Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/278

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Editor's Table.



THE address delivered by Prof. Michael Foster, as president this year of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was not as long or elaborate as such addresses are wont to be, but it contained many thoughts of great value. After sketching the vast advances in scientific knowledge made within the present century, he observed, with great truth, that "the very story of the past which tells of the triumphs of science puts away all thoughts of vainglory." Why? In the first place, because no one can study the history of science without being made to feel how very near, in many cases, the men of the past came to anticipating some of the most famous discoveries and generalizations of later years. Translate the language of an earlier age into modern terms, and you often find that you have expressed the most advanced scientific doctrine of to-day. In the second place, if we find a certain lack of definiteness and truth to fact in the ideas of the past, how can we be at all sure how our ideas will look when confronted with the fuller knowledge which doubtless our successors will possess? Lastly, "there is written clearly on each page of the history of science the lesson that no scientific truth is born anew, coming by itself and of itself. Each new truth is always the offspring of something which has gone before, becoming in turn the parent of something coming after." However great the work of a man of science may be, "it is not wholly his own; it is in part the outcome of the work of men who have gone before." In this respect Professor Foster sees a striking difference between the man of science and the poet. We always know whence the former came, but the latter is almost as devoid of visible ancestry as Melchizedek. When the man of science dies the results which he achieved remain, and his work is taken up where he left it off; whereas the poet, strictly speaking, has no continuators. The Homeridæ do not represent Homer, nor do Dryden and Congreve take the place of Shakespeare.

The story of natural knowledge or science, we are reminded, is a story of continued progress. "There is in it not so much as a hint of falling back—not even of standing still." The enemies of science sometimes seek to turn against it the fact that each age revises the conclusions of the preceding one. They ask, What dependence can be placed upon opinions or theories that are thus subject to change? The answer is that the science of each age is the nearest approximation which that age can make to the truth, and upon some points represents the truth with a great approach to finality of interpretation. The law of gravitation, for example, as formulated by Newton, lies at the foundation of the physics of today. The circulation of the blood was discovered once for all by Harvey. The true theory of the solar system was given once for all by Kepler, It is the glory of science that whatever of imperfection may lurk in a scientific theory is sure to be brought to light and corrected by subsequent observation and analysis.

The learned professor dwelt briefly but forcibly upon the qualities of the scientific mind. In the