Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/December 1885/Relations of Science to the Public Weal II

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950721Popular Science Monthly Volume 28 December 1885 — Relations of Science to the Public Weal II1885Lyon Playfair


By Sir LYON PLAYFAIR, K. C. B., M. P., F. R. S.


V. SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY.—In the popular mind the value of science is measured by its applications to the useful purposes of life. It is no doubt true that science wears a beautiful aspect when she confers practical benefits upon man. But truer relations of science to industry are implied in Greek mythology. Vulcan, the god of industry, wooed science, in the form of Minerva, with a passionate love, but the chaste goddess never married, although she conferred upon mankind nearly as many arts as Prometheus, who, like other inventors, saw civilization progressing by their use while he lay groaning in want on Mount Caucasus. The rapid development of industry in modern days depends on the applications of scientific knowledge, while its slower growth in former times was due to experiments being made by trial and error in order to gratify the needs of man. Then an experiment was less a questioning of Nature than an exercise on the mind of the experimentalist. For a true questioning of Nature only arises when intellectual conceptions of the causes of phenomena attach themselves to ascertained facts as well as to their natural environments. Much real science had at one time accumulated in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Arabia, though it became obscured by the intellectual darkness which spread over Europe like a pall for many centuries. The mental results of Greek science, filtered through the Romans and Arabians, gradually fertilized the soil of Europe. Even in ages which are deemed to be dark and unprolific, substantial though slow progress was made. By the end of the fifteenth century the mathematics of the Alexandrian school had become the possession of Western Europe; Arabic numerals, algebra, trigonometry, decimal reckoning, and an improved calendar, having been added to its stock of knowledge. The old discoveries of Democritus and Archimedes in physics, and of Hipparchus and Ptolemy in astronomy, were producing their natural developments, though with great slowness. Many manufactures, growing chiefly by experience, and occasionally lightened up by glimmerings of science throughout the prevailing darkness, had arisen before the sixteenth century. A knowledge of the properties of bodies, though scarcely of their relations to each other, came through the labors of the alchemists, who had a mighty impulse to work, for by the philosopher's stone, often not larger than half a rapeseed, they hoped to attain the three sensuous conditions of human enjoyment, gold, health, and immortality. By the end of the fifteenth century many important manufactures were founded by empirical experiment, with only the uncertain guidance of science. Among these were the compass, printing, paper, gunpowder, guns, watches, forks, knitting-needles, horseshoes, bells, wood-cutting and copper-engraving, wire-drawing, steel, table-glass, spectacles, microscopes, glass mirrors backed by amalgams of tin and lead, windmills, crushing and saw mills. These important manufactures arose from an increased knowledge of facts, around which scientific conceptions were slowly concreting. Aristotle defines this as science when he says, "Art begins when, from a great number of experiences, one general conception is formed which will embrace all similar cases." Such conceptions are formed only when culture develops the human mind and compels it to give a rational account of the world in which man lives, and of the objects in and around it, as well as of the phenomena which govern their action and evolution. Though the accumulation of facts is indispensable to the growth of science, a thousand facts are of less value to human progress than is a single one when it is scientifically comprehended, for it then becomes generalized in all similar cases. Isolated facts may be viewed as the dust of science. The dust which floats in the atmosphere is to the common observer mere incoherent matter in a wrong place, while to the man of science it is all-important when the rays of heat and light act upon its floating particles. It is by them that clouds and rains are influenced; it is by their selective influence on the solar waves that the blue of the heavens and the beauteous colors of the sky glorify all Nature. So, also, ascertained though isolated facts, forming the dust of science, become the reflecting media of the light of knowledge, and cause all Nature to assume a new aspect. It is with the light of knowledge that we are enabled to question Nature through direct experiment. The hypothesis or theory which induces us to put the experimental question may be right or wrong; still, prudens questio dimidium scientiæ est—it is half-way to knowledge when you know what you have to inquire. Davy described hypothesis as the mere scaffolding of science, useful to build up true knowledge, but capable of being put up or taken down at pleasure. Undoubtedly a theory is only temporary, and the reason is, as Bacon has said, that the man of science "loveth truth more than his theory." The changing theories which the world despises are the leaves of the tree of science drawing nutriment to the parent stems, and enabling it to put forth new branches and to produce fruit; and, though the leaves fall and decay, the very products of decay nourish the roots of the tree and reappear in the new leaves or theories which succeed.

