Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/April 1877/Laboratory Endowment




THE advancement of science is at once a glory and a disgrace to our modern civilization. It is glorious that so much has been done, but disgraceful that the public should be so often indifferent to the doing. In view of the benefits derived from scientific research, it would seem as if governments and communities ought to vie with one another in its encouragement. But, as a matter of fact, this assistance has in every country been unsystematic, meagre, partial, and infrequent. A museum may be equipped, perhaps, an exploring expedition fitted out, a geological survey established, or a party of astronomers sent forth to observe an eclipse or transit. Even these things are too often done grudgingly, and on a basis of false economy. Physics and chemistry, the two sciences most immediately bound up with modern progress, have received little or no public aid. No laboratory exclusively for research has yet been endowed either by national or private enterprise. Colleges enough have been founded, with laboratories more or less fitted for the work of routine instruction; but these are manifestly unsuited to the production of remarkably far-reaching results. Every great industry in America has been directly benefited either by one or the other of the two sciences in question; fortunes have been made from practical applications of their principles, and yet scarcely anything has been done for them in return. It would seem as if our manufacturers expected to get applications of science without any science to apply. Nearly all the research accomplished, either in our own country or in Europe, has been done by university or college professors, in the intervals between their regular duties, as an incidental matter, and usually with meagre appliances. Two results have followed: first, much wasting of individual energy; and, secondly, a lack of coherence in the knowledge won. The data of science become unsystematic, scattered, full of gaps and breaks, more like an archipelago than a continent. A thousand investigators, working independently and with but casual reference to each other, may discover a vast number of important facts, advance many useful arts, and yet accomplish but little for definite, exact, systematic, coherent science. The world gains much by their labors, but only a tithe of what it might gain were those labors wisely aided and fostered. For the present state of affairs, however, nobody is to blame. It is probably an unavoidable incident of scientific growth. A wider public culture and a deeper public appreciation will undoubtedly correct it. Looking forward hopefully, then, we may ask how the greatest good is to be done.

That the two sciences already mentioned are much in need of material encouragement, there can be but little doubt. They are experimental sciences, requiring for their advancement expensive apparatus and materials, such as individual students cannot provide for themselves, or few universities supply. Other branches of knowledge have been better provided for. Every observatory is to a certain degree a laboratory for astronomical research; every well-arranged museum affords opportunities for the scientific naturalist; every geological survey is ostensibly an organization of investigators. But a college laboratory, full of elementary students, each calling for personal attention from the professor, can hardly supply the best means for really advanced work. To be sure, every professor ought to do something, if only to discover a single small fact a year. Even though that fact be a hopeless negative, it will still have a true scientific value. When we question Nature, every answer, whether yes or no, counts for something in the upbuilding of science. Every man who is fit to teach science at all is competent to do at least a little in this direction. A little also may be accomplished by students; such work, for example, as the determination of densities, or completing the description of simple compounds. In one laboratory special attention might be paid each year to a single class of not over-complicated substances; and the advanced students could for that class fill up some of the gaps in our knowledge. But this work, although of immense value to science, is not of the very highest order. The most important labors can scarcely be undertaken save in laboratories specially and liberally endowed for purely scientific research.

The objections which are frequently urged against the endowment of research arise from a misconception of what is really intended. It is ordinarily assumed that such endowments would merely provide large salaries and abundant leisure for certain scientific men, who, with no clearly-defined duties, and no distinct relation to each other, should try experiments at their own sweet will, and make discoveries whenever luck and chance were favorable. Such a vague plan for aiding science would of course be objectionable. Not only might the so-called "young men of promise" become deprived of energy by the ease of such positions, but even experienced workers would be liable to regard their salaries as the means of comfort without hard labor, or as a reward for past achievements. The money thus expended might advance science a little, but probably not so much as if it were paid over to some first-rate college or scientific school. Science is not to be truly encouraged by the creation of mere sinecures for scientific men. To construct an argument, however, against such a plan as the one mentioned, would only be to demolish a very clumsy man of very coarse straw. A true laboratory for research is something quite different from the feather-bed institution commonly objected to.

That there should be facilities for research, and that the investigator deserves a livelihood, nobody will deny. Indeed, these two points form an almost conclusive argument in favor of the endowment of laboratories. There is yet another consideration of very great force with which the public mind is less familiar. Both in chemistry and in physics there are many unsolved problems too great for individual students to grapple. Their solution can be effected only by the coöperation of many trained specialists, working harmoniously together upon the basis of some definite plan. The fundamental principles of physical science, principles upon which rest many applications important in the arts, and in which every manufacturer has a direct although too frequently unconscious interest, are to be eventually based upon the answers to these problems. In many a branch of industry thousands of dollars have been spent upon scientific experiments, which, for want of fundamental principles, have been aimless and unsystematic. Mere tentative trials, costly and laborious, with almost even chances for and against success, have taken the place of rigorous, careful, strictly scientific work, based upon definite and certain foundations. In short, the arts have suffered from the fact that neither chemistry nor physics can yet claim to be really an exact science. The question of the endowment of research, then, may well be put in this shape. Laboratories should be established in which adequate corps of thorough specialists shall coöperate in those investigations which individuals cannot undertake.

