Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/August 1872/The Study of Physical Science

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SOME of you may ask, and you have a perfect right to ask, why I, a clergyman, have chosen this subject for my lecture? Why do I wish to teach young men physical science? What good will the right understanding of astronomy or of chemistry, or of the stones under their feet, or of the plants or animals which they meet—What good, I say, will that do them?

In the first place, they need, I presume, occupation after their hours of work; and to give that this class was established. If any of them answer, "We do not want occupation, we want amusement. Work is very dull, and we want something which will excite our fancy, imagination, sense of humor. We want poetry, fiction, even a good laugh or a game of play"—I shall most fully agree with them. There is often no better medicine for a hard-worked body and mind than a good laugh; and the man that can play most heartily when he has a chance is generally the man who can work most heartily when he must work. But there is certainly nothing in the study of physical science to interfere with genial hilarity. Indeed, some solemn persons have been wont to reprove the members of the British Association, and specially that Red Lion Club, where all the philosophers are expected to lash their tails and roar, of being somewhat too fond of mere and sheer fun, after the abstruse papers of the day are read and discussed. And as for harmless amusement, and still more for the free exercise of the fancy and the imagination, I know few studies to compare with Natural History; with the search for the most beautiful and curious productions of Nature amid her loveliest scenery, and in her freshest atmosphere. I have known again and again working-men who in the midst of smoky cities have kept their bodies, their minds, and their hearts healthy and pure by going out into the country at odd hours, and making collections of plants, insects, birds, or some other objects of natural history; and I doubt not that such will be the case with some of you.

Another argument, and a very strong one, in favor of studying some branch of physical science just now is this—that without it you can hardly keep pace with the thought of the world around you.

Over and above the solid gain of a scientific habit of mind, of which I shall speak presently, the gain of mere facts, the increased knowledge of this planet on which we live, is very valuable just now; valuable certainly to all who do not wish their children and their younger brothers to know more about the universe than they do.

Natural science is now occupying a more and more important place in education. Oxford, Cambridge, the London University, the public schools one after another, are taking up the subject in earnest; so are the middle-class schools; so, I trust, will all primary schools throughout the country; and I hope that my children, at least, if not I myself, will see the day, when ignorance of the primary laws and facts of science will be looked on as a defect, only second to ignorance of the primary laws of religion and morality.

I speak strongly, but deliberately. It does seem to me strange, to use the mildest word, that people whose destiny it is to live, even for a few short years, on this planet which we call the earth, and who do not at all intend to live on it as hermits, shutting themselves up in cells, and looking on death as an escape and a deliverance, but intend to live as comfortably and wholesomely as they can, they and their children after them—it seems strange, I say, that such people should in general be so careless about the constitution of this same planet, and of the laws and facts on which depend, not merely their comfort and their wealth, but their health and their very lives, and the health and the lives of their children and descendants.

I know some will say, at least to themselves, "What need for us to study science? There are plenty to do that already; and we shall be sure sooner or later to profit by their discoveries; and meanwhile it is not science which is needed to make mankind thrive, but simple common-sense."

I should reply that, to expect to profit by other men's discoveries when you do not pay for them—to let others labor in the hope of entering into their labors, is not a very noble or generous state of mind—comparable somewhat, I should say, to that of the fatting ox, who willingly allows the farmer to house him, till for him, feed for him, provided only he himself may lounge in his stall, and eat, and not be thankful. There is one difference in the two cases, but only one that while the farmer can repay himself by eating the ox, the scientific man cannot repay himself by eating you; and so never gets paid, in most cases, at all.

