Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/June 1873/Editor's Table

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 3 June 1873  (1873) 
Editor's Table


THE proposition of Prof. Leeds, in his article on "State Geological Surveys," to link these undertakings to the collegiate institutions of the country is a novel and very important one, and deserves the serious attention of all the friends of scientific education. After stating the aims and necessities of these surveys, the writer shows how college talent might be pressed into their service, and points out the advantages that would arise both in giving thoroughness to the work, and in diminishing its expense to the State. Prof. Leeds confines himself mainly to the consideration of economy, thoroughness in the performance of the work, and the interests of the survey itself. But such a measure could not fail to yield double advantages: it would be as good for the colleges as for the exploration. On educational grounds alone, nothing could be more desirable than to effect this arrangement, and give the colleges business of the kind contemplated.

A geological survey is but a systematic scientific inquiry into the structure and resources of a given region of country. It investigates the strata of the earth and their mineral and organic contents, both to find out how they are constituted, and to contribute useful productions to the arts and wants of society. In its full scope it inquires into the physical features of the region, its agricultural adaptations, its vegetable productions, its forms of animal life in earth, water, and air, its atmospheric conditions, salubrity, and general climatology. In short, it embraces a very full research into those facts of Nature which it is important for the community to know, and the business of science to determine. But the colleges have, for one great object, the teaching of those very things. A portion of their professors are devoted to it, of course under the assumption that they are competent to carry it on.

Now, the result of such an alliance as is here proposed could not be other than salutary upon the institutions themselves. The effect of giving them a certain definite and responsible scientific work in their localities, the results of which would be brought to the test of public criticism, would inevitably be to elevate and sustain the standard of instruction in their laboratories and lecture-rooms. It is a grave difficulty with these higher institutions that their work cannot be brought to judgment and submitted to fixed and recognized tests. They are often the places for careless, slipshod, and aimless work. Mental results are not easy of inspection or valuation; sham and cram are showy and telling, and the constant temptation is to put them in the place of solid attainment; and, when college authorities can constantly fall back upon the pretext that their aim is discipline, and that knowledge is a quite subordinate matter, they open a door which allows any amount of loose and slovenly work, and at the same time permits the teachers to escape responsibility and criticism. But if a college were publicly placed in the scientific charge of the region in which it is situated, and required to make such reports thereof as could be accepted for guidance by the community,and brought into conspicuous comparison with similar work in other localities, the whole being under the supervision of able superintendents, a standard would be introduced that could not fail to give a high and authoritative tone to the work of the place.

But the effectual carrying out of the plan now proposed would not only insure able and qualified men as professors, but much more; it would call the students to the work, and secure the grand object of scientific education by bringing their minds into direct and systematic relation with natural phenomena. It would bring them out of their dormitories and class-rooms into the field, and, while favoring health and cultivating a sympathy with natural things, it would bring to bear the stimulus of curiosity and the love of search, while the intellectual work, being of the nature of independent observation and discovery, would be promotive of self-education—the best of all education. It is as notorious as it is deplorable that the scientific teaching of our colleges is grossly defective. Geology, botany, chemistry, physics, and zoology, are taught from books like Latin and history, with the aid, perhaps, of a few demonstrations by the lecturer. The information acquired is superficial and second-hand, and does not deserve the name of scientific knowledge. We believe the effect upon students of bringing them into close mental relation with surrounding Nature, of putting them in charge of a district, and requiring them to observe, classify, and describe its various objects, under the incitement that their useful work would have fair recognition, would be to give inspiration to study, solidity to acquirement, and the highest possibilities of usefulness to subsequent life.

