Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/January 1873/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



AN excellent article in the Tribune urges the need of more and better-educated observers to carry on the work of science. Prof. Agassiz is quoted as urging the establishment, in San Francisco, of a college for the training of skilled scientific observers. It is stated that the Signal-Service Bureau is engaged in training a large number of students in the use of instruments of observation, with a view to taking charge of signal-stations for the promotion of meteorological science. We publish an able and interesting paper on the claims of physical laboratories, in connection with institutions of learning, which shall afford the necessary opportunity of training in physical observation. Of the importance of this work the writer in the Tribune observes: "We think the day is coming when it will be generally recognized that careful scientific observation is the most valuable labor performed in the world." And regarding its delicacy and difficulty, he further observes:

"Of the nicety of observation which science requires, it is difficult to convey to the uninitiated any idea. A man who has never before looked through a telescope would not probably be able to see Biela's comet, upon whose vagaries hang so much speculation, if he gazed through any of the instruments by which the observations on it have been obtained. The best microscopists, in approaching the more difficult class of investigations, prepare their physical systems by fasting and rest, so that even their skilled eyesight may give a purer service. Already men are training themselves in certain specialties of observation, with reference to the few minutes of work they expect to perform, two years hence, at the transit of Venus."

Now all this is most true. Excepting that higher intellectual work by which, from the facts of observation, laws are arrived at, so that general principles can be substituted for ever-accumulating details, there is no labor performed in the world so valuable as that of careful scientific observation, and it is also true that its difficulty equals its importance.

But there is a vital consideration connected with the subject, which the writer seems to have overlooked: it is that the capacity of educated observation is just as necessary for people generally as for men of science. Facts bear the same relation to principles, in common life, that they do in the higher departments of technical science. The question is, at last, simply one of evidence: what is fact, and what is not fact? Imperfect observations vitiate reasoning, and lead to erroneous conclusions in the workshop, on the farm, in the counting-room, the church, and the legislative ball, just as much as in the laboratory or the observatory. The objects are different; the mental procedure is the same. But that which is a universal necessity should be provided for by universal means, and systematic training in observation should therefore be a recognized part of our common education. Even for purposes of the higher science, this truth is not to be neglected; for you can no more make first-class observers out of young men who first take up the business in college, than you can make first-class musicians by beginning with adults. Skill in doing the most important work in the world is not to be so cheaply and readily acquired. For the sake of science itself, training in observation should begin in childhood, and become an early mental habit. There are native aptitudes here as in all other departments of intellectual exertion; and only by beginning with the young can we find those whose natural bent is in this direction, and who, by early preparation and life-long discipline in this difficult field, can reach that standard of perfection which science now requires, and which it will continue more and more to exact. But when we take the larger view of the value of observational training, which regards it as nothing less than bringing the general mind into right relations with Nature, art, man, and all the objects and interests around us, of which we are compelled to form judgments, the claims of special science are at once subordinated to the grander requirements of humanity. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that science is itself to be so widened and enlarged as to take control of this fundamental work of education. Until scientific education recognizes this as its first and great task, it will assuredly fall short of its highest duty.


