Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/June 1905/What Is Research?

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

WHAT IS RESEARCH?
By Professor HENRY SHALER WILLIAMS,

CORNELL UNIVERSITY.

THE faculty for research is not some peculiar power of the mind, possessed by some and not possessed by others, but it is a common faculty of all intelligent minds, more active often in youth than later in life, and its exercise in forwarding research depends more upon its discipline and training than upon any so-called original endowment of its possessor. But research is diverse from study, and the legitimate outcome of its exercise is not learning what is already known, but the extending of the boundaries of knowledge beyond the point reached by others.

In order that these faculties may be appreciated and, when in a promising state of development, may be properly trained, it is requisite that the faculties be clearly recognized and understood, and that the kind of exercise necessary to strengthen and develop them be known and appreciated.

What, then, is the particular part of our mental processes by which research is accomplished? An answer to this question may be reached directly by distinguishing research from its most closely related activities, namely, investigation and study.

Study has for its direct aim the acquirement of knowledge; investigation has for its aim the understanding of the reasons and relations of things already known; full comprehension and scientific discernment are the results of its exercise. Pure research beyond both of these has for its aim the discovery of facts, truths and relations not previously known; its results are the extension of the field of knowledge.

Study, when separated from investigation and research, primarily deals with language and the names of things and ideas. Close attention to words and language and a careful cultivation of the power of memory are essential to one who would become a perfect student. In this statement 'words and language' are not restricted to what are technically called the languages, as French, German, Greek, Latin or English, but it applies to the sciences as well. The study of chemistry, botany or astronomy primarily consists in learning the proper words and names to apply to definite objects, or phenomena of nature. The task of the student of science is the learning of the nomenclature and formulas of science, and such learning may be acquired without much comprehension of the laws of nature or understanding of the principles which are symbolized by the language which the student may have acquired ability to use fluently. In other words, a full knowledge of the names of things may be acquired by study, together with ability to talk fluently about them without much personal comprehension, or, as we say, grasp, of the things described. This possibility I have seen realized particularly among students who from their youth have been rigidly trained in the old classical method of education. Men trained strictly by this method understand words with precision and acquire a full vocabulary. They may be able to speak eloquently on subjects of which they know little. I have seen such scholars (juniors or seniors in college), who upon receiving the clue to the subject on which they were expected to write examination papers, could spin out a creditable set of answers quite superior to those written by their less trained (literarily) companions, whose real comprehension of the subject, as shown by other tests, was vastly superior to their own.

The pure student also may be said to be hindered from doing his best by stopping to investigate either the meaning or the application of the simple statements recorded in the verbal text before him. This learning by rote is an evil result of carrying study to excess, but it is also a definite aim of study pure and simple. A second result, more or less evil and which comes also as a natural result of pure study, is the tendency to lead the learner to accept, without question, the correctness of the statements he learns. He learns to depend upon others for his knowledge, and thus the expression 'getting knowledge at second-hand' becomes an actuality for the pure student. Although a successful student, he may fail not only to comprehend what he learns, but fail to think for himself. Nevertheless, the learning of other people's knowledge is an essential step in educating one's intellectual powers for higher work. We must have a wide knowledge of words and their meanings, and a good facility in the use of language, before we can successfully carry on systematic thought; and the more full and precise his vocabulary the wider and deeper will be the possibilities of both the investigator and the man of original research. Study is thus an essential preparation for investigation; but if the two be mixed too early in one's educational progress, the results will be deficient by virtue both of the inaccuracy of the learning and of the immaturity of the investigation.

A student who begins to investigate too early will, on the one hand, degrade the quality of his scholarship, and, on the other, he will find that the immature conceptions of science which he first forms must often be abandoned upon fuller investigation; or if retained will lessen the value of his results and place him in secondary rank as an investigator.

To attain the best results of study one must become a docile pupil, learning with precision and thoroughness exactly that which the words and language present to him. Taking statements exactly as they are formulated and using words exactly as others have used them before us—only so may be laid the solid foundation on which genuine research can be securely built.