But as for mankind thriving by common-sense: they have not thriven by common-sense, because they have not used their common-sense according to that regulated method which is called science. In no age, in no country, as yet, have the majority of mankind been guided, I will not say by the love of God, and by the fear of God, but not even by sense and reason. Not sense and reason, but nonsense and unreason—prejudice and fancy—greed and haste—have led them to such results as were to be expected—to superstitions, persecutions, wars, famines, pestilence, hereditary disease, poverty, waste—waste incalculable, and now too often irremediable—waste of life, of labor, of capital, of raw material, of soil, of manure, of every bounty which God has bestowed on man, till, as in the eastern Mediterranean, whole countries, some of the finest in the world, seem ruined forever: and all because men will not learn nor obey those physical laws of the universe which (whether we be conscious of them or not) are all around us, like walls of iron and of adamant—say rather, like some vast machine, ruthless though beneficent, among the wheels of which, if we entangle ourselves in our rash ignorance, they will not stop to set us free, but crush us, as they have crushed whole nations and whole races ere now to powder. Very terrible, though very calm, is outraged Nature:

"Though the mills of God grind
Slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.
Though He sit, and wait with patience,
With exactness grinds He all."

It is, I believe, one of the most hopeful among the many hopeful signs of the times, that the civilized nations of Europe and America are awakening, slowly but surely, to this truth. The civilized world is learning, thank God, more and more of the importance of physical science; year by year, thank God, it is learning to live more and more according to the laws of physical science, which are, as the great Lord Bacon said of old, none other than "Vox Dei in rebus revelata"—the voice of God revealed in facts; and it is gaining, by so doing, year by year, more and more of health and wealth; of peaceful and comfortable, even of graceful and elevating, means of life for fresh millions.

If you want to know what the study of physical science has done for man, look, as a single instance, at the science of sanitary reform; the science which does not merely go to cure disease, and shut the stable-door after the horse is stolen, but tries to prevent disease; and, thank God, is succeeding beyond our highest expectations. Or look at the actual fresh amount of employment, of subsistence, which science has, during the last century, given to men, and judge for yourselves whether the study of it be not one worthy of those who wish to help themselves, and, in so doing, to help their fellow-men. Let me quote to you a passage from an essay urging the institution of schools of physical science for artisans, which says all which I wish to say and more:

"The discoveries of voltaic electricity, electro-magnetism, and magnetic electricity, by Volta, Oersted, and Faraday, led to the invention of electric telegraphy by Wheatstone and others, and to the great manufacturers of telegraph-cables and telegraph-wire, and of the materials required for them. The value of the cargo of the Great Eastern alone in the present Bombay telegraph expedition is calculated at three million pounds sterling. It also led to the employment of thousands of operators to transmit the telegraphic messages, and to a great increase of our commerce in nearly all its branches by the more rapid means of communication. The discovery of voltaic electricity further led to the invention of electro-plating, and to the employment of a large number of persons in that business. The numerous experimental researches on specific heat, latent heat, the tension of vapors, the properties of water, the mechanical effect of heat, etc., resulted in the development of steam-engines and railways, and the almost endless employments depending upon their construction and use. About a quarter of a million of persons are employed on railways alone in Great Britain. The various original investigations on the chemical effects of light led to the invention of photography, and have given employment to thousands of persons who practise that process, or manufacture and prepare the various material and articles required in it. The discovery of chlorine by Scheele led to the invention of the modern processes of bleaching, and to various improvements in the dyeing of the textile fabrics, and has given employment to a very large number of our Lancashire operatives. The discovery of chlorine has also contributed to the employment of thousands of printers, by enabling Esparto grass to be bleached and formed into paper for the use of our daily press. The numerous experimental investigations in relation to coal-gas have been the means of extending the use of that substance, and of increasing the employment of workmen and others connected with its manufacture. The discovery of the alkaline metals by Davy, of cyanide of potassium, of nickel, phosphorus, the common acids, and a multitude of other substances, has led to the employment of a whole army of workmen in the conversion of those substances into articles of utility. The foregoing examples might be greatly enlarged upon, and a great many others might be selected from the sciences of physics and chemistry: but those mentioned will suffice. There is not a force of Nature, nor scarcely a material substance that we employ, which has not been the subject of several, and in some cases of numerous, original experimental researches, many of which have resulted, in a greater or less degree, in increasing the employment for workmen and others."—(Nature, No. 25.)

