Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/November 1883/A Plea for Pure Science
|←Ischia and its Earthquakes||Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 November 1883 (1883)
A Plea for Pure Science
By Henry Augustus Rowland
|The Remedies of Nature VII→|
THE question is sometimes asked us as to the time of year we like the best. To my mind, the spring is the most delightful; for Nature then recovers from the apathy of winter, and stirs herself to renewed life. The leaves grow, and the buds open, with a suggestion of vigor delightful to behold; and we revel in this ever-renewed life of Nature. But this can not always last. The leaves reach their limit; the buds open to the full, and pass away. Then we begin to ask ourselves whether all this display has been in vain, or whether it has led to a bountiful harvest.
So this magnificent country of ours has rivaled the vigor of spring in its growth. Forests have been leveled, and cities built, and a large and powerful nation has been created on the face of the earth. We are proud of our advancement. We are proud of such cities as this, founded in a day upon a spot over which, but a few years since, the red-man hunted the buffalo. But we must remember that this is only the spring of our country. Our glance must not be backward; for, however beautiful leaves and blossoms are, and however marvelous their rapid increase, they are but leaves and blossoms, after all. Rather should we look forward to discover what will be the outcome of all this, and what the chance of harvest. For, if we do this in time, we may discover the worm which threatens the ripe fruit, or the barren spot where the harvest is withering for want of water.
I am required to address the so-called physical section of this Association. Fain would I speak pleasant words to you on this subject; fain would I recount to you the progress made in this subject by my countrymen, and their noble efforts to understand the order of the universe. But I go out to gather the grain ripe to the harvest, and I find only tares. Here and there a noble head of grain rises above the weeds; but so few are they that I find the majority of my countrymen know them not, but think that they have a waving harvest, while it is only one of weeds, after all. American science is a thing of the future, and not of the present or past; and the proper course of one in my position is to consider what must be done to create a science of physics in this country, rather than to call telegraphs, electric lights, and such conveniences, by the name of science. I do not wish to underrate the value of all these things: the progress of the world depends on them, and he is to be honored who cultivates them successfully. So also the cook who invents a new and palatable dish for the table benefits the world to a certain degree; yet we do not dignify him by the name of a chemist. And yet it is not an uncommon thing, especially in American newspapers, to have the applications of science confounded with pure science: and some obscure American who steals the ideas of some great mind of the past, and enriches himself by the application of the same to domestic uses, is often lauded above the great originator of the idea, who might have worked out hundreds of such applications, had his mind possessed the necessary element of vulgarity. I have often been asked which was the more important to the world, pure or applied science. To have the applications of a science, the science itself must exist. Should we stop its progress, and attend only to its applications, we should soon degenerate into a people like the Chinese, who have made no progress for generations, because they have been satisfied with the applications of science, and have never sought for reasons in what they have done. The reasons constitute pure science. They have known the application of gunpowder for centuries; and yet the reasons for its peculiar action, if sought in the proper manner, would have developed the science of chemistry, and even of physics, with all their numerous applications. By contenting themselves with the fact that gunpowder will explode, and seeking no further, they have fallen behind in the progress of the world; and we now regard this oldest and most numerous of nations as only barbarians. And yet our own country is in this same state. But we have done better; for we have taken the science of the Old World, and applied it to all our uses, accepting it like the rain of heaven, without asking whence it came, or even acknowledging the debt of gratitude we owe to the great and unselfish workers who have given it to us. And, like the rain of heaven, this pure science has fallen upon our country, and made it great and rich and strong.