An important consequence of such a plan would be, the growth of scientific museums which would represent the character and resources of the locality. As there is no educational appliance more important than a good museum, so there is no educational process more valuable than the formation of it. Those crude, miscellaneous, rubbishy collections of curiosities, and odd things gathered by accident, that are often thrown together, without method, in some unappropriated corner of an institution, are not entitled to the name of museums. Specimens are nothing except as illustrating ideas, and they require to be so arranged as to teach the science to which they belong. As we ordinarily find them, museums are hardly more instructive than so much blank space. A good local collection should represent, in its specimens, the zoology, botany, and geology of the district. It should be arranged with a view to teaching, and, instead of being crowded with a multiplicity of objects, should consist of carefully-selected, well-arranged, and clearly-labelled types of the classes, orders, families, and leading genera of animals and plants, extant in the region, and gathered in their fossil vestiges, from its geological formations, which are at the same time represented by classified minerals.

The plan now suggested, by which it would become the official duty of college authorities to bring together the products of a region, so that they would be accessible to everybody in quest of this kind of information, and at the same time tributary to the purposes of science, would give us museums worthy of the name, and secure the proper objects of their establishment.

In every aspect, therefore, the project of establishing so close a connection between State geological explorations and our higher educational institutions is to be cordially commended; and it is not the least of its advantages that it coincides with the great tendencies of educational reform, and offers an efficient method of carrying it forward.



In our correspondence for this month will be found a letter from a distinguished American physiologist, approving the position taken by Mr. Godwin in his speech at the Tyndall dinner, as "a protest, not against science, but in its behalf, and against the damaging influence of pretended followers or mistaken friends;" and this view expresses, we are assured, the conviction of many professionally scientific men of the present time.

"We have no desire to prolong controversy, but, with all respect to the professional authorities, we must continue to. think that the efforts to limit and confine scientific investigation in the present age are not in the interest of true science; nor can we see how they differ from attempts to obstruct the advance of thought that have been made in preceding ages. There has always been a party unwilling to allow science to find its own limits. They have forbidden each step of its progress, and demanded that it should keep within its sphere, for the sake of its own good. They have never denied science, or questioned its authority, but only demanded that it should consult its own interests by staying in its proper place. When the work of investigating Nature was seriously commenced, some three or four centuries ago, "Aristotle," "Galen," and "Mathematics," were terms used to define the scope of legitimate science; and, when the first great step forward was taken, and men began to question the tradition of the flatness of the earth, they were sharply met with the charge that they were going beyond their sphere and damaging science itself. Men were as free as the wind to pursue true science—that is, to accept Aristotelian and Galenic dicta, and to cultivate the whole range of mathematics. The ideal world was a sphere of exact and eternal truth; external Nature was a mere flux of sensuous appearances, not suspected to be a sphere of law; the attempt to study her was therefore to invade the ancient and inviolable limits of science. Hence, in denying the flatness of the earth, and affirming its sphericity, the early inquirers not only shocked common-sense but were charged with violating every canon of established scientific method. Exactly the same considerations that are now urged were urged then with tenfold force, and the antagonists of the new doctrine might well have said that they "did not propose to cramp scientific inquiry, nor to limit in any way its powers or its results, but only to prevent its contamination by what would degrade and cripple it." And these tactics have been repeated at every great step of advancement. It is never genuine science that breaks over the old limits of opinion, but always "pretended science," "pseudo-science," and "science falsely so called."

In our correspondent's opinion, science has now attained a position in which it holds its destiny in its own hands, and is in no danger save from the folly of its own partisans. His theory of the case is, that science is now endangered by excess of theory. But, if that be the case, it is threatened by its own breath of life. A theory is only a view taken by the mind in its effort at explanation, and cannot be dispensed with, if observation and experiment are to be put to their true use. He says that science demands of its votary, "not what you think about it, but what you know." But what is knowing but thinking brought to the highest certainty? and how can this end be reached except by the successive steps of conjecture and hypothesis? As Dr. Whewell observes, "To try wrong guesses is apparently the only way to hit upon right ones." It is not Science which puts an embargo upon thinking and theorizing, for it is by these that all her laws have been arrived at. Of course, science demands certainty, demonstration, and experimental exactitude, if obtainable; and if not, then the nearest approach to them possible; but these must have an ideal and a meaning, or there can be no science. Science is not manipulation, but the thinking that accompanies it, and the theory or view that is established by it. Under the rigid rule laid down by the writer, the giant intellects who have made the epochs of science could never have got a hearing. Copernicus, Galileo, Columbus, Newton, Harvey, Dufay, Young, and Dalton, are known to the world as thinkers, and have gained immortality in science, and guided the multitude of lesser men by their theories. Faraday remarks that the world little knows how many conjectures and hypotheses, which arise in the minds of philosophers, are crushed by the severity of their own adverse criticism; but the world does know something of the number of theories that are submitted to the tribunal of science, and are crushed by the adverse criticism there encountered. Are these efforts of theory, therefore, in either case, to be interdicted or discouraged? Our correspondent has little patience with theories, but they are the measure of mental activity and the essential form of its scientific expression, as their inexorable testing is the measure of sound scientific method. There may be peril in theorizing, as there is in steam, but it is the condition of getting on; and, because brakes are useful, let us not put out the fires.

If there is more theorizing now than ever before, it is because there is far more extensive scientific activity. There is, indeed, greater demand for it now than ever, for the numbers of observers and experimenters who either cannot think or are afraid to think have greatly multiplied in recent years, increasing the mass of observations and fragmentary results, which can only be organized into accepted theory by the highest order of minds. Generalizations and inductions which bind up isolated facts in manageable form, and which constitute the very texture of science, are only to be arrived at by thinking and theorizing. And with the multitude of men thoroughly trained in all departments, and sharpened to the work of criticism, there is certainly less danger now than ever that worthless theories should gain the ascendency.

The hypothesis, that in future science can suffer no damage save from enemies in its own household, we venture to think, represents but a small portion of the pertinent facts. Much has undoubtedly been gained by past conflict; astronomers are no longer imprisoned, and physiologists no longer roasted. But have ignorance and intolerance been banished from the world? or, remaining in it, have they lost their aggressiveness or their influence over men's minds? Have they, in fact, done more than change weapons? We grant that the antagonism to science has greatly diminished within recent years; but, to say that science has now to encounter no external adverse influences which affect its prosperity, is to talk at random. The world is still dominated by illiberality and prejudice; and when science puts forth ideas that do not square with prevailing belief, as, from its progressive nature, it has always been doing, and must continue to do, it is met with anger and denunciation, which it requires no little moral courage to withstand. It cannot reasonably be claimed that such a state of things is without influence upon scientific interests. It represses the honest and healthy expression of opinion; it checks young men from entering the scientific field; it resists scientific education; and it hinders men of science from obtaining the necessary means for prosecuting their inquiries.

Even our correspondent puts Science upon its good behavior before a censorious world. He affirms that she may incur damage, and is exposed to danger from her enemies, but these evils, it is alleged, can only come from "contamination" and "debauchery" by her own partisans. And what is meant by this language, but the promulgation of doctrines that her enemies regard as odious? Stop a hundred men in the street, and ask them what they consider to be the great contamination and debauchery of science at the present time, and ninety-nine of them will reply, "Darwinism"—the first item in our correspondent's new "Nicene Creed." This is the verdict of public opinion. But we open the new volume of Helmholtz, who is probably the most eminent and authoritative scientist in Europe, and, in his lecture on the "Aims and Progress of Physical Science," we read that "Darwin's theory contains an essentially new creative thought." This is the verdict of science. Is the great German one who brings discredit upon his class by thinking instead of knowing? and is the party which characterizes the creative conceptions of Nature as degradations, to be accepted as the arbiter of the proper limits of science? We remain of opinion that scientific men are the best judges of the legitimacy of their own inquiries, and that they will honor themselves most by the bold and fearless prosecution of these inquiries, let them lead wherever they may.



A book entitled "Youman's Dictionary of Every Day Wants" is being extensively circulated by canvassers, and I am much annoyed at finding that it is purchased under the impression that it is by the Editor of The Popular Science Monthly, and the author of the "Hand Book of Household Science," "Chemistry," etc. I am neither the author of it, nor have I had any thing to do with its preparation; and, in so far as my name has been used to sell it, it is a fraud. It will be an act of justice to the public, as well as to myself, if the press will kindly reproduce this card.

E. L. Youmans.