One of the greatest personalities of our country has just passed away. We have little to add to the strain of eulogy that has been heard in all parts of the land, concerning the life and character of the late Mr. Greeley. That he has filled a large space in public attention for the past generation, is of little moment; that he has exerted an extensive influence for good upon the American people during that long period, entitles his name to be written high in the rolls of public honor. He is to be gratefully remembered, not because of his large capacities and extensive influence, but because he used his powers in the best service of his fellowmen. He ever worked in the direction of social amelioration and public improvement. Believing in the power of ideas, the value of knowledge, and the vital need of general education, and that the progress of society is an internal constructive work of its citizens, depending upon virtue, industry, and intelligence, he established a journal dedicated to these objects, and developed it into a great and powerful institution for moulding the public mind, and elevating the public character. For thousands of families scattered all over this land, the newspaper founded by Mr. Greeley has played the part of a people's university—arousing and stimulating multitudes of the young to enter upon the work of self-improvement, or to seek instruction in academies, high-schools, or colleges. Of all this it is superfluous to speak, as its living witnesses may be everywhere met, while the public press has done full justice to the magnitude and salutary influence of Mr. Greeley's work. But, there is one point in regard to his mental character upon which a few words may not be here out of place. Mr. Greeley made the most of his opportunities of self-education. He read widely in critical literature, and attained a mastership of his own language which but few of the largest opportunities of culture have equalled. It has been customary, with many, to lament that Mr. Greeley was without the advantages of a regular collegiate course of study. But he was never much troubled by this alleged deficiency. He saw too much of the influence of our colleges in turning out waste acquisitions, unavailable faculty, and capacities unadapted to the times, to regret very deeply that he had not been exposed to the same peril. This has been often attributed to the ignorant egotism of the self-made man, but, we think, very erroneously; for Mr. Greeley did have his profound regrets at his own mental shortcomings and defective culture. He deplored the circumstances of his early life, which gave him no chance to acquire the rudiments of science. We have often heard him express deep and painful regret that there was no one to guide his childhood in the direction of observing and studying the familiar phenomena of Nature. He keenly felt that his life had been made less enjoyable to himself and less valuable to the public for want of that early cultivation of the observing powers by natural objects, of which we have just been speaking, as the great defect of our common education. He knew nothing of science, but he never despised it, as is too common with the devotees of literature and politics, who are generally ignorant of it; and he was always strong in his condemnation of our educational system, because of its culpable neglect of scientific studies. He was emphatic in insisting that the study of natural things should be commenced in childhood, so as to maintain a place in after-development, for he saw how difficult it is, when the mind becomes engrossed with other knowledge, to give proper attention to the study of science. Mr. Greeley's love of Nature was a profound and genuine feeling, and his interest in rural affairs was very far from being an affectation. All who are familiar with the course of the Tribune in its early days will remember the prominence given to science in its columns—the copious illustrated reports of the lectures of Lardner and Agassiz, and the fulness and ability of its treatment of scientific agriculture. Had it not been for the all disturbing influence of the antislavery convulsions which distracted the country for twenty years, this early policy of the Tribune would undoubtedly have been carried out in a systematic way, and with the most salutary public results. If Mr. Greeley did not understand science, and was therefore unable to assist in its direct development, he, nevertheless, appreciated the noble part it is to play in the world's affairs, and the great service the press can render in promoting it; and, in the card announcing his return to the editorial control of the Tribune, he stated that this would be among the great objects to which he proposed to dedicate the remainder of his life. It is to be hoped that the managers of that journal will share in the discernment of its founder, and, as its history is indissolubly linked with the diffusion of ideas among the American people, that they will see to it that its future shall, in this respect, be worthy of its past.


In the same ship came two wise men from the East, at the urgent solicitation of our people, to instruct them by public lectures. But it turns out that there are different kinds of wisdom, and our illustrious teachers represent very diverse sorts of it. Prof. Tyndall accepts, as the problem of his life-study, the universe as it is. By the help of all that has been hitherto revealed concerning the order and harmony of Nature, he engages with the living phenomena of the world as it exists around us, and is accessible to all. To understand the present on-goings of the universe, the course and polity of Nature, and the living laws by what we are all enmeshed, is his supreme and immediate task. Not what men have thought in past times, nor what they may happen to think now, but what can be demonstrated, and what all can actually know to be true, is his great concern. Asking no man to take his bare word, he shows us facts that can be recognized, principles that can be proved, laws that can be verified, truths that can no more be resisted than the physical forces themselves. He speaks to us of the order of Nature in its latest and grandest interpretations, and with such force of proof that his crowded listeners are convinced, and assent to his utterances as one man. Multitudes in our leading cities have heard him with eager attention; but there has not been a ripple of criticism or dissent even sufficient to indicate his presence among us. This results from the quality of the knowledge he imparts, which is science, or knowledge that can be shown to be true. It is felt that so much, at all events, is gained. So far we can all agree.

The question now arises, How far can this platform of solid and irresistible truth be widened? The discovery and organization of this certain knowledge have been the work of the past three centuries, and its further expansion is the great work of the present time. Is it to be equally the task of the future, and is science indefinitely progressive? Is law universal and ascertainable, and are we to go on creating new knowledge of this kind, and reconstructing the older knowledges, until they shall take on the form and character of science? Or, are there limits, and have we reached them? The question, as all must see, is simply one of the extent of the order of natural law, for, wherever there are method and law, there is possibility of science. Prof. Tyndall represents, first of all, our sure ground of knowledge and then its certain and safe extension.