To a civilized nation of the present day, the applications of science are a necessity; and our country has hitherto succeeded in this line, only for the reason that there are certain countries in the world where pure science has been and is cultivated, and where the study of nature is considered a noble pursuit. But such countries are rare, and those who wish to pursue pure science in our own country must be prepared to face public opinion in a manner which requires much moral courage. They must be prepared to be looked down upon by every successful inventor whose shallow mind imagines that the only pursuit of mankind is wealth, and that he who obtains most has best succeeded in this world. Everybody can comprehend a million of money; but how few can comprehend any advance in scientific theory, especially in its more abstruse portions! And this, I believe, is one of the causes of the small number of persons who have ever devoted themselves to work of the higher order in any human pursuit. Man is a gregarious animal, and depends very much, for his happiness, on the sympathy of those around him; and it is rare to find one with the courage to pursue his own ideals in spite of his surroundings. In times past, men were more isolated than at present, and each came in contact with a fewer number of people. Hence that time constitutes the period when the great sculptures, paintings, and poems were produced. Each man's mind was comparatively free to follow its own ideals, and the results were the great and unique works of the ancient masters. To-day the railroad and the telegraph, the books and newspapers, have united each individual man with the rest of the world: instead of his mind being an individual, a thing apart by itself, and unique, it has become so influenced by the outer world, and so dependent upon it, that it has lost its originality to a great extent. The man who in times past would naturally have been in the lowest depths of poverty, mentally and physically, to-day measures tape behind a counter, and with lordly air advises the naturally born genius how he may best bring his outward appearance down to a level with his own. A new idea he never had, but he can at least cover his mental nakedness with ideas imbibed from others. So the genius of the past soon perceives that his higher ideas are too high to be appreciated by the world; his mind is clipped down to the standard form; every natural offshoot upward is repressed, until the man is no higher than his fellows. Hence the world, through the abundance of its intercourse, is reduced to a level. What was formerly a grand and magnificent landscape, with mountains ascending above the clouds, and depths whose gloom we can not now appreciate, has become serene and peaceful. The depths have been filled, and the heights leveled, and the wavy harvests and smoky factories cover the landscape.
As far as the average man is concerned, the change is for the better. The average life of man is far pleasanter, and his mental condition better, than before. But we miss the vigor imparted by the mountains. We are tired of mediocrity, the curse of our country. We are tired of seeing our artists reduced to hirelings, and imploring Congress to protect them against foreign competition. We are tired of seeing our countrymen take their science from abroad, and boast that they here convert it into wealth. We are tired of seeing our professors degrading their chairs by the pursuit of applied science instead of pure science; or sitting inactive while the whole world is open to investigation; lingering by the wayside while the problem of the universe remains unsolved. We wish for something higher and nobler in this country of mediocrity, for a mountain to relieve the landscape of its monotony. We are surrounded with mysteries, and have been created with minds to enjoy and reason to aid in the unfolding of such mysteries. Nature calls to us to study her, and our better feelings urge us in the same direction.
For generations there have been some few students of science who have esteemed the study of nature the most noble of pursuits. Some have been wealthy, and some poor; but they have all had one thing in common the love of nature and its laws. To these few men the world owes all the progress due to applied science, and yet very few ever received any payment in this world for their labors.
Faraday, the great discoverer of the principle on which all machines for electric lighting, electric railways, and the transmission of power, must rest, died a poor man, although others and the whole world have been enriched by his discoveries. And such must be the fate of the followers in his footsteps for some time to come.
But there will be those in the future who will study nature from pure love, and for them higher prizes than any yet obtained are waiting. We have but yet commenced our pursuit of science, and stand upon the threshold wondering what there is within. We explain the motion of the planet by the law of gravitation; but who will explain how two bodies, millions of miles apart, tend to go toward each other with a certain force?
We now weigh and measure electricity and electric currents with as much ease as ordinary matter, yet have we made any approach to an explanation of the phenomenon of electricity? Light is an undulatory motion, and yet do we know what it is that undulates? Heat is motion, and yet do we know what it is that moves? Ordinary matter is a common substance, and yet who shall fathom the mystery of its internal constitution?
There is room for all in the work, and the race has but commenced. The problems are not to be solved in a moment, but need the best work of the best minds, for an indefinite time.
Shall our country be contented to stand by, while other countries lead in the race? Shall we always grovel in the dust, and pick up the crumbs which fall from the rich man's table, considering ourselves richer than he because we have more crumbs, while we forget that he has the cake, which is the source of all crumbs? Shall we be swine, to whom the corn and husks are of more value than the pearls? If I read aright the signs of the times, I think we shall not always be contented with our inferior position. From looking down we have almost become blind, but may recover. In a new country, the necessities of life must be attended to first. The curse of Adam is upon us all, and we must earn our bread.
