Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/August 1891/The Practical Outcome of Science

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1196618Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 August 1891 — The Practical Outcome of Science1891W. H. Smith


By W. H. SMITH, M. D., Ph. D.

THE present is an age of scientific research, and in this is found the characteristic feature of the existing civilization. The ancients were our equals, if not superiors, in literature, but no nation of antiquity could for one moment compare with us in scientific achievements. In this respect ours differs from all the ages of the past. The laws of Nature have been investigated, discoveries made, and in a multiplicity of ways her forces employed to do the bidding of man.

Passing by the more familiar results of such researches applied in the form of inventions on every hand to some not so patent, it may be remarked that science has accomplished and is accomplishing the difficult task of prolonging the period of human life. This comes through the study of physiology, sanitation, and medicine, the result of which has been, as shown by Dr. Jarvis, in a report some years ago to the Massachusetts Board of Health, that the average longevity, which at Geneva, in the time of the Reformation, was 21·21 years, between 1814 and 1833 had increased to 40·68, and that as many people would live to seventy as reached forty, three hundred years ago. The records of annuities on life show the same fact, proving, strange as it may appear, that within the last three centuries the average period of human existence has nearly doubled.[1]

While those cognizant of such facts realize the benefits resulting from the applications of science, we sometimes hear it urged that such things are effected by the work of practical men, and that the theorists are useless. A more absurd and misleading idea was never expressed in words, and yet it is taken up and believed by people who never stop to question its truthfulness. In this respect it stands on a par with many an adage that passes current to-day. What, for instance, could be more fallacious than that "Contentment is better than riches," "Murder will always out," or "Brave men are never cruel," when history furnishes the records of Marius, Sulla, Haynau, and Napoleon, men whose courage was never doubted, but who were guilty of acts of cruelty that would disgrace any age? Absurd and untruthful as are these sayings, they are no more so than the statement that any class of men studying science can be set down as theorists who are of no benefit to humanity.

This can be made more apparent by the consideration of a few incidents in the lives of great men. For instance, John Hunter spent a large portion of his time in acquiring knowledge of anatomical facts which were regarded as useless by his so-called practical associates. He was a man who believed that no knowledge was unworthy of attention, and consequently dug deep into the foundations of his favorite science. By such studies he learned how the arteries changed, and that, when the main trunk was obstructed, the collateral branches enlarged sufficiently to carry on the circulation. At first this knowledge did not admit of any practical application. Finally, a patient came to him with an aneurism upon a branch artery. Hunter was thus given and embraced the opportunity of demonstrating the practicalness of his apparently visionary study, inasmuch as he at once boldly tied the main artery, which, up to that time, no surgeon had ever dared to do. The result was that the patient's life was saved, and a new and valuable operation introduced into the science of surgery.

Linnæus, more than a century ago, was spending his time in the visionary pursuit of bug-hunting, when the Swedish Government became alarmed at the fearful destruction of ship timber in its dock-yards by a minute boring beetle, and applied to him for a remedy. He replied that the beetle which laid the eggs only appeared in the month of May, and that by submerging the timber during that period it could be protected from its ravages. The Government did so, and thus not only saved its timber at an insignificant expense, but also brought the derided bug-hunter into respect, as one who had demonstrated the practical utility of his apparently visionary study.

Researches upon the properties of laughing-gas and ether and investigations relating to the peculiarities of infusorial life also exhibit knowledge which at first appeared absolutely worthless, but was afterward found to be exceedingly practical. Students originally took ether for fun, and laughing-gas fell to the level of a wonder exhibited by itinerant lecturers; yet out of that knowledge was destined to come our modern discovery of anæsthesia, by which surgical operations may be performed without pain and without the knowledge of the sufferer. In like manner the researches upon the infusoria, from the time of Leuwenhoek to Ehrenberg, had apparently no practical value, yet from their discoveries have been developed a truer form of one of the most important practical doctrines of modern chemistry, a modification of the practice of medicine, a revolution of the science of surgery, an application of new and more correct ideas in matters pertaining to agriculture; and, combined with all this, remains the probability that their power for usefulness is not yet exhausted.

For the sake of illustrating the difference between the practical man and theorist, let us suppose two persons to visit the northern peninsula of Michigan seeking for iron. The one runs along blindly, takes up with every good show, and mines. The result is, he either makes a happy strike by mere accident, or spends thousands of dollars in useless search. The other has studied the laws of electricity, and knows that certain ores of iron are magnetic. He understands also that these ores will exert their influence through any amount of superincumbent earth. Consequently he provides himself with a dipping-needle and compass, and by the operation of these tells where a bed is located, its approximate depth, and probable amount of material. To prevent being deceived by the magnetic schists in that region, by means of his dipping-needle and compass he traces up the bed until he finds an outcrop. Thus have been located, at little expense, many of the mining regions of that locality. What an achievement is this, and how much better than the blind guesses of the so-called practical man!