Mr. Froude, on the other hand, represents opposite ideas and modes of thought. He deals with the past rather than the present—with human events in their variable, obscure, and uncertain course, rather than with that side of the world in which law and order can be clearly shown. He represents the debatable and unsettled in human affairs, and that which will be forever debated, and can never be settled. Hence, no sooner does he open his mouth, than dispute arises, and a hubbub of contradiction and contention has followed him whithersoever he has gone. Mr. Froude gives lessons in what he calls "history," but his teachings do not enforce assent. At this we cannot complain, for he himself believes that there is neither law, order, nor science in his chosen field of labor. He belongs to the antiquated, historical school, which was in the ascendant long before science arose, and is contented to delve in the rubbish of the past, with no guiding light from principles that science has disclosed, and which even scouts all possibility of such guidance. Mr. Froude gave a lecture upon this subject before the Royal Institution, in 1864, attacking the views of those who hold that there is such a thing as a science of history and of social polity, which, although still in an indefinite stage, is yet as certain in the future as the progress of knowledge itself. The reader, who will turn to the June number of the Monthly, will find a convincing refutation, by Herbert Spencer, of Mr. Froude's position; and, as the subject is just now one of public interest, we reproduce some passages from an able lecture of Mr. John Fiske, of Cambridge, upon the same subject:

"Mr. Froude begins by dogmatically denying that there is or can be such a thing as a science of history. There is something incongruous, he says, in the very connection of the two words. 'It is as if we were to talk of the color of sound, or the longitude of the rule of three.' But he carries on the thought in a way that shows plainly his reluctance to grapple fairly with the problem. In his next sentence he says: ’Where it is so difficult to make out the truth on the commonest disputed facts in matters passing under our very eyes, how can we talk of a science in things long past, which come to us only through books?' Now, to reason like this is merely to shrink from the encounter. For the question is, not whether the science is difficult, but whether it is possible. Mr. Froude sets out to show that there can be no such science, and his first bit of proof is that, if there is such a science, it must be far more difficult than any other; a position which we may contentedly grant. Let us follow him a step further. 'It often seems to me as if history were like a child's box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.' And what does all this amount to? Is this Mr. Froude's idea of

historical investigation? Why, the same thing may be done in any science. We have only to pick out all the facts on one side, and blink all the facts on the other side, to prove the veracity of every oracle, soothsayer, and clairvoyant, that ever existed, the validity of every paltry omen, the credibility of every crazy notion of alchemy or judicial astrology. In this way we may prove that the homœopathist always saves his patient, while the allopathist always kills him; or vice versa. And it was in this way that the phrenologists erected their pseudo-science. It is in this way that every charlatanry, as well as every incorrect or inadequate hypothesis in physical or mental science, has arisen and gained temporary recognition. Mr. Froude ought to know that, in history as in every thing else, our only road to a safe conclusion lies through the impartial examination of all relevant facts. Supposing Tycho Brahe had said to his Copernican antagonists: 'Astronomy is like a child's box of letters; if we take out what we want and let the rest go, we can spell whatever we please; I spell out the Ptolemaic theory, and will therefore abide by it;' he would have been talking much after the manner of Mr. Froude. It is true, as Mr. Froude says, that one philosopher believes in progress, a second in retrogression, and a third, like Vico, in ever-recurring cycles. But is this because the facts are undecipherable, or because the investigation is one-sided? Because Prof. Agassiz believes species to be fixed, while the majority of naturalists believe them to be transmutable, are we to infer that there is no science of biology? In such unworthy plight does Mr. Froude retreat before the problem he has encountered. He starts to show us that a science of history is as ridiculous an impossibility as a scarlet B flat or a westerly proportion, and he ends by mildly observing that history is a difficult subject, in which a series of partial examinations may bring forth contradictory conclusions!

"The next bit of inference concerns us more intimately: 'Will a time ever be when the lost secret of the foundation of Rome can be recovered by historic laws? If not, where is our science?' Just where it was before. The science of history has nothing to do with dates, except to take them, so far as they can be determined, from the hands of historical criticism. They are its data, not its conclusions. As Mr. Morley reminds us, we do not dispute the possibility of a science of meteorology, because such a science cannot tell us whether it was a dry day or a wet day at Jericho two thousand years ago. Facts like these show us that sciences dealing with phenomena, which are the products of many and complex factors, cannot hope to attain that minute precision which is attained by sciences dealing with phenomena which are the products of few and simple factors. They show that sociology cannot, like astronomy, be brought under the control of mathematical deduction. But it was not necessary for Mr. Froude to write an essay to prove that.