But it is the mission of applied science to render this easier for the whole world. There is a story which I once read, which will illustrate the true position of applied science in the world. A boy, more fond of reading than of work, was employed, in the early days of the steam-engine, to turn the valve at every stroke. Necessity was the mother of invention in his case: his reading was disturbed by his work, and he soon discovered that he might become free from his work by so tying the valve to some movable portion of the engine as to make it move its own valve. So I consider that the true pursuit of mankind is intellectual. The scientific study of nature, in all its branches, of mathematics, of mankind in its past and present, the pursuit of art, and the cultivation of all that is great and noble in the world these are the highest occupations of mankind. Commerce, the applications of science, the accumulation of wealth, are necessities which are a curse to those with high ideals, but a blessing to that portion of the world which has neither the ability nor the taste for higher pursuits.
As the applications of science multiply, living becomes easier, the wealth necessary for the purchase of apparatus can better be obtained, and the pursuit of other things besides the necessities of life becomes possible.
But the moral qualities must also be cultivated in proportion to the wealth of the country, before much can be done in pure science. The successful sculptor or painter naturally attains to wealth through the legitimate work of his profession. The novelist, the poet, the musician, all have wealth before them as the end of a successful career. But the scientist and the mathematician have no such incentive to work: they must earn their living by other pursuits, usually teaching, and only devote their surplus time to the true pursuit of their science, And frequently, by the small salary which they receive, by the lack of instrumental and literary facilities, by the mental atmosphere in which they exist, and, most of all, by their low ideals of life, they are led to devote their surplus time to applied science or to other means of increasing their fortune. How shall we, then, honor the few, the very few, who, in spite of all difficulties, have kept their eyes fixed on the goal, and have steadily worked for pure science, giving to the world a most precious donation, which has borne fruit in our greater knowledge of the universe and in the applications to our physical life which have enriched thousands and benefited each one of us? There are also those who have every facility for the pursuit of science, who have an ample salary and every appliance for work, yet who devote themselves to commercial work, to testifying in courts of law, and to any other work to increase their present large income. Such men would be respectable if they gave up the name of professor, and took that of consulting chemists or physicists. And such men are needed in the community. But for a man to occupy the professor's chair in a prominent college, and, by his energy and ability in the commercial applications of his science, stand before the local community in a prominent manner, and become the newspaper exponent of his science, is a disgrace both to him and his college. It is the death-blow to science in that region. Call him by his proper name, and he becomes at once a useful member of the community. Put in his place a man who shall by precept and example cultivate his science, and how different is the result! Young men, looking forward into the world for something to do, see before them this high and noble life, and they see that there is something more honorable than the accumulation of wealth. They are thus led to devote their lives to similar pursuits, and they honor the professor who has drawn them to something higher than they might otherwise have aspired to reach.
I do not wish to be misunderstood in this matter. It is no disgrace to make money by an invention, or otherwise, or to do commercial scientific work under some circumstances. But let pure science be the aim of those in the chairs of professors, and so prominently the aim that there can be no mistake. If our aim in life is wealth, let us honestly engage in commercial pursuits, and compete with others for its possession. But if we choose a life which we consider higher, let us live up to it, taking wealth or poverty as it may chance to come to us, but letting neither turn us aside from our pursuit.
The work of teaching may absorb the energies of many; and, indeed, this is the excuse given by most for not doing any scientific work. But there is an old saying, that where there is a will there is a way. Few professors do as much teaching or lecturing as the German professors, who are also noted for their elaborate papers in the scientific journals. I myself have been burdened down with work, and know what it is: and yet I here assert that all can find time for scientific research if they desire it. But here, again, that curse of our country, mediocrity, is upon us. Our colleges and universities seldom call for first-class men of reputation, and I have even heard the trustee of a well-known college assert that no professor should engage in research because of the time wasted! I was glad to see, soon after, by the call of a prominent scientist to that college, that the majority of the trustees did not agree with him.
That teaching is important, goes without saying. A successful teacher is to be respected; but, if he does not lead his scholars to that which is highest, is he not blameworthy? We are, then, to look to the colleges and universities of the land for most of the work in pure science which is done. Let us therefore examine these latter, and see what the prospect is.