Investigation Distinct from Study.—Investigation is distinctly another mental process from pure study. Its results are different from learning, as different as digestion is from eating, and for its best exercise a difference should be made in the training process, and in the objects to which the attention is given.

Learning has to do with words and language. Investigation deals with meaning, ideas and conceptions. One of the first acts of the investigator, after he has learned to know the thing or phenomenon by its description, consists in transforming the description into new terms. It is like taking a crystal and turning it into a new light in one's hand to see the new reflections due to changed position.

The attempt to express the conception in different language leads to a fuller realization of that which is contained in the description, as distinguished from the description itself. This result is more easily gained when an actual physical object before the investigator is impressing his senses, than when words alone are used. In the field of philosophy and in mathematics, the process of investigation may be carried on without a physical object being present, except in imagination. In this case the discipline of the mental faculties is more direct, and for discipline alone it may possibly be better than the laboratory-method. The rudiments of investigation are found in the classical mode of education, as in translating Greek or Latin into English. But investigation methods may be exercised and trained, certainly more easily and with greater pleasure to young minds, when the visible object is before one, as in the laboratory, where it remains constant and can be tested over and over again, while the terms of expressing one's own view of it are gradually perfected. The laboratory is the special place of investigation.

Pure investigation deals with knowledge already attained; as with study the acquisition of the investigator is an acquirement of facts of common knowledge and is not yet research. Experiments are made not to advance knowledge, only to advance the knowledge of the experimenter in fields already familiar to the teacher. In the fields of science, with which I am particularly concerned in this discussion, there is this difference between study and investigation, that investigation deals with the objective things as distinguished from the words describing them. Phenomena are but phases of things, and are included within the general term things, as being together experienced by our senses, indpendently of any names or language by which they may be symbolized. On the other hand, it is important to notice that things and their phenomena are grasped by the mind in the same way that words and language of common speech are learned. By study we gain knowledge of words, by investigation knowledge of the things and phenomena of our experience. The laboratory, the museum, the world at large are the normal fields of this process of investigation; much as books and the words of the lecturer are the normal fields of pure study. This brings us to the definition of research.

Original research goes beyond investigation in that the things sought for are not only undescribed, but, when the research begins, are actually out of sight, that is, unseen. The field of research may be visible, but the genuine meaning of research is a looking beyond what can be seen; herein is found the most essential characteristic of successful research, viz., a comprehensive, a keen and a disciplined imagination of things and truths before they become objects of experience. We must distinguish, too, between scientific research and haphazard stumbling upon strange things in out of the way places. Curiosity hunters may discover novel and undescribed things, and may even point the way to their source, but it is the trained scientific investigator who discriminates their true value, orients them in the known world of things and makes them available for the use of man.

Research, as was noted at the outset, is not a special faculty possessed by a few, but a common faculty specially trained and systematically exercised by but the few, for whom it becomes a tool of the highest value, and the means of opening up new fields of knowledge to mankind.

The underlying principle of original research is simple inquisitiveness; that trait so characteristic of the Yankee and the fox. I use the term Yankee as the name for a typical American, not a local or political term, but the name for the smart, shrewd, inventive man, who depends upon his own resources and, if without learning or education, still succeeds in penetrating untried fields, and in making headway under all manner of reverses, hindrances and difficulties, always exhibiting a quickness to observe differences and to interpret the meaning of things. All kinds of successful pioneers are made of such stuff.