The history of that wonderful piece of mechanism, the steam engine, furnishes another illustration of a different character. In 150 b. a., Hero of Alexandria invented a little instrument called an eolipile, which was driven by the agency of steam. To all appearances it was, and must ever remain, a useless thing; and it was not until the latter half of the eighteenth century that this peculiar contrivance, after having passed through the hands of De Gary, Porta, De Caus, Guericke, Savary, Papin, Newcomen, Smeaton, and others, was transformed, by the inventive genius of Watt, into a low-pressure engine. The history of this and other inventions shows three classes of men to have wrought upon them: First, there were the investigators, who were content with only discovering the great laws and truths of Nature. Then there were the teachers or historians, whose life-work was to treasure and disseminate the truths obtained. As the virgins in the temple of Vesta in ancient Rome kept the sacred fires burning, and would not permit them to go out, so these men preserved the knowledge thus obtained until the third class, known as the inventors, appeared and made the application.

How many, while admiring the objects attained by this third class, have ever given a passing thought to the labors of the two others, without which the last could never have accomplished such magnificent results? But are not the investigators of Nature's laws as worthy of honor and as useful to humanity as are the inventors? Shall we compare Newton with the man who first made a suction-pump? Galileo, the discoverer of the properties of the pendulum, with the manufacturer of a wooden clock? Archimedes, the investigator into the buoyancy of liquids, with the person who constructed the first dug-out? Certainly not! The men who investigate the great truths of Nature, and the teachers who disseminate those truths, and thus make invention possible, are as true benefactors to humanity as are the inventors, though, unfortunately, this latter class too often receive all the credit.

In this connection we may also see that no knowledge is useless. The discoveries which at first seemed only ornamental are frequently the forerunners of the most magnificent results. A little plant peeps through the earth, buds, and throws out its leaves, a thing pleasing to the eye. Presently it blossoms, the flowers ripen, and the branches hang with luscious fruit. In like manner many of the discoveries of the past, in their own day and age apparently worthless, have in a subsequent generation been found to be fraught with the greatest benefit to humanity. They began as things curious and pleasing only to the lover of Nature, but ripened into results of surpassing grandeur. The knowledge which at one time seemed useless, at another has been found exceedingly serviceable; and, since this has been true in the past, shall it not also be true in the future? If it took nineteen hundred years from Hero's time until a Watt appeared to invent a steam-engine, shall any one deny the discoveries of to-day an equal chance? If the slight and apparently useless knowledge of the ancients in regard to electricity has been growing larger and larger until it culminates in our magnificent system of telegraphy and telephony, who dare predict a limit to the utility of any knowledge at present existing, however insignificant it may now appear?

Thus far we have been considering science in its bearing upon the physical wants of our race. However, man has a threefold nature—physical, intellectual, and moral; and, while science has been ameliorating the first, it has had an important influence upon the others. It is a great truth, in regard to all our powers, that they become stronger as we use them. Thus the blacksmith's arm grows sinewy by wielding the hammer. Even so it is with our mental powers. They are impaired by idleness and strengthened by exertion; and, in the "struggle for existence" or effort to attain the mastery over Nature, our intellectual faculties are brought into lively exercise and are accordingly strengthened.

In these days people are often asking which is the better education, the classical or the scientific; but, without attempting to consider that question, two facts may be observed: First, that language being the work of man, in its study the student can rise no higher than the source; and that Nature being the product of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God, its study must lead a person

"Through Nature up to Nature's God."

The second fact is, that without scientific invention classical education would be impossible. Suppose the modern printing-presses and paper-mills were swept out of existence, how rapidly would linguistic study come to an end! The fact is, that scientific researches in a thousand and one ways have made linguistic study possible, and lifted humanity from barbarism to civilization.

It would be pleasing in this connection to note how the various intellectual faculties are improved by the study of the sciences. Memory, abstraction, generalization, reason, and, in short, all our powers can be thus developed. However attractive the topic, the space allotted to an essay of this kind will not allow dwelling upon the utility of scientific pursuits as a means of mental discipline, and they are passed by with the simple remark that the study of Nature, while beneficial to all our faculties, is peculiarly adapted to the development of our powers of observation. For this purpose there was no provision made in the old style of education; and how important it was that some training should be given in this direction must be patent to every one.

