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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/March 1899/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.

 
WORDS OF A MASTER.

THE address, which we print elsewhere, delivered by Sir Archibald Geikie to the students of Mason College. Birmingham, is one to which we feel it a duty to draw special attention. It would be difficult, we think, to state more lucidly than the eminent author has done the advantages to be derived from a course of scientific study, and the principles which must be kept in view, not only during the period of study, but through life, if a training in science is to have its best results.

The address begins with a few words of caution as to the drawbacks which are apt to attend on the exclusive, or nearly exclusive, pursuit of science. In the reaction which the present age has witnessed against the old literary and linguistic curriculum of studies, a tendency is manifesting itself to undervalue the older learning. This Sir Archibald considers to be a matter for serious regret. He recognizes the impossibility of combining any large amount of literary or philological study with the requirements of an extensive scientific course; but he advises those who make choice of the latter to "cherish the literary tastes they have acquired, and to devote themselves sedulously to the further cultivation of them during such intervals of leisure as they may be able to secure." A training in science, he observes, "admirable as it is in many ways, fails to supply those humanizing influences which the older learning can so well impart." Times will therefore come, even to the most enthusiastic student, when "scientific work, in spite of its absorbing interest, grows to be a weariness"; and it is then that the value of any literary culture which may have been received at school or college will be appreciated.

It is a quite true remark that "men who have been too exclusively trained in science, or are too much absorbed in its pursuit, are not always the most agreeable members of society." It is also true that "one result of the comparative neglect of the literary side of education by many men of science is conspicuously seen in their literary style," which is not infrequently so "slipshod, ungrammatical, and clumsy that even the meaning of the authors is left in doubt." This is a great evil under the sun: a man goes through a vast amount of labor to ascertain facts and discover their meaning; and when he is ready to transfer the knowledge that he has gained to other minds he lacks the skill to do it in any satisfactory manner. Yet so far is it from being the case that there is any necessary incompatibility between scientific and literary cultivation, that several of the most distinguished scientific investigators have ranked among the best writers of the clay. We need only cite such names as Sir John Herschel, Lyell, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, Clifford, and Sir Archibald Geikie himself: to read any of these is a pleasure from a literary no less than from a scientific point of view No very satisfactory excuse can therefore be made for those scientific writers who can not compass a style of reasonable perspicuity and elegance. We can only think of them as having fallen victims to the hurtful error that literary style is of no advantage to a scientific man.

The caution which the address contains against taking too utilitarian a view of science is timely and judicious. We do not believe the intention of the author is to encourage the prosecution of alleged scientific researches independently of all assignable human motive; but he would have all the main lines of scientific inquiry pursued in a liberal and disinterested spirit, in the belief that the enlargement of knowledge can not but subserve in some way or another, and sooner or later, the interests of the human race. He feels that the true scientific spirit is not one that makes pecuniary gain its chief object. True types of the scientic worker are to be found in Michael Faraday and the elder Agassiz, who was "too busy to make money"; and the student of science who can not to some extent work in the spirit of these men may as well recognize that it is not scientific truth he is after but money. The greatest advances in Science, it is almost needless to say, have been made by those who were serving her not for the lust of gain, but for the love of discovery—that is to say, by men like Copernicus, Galileo, Harvey, Cavendish, Newton, Franklin, Jenner Watt, Darwin, and Pasteur; and if we would know what science is, it is the lives, characters, and labors of such men as these that we should study, and not the achievements of merely successful patentees.

Another danger to which the student of science is exposed is that of paying little or no attention to any department of science save that of which he is making a specialty. It is therefore of great importance that the courses of study laid out in science colleges should at the outset be sufficiently broad to afford a thorough grounding in the leading principles of all the sciences and in the application of scientific method to

every field of inquiry. Only in this way can a true sense of the power and universality of science as a method of thought and an engine of the human mind be obtained. Why is it that we are often so little impressed with the intellectual character of this or that noted specialist? The reason, we take it, is that his mind lacks breadth; he knows his own field of observation, but seems to have little sense or appreciation of what lies beyond it. It may have been some one of this type who suggested to Wordsworth his idea of an "ever-dwindling soul"; certain it is that a man may, by the too exclusive pursuit of a narrow line of thought and inquiry, fatally cramp his mind and dim his spiritual vision.

