Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/October 1878/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE SCIENTIFIC ASSOCIATIONS.

THE American and British Associations for the Advancement of Science have again assembled in their customary annual meetings, the former in St. Louis, and the latter in Dublin. The American meeting was not large, its location being unfavorable to draw people from remote distances in the heat of August. But a fair amount of work seems to have been done, as those who came were interested and active men in their several departments of science. The chief event of the session seems to have been, as it undoubtedly should be, the delivery of the presidential address. President Newcomb wisely chose a topic of general interest, and, moreover, did not hesitate to enter boldly upon the discussion of questions of a high philosophical character, and concerning which the mind of the age has by no means settled down into the repose of unanimity. He considers the scientific method of thinking, as contrasted with the theological method, and pictures the progress of scientific thought in clearing away the old theological interpretations of Nature, and giving us a new and truer view of the realities and method of the universe. The doctrine of teleology, of final causes, or ends to be secured in the economy of Nature is instructively discussed, and the influence of science in doing away with this mode of viewing the course of things is well pointed out. The addresses given before the subsections of the Association were meritorious on their several topics, and we are glad to see that Prof. Grote, in his address on "Education as a Succession of Experiences," went into the grounds of scientific education, and made a forcible appeal to the body to take a deeper interest in the work of diffusing science and bringing its influence to bear more directly upon the schools of the country in respect of their scientific teaching. He says:

"The demand has come up from teachers throughout the country that they should be better informed as to the manner in which the sciences may be introduced into the schools, and the matter to be taught. It is the duty of this Association to furnish such information. If we have not sympathized with this inquiry in the past, let us assist it in the future. It is quite evident that the sooner it commits itself, as a matter of principle, to the furtherance of science among the people, the more following it will have and the greater influence. The Association must be prepared to demand more time for scientific studies from the public school authorities, and it must show that education in this aspect of it is a matter that not only falls properly under its cognizance, but which it is also prepared to take hold of."

These are wise and weighty words, and we hope they will be heeded in conducting the future operations of this body.

The British Association had a large and successful meeting in Dublin, to one feature of which we desire to call attention, as worthy of imitation by the American society. The British Association admits members each year called "associates," which may consist of strangers, citizens, ladies, or anybody who wishes to join without any regard to scientific qualifications. They, of course, take no part in the business, and merely enter into social relations with the body for the time being, but they pay the same fees as regular members. Five hundred associates joined in Dublin, which not only gave fullness to the attendance, and increasing interest to the proceedings, but secured $2,500 to the treasury to aid in the various projects of the search which it is one of the aims of the organization to carry out. President Spottiswoode's address was an elaborate and excellent performance, treating first of the history, influence, and policy, of the Association with which he has long been connected as treasurer, and then taking up the subject of mathematics, which is the specialty he cultivates. His treatment of this subject is highly instructive, and at the present time most opportune. He not only presents very forcibly the general interest and claims of the subject, but he takes up certain curious aspects of it that have recently excited much curiosity and attention, and among these the perplexing topic of the fourth dimension of space. His address in full, together with that of Prof. Newcomb, will appear in the next issue of The Popular Science Monthly Supplement.

 

 
THE STUDY OF PROTOPLASM.

We print this month the third and last installment of an introductory essay on the nature and properties of protoplasm, by Dr. Montgomery. The author has made this subject a matter of observation, experiment, and profound reflection, for many years; and his views cannot fail to receive the critical attention of philosophical biologists. Dr. Montgomery is deeply impressed with the immense scientific importance of this comparatively new field of exploration, and we think he does not in the least exaggerate the serious interest of the questions opened by this line of study. Protoplasm is the physical basis of life, and its problems are the initial problems of life. Protoplasm is a living substance endowed with capacities of vital movement, and the question of the origin of life is narrowly and sharply a question of the origin and production of protoplasm. It may never be answered, and many think it would be a dreadful thing if it should be answered. All other mysteries of Nature, they hold, may be properly explored, but to explore and explain this is nothing short of stealing a divine secret. Yet if the mystery can never be cleared up, as they assure us, then surely there is no harm in probing it; while, if it can, the fact itself is proof that it ought to be done, and that no harm will result.