One, whom perhaps we may here style a practical follower of Ruskin, has stated that while in this country he was variously designated by the title of captain, colonel, and professor. The story may or may not be true, but we all know enough of the customs of our country-men not to dispute it on general principles. All men are born equal: some men are captains, colonels, and professors, and therefore all men are such. The logic is conclusive; and the same kind of logic seems to have been applied to our schools, colleges, and universities. I have before me the report of the Commissioner of Education for 1880. According to that report, there were three hundred and eighty-nine, or say, in round numbers, four hundred institutions, calling themselves colleges or universities, in our country! We may well exclaim that ours is a great country, having more than the whole world besides. The fact is sufficient. The whole earth would hardly support such a number of first-class institutions. The curse of mediocrity must be upon them, to swarm in such numbers. They must be a cloud of mosquitoes, instead of eagles as they profess. And this becomes evident on further analysis. About one third aspire to the name of university; and I note one called by that name which has two professors and eighteen students, and another having three teachers and twelve students! And these instances are not unique, for the number of small institutions and schools which call themselves universities is very great. It is difficult to decide from the statistics alone the exact standing of these institutions. The extremes are easy to manage. Who can doubt that an institution with over eight hundred students, and a faculty of seventy, is of a higher grade than those above cited having ten or twenty students and two or three in the faculty? Yet this is not always true; for I note one institution with over five hundred students which is known to me personally as of the grade of a high-school. The statistics are more or less defective, and it would much weaken the force of my remarks if I went too much into detail. I append the following tables, however, of three hundred and thirty so-called colleges and universities:
Of three hundred and twenty-two so-called colleges and universities—
|206||had||0||to||10||in the faculty.|
|17||"||20||or over||" "|
If the statistics were forthcoming—and possibly they may exist—we might also get an idea of the standing of these institutions and their approach to the true university idea, by the average age of the scholars. Possibly also the ratio of number of scholars to teachers might be of some help. All these methods give an approximation to the present standing of the institutions. But there is another method of attacking the problem, which is very exact, but it only gives us the possibilities of which the institution is capable. I refer to the wealth of the institution. In estimating the wealth, I have not included the value of grounds and buildings, for this is of little importance, either to the present or future standing of the institution. As good work can be done in a hovel as in a palace. I have taken the productive funds of the institution as the basis of estimate. I find—
There is no fact more firmly established, all over the world, than that the higher education can never be made to pay for itself. Usually the cost to a college, of educating a young man, very much exceeds what he pays for it, and is often three or four times as much. The higher the education, the greater this proportion will be; and a university of the highest class should anticipate only a small accession to its income from the fees of students. Hence the test I have applied must give a true representation of the possibilities in every case. According to the figures y only sixteen colleges and universities have $500,000 or over of invested funds, and only one half of these have $1,000,000 and over. Now, even the latter sum is a very small endowment for a college; and to call any institution a university which has less than $1,000,000 is to render it absurd in the face of the world. And yet more than one hundred of our institutions, many of them very respectable colleges, have abused the word "university" in this manner. It is to be hoped that the endowment of the more respectable of these institutions may be increased, as many of them deserve it; and their unfortunate appellation has probably been repented of long since.
But what shall we think of a community that gives the charter of a university to an institution with a total of $20,000, two so-called professors, and eighteen students; or another with three professors, twelve students, and a total of $27,000 endowment, mostly invested in buildings! And yet there are very many similar institutions; there being sixteen with three professors or less, and very many indeed with only four or five.
Such facts as these could only exist in a democratic country, where pride is taken in reducing everything to a level. And I may also say that it can only exist in the early days of such a democracy; for an intelligent public will soon perceive that calling a thing by a wrong name does not change its character, and that truth, above all things, should be taught to the youth of the nation.
It may be urged that all these institutions are doing good work in education; and that many young men are thus taught who could not afford to go to a true college or university. But I do not object to the education—though I have no doubt an investigation would disclose equal absurdities here—for it is aside from my object. But I do object to lowering the ideals of the youth of the country. Let them know that they are attending a school, and not a university; and let them know that above them comes the college, and above that the university. Let them be taught that they are only half-educated, and that there are persons in the world by whose side they are but atoms. In other words, let them be taught the truth.
It may be that some small institutions are of high grade, especially those which are new; but who can doubt that more than two thirds of our institutions calling themselves colleges and universities are unworthy of the name? Each one of these institutions has so-called professors, but it is evident that they can be only of the grade of teachers. Why should they not be so called? The position of teacher is an honored one, but is not made more honorable by the assumption of a false title. Furthermore, the multiplication of the title and the ease with which it can be obtained render it scarcely worth striving for. When the man of energy, ability, and perhaps genius, is rewarded by the same title and emoluments as the commonplace man with the modicum of knowledge, who takes to teaching, not because of any aptitude for his work, but possibly because he has not the energy to compete with his fellow-men in business, then I say one of the inducements for first-class men to become professors is gone.
