Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/October 1897/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Editor's Table.


THE American Association for the Advancement of Science had a very pleasant meeting at Detroit. Socially it was all that could be desired, and was perhaps in this respect among the best in the history of the body. The people of Detroit, who call their town "the Convention City," and are proud of the hospitality they show to the assemblies that visit them, strove to outdo themselves in entertaining their guests, and, what with the lunches they served and the receptions and excursions they gave, made the occasion a brilliant one. The high-school building, in which the association met, was one of the best it has occupied, for it amply accommodated all the meetings and furnished room for doing all the work under one roof.

The association suffered from the absence of its designated president. Prof. Wolcott Gibbs, who was kept at home by illness. His presence would have lent it much dignity, and would have recalled its older and best days. His place was taken by Vice-President McGee, who discharged the executive and administrative duties of the office satisfactorily. A happy feature in the opening meeting was the felicitous address of General Palmer, who, although not a man of science, evidently appreciated its value, and knew well how to fit his remarks to the occasion. The memorial address on Prof. Cope, by Prof. Theodore Gill, was perhaps the feature of the whole meeting which most deserves notice and will be remembered longest. The president's address and the addresses of the chairmen of the sections were well-wrought-out presentations of their several subjects, creditable to the speakers and to the association. Of the papers, the majority appear to have been technical. Of the others, some were very good, and some, we are constrained to say, should have no place in the proceedings of such a body as the association ought to be.

The attendance was not large; the whole number of registered members being only two hundred and ninety-one.

An important new step was taken in making the nomination of officers by the council and its nominating committee valid without further proceedings. Heretofore the nominations have been subject to approval by the association. The joint meetings of affiliated societies with sections of the association, of which there were several, were a feature to be commended.

The meeting made more prominent the fact which has been evident for many years, that our strongest and most experienced men of science are losing their interest in the association. They seem to have all the field for work and distinction they want in their own separate organization, which does not reach the people at all; while this field, in which they could gain quite as much repute, add fully as much to knowledge, and contribute vastly more to its diffusion, they neglect. It is hard to conceive a nobler or more desirable way in which the student of Nature can contribute to the instruction and elevation of his fellow-men than by giving his support to this body which courts the sympathy of the people, and by going from place to place seeks to instruct them in their very homes in the highest achievements of research. There can hardly be a more effective way of promoting the advancement of science than by these meetings, now here and now there, through which the beauties of knowledge are disclosed to the public, and the thirst for its acquisition and extension is aroused in whole communities at a time. The greatest scientific lights of Great Britain, France, and Germany love to do this. Thus, at the meeting of the British Association just held at Toronto, we have seen such men as Lord Kelvin and Lord Lister, Sir John Evans, and a dozen others of almost corresponding prominence, present, as interested and taking as active a part as if they were younger men still having their spurs to win. Other men, in their respective days of equal standing in science with these, whose hooks are standard authorities wherever the English language is spoken, have habitually attended the previous meetings of this body because their heart is in the work of making the whole world sharers in the benefit of what they have been able to discover. We can not but think that the eminent students of America who fail to do likewise are committing a great mistake.



The British Association for the Advancement of Science has now, for the second time, held an annual meeting on this continent. In the year 1884 it met at Montreal; this year it met at Toronto. The Montreal meeting was not. on the whole, considered a very successful or in any way notable one; but this year conditions and circumstances seem to have proved more favorable, and we believe the Toronto meeting will be remembered with much satisfaction by all who took part in it. Toronto, as a city, is well adapted for convention purposes, and the noble grounds and buildings of Toronto University formed a most admirable and charming focus for the work of a learned assembly. The visitors were favored also with the very finest weather which the climate of this continent is capable of producing; and that helped not a little to put every one in good spirits and give animation to the proceedings. Great names were not wanting amid the throng. The retiring president, Lord Lister, whose name all the world honors, was there to hand over his office to the distinguished archæologist Sir John Evans. To see Lord Lister and hear the tones of his voice is to recognize in him the friend of human kind—a noble example at once of scientific eminence and moral greatness. Lord Kelvin, too, was there with his earnest, kindly, unassuming manner and wonderfully penetrating intelligence—a man who bears his great honors meekly, as becomes one whose fame rests upon a sure foundation. Michael Foster was also present, a man who has trained and inspired with something of his own zeal a whole generation of physiologists at the University of Cambridge. Biology was further represented by such men as Profs. L. C. Miall and Lloyd Morgan; physics, by Oliver Lodge and Sylvanus Thompson; chemistry, by Prof. W. Ramsay, of argon fame; geography, by Mr. J. Scott Keltie; political science, by the Right Hon. W. Bryce, author of The American Commonwealth. We name but a few; there were men of eminence and merit on every hand.

Associated with their scientific brethren from England, and taking a prominent part in the proceedings of the association, were many of the foremost scientific workers in this country. Among these may be mentioned Profs. Morse, Newcomb, Remsen, Hadley, Putnam, and Chamberlin. A few associate members came from foreign countries. The Canadians contributed their quota of men of distinction, and altogether the gathering partook to a pleasing extent of an international character.