The foundation of all science is observation, and Sir Archibald rightly dwells upon the supreme importance of cultivating and developing the observing faculty to the utmost extent. He states that a man may possess a colossal intellect while his faculty of observation may be of the feeblest kind, and gives as an example a very eminent mathematician, lately deceased, who used to make the most ludicrous mistakes as to time and place. Upon this point we feel like venturing a little dissent. We doubt whether there ever was a colossal intellect apart from a considerable development of the power of observation; and that a great mathematician should take very little notice of what was going on in the world about him would only show that his powers of observation were otherwise engaged. Take him in his own field, and what a multitude of things he would observe which a man of inferior intellect, occupied with the same studies, would overlook! It would be a somewhat rash thing to undertake to cure an Archimedes or a Newton of that absentmindedness which, to the world at large, looks like a deficiency of observation. In such cases as these the mind that is absent here is present elsewhere; and what it is doing there the world will in due time find out. It is impossible, we hold, for any one man to be observant in all directions; if he is, it is certain he will not have a colossal intellect. Still, the truth which should be borne in upon every student's mind is that if he would make independent progress he must be an independent observer. He must take in once for all the truth that the materials needed for scientific construction lie afield, and that he must keep his eyes open in order to see and distinguish them. At every moment the man of science may say, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of" in any philosophy yet formulated; and some of those things he should aim at discovering for himself. Any mind that is once thoroughly interested in any branch of study will be observant, and conversely a certain practice in observation may create an interest not before felt in a certain department of study. It may also be remarked that the dividing line between observation and deduction is very narrow and more or less shadowy; and therefore to cultivate the logical faculty is to create an appetite for observations, or at least for facts. The logical mind sees where facts are wanting, and will not be happy till it gets them.

As might be expected, Sir Archibald Geikie makes a special application of what he has to say on the need of observation to his own science of geology—a study which is a constant challenge to the observing eye and the constructive intellect. He dwells impressively on the delight which the rational contemplation of Nature imparts to the student whose higher faculties have been awakened, and who has been taught what to see and how to consider it. "The movements of the clouds, the fall of rain, the flow of brook and river, the changes of the seasons, the succession of calm and storm, do not pass before your eyes now as once they did. While they minister to the joy of life, they speak to you of that all-embracing system of process and law that governs the world." Certainly this capacity for the higher enjoyment of Nature is the happiest result of scientific culture; and were it an invariable or even a very general result, there could never be any question as to the humanizing and liberalizing effect of devotion to scientific studies. If the result in question is not always attained, it is simply because the study of science has not been approached in a right spirit. It is not science that is at fault.

Sir Archibald dwells finally on the need for accuracy, thoroughness, breadth, and patience on the part of those who would worthily pursue a scientific career. If his words were duly heeded we should have more of generous co-operation and sympathy among scientific investigators, and less of selfish petty rivalry and clamorous contention in regard to questions of priority. The eminent author has nobly conceived the character and function of the man of science in the present age; and we can not but hope that his sage and earnest counsels to the rising generation of scientific workers will bear abundant fruit in days to come.

 

 
FADS AND FRAUDS.

We notice that a magistrate in a Canadian city has inflicted fines, under a "vagrant" act, upon two individuals who had been practicing the alleged art of palmistry. Both of these parties were proved to have told fortunes from the hand for pay; and, though one styled himself "professor" and the other was a "madame" and not a common wayside gypsy, they were both held guilty of common juggling and were punished accordingly. The public prosecutor said that he did not lay any stress on the fact that pay had been taken; he asked for a conviction simply on the ground that fortune-telling was against the law, and he carried his point. The judge observed that similar proceedings might be taken against young ladies who tell fortunes at church and charity bazaars; and the prosecutor admitted that such was very likely the case. These young ladies, he said, would have to look out for themselves.