"But, continues Mr. Froude, 'can you imagine a science which would have foretold such movements as' Mohammedanism, or Christianity, or Buddhism? To the question as thus presented, we must answer, certainly not. Neither can any man foretell any such movement as the typhoid fever which six months hence is to strike him down. If the latter case does not prove that there are no physiologic laws, neither does the former prove that there are no laws of history. In both instances the antecedents of the phenomenon are irresistibly working out their results; though, in both cases, they are so complicated that no human skill can accurately anticipate their course. But to a different presentment of Mr. Froude's question we might return a different answer. There is a sense in which movements like Mohammedanism and Buddhism, or Christianity, could not have been predicted, and there is a sense in which they could have been. What could not have been predicted was the peculiar character impressed upon these movements by the gigantic personalities of such men as Mohammed and Omar, Sakyamuni, Jesus, and Paul. What could have been predicted was the general character and direction of the movements. For example, as I shall show in a future lecture, Christianity as a universal religion was not possible until Rome had united in a single commonwealth the progressive nations of the world. And, when Rome had accomplished this task, it might well have been predicted that before long a religion would arise which should substitute monotheism for polytheism, proclaiming the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of men. I admit that such a prediction could have been made only by a person familiar with scientific modes of thought not then in existence; but, could such a person have been present to contemplate the phenomena, he might have foreseen such a revolution in its main features, as being an inevitable result of the interaction of Jewish,

Hellenic, and Roman ideas. I am inclined to think he might have foreseen that it would arise in Palestine, that its spread would he confined to the area covered by Roman civilization, and that its work would be most thorough in the most thoroughly Romanized regions.

"I would not, however, insist upon this point; nor is it necessary to do so. In none of the concrete sciences is there any thing like thorough and systematic prevision, save in astronomy; and even in astronomy our foresight becomes precarious as soon as we pass beyond the solar system and begin to inquire into the mutual gravitation of the innumerable stellar bodies. We know that our sun is rushing with immense velocity toward the constellation Hercules; but we cannot yet trace his orbit as Kepler traced the orbit of Mars. When we come to biology and psychology, the power of accurate prevision is very small; yet no one denies that the phenomena of life and intelligence conform to fixed and ascertainable laws. In sociology we must expect to find still less ability to predict. The truth is, as Comte acutely pointed out, that while in the simpler sciences our object is gained if we can foretell the course of phenomena so as to be able to regulate our actions by it, in the more complex sciences our object is gained when we have generalized the conditions under which phenomena occur so as to be able to make our volitions count for something in modifying them. We cannot modify astronomic phenomena, but we can predict them. We cannot predict, save to a limited extent, biologic phenomena; but, knowing more and more thoroughly the conditions under which they occur, we can more and more skilfully modify them so as to insure health or overcome disease. And obviously even this limited ability to modify the phenomena implies a certain amount of prevision, enough to justify us in asserting that the phenomena conform to law. The case is similar in sociology. Though we may not be able definitely to predict a given political revolution, we may, nevertheless, understand the general movement of affairs, and the effects which certain kinds of legislation are likely to produce, so as to hasten a desired result or avert social mischief. Upon this possibility are based all our methods of government and of education. And, as in biology, this ability to modify the phenomena proves that the phenomena occur in some fixed order of sequence. For, where there is no definite order of sequence among phenomena, we can neither predict nor modify them; and, where there is a definite order of sequence, there is, or may be, a science.

"Now, in denying that there is or can be a science of history, Mr. Froude, if he means any thing, means that social affairs have no fixed order of sequence, but are the sport of chance. Either Law or Chance—these are the only alternatives, unless we have recourse, like the Mussulman, to Destiny, an illegitimate third idea, made up of the other two, misconceived and mutilated in order to fit together. But for the modern thinker there is no middle course. It is either symmetry or confusion, law or chance, and between the two antagonist conceptions there can be no compromise. If the law of causation is universal, we must accept the theory of law. If it has ever, in any one instance, been violated, we may be excused for taking up with the theory of chance. Now, we know that all the vast bodies in this sidereal universe move on for untold ages in their orbits in strict conformity to law. In conformity to law the solar system in all its complexity has grown out of a homogeneous nebula; and the crust of the cooling earth has condensed into a rigid surface fit for the maintenance of organic life. Out of plastic materials furnished by the surface, and the air and moisture by which it is enveloped, organic life has arisen and been multiplied in countless differing forms, all in accordance with law. Of this aggregate of organic existence, man, the most complex and perfect type, lives and moves and has his being in strict conformity to law. His periods of activity and repose are limited by cosmic rotations. His achievements, physical and mental, are determined by the rate of his nutrition, and by the molecular structure and relative weight of the nervous matter contained in him. His very thoughts must chase each other along definite paths and contiguous channels marked out by the laws of association. Throughout these various phenomena, already generalized for us by astronomers, geologists, biologists, and psychologists, we know that neither at any time nor in any place is law interfered with—that yesterday, to-day, and forever, the effect follows the cause with inevitable and inexorable certainty. And yet we are asked to believe that in one particular corner of the universe, upon the surface of our little planet, in a portion of the organism of one particular creature, there is one special phenomenon, called volition, in which the law of causation ceases to operate, and every thing goes helter-skelter!"