When work and ability are required for the position, and when the professor is expected to keep up with the progress of his subject, and to do all in his power to advance it, and when he is selected for these reasons, then the position will be worth working for, and the successful competitor will be honored accordingly. The chivalric spirit which prompted Faraday to devote his life to the study of nature may actuate a few noble men to give their lives to scientific work; but, if we wish to cultivate this highest class of men in science, we must open a career for them worthy of their efforts.
Jenny Lind, with her beautiful voice, would have cultivated it to some extent in her native village; yet who would expect her to travel over the world, and give concerts for nothing? and how would she have been able to do so if she had wished? And so the scientific man, whatever his natural talents, must have instruments and a library, and a suitable and respectable salary to live upon, before he is able to exert himself to his full capacity. This is true of advance in all the higher departments of human learning, and yet something more is necessary. It is not those in this country who receive the largest salary, and have positions in the richest colleges, who have advanced their subject the most: men receiving the highest salaries, and occupying the professor's chair, are to-day doing absolutely nothing in pure science, but are striving by the commercial applications of their science to increase their already large salary. Such pursuits, as I have said before, are honorable in their proper place; but the duty of a professor is to advance his science, and to set an example of pure and true devotion to it which shall demonstrate to his students and the world that there is something high and noble worth living for. Money-changers are often respectable men, and yet they were once severely rebuked for carrying on their trade in the court of the temple.
Wealth does not constitute a university, buildings do not: it is the men who constitute its faculty, and the students who learn from them. It is the last and highest step which the mere student takes. He goes forth into the world, and the height to which he rises has been influenced by the ideals which he has consciously or unconsciously imbibed in his university. If the professors under whom he has studied have been high in their profession, and have themselves had high ideals; if they have considered the advance of their particular subject their highest work in life, and are themselves honored for their intellect throughout the world the student is drawn toward that which is highest, and ever after in life has high ideals. But if the student is taught by what are sometimes called good teachers, and teachers only, who know little more than the student, and who are often surpassed and even despised by him, no one can doubt the lowered tone of his mind. He finds that by his feeble efforts he can surpass one to whom a university has given its highest honor; and he begins to think that he himself is a born genius, and the incentive to work is gone. He is great by the side of the mole-hill, and does not know any mountain to compare himself with.
A university should not only have great men in its faculty, but have numerous minor professors and assistants of all kinds, and should encourage the highest work, if for no other reason than to encourage the student to his highest efforts.
But, assuming that the professor has high ideals, wealth such as only a large and high university can command is necessary to allow him the fullest development.
And this is specially so in our science of physics. In the early days of physics and chemistry, many of the fundamental experiments could be performed with the simplest apparatus. And so we often find the names of Wollaston and Faraday mentioned as needing scarcely anything for their researches. Much can even now be done with the simplest apparatus; and nobody, except the utterly incompetent, need stop for want of it. But the fact remains, that one can only be free to investigate in all departments of chemistry and physics, when he not only has a complete laboratory at his command, but a friend to draw on for the expenses of each experiment. That simplest of the departments of physics, namely, astronomy, has now reached such perfection that nobody can expect to do much more in it without a perfectly equipped observatory; and even this would be useless without an income sufficient to employ a corps of assistants to make the observations and computations. But, even in this simplest of physical subjects, there is great misunderstanding. Our country has very many excellent observatories: and yet little work is done in comparison, because no provision has been made for maintaining the work of the observatory; and the wealth which, if concentrated, might have made one effective observatory which would prove a benefit to astronomical science, when scattered among a half-dozen, merely furnishes telescopes for the people in the surrounding region to view the moon with. And here I strike the key-note of at least one need of our country, if she would stand well in science. . . .
Americans have shown no lack of invention in small things; and the same spirit, when united to knowledge and love of science, becomes the spirit of research. The telegraph operator, with his limited knowledge of electricity and its laws, naturally turns his attention to the improvement of the only electrical instrument he knows anything about; and his researches would be confined to the limited sphere of his knowledge, and to the simple laws with which he is acquainted. But as his knowledge increases, and the field broadens before him, as he studies the mathematical theory of the subject, and the electromagnetic theory of light loses the dim haze due to distance and becomes his constant companion, the telegraph instrument becomes to him a toy, and his effort to discover something new becomes research in pure science.
