Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/34

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start out to obtain a knowledge of the world by visiting its different portions.

But it was soon found that many never succeeded in getting far away from home. It is true that there were those who, untrammeled by tradition, precedent, or authority, made bold excursions into the regions of the unknown, and returned richly laden with spoils, but these were the few; the many were found to require guidance and support for some time before they became able to carry on explorations on their own account.

The underlying principle of the new method was correct and must survive, but it was a mistake to give it universal and unrestricted application. The earlier and indeed much of the later instruction in physical laboratories was tinctured with this error.

By many we were advised that the proper course to pursue was to put into the hands of the student who, in many instances, had little or no previous knowledge of the subject, a few pieces of simple apparatus and expect him to rediscover for himself principles of physical science which, although now commonplace, were at one time as completely surrounded by difficulties to the human mind as are now, for instance, the principles of the dissipation of energy and the vortex theory of atoms.

The result of the crude experiments of the student was often to disprove the law which he was expected to establish; for he lacked that knowledge and training which would enable him to take into consideration the influence of secondary causes and conditions, and to determine or properly interpret the errors of experiment. Something was gained, it is true, in the way of familiarity with the methods of manipulation, but very little in the acquisition of real knowledge.

Even if this method of instruction be made reasonably successful, the actual information concerning natural laws which the student obtains must be largely superficial, often erroneous, and the rate of acquisition extremely slow. Far better would, it be for him to begin his so called practical study of the subject after becoming tolerably familiar with its general outlines and prominent features through the study of some reliable text-book, and especially after having armed and equipped himself with such a training in mathematics as will enable him to discuss understandingly the results which he obtains, to consider the limitations to which they are subjected, and the influence which has been exerted upon them by errors of various kinds.

In this matter, as with most others, we are likely to fall into extreme views. Some of us maintain that experiment alone is the key, by the use of which Nature's mysteries are to be explored, and we fortify our belief by pointing to Faraday, the greatest experimental philosopher the world has yet produced. We forget that Faraday was ignorant only of the outward, conventional symbols of mathematical reasoning, and that one of the greatest works on mathematical