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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/October 1879/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 15‎ | October 1879


THE scientists had a profitable and pleasant time at Saratoga. The twenty-eighth annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which met there this year, was well attended and successful i a every respect. A larger number than usual of the old and eminent members of the body were present, and that the gathering represented a goodly proportion of the scientific working power of the country is shown by the fact that about one hundred and fifty papers were contributed, in different fields of inquiry, many of which were of marked merit. There are two or three respects in which the proceedings were note-worthy, and to which we desire to call attention.

The American Association was formed upon the model of the British Association, which had been in operation for some years, and incorporated its main features. They embrace common objects, and have both undergone a development that has accompanied the progress and widening of scientific thought. Their annual sessions occur so nearly together that the contributions from both sources come upon us at the same time; and, regarding them as substantially one organization, we select their papers for printing by the rule of convenience. The able inaugural address of President Allman at the Sheffield meeting appears in our present number, and we shall publish a revised edition, with notes, of the equally able address of Professor Marsh at Saratoga in our next issue. In his address before the Physiological Section of the British Association, over which he presided, Dr. P. H. Pye-Smith stated the leading objects of the organization, as follows:

"The Association to which we belong seeks to advance natural science, that is, accurate knowledge of the material world, by the following means:

"1. By bringing together men who are engaged in the various fields of science indicated by our several sections, by promoting friendship between them, by giving opportunity for discussion on points of difference, by encouraging obscure but genuine laborers with the applause of the leaders whom they have learned to venerate, and by fostering that feeling of respect for other branches of science, that knowledge of and interest in their progress, which chiefly mark the liberality of scientific study.

"2. The Association provides funds which, though small in amount, are great in worth, from the mode of their distribution; and serve in a limited degree as an encouragement, though not an endowment, of research.

"The third most important aim of our Association is, 'to obtain a more general attention to the objects and methods of science, and the removal of any disadvantages of a public kind which impede its progress.' It is for this reason that the Association travels from one to another of the great centers of population and intellectual activity of the kingdom, local scientific societies and local museums are generated and regenerated in its path, local industries are for a time raised to a higher level than that of money-getting, and every artisan may learn how his own craft depends upon knowledge of the facts of nature, and how he forms part of the great system of applied science which is subduing the earth and all its powers to the use of man. We wish to make science popular, not by deceiving idlers into the belief that any thorough knowledge can be easy, but by exciting interest in its objects, and appreciation of its methods. In the popular evening lectures you will hear those who are best qualified to speak upon their several subjects, not preaching with the dry austerity of a pedant, but bringing their own enthusiasm to kindle a contagious fire in those who hear them."

Of course the prime object of these bodies is the promotion of science by means of original investigation and the development of new views; but it is not for a moment to be overlooked that these objects can only be efficiently secured by appropriate means. Experimental investigations and systematic observations on the varied phenomena that solicit inquiry are only to be made by outlays of time, labor, and money. The scattered students of original science work generally alone, and with. such facilities as they may be able to command; but it is one legitimate object of combination to enlarge the opportunities of research, and give help and encouragement to isolated inquirers. Occasions, moreover, are constantly arising in which investigations become so comprehensive and methodical that they can not be carried on by individual resources, and outside aid is indispensable. It has been an important part of the policy of the British Association to furnish means for carrying on various investigations of this kind, the results of which are reported at its annual sessions; and, from the outset, one of. its objects has been to raise money for such purposes. Funds thus appropriated, as Dr. Pye-Smith remarked, serve as an encouragement to research without becoming a formal endowment. The Association marks out or approves a course of inquiry, and then gives substantial assistance in carrying it on to parties especially qualified for the work; and thus the utmost equivalent for the money expended is certain to be secured. This admirable feature of the British Association ought to be initiated and developed by our own society, and to this end we venture to think there should be more systematic effort to secure voluntary contributions. The American Association has not abounded in worldly wisdom to anything like the degree that its nationality would justify. Absorption in pure scientific work seems to have been unfavorable to the practical business element. This has limited the usefulness and efficiency of the organization, for money is as much the sinew of science as of war. It is to be hoped that in future increasing attention will be given to this subject; and that a special department of the society will be constituted a committee of ways and means to raise contributions and devise expedients for enlarging its usefulness.

