Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/August 1893/Success with Scientific and Other Meetings
|SUCCESS WITH SCIENTIFIC AND OTHER MEETINGS.|
By GEORGE ILES.
NO tendency of these times is more marked than that toward organization. It manifests itself as plainly in scientific inquiry, literary investigation, or the cultivation of art as in the sphere of industry or finance. Let chemistry, folk lore, or musical education engage the minds of a group of people, and forthwith they unite themselves to further the interest they have at heart. The societies thus created have often manifold utility; they provide rallying centers for men and women of kindred aims, whether these aims are of popular acceptance or not; they make possible a co-operation which economizes the labor of observation or research; they furnish agencies for the spread of information accessible nowhere else; in their "proceedings" or "transactions" they publish valuable papers which otherwise would never see the light of day, and often these volumes are the sole registry of progress in important branches of inquiry or revolutionary reform. The public mind may be profoundly exercised concerning a wrong or a grievance, but its discontent is powerless until, let us say, a Free-trade League is born to serve as a nucleus around which public opinion can crystallize, which will gather and clarify argument to be echoed by a thousand friendly voices, and which will press its fight at every opportunity. Only in this way can an interest which concerns everybody only a little tell in legislation against a much smaller interest which concerns a few plunderers a great deal.
Of course, the meeting of a league or a society, whatever its objects, is determined in character by that of the organization itself. If a purpose really worthy has prompted to union, if, avoiding faction, the best men have been put at the head, there is no reason why attractive and profitable meetings should not be held. On success here largely turns the success of the organization, for meetings should not only interest the membership, but also the general public from whom support is sought, from among whom recruits for active service must come. The judicious management of such gatherings is therefore a matter of some moment, and it well deserves more attention than it commonly receives.
Of scientific bodies in the United States, one of the oldest and in many respects the most typical is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose meetings in the main have been the most popular scientific assemblies held in this country. The association has suffered severely, and inevitably, by the establishment of many societies for the prosecution of branches of science, electrical, engineering, and what not, which scarcely had a name at the time of the association's nativity, fifty-three years ago. Then, too, the formation of the National Academy of Sciences has drawn off certain of the veterans who fail to recognize the claims of the association on their allegiance, who neglect the opportunity the association affords to repeat the last word of discovery to the people. A wide variety of societies for the promotion of this aim or the suppression of that evil have done well to follow the association's lead in one or two directions. First, in hospitality to all in sympathy with the object sought to be furthered, without asking the candidate for membership what he knows or what he has done. Of course, societies for advanced study, such as the Societies of Morphologists and Anatomists, can not set before everybody this open door, but bodies for work less specialized find their account in creating honorary or associate memberships which broaden their foundations in public sympathy and support; especially is this result desirable where the research promoted is, let us say, astronomical, and bears in the market-place no price.
