Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/January 1881/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES.

THIS body held its November session in New York, and its meetings at Columbia College. In the absence of President William B. Rogers, Vice-President O. C. Marsh filled his chair. The proceedings were in a high degree interesting. It is commonly supposed that the disquisitions of this body belong to depths of profundity that are wholly unapproachable by ordinarily endowed mortals, but this is a quite erroneous view. There are often, to be sure, technical and mathematical papers intelligible only to those proficient in these subjects; but the principal topics considered at the recent meeting were not only of general interest, but they were so treated that well-instructed people could appreciate and enjoy them. The Academy, however, never bids for a crowd, and if there should be an influx of outsiders it would be immediately inferred that there is something wrong in the working of the association. Of the hundred members, thirty or forty usually get together at the meetings and devote themselves to reporting the results of research, and to the discussion of views presented. There are set papers, of course, but exposition is largely extemporaneous, and accompanied with blackboard and other illustrations.

The newspapers have given to the public notices of the main results of the late meeting, all of which will be more fully published in the "Transactions" of the Academy, or in the scientific periodicals. Among the novel and striking things brought forward was a new method of chemical analysis, by Dr. Wolcott Gibbs; Professor Rood's experiments in perfecting the vacuum; Professor Langley's researches into the distribution of heat in the spectrum, and his new method of measuring infinitesimal amounts of heat; Professor Henry Draper's photographs of the Orion nebula; and Professor Marsh's account of a fossil animal with an extra brain at the other end of the spinal column. The progress of the electric light was also critically discussed, and various other important subjects were duly considered. In short, if our friends the Academicians will pardon us, their meeting was a "complete success."

 

 
THE STUDY OF GREEK AT CAMBRIDGE.

We drew attention, a year or two ago, to a movement in England, led by several head-masters of the public schools and other eminent gentlemen interested in education, to secure a relaxation in the university requirements regarding the study of Latin and Greek. The study of Greek was compulsory, and insisted upon as if it were the sole condition of turning out an educated man. A petition was sent to the authorities of Cambridge, asking that it be omitted if the student desired to take in its place a modern language. It was remarked that students entering the university "may be the peers of Airy and Adams in pure mathematics, of Tyndall and Huxley in natural science, of a Whewell and a Hamilton in moral science, but they must be able to read a play of Euripides and the Greek Testament, or Cambridge will not have them among its graduates." This state of things was such as to provoke decided protest on the part of liberal-minded men, and hence the public controversy upon the subject, and the petition that forced the issue upon the Cambridge authorities. A late number of the "Lancet" reports progress on the question in the following paragraph: "A discussion took place in the Arts Schools at Cambridge on Tuesday, October 26th, on the report of an influential syndicate, which had been appointed to consider a memorial sent by schoolmasters and teachers, including the head-masters of Eaton, Winchester, Westminster, St, Paul's, Harrow, and Rugby—Matthew Arnold, C. Darwin, Sir J. Hooker, Professor Huxley, Professor Tyndall, Dr. Vaughan, and the Bishops of Exeter and Winchester. The memorial stated that 'the present regulations, according to which a knowledge of Greek is required from all candidates for the Previous Examination at Cambridge, have the effect of excluding a large and increasing number of able and deserving students from the benefits of university education,' and it respectfully prayed that the university would be pleased to take into consideration some means whereby candidates for an honor degree may be relieved from the obligation of passing an examination in Greek. After much deliberation and inquiry, the syndicate reported—1. In favor of the relaxation of the requirements of Greek in some cases; 2. That the relaxation should be restricted to candidates for honors; 3. That a knowledge of French and German should be accepted as a substitute for Greek."

But it seems that this reasonable report of the syndicate was not finally adopted. We learn from the London "Spectator" that the senate of the university decided against the petitioners by one hundred and eighty-five votes against one hundred and forty-five. The "Spectator" discusses this result in a way that is suggestive. It regrets the Cambridge decision, not from want of appreciation of Greek, but because the language is so poorly taught in the university. It declares that it heartily concurs in the following estimate of this study: "It is said that a knowledge of Greek is the only door of access to a certain plane of culture which contains more of the seeds of free life and intellectual energy than all the rest of the intellectual discipline of our schools put together. The genius of the Greek language and literature, it is said, is the genius of freedom. The genius of the Latin language is the genius of authority and law. We believe there is a great deal of truth in this view."

