Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/August 1899/Proper Objects of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Popular Science Monthly Volume 55 August 1899  (1899) 
Proper Objects of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Edward Orton




THE objects of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are clearly expressed in the opening paragraph of its constitution, which was adopted at its first meeting, held September 20, 1848, in Philadelphia. From that day to this the paragraph referred to has not been modified except by the replacement of three words, viz., "the United States" by a single and more comprehensive word—"America."

As here defined, the objects of the association are "to promote intercourse between those who are cultivating science in different parts of America, to give a stronger and more general impulse and a more systematic direction to scientific research in our country, and to procure for the labors of scientific men increased facilities and a wider usefulness."

Three distinct elements are included in this general statement, viz.: (1) The cultivation of personal intercourse or acquaintance among the workers in science in this country; (2) the encouragement, extension, and proper direction of scientific research; (3) the gaining of popular recognition and good will for the results of scientific work. These objects may be conveniently summarized as (1) social, (2) scientific, (3) practical.

There is nothing in the original paragraph to indicate whether the elements of this threefold division were counted of equal value, or whether they were arranged in either an ascending or descending scale of importance, but from the fact that in the development and expansion of the association during the last fifty years nothing has been added to and nothing subtracted from this general statement, while in many other divisions of the constitution large and sometimes radical changes have been adopted, it seems safe to conclude that the present members of the association see its work and office in very much the same light as its founders did.

But, while sailing under the old colors and apparently by the old charts, it is quite possible that the association is, insensibly to itself, undergoing modification more or less important. Such an experience is unavoidable in all human institutions, at least in those that retain their vitality in state, society, or church.

The fifty years that cover the life of the association are unquestionably the most important, so far as the growth of science is concerned, in the history of the race. Within this period every science has been recast and rewritten, and divisions and subdivisions of the old units have gone forward and are still in progress. Of every one of these sciences the boundaries have been so enormously extended that even the dream of universal knowledge on the part of any man has gone by, never to return. Leibnitz, it has been said, was the last of the intellectual giants of old who mastered all that was knowable in his day. Alexander von Humboldt could almost claim the same for the knowledge of Nature that was attainable in the first quarter of our century. But since the application of the compound microscope to the study of Nature and the subdivisions of the sciences that have resulted therefrom, and especially since the extension of the method of science to all the branches of anthropology, as language, history, institutions, the task of mastering all that is known is seen to be altogether too great for finite powers and span-long lives.

It might well be, therefore, in view of the amazing changes that have taken place in the entire field covered by the association, that it should have outgrown the aims and ambitions of its early days. The fact that it continues to use the identical statement of its objects with which it began its work, while it does not definitely settle the question, affords at least presumptive evidence that no such change has taken place.

How, then, do the objects originally recognized by the association as its raison d'être correspond to the needs of our own time?

1. Is the social feature of the association, to which the first place was assigned by the founders, whether by design or not, worthy of preservation by us? In other words, is it as important "to promote intercourse between those who are cultivating science in America" at the close of the nineteenth century as it was at the middle of the century—the need that was responded to by the formation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science? While revolutionary changes have taken place in the country at large during this period in modes of travel, facilities for acquiring education, and the diffusion of intelligence, it would be hard to show why the need in this field should be in any respect less urgent. There is a far larger number of people who are cultivating science, and there are many more branches of science to be cultivated.

What particular service is to be expected from such intercourse as the association seeks to provide? The gathering of the workers in the diverse fields of science into a single organization has a tendency to unify them. They find that a common spirit animates them, that they all make use of essentially the same method of research or inquiry, and that the results which they reach all have a common note of certainty, being herewith differentiated from other and older views on the same subjects, as knowledge differs from opinion. They are thus led to see more clearly than they could otherwise see the unity of the universe, that knowledge is one, and that each science is but a facet cut on the crystal sphere of natural truth, touching other facets at many points, and by no means independent, but supported by the integrity of the sphere.