In a laboratory organized upon this idea, every worker should be assigned to definite, positive duties, the accurate and careful performance of which would eventually be sure to advance exact knowledge. Here there is nothing speculative or doubtful. Here are certain things to be done, which can be done only by men of the most thorough training, equipped with the best appliances. In such a laboratory, chance would have but little place. The work would run to hard routine, to the solid establishment of accurate scientific data, to the systematic determination of substantial facts. Precise physical measurements would precede generalization, just as the labor of the quarryman goes before that of the builder. Startling and brilliant discoveries might possibly be made, but incidentally rather than as the result of special effort. The real value of the institution would be independent of anything sensational, and would rest upon considerations of the most severely practical kind.

Examples of the sort of work appropriate to an endowed laboratory may easily be found. For instance, one of the greatest of all scientific problems is that of the connection between the composition of a substance and its physical properties. Suppose this question were to be taken up systematically by a well-organized body of investigators. The first step in the research would manifestly be to determine, carefully and with the utmost rigor, the physical properties of the so-called chemical elements. At the outset each one of these substances would have to be isolated in quantity, and in a chemically pure condition—a labor which of itself would involve a great amount of research. Some of the elements have never yet been seen in a state of absolute purity, or have been obtained only in very minute portions, and accordingly new methods of treatment would need to be devised. Then would come the measurement of physical relations, thermal, electrical, optical, magnetic, mechanical, and so on. For each element, as far as possible, should be determined the melting-point, the boiling-point, the density, the coefficient of expansion, the specific and latent heat, thermal and electrical conductivity, the thermo-chemical constants, and many other data of much importance and value. Furthermore, these constants should be determined under widely-varied conditions, notably of pressure and temperature. For example, it would be necessary to ascertain the coefficient of expansion, and also the specific heat of a body at every degree, through a wide range of temperatures, and in not merely one, but in several series of observations. Thus, and thus only, could we attain to the exactness which science rigidly demands. Besides the actual measurements, this great labor would in many cases involve the comparative testing of various methods of research, and in some instances the invention of new experimental processes.

Years could be spent upon the metals alone, and the work done would add not only to our knowledge of their properties, but also much to science as regards variety and precision of methods. In connection with these researches would naturally arise an investigation of metallic alloys—a subject of which true science knows as yet very little. The material accumulated would undoubtedly so systematize and extend our knowledge of these important substances, that we should soon be able to determine in advance all the properties of a proposed alloy, and even to ascertain by calculation what alloys could or could not be formed. The extent of research here suggested may be realized when we remember that, out of the sixty-five elements now known, not one has been thoroughly described, or described with even a moderate approximation to thoroughness. These investigations upon the elements would be for chemistry and physics what the preparation of star-maps and planetary tables is for astronomy, or the dissection of the human frame for medicine. They would certainly furnish a foundation for exact physical science such at at present is scarcely even begun.

After the examination of the elements would come the consideration of compounds. These should be taken up, series by series, in some regular order, and at least every typical body carefully described. Thus, step by step, the lines of assault would be drawn around the besieged problems, until at length the citadel would yield, exactness would replace the present chaos, and definite laws would stand where now are speculations. Could any branch of applied science fail to reap a benefit from this result? Would not every industry in any way dependent upon either chemistry or physics be helped? Apart from direct applications of science to the arts, the mere substitution of accuracy for inaccuracy in questions of scientific principle ought greatly to facilitate technological investigations, put new weapons into the hands of the artisan, and so add immensely to the resources of civilized life.

The investigations here indicated are not by any means the only researches proper for an endowed laboratory. They are merely types, to illustrate the general character of work which such an institution should do. It is true that, although individuals cannot deal with these greater problems in their entirety, individuals may, working separately and disconnectedly, contribute much toward their solution. But, unfortunately, researches of this kind are among the most difficult and arduous. They savor much of hard routine and yield no quick return of glory to the investigator, who, already familiar with monotony in his ordinary duties, naturally prefers to undertake labors producing with less effort a more immediate reputation. The discovery of new compounds is less troublesome, and brings speedier celebrity; hence the more solid work of establishing accurate numerical data is very little done. When done, it is done piecemeal. Garden flowers are so much easier to raise than oaks.

Now, assuming that a laboratory for research ought to be established, let us consider some of the leading questions as to its arrangement and organization. First, with regard to the building. This need not be very expensive, since architectural experiments have no necessary connection with the purposes in view. It should be plain and substantial outwardly, sufficiently spacious within, accessible to much sunlight and away from the heavier jar of traffic. The suburbs of a great city would be perhaps the most advantageous position for it to occupy. The most serious considerations, however, would concern its interior arrangements. It should, of course, contain a sufficient number of rooms for the accommodation of different branches of research; for example, a photometric room, another for gas analysis, a third for electric measurement, a fourth for calorimetric work, and so on. In the basement, connecting with the solid earth, might be placed a number of heavy stone piers for the support of very delicate instruments. One important item of apparatus would be a steam-engine. This, together with the chemical furnaces and a small machine-shop, might be provided for in a cheap out-building apart from the main structure. Steam, gas, and water, should of course be available in all parts of the laboratory.