When the questioning of Nature by intelligent experiment has raised a system of science, then those men who desire to apply it to industrial inventions proceed by the same methods to make rapid progress in the arts. They also must have means to compel Nature to reveal her secrets, Æneas succeeded in his great enterprise by plucking a golden branch from the tree of science. Armed with this even dread Charon dared not refuse a passage across the Styx; and the gate of the Elysian fields was unbarred when he hung the branch on its portal. Then new aspects of Nature were revealed:

"Another sun and stars they know
That shine like ours, but shine below."

It is by carrying such a golden branch from the tree of science that inventors are able to advance the arts. In illustration of how slowly at first and how rapidly afterward science and its applications arise, I will take only two out of thousands of examples which lie ready to my hand. One of the most familiar instances is air, for that surely should have been soon understood if man's unaided senses are sufficient for knowledge. Air has been under the notice of mankind ever since the first man drew his first breath. It meets him at every turn; it fans him with gentle breezes, and it buffets him with storms. And yet it is certain that this familiar object—air—is very imperfectly understood up to the present time. We now know by recent researches that air can be liquefied by pressure and cold; but as a child still looks upon air as nothing, so did man in his early state. A vessel filled with air was deemed to be empty. But man, as soon as he began to speculate, felt the importance of air, and deemed it to be a soul of the world upon which the respiration of man and the godlike quality of fire depended. Yet a really intelligent conception of these two essential conditions to man's existence, respiration and combustion, was not formed till about a century ago (1775). No doubt long before that time there had been abundant speculations regarding air. Anaximenes, five hundred and forty-eight years before Christ, and Diogenes of Apollonia, a century later, studied the properties of air so far as their senses would allow them; so, in fact, did Aristotle. Actual scientific experiments were made on air about the year 1100 by a remarkable Saracen, Alhazen, who ascertained important truths which enabled Galileo, Torricelli, Otto de Guericke, and others at a later period, to discover laws leading to important practical applications. Still there was no intelligent conception as to the composition of air until Priestley in 1774 repeated, with the light of science, an empirical observation which Eck de Sulbach had made three hundred years before upon the union of mercury with an ingredient of air, and the decomposition of this compound by heat. This experiment now proved that the active element in air is oxygen. From that date our knowledge, derived from an intelligent questioning of air by direct experiments, has gone on by leaps and bounds. The air, which mainly consists of nitrogen and oxygen, is now known to contain carbonic acid, ammonia, nitric acid, ozone, besides hosts of living organisms which have a vast influence for good or evil in the economy of the world. These micro-organisms, the latest contribution to our knowledge of air, perform great analytical functions in organic nature, and are the means of converting much of its potential energy into actual energy. Through their action on dead matter the mutual dependence of plants and animals is secured, so that the air becomes at once the grave of organic death and the cradle of organic life. No doubt the ancients suspected this without being able to prove the dependence. Euripides seems to have seen it deductively when he describes the results of decay:

"Then that which springs from earth, to earth returns,
And that which draws its being from the sky
Rises again up to the skyey height."

The consequences of the progressive discoveries have added largely to our knowledge of life, and have given a marvelous development to the industrial arts. Combustion and respiration govern a wide range of processes. The economical use of fuel, the growth of plants, the food of animals, the processes of husbandry, the maintenance of public health, the origin and cure of disease, the production of alcoholic drinks, the processes of making vinegar and saltpeter—all these and many other kinds of knowledge have been brought under the dominion of law. No doubt animals respired, fuel burned, plants grew, sugar fermented, before we knew how they depended upon air. But, as the knowledge was empirical, it could not be intelligently directed. Now all these processes are ranged in order under a wise economy of Nature, and can be directed to the utilities of life: for it is true, as Swedenborg says, that human "ends always ascend as Nature descends." There is scarcely a large industry in the world which has not received a mighty impulse by the better knowledge of air acquired within a hundred years. If I had time I could show still more strikingly the industrial advantages which have followed from Cavendish's discovery of the composition of water. I wish that I could have done this, because it was Addison who foolishly said, and Paley who as unwisely approved the remark, that "mankind required to know no more about water than the temperature at which it froze and boiled, and the mode of making steam."