Suppose that any one of you, learning a little sound natural history, should observe nothing but the hedgerow-plants, he would find that there is much more to be seen in those mere hedgerow-plants than he fancies now. The microscope will reveal to him in the tissues of any wood, of any seed, wonders which will first amuse him, then puzzle him, and at last (I hope) awe him, as he perceives that smallness of size interferes in no way with perfection of development, and that "Nature," as has been well said, "is greatest in that which is least." And more. Suppose that he went further still. Suppose that he extended his researches somewhat to those minuter vegetable forms, the mosses, fungi, lichens. Suppose that he went a little further still, and tried what the microscope would show him in any stagnant pool, whether fresh water or salt, of Desmidiæ, Diatoms, and all those wondrous atomies which seem as yet to defy our classification into plants or animals. Suppose he learned something of this, but nothing of aught else. Would he have gained no solid wisdom? He would be a stupider man than I have a right to believe any of you to be, if he had not gained thereby somewhat of the most valuable of treasures, namely, that scientific habit of mind which (as has been well said) is only common-sense well regulated, the art of seeing; the art of knowing what he sees; the art of comparing, of perceiving true likenesses and true differences, and so of classifying and arranging what he sees; the art of connecting facts together in his own mind, in chains of cause and effect; and that accurately, patiently, calmly, without prejudice, vanity, or temper. Accuracy, patience, freedom from prejudice, carelessness for all except the truth, whatever the truth may be—are not these virtues which it is worth any trouble to gain? Virtues, not merely of the intellect, but of the character; which, once gained, a man can apply to all subjects, and employ for the acquisition of all solid knowledge. And I know no study whatsoever more able to help a man to acquire that inductive habit of mind than natural history.

True, it may be acquired otherwise. The study of languages, for instance, when properly pursued, helps specially to form it, because words are facts, and the modern science of philology, which deals with them, has become now a thoroughly inductive, and therefore a trustworthy and a teaching science. But without that scientific temper of mind which judges calmly of facts, no good or lasting work will be done, whether in physical science, in social science, in politics, in philosophy, in philology, or in history.

Now, if this scientific habit of mind can be gained by other studies, why should I, as a clergyman, interest myself specially in the spread of physical science? Am I not going out of my proper sphere to meddle with secular matters? Am I not, indeed, going into a sphere out of which I had better keep myself, and all over whom I may have influence? For is not science antagonistic to religion? and, if so, what has a clergyman to do, save to warn the young against it, instead of attracting; them toward it?

First, as to meddling with secular matters. I grudge that epithet of secular to any matter whatsoever. But I do more; I deny it to any thing which God has made, even to the tiniest of insects, the most insignificant atom of dust. To those who believe in God, and try to see all things in God, the most minute natural phenomenon cannot be secular. It must be divine; I say, deliberately, divine; and I can use no less lofty word. The grain of dust is a thought of God; God's power made it; God's wisdom gave it whatsoever properties or qualities it may possess. God's providence has put it in the place where it is now, and has ordained that it should be in that place at that moment, by a train of causes and effects which reaches back to the very creation of the universe. The grain of dust can no more go from God's presence, or flee from God's Spirit, than you or I can do. If it go up to the physical heaven, and float (as it actually often does) far above the clouds, in those higher strata of the atmosphere which the aeronaut has never visited, whither the Alpine snow-peaks do not rise, even there it will be obeying physical laws which we hastily term laws of Nature, but which are really the laws of God; and if it go down into the physical abyss; if it be buried fathoms, miles, below the surface, and become an atom of some rock still in the process of consolidation, has it escaped from God, even in the bowels of the earth? Is it not there still obeying physical laws, of pressure, heat, crystallization, and so forth, which are laws of God—the will and mind of God concerning particles of matter? Only look at all created things in this light—look at them as what they are, the expressions of God's mind and will concerning this universe in which we live—"the voice of God," as Bacon says, "revealed in facts"—and then you will not fear physical science, for you will be sure that, the more you know of physical science, the more you will know of the works and of the will of God. At least, you will be in harmony with the teaching of the Psalmist. "The heavens," says he, "declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. There is neither speech nor language where their voices are not heard among them." So held the Psalmist concerning astronomy, the knowledge of the heavenly bodies; and what he says of sun and stars is true likewise of the flowers around our feet, of which the greatest Christian poet of modern times has said—

"To me the meanest flower that grows may give
Thoughts that do lie too deep for tears."

Abstract from Good Words.