This quality is generally more active in youth than in grown men; the common methods of education repress rather than encourage its activity; and the old classical system of education is particularly effective in this direction. This repressing result is reached, however, not by direct means, but by the very perfection with which study, pure and simple, is fostered. It is a conspicuous fact in schools that often the keenest and brightest boy is not always the best student; he may know more and observe more closely than any other, but he gets low marks in spelling, reading and, may be, in arithmetic, even in geography as it was formerly taught, and particularly in grammar, which, I believe, is not now made so much of as formerly in common schools. The education which represses curiosity and inquisitiveness, and only educates memory for words, makes learned men of the pedantic kind; so far it discourages and neglects the discipline of the research quality. The fact that the classical system of education trains the study quality to the neglect of research does not, however, diminish the importance of the kind of training it supplies as a fitting for a man for research. It is the neglected part to which attention is directed. I know of no better kind of discipline in study than the thorough and refined methods of the old classical system, supplemented by an early and continuous use of science. It is the neglect of this method which makes the slipshod, careless work which all scientific scholars regret, and unfits many students of science for successful investigation or research. This discipline produces results which may be likened to the tempering of steel, which shows after the steel is hammered into shape and sharpened for its specific purposes. The man who lacks this tempering is incapable of holding the keen edge, or of making the fine and far-reaching discriminations, which a mind well tempered by the rigid discipline of the classical system has acquired.

From the objective side research is the attacking of unsolved problems, the examination of facts undescribed and unexplored, the seeking for truths imagined, but not hitherto formulated. New discoveries of truths, the correction of partial statements of truth, the formation and formulations of new conceptions, these are the results of research. What are the disciplines which foster research?

The first requisite in the discipline required for successful research is the keeping alive of the original faculty of inquisitiveness. It must not be stifled while the student is being taught language and the content of language from the books.

The second point is that the method of exact study must be thoroughly acquired, and applied in a wide field of knowledge, whatever may be the particular field of original research later to be chosen. One of the greatest difficulties met with in selecting men to take up original research in particular fields (as brought to light in the deliberations of the Carnegie Institution) is to find men sufficiently well trained to be competent to go on without guidance in new and untried fields. It is also a great mistake, since it necessarily leads to later disappointment, to tempt, or allow, unripe men to try their hand at deep problems of research—to putter over serious problems which the expert and experienced hand knowingly hesitates to attempt. There is no better way to acquire this part of the discipline than by a thorough classical training, such as might be given in what is called an arts course in our college, with a carefully selected and systematically arranged series of science studies added. In this study of science care should be taken to begin courses in which lessons are to be learned, and learned upon authority and with exactitude, later to be perfected by laboratory practise; such is, in my judgment, the finest kind of preliminary discipline for a man of research. For it takes a learned man to tell the truth with precision, even when he is its discoverer; and, moreover, only the learned man knows when he has discovered a new truth. Ability to study deeply and accurately is then the second essential qualification to the making of a man of research.

Thirdly, to undertake original research a man must be a trained investigator. He must know the methods by which other men have discovered truths and interpreted things. To learn this he must have gone through the exercise of a personal discovery of the meaning of things—have tested for himself the reality of the descriptions written in the books. Such training is best given in the laboratory; analysis and experiment leading to already known results must be gone over by the investigator in careful detail, and the steps of the progress, the associated conditions, the order of sequence of phenomena must be closely observed and recorded; and the relation of the phenomena to one another and the results of experiments clearly understood, formulated and, best of all, fully written out.

Fourth, the man of research should have a vivid imagination, which should be trained to be accurate and to be his servant, not his master. This faculty, I fear, is often trained out of men by what is called experience. Not only does the dry, matter of fact, world of every day tend to keep one down to thoughts of the immediate present, but the immensity of science and its practical applications, by the very abundance of the known facts, crowds out of use all mental pictures of hypothetical conditions not known to common experience. Nevertheless, as has been already noted, the very function of research is to go beyond the field of present knowledge, and in it the attention must be fixed steadily upon concepts, the realization of which has not yet been attained. The scientific imagination may be exercised and disciplined by the study of mathematics. The architect's work is a definite application of imagination to projecting new construction. What are called 'working hypotheses' are the results of this exercise of imagination in advancing research. The discipline of the faculty of imagination is necessary to enable the researcher to distinguish between his concepts of imagination and his concepts of experience. If he knows how to distinguish them, his imagination becomes his valuable assistant, if ignorant or unobservant of the difference, his results become speculative and ineffective.

