Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/February 1894/Editor's Table

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BY the death of Prof. Tyndall England has lost not only one of her foremost men of science, but a man who, by his labors and his character, has contributed in an eminent degree to render the science of the nineteenth century honorable. Some men take to science as to a gainful trade, hoping that, in the competition of life, it will serve their turn better, perhaps, than any other career they see open to them. Others are led to it by a more or less amateurish curiosity. Others again enter upon the study of it from a sense of the importance of the truths and principles it unfolds and from a desire to place such knowledge as they may gain at the service of mankind. In the latter class we must place the late Prof. Tyndall. No man ever felt more fully and deeply than he that the investigation of the laws of Nature was a ministry, the essential preparation for which lay in a candid mind and a readiness to impart as freely as one received; and no scientific man of our time, it may confidently be said, has maintained a more unbroken record of personal high-mindedness, of broad humanity, and ungrudging helpfulness.

In the various notices of him that have appeared in the press since his death, the leading incidents of the late professor's life have been sufficiently stated, and we need not on the present occasion go into many biographical details. From his father he inherited neither social position nor wealth; but what he did inherit was of far more importance than either or both—a sound constitution, a well-developed brain, and a character in which courage, independence, and love of truth were the predominant elements. The philosopher Schopenhauer prefixed to the second edition of his principal work an elaborate dedication to the manes of his father, whom he eulogized chiefly for having left him an ample provision of worldly means, whereby he had been enabled to devote himself to intellectual labor without any anxiety for his subsistence. "Thy presiding care," he says, "hath sheltered and borne me, not merely through helpless childhood and unregarding youth, but even in manhood and up to the present day. For as thou didst bring into the world a son such as I am, thou didst also make provision that, in a world like this, such a son should be able to subsist and develop himself." We quote this as evincing a spirit the very opposite of Tyndall's. He did not trouble himself about what kind of a world he was born into, but from the first resolved to take things as he found them and make his way in the world by dint of honesty, industry, and courage. Leaving school in his nineteenth year, he took service on the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and in turn performed every branch of the work from the most mechanical to the most theoretical, and thus made considerable progress in what were already favorite studies of his—geometry and trigonometry. This was not sufficient, however, for his active mind and strenuous disposition. A few words of counsel given to him by an official of the survey as to the best use to which to put his spare time caused him to enter on a systematic course of study. At five o'clock next morning he was at his books, and, having adopted this plan, he kept it up without interruption for twelve years. The salaries paid on the Ordnance Survey, at least to the juniors, were not large, and when Tyndall retired from it in 1843, after four or five years' service, his wages were only twenty shillings a week. "I have often wondered since," he observed in an address[1] delivered in the year 1884, "at the amount of genuine happiness which a young fellow of regular habits, not caring for either pipe or mug, may extract even from pay like that." He next found employment in railroad surveying, the railway-building mania in England being then at its height. The remuneration was a little better than in his former position, but the work was terrible. "The day's work in the field," he tells us, "usually began and ended with the day's light, while frequently in the office, and more especially as the awful 30th of November—the latest date at which plans and sections of projected lines could be deposited at the Board of Trade—drew near, there was little difference between day and night, every hour of the twenty-four being absorbed in the work of preparation. Strong men were broken down by the strain and labor of that arduous time. . . . In my own modest sphere I well remember the refreshment I occasionally derived from five minutes' sleep on a deal table with Babbage and Cal let's Logarithms under my head for a pillow." A better school for expelling any sickly dreams or pessimisms that might haunt a young man's brain could not easily be imagined. Possibly more than one rather discouraging philosophical treatise might never have been written had the authors been required to go through a similar experience. At one moment the idea of speculating in railway shares took possession of the young surveyor's mind. He made a purchase in the most legitimate way, and for three weeks was the most miserable of men; when, finding the burden intolerable, he went back to his brokers and "unloaded" at the exact price he had paid.