When we examine the order of progress in the arts, even before they are illumined by science, their improvements seem to be the resultants of three conditions:

1. The substitution of natural forces for brute animal power, as when Hercules used the waters of the Alpheus to cleanse the Augean stables; or when a Kamchadal of Eastern Asia, who has been three years hollowing out a canoe, finds that he can do it in a few hours by fire.

2. The economy of time, as when a calendering machine produces the same gloss to miles of calico that an African savage gives to a few inches by rubbing it with the shell of a snail; or the economy of production, as when steel pens, sold when first introduced at one shilling apiece, are now sold at a penny per dozen; or when steel rails, lately costing forty-five pounds per ton, can now be sold at five pounds.

3, Methods of utilizing waste products, or of endowing them with properties which render them of increased value to industry, as when waste scrap-iron and the galls on the oak are converted into ink; or the badly-smelling waste of gas-works is transformed into fragrant essences, brilliant dyes, and fertilizing manure; or when the effete matter of animals or old bones is changed into lucifer-matches.

All three results are often combined when a single end is obtained; at all events, economy of time and production invariably follows when natural forces substitute brute animal force. In industrial progress the sweat of the brow is lessened by the conceptions of the brain. How exultant is the old Greek poet, Antipater,[2] when women are relieved of the drudgery of turning the grindstones for the daily supply of corn! "Woman! you who have hitherto had to grind corn, let your arms rest for the future. It is no longer for you that the birds announce by their songs the dawn of the morning. Ceres has ordered the water-nymphs to move the heavy millstones and perform your labor." Penelope had twelve slaves to grind corn for her small household. During the most prosperous time of Athens it was estimated that there were twenty slaves to each free citizen. Slaves are mere machines, and machines neither invent nor discover. The bondmen of the Jews, the helots of Sparta, the captive slaves of Rome, the serfs of Europe, and uneducated laborers of the present day who are the slaves of ignorance, have added nothing to human progress. But, as natural forces substitute and become cheaper than slave-labor, liberty follows advancing civilization. Machines require educated superintendence. One shoe-factory in Boston by its machines does the work of thirty thousand shoemakers in Paris, who have still to go through the weary drudgery of mechanical labor. The steam-power of the world during the last twenty years has risen from eleven and a half million to twenty-nine million horse-power, or one hundred and fifty-two per cent.

