Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/November 1877/Editor's Table



IT is a great mistake to suppose that all the influences exerted on the mind by scientific study are necessarily of a widening or liberalizing character. There is an immense amount of legitimate scientific work that does not tend to produce any such effect, but, on the contrary, has a narrowing and cramping influence upon the intellect. The intense and prolonged concentration of thought upon special inquiries, when it becomes a habit, excludes that breadth of view which can only be attained by contemplating subjects in their wide relations. Absorption in detail is inevitably unfavorable to the grasp of principles, so that the mere specialist is never a philosopher. Of course, all strong scientific men must be more or less specialists, must limit themselves to restricted portions of the scientific field; but in such minds the narrowing influences of particular studies are counteracted by keeping up an interest in various subjects, and the comprehensive results of research. There are many scientific workers, however, who fail to do this, who lose themselves in their own narrow departments, and become, not only inappreciative of the grand connections of scientific truth, but contemptuous of the higher work of scientific generalization. They applaud observation and experiment, and the accumulation of isolated facts, and stigmatize as mere theorizers those who labor to organize these facts and observations into rational systems. It is not to be expected, nor is it desirable, that all scientific workers should be philosophical thinkers, but there is great need that many of them should cultivate a more liberal spirit in this respect, and recognize that the systematic study of the relations of the sciences is as much a legitimate specialty as the working out of their separate and disconnected facts.

There is another respect in which a large class of scientific men exhibit a narrowness of feeling that is far from commendable. They cherish but little sympathy with the work of diffusing science, and take frequent occasion to disparage the motives and character of those of their brethren who devote themselves to this kind of labor. We are glad to notice that the Saturday Review administers a just rebuke to these illiberal and censorious gentlemen. Commenting upon President Thomson's address before the British Association, that journal remarks:

"It is a thankless office to have to record, as we are now compelled to do, that this time the impression was not a very favorable one. In one word, the president's discourse was much too technical for the occasion and the audience. It would be ungenerous to cast any personal responsibility for this result on the eminent specialist who was chosen for the office. The gift of interpreting the results of highly-special researches for the benefit of those who are not prepared beforehand by special knowledge is by no means a common one—in fact, it is itself a specialty which very few have mastered; for which reason people who are anxious to parade themselves as amateurs in science are much in the habit of cheapening it. The notion that Prof. Huxley and Prof. Tyndall are mere popularizers—because, forsooth, they can expound as well as discover—has almost attained the rank of a vulgar error. Some remarks to that effect were heard at this very meeting in the Guildhall of Plymouth. Those who imagine that such remarks give them a scientific air may be assured that there is no more certain stamp of a narrow and superficial habit of mind. However, we cannot all go to Corinth; a specialist, however eminent, has not necessarily the gift of large and lucid exposition, and if he has not, the temptation to take refuge in the technical details of his own province is almost irresistible."

The pettiness and jealousy here reprobated is by no means confined to England; it has become a sort of cant among many reputable scientific men in the United States. The contemptuous remarks often made of the efforts of such men as Huxley and Tyndall to make science acceptable to the public are not always inspired by envy; they betray a very low estimate, often tinged with scorn, of all efforts to reduce science to a form acceptable to common people. We have had occasion repeatedly to call attention to the paradox that, in this country, eminent for its popular institutions and its popular education, scientific men are in less hearty sympathy with the work of popularizing scientific education than they are in England. The American Scientific Association has persistently declined to take any interest in the question, while the British Association, upon which it was modeled, has done much to encourage and promote this kind of effort. Although our teachers and boards of education have often and urgently called for assistance in organizing courses of study in which science should receive increasing attention, and be more methodically and efficiently cultivated, we are not aware that any authoritative body of American scientists has ever troubled itself to offer advice or respond to such appeals.

