Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/April 1883/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



SINCE our last issue the new weekly, "Science," an American journal, much on the plan of "Nature," has made its appearance at Cambridge. We had been much interested in the previous announcements of the project. The cultivators of science in this country are certainly sufficiently numerous to maintain an organ by which they can promptly communicate with each other and with the world on those multifarious results of investigation for which there have hitherto been but very inadequate means. The want of such a periodical has been long and urgently felt, and attempts have before been made to meet it, though not with success. Two things are required to put such an enterprise upon a satisfactory basis—the general and hearty support of scientific men, and capital enough for all the preliminary needs of the undertaking. "Science" has secured both. That it has the abundant confidence and co-operation of American scientific men in all departments of inquiry is attested by the large number of eminent names that have appeared in the newspapers in connection with it, and also by the statement of the prospectus that "'Science'[1] has secured in advance the good-will and active support of a large body of the most competent scientific men of the country, as will sufficiently appear upon publication of a few numbers."

Equally necessary was a liberal provision of funds to float the enterprise. Notwithstanding the alleged interest in science with which our age is so abundantly credited, it remains doubtful if a journal designed mainly for the wants of specialists can be remunerating, at least until after a considerable period of time. It must chiefly appeal to the intellectual requirements of advanced men; but these form a large clientage. Working upon the frontiers of scientific thought, it will be conversant with inquiries that are, to a considerable extent, beyond popular reach. Records of the progress of research and criticisms of original work must inevitably be technical, and therefore but little attractive to the non-scientific classes. "Science" will, of course, have its popular features, but, if it does tolerable justice to the body of American investigators and gives us a weekly conspectus of the condensed results of current research in the scientific world, it can devote but limited attention to popular science. But, with abundant capital, it is independent.

The numbers of "Science" that have thus far appeared fulfill every reasonable expectation, and give assurance that the journal will take a high rank among periodicals of its class. There is, of course, room for criticism, as there would be at any rate, whatever the excellence of its plan or the thoroughness of its execution; but its sagacious editors and enterprising managers may be best trusted to detect its deficiencies, and to repair them by self-correcting experience. The first number, of course, exemplifies the plan of the weekly. Besides its prospectus, and the opening introductory article, there are interesting communications from Professor Langley, Samuel Kneeland, Captain Dutton, and E. H. Hall, together with an admirable notice, by Professor Asa Gray, of Alphonse de Candolle's work on "The Origin of Cultivated Plants," contributed to the "International Scientific Series," and soon to appear in English. After a brief review of the "Natural History of Minnesota," we come to perhaps the most distinctive feature of the journal, in the "Weekly Summary of the Progress of Science" which is given in the first number, under the successive headings of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Metallurgy, Geology, Meteorology, Physical Geography, Geography, Botany, Zoölogy, Vertebrates, Physiological Psychology, and Early Institutions. Several of these have subdivisions, as Acoustics, Optics, Photometry, and Photography, under Physics; and Fish, Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals, under the title of Vertebrates. The information is of the most varied kind, but all refers to recent observations, experiments, or inquiries. Each distinct statement or item is numbered, for convenience of future reference; and, in the ten pages here devoted to the weekly progress of science, we have seventy-nine of these brief articles, each signed with the initials of a responsible editor in his own branch. We know something of the immense care and labor which such a department involves. Following this is "Intelligence from American Scientific Stations," with "Notes and News," general and personal, and a copious list of "Recent Books and Pamphlets on Scientific Subjects." Our new journal is thus packed with the concentrated nutriment of science, and will have value wherever the substantial data of inquiry are appreciated. "Science "is sure to contain a great deal of information that is of general importance, and we cordially recommend it to the patronage of all classes who care anything for the positive advance of knowledge in this country.