The American Association, too, has set a good example in mi grating from place to place year by year, so as to kindle the widest possible interest. To cite a case where visits of this kind have borne fruit, Montreal has within the past ten years been enriched by benefactions for education which give her rank with the most highly favored cities of the continent. These foundations, and the local response to the opportunities they offer, are in no small measure traceable to the important scientific meetings held since 1881 in the Canadian metropolis. In Canada, as in the United States, there is much sound sentiment regarding the fast disappearing woodland wealth. This sentiment is largely to be credited to the American Forestry Association, a comparatively small body, which, in its peregrinations north and south, and east and west, has brought many thousands of people to its way of thinking, and with them not a few of their lawmakers. In 1891 Congress authorized the President to set apart as a reservation any public land wholly or in part covered with trees; in two years this law has recovered tracts aggregating twelve million acres. For the proper forestry administration of these and other lands of the Federal Government the association is the only organized means of agitation in the country. Perhaps one reason why the American Social Science Association does not exert the influence it merits is that its gatherings always take place in Saratoga; this, too, while its British prototype observes the rule of itineracy. Even the National Academy of Sciences, whose investigations are of the most recondite order, migrates for one of its semi-annual meetings. To take the example of an industrial organization that keeps to the road let the National Electric Light Association be named: its tours throughout the land serve to refresh men devoted to an arduous profession; in their examination, on these tours, of all kinds of electrical installations practice everywhere tends to rise to the level of the best; and wherever the association goes it gives a local stimulus to the interest in Nature's master force in all that it means for the relief of toil and the refinement of life. When an organization to promote science pure or applied is put on wheels another advantage arises: its visits to a chain of towns and cities rarely fail to bring out a good deal of amateur talent—confirming tastes and talents which do much to cheer their possessors amid the drudgery of office or shop. The trained inquirer may look askance at the amateur, but it is well to remember that Dr. William Huggins, the President of the British Association in 1891, an astronomer who has notably furthered the science and art of stellar spectroscopy, calls himself but an amateur; Mr. Thomas D. Anderson, of Edinburgh, another amateur, last year discovered the new star in Auriga so earnestly discussed as probably confirming the meteoritic hypothesis of stellar accretions; an amateur, too, it was who, in the person of James Prescott Joule, first ascertained the mechanical equivalent of heat, the basis of the doctrine of the conservation of energy. In no infrequent case an intellectual man of leisure, who has not yet formed habits of idleness, has had a genuine and lasting interest aroused by the advent of a learned or scientific society in his neighborhood.
While the advancement of science is the stated purpose of the American Association, it has accomplished much else that could ill have been spared. It has periodically brought together old friends whom the exigencies of professional or business careers have separated by the breadth of great States or even by the width of America. Its social meetings have often been as gainful as delightful. Here the youth just across the threshold of geology or astronomy has met the veteran explorer or observer, and thenceforward his work has known the ardor of discipleship; there are men now eminent in American science who recall as among their first inspirations the noble and kindly faces of Henry, Gray, Guyot, and Agassiz at association meetings. There is always a good deal in the mind of a man of science that he does not care to commit to a formal report or a dignified text-book; his appraisals of the current literature of his special field, his suggestive criticisms of the latest audacities of theory, his shrewd guesses as to what next awaits the discoverer, are only for those who meet him face to face. Not seldom a thinker or an experimenter in a remote corner of the country cherishes a hypothesis or proposes an apparatus intended to solve an old difficulty in a new way. At an association meeting he finds the mechanician or the chemist, who of all men can best disabuse his mind of its harbored fallacy, or point out how for success his project must be modified. And many men prosecute masterly work at lonely outposts, or, worse still, in populous centers of uninterested people; they are spared a withering sense of isolation in finding at the yearly muster that it is after all a goodly army in which they are enlisted. In so far, too, as the association has managed to keep specialists of eminence in its ranks, they receive at the annual assemblies not less benefit than the tyros. The observer with microscopic slides or test-tubes constantly at his eye is refreshed when he meets at the council table and the general session his peer of the geologic hammer or the telescope. Nor must the benefits be forgotten which the association has conferred upon men of affairs drawn into its audiences and interested in its work. They have seen somewhat of the unselfish labor in breaking new ground which must go before the sowing and reaping we know as industry and business. Hence have arisen generous gifts for research—which might well be multiplied; and, apart from any question into which gain or gift can enter, the association has done noble work in bringing to the people a glimpse, at least, of that inspiring ray which ever gilds truth as it emerges from the unknown.
