Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/December 1887/Science and Practical Life


By Professor T. H. HUXLEY.

THE middle of the eighteenth century is illustrated by a host of great names in science—English, French, German, and Italian—especially in the fields of chemistry, geology, and biology; but this deepening and broadening of natural knowledge produced next to no immediate practical benefits. Even if, at this time, Francis Bacon could have returned to the scene of his greatness and of his littleness, he must have regarded the philosophic world which praised and disregarded his precepts with great disfavor. If ghosts are consistent, he would have said: "These people are all wasting their time, just as Gilbert and Kepler and Galileo and my worthy physician Harvey did in my day. Where are the fruits of the restoration of science which I promised? This accumulation of bare knowledge is all very well, but cui bono? Not one of these people is doing what I told him specially to do, and seeking that secret of the cause of forms which will enable men to deal, at will, with matter, and superinduce new natures upon the old foundations."

But, a little later, that growth of knowledge beyond imaginable utilitarian ends, which is the condition precedent of its practical utility, began to produce some effect upon practical life; and the operation of that part of Nature we call human upon the rest began to create, not "new natures," in Bacon's sense, but a new Nature, the existence of which is dependent upon men's efforts, which is subservient to their wants, and which would disappear if man's shaping and guiding hand were withdrawn. Every mechanical artifice, every chemically pure substance employed in manufacture, every abnormally fertile race of plants, or rapidly growing and fattening breed of animals, is a part of the new Nature created by science. Without it, the most densely populated regions of modern Europe and America must retain their primitive, sparsely inhabited, agricultural or pastoral condition; it is the foundation of our wealth and the condition of our safety from submergence by another flood of barbarous hordes; it is the bond which unites into a solid political whole, regions larger than any empire of antiquity; it secures us from the recurrence of the pestilences and famines of former times; it is the source of endless comforts and conveniences, which are not mere luxuries, but conduce to physical and moral well-being. During the last fifty years, this new birth of time, this new Nature begotten by science upon fact, has pressed itself daily and hourly upon our. attention, and has worked miracles which have modified the whole fashion of our lives.

What wonder, then, if these astonishing fruits of the tree of knowledge are too often regarded by both friends and enemies as the be-all and end-all of science? What wonder if some eulogize, and others revile, the new philosophy for its utilitarian ends and its merely material triumphs?

In truth, the new philosophy deserves neither the praise of its eulogists nor the blame of its slanderers. As I have pointed out, its disciples were guided by no search after practical fruits, during the great period of its growth, and it reached adolescence without being stimulated by any rewards of that nature. The bare enumeration of the names of the men who were the great lights of science in the latter part of the eighteenth and the first decade of the nineteenth century, of Herschel, of Laplace, of Young, of Fresnel, of Oersted, of Cavendish, of Lavoisier, of Davy, of Lamarck, of Cuvier, of Jussieu, of De Candolle, of Werner, and of Hutton, suffices to indicate the strength of physical science in the age immediately preceding that of which I have to treat. But of which of these great men can it be said that their labors were directed to practical ends? I do not call to mind even an invention of practical utility which we owe to any of them, except the safety-lamp of Davy. Werner certainly paid attention to mining, and I have not forgotten James Watt. But, though some of the most important of the improvements by which Watt converted the steam-engine, invented long before his time, into the obedient slave of man, were suggested and guided by his acquaintance with scientific principles, his skill as a practical mechanician, and the efficiency of Bolton's workmen, had quite as much to do with the realization of his projects.

In fact, the history of physical science teaches (and we can not too carefully take the lesson to heart) that the practical advantages, attainable through its agency, never have been, and never will be, sufficiently attractive to men inspired by the inborn genius of the interpreter of Nature, to give them courage to undergo the toils and make the sacrifices which that calling requires from its votaries. That which stirs their pulses is the love of knowledge and the joy of the discovery of the causes of things sung by the old poets—the supreme delight of extending the realm of law and order ever further toward the unattainable goals of the infinitely great and the infinitely small, between which our little race of life is run. In the course of this work, the physical philosopher, sometimes intentionally, much more often unintentionally, lights upon something which proves to be of practical value. Great is the rejoicing of those who are benefited thereby; and, for the moment, science is the Diana of all the craftsmen, But, even while the cries of jubilation resound and this flotsam and jetsam of the tide of investigation is being turned into the wages of workmen and the wealth of capitalists, the crest of the wave of scientific investigation is far away on its course over the illimitable ocean of the unknown.