There is, of course, a certain validity in the reply that scientific bodies are organized for other purposes, and that, as Agassiz used to put it, "it is their office to create science, and not to distribute it—the latter function being the office of our educational system." But if our system fail of its duty in this particular, it is certainly incumbent on those influential bodies, who have the interests of science in charge, to exert such an influence upon the schools as shall tend to secure the object, and, failing to do this, they are chargeable with a culpable indifference toward the work of making science common and popular. The plea that scientific men are absorbed in investigations, and have little time to give to these outside considerations, is quite sufficient to excuse a simple non-participation in such work; but there is abundant reason to think that the plea is often an uncandid pretext, and that the disinclination to act is due to narrow and petty prejudices upon the subject.

The indifference of many scientific men to the work of popularizing science, and their ill-concealed disdain of those who succeed in it, are no doubt largely due to their incapacity to share in it. We have, unfortunately, but few scientific men with sufficient literary training to write with elegance or lecture with eloquence upon topics which they may nevertheless thoroughly understand, and the number of scientific professors who fail in exposition before the public, and even before their college classes, is unfortunately large. The art of vivid, effective presentation by language is so difficult that, unless a man has a genius in this way, it requires great labor to attain even a moderate excellence in it, and when attained there is no doubt a presumption that it is at the expense of more solid things. Yet there is no reason why men of real science should not be able to arrive at much greater proficiency as literary artists than is customary with them, if they would cultivate more liberal views of the importance of popular work. At all events, if our scientific men will not be at the pains to train themselves in the art of attractive popular exposition, and will be content to write and speak in the bald, technical, involved, and repulsive style which is so common with many, let them not reproach others for setting a higher value upon the accomplishments of the successful public teacher.

We have spoken in the foregoing article of the propensity of certain scientific men to magnify facts and depreciate theories. This is not only an evidence of narrowness, but of ignorance, for facts are of no value without theories. They are good for nothing until explained, or brought by reason into relation with other facts, so that some step is taken toward the establishment of a law. It is this connection of science with methods of thought, and its value as a means of arriving at the best methods, that give it its claim upon the attention of all intelligent men. The demand for its popular recognition, and its prominent place in education, rests far less upon its service in the grosser utilities of life than on its influence upon the higher intellectual operations. Science being tested and verified, clearly reasoned and demonstrated truth just to the degree in which it is matured, it must stand in the most intimate relations with those logical processes which have for their object the establishment of truth. Logic, of course, grew up into a system before the sciences were developed; but it was a partial and imperfect logic. Following the modern developments of science, growing out of them, and seriously influenced by all their great steps of advance, we have a body of logical and philosophical disquisitions that are presented by such men as Herschel, Whewell, Mill, and Jevons, who deal with the mental operations involved in the investigation of truth, in the full light of modern scientific experience. Yet this interesting field of thought must be regarded as only fairly opened, and the works of the eminent gentlemen referred to, though permanently valuable, are no doubt much in the nature of preliminary inquiries, to be yet carried out more thoroughly, and reduced to greater unity and harmony. Impressed with the importance of this great phase of the intellectual work of the age, which it is one of the leading objects of The Popular Science Monthly to promote, it has been our good-fortune to secure the services of an independent thinker and able writer, who will contribute to our pages a series of articles under the general title of "Illustrations of the Logic of Science." The author has already attained an honorable eminence in the world of science by the promulgation of advanced views of logical method, and he will reduce these views to a more systematic and popular form in the papers now to be published. e call attention to the first essay of this series in the present number, which, though but introductory, may be taken as foreshadowing the interest of the discussions that are to follow.

It will hardly be necessary to invite the reader's attention to an article, to be also followed by others, on "The Growth of the Steam-Engine." That revolutionary machine, which is so intimately interwoven with the development of civilization, is itself a part of that development, and as much a product of evolution as an oak a thousand years old. The interesting story of its unfolding from early germs, through long and laborious experiments, to the complete integration of the mechanism, will be told by Prof. Thurston in successive papers, which will be freely and elegantly illustrated. The accompanying "portrait-gallery" of the great inventors who have contributed to this grand mechanical achievement will be the finest and fullest afforded by the historic literature of the subject.