Berlin Academies and of the Royal Society; it has itself not founded any academy. The origin of the Royal Society is lost in the storms of the Commonwealth; but it was not Cromwell's Puritans who prepared a place for human knowledge, and the name of the young society betrays the effort to lean upon monarchical institutions. That popular rule is not kindly to academies is shown by Bailly's and Lavoisier's bloody heads, and by Condorcet's sad end. Certainly there would be no place for the Academy in a social democratic state, which recognizes no principle but that of common utility.

Not only because in Prussia crown and state have always been one does our body, maintained, protected, and supported by the state, bear the title of royal with better right than many so-called learned societies. None of them have had so close relations to the ruling house. The Hohenzollerns' own peculiar creation, borne on the hands of Prussia's kings through good and evil times, the Berlin Academy has likewise numbered the greatest among its fellow-workers. Grateful expressions of thanks have often been given here for these recollections; to-day a word appears to be in place which it is our proud prerogative to speak.

To praise the Emperor William, as the victorious hero, the restorer of the empire of the German nation, the arbiter of the Continent, the mighty warrior and the real prince of peace, as one of the most remarkable figures described by history, is the task of others. It is for us to say, what finds but a slight echo in the world, but what signifies to the minds of those who are interested in affairs of the intellect another laurel-leaf in his crown, that in this culmination of his life, in the pressure of so important affairs of state, under the load of such consuming cares, in the grasp of such world-stirring questions, the Emperor William, true to the spirit of his house, has always had a friendly, open ear for his Academy of Sciences.

  1. Address delivered on the Emperor's birthday, in the Academy of Sciences, at Berlin, March 23, 1882.