After four years of railway work Tyndall accepted a position as teacher of mathematics at Queenwood College in Hampshire. Here he learned by practical experience that two factors went to the formation of a teacher, ability to inform and ability to stimulate. To quote his own words in the address already referred to: "A power of character must underlie and enforce the work of the intellect. There are men who can so rouse and energize their pupils as to make the hardest work agreeable. Without this power it is questionable whether the teacher can ever really enjoy his vocation—with it I do not know a higher, nobler, more blessed calling than that of the man who, scorning the cramming so prevalent in our day, converts the knowledge he imparts into a lever to lift, exercise, and strengthen the growing minds committed to his care." After a year of teaching the ardent student gathered all he had saved up to that time, some two hundred pounds, and went over to Germany in order to take a course in science at the University of Marburg, which at the time was enjoying great repute through the lectures of the illustrious chemist Bunsen. It was neither a desire for money nor a desire for fame, he tells us, that took him to Germany. He had been reading Fichte and Emerson and Carlyle, and had been touched by their spirit, "The Alpha and Omega of their teaching was loyalty to duty. Higher knowledge and greater strength were within reach of the man who unflinchingly enacted his best insight." Living was cheap at Marburg in those days: a good dinner could be got for eightpence—a more bounteous dinner, indeed, than so abstemious a liver as Tyndall cared to eat; for it consisted of several courses, while he generally limited himself to one, not caring to waste any of his energy in needless wear and tear of his digestive organs. After studying for a time at Marburg he went to Berlin, where he fell in with a number of very eminent men of science, with all of whom he formed the most satisfactory relations. "The philosophers of Germany," he says—and the testimony is one of which Germans may be proud—"were men of the loftiest moral tone." It was the recognition which Tyndall's scientific essays received in Germauy which awakened the world of science in England to a sense of his greatness. In 1852 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in June of the year following he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Royal Institution, of which, on the retirement of Faraday a few years later, he became superintendent.

It is needless to give an enumeration of the works which Prof. Tyndall gave to the world, but we may remark that his life-work falls into two portions, original research into the most abstruse questions of science and earnest attempts at the popularization of scientific knowledge. There are those who are pleased to say that scientific knowledge can not be popularized; but the statement would be safer if it affirmed merely their own inability to popularize it—an inability which, in some cases, we have very little doubt, springs from unwillingness. No man ever knew better or felt more strongly than Prof. Tyndall how rigorous are the demands of scientific investigation in the way both of preparation and of method, and yet no man was more willing than he, whenever his severer engagements permitted, to open, or try to open, the door of knowledge to the unlearned public. "Look jealously," he said twenty years ago, on the occasion of the banquet to him in this city, "upon the investigator who is fond of wandering from his true vocation to appear on public platforms. The practice is absolutely destructive of original work of a high order." True enough, the man who, being supposedly equipped for the work of advanced investigation, is fond of wandering from that work in order to appear on public platforms, is a man our confidence in whom as an original investigator is apt to be weakened; but it is one thing to be fond of escaping from the severer tasks of science and quite another to relinquish them from time to time under a sense of duty; and we should be inclined to say that no man should be so immersed in the specialties and technicalities of minute investigation as to be unable to lay before a popular audience a general view of some portion of the scientific field. How the possession of the power to do the latter would interfere with the power of carrying on even the profoundest studies we are at a loss to imagine, though we are prepared to admit that possibly the constant habit of dealing with difficult and abstruse problems, the very language and symbolism of which are absolutely unintelligible to the lay mind, may, if allowed to do so, develop a real incapacity for popular exposition. It did not, however, lead to this result in the case of Prof. Tyndall, nor in that of his even greater predecessor Faraday; and we venture to conjecture that the great Sir Isaac Newton himself could, if he had wished, have delivered a very good popular lecture in astronomy.

We have spoken of Prof. Tyndall's visit to this country. No man of science from abroad was evermore heartily received; perhaps none was ever so heartily received, and yet we have had among us Huxley and Spencer, who both stand very high in the opinion and regard of the American people. How disinterestedly he pursued his vocation here is doubtless known to all our readers. Had his object been to make money he could have returned to England with the respectable sum—for a scientific man—of thirteen thousand dollars in his pocket. That was not his object, however; and, finding himself possessed of this sum over and above all the expenses of his tour, he placed it in the hands of trustees for the assistance of students without means who might wish to devote themselves to scientific research. Difficulties having presented themselves in the way of applying the money precisely as intended, the trustees retained it with Prof. Tyndall's approval, and finally divided it between the Universities of Harvard, Columbia, and Pennsylvania, each receiving—so successful had been the management of the fund—no less a sum than ten thousand eight hundred dollars. The generous donor of the original sum had a good right to say as he did at the banquet, "Not as a servant of Mammon do I ask you to take science to your hearts, but as the strengthener and enlightener of the mind of man." These words were the key to his own life, and might well be engraved on any monument raised in his honor.

Dr. Andrew D. White contributes to this number of the Monthly the first of a group of papers which, while they form part of his New Chapters in the Warfare of Science, have also a distinctive leading idea. Their general title is From Creation to Evolution, and they are Intended to show that the modern scientific conception of the universe, including man and his activities, has been developed out of the theological and metaphysical conceptions through a continuous progression. In the article published this month the change of belief in regard to the formation of the earth and stars is traced, and, as our readers will find, with all the wealth and definiteness of evidence which always characterize Dr. White's writings.


  1. My Schools and Schoolmasters. Reprinted in The Popular Science Monthly for January, 1885.