We must say that this action on the part of the Canadian authorities strikes us very favorably, and we should be greatly pleased if we could see similar proceedings taken nearer home. It is a lamentable fact that hundreds of persons who ought to know better amuse themselves by lending their countenance to the practitioners of all kinds of silly and dishonest arts, and so far assist them in practicing their frauds upon a more ignorant and helpless class. We are all familiar with the stories which pass current in private circles of the extraordinary revelations and predictions made by ladies and gentlemen who go off iu trances and see the past and future unrolled before their upturned eyes with all the distinctness of an actual panorama. But there is one thing which these interesting and highly gifted individuals do not like, and that is to get into the courts, or anywhere where they can be called upon to give a succinct and definite account of their doings and pretensions. They are not ambitious of going into a trance before the magistrate, and giving an exhibition of the powers to

which they lay claim in their advertisements, much as that might be expected to help their reputation and their business. For that very reason it would be an excellent thing to bring them where the light of common day could be thrown upon their performances; and. if there is no law under which this could be clone, our legislators, who make so many needless laws, might very well pass one, the general effect of which would be to enforce the responsibility of all persons publicly pretending to the possession of any kind of supernatural power. It would tend to cool the faith of even the most benighted dupes to see their favorite seer cutting a foolish figure before a judge who simply wanted to know what it really was for which he charged money. In the Canadian cases both operators, when they got into court, showed a great disposition to minimize their claims to any power of foretelling events by palmistry or otherwise, and so it would be in every similar case. It is one thing to deal with a gullible maiden who wants to know the color of her future husband's hair, and quite another to converse with the officers of the law.

Most of the frauds which have any continued success owe it. in part at least, to an undue faith in the personal integrity of the practitioner. It seems a rude as well as an unkind thing to suppose that So and-so, whose demeanor is so modest and frank and simple, whose sentiments are so elevated, whose whole personality seems calculated to inspire confidence, is really an outrageous deceiver. In many cases people have said in effect that, if they had to choose between believing a miracle and doubting the veracity of this or that engaging individual, they would believe the miracle. Yet time and again the engaging individual has been proved to be an impostor, and the miracle has fallen to the ground. One of the most remarkable cases of the kind is furnished by the history of the Keeley motor, the absolutely fraudulent character of which has lately been brought to light. Keeley professed to transcend all the known laws of physics and mechanics, and he talked a jargon which all acknowledged to be unintelligible, but the unintelligibility of which was ascribed by his devotees to the fact that he was really working outside of known laws, and could not be expected to translate his ideas into the language of everyday science. In this way what was really an adjunct to the imposture he was practicing was counted as a proof of the truth of his ideas and the reality of his work. Yet now we know that the whole business was a matter of hidden tubes and wires and pulleys and double axles, one concealed within the other, with a water motor hidden under the floor. Thus it was that the "ætheric vibrations" and all the other mysterious phenomena were produced. We remember a sermon that was preached some years ago by an earnest divine, who professed to see in the alleged effects produced by Keeley an explanation of the miracle of the casting down of the walls of Jericho. Keeley would take his harmonium and, striking a certain chord, would cause his motor to revolve. In like manner Joshua with his trumpets and pitchers made precisely the kind of noise required to produce the ætheric vibrations necessary to level the walls of the beleaguered city—a wonderful case of the most advanced science coming to the support of a venerable religious tradition! Unfortunately, the walls of Jericho must now be got down in some other way, since it is proved that when Keeley worked the harmonium he also worked the bulb of an air tube placed under his foot in the floor. But Keeley was so honest a man, so devoted to his profound researches, so true a type of the indomitable experimenter, that it was impossible for his friends and admirers to doubt him, even when he spoke of "the sympathetic negative attraction of the triune polar stream."

The lesson of it all is—investigate! investigate! investigate! The more honest a man is, the more he will court investigation. It is to the credit of humanity perhaps that so much reliance is placed upon estimates of personal character in these extraordinary cases; but where belief is demanded for anything that is absolutely beyond comprehension, character should be put out of court altogether, and the one question should be, What are the facts? In the Keeley case, unfortunately, men of science as well as others were among the deluded. They should have suspected fraud; at least they should have insisted on making such investigations as a suspicion of fraud would have suggested; and, if they were not allowed to make them, they should have refused all countenance to the business. As it is, many ignorant persons who lost money through Keeley's imposture will very properly cast blame on the presumedly competent mechanicians and physicists who went through the form of examining Keeley 's apparatus and afterward spoke, however guardedly, of his extraordinary results. As an object lesson in regard to the need for uncompromising skepticism when facts which can not be accounted for on understood principles are presented for acceptance, the history of the Keeley motor should not soon be forgotten.