Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/October 1880/Editor's Table



THE twenty-ninth annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which began on the 25th of August, in Boston, was in every respect a most successful affair, and will be memorable both in the history of the Association and to all who had the pleasure of attending it. A large amount of excellent scientific work was accomplished, as shown by the fact that no less than two hundred and eighty original scientific papers were entered for reading at the different sections. Many of these were able and valuable contributions to independent research, and they all evinced a strong and healthy activity of the spirit of investigation. The meeting was the largest ever held by this body. The session opened on Wednesday, and by the succeeding Tuesday evening nine hundred and seventy-nine persons were registered, and of these five hundred and ninety-five were new members. As a happy and novel consequence, there will now be some surplus funds for the Association to use in aid of important researches.

To say that Boston did justice to the occasion is not enough, for justice is a thing of degrees. Boston did splendid justice—redeemed every expectation, which is saying a good deal, and did that ample honor to science both in public and in private which science well deserves. Whatever could be done to facilitate the work of the Association and to make it pleasant for all its members was done. The hospitalities were cordial and profuse. The corporations of Boston and Cambridge and wealthy private citizens gave entertainments to the Association, which were luxurious, elegant, and in excellent taste. Free excursions were provided to all points of interest in the vicinity, and, when work was through, a large lot were sent off to the White Mountains in charge of the Apalachian Club. Every detail of preparation had been carefully attended to by numerous efficient committees, and the completeness of the smooth-working arrangements excited the admiration of all. It is hard to suit everybody, but we must say that this feat was for once accomplished. Even where idiosyncrasies were jostled, only smiles were elicited. Nine hundred and fifteen persons accepted the city's invitation to take a trip down the bay in a commodious steamer. A generous collation was provided in the cabin, and when the guests had partaken of it, as they passed to the deck above, each gentleman was presented with an envelope on which was stamped, "The City of Boston welcomes the American Association for the Advancement of Science." Each envelope contained three choice cigars, and we mention the fact merely to say that the most fanatical non-smokers benignly accepted the graceful attention, and either kept their little prize as a souvenir of the occasion, or enjoyed the cigars by presenting them to their favored friends. Whatever was interesting in Boston in the shape of institutions and attractive features was open to the members, and multitudes of them profited by the opportunity. Invitations were cordially extended to visit, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Boston Society of Natural History, the Society of Decorative Art, the Warren Museum of Natural History, the Boston Public Library, the Athenæum Library, the commandant of the Charlestown Navy Yard, the Metric Bureau, Tufts College, the Watertown, Arsenal, the Old South, and many other places of interest to strangers.

It has been objected that too much time is generally spent at these meetings in social enjoyment; but it is not to be forgotten that this is a cardinal object of the organization. It is both possible and desirable that in future years the management will be so improved that the social element without being impaired will be so regulated as to economize time and offer the least hindrance to the legitimate and solid work of the society. But the Association grew out of a social need which is more urgent, perhaps, in this country than in any other. The organization of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, half a century ago, was not only a very important movement in giving efficient direction to scientific labor, but it was an inevitable result of the growth of scattered activities which required to be brought into coöperative relations. It was found that scientific observers, experimenters, and discoverers are not mere eccentric and infatuated devotees, content to pass their lives in the cloistered seclusion of laboratories and observatories, but that they are normal human beings with social sympathies and necessities, who require to know each other and to be brought into relations of freer intercourse with the people. The British Association was formed for the promotion of the interests of science by systematizing the work of research, and by bringing large numbers of scientific men together annually for several days, and it was made migratory that its public influence might become effective in all parts of the country. The advantages of this associated action were real and important, and it was proved that the time had fully come to enter upon it. A new impulse was given to original study; there were new accessions to the ranks of scientific students, scientific work became more effective and efficient, and the people extended to it increasing encouragement and a more hearty and liberal support.