But no such ideal is realized in practice, and the actual results are thus stated: "The fact, no doubt, is that in the present embarrassing wealth of disciplinary studies a great many men, with a real gift for mathematics and physical science, and whose education at the university, so far as it is of any value at all, is carried through in the sphere of mathematics or physical science, take up Greek for the Previous Examination in the most perfunctory way, never attain even a rudimentary mastery of the language or the literature, and even lose something in the thoroughness of their early studies, by entering on a subject which they intend to drop as soon as ever it has answered their temporary purpose. Now, for such as these, the compulsory cramming of a little Greek—enough to enable them, perhaps, to construe decently a little New Testament or a little bit of the 'Anabasis' of Xenophon, after they have been carefully prepared by a tutor—is of no kind of good, and yet takes the place of an acquisition which might be of very real use to them in the career they actually propose to themselves." Again: "The real reason for regretting the decision of the University of Cambridge is the tendency of modern education toward superficiality. Whatever can be done to prevent subjects being taken up which are never to be pursued, and which are never so far followed out that they give those who have entered upon them a new sense of power, should be done. Whatever any university can do to encourage the bona fide study of Greek, it ought to do. There is no study so cultivating; there are few studies so humanizing; there are not very many studies so ennobling. But just for this reason we think but little of it as a mere whetstone for the understanding of boys; and think a very great deal, on the other hand, of the vast importance of not forcing on any one the necessity for a fragmentary acquisition which is to form no part of his future studies. Whatever else is necessary nowadays, this is most necessary—to prevent that dispersion of the mind over a hundred unconnected morsels of half-knowledge, to which the enormous multiplication of intellectual interests too much tends."

With this demand for thoroughness of study we entirely agree; and it favors the conclusion that of the multitude of subjects undertaken some must be cut off. We say, let those go that are demonstrated and acknowledged failures. The "Spectators" complaint that Greek is superficially crammed at Cambridge, is but a fresh example of the lamentations of thoughtful men over the same result at the universities for two hundred years. It is not that modern science crowds classical studies so that there is not sufficient time. John Milton made exactly the same complaint when the dead languages and their literatures were almost the exclusive objects of university study, and there was no such thing as the rivalry of scientific studies.

When we consider the force of tradition in a conservative country like England, it is not to be expected that reforms in these rich old universities will move very fast; yet the majority for retaining the customary Greek was not large. Common sense makes headway, but the surprising thing is that the old extravagant claims for this study should still be urged. The "Spectator" affirms Greek to be the most cultivating of all studies, and among the very highest for its humanizing and ennobling influences. The authority of the "Spectator" is outweighed by those who declare that the influence of classical studies is of a very different character. Dr. Whewell characterized it as "narrow and enfeebling"; Macaulay says they have "a tendency to contract the views and deaden the sensibility"; and Sydney Smith speaks of the effect of classical learning as an "elegant imbecility." Certainly that can not be an eminently "cultivating" study which leaves whole important tracts of our mental nature uncultivated; nor can that be the most "humanizing" of studies which puts an ancient fraction of the human race, to be approached only through a dead language, in place of living humanity itself. And are we to regard that study as especially "ennobling" which knows nothing of the conquests, aspirations, and encouragements of the knowledge and life of the present time?

 

 
THE STUDY OF SEWERAGE IN LONDON.

The current standards of study and valuations of knowledge are factitious and false. Greek is not so ennobling a study as that of sewerage. To trace out the obscure laws of our own and of surrounding nature, so as to get command of natural agencies for beneficent ends, is the noblest object of study. If life be greater than any of its accidents, what study is so exalted as that which teaches how to save it, to improve it, and to perfect it? When diphtheria makes its dread appearance, and the priceless lives of beloved children are in mortal peril, then comes, with startling emphasis, the true answer to the question, "What knowledge is of most worth?"—it is the knowledge that leads to self-preservation. There is such a thing as life-saving knowledge, but it is not of the classical sort, nor that which is most prized in colleges, even in these later times. It is scientific knowledge that teaches how life is to be protected and prolonged, disease prevented, health heightened, and human existence made more valuable. While at Cambridge they have been assiduous in conserving the more worthless kinds of knowledge and preventing thoroughness in any, in London men have been voluntarily combining to secure the more thorough application of scientific methods to household sanitation. Great multitudes die from unhealthy habitations. Their dwellings are poisoned by noxious emanations that give rise both to slow undermining maladies and to swift malignant diseases. Prominent among these destructive contaminations is sewer-gas, and science has at length grappled with the problem of getting effectually rid of it. It was at first supposed to be an easy task. "Traps" were interposed to prevent the refluence of sewage exhalations, and all was supposed to be well. But disease and death were still rife, and further investigation showed the inefficacy of the mechanical arrangements, and. that "foul gases will pass steadily, continuously, and certainly through water in traps." Yet it can not be for a moment doubted that it is possible to obtain absolute protection in dwellings against sewer-air. The difficulty is to get the ignorant classes (including the educated) to give that serious attention to the subject which its gravity demands. The work must be done by the comparatively few who have mastered the science of the question.