Much that can be said of the good born of this association's meetings is true of those of many societies for research, education, or reform, which year by year and almost month by month spring into existence. Let us glance at one or two cases where a small band of earnest men have been able to do great things, not for science, but for righteousness. The Civil-service Reform Association, founded by George William Curtis and his friends in 1881, has in its agitation of twelve years been the chief agency at work in combating the claim that "to the victor belong the spoils." To-day one fourth the offices in the gift of the Federal Government are subject to reform rules, with promise that at no distant day "the aristocracy of 'pull' shall make way for the democracy of merit." Mr. Curtis and Mr. Schurz, in their stirring addresses from the chair of the association, have reached audiences a thousandfold greater than those within sound of their voices; the press has made the Rocky Mountains their back benches. Against another iniquity battle was waged, in 1883, when the Copyright League took form. The league began as a handful of men, few of them rich or influential, attacking a compact and well-armed pirate crew and a solid mass of unsound public sentiment. Within eight years the people were brought to preferring to a cheap book a book honestly come by, Congress passing a bill declaring that literary property is property still, even when a foreigner creates it. The league in its series of authors' readings given in the principal cities of the Union had a magnet of uncommon power, evoking vastly more interest in the cause of international justice than any set arguments could have done. It is only fair to say that the agitation which the league inherited dated back to 1837; it may be worth while to add that the money cost of the league's work was but ten thousand dollars.
Not the least of the attractions which Chicago offers her visitors this year is her programme of congresses. Associations educational, industrial, scientific, and philosophical are assembling in the Western metropolis in rapid succession and under circumstances in which the art of their management can easily be carried a step further than in any past achievement in America. The local committees for the reception of visiting bodies will have more or less permanence, and will therefore through experience grow proficient, an exceptionally large number of the well informed and inquiring can be drawn upon from the throngs attending the fair, and the manifold departments of the exhibition will furnish in profusion illustrative material of rare quality, Hon. C. C. Bonney, chairman of the World's Congress Auxiliary, is in permanent charge of the congresses convened during the Columbian Exposition. He supervises the working details of each special committee; and his chief aim in his work is that relations among the leaders of thought and action which hitherto have been only local, shall henceforth become international.
To those whose duty it is to attend meetings, scientific and other, remarkable contrasts in their management are familiar. The success of a meeting is earned only by a business-like control, which makes thorough preparation months beforehand. The executive board, by whatever name it may be called, should be a body of competent, resourceful, and hard-working men. Their main task is to insure good addresses and papers; however little of a speechmaker a man may be, he always talks willingly and acceptably on a subject he has mastered and which is dear to his heart; for papers a selection is usually feasible from manuscripts voluntarily offered, but it is ever found that the one way to have interesting themes treated by the busy people who have a firsthand knowledge of them is by tactful and timely solicitation.
How grievously have audiences, learned and unlearned, suffered from the coarseness of the sieve through which papers are commonly sifted! At the Toronto meeting of the American Association, in 1880, I heard a paper which, admittedly, had been published five years before. It is a case all too frequent that a paper is prolix or trivial, or covers ground thoroughly familiar, or that its writer imagines dilution to be simplification. A very ordinary offense is the technical description or argument which wears its bones outside and spares its victims no jot of anatomical detail. In securing contributions of high value the American Economical Association sets a shining example. Jointly with the International Statistical Institute it will hold sessions in Chicago from September 9th to 16th; all the principal papers were arranged for months ago by the committee in charge. When a writer is in this way given abundant time to prepare his manuscript he can do justice to the public and to himself; he has opportunity to secure publication in an appropriate journal or review, an important point to people who have only their pens to live by. The presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are chosen two years and the presidents of its sections one year before the delivery of their addresses; with this ample time for elaboration and revision contributions to scientific literature of the highest rank have been secured. At the Boston meeting of 1880, the most interesting ever held by the association. Prof. George F. Barker gave his address on Modern Aspects of the Life Question, a luminous summary of progress in physical, physiological, and psychological science, which, enriched with its numerous references, can still serve the student as a guide post. Prof. S. P. Langley, at Cleveland in 1888, outlined in masterly fashion the history of the doctrine of radiant energy. Two years later, at Indianapolis, Dr. Frank Baker traced The Ascent of Man in an address which is a model scientific statement made plain and clear. While its addresses from the chair have usually been excellent, in providing popular lectures the association has left much to be desired. Here it has a good deal to learn from its British namesake, which well understands how a discourse, by interesting the community visited as well as the visitors, can in some degree requite the debt of hospitality. In their main outlines the conquests of science, in the hands of a skilled exponent, never fail to awaken the enthusiasm of popular audiences. To the essential democracy of the sympathies of research, conceived on broad lines, let the thousands testify who have seen Prof. E. S. Morse at the blackboard busy with both hands tracing the development of birds from reptilian forms, or Prof. E. E. Barnard, of Lick Observatory, as he has thrown on the screen images of myriad stars seized in new spheres of space only through the exquisitely sensitive and tireless eye of the camera.