It is useless to attempt to advance science until one has mastered the science: he must step to the front before his blows can tell in the strife. Furthermore, I do not believe anybody can be thorough in any department of science without wishing to advance it. In the study of what is known, in the reading of the scientific journals, and the discussions therein contained of the current scientific questions, one would obtain an impulse to work, even though it did not before exist. And the same spirit which prompted him to seek what was already known would make him wish to know the unknown. And I may say that I never met a case of thorough knowledge in my own science, except in the case of well-known investigators. I have met men who talked well, and I have sometimes asked myself why they did not do something; but further knowledge of their character has shown me the superficiality of their knowledge. I am no longer a believer in men who could do something if they would, or would do something if they had a chance. They are impostors. If the true spirit is there, it will show itself in spite of circumstances.
As I remarked before, the investigator in pure science is usually a professor. He must teach as well as investigate. It is a question which has been discussed in late years as to whether these two functions would better be combined in the same individual, or separated. It seems to be the opinion of most that a certain amount of teaching is conducive, rather than otherwise, to the spirit of research. I myself think that this is true, and I should myself not like to give up my daily lecture. But one must not be overburdened. I suppose that the true solution, in many cases, would be found in the multiplication of assistants, not only for the work of teaching, but of research. Some men are gifted with more ideas than they can work out with their own hands, and the world is losing much by not supplying them with extra hands. Life is short: old age comes quickly, and the amount one pair of hands can do is very limited. What sort of shop would that be, or what sort of factory, where one man had to do all the work with his own hands? It is a fact in nature, which no democracy can change, that men are not equal—that some have brains, and some hands. And no idle talk about equality can ever subvert the order of the universe.
I know of no institution in this country where assistants are supplied to aid directly in research. Yet why should it not be so? And even the absence of assistant professors and assistants of all kinds to aid in teaching is very noticeable, and must be remedied before we can expect much.
There are many physical problems, especially those requiring exact measurements, which can not be carried out by one man, and can only be successfully attacked by the most elaborate apparatus, and with a full corps of assistants. Such are Regnault's experiments on the fundamental laws of gases and vapors, made thirty or forty years ago by aid from the French Government, and which are the standards to this day. Although these experiments were made with a view to the practical calculation of the steam-engine, yet they were carried out in such a broad spirit that they have been of the greatest theoretical use. Again, what would astronomy have done without the endowments of observatories? By their means, that science has become the most perfect of all branches of physics, as it should be from its simplicity. There is no doubt in my mind that similar institutions for other branches of physics, or, better, to include the whole of physics, would be equally successful. A large and perfectly equipped physical laboratory, with its large revenues, its corps of professors and assistants, and its machine-shop for the construction of new apparatus, would be able to advance our science quite as much as endowed observatories have astronomy. But such a laboratory should not be founded rashly. The value will depend entirely on the physicist at its head, who has to devise the plan, and to start it into practical working. Such a man will always be rare, and can not always be obtained. After one had been successfully started, others could follow; for imitation requires little brains.
One could not be certain of getting the proper man every time, but the means of appointment should be most carefully studied, so as to secure a good average. There can be no doubt that the appointment should rest with a scientific body capable of judging the highest work of each candidate.
Should any popular element enter, the person chosen would be either of the literary-scientific order, or the dabbler on the outskirts who presents his small discoveries in the most theatrical manner. What is required is a man of depth, who has such an insight into physical science that he can tell when blows will best tell for its advancement.
Such a grand laboratory as I describe does not exist in the world at present for the study of physics. But no trouble has ever been found in obtaining means to endow astronomical science. Everybody can appreciate to some extent the value of an observatory; as astronomy is the simplest of scientific subjects, and has very quickly reached a position where elaborate instruments and costly computations are necessary to further advance. The whole domain of physics is so wide that workers have hitherto found enough to do. But it can not always be so, and the time has even now arrived when such a grand laboratory should be founded. Shall our country take the lead in this matter, or shall we wait for foreign countries to go before? They will be built in the future, but when and how is the question.
Several institutions are now putting up laboratories for physics. They are mostly for teaching, and we can expect only a comparatively small amount of work from most of them. But they show progress; and, if the progress be as quick in this direction as in others, we should be able to see a great change before the end of our lives.