Much has been accomplished by such men in this country as well as abroad. But we observe that they are organizing in London for the most effectual prosecution of this important work. A Sanitary Assurance Association has been formed under the presidency of an eminent physician, Sir Joseph Fayrer, the design of which is to unite the professions of medicine and architecture to secure the thorough supervision of sanitary arrangements and drainage in the houses of the metropolis. It seems not to be a movement of evasion by getting up a cry for more "government inspection," but a voluntary association of qualified men who are ready to meet the responsibilities of the task they undertake. Assuming that defective drainage is a "great enemy to public health," and that "there is a terrible absence of all supervision of sanitary arrangements," the Sanitary Assurance Association will make a careful investigation of the health-conditions of houses, and give certificates to those that are in perfect sanitary order. This will be of most important service to the public, because people generally are incompetent to determine what houses are healthy and what are unhealthy. The names of the men who are foremost in this movement are a guarantee that it will be well directed, and, if it achieves the success that it promises, kindred associations will spring up in many other places. A writer, giving a notice of this organization in "Nature," remarks: "It is surely as necessary to be assured against preventable diseases as it is to be assured against fire, and we see from the preliminary prospectus issued that it is intended to give persons who place their houses on the Assurance Register certificates that their houses are in a satisfactory sanitary condition, and to endorse such certificates from time to time; this latter point is of great importance, as it is only by regular inspection at stated intervals that it is possible to ascertain that all continues to work satisfactorily."

 

 
A FIELD-NATURALISTS' CLUB.

We have been much gratified in looking over a modest pamphlet of sixty-two pages that has been sent to us, bearing the title of "Transactions No. 1 of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club." Several young men of that Canadian city, interested in the subject, discussed for a year or two the possibility of starting a society devoted to the investigation of the natural history of the vicinity, and, having resolved to try it, they issued a few circulars, called a meeting, which was attended by some forty gentlemen, drew up a few rules, and established the association. The object is so praiseworthy, and the plan so well worth imitating in other places, that some account of the operations of this club may prove acceptable to many readers.

The club was organized by the appointment of a President, two Vice Presidents, a Secretary-Treasurer, and a committee of five other members, all of whom are to constitute a Council of Management. Ladies and gentlemen desiring to join the club may become members by paying a fee of fifty cents a year. The club secures its objects by means of excursions in the summer for making observations and collecting specimens; and by holding evening meetings and soirées in the winter for reading papers, discussion, and exhibition, and the display and comparison of natural history objects, the general direction of these proceedings being vested in the Council.

The Council reports at the end of the first year that the work has gone on satisfactorily so as to afford every encouragement for continuing it. Large numbers, of course, do not take to such projects as this; and of those who do, or who join with entire good will, only a small portion have interest enough in the objects to be attained to discharge well the duties of membership. This is always to be counted upon in such undertakings, and should wisely moderate the expectations of the more sanguine. We are informed that the Council met twenty times during the year for the transaction of business, at irregular intervals, as occasion required; and at these meetings there was an average attendance of nearly seven out of nine of the Councilors. This certainly shows well, but the officers were of course picked for their interest in the work. The members were less dutiful. There were five excursions in the course of the summer to attractive points in the vicinity of Ottawa, but only a small part of the members accompanied them. This indifference is thus referred to in the annual report: "The Council feel compelled to express their regret that, although these excursions were to the most interesting places in the neighborhood, and the price of tickets put so low that three of them did not pay expenses, so few of the members thought them worth attending. It does not say much for the interest the members take in the club's work, that, with a membership of over eighty, the average attendance at the excursions should be only thirty, fully one third of whom were visitors; and they hope that during the coming season the excursions will be better supported by the members of the club."

But if the members did not care to go on the summer expeditions, they were less remiss when it came to the winter meetings. The winter course of soirées and conversaziones was successful in every respect. There was a well-sustained attendance, and the papers read were not only of considerable range but also of serious scientific interest. They were on the following subjects: 1. "Inaugural Address," on the pleasure of understanding common objects; 2. "Graphite of the Ottawa Valley"; 3. "On the Forms and Structures of some Spongillæ found in the Ottawa"; 4. "The Connection of Botany with Mythology"; 5. "Cystidian Life"; 6. "Museum Education"; 7. "On the Contractility of the Spores of Palmella Hyalina"; 8. "Asbestos"; 9. "A Practical Demonstration of the Human Brain"; 10. "Design in Nature"; 11. "Land and Fresh-water Shells of the Ottawa Valley"; 12."On some Insects captured at our Excursions"; 13. "On some Plants collected during our Excursions." Abstracts of these papers are given in the "Transactions," and they are of a very instructive character.