There is sound policy as well as justice in the sedulous cultivation of points of contact between every-day interests and the highly specialized work which only remotely may issue in a utility. A chemist may be enabled to experiment on di-nitro-sulphophenol, and publish his results, because an intelligent manufacturer has through the labor of chemists found a market for coal-tar products, or furnace slag, once thrown away. The links between science pure and applied might well receive more illustration at scientific gatherings than they commonly do. In carefully maintaining its features of popular instruction in this and other respects, the British Association has done much to win its long sustained pre-eminence. To what else can that primacy be attributed? To its continuity of work and supervision the year round. Its committees, some fifty in number, are charged with investigations, botanical, zoölogical, and other; they confer as to standards of measurement and establish them; they ascertain the properties of solutions, or consider electrolysis in its physical and chemical bearings. All this labor is constantly enrolling new workers, and enabling the officers to appraise the talents and availability of workers new and old. At the meetings he must be a specialist indeed who does not find his particular study illuminated in the committee reports.
Be the object of a society what it may, on the programme of a meeting the main items, of course, are the addresses and papers. When by seasonable solicitation these latter are in hand, printed copies of them, subject to revision, can be distributed prior to their being formally offered. This plan, adopted by the American Institute of Mining Engineers and a few other organizations, should become general. It saves time at a session, where only abstracts need be presented; or, where the writer of a paper can instead of an abstract, give in an extemporaneous word the gist of his manuscript, the printing a paper in advance gives those who are interested in its subject the information needful for comment and criticism. Discussion is of the very essence of a meeting's value, and the institute just named always endeavors that engineers of mark shall offer their opinions on the papers presented. In the planning of such discussion lies a way of escape from the narrowness and sterility which ever threaten specialization in its modern extremes.
It has often been suggested that some broad question, as the probable age of the earth, be considered at a joint meeting of all the sections of the American Association. Physicists, geologists, and naturalists vary by millions of years in their estimates of the length of our planet's life. The surveys of the special sciences into which, for convenience' sake, inquiry here is parceled out, plainly do not fit together as the parts of an accordant map. Clearly there is need of more light, of exploration of intervening and debatable territory, of new and reconciling generalization. It is in its untraversed border lands, rather than in its measured and cultivated areas, that science has promise and inspiration for the investigator. Discussions are difficult to arrange, and in the ordinary case are unsatisfactory, but in overcoming the obstacles to assigning the specialist a part in the orchestration of high inquiry is rescue from the danger that in the minute study of details their value in constructive thought, in mutual illumination, may be forgotten. At this point re-enters, too, the ever desirable feasibility of interesting the general public, of making the people feel that here and there stand open doors between the questions which come home to them and the fields tilled by men of research.