As stated before, men are influenced by the sympathy of those with whom they come in contact. It is impossible to immediately change public opinion in our favor; and, indeed, we must always seek to lead it, and not be guided by it. For pure science is the pioneer who must not hover about cities and civilized countries, but must strike into unknown forests, and climb the hitherto inaccessible mountains which lead to and command a view of the promised land—the land which science promises us in the future; which shall not only flow with milk and honey, but shall give us a better and more glorious idea of this wonderful universe. We must create a public opinion in our favor, but it need not at first be the general public. We must be contented to stand aside, and see the honors of the world for a time given to our inferiors; and must be better contented with the approval of our own consciences, and of the very few who are capable of judging our work, than of the whole world besides. Let us look to the other physicists, not in our own town, not in our own country, but in the whole world, for the words of praise which are to encourage us, or the words of blame which are to stimulate us to renewed effort. For what to us is the praise of the ignorant? Let us join together in the bonds of our scientific societies, and encourage each other, as we are now doing, in the pursuit of our favorite study; knowing that the world will some time recognize our services, and knowing, also, that we constitute the most important element in human progress.
But danger is also near, even in our societies. When the average tone of the society is low, when the highest honors are given to the mediocre, when third-class men are held up as examples, and when trifling inventions are magnified into scientific discoveries, then the influence of such societies is prejudicial. A young scientist attending the meetings of such a society soon gets perverted ideas. To his mind, a mole-hill is a mountain, and the mountain a mole-hill. The small inventor or the local celebrity rises to a greater height, in his mind, than the great leader of science in some foreign land. He gauges himself by the mole-hill, and is satisfied with his stature; not knowing that he is but an atom in comparison with the mountain, until, perhaps, in old age, when it is too late. But, if the size of the mountain had been seen at first, the young scientist would at least have been stimulated in his endeavor to grow.
We can not all be men of genius; but we can, at least, point them out to those around us. We may not be able to benefit science much ourselves; "but we can have high ideals on the subject, and instill them into those with whom we come in contact. For the good of ourselves, for the good of our country, for the good to the world, it is incumbent on us to form a true estimate of the worth and standing of persons and things, and to set before our own minds all that is great and good and noble, all that is most important for scientific advance, above the mean and low and unimportant.
It is very often said that a man has a right to his opinion. This might be true for a man on a desert island, whose error would influence only himself. But when he opens his lips to instruct others, or even when he signifies his opinions by his daily life, then he is directly responsible for all his errors of judgment or fact. He has no right to think a mole-hill as big as a mountain, nor to teach it, any more than he has to think the world flat, and teach that it is so. The facts and laws of our science have not equal importance, neither have the men who cultivate the science achieved equal results. One thing is greater than another, and we have no right to neglect the order. Thus shall our minds be guided aright, and our efforts be toward that which is the highest.
Then shall we see that no physicist of the first class has ever existed in this country, that we must look to other countries for our leaders in that subject, and that the few excellent workers in our country must receive many accessions from without before they can constitute an American science, or do their share in the world's work. . . .
We call this a free country, and yet it is the only one where there is a direct tax upon the pursuit of science. The low state of pure science in our country may possibly be attributed to the youth of the country; but a direct tax, to prevent the growth of our country in that subject, can not be looked upon as other than a deep disgrace. I refer to the duty upon foreign books and periodicals. In our science, no books above elementary ones have ever been published, or are likely to be published, in this country; and yet every teacher in physics must have them, not only in the college-library, but on his own shelves, and must pay the Government of this country to allow him to use a portion of his small salary to buy that which is to do good to the whole country. All freedom of intercourse which is necessary to foster our growing science is thus broken off; and that which might, in time, relieve our country of its mediocrity is nipped in the bud by our Government, which is most liberal when appealed to directly on scientific subjects. One would think that books in foreign languages might be admitted free; but, to please the half-dozen or so workmen who reprint German books, not scientific, our free intercourse with that country is cut off. Our scientific associations and societies must make themselves heard in this matter, and show those in authority how the matter stands. . . .
- Vice-Presidential Address delivered before Section B, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, August 15, 1883. Abridged for The Popular Science Monthly.
- Three hundred and sixty-four reported on, and twenty-five not reported.