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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/December 1899/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | December 1899

Editor's Table.


THE address delivered by Prof. Michael Foster, as president this year of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was not as long or elaborate as such addresses are wont to be, but it contained many thoughts of great value. After sketching the vast advances in scientific knowledge made within the present century, he observed, with great truth, that "the very story of the past which tells of the triumphs of science puts away all thoughts of vainglory." Why? In the first place, because no one can study the history of science without being made to feel how very near, in many cases, the men of the past came to anticipating some of the most famous discoveries and generalizations of later years. Translate the language of an earlier age into modern terms, and you often find that you have expressed the most advanced scientific doctrine of to-day. In the second place, if we find a certain lack of definiteness and truth to fact in the ideas of the past, how can we be at all sure how our ideas will look when confronted with the fuller knowledge which doubtless our successors will possess? Lastly, "there is written clearly on each page of the history of science the lesson that no scientific truth is born anew, coming by itself and of itself. Each new truth is always the offspring of something which has gone before, becoming in turn the parent of something coming after." However great the work of a man of science may be, "it is not wholly his own; it is in part the outcome of the work of men who have gone before." In this respect Professor Foster sees a striking difference between the man of science and the poet. We always know whence the former came, but the latter is almost as devoid of visible ancestry as Melchizedek. When the man of science dies the results which he achieved remain, and his work is taken up where he left it off; whereas the poet, strictly speaking, has no continuators. The Homeridæ do not represent Homer, nor do Dryden and Congreve take the place of Shakespeare.

The story of natural knowledge or science, we are reminded, is a story of continued progress. "There is in it not so much as a hint of falling back—not even of standing still." The enemies of science sometimes seek to turn against it the fact that each age revises the conclusions of the preceding one. They ask, What dependence can be placed upon opinions or theories that are thus subject to change? The answer is that the science of each age is the nearest approximation which that age can make to the truth, and upon some points represents the truth with a great approach to finality of interpretation. The law of gravitation, for example, as formulated by Newton, lies at the foundation of the physics of today. The circulation of the blood was discovered once for all by Harvey. The true theory of the solar system was given once for all by Kepler, It is the glory of science that whatever of imperfection may lurk in a scientific theory is sure to be brought to light and corrected by subsequent observation and analysis.

The learned professor dwelt briefly but forcibly upon the qualities of the scientific mind. In the first place, the scientific mind must "vