Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/October 1874/Tyndall's Relation to Popular Science

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 5 October 1874  (1874) 
Tyndall's Relation to Popular Science
Hermann von Helmholtz

TYNDALL'S RELATION TO POPULAR SCIENCE.
By Professor HELMHOLTZ.[1]

THE awakening desire for scientific instruction, ever finding new expression among the educated classes of all European countries, we must consider not merely as a striving after new forms of amusement, or a mere empty and barren curiosity; it is rather a well-justified intellectual necessity, and is in close connection with the most important springs of mental development in these times. The natural sciences have become a powerful influence in the formation of the social, industrial, and political life of civilized nations, not only from the fact that the great forces of Nature have been subordinated to the aims of man, and have supplied him with a host of new means to attain them; though this mode of their action is sufficiently important that the statesman, the historian, and the philosopher, as well as the manufacturer and the merchant, cannot pass without participation in at least, the practical results; but because there is another form of their action which goes much deeper and further, though it is, perhaps, more slow in manifesting itself; I mean their influence in the direction of the intellectual progress of humanity. It has often been said, and even brought as a charge against the natural sciences, that, through them, a schism (Zwiespalt), formerly unknown, has been introduced into modern education. And, indeed, there is truth in this. A schism is perceptible; yet such must mark every new step of intellectual development wherever the New has become a power, and the question to be settled is, the definition of its just claims, as against the just claims of the Old. The past progress of education of civilized nations has had its central point in the study of language. Language is the great instrument through possession of which man is most distinctly separated from the lower animals; through use of which he is able to share the experience and knowledge of other individuals of his time, as also those of past generations; without which each man would, like the lower animals, be limited to his instinct and to his own particular experience. That therefore the improvement of language was formerly the first and most necessary work of a growing race, and that the most refined perfection of its comprehension and its use is, and must ever be, the primary problem in the education of each individual, is undoubted. The culture of modern European nations has a peculiarly intimate connection with the study of the remains of antiquity; and, thereby, directly with the study of language. With the latter study was associated that of the forms of thought, which are coined in speech; logic and grammar, that is, according to the original meaning of the words, the art of speaking and the art of writing, both taken in the highest sense, have therefore been hitherto the natural hinge-points of mental education.

But while language is the means of handing down and preserving truth once recognized, we must not forget that its study teaches nothing as to how fresh truth is to be found. Similarly, logic shows how, from the proposition which forms the major of a syllogism, conclusions are to be drawn; but it can tell us nothing as to whence this proposition has come. He who will convince himself of its independent truth must, on the other hand, begin with knowledge of the individual cases which fall under the law, and which afterward, if this have been established, may doubtless also be accepted as deductions from the law. But only where a knowledge of the law is one which has been communicated by others, does it actually take precedence of knowledge of the deductions, and, in such a case, the treatises of the old formal logic assume their undeniable practical importance.

Thus all these studies do not themselves lead us to the proper source of knowledge—do not bring us face to face with the reality which we seek to know. There is therefore, undoubtedly, a danger in communicating to each one, by preference, a knowledge the source of which he has not personally contemplated. Comparative mythology and the criticism of the metaphysical systems can tell a great deal of how figurative word-expression has in time been exalted to the importance of real knowledge, and even become valued as ultimate wisdom.

While fully recognizing, then, the significance (not to be sufficiently appreciated) of the finely-elaborated art of communicating the acquired knowledge of others, and receiving in return such communications from others, in regard to the mental improvement of our race; while also recognizing the importance attaching to the contents of the classical writings, for the cultivation of the moral and aesthetic sentiments, for the development of an intimate knowledge of human feelings, conceptions, and conditions of culture; we must yet hold that an important element is wanting from the exclusively literary-logical mode of education; and that is the methodical discipline of the activity by which we reduce the confused material which meets us in the actual world, apparently (at first sight) ruled by wild chance rather than reason, to clear conception, and thereby make it fit for expression in speech. Such an art of observation and experiment, methodically developed, we have hitherto found in the natural sciences alone; and our hope, that the psychology of individuals and peoples, with the practical sciences of education and of social and political government based upon it, will attain the same end, can only be fulfilled in a distant future.

This new enterprise, prosecuted by natural science on new paths, has quickly enough yielded fresh and, of their kind, unheard-of results, evidencing what achievements human thought is capable of, where it can go the whole way from the facts to the full knowledge of the law under favorable conditions, testing and knowing every thing for itself. The simple relations, especially those of inorganic Nature, permit of our possessing such a penetrating and accurate knowledge of their laws, such far-reaching deduction of inferences from them, and the testing and verification of these by such an exact reference to fact, that, with the systematic unfolding of such conceptions (e. g., with the deduction of astronomical phenomena from the law of gravitation), there is hardly any other edifice of human thought which, for strict logic, certainty, correctness, and productiveness, can at all be compared with it.