The Russian proverb says of the non-observant man, "He goes through the forest and sees no fire-wood"; and Dr. Johnson once declared that "some men would learn more in Hampstead stage than others in the tour of Europe"; or, to take an illustration: In a cathedral at Pisa swung a chandelier. Thousands had passed in and out in an unthinking, heedless manner before Galileo's day, but when the young Florentine philosopher looked toward that ceiling, that chandelier, as a type of the pendulum, took on a new oscillation, and its vibrations extended farther and farther, until they reached the very center of the earth, and again swung outward toward other worlds, to return, bringing tidings of the gravitation that holds sway on those celestial orbs. In like manner a humble stone-mason at Cromarty, Scotland, saw on the rock some peculiar forms. He examined them carefully, and deciphered from these hieroglyphics the record of the "Old Red Sandstone," and from that time onward the name of Hugh Miller has been known in almost ever hamlet of civilized earth. The life of that illustrious Frenchman, Baron Cuvier, furnishes another and excellent illustration of the same thing. In the plaster-quarries of Montmartre, just without the environs of Paris, were lying scattered here and there a lot of animal remains. Thousands and doubtless millions of people had passed that way, and seen in them only so many old bones. Not so when Cuvier looked. The time had come for the arcana to be opened, and like the dry bones in the prophet's vision they became alive again and began to speak; and, wherever geology is studied, there the voice is heard chanting pæans of praise to the immortal Frenchman. His was not the record of a man who waded through seas of slaughter to write his name

"Among the few, the immortal ones,
That were not born to die."

Yet he has written it on an equally enduring tablet; he has writsen it on the history of geological progress, where it will endure per secula seculorum.

Science has also turned her attention to legal pursuits, and made her voice heard in courts of justice. Nearly every one doubtless is familiar with cases of men who have been arrested, charged with murder, and the blood found upon their garments examined. It is also probably known that there is some difference of opinion as to the degree of certainty with which human blood can be distinguished from that of an animal. This difference seems to be, in part at least, the result of the different methods pursued by the various investigators. Many persons suppose that the corpuscles are the only things to be examined. These are globular in shape and of about the same form for nearly all the mammalia. They, however, show a difference in size, and from this difference may be told approximately the animal from which they have been derived. There is another and equally valuable method of distinction, which, consists in breaking up the corpuscles. By means of a little acetic or sulphuric acid this may be accomplished, and then on slowly evaporating the solution we get crystals characteristic of the animal to which the blood belonged. By combining these two methods blood can be identified, not with absolute certainty, but with a high degree of probability.

However, probability is not enough. In a question where a man's life is at stake something more is demanded. Not probability merely but absolute certainty alone can satisfy the people. This in many cases we have. In 1852, in Essex, England, a man was tried for the murder of a woman. She had been found dead in her bed, with her throat cut from ear to ear. Among the prisoner's possessions was found a razor clotted with blood, and in the blood were detected two or three short cotton fibers. Taken and examined microscopically and compared with the clothing of the woman, it was found that in cutting her throat the assassin had cut through the strings of her night-cap, and these minute fibers of that remained as the silent witnesses of his guilt.

Sometimes mud or dirt adherent to clothes connects a person with crime, or a hair sticking under the nail of a boot may by comparison show that its possessor has trampled upon the head of the deceased; or, as in a case at Hull, England, the Diatomaceæ adhering to a man's shoes proved that he had been at the place where the murder had been committed.

Such are some of the ways in which the microscope aids us in ferreting out the assassin. It has, however, a wider application. Some years ago Ehrenberg, that old prince of microscopists, was employed by the Prussian Government to investigate a case of smuggling. A cask had been opened, valuables extracted, and the cask repacked, and shipped onward to its destination. The only clew to the criminals was that the unpacking must have been done at some of the custom-houses through which the goods passed. To all appearance, the microscope had a hopeless task. But not so. Ehrenberg took some of the sand that had been used in the repacking, placed it under his microscope, looked through his magic tube, and behold, there on the stand lay a peculiar specimen of Foraminifera That animal was found at only one place in the known world, and told at just what point the crime had been committed.

The history of England furnishes another illustration of the use of the microscope as a detecter of crime. A few years since the people were very much troubled about adulterations. Not only the tea and coffee they drank, but the food they ate, their medicines, and even their clothing were mixed up with foreign ingredients. In some cases this was carried to such an extent as to be simply diabolical. Wisely and well did the Government act. Selecting one of the best scientists in the kingdom, they bade him investigate and prepare a remedy. The result was published in that book, Hassall's Adulterations Detected, a work that ought to make its author immortal. He there shows how all bodies differ in the minute structure of their granules, and renders it as easy to tell the genuine article from its adulterations as to tell apples from potatoes.