But although expense could be avoided in the building, it ought not to be dodged in the purchase of instruments. These would necessarily be of the most costly character. Mere models, such as are commonly used for class instruction, would not suffice. Every instrument of precision used in the laboratory should be a standard of its kind, the best which could be made; otherwise the work of the institution might fall short of the high character intended for it. So also with the chemicals: only the best should be tolerated. As for a library, fitted for scientific reference-work, the cost would depend much upon locality. In a country town, away from other collections of books, the expense would be considerable; but near a city provided with libraries the outlay need not be very great. Still, some money would have to be expended in this very important direction.

Next as regards the working-staff. Since the researches to be undertaken are mainly those which involve the cooperation of specialists, we must start with a sufficiently large and varied body of men. At the head of the institution there ought to be a man of thorough training, proved ability, broad general ideas, and great executive capacity. He should guide and systematize all the work of the laboratory, and to him, as to the director of an observatory, the others should be subordinate. Under him should be at least the following corps of principals: one chemist, one electrician, a specialist in heat, another in optics, a mathematician, and an expert mechanic. Upon the last-named individual would devolve the duty of constructing, altering, or repairing apparatus. To this main staff might be added assistants, as many as the means of the laboratory would allow. Some of these minor positions could perhaps be filled by means of fellowships, analogous to those recently established by the Johns Hopkins University. It might be feasible also to admit private investigators and post-graduate students to the advantages for research afforded by the laboratory, with the understanding that, in return for favors received, they should contribute a certain amount of labor toward the main purposes of the institution. Such volunteers, if I may call them so, could give, say, one-third of their time to this general work, and have the remaining two-thirds for their own investigations. Thus the laboratory might often aid young men of promise and ability, and derive real benefit from them in return. This power of encouraging and directing the beginner in research would not be least among the merits of the institution. For want of just such encouragement many and many a young enthusiast is driven out of scientific work into some field of labor less congenial and often less important. How much the world has lost in this way, how much science has been retarded, no one can ever estimate.

But how much money is needed for all this? That depends partly upon locality, partly upon other circumstances. In a place where building is cheap, real estate low, and living inexpensive, a moderate endowment would go much farther than in a city like Boston or New York. Under the most favorable conditions perhaps half a million dollars would suffice. Such a sum is by no means extravagant. Single individuals have given us much and sometimes a great deal more toward the establishment of a college, school, art-gallery, observatory, library, or hospital. Why not, then, half a million for a laboratory, three-tenths or less to go for building and equipment, and the remainder for permanently endowing the institution? Even a million would not be too much by any means. There are in our country a good many men able to give as much as this, whose fortunes have been made from applications of science to the arts. Here, then, is a chance for them to reciprocate a little, and at the same time to cover themselves with at least posthumous glory. Or, the expense might be borne by Government. A hundred and fifty thousand dollars down for building and outfit, with twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars annually for sustenance, would do very well. If it is right for Congress to equip transit expeditions in the interest of astronomy, it would certainly be right thus to assist the two sciences to which our greater industries are so deeply indebted. In fact, the United States can better afford to incur this very moderate expense than not to incur it. In the long-run the laboratory would be worth as much to the country as either the Naval Observatory, the Coast Survey, or the geological expeditions—all, by-the-way, excellent enterprises, which have received, if anything, less encouragement than they have deserved. The development of science in a nation means eventually the discovery of new resources and the creation of new wealth. Whoever doubts this statement needs only to look at the past achievements of physical science in order to be fully convinced of its truth. What national investment ever brought in richer returns than that famous grant made by Congress to S. F. B. Morse?

Should the proposed laboratory, if established, be independent, or connected with some other institution? That would depend upon a variety of circumstances. If endowed by the United States Government, it surely ought to be connected with and controlled by the Smithsonian Institution. Even an endowment contributed from private sources might well be placed under that management. For the Smithsonian Institution is really a magnificent example of a great trust splendidly administered. Both financially and as regards the interests of science the managers of this institution have done admirably. Money placed in their hands would certainly be well spent. Every dollar would be so handled as to produce the maximum good effect. A laboratory under this control, whether publicly or privately endowed, would assume a national character, and might serve as a centre of coöperation for investigators in all parts of our country.

Leading Washington out of account, a laboratory for research might perhaps be best established in connection with some good university—like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Michigan, or Cornell. It would then be already provided with a library and a building-lot, some apparatus at least would be ready to hand, and a strong social element would aid in the attraction of scientific men. Moreover, with such affiliations, the laboratory would often be able to secure good volunteer work from advanced or post-graduate students; an advantage by no means to be despised.

But it is hardly worth while to multiply suggestions. Enough has been said to show distinctly the main points in favor of a laboratory specially endowed for research, and some of the chief considerations which must arise in its establishment. Such a laboratory as is here indicated, a laboratory in which many specialists could combine forces in the more difficult fundamental investigations of physical science, surely ought not to remain long a mere fabric of the imagination, a misty dream of the future. It should be founded—whether by an individual or by the nation it matters little. Let us hope that, before many years pass by, the dream may become a reality.