It is proper to add that we are ourselves interested in the success of "Science," with special reference to our own line of work. The law of progress is ever through division of labor, which in this field takes the shape of specialty of publication. We have felt the need of such a periodical as "Science," because we have been pressed to do the work which it now undertakes, but which it has been impossible for us to perform. A monthly can never compete with a weekly or with the daily press in giving scientific news; as to do that work well requires a definite and comprehensive organization for the purpose, and a frequency of publication that shall secure the prompt diffusion of scientific intelligence. "Science" will do this work effectually, and, by becoming an organ of accredited discovery and authorized opinion, will leave us free to devote ourselves to popularizing and diffusing the approved results of scientific inquiry.


But while welcoming our new coadjutor with unqualified approbation as to its purpose and method, we confess to some misgiving about its first formal utterance on "The Future of American Science," which it is declared almost in a tone of jubilation is to be distinctively and supereminently utilitarian. The utilitarian passion of the American people, it is here maintained, must also become the animating impulse of American science. Criticism may seem ungracious in this place, yet we can not refrain from asking if it is quite appropriate to the character of such an enterprise to begin by letting down instead of elevating the ideal of inspiration in the pursuit of original science.

After com mending the men of the past who have made eminent achievements in pure science in this country, the writer says: "The leading feature of American science, however, and that which most distinctly characterizes it, is its utilitarianism. True there are in our country able investigators working in scientific fields which do not offer the promise of material reward; but, notwithstanding this, it remains still true that those sciences whose principles are capable of useful application are the most zealously cultivated among us, and attract the largest number of students. Nor is this to be at all regretted. Research is none the less genuine, investigation none the less worthy, because the truth it discovers is utilizable for the benefit of mankind. Granting even that the discovery of truth for its own sake is a nobler pursuit, because a less purely selfish one, does it become any the less noble when it is ascertained that the truth thus discovered is capable of important applications which increase tenfold the happiness of human life? It may readily be conceded that the man who discovers nothing himself, but only applies to useful purposes the principles which others have discovered, stands upon a lower plane than the investigator. But when the investigator becomes himself the utilizer, when the same mind that made the discovery contrives also the machine by which it is applied to useful purposes, the combined achievement must be ranked as superior to either of its separate results."

There is here a reversal of the gradation in the motives to scientific study which has been too long and too clearly recognized to be lightly brushed aside. The most exalted incentive in the pursuit of truth is that high appreciation of it which makes its bare discovery the supreme compensation of the investigator. There is deeply implanted in the human mind a desire to find out the secrets of nature; and there is a pleasure in the satisfaction of this desire which has ever been the sharpest spur of scientific research. It is, moreover, this impulse to seek the truth of nature for the simple love of it that has played much the most prominent part in the progress of science. But, though animated by a noble purpose men are human still, and so they have been also impelled to scientific discoveries by the lower impulses of personal ambition, or because of the honor and fame they will confer. There is, besides, an inducement to scientific inquiry on account of the usefulness of its results in practical life, or the motive of public utility. And, finally, there is the desire to reach new results for the selfish individual advantage of turning them to profitable account: this is the mercenary motive, and is, of course, the lowest of all.

Now, human motives are often a good deal mixed, yet dominant intentions are not difficult to detect. In this case, what a man does with his discovery must be taken as proof of his intention in making it. If a man finds out a new fact, makes a new observation, or works out a new principle, and then communicates it to the world, he is to be fairly credited with the motive of laboring for the increase of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. If he is solicitous about the priority of his result, we know that he prizes the personal honor that it will confer. If he makes a discovery and applies it to some useful end, and then presents it to society for the promotion of the public good, he is to be credited with the philanthropic motive of contributing to the common utility. But, if he makes a discovery, and, shrewdly keeping it to himself, applies it to a practical use, and then patents it for his own profit, the act qualifies the motive as selfish and sordid, and of the lowest kind. The writer in "Science" maintains that where an invention is tacked on to a discovery, the compound result must he superior to its separate elements. But invention is not science, and can not count in ranking scientific achievement. Rank is here determined solely by the elevation or the degradation of the motives by which men are impelled to research. Davy made discoveries in combustion which enabled him to # invent the safety-lamp, but he at once gave it freely to the world. Dr. Wollaston discovered the malleability of platinum, and devised the means of producing it on a commercial scale, but he kept his inventions a secret and acquired great wealth by them. The two transactions, however, are ranked in scientific history as of two orders, and as widely apart as generosity is from greed.