But, though the American Association has not hitherto developed much financial skill, it is gratifying to note that it is making increasing efforts to excite public interest in its objects. Undoubtedly, the great impediment to scientific progress is popular ignorance, indifference, and lack of sympathy with the aims to which men of science are devoted. The energy, the culture, and the influence of the active classes of society are not sufficiently enlisted in behalf of this work. It is in the line of its legitimate duty for the Association to take advantage of its opportunities, as it yearly passes from city to city, to present the claims of science to the public in such a manner as to arouse enthusiasm in their behalf. Lectures to the people by able men on a variety of subjects might be easily provided for at the annual sessions, without any impairment of the legitimate work of the sections. The Saratoga meeting, we are glad to note, manifested a decided tendency to fall in with this policy. Besides the popular character of the addresses of the President and of the Vice-Presidents, advantage was taken of the opportunities afforded by the locality to give a public entertainment, both thoroughly scientific and of interest to all classes. An evening was given to the mineral waters, and three of the ablest scientific men present made addresses of great interest on the different aspects of the subject. Professor Chandler, who has analyzed most of the waters, spoke of their composition, properties, and the characters of the different springs, illustrating his remarks by appropriate experiments, and extensive tabular statements. Professor Hall, the distinguished New York geologist, took up the relation of the rock formations to these fountains, and dwelt upon the history of those disturbances in the strata which have given rise to this extensive group of mineral springs throughout a valley which yields a new water at every boring. Dr. Sterry Hunt followed, with a most interesting and impressive address on those ancient conditions and transformations of the earth's crust which explain the genesis of this class of waters. By his profound studies of geological chemistry he was enabled to throw much light on the nature and origin of mineral springs; and, like the speakers who preceded him, he deeply interested the large audience who listened to his admirable exposition. It was altogether a happy illustration of what it is possible for the Association to accomplish in the way of first-class popular work.

Another consideration is pertinent here from this general point of view. The predominant movement of scientific thought is toward subjects which take a powerful hold of the popular imagination. Biology is the great science of the latter half of the nineteenth century. The mathematics, physics, and chemistry—the exploration of inorganic nature of the past three hundred years—are but the preparation for entering upon the exhaustive original study of the science of life. There was long a belief in its impossibility, and something like a dread of engaging with it; but that period is now past, and the advanced scientific mind of the world has entered in earnest upon the multitudinous problems offered by living beings, from invisible creatures, revealed by the microscope, up to man and his complex social relations. Science has slowly but steadily approached those elevated vital questions in which all intelligent persons have an acknowledged concern, and how completely these questions are now in the ascendant is shown by the leading discussions in both the American and the British Associations for the Advancement of Science. President Marsh considered the history of the investigations into the earth's extinct life, and pointed out that the high ground of evolution has been gained, and that it is no longer an open question, but must be accepted for the guidance of future research; while all the tendencies of thought converge toward the conclusion which the future will realize, that inorganic and organic nature will yet become one. Dr. Ullman, also assuming the truth of evolution, enriches our biological literature with an elaborate essay on that remarkable substance, only made known in quite recent times, which turns out to be the common medium and substratum of all vital manifestations—the liquid protoplasm. Professor Mivart and Dr. Pye-Smith, in their inaugural addresses as Vice-Presidents, still further devote themselves to biology and natural history, while Powell and Tylor open the extensive subject of anthropology. Biological studies, of course, issue in the science of man, involving a broad series of questions, organic, psychological, developmental, racial, and social, and these questions now occupy the central arena of interest and debate. Anthropology has long been a prominent subject in the British Association, although for many years it had to battle for formal recognition and the important position that is now accorded to it. It has now come forward in the American Association, and the status conceded to it is sufficiently shown by the fact that the President-elect, who will preside at the Boston meeting next year. Mr. Lewis H. Morgan, is the first special representative of anthropology who has attained this honor.

These circumstances illustrate the powerful drift of contemporary science in the direction of those higher human questions which have claims upon intelligent people of all classes. So long as science was supposed to busy itself solely with distant, curious, and useless things, it was very naturally an object of thoughtless derision to minds occupied with pressing interests and claiming to be "practical." But these superficial sarcasms have lost their point in these latter days, when science is everywhere giving law to the practical, and is now addressing itself systematically to the most directly important of all subjects—the laws of life, and the nature of man and his institutions. This is the field that now most needs cultivation, and the Associations which are devoted to improvement and diffusion of accurate and trustworthy knowledge upon these subjects are entitled to the liberal patronage of the public.