Such a gathering tends to an increase of mutual respect and confidence on the part of all engaged in scientific work. It tends to discourage the narrow conceit of the specialist, who, if left entirely to his own tastes, comes to think that his own facet is the only one that deserves to be regarded, and practically to ignore its relation to the sphere of which it constitutes an essential though a minor part.

Such an association tends toward making specialists intelligible to each other. In other words, it puts a premium on the art of popularizing science, for when the specialist makes himself intelligible to his brethren in their widely separated fields he makes himself intelligible to all educated men, whether especially trained in science or not.

The specialist is under a strong temptation to limit himself to a language of his own, which is an unknown tongue even to the rest of the scientific world. Technical terms, carried out to minute subdivisions, are indispensable in every branch of modern science, but the student of any science is in an evil state who can not present his results to the world without appealing to the technical jargon of the branch which he cultivates.

There even seems a reluctance on the part of some to use plain language in stating scientific conclusions, as if the cheapening of science were feared by its being made intelligible. Such a fear is certainly unworthy. The masters have never felt it. In lucidity and directness of speech and in general intelligibility Tyndall, Huxley, and Darwin were not surpassed by any men of their generation. To whom are we as much indebted for the great advance of science in their day as to these very men?

If the scientist neglects this popularizing of science, the sciolist is sure to take it up, and his work in this field always makes the judicious grieve. Is there not possible danger that this phase of scientific work and the function of the association corresponding thereto are losing consideration to some extent?

But instead of its being true that the scientific work of the country has outgrown the need of the association, is it not rather true that we are in far more urgent need of its unifying agency than even the founders were fifty years ago? We have all the divisions of science that were then recognized, and half as many more. Physics and chemistry could then be classed in one section without offense, and zoölogy and botany were assigned without protest to a single heading. Now, not only does every science demand recognition by and of itself, but all are represented by separate societies as well—as the Mathematical Society, the Chemical Society, the Geological Society, etc. These societies hold meetings, publish bulletins, reports, and sometimes monthly journals, and, in short, aim to cover the entire field for the branches which they represent. They are generally affiliated with the association, and it is becoming usual for them to hold joint summer meetings of society and section. Their annual meetings are held in the winter, and, as their membership is more select than that of the association, standing as it does in all cases for published or recognized work already in evidence, these winter meetings are coming to be preferred for the presentation of technical papers. Those who read them feel sure of "fit audience, though few."

These societies are all vigorous and successful. They obviously meet a "felt want" on the part of American science, but just what their effect will be upon the association remains to be determined. Certainly, with these centrifugal tendencies in growing activity, this is not the time for the attraction of our one centripetal force to be relaxed. More than ever do we need such a unifying agency as the association was designed to supply.

Some modus vivendi between section and society will doubtless be found. Perhaps the more abstract and technical papers will be reserved for the winter meetings, while those dealing with the larger phases, and especially those pertaining to the philosophy of the subjects discussed, will find their places in the joint meetings of the summer.

It would be well if the association meetings of whatever character could be made memorable by the announcement of important discoveries made during the preceding year. The custom of holding back such announcements is said to obtain in the transatlantic national associations, and notably in the British Association, which is the mother of all the rest. Those who were present at the Boston meeting of the American Association will remember the enthusiasm created there by the announcement of the discovery of a new element—etherion. If later discussions have thrown doubt upon the discovery of a new element, the alternative explanation suggested of the facts proves scarcely less interesting or important than the original claim.

Whether our eager American workers would be willing to hazard their claims to priority by holding back the announcements of their discoveries for months after they have been made is a question, but the foreign practice in this regard has certainly much to commend it.

It would be a calamity of real magnitude to American science if the sectional meetings of the association were abandoned to men who have not done enough approved work to entitle them to places in the several societies already named. The old title—The American Association for the Advancement of Science—might still be retained, it is true, but what a humiliating misnomer it would be if none of the men who have advanced science in the past by their labors and none of those who are prepared to advance it in the future by their training were now included! It would be the omission of the part of Hamlet from the play.

The foremost men in all the societies, our leaders in the branches represented there, owe it to themselves, owe it much more to the great name of American science, to maintain and magnify their connection with, their service to, the American Association.