Let me take a single example of how even a petty manufacture improved by the teachings of science affects the comforts and enlarges the resources of mankind. When I was a boy the only way of obtaining a light was by the tinder-box with its quadruple materials, flint and steel, burned rags or tinder, and a sulphur-match. If everything went well, if the box could be found and the air was dry, a light could be obtained in two minutes; but very often the time occupied was much longer, and the process became a great trial to the serenity of temper. The consequence of this was, that a fire or a burning lamp was kept alight through the day. Old Gerard, in his "Herbal," tells us how certain fungi were used to carry fire from one part of the country to the other. The tinder-box long held its position as a great discovery in the arts. The pyxidicula igniaria of the Romans appears to have been much the same implement, though a little ruder than the flint and steel which Philip the Good put into the collar of the Golden Fleece in 1429 as a representation of high knowledge in the progress of the arts. It continued to prevail till 1833, when phosphorus-matches were introduced, though I have been amused to find that there are a few venerable ancients in London who still stick to the tinder-box, and for whom a few shops keep a small supply. Phosphorus was no new discovery, for it had been obtained by an Arabian called Bechel in the eighth century. However, it was forgotten, and was rediscovered by Brandt, who made it out of very stinking materials in 1669. Other discoveries had, however, to be made before it could be used for lucifer-matches. The science of combustion was only developed on the discovery of oxygen a century later. Time had to elapse before chemical analysis showed the kind of bodies which could be added to phosphorus so as to make it ignite readily. So it was not till 1833 that matches became a partial success. Intolerably bad they then were, dangerously inflammable, horribly poisonous to the makers, and injurious to the lungs of the consumers. It required another discovery by Schrötter, in 1845, to change poisonous waxy into innocuous red-brick phosphorus in order that these defects might be remedied and to give us the safety-match of the present day. Now, what have these successive discoveries in science done for the nation, in this single manufacture, by an economy of time? If before 1833 we had made the same demands for light that we now do, when we daily consume eight matches per head of the population, the tinder-box could have supplied the demand under the most favorable conditions by an expenditure of one quarter of an hour. The lucifer-match supplies a light in fifteen seconds on each occasion, or in two minutes for the whole day. Putting these differences into a year, the venerable ancient who still sticks to his tinder-box would require to spend ninety hours yearly in the production of light, while the user of lucifer-matches spends twelve hours, so that the latter has an economy of seventy-eight hours yearly, or about ten working days. Measured by cost of production at one shilling and sixpence daily, the economy of time represented in money to our population is twenty-six millions of pounds annually. This is a curious instance of the manner in which science leads to economy of time and wealth even in a small manufacture. In larger industries the economy of time and labor produced by the application of scientific discoveries is beyond all measurement. Thus the discovery of latent heat by Black led to the inventions of Watt, while that of the mechanical equivalent of heat by Joule has been the basis of the progressive improvements in the steam-engine which enables power to be obtained by a consumption of fuel less than one fourth the amount used twenty years ago. It may be that the engines of Watt and Stephenson will yield in their turn to more economical motors; still, they have already expanded the wealth, resources, and even the territories of England, more than all the battles fought by her soldiers or all the treaties negotiated by her diplomatists.

The coal which has hitherto been the chief source of power probably represents the product of five or six million years during which the sun shone upon the plants of the carboniferous period, and stored up its energy in this convenient form. But we are using this conserved force wastefully and prodigally, for, although horse-power in steam-engines has so largely increased since 1864, two men only now produce what three men did at that date. It is only three hundred years since we became a manufacturing country. According to Professor Dewar, in loss than two hundred years more the coal of this country will be wholly exhausted, and in half that time will be difficult to procure. Our not very distant descendants will have to face the problem, What will be the condition of England without coal? The answer to that question depends upon the intellectual development of the nation at that time. The value of the intellectual factor of production is continually increasing, while the values of raw material and fuel are lessening factors. It may be that, when the dreaded time of exhausted fuel has arrived, its importation from other coalfields, such as those of New South Wales, will be so easy and cheap that the increased technical education of our operatives may largely overbalance the disadvantages of increased cost in fuel; but this supposes that future governments in England will have more enlightened views as to the value of science than past governments have possessed.

Industrial applications are but the overflowings of science welling over from the fullness of its measure. Few would ask now, as was constantly done a few years ago, "What is the use of an abstract discovery in science?" Faraday once answered this question by another, "What is the use of a baby?" Yet round that baby center all the hopes and sentiments of its parents, and even the interests of the state, which interferes in its upbringing so as to insure it being a capable citizen. The processes of mind which produce a discovery or an invention are rarely associated in the same person, for, while the discoverer seeks to explain causes and the relations of phenomena, the inventor aims at producing new effects, or at least of obtaining them in a novel and efficient way. In this the inventor may sometimes succeed without much knowledge of science, though his labors are infinitely more productive when he understands the causes of the effects which he desires to produce.

A nation in its industrial progress, when the competition of the world is keen, can not stand still. Three conditions only are possible for it. It may go forward, retrograde, or perish. Its extinction as a great nation follows its neglect of higher education, for, as described in the proverb of Solomon, "They that hate instruction love death." In sociology, as in biology, there are three states. The first of balance, when things grow neither better nor worse; the second that of elaboration or evolution, as we see it when animals adapt themselves to their environments; and third, that of degeneration, when they rapidly lose the ground they have made. For a nation, a state of balance is only impossible in the early stage of its existence, but it is impossible when its environments are constantly changing.