As usual, on such occasions, liberal provision of time was made for social hospitalities and semiscientific excursions; but the serious business of the association was well kept in view. The inaugural address of the incoming president, Sir John Evans, consisted of a plea for the recognition of archæology as entitled to a place among the sciences. He had no difficulty in showing the aid which the archæologist is able at times to render to the geologist, and also the assistance it affords toward a scientific treatment of history. His account of the evidence accumulated within the last thirty or forty years as to the antiquity of the human race was clear and succinct. He did not consider the existence of man in Miocene times proved, but he spoke of the "almost incredible length of time "occupied by the Palæolithic period. "We may not know,"' he said, "the exact geological period when palæolithic man first settled in Britain; but we have good evidence that he occupied it at a time when the configuration of the surface was entirely different from what it is at present; when the river valleys had not been cut down to anything like their existing depth; and when the fauna of the country was of a totally different character from that of the present day." The time covered by that period was sufficient, he stated, to permit of "the erosion of valleys, miles in width, to a depth of from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet. . . . When we take into consideration," he added, "the almost inconceivable ages that, even under the most favorable conditions, the excavation of wide and deep valleys by river action implies, the remoteness of the date at which the Palæolithic period had its beginning almost transcends our powers of imagination." Sir John Evans speaks with the authority of a man deeply versed in geology as well as in archæology, and it is safe to assume that he speaks within bounds.

Among the Presidential Addresses to the Sections were several that were weighty and valuable. Prof. Michael Foster reviewed most instructively the progress of physiological science in the dozen years that had elapsed since the association had last met in Canada. He sounded a not unneeded note of warning against allowing commercial considerations to predominate in questions of research. "There is an increasing risk," he declared, "of men undertaking a research not because a question is crying out to them to be answered, but in the hope that the publication of their results may win for them a lucrative post." A greater evil still, he considered, was the locking up of scientific discoveries for the private enrichment of the men who had made them. Another observation of general value was to the effect that scientific controversy is never wholly valueless, since "the tribunal to which the combatants of both sides appeal is sure to give a true judgment in the end." The great progress, he stated, that had been made in the study of the conditions and aspects of life in the higher animal forms had rendered much more hopeful the study of life in its lowest and most generalized forms; so that there is good reason to anticipate that "in the immediately near future a notable advance will be made in our grasp of the nature of that varying collection of molecular conditions, potencies, and changes, slimy hitherto to the intellectual no less than to the physical touch, which we are in the habit of denoting by the word protoplasm." Here "the animal physiologist touches hands with the botanist, and both find that under different names they are striving toward the same end." The learned professor recognized that it would be inopportune "to plunge into the deep waters of the relation which the body bears to the mind," but this, he declared, we know, "that changes in what we call the body bring about changes in what we call the mind." If, therefore, in the coming years a clearer knowledge shall be gained of "the nature and conditions of that molecular dance which is to us the token of nervous action," and if "a fuller, exacter knowledge of the laws which govern the sweep of nervous impulses along fiber and cell give us wider and directer command over the molding of the growing nervous mechanism and the maintenance and regulation of the grown one, then assuredly physiology will take its place as a judge of appeal in questions not only of the body but of the mind; it will raise its voice not in the hospital and consulting room only, but also in the senate and the school." These are eloquent words, but their eloquence is the least part of their merit; the preponderant part lies in the truth they contain—a truth which at this very moment it has become urgently necessary to proclaim in face of the fanatical doctrines of the absolute supremacy of mind or spirit which are running like wildfire through certain sections of supposedly educated communities.

Wherever scientific men congregate there the name of Darwin is sure to be mentioned with honor. Prof. Foster, in the address to which we have just referred, spoke of his '"pregnant ideas" as having "swayed physiology in the limited sense of that word as well as that broader study of living beings which we sometimes call biology, as indeed they have every branch of natural knowledge." The President of the Anthropological Section, Sir William Turner, spoke of the "enormous impulse given to the study of the anatomy of man in comparison with the lower animals by Charles Darwin's ever memorable treatise on the Origin of Species." According to the President of the Botanical Section, Prof. Marshall Ward, whose address yielded to none in the wealth of interesting facts and principles it unfolded, recent comparative studies, both of existing and of fossil plants, "are yielding at every turn new building stones and explanatory charts of the edifice of evolution on the lines laid down by Darwin." Not less ample were the acknowledgments of the value of Darwin's work made by Prof. Miall, President of the Zoölogical Section. "I do not," he said, "lay it down as an article of the scientific faith that Darwin's theories are to be taken as true; we shall refute any or all of them as soon as we know how; but it is a great thing that he raised so many questions that were well worth raising. He set all scientific minds fermenting, and not only zoölogy and botany, but paleontology, history, and even philology bear some mark of his activity. We owe as many discoveries to his sympathy with living Nature as to his exactness or his candor, though these two were illustrious. A young student anxious to be useful may feel sure that he is not wasting his time if he is collecting or verifying facts which would have helped Darwin."

Apart from his reference to Darwin, there were many interesting and valuable observations in Prof. Miall's address. He dwelt with proper force on the impossibility of obtaining a living insight into biological problems or even a living acquaintance with biological facts by means of text-books and lectures alone. He indicated the necessity of extreme care in talking of the "laws of Nature," lest some false idea of a positive mandate should creep into the mind. He expressed himself as accepting in great measure, but still in part only, the "recapitulationist" theory, as it has been called, of embryonic development. He believes that the mammalia certainly had a piscine origin in remote ages, but professed himself unable to trace their family record any further back. He does not like the word must in the mouth of a biologist. "Whenever any biologist brings the word must into his statement of the operations of living Nature, I look out to see whether he will not shortly fall into trouble."


Upon the whole, there was much useful work accomplished at the Toronto meeting. One could not attend the different sections without feeling that the work of science in its different branches is a great and mighty and beneficent work, and one which elevates and liberalizes the minds that give themselves to it with devotion. However lightly these annual gatherings may sometimes be spoken of as being mainly occasions for holiday-making, we believe that they are the means of communicating many useful intellectual impulses both to the working members themselves and to the general public.