I point out these relations merely with the view of showing in what sense the natural sciences are a new and essential element of human education; of indestructible importance, also, for all further development of this in the future; and that a complete education of the individual man, as of nations, will no longer be possible without a union of the past literary-logical with the new natural-science direction of study.

Now, the majority of the educated hitherto have been instructed only in the old way—have hardly at all come into contact with the work of thought in natural science; at the most, perhaps, a little with mathematics. It is men of this kind of education that our governments appoint, by preference, to educate our children, to maintain reverence for moral order, and to preserve the treasures of knowledge and wisdom of our forefathers. It is they, too, who must organize the changes in the mode of education of the rising generation; where such changes are required they must be encouraged or compelled thereto by the public opinion of the intelligent classes of the whole community, both men and women.

Apart from the natural impulse of every warm-hearted man to lead others to that which he has found to be true and right, there will be in every friend of natural science a strong motive to share in such work, in the reflection that the further development of these sciences themselves, the unfolding of their influence on human education, and, so far as they are a necessary element of this education, the healthiness of the future mental development of the people, depend on an insight being afforded to the educated classes, into the nature and the results of scientific investigation, such as is generally possible, without a personal engrossing occupation with these subjects.

And in proof that the need of such an insight is felt even by those who have grown up under the predominant linguistic and literary instruction, may be cited the large number of popular books of natural science annually published, and the eagerness with which lectures of a popular character on subjects in natural science are attended.

It lies in the nature of the case, however, that the essential part of this want, owing to the depth of its roots, is not easily satisfied. It is true that what science may have established and wrought out in solid results can, by intelligent compilers, be put together and brought into suitable form, so that a reader without previous knowledge of the subject may, with some perseverance and patience, understand it. But such a knowledge, limited to the actual results, is not properly that which we have in view. These books, indeed, compiled with the best intentions, often lead into devious paths. To prevent weariness, they must seek to rivet the attention of the reader by an accumulation of curiosities, whereby the image of science is rendered quite false. One often feels this when the reader begins from his own impulse to tell what he has considered important. Then there are the further objections that the book can give only word-descriptions, or, at the most, drawings representing more or less imperfectly the things and processes of which it treats; and that the reader's power of imagination is thereby subjected to a much greater strain, with much less satisfactory results, than that of the investigator or student who, in museum collections and laboratories, sees the things before him in their living reality. A portion of the difficulties named may readily be obviated in popular lectures, if, at least, some objects or experiments can be shown: the opportunities of doing so in Germany, hitherto, have been mostly very limited.

It appears to me, however, that it is not so much a knowledge of results of scientific investigations in themselves that the most intelligent and well-educated of the laity ask, but rather a perception of the mental activity of the investigator, of the individuality of his scientific procedure, of the aims at which he strives, of the fresh point of view which his work affords in reference to the great problems of human existence. There can hardly be any thing of all this in the properly scientific treatment of scientific objects; on the contrary, the severe discipline of the exact method requires that, in scientific treatises, only that be spoken of which is surely ascertained, hypotheses only where equivalent to the proposal of questions for further investigation, a certain answer to these appearing probable from the next progress of the research. A natural prudence recommends great rigor in this connection. For it is pretty much the same to the greater number even of the instructed hearers whether a man of science says "I know," or "I suppose;" they only ask after the result and the authority by which it is supported, not the grounds or the doubts. It is thus not to be wondered at if earnest investigators do not willingly shock the confidence of their readers in what the former may think true and demonstrable, by the enumeration of ideas of the correctness of which they do not feel themselves quite secure. These may be very probable, and may be expressed with ever so much prudence and careful guardedness; they still expose him who utters them to the danger of vexatious misrepresentation.

It is, further, not to be overlooked, that the peculiar discipline of scientific thought which is necessary for the most abstract and rigorous grasp possible of newly-found ideas and laws, and for the purification from all accidents of the sensuous order of phenomena, along with the habitual residence of the mind among a circle of ideas far removed from general interest, is not a quite favorable preparative for a popular intelligible exposition of the insights obtained, to hearers who have not had the like discipline. For this task there is rather required an artistic talent of exposition, a certain kind of eloquence. The lecturer or writer must find generally accessible stand-points from which he may call forth new representations with the most vivid distinctness, and then allow the abstract principle, which he seeks to make intelligible, to derive from these concrete life. This is almost an opposite mode of treatment to that which obtains in scientific treatises, and it can readily be understood that the men are rare who are equally fitted for both these kinds of intellectual labor.

Owing to all these circumstances, a sort of dividing wall is raised between the men of science and the laity who might obtain instruction and guidance from them. That many, and indeed some of the most able, investigators have the qualities and peculiarities belonging to abstract work is natural, and will, in each individual case, be at once willingly excused. I have here merely to guard against the reversal of this relation, as if the defects named were necessary, or at all constituted a prerogative.