But, whatever may be the final event, Dr. Montgomery has at any rate put the issue in a nice little nutshell. There is a gulf between the organic and the inorganic worlds which we are impressively assured is broader than the Pacific, and can never be fathomed; Dr. Montgomery says that, by the chemical substitution of an atom of hydrogen for an atom of oxygen, it will disappear. He remarks:

"Is not protoplasm a chemical compound like other substances, merely varying from them in its degree of molecular complexity? Its most characteristic manifestation, its distinguishing mode of motion, its peculiar force—the one specific activity constituting its most vital difference—is better known to us than any quality which forms the distinguishing feature between other substances. Do we greatly concern ourselves about the origin of MgO,SO3 7H2O, or any other mineral substance? Why, then, should the origin of some combination of C, H, N, O, be made a question of the life and death of our principal philosophies? Has it actually come to this, that the scientific foundation of our creed rests on the decision whether COO is or was once changed into CHO by natural or supernatural means; and this when there is plenty of H about in our world? Yes, it is even so, however incredible, however little flattering to our intellectual pretensions. The contending claims of naturalism and supernaturalism, the fate of the most momentous question touching the guidance of our life, turn actually, in the field of science, upon the paltry issue of the synthesis of ternary carbon-compounds, whether this be chemically or whether it be super-chemically effected. COO is indisputably an inorganic compound. CHO is indisputably an organic compound. This designates accurately the actual depth of the gulf existing between organic and inorganic Nature."
 

 
YELLOW FEVER, AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT.

The rapid spread and appalling mortality of the yellow-fever plague in the towns of the Lower Mississippi have profoundly moved the sympathy of the country, and very naturally raised the urgent question as to what shall be done in so fearful an emergency. Governor Bishop, of Ohio, has made a proclamation, calling upon all the Christian people of his State to assemble in their houses of worship at a given date, and offer their united prayers to Almighty God, imploring him to interfere and stop the pestilence. It seems to us an entirely proper thing to appeal to religious feelings on such an occasion as this; but it should be done in such a way as not to evade the lessons they teach, and we trust it will not be thought ungracious if we point out Governor Bishop's presentation of the case as seriously at fault. Moreover, he brings science into the case in a way that is open to objection.

There are different views in regard to the expediency of such public action as Governor Bishop has taken. Many think it does more harm than good, but that depends entirely upon the way it influences human conduct. If reliance upon Divine help, which, it is supposed, can be especially secured by conspicuous demonstrations of public prayer, has the least effect in checking human effort, such action as that of Governor Bishop is injurious. Only when prayer quickens human exertion in such instances as this is it beneficial; if substituted for it, it is ill-judged and detrimental.

This is simply the dictate of commonsense, which enlightened rulers have already acted upon. It is well known that when the Scotch Presbyterians petitioned Lord Palmerston to appoint a day of national prayer, to induce the Almighty to stretch forth his hand and stop an epidemic, his lordship declined to do it, on the rational ground that, until the people had done everything in their power to prevent it, it would be impertinent to call upon Providence to interfere; in other words, they had no warrant to ask him to protect them from the consequences of their own neglect.

The Ohio governor does not proceed upon the sensible view of the British premier. He assumes the incompetency of science and the insufficiency of human effort, both of which he declares to be "unavailing" to arrest the plague; and, these agencies having failed, he proposes, as a last resort, to utilize "the intervention of Almighty God."

But it is not true that human science and human effort have proved unavailing. They have indeed not stopped the yellow fever, but does Governor Bishop assume that they have been thoroughly tried, and accomplished every thing that is humanly possible? But they have proved availing and greatly efficient in checking the pestilence and diminishing its fatality; and to deny this is to convict the whole nation of folly in the exertions it has put forth to limit the ravages and mitigate the sufferings of the plague-smitten districts. Yellow fever may not now be wholly preventable, but nobody denies that it is partially so; and nobody knows the degree to which it may be repressed and escaped until far more vigilant, efficient, and comprehensive measures of precaution are resorted to than have yet been undertaken.

But, besides basing his action upon a wrong theory, which is to invoke miraculous intervention, to obtain that which can only be procured by natural means, Governor Bishop's view is, besides, not in the highest sense reverential and religious. He instructs the pious people of his State to ask the Almighty to stop the devastating progress of the plague, as if that progress was not in perfect accordance with providential intentions. To ask the Deity to interfere in this way is to counsel him to reverse his own plans, and abandon that method of governing the world through the operation of inflexible laws which all truly religious people must regard as the Divine method. Ohio wisdom suggests to Divine Wisdom such a change of policy as, if carried out, would simply turn order into chaos. There may be many things about the providential government of the world that we cannot explain, but it is not difficult to see the large benignity of severe and inexorable punishment for violated laws. In nothing is the sacredness of these ordinances so attested as in the death-penalties that follow their transgression.