The possession of the raw materials of industry and the existence of a surplus population are important factors for the growth of manufactures in the early history of a nation, but afterward they are bound up with another factor—the application of intellect to their development, England could not be called a manufacturing nation till the Elizabethan age. No doubt coal, iron, and wood were in abundance, though, in the reign of the Plantagenets, they produced little prosperity. Wool was sent to Flanders to be manufactured, for England then stood to Holland as Australia now does to Yorkshire. The political crimes of Spain, from the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella to that of Philip III, destroyed it as a great manufacturing nation, and indirectly led to England taking its position. Spain, through the activity and science of the Arabian intellect, had acquired many important industries. The Moors and the Moriscoes, who had been in Spain for a period as long as from the Norman conquest of this country to the present date, were banished, and with them departed the intellect of Spain. Then the invasion of the Low Countries by Philip II drove the Flemish manufacturers to England, while the French persecution of the Huguenots added new manufacturing experience, and with them came the industries of cotton, wool, and silk. Cotton mixed with linen and wool became freely used, but it was only from 1738 to the end of the century that the inventions of Wyatt, Arkwright, Hargreaves, Compton, and Cartwright started the wonderful modern development. The raw cotton was imported from India or America, but that fact as regards cost was a small factor in comparison with the intellect required to convert it into a utility. Science has in the last hundred years altered altogether the old conditions of industrial competition. She has taught the rigid metals to convey and record our thoughts even to the most distant lands, and, within less limits, to reproduce our speech. This marvelous application of electricity has diminished the cares and responsibilities of governments, while it has at the same time altered the whole practice of commerce. To England steam and electricity have been of incalculable advantage. The ocean, which once made the country insular and isolated, is now the very life-blood of England and of the greater England beyond the seas. As in the human body the blood bathes all its parts, and through its traveling corpuscles carries force to all its members, so in the body politic of England and its pelasgic extensions steam has become the circulatory and electricity the nervous system. The colonies, being young countries, value their raw materials as their chief sources of wealth. When they become older they will discover it is not on those, but on the culture of scientific intellect, that their future prosperity depends. Older nations recognize this as the law of progress more than we do; or, as Jules Simon tersely puts it, "That nation which most educates her people will become the greatest nation, if not to-day, certainly to-morrow," Higher education is the condition of higher prosperity, and the nation which neglects to develop the intellectual factor of production must degenerate, for it can not stand still. If we felt compelled to adopt the test of science given by Corate, that its value must be measured by fecundity, it might be prudent to claim industrial inventions as the immediate fruit of the tree of science, though only fruit which the prolific tree has shed. But the test is untrue in the sense indicated, or rather the fruit, according to the simile of Bacon, is like the golden apples which Aphrodite gave to the suitor of Atalanta, who lagged in his course by stooping to pick them up, and so lost the race. The true cultivators of the tree of science must seek their own reward by seeing it flourish, and let others devote their attention to the possible practical advantages which may result from their labors.