Far be it from me to depreciate the value of the gifts of science to practical life, or to cast a doubt upon the propriety of the course of action of those who follow science in the hope of finding wealth alongside truth, or even wealth alone. Such a profession is as respectable as any other. And quite as little do I desire to ignore the fact that, if industry owes a heavy debt to science, it has largely repaid the loan by the important aid which it has, in its turn, rendered to the advancement of science. In considering the causes which hindered the progress of physical knowledge in the schools of Athens and of Alexandria, it has often struck me[2] that where the Greeks did wonders was in just those branches of science, such as geometry, astronomy, and anatomy, which are susceptible of very considerable development without any, or any but the simplest, appliances. It is a curious speculation to think what would have become of modern physical science if glass and alcohol had not been easily obtainable; and if the gradual perfection of mechanical skill for industrial ends had not enabled investigators to obtain, at comparatively little cost, microscopes, telescopes, and all the exquisitely delicate apparatus for determining weight and measure, and for estimating the lapse of time with exactness, which they now command. If science has rendered the colossal development of modern industry possible, beyond a doubt industry has done no less for modern physics and chemistry, and for a great deal of modern biology. And as the captains of industry have, at last, begun to be aware that the condition of success in that warfare, under the forms of peace, which is known as industrial competition, lies in the discipline of the troops and the use of arms of precision, just as much as it does in the warfare which is called war, their demand for that discipline, which is technical education, is reacting upon science in a manner which will, assuredly, stimulate its future growth to an incalculable extent. It has become obvious that the interests of science and of industry are identical; that science can not make a step forward without, sooner or later, opening up new channels for industry; and, on the other hand, that every advance of industry facilitates those experimental investigations upon which the growth of science depends. We may hope that, at last, the weary misunderstanding between the practical men who professed to despise science, and the high-and-dry philosophers who professed to despise practical results, is at an end.

Nevertheless, that which is true of the infancy of physical science in the Greek world, that which is true of its adolescence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, remains true of its riper age in these latter days of the nineteenth century. The great steps in its progress have been made, are made, and will be made, by men who seek knowledge simply because they crave for it. They have their weaknesses, their follies, their vanities, and their rivalries, like the rest of the world; but whatever by-ends may mar their dignity and impede their usefulness, this chief end redeems them.[3] Nothing great in science has ever been done by men, whatever their powers, in whom the divine afflatus of the truth-seeker was wanting. Men of moderate capacity have done great things because it animated them; and men of great natural gifts have failed, absolutely or relatively, because they lacked this one thing needful.

To any one who knows the business of investigation practically, Bacon's notion of establishing a company of investigators to work for "fruits," as if the pursuit of knowledge were a kind of mining operation and only required well-directed picks and shovels, seems very strange.[4] In science, as in art, and, as I believe, in every other sphere of human activity, there may be wisdom in a multitude of counselors, but it is only in one or two of them. And, in scientific inquiry, at any rate, it is to that one or two that we must look for light and guidance. Newton said that he made his discoveries by "intending" his mind on the subject; no doubt truly. But to equal his success one must have the mind which he "intended." Forty lesser men might have intended their minds till they cracked, without any like result. It would be idle either to affirm or to deny that the last half-century has produced men of science of the caliber of Newton. It is sufficient that it can show a few capacities of the first rank, competent not only to deal profitably with the inheritance bequeathed by their scientific forefathers, but to pass on to their successors physical truths of a higher order than any yet reached by the human race. And if they have succeeded as Newton succeeded, it is because they have sought truth as he sought it, with no other object than the finding it.

  1. From "The Advance of Science in the Last Half-Century." New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1887.
  2. There are excellent remarks to the same effect in Zeller's "Philosophie der Griechen," Theil. II, Abth. ii, p. 407, and in Eucken's "Die Methode der Aristotelisehen, Forschung," pp. 138, et seq.
  3. Fresnel, after a brilliant career of discovery in some of the most difficult regions of physico-mathematical science, died at thirty-nine years of age. The following passage of a letter from him to Young (written in November, 1824), quoted by Whewell, so aptly illustrates the spirit which animates the scientific inquirer that I may cite it:

    "For a long time that sensibility, or that vanity, which people call love of glory, is much blunted in me. I labor much less to catch the suffrages of the public than to obtain an inward approval which has always been the mental reward of my efforts. Without doubt I have often wanted the spur of vanity to excite me to pursue my researches in moments of disgust and discouragement. But all the compliments which I have received from MM. Arago, De Laplace, or Biot, never gave me so much pleasure as the discovery of a theoretical truth or the confirmation of a calculation by experiment."

  4. "Mémorable exemple de l'impuissance des recherches collectives appliquées à la découverte des vérités nouvelles!" says one of the most distinguished of living French savants, of the corporate chemical work of the old Académie des Sciences. (See Berthelot, "Science et Philosophie," p. 201.)