Governor Bishop arraigns human science and human effort as having failed to stop the progress of this scourge, and says that now the only hope is God's promise to answer prayer. But has not prayer—fervent, agonizing, soul-rending prayer—been already resorted to day and night in the private closet, and at the family altar, as well as in the places of public devotion, and that, too, all over the land? Yet the epidemic has not been stayed. Why did the governor not rank all this impassioned supplication with the other failures which he offers as reasons for his own intervention. And, if he has faith in the efficacy of a State-appointed appeal to Heaven, why did he postpone the demonstration for a week, when hundreds are dying daily?

We are far, as has been already said, from condemning the appeal to religious considerations and influences in an extremity like this, but it should be put on enlightened grounds, and become a means of incitement to nobler action. Prayer is efficacious just in proportion as it reacts upon the supplicant to inspire a higher activity, and in this way it may become a potent agency for moving men in great emergencies. This being the true point of view, in place of the proclamation issued by Governor Bishop, we should have preferred to see something like the following: "Whereas, a plague is desolating various Southern cities, which all means hitherto adopted have failed to arrest, let the devout people of Ohio gather in their several places of worship without delay, and, reverently recognizing the Divine wisdom in this fearful dispensation of suffering, humbly confess their sins of neglect and omission, their ignorance, carelessness, and culpable apathy in regard to all sanitary matters, and their want of quickened sympathy with the afflicted communities, and register solemn vows to Heaven that they will at once enlarge their measures of help to the devastated towns, and will in future be more vigilant and faithful in discharging the religious duty of guarding and promoting private and public health."

 

 
COOKERY AND EDUCATION.

We are getting familiar with the closer collocation of these hitherto widely-separated ideas, and their permanent unification in our common thought will constitute an important step of progress in domestic improvement and social amelioration. It will be slow work to connect cookery and education in this country, and attempts to bring about its practical accomplishment will meet with many impediments. Meantime we hail with satisfaction every indication that this desirable result is being attained anywhere. If our English friends are to be the pioneers in this most useful movement, let them have the honor of it. We notice that the following paragraph is going the rounds of the papers:

Regular instruction in practical cookery is a part of the new system in the public schools of London. In every girls' school in which domestic economy forms part of the school course, one of the teachers is required to give lessons on food and its preparation; and for advanced classes twenty one kitchens are to be established in different parts of London, each of them fitted with suitable appliances, and to be presided over by a practical teacher of cookery. This is a comparatively recent innovation, and has only been adopted after a sharp struggle."

Of course no such measure could be adopted except after severe struggle. The time in schools and the ground in education are all occupied, and new subjects are resisted instinctively by those in control of existing schools. The London advocates of the cooking-schools made a strong point by representing that, while the school board was spending a great deal of money for ornamental studies, the knowledge of the arts and interests of common life was dying out among young people. This does not imply that these practical arts have ever had a fair chance in the schools, but that absorption in other subjects stifles even the ordinary interest that would be felt in more useful studies. The difficulty in linking cooking-schools on to the common schools is, that the practice of cookery is not regarded as education, and this is but a part of the old notion that nothing practical or manipulatory is properly education. There was once the same objection to considering practice in the chemical laboratory as truly educational work. That prejudice has been gotten over now; but what is a kitchen but a chemical and physical laboratory where intelligence ought to be developed in connection with practical processes? Culinary changes go according to law as well as transformations of matter anywhere else, and they just as much require cultivated thought to guide them. No doubt a brainless automaton in a kitchen may by long practice and mere imitation acquire a certain successful facility in work, but this has always been the case in all the arts. Mind has come in play and the advancement of other arts to such an extent that to go back now to mere blind, imitative practice would be almost to abolish them. The art of preparing food is still in the empirical condition, and, what is worse, is generally abandoned to a specially ignorant class. We have no sanguine hopes about the renovation of the kitchen by the better teaching of the culinary art, but the work is nevertheless thoroughly begun, and is certainly to go steadily, though perhaps slowly, onward.