There is, however, one intimate connection between science and industry which I hope will be more intimate as scientific education becomes more prevalent in our schools and universities. Abstract science depends upon the support of men of leisure, either themselves possessing or having provided for them the means of living without entering into the pursuits of active industry. The pursuit of science requires a superfluity of wealth in a community beyond the needs of ordinary life. Such superfluity is also necessary for art, though a picture or a statue is a salable commodity, while an abstract discovery in science has no immediate or, as regards the discoverer, proximate commercial value. In Greece, when philosophical and scientific speculation was at its highest point, and when education was conducted in its own vernacular and not through dead languages, science, industry, and commerce were actively prosperous. Corinth carried on the manufactures of Birmingham and Sheffield, while Athens combined those of Leeds, Staffordshire, and London, for it had woolen manufactures, potteries, gold and silver work, as well as ship-building. Their philosophers were the sons of burghers, and sometimes carried on the trades of their fathers. Thales was a traveling oil-merchant, who brought back science as well as oil from Egypt. Solon and his great descendant, Plato, as well as Zeno, were men of commerce. Socrates was a stone-mason; Thucydides a gold-miner; Aristotle kept a druggist's shop until Alexander endowed him with the wealth of Asia. All but Socrates had a superfluity of wealth, and he was supported by that of others. Now, if our universities and schools created that love of science which a broad education would surely inspire, our men of riches and leisure who advance the boundaries of scientific knowledge could not be counted on the fingers as they now are, when we think of Boyle, Cavendish, Napier, Lyell, Murchison, and Darwin, but would be as numerous as our statesmen and orators. Statesmen, without a following of the people who share their views and back their work, would be feeble indeed. But, while England has never lacked leaders in science, they have too few followers to risk a rapid march. We might create an army to support our generals in science, as Germany has done, and as France is now doing, if education in this country would only mold itself to the needs of a scientific age. It is with this feeling that Horace Mann wrote: "The action of the mind is like the action of fire: one billet of wood will hardly burn alone, though as dry as the sun and northwest wind can make it, and though placed in a current of air; ten such billets will burn well together, but a hundred will create a heat fifty times as intense as ten—will make a current of air to fan their own flame, and consume even greenness itself."

VI. Abstract Science the Condition for Progress.—The subject of my address has been the relations of science to the public weal. That is a very old subject to select for the year 1885. I began it by quoting the words of an illustrious prince, the consort of our Queen, who addressed us on the same subject from this platform twenty-six years ago. But he was not the first prince who saw how closely science is bound up with the welfare of states. Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, the fourth successor to the caliphate, urged upon his followers that men of science and their disciples give security to human progress. Ali loved to say, "Eminence in science is the highest of honors," and "He dies not who gives life to learning." In addressing you upon texts such as these, my purpose was to show how unwise it is for England to lag in the onward march of science when most other European powers are using the resources of their states to promote higher education and to advance the boundaries of knowledge. English Governments alone fail to grasp the fact that the competition of the world has become a competition in intellect. Much of this indifference is due to our systems of education. I have ill fulfilled my purpose if, in claiming for science a larger share in public education, I have in any way depreciated literature, art, or philosophy, for every subject which adds to culture aids in human development. I only contend that in public education there should be a free play to the scientific faculty, so that the youths who possess it should learn the richness of their possession during the educative process. The same faculties which make a man great in any walk of life—strong love of truth, high imagination tempered by judgment, a vivid memory which can co-ordinate other facts with those under immediate consideration—all these are qualities which the poet, the philosopher, the man of literature, and the man of science equally require, and should cultivate through all parts of their education as well as in their future careers. My contention is that science should not be practically shut out from the view of a youth while his education is in progress, for the public Weal requires that a large number of scientific men should belong to the community. This is necessary because science has impressed its character upon the age in which we live, and, as science is not stationary but progressive, men are required to advance its boundaries, acting as pioneers in the onward march of states. Human progress is so identified with scientific thought, both in its conception and realization, that it seems as if they were alternative terms in the history of civilization. In literature, and even in art, a standard of excellence has been attained which we are content to imitate because we have been unable to surpass. But there is no such standard in science. Formerly, when the dark cloud was being dissipated which had obscured the learning of Greece and Rome, the diffusion of literature or the discovery of lost authors had a marked influence on advancing civilization. Now, a Chrysoloras might teach Greek in the Italian universities without hastening sensibly the onward march of Italy; a Poggio might discover copies of Lucretius and Quintilian without exercising a tithe of the influence on modern life that an invention by Stephenson or Wheatstone would produce. Nevertheless, the divorce of culture and science, which the present state of education in this country tends to produce, is deeply to be deplored, because a cultured intelligence adds greatly to the development of the scientific faculty. My argument is that no amount of learning without science suffices in the present state of the world to put us in a position which will enable England to keep ahead of, or even on a level with foreign nations as regards knowledge and its applications to the utilities of life. Take the example of any man of learning, and see how soon the direct consequences resulting from it disappear in the life of a nation, while the discoveries of a man of science remain productive amid all the shocks of empire. As I am in Aberdeen, I remember that the learned Dutchman Erasmus was introduced to England by the encouragement which he received from Hector Boece, the Principal of King's College in this university. Yet even in the case of Erasmus—who taught Greek at Cambridge, and did so much for the revival of classical literature as well as in the promotion of spiritual freedom—how little has civilization to ascribe to him in comparison with the discoveries of two other Cambridge men, Newton and Cavendish! The discoveries of Newton will influence the destinies of mankind to the end of the world. When he established the laws by which the motions of the great masses of matter in the universe are governed, he conferred an incalculable benefit upon the intellectual development of the human race. No great discovery flashes upon the world at once, and therefore Pope's lines on Newton are only a poetic fancy:

