Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/575

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

had they lived earlier. The complexity of knowledge and of civilization has increased more rapidly within the past four hundred years than the capacity of the mind. A century ago it might have been almost possible to be personally acquainted with the men of the world who were doing work of importance; now it is not possible to remember their names.



In connection with the order of merit established by King Edward on the occasion of his coronation it is of some interest to note that four men of science—whose names are given above—have been placed among the twelve original members. There are in addition three generals, two admirals, two men of letters and one artist. It would thus appear that one third of the recognition for services rendered to the nation fall to science, twice as much as to letters and humanities and four times as much as to art. The creation of the British order of merit and the selection of its recipients have apparently met with general approval, but its usefulness is not quite obvious. The Prussian order 'Pour le Mérite,' established by Frederick the Great in 1740, was fitted to its age and environment, but it seems somewhat late to found an English imitation. An eminent German resident in America has recently maintained that productive scholarship here suffers because we have no honorary recognitions such as flourish in Germany. It must be admitted that men of science like such honors. Even a man as great as Huxley was obviously pleased at being made a privy councilor and being granted an audience with the Queen. Sir William Thomson was willing to give up the name of his father, himself a professor of mathematics, to become Lord Kelvin, even though he has no heir. It is said that he and Professor Lister were made first baronets and then barons because they have no heirs, a certain amount of property, more likely to be possessed by brewers than by scientific men, being required before a hereditary title is granted. But while men of science may like to be Hofrats, Geheimrats, vons, sirs, lords and LL.D.'s, it is not certain that their work is thereby improved or that these honorary distinctions will survive the twentieth century.

Much the same may be said in regard to the British Academy for the promotion of historical, philosophical and philological studies to which a charter has just been granted by King Edward. In so far as this academy is intended to designate forty-nine 'immortals' in certain departments, permitting them to attach several letters to their names and letting their chief corporate duty be the election of their successors, membership is a kind of order or title which belongs to an aristocratic rather than to a democratic age and people. When academies were established, chiefly in the seventeenth and the first part of the eighteenth centuries, it was possible and desirable for all the scientific men of the nation to meet together for experiment and discussion, and membership in the academy usually carried with it a pension or other tangible advantage. Whether membership in an academy simply as an honorary distinction stimulates scientific work in those who are called and in those who would like to be called is perhaps somewhat analogous to the question as to whether good works are encouraged by the rewards and punishments formerly prominent in theological systems. There is partial truth in Tennyson's verses:

The man of science himself is fonder of glory, and vain;
An eye well-practiced in nature, a spirit bounded and poor.

The desire for fame has doubtless been useful in the course of social evolu-