This matter of interesting the public can at times find its opportunity when the programme is elastic enough to admit the treatment of a question of moment which springs up after the programme has taken form. Last August the American Economic Association met at Chautauqua; most of those who took part in its sessions passed at Buffalo through files of State militia guarding the trains against strikers and rioters. The programme, an excellent one, from the inevitable absence of men expected to read papers, could not be fully carried out. Here was a chance for leading teachers in politics and economics to express themselves regarding a battle between capital and labor pitched in the very neighborhood; outside the session hall, scarcely anything else was talked about; within the hall, Buffalo might have been in Asia for all the attention it received. Can men of science of the academic type wonder at their lack of popular influence when they thus ignore the world of action and passion they live in; when they speak and write mainly at one another, and usually in a language hardly comprehensible to common people when they happen to overhear it? It strikes observers in New York that the power of its corrupt rulers has arisen in no small degree because the leaders among them have been fortunate or shrewd enough to share the every-day interests of every-day people. Whether from limitation or choice, no sachem of Tammany is ever so far ahead of his followers as to be hidden from them by the curvature of the earth. A teacher of political economy in a leading American university declares that the man politically most influential in this country is the bar-tender; if so, what political text-book or society for political instruction has ever reckoned with him?
A few of the more noteworthy organizations which meet statedly, publish their discussions as well as their papers—a praiseworthy and useful thing to do. This plan is adopted by the American Library Association, a body which renders invaluable service to public libraries, and hence to popular education. The papers to be read at its next meeting, at Chicago, July 13th to 22d, have been assigned to representative men and women in such wise that published as a volume they will form a complete handbook of library economy. This introduction of a comprehensive purpose in gathering contributions that otherwise might be disconnected and desultory is an idea well worth transplanting wherever admissible. The Library Association owes its origin and success in large measure to a secretary of uncommon ability and energy, fertile in ideas and indefatigable in giving them effect. This year he is president. An efficient executive officer is indispensable in arranging the details for a successful meeting. With the principal papers and discussions arranged for, he pays a preliminary visit to the place of meeting. He makes sure that the sessional halls are convenient, ample, and suitably furnished and served; that, if need be, stereopticon views can be properly shown, and that hotel and other quarters are in readiness. He confers with the reception committee, whom he finds not only willing but anxious that out of the fullness of his experience of shortcomings he shall freely speak. He sees that the printed matter of his association is put where people can get it. If, as the civil-service reformers do, he distributes a "primer," it does not fail to say how one can join the organization that sent it forth. He cooperates with the local press in telling the community what people of eminence or note are coming, what they are eminent or notable for, and what they mean to read and discuss. Aided by having the principal papers in print, when the meeting takes place he is enabled to insure fullness, or at least correctness, in the press reports of sessions, remembering that many more will read these reports than can come to session halls. Each day, as early as he can, he takes pains to send to the newspapers the next day's programme. He engages a stenographer to take down the discussions; they may not be published, but they are worth keeping on record, if for no other reason than that they show how hard it is to get a new idea into people's heads. In brief, this officer is as zealous in attracting audiences, in arousing communities, in promoting the aims of his society, as if he were a man of business creating a market for profitable wares, or a missionary spreading gospel light. Let us note a case or two where the lack of such an officer in the receiving or visiting body has been felt. At Rochester, last August, the American Association was tendered a reception in an art gallery on the upper floors of an office building. Its owner was in Europe, which doubtless accounted for the catalogues of the collection being not lent but sold to his guests, while a staring sign announcing, "To the steel tower—ten cents," was permitted to remain uncovered. At Rochester, too, a city famous for its nurseries, it never occurred to the local committee that visitors would be glad to see these nurseries. Their gates, of course, stood open, yet a very little trouble taken to provide informed guides at a stated time would have added much to the profit and pleasure of a visit. During the week of last Christmas the American Psychological Association met at the University of Pennsylvania. Its first session was held in an upper room of the main building, the second took place in another building some distance off. Because there was no public notification of this change of place, a score of members, teachers, and reporters wasted an afternoon, and missed the presidential address which three of them had come a hundred miles to hear. A few years ago the American Institute of Mining Engineers met at Lookout Mountain. One of the party was the late Thomas Sterry Hunt, an ex-president. In an address which could only come from a master in both chemistry and geology, he described the history of the region at his feet. As he spoke, the conclusions of many thoughtful years were compressed into his pithy sentences. Because he had prepared no notes, and because no stenographer was engaged, that masterly discourse is now only a fading memory.