"Nataro and Nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, 'Let Newton be,' and all was light."

No doubt the road upon which he traveled had been long in preparation by other men. The exact observations of Tycho Brahe, coupled with the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, had already broken down the authority of Aristotle and weakened that of the Church. But, though the conceptions of the universe were thus broadened, mankind had not yet rid themselves of the idea that the powers of the universe were still regulated by spirits or special providences. Even Kepler moved the planets by spirits, and it took some time to knock these celestial steersmen on the head. Descartes, who really did so much by his writings to force the conclusion that the planetary movements should be dealt with as an ordinary problem in mechanics, looked upon the universe as a machine, the wheels of which were kept in motion by the unceasing exercise of a divine power. Yet such theories were only an attempt to regulate the universe by celestial intelligences like our own, and by standards within our reach. It required the discovery of an all-pervading law, universal throughout all space, to enlarge the thoughts of men, and one which, while it widened the conceptions of the universe, reduced the earth and solar system to true dimensions. It is by the investigation of the finite on all sides that we obtain a higher conception of the infinite:

"Willst du ins Unendliche schreiten,
Geh nur im Endlichen nach alien Seiten."

Ecclesiastical authority had been already undermined by earnest inquirers such as Wycliffe and Huss before Luther shook the pillars of the Vatican. They were removers of abuses, but were confined within the circles of their own beliefs. Newton's discovery cast men's minds into an entirely new mold, and leveled many barriers to human progress. This intellectual result was vastly more important than the practical advantages of the discovery. It is true that navigation and commerce mightily benefited by our better knowledge of the motions of the heavenly bodies. Still, these benefits to humanity are incomparably loss in the history of progress than the expansion of the human intellect which followed the withdrawal of the cramps that confined it. Truth was now able to discard authority, and marched forward without hindrance. Before this point was reached, Bruno had been burned, Galileo had abjured, and both Copernicus and Descartes had kept back their writings for fear of offending the Church.

The recent acceptance of evolution in biology has had a like effect in producing a far profounder intellectual change in human thought than any mere impulse of industrial development. Already its application to sociology and education is recognized, but that is of less import to human progress than the broadening of our views of Nature.

Abstract discovery in science is then the true foundation upon which the superstructure of modern civilization is built; and the man who would take part in it should study science, and, if he can, advance it for its own sake and not for its applications. Ignorance may walk in the path lighted by advancing knowledge, but she is unable to follow when science passes her, for, like the foolish virgin, she has no oil in her lamp.

An established truth in science is like the constitution of an atom in matter—something so fixed in the order of things that it has become independent of further dangers in the struggle for existence. The sum of such truths forms the intellectual treasure which descends to each generation in hereditary succession. Though the discoverer of a new truth is a benefactor to humanity, he can give little to futurity in comparison with the wealth of knowledge which he inherited from the past. We, in our generation, should appreciate and use our great possessions:

"For mo your tributary stores combine,
Creation's heir; the world, the world is mine."


  1. Inaugural address of the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at the Aberdeen meeting, September 9, 1885.
  2. "Analecta Veterum Græcorum," Epig. 39, vol. ii, p. 119.