So successful was this plan of operations devised and carried out by the English scientists, that it has been imitated in different nations, and with the same satisfactory results. In this country such a project was both more necessary and more difficult. The scientific men were here widely distributed over a continent, and generally worked alone in the colleges, so that they very rarely met their brethren to compare notes and gain the benefits of mutual criticism. In England it was different. London was a great center of resources, a sort of scientific world of itself, while the country is so small that the metropolis is readily accessible to everybody. In the United States there was no such commanding center of scientific influence, and the distances and the expenses of travel were so great that scientific professors, generally living upon small salaries, could hardly afford to travel, even if there had been any great central headquarters to visit. The adoption of the English plan of a movable scientific association, to hold its meetings in different and widely separated localities, met the requirements of our scientific men to a much greater degree than it did the English.

This kind of association, therefore, does a more important work here than anywhere else. There are obstacles to the advance of science which are more refractory in the United States than anywhere else. Institutions for training scientific men are neither so numerous nor so thorough as in England and on the Continent. Material interests are more absorbing, and the effect of our "popular intelligence" is that subjects and questions foreign to science have an intense hold and a predominant control over the public mind. There is no way to stem these tendencies that is so adequate and practical as this annual gathering of scientific men in the different cities, and under the conditions secured by the American Association.

The problem of its success is one of social dynamics. There are resistances to be overcome in the shape of difficulties in bringing scientific men together from distant points, and of public apathy toward the interests of science. The American Association has been checked by these impediments, but it has made headway in spite of them. There has been a varying success at its different meetings, but on the-whole the most encouraging progress, which is signalized by the fact that the last meeting has been the most successful and satisfactory of all.

We print the able and interesting address of the retiring President, Dr. George F. Barker. It is a model discourse of its class, reporting the present state of knowledge upon a subject of grave interest, and in a style suited to all readers of general intelligence.

Dr. Lewis H. Morgan, of Rochester, presided with an easy dignity over the general sessions of the meeting, and he could not fail to be gratified with the increasing interest shown in the ethnological studies to which he has so long devoted himself, and of which he is now the most eminent American representative. The section dealing with these subjects had many instructive papers and a full attendance throughout the meeting.

Professor George J. Brush, of New Haven, was elected the next President, and will preside over the meeting to be held at Cincinnati, beginning August 17, 1881.


The most striking result brought out at the late meeting of the American Association had reference to the relations of sound and light, and was due to the joint labors of Mr. A. Graham Bell and Mr. Sumner Tainter, of Boston. The luminous ray, whether of sunlight or from an artificial source, was shown to be capable of transmitting articulate sounds, as the wire transmits them in the case of the telephone. The mechanical combination by which this effect is produced is called the photophone. We print in full Mr. Bell's paper describing the principle and mechanism of the contrivance, and the experiments by which it was elucidated and brought into shape. The metal selenium, discovered in the early part of the century, but hitherto of no practical use, here comes into prominence. It was known to have curious properties, shifting into allotropic forms with the most contrasted characters, and changing its electrical relations in a remarkable manner under the influence of light. Under the arrangements of the inventors, rays of light give rise to sound by impinging upon a surface of selenium—sounds which are audible through the telephone either as continuous musical notes of different pitches, or as vocal communications. Though it is said that light produces the effect, yet this is not strictly true; for a thick plate of India-rubber, if interposed in the path of the acting beam, intercepts all the light but still permits the passage of the radiant force which produces the sound. It is some dark ray accompanying the light proper that does the work. The experimenters have found also that other substances share with selenium the property here made available, though in a less degree. We thus have another step in the rapid progress of molecular physics and the marvelous interaction of forces which is sure to stimulate experimental inquiry, though whether it will confound past conclusions and clear up past mysteries it is impossible to say. And equally impossible is it to say whether the photophone will turn out to be of any practical use. But it is certainly unsafe to deny it. The telephone is but a thing of yesterday, and was at first supposed to be only a curious play-thing. But already "there's millions in it." How far it is developed as a business is shown by the fact that a convention of twenty-one companies meets at Niagara to look after the interests of this new and rapidly extending means of intercommunication.