A fifth trait marking the typical man of research is a wide, open mind. Philosophically he should be a whole man, not simply a one-sided specialist. Many a man attempting research has come short of really advancing knowledge on account of his prejudices. Darwin was a typical example of a philosophically whole man; whatever personal opinions he may have had, they were never allowed to prejudice any hypothesis he was examining, nor to interfere with conclusions toward which the observed facts logically led him.

Faraday was another such man. He wrote the following words early in his scientific career-and his life work was an expression of their truth:

The philosopher should be a man willing to listen to every suggestion, but determined to judge for himself. He should not be governed by appearances, have no favorite hypothesis, be of no school, and in doctrine have no master. He should not be a respecter of persons, but of things. Truth should be his primary object. If to these qualities he added industry, he may indeed hope to walk within the veil of the temple of nature.

Again he wrote:

We may be sure of facts, but our interpretation of facts we should doubt. He is the wisest philosopher who holds his theory with some doubt; who is able to proportion his judgment and confidence to the value of the evidence set before him, taking a fact for a fact and a supposition for a supposition. (Gladstone's, 'Life of Mr. Faraday,' pp. 93 and 94.)

Sixth, research must be protected from interference. I take this expression from the game of football; the man who runs with the ball requires the protection of all the rest of the team. So research can not be carried on to successful issue, except by a man who is permitted to devote the best that is in him to the problem of research, and to do so he must have the way opened for him. Many may help to give him the opportunity, but the one thing essential is that he be left free and unimpeded to pursue the problem, wherever it leads him. Time and occasion and money must be at his disposal to such extent as his problem demands.

Research work must be regarded as the very flower of a university system, and should not be lightly valued or carelessly managed. Only men thoroughly fitted by the training of study and the training of investigation, and the training of mental discipline, should be allowed the privilege of entering upon research in our universities; but whenever the proper man is found, the providing of a way for his pursuit of research work, in the field for which he is best fitted, becomes a contribution direct to the progress of science in the world, of which any university may be proud. The university may well scrutinize with consummate care the qualities demanded for research, provide rigidly for the discrimination of those qualities wherever they are highly developed, and may wisely provide with liberality for the true man of research when he is discovered and is properly trained for his work. But in order to help the right man in his work of research, too great care can not be given to the importance of study and investigation as preliminary steps in the preparation for research. A brilliant student, who lacks power of investigation, may be unfit and inadequate to carry on research; and the most capable man of research may still come short of being a ready or able learner of words. Many a man by indomitable energy may overcome great deficiencies, but this fact should not excuse a university from the most rigid discrimination of the essential elements of merit in a man seeking to undertake research work.

As the highest aim of the literary scholar is the production of lasting literary creations, so the highest aim of the research scholar is the advancement of the boundaries of actual scientific knowledge and the discovery of new truths. In both cases the aim must be toward the highest, or the attainment will be unworthy. It is given to but very few to make marked success in either line. The man of research must be willing to devote his life to his work, to sacrifice most of the enjoyable things otherwise within his reach. He must not be deceived as to the measurement of success. Research can not be weighed by its practical value, to apply the term in its every-day sense, for practical value depends upon the financial productiveness of the energy expended. As with a newly discovered country, years of toil and great expenditure of money, and it may be loss of life, may be demanded before any profit results from the discovery. Even in fields in which rich results have already been attained great expenditure of thought, energy and expense may be required before practical results become evident from new research. We can recall many such cases. Success in research can not be measured by applause, or even by recognition from other scientific investigators. For appreciation comes only from those who appreciate; only those thoroughly conversant with a particular field of knowledge can distinguish an advance or enlargement of the boundaries of that field. The man of research must, therefore, be content to be alone in most of his work; unappreciated and unapplauded, using energy and money on tasks which may seem to all about him useless and wasteful. For these reasons this field of activity should not be entered upon lightly.

We as teachers should ever be on the watch for men of the right quality for such advanced work, but should never tempt mere enthusiasts to undertake a task which for success requires the toughness of a soldier, the temper of a saint and the training of a scholar.