Inventions are excellent things, and we have certainly no objection to patenting them; but, as we have said before, they are not parts of science, and when introduced in connection with the work of scientific discovery they serve only to mark the lower purpose for which it is pursued. We are not responsible for this mixing up of patent rights with science, and protest against the use of them to magnify utility, and cast virtual disparagement upon the highest motives of scientific investigation. The writer upon "The Future of American Science" identifies the interests of invention with those of science in a way that antiquates the simpleminded devotee to truth for its own sake. He says: "The inventive genius of this country is pre-eminent. We reap the benefits of it on every side. Our houses are more comfortable, our railways more safe, our fabrics cheaper, and our education more thorough, because of useful inventions. Becoming restive at the slow progress of discovery, the inventor has himself assumed the rôle of investigator; and the results of his researches appear in the records of the Patent-Office. In the olden times, the investigator was content to make his discoveries, and to publish them, consecrating to science the knowledge thus obtained. His more modern representative carefully treasures what he has discovered until he has exhausted its practical application. In consequence, the discoveries upon which many of the most important scientific inventions of the day rest will be searched for in vain in scientific literature. The telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light are inventions which illustrate the fact now stated in an eminent degree."

The significance of the new departure, which substitutes the lowest for the highest inducement to scientific labor, is here sufficiently apparent. It is the old fogy of "the olden times" that was content "to make his discoveries, and to publish them"; it is his wide-awake "modern representative" that keeps his results to himself until he can turn them to the purposes of private speculation, through the agency of the Patent-Office. But if it is not to be the policy of the coming scientific utilitarian to publish, pray what is the function of the new weekly? And, when the inventor gets "restive at the slow progress of discovery," and proposes to take hold of it himself we may commend his enterprise, but there are some things of which it is desirable that he should be reminded. First of all, and as a matter of fact, scientific truth has been a slow growth of ages. "The telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light" illustrate a good deal more than is here stated. Centuries of labor, and the blood of generations of indefatigable scientific workers, had been expended in experimental researches upon electricity, before the facts were disclosed and the principles established which have now become available in their useful applications. Priestley's "History of Electricity," published a hundred and sixteen years ago, was even then a ponderous volume, though it was but an epitome of older successful work, and took little note of the labors that failed to issue in new results. Science is, indeed, a very slow growth, and long periods of unremitting toil must pass before its final stages of flowering and fruiting are reached, even in those comparatively few cases where the fruit can be turned into gold. There are those who have at length the good fortune to shake the tree of scientific knowledge when its fruit is ripe, and they may be alert to clap the padlock of the Patent-Office on their results so as to be able to use them with profit; but there can be no greater mistake than to assume that the time has come when scientific workers generally can be encouraged to devote themselves to the reaping of the profitable pecuniary harvest of past researches. In the broad field of original scientific investigation, not one part in a hundred is capable of being cultivated with any possible hope of turning its results to pecuniary account. A hasty glance at the pages of "Science" is quite sufficient to show the utter futility of supposing that the multifarious labors there indicated can ever issue in any pecuniary advantage to those who perform them.

But the writer in "Science" pushes his case still further, as follows:

The science of to-day is in thorough accord with the spirit of the American people. They are proud of every achievement it makes, and are satisfied with the returns it is giving them for their investments. To continue this entente cordiale should be the object of every scientific worker. He may the more readily concede some practical return for the facilities for investigation which the people have furnished, since the march of discovery is not in the least hindered but rather promoted by the practical application of the new truth it develops. His attitude toward invention should be appreciative and cordial. He should cast aside all prejudice against the man of patents and practical devices, and should stand ready to welcome the investigator, m whatever garb he appears.

Again we protest against this confounding of science with business. The writer talks about the American people investing in science, and being satisfied with the returns. But science is not a thing to be invested in; people invest in patent-rights and stock-companies, and may be well pleased with their returns, and proud of their inventors, but they are not therefore patrons of science. Let the man of patents stand upon his own merits, and go for what he is worth, and not construe the success of his business operations as an evidence of the high public appreciation of genuine scientific work.

The disparagement of scientific investigation from its highest motive, by the writer in "Science," is undisguisedly and almost offensively explicit. He says, "While the scientific cynic may condemn the utilitarianism of our age, the more liberal man rejoices in it." The devoted student, impelled by the loftiest spirit, which refuses to be influenced by lower considerations, is not well characterized as a "scientific cynic"; nor is he who works from the lowest motive entitled to applause as "the more liberal man." We reiterate that the nobler motive has been a thousand-fold more potent in creating the great body of scientific truth than the more sordid motive. The one supreme lesson taught by the history of science for the last three centuries is, that the world mainly owes its great results to the single-minded devotion of its cultivators, to the pursuit of truth for the sake of truth alone. This has ever been, and it must always continue to be, the most elevated and generous, as well as the most powerful mental motor in the prosecution of truly scientific investigations. That there is a wide-spread and an active tendency in this country to degrade science to the low, money-making level of a society immersed in material interests and given over to the pursuit of wealth, is no doubt true, but it is a state of things to be deplored and to be withstood, rather than to be complacently accepted and applauded. Let men pursue science from whatever motive they will—all valid results are valuable—we only object to this formal surrender of the highest ground at a time and in circumstances which require that it should be steadfastly maintained. It is neither possible nor desirable to disconnect science from its useful applications, but as Goethe says, "the useful may be left to take care of itself"; there is no danger of its being neglected. Our objection is to this inaugurating something like a national policy of science, animated by the mercenary spirit which it has been the glory of science to have always resisted as the proper or highest motive of its cultivation.


We briefly notice, in its appropriate place, a new book having the title of the "Science of Politics," and we reprint a portion of its important preliminary chapter, designed to point out the nature and limits of this alleged science. The author shows the valid grounds upon which it rests, and the certainty of its future development; but he at the same time indicates very clearly the formidable difficulties which hinder, and will long continue to hinder, the recognition of politics as a regular branch of scientific inquiry.

And among these obstacles attention is called to one which seems singularly enough to be itself a product of political progress: it is that a conception of a scientific politics may be expected to meet with most resistance under governments theoretically most liberal and advanced. We should certainly anticipate that where there is the greatest intelligence, and the form of government is most popular, there would be the greatest tendency to the study of political institutions from a scientific point of view; and accordingly we might expect that the subject would be congenial to American students of political affairs. And yet it is probable that nowhere else will there be found so wide-spread and pronounced a skepticism in regard to it as in this country. If we could take the sense of the American Congress upon this point, who can doubt that its members would decide with the greatest unanimity that there is, and can be, no such science as that of which our author undertakes to lay down the elements? Nor can we for a moment expect that the law-makers in all our State Legislatures would disagree with such a congressional decision. So much, at any rate, may be assumed, that, whether or not there be such a thing as a possible or actual science of this kind, American politicians generally are profoundly ignorant of it, and will, moreover, have little interest to inquire seriously into its claims. Nor can we escape the conclusion that, of all classes of the community, none are so little concerned about politics, as a problem of principles, as the class of men who make politics a profession. This is a curious state of things in a country where we hear on every hand that intelligence is the first condition of the perpetuity of popular government. While intelligence is held to be so fundamental a necessity in this republic that the state actually assumes the duty and the responsibility of molding the minds and characters of its citizens into conformity with our political requirements, yet the idea that there is any science or fixed order of relations, or inevitable working of cause and effect, in the political sphere, will be generally scouted as chimerical.

What is the explanation of this anomalous state of things? The answer is, that the most popular forms of government engender the worst forms of politics, and favor and foster states of mind that exclude all considerations of a scientific nature. This may be an unpalatable conclusion, but unpalatable conclusions are often true. We have to face the disagreeable fact that it is under the most liberal and perfected political institutions, so called, that the incalculable element of personal caprice in political affairs comes into greatest ascendency. We speak of kingly rule as the type of personal government, but personal government is only seen in its highest power and effect where each citizen has become a sovereign. It is only where the self-seeking of the single monarch is multiplied by millions in a nation of potential office-holders, that the selfishness of personal politics rises to its maximum influence. It is only in a country where everybody is eligible to office, where the incentives to office-seeking are universal, where politics has become such a national passion that the whole scheme of public education is subordinated to it, that personal aspirations and the interests of selfish ambition will dominate unrestricted in the management of public affairs. And it is undeniable that politics with us is coming to be more and more a business, a vocation to be pursued for profit and emolument by successful office-seeking. Under such a system the winning politician will not be the man of intelligence, deliberation, and principle, but the man skilled in all the low arts which will insure political success. He will be the shrewdest operator of the partisan mob. Nothing is more notorious than that under the working of our popular political institutions, the best men go to the wall, and the worst men come to the front. By the very conditions of the case, it is the crafty operators, the longheaded managers, caucus manipulators, party intriguers, and brazen, indefatigable demagogues, who secure the offices. From the General Government down through all the ramifications of legislation and administration to the petty town officials, the places are filled by partisan professionals, so that the first presumption in regard to an office-holder is that he is unfit for the place. And such is the extent of this field, and the intensity of the competition in it, that the preparation for it is of the most absorbing nature, so as to afford a virtual guarantee that the incumbents of office will be profoundly ignorant of all that it is most important for them to know. These are of course not the men to appreciate the scientific elements and aspects of governmental affairs. Such considerations are not available for their purposes. Everything like statesmanship, the forecast of distant consequences in government policy, will be excluded from their minds by the pressure of immediate interests, the advancement of personal projects, and the achievement of political success in accordance with current ideas. The politician looks out first for himself, and all his study is to get a better thing than he already has. Only the one at the top can get no higher, and his soul is devoured by the ambition to be re-elected By the very instinct of the situation, which involves calculations of immediate effect, the politician will be comparatively indifferent to all those slow-working agencies which yield enduring results of the highest value, and which it is the great object of science to elucidate, and of genuine statesmanship to recognize in government policy.

In dealing with the hindrances to the due consideration of a science of politics, the author of the work referred to remarks as follows upon the adverse tendencies which are to be met with even under the best governments:

The topic is naturally relegated to the region of caprice and accident, or to that of tentative experiment and spasmodic contrivance. This intellectual consequence is intensified by the fact that all governments—and not least those known at the present day as the freest, and, on the whole, the soundest—are habitually made the arena of purely ambitious contention, of selfish aspiration, and even of corrupt conspiracies against the public well-being. The wider the territorial area of any particular government, and the more complicated and extensive its essential mechanism, the more opportunity is there for the exhibition of personal, or, at the most, of local self-seeking. So far as this prevails, politics becomes degraded into a mere vulgar struggle for money, office, or power. All actual reference to scientific considerations is excluded. The tone of public thought and sentiment becomes proportionately infected, and all the claims which might otherwise be asserted on behalf of politics to take its place by the side of other sciences dealing with such moral elements as the human will meet with a skeptical repudiation.

  1. "SCIENCE": Published weekly at Cambridge, Mass. Moses King, Publisher. Proprietor, "The Science Company": President, Daniel C. Gilman; Vice-President, Alexander Graham Bell; Directors, D. C. Gilman, A. G. Bell, G. G. Hubbard, O. C. Marsh; Treasurer. Samuel H. Scudder, of Cambridge. Pp. 28. Published every Friday; price 15 cents per number, or $5 a year.