If we had space we would print the whole of the admirable "Inaugural Address," by Mr. James Fletcher, who happily remarks in his opening: "One of the chief benefits bestowed by an organization such as ours, is, that it enables one always to know where to find a sympathetic companion. Of all recreations, there is none, to my mind, more enjoyable than a walk in the country with a congenial friend. No kind of intercourse brings you into closer contact with a companion than taking a walk. You can not take ten steps, even with a stranger, without feeling a necessity of saying something, and, if there is anything in a man, you can soon bring it out of him in a country walk. Now, it is very clear that a judicious choice with regard to your companion is a most important matter; but it is not always easy to find one who has the same tastes or takes an interest in the same subjects as yourself. John Burroughs, in 'Winter Sunshine,' writes as follows: 'Professional walkers are very fastidious in choosing or admitting a companion, and hence the truth of a remark of Emerson that "you will generally fare better to take your dog than to invite your neighbor." Your cur dog is a true pedestrian; he enters into the spirit of the enterprise; he is not indifferent or preoccupied; he is constantly sniffing adventure; laps at every spring; looks upon every field or wood as a new world to be explored; is ever on some new trail; knows something important will happen a little farther on; whatever the spot, or whatever the road, he is always satisfied with it. In short, he is just that happy excursive vagabond that touches one at so many points, and whose human prototype in a companion, when such can be found, robs miles and leagues of half their power and fatigue.'

"The most interesting companion in anything is undoubtedly the one who can tell you most about it. Therefore, the best companion in the country must be a naturalist, who can point out objects of interest and explain their beauties and wonders. No one looks upon the world so kindly as he does; no one else gives so much attention to, or takes so much enjoyment from, the country as he does, and he holds a more vital relation to nature, because he is freer, and his mind is more at leisure. Moreover, when a naturalist gets a friend, who is not one, out in the country, he feels a sort of moral responsibility resting upon him to find something particularly interesting to point out, so as to arouse his curiosity, and, if possible, to convert him to the study of 'La Belle Science.' I say particularly interesting, because everything in nature is interesting and beautiful; and I defy any one to bring me a single object, picked up by a country roadside, which is not beautiful, and even exquisitely so—a stick, a piece of straw, a leaf, or a stone, it matters not what, if properly examined and understood, they are all wonderful and lovely."

As before remarked, we refer to the early experience of this club because it may afford guiding suggestions for the formation of similar associations elsewhere. In smaller towns there might not be found so many men cultivated in natural history to sustain such a society as in Ottawa, but that is not essential. In every village of five thousand inhabitants there is cultivated capacity enough, if it were combined, to carry on with some method and to valuable results the work of scientific self-improvement. It may be done to some extent anywhere, in many ways and with few facilities. All over the country there are individuals working alone and to great disadvantage; these would help others and be helped in turn by such combination and coöperation as might be almost everywhere practicable. The high-school of every town ought to be the headquarters of a Field-Naturalists' Club that shall have for its object to study the natural history of the locality.

 

 
PHYSICAL EDUCATION.

It has not been our habit in this Monthly to make much parade about what we are going to do, being quite content with plain statements of what we are doing. In this spirit we ask attention to an important series of articles now begun on the subject of "Physical Education," and which may be expected to continue through the year. Dr. Oswald is widely known to the American public as a vigorous, thoroughly-informed thinker, and one of the most racy, incisive, and brilliant writers of the period. He will treat the subject from an original and especially modern point of view. It is a suggestive circumstance that in all modern languages the terms corresponding to what we call physical culture have acquired a specific meaning, being applied nearly exclusively to gymnastics and calisthenics as a branch of practical education. Yet the advocates of physical training in this limited sense were the first to take issue with the educational methods of the mediæval system—of the anti-natural school, as it has been justly termed, since its exponents ignored the physical interests of man as persistently as they denied his right to temporal happiness. The founders of the Turn-bund, like their Grecian prototypes, held that our highest physical and our highest moral well-being can only be conjointly attained; that health is the principal condition of happiness, and the normal condition of all whose mode of life is not grossly at variance with the simple laws which Nature proclaims in the unmistakable language of our instincts.

These principles Dr. Oswald has applied to the science of Physical Education in the widest sense of the word. The serial will comprise an exposition of "Dietetics," the first installment of which is herewith issued, to be followed by chapters on "Indoor Life," "Out-door Life," "Gymnastics," "Hereditary Influences," "Clothing," "Remedial Education," etc.

Dr. Oswald has studied the social conditions and sanitary habits of many communities, having traveled in Mexico, South America, and Southern Europe, so that his articles will be enriched with the results of wide and careful personal observation; and it will be found that the author has solved the problem of making a scientific work as attractive to the most fastidious amateur of belles-lettres as to the scientific reader and the public in general.