The compilers can give no help in those directions where the original thinkers have neglected or avoided expressing themselves. So much the more gratifying is it, I consider, in such a state of things, when, among those who have shown the highest ability for original scientific work, there is found, at times, a man like Tyndall, full of enthusiasm for the problem of making the newly-acquired insights and outlooks of his science available for the wider circle of the people, and, at the same time, endowed with other qualities which are the necessary conditions of success toward this end, eloquence and the gift of lucid exposition.

In England the custom of popular scientific lectures has been much longer in existence than in Germany. Since the constitution of the English universities is very different from ours, fewer individuals are there in a position to prosecute scientific research, or give scientific instruction to regularly prepared scholars, as their life-calling. This generally makes it much more difficult for individuals to go deeply into a special department of study, though genius of course everywhere breaks through these and other hindrances. The same circumstance has, on the other hand, maintained a closer connection of the workers in science with all other classes of the population, and incited to a more liberal care for the instruction of the student not regularly trained. While this has hitherto been quite rare in Germany, there have long been in England solid and well-furnished institutions for the purpose.

In the two circumstances, first that in England courses of a moderate number of connected lectures can be delivered, and secondly that this can be done in buildings well suited for demonstrations and experiments of every kind, there is a great advantage over the general custom in Germany, where each lecturer only delivers one lecture.

Now, it is intelligible that during the seventy years since this state of things has arisen, and under so much more favorable external conditions, the English public have educated their lecturers, and the lecturers their public, much better than has hitherto been the case in Germany. The Royal Institution has had, among its professors, two men of the first rank. Sir Humphrey Davy and Faraday, who have cooperated to that end. At present Prof. Tyndall is held in peculiarly high esteem, both in England and in the United States, on account of his talent for popular expositions of scientific subjects. Any one who is conscious within himself of the gift and the power of working in a particular direction for the mental development of humanity, has usually a pleasure in such activity, and is ready to devote to it a good share of his time and his energies. This is especially the case with Prof. Tyndall. He has, therefore, remained true to his post at the Royal Institution, though other honorable posts have been offered him. But it would be quite an erroneous conception to think of him merely as the able, popular lecturer; for the greater part of his activity has always been given to scientific investigation, and we owe to him a series of (in part) highly-original and remarkable researches and discoveries in physics and physical chemistry.

In his discourse "On the Scientific Use of the Imagination," delivered before the British Association at Liverpool, Prof. Tyndall has given a peculiarly characteristic description of his manner of intellectual working. There are two ways of searching out the system of laws in Nature—that of abstract ideas, and that of thorough experimental research. The former way leads ultimately, through mathematical analysis, to an accurate quantitative knowledge of the phenomena. But it can only advance where the other has already, in some measure, opened up the region, i. e., given an inductive knowledge of the laws, at least, for some groups of the phenomena belonging to it, and the point is merely the testing and clearing up of the already-found laws, the passage from them to the last and most general laws of the region in question, and the complete unfolding of their consequences. This other way leads to a rich knowledge of the behavior of natural substances and forces, in which at first the law-element is recognized only in the form in which artists perceive it, through vivid sensuous contemplation of the type of its action, in order to a later working out of it in the pure form of an idea. These two sides of the physicist's work are never quite separate from each other, though sometimes the diversity of individual gifts will adapt one man for mathematical deduction, another for the inductive activity of experimentation. Should the first method, however, become wholly divorced from actual observations, it falls into the danger of laboriously building castles in the air, on unstable foundations, and of not finding the points at which it may verify the agreement of its deductions with fact. The second, on the other hand, would lose sight of the proper aim of science, if it did not work toward ultimately bringing its observations into the precise form of the idea.

The first discovery of laws of Nature previously unknown, that is, of new forms of likeness in the course of apparently unconnected phenomena, is a matter of sense (taking the word in its widest meaning), and must nearly always be accomplished only by comparison of numerous sensuous perceptions. The perfection and purification of that which has been found fall afterward under the working of the deductive method of thinking, and preferentially of mathematical analysis, as the final question is ever about equality of quantities.

Now, Mr. Tyndall is par excellence an experimenter; he forms his generalizations from extensive observations of the play of natural forces, and carries over what he has seen, in some cases to the greatest, in others to the smallest relations of space (as appeared in the lecture referred to). It is quite a mistake to consider what he calls imagination as mere fancy (Phantasterei). It is exactly the opposite that is meant—full sensuous contemplation. To this mode of working is evidently to be attributed the clearness of his lectures on physical phenomena, as also his success as a popular lecturer.

  1. From the preface to the recently-published German translation of Tyndall's "Fragments of Science," revised by the writer, Prof. Helmholtz, for Nature.