At the second meeting of the association it was the illustrious Joseph Henry who called the attention of his brethren to the fact that the organization was, by its very name, consecrated to the advancement of science—to the discovery of new truth. He reminded them that the association was not designed to furnish opportunity for the restatement of what was already known. Its purpose was rather to add to the existing body of knowledge in the world. Let not the hopes of the founders be brought to naught by allowing the organization from which they expected so much to be thus eviscerated!

We see, then, that the social feature, with what it legitimately includes, deserves to hold as prominent a place among the objects of the association at the end of the century as was given to it by its founders when first established.

Two other objects which were deemed worthy of being incorporated into the organic law of the association remain to be considered. To the treatment of each a few words will be devoted. Neither of them commands as high regard from us as they seem to have had at the beginning.

2. The second object of the association as declared by the founders was "to give a stronger and more general impulse and a more systematic direction to scientific research in our country."

It is not easy for those who were born after the middle point of the century to think themselves back into the conditions under which the words above quoted were written. At that time there wore but two or three schools of science in the United States, and not one west of the seaboard. The degrees of bachelor, master, and doctor of science were unknown. There was but one journal of science published in the country, and foreign scientific journals and reviews, comparatively weak and few at the best, seldom found their way to the New World. The men who cultivated science were widely separated, and for the most part rarely met their peers. As a natural consequence, there must have been more or less misdirected effort. Many a worker must have attacked problems already solved, or have attacked them by inadequate or obsolete methods.

How great the changes that fifty years have wrought in this country, in the world indeed, in all these respects! Now there is not a State in the Union that has not at least one fairly equipped school of science, and in some of the older States such schools can be counted by the dozen or the score. These schools are manned by teachers trained at the foremost centers of science in this country and Europe, familiar with all the great problems and with all the most improved methods of research. Moreover, on the library table of every one of these schools are the latest periodicals and special reports of the two continents in which science is cultivated. The untrained and isolated investigator can no longer justify his existence. There is no occasion for the survival of such qualities as these terms imply.

This wonderful transformation in educational scope and methods effects to a great degree just what the founders hoped to accomplish through the agency of the association. The ground has thus been cut from under the second of the objects of the association as avowed in its constitution. In other words, while the result aimed at deserved the prominence given to it fifty years ago, it no longer depends on the association for its accomplishment.

3. The third of the objects which the association was organized to accomplish was "to procure for the labors of scientific men increased facilities and a wider usefulness." This clause evidently refers to the endowment of science by founding and equipping institutions, professorships, laboratories, museums, and the like, and to a more cordial and general appreciation of the results of scientific work.

In this direction, also, such immense progress has been made in the country at large that the need of special effort in this line no longer exists. Munificent gifts to science from private fortunes are now the order of the day. It is a poor year for science in America when such contributions do not exceed a million dollars. This work was begun in the large way under the elder Agassiz, and the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy at Cambridge is its first important monument. It has gone forward in the addition of scientific departments worthy of the name to the older institutions of learning, and in the establishment of new institutions wholly devoted to science.

Such beneficent use of private wealth, the unparalleled increase of which during the last fifty years has become a matter of grave concern to the whole body politic, does more than anything else can do to reconcile the public to the conditions which make such accumulations possible. Still more significant is the policy which the General Government entered upon, forty years ago, of establishing, in conjunction with the several States, schools of general and applied science. The State colleges and universities thus founded have already become potent factors in American education, and science lies at the heart of them all. It would be hard to overrate their influence on the development of science for time to come.

When the American Association was established, fifty years ago, a new day was breaking on the world. The men who were cultivating science then saw something of the conquests over Nature that the new method—the method of science—rendered possible. They were wise in demanding that all who use this method should recognize the common bond. The association was the outcome of that demand.

At the end of the century we who have shared in the mighty advance and who have been taught by our experience to discard limitations in the possibilities of the future, feel the same and an even more urgent need of some unifying and interpreting agency for the ever-widening fields to which the method of science is now applied.