Some years ago a trial at Salem, N. Y., illustrated the value of science in questions of testimony. A man named Thomas Page, to gain possession of certain property, had forged a conveyance. The instrument purported to have been written in 1827, and was on paper colored blue with ultramarine. It was conclusively shown that ultramarine was not discovered until 1828, and not used in the manufacture of paper prior to 1841. By showing also that the paper was made on a Fourdrinier weaving-machine and by the calendering process, scientific and other evidence proved that it was probably not manufactured before 1845, and certainly could not have been in existence in 1827. The result was the overthrow of Page's suit, followed by his own prosecution, conviction, and sentence for forgery.

There was a time in the past history of the earth when, if a murderer could secretly place poison in the food of his victim, he might hope to accomplish his heinous purpose without fear of detection. Not so to-day. Chemical and microscopical analyses are applied to the stomach of the deceased, and with the symptoms reveal, not approximately, but with perfect and absolute precision, the cause of death.

But why stop to mention single instances when the records of jurisprudence everywhere are full of cases where science has been applied to legal affairs? The judicial investigation of such crimes as poisoning, wounds, infanticide, abortion, rape, illegitimacy, to say nothing of the deeds caused by insanity, must ever receive a large amount of aid at the hands of medical science.

In these Science does not always appear as an avenging Nemesis, hunting down and punishing the guilty. She sometimes plays the rôle of the vindicator of the innocent. Dr. Lyons gives an account of a case in which a man was arrested and charged with murder. A hatchet, smeared with dried blood and hair, was found under his bed. Indignation ran high, and people were almost disposed to lynch him. He was, however, detained, and the blood-stains and hair subjected to microscopical examination, when they were found to be those of an animal which he had killed and had then carelessly thrown the hatchet under the bed.

Such are some of the practical benefits accruing to us from scientific research. With Briarean arms it has reached out and laid hold of every part of our civilization. Proteus-like it assumes a thousand shapes, but under every guise remains still the firm friend of the human race.

Nor have the triumphs of science been less in the moral than in the physical and intellectual world. When the curtain of antiquity rises upon our race we find its moral condition of the lowest and most degrading character. What, then, has raised man out of that condition? It may have been revealed religion; but, in my opinion, scientific progress, by introducing higher and grander ideas, had much to do with it. Whatever may have been the cause, we have certainly left forever the dark ages of our fathers' beliefs. If we find a woman troubled with nervous disorder, we no longer look about for the person who has bewitched her, and cast that person into the water to be drowned as innocent, or to float and be burned as guilty; but we simply treat the woman for hysteria. If a man falls down and goes into convulsive movements with foaming at the mouth, we are not accustomed to follow the example of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and say he is possessed with an evil spirit; but we give him bromide of potassium or some other remedy to cure his epilepsy. If a plague or pestilence break out and sweep away half a city, we do not place our reliance on sacrifices and supplications addressed to the deities to avert their anger; but we seek the cause of it in a lack of cleanliness and remove the filth. We have learned that these things may be punishments sent from God, yet they come mediately, not for a moral sin, but for violating one of the physical laws of our being. Science found mankind everywhere believing that each tree, bush, or dark recess was peopled by an evil demon; but by the glorious sunlight of the nineteenth century she has banished these shapes of darkness from off the civilized earth, and planted in the brain of the people that intelligence, greater than an angel with a flaming sword, which shall forever prevent their return.

And then the ideas in regard to God, derived from the study of Nature, how surpassingly grand! The old Hebrew seers may have taught that Jehovah was infinite in power and wisdom, filling immensity with his presence, and existing from everlasting to everlasting; but it remained for astronomy, geology, and microscopy to show the profound significance of such utterances. Nothing is more humiliating than the study of Nature, However viewed, she but reflects back upon us the infinite wisdom and glory of her great designer.

Such have been some of the achievements of modern Science. She has, as it were, made a palladium out of the bones of Pel ops. She has, indeed, been a mother of plenty, scattering blessings everywhere with a liberal hand. As the gods in ancient times are fabled to have piled Pelion upon Ossa, and rolled upon the top the leafy Olympus, in their daring efforts to scale the heavens, so modern Science has raised mountain on mountain high in her effort to rise to the eternal source of truth. She may not have sent Abaris around the earth on an arrow, but with lightning-like swiftness she sends our messages from ocean to ocean and from continent to continent. Her votaries may at times have seemed to some narrow-minded persons about to hang a Nessus shirt upon humanity, but, when the garment came to be received and understood, it was found to be not only destitute of the hydra venom, but filled with the greatest blessings for our race. Thus has Science wrought, opening up Hesperian gardens with their golden fruit, and, while scattering physical, intellectual, and moral benefits on every hand, has impressed upon man the grand truth that

"No pent-up Utica contracts his powers,
But the whole boundless continent is ours."

  1. Quoted from Draper's Conflict between Religion and Science.