Popular Science Monthly from its commencement; I know that it has been the aim to make the science of the Monthly not only popular, but accurate, and that must be my apology for writing this letter.
|Very respectfully yours, |
|Charles E. L. B. Davis,|
|First-Lieutenant U.S. Engineers.|
A NEW standard has grown up in modern times by which the advance of nations may be measured. Hitherto, military power, extent of territory, historic prestige, and commercial resources, have been taken as the chief tests of national greatness. These were old barbaric standards. But, with the progress of civilization, which means the rule of reason in human affairs or the control of society by pacific agencies, new ideals of what constitutes national grandeur are beginning to arise. The relation of nationalities to science may be looked upon as a true test of their rank. Science is an agency of human amelioration universally acknowledged, which is already powerful in shaping the course of the world's affairs; and it is certain to be more and more appealed to in future in determining the order of nationalities in the hierarchy of civilization. What is the relation of a people to science—the highest form of knowledge? How do they estimate it? What encouragement do they give to its original investigation and popular diffusion? are questions not to be neglected in our estimates of national character. How does this country rank with other countries in its appreciation of science? is a home question, which it is desirable to have clearly and decisively answered.
In an able article, entitled "Exact Science in America," published in the last number of the North American Review, Prof. Simon Newcomb, Superintendent of the Naval Observatory in Washington, has taken up the subject of the state of science in the United States, and brought us into comparison in this respect with foreign nations. His results are not flattering to our national vanity, and the inferior rank which we take leads him to inquire into the causes of our backwardness. We cannot do our readers a better service than to state some of Prof. Newcomb's main positions, and look a little into the question he raises as to the cause of the present state of things, and what is best to be done. So important is the subject, and so excellent its presentation, that we shall make copious extracts from the article; but we must remind the reader that these extracts are but fragments, and can give no just idea of the unity and fullness of the original statement.
Prof. Newcomb confines himself to a consideration of the state of pure or exact science, "to which we are impelled by the purely intellectual wants of our nature," and omits the applications of science to the arts of life, to which we are impelled by practical motives, and in which "we should find our country in the front ranks of progress." Beginning with mathematics, he says: "When we seek for published mathematical investigation in this country, we find hardly any thing but an utter blank. Of mathematical journals designed for original investigations, such as we find in nearly every country in Europe, we have none, and never have had any. There have been a number of short-lived attempts to establish mathematical periodicals suited to the state of science here, some of them worthy of all praise; but the necessity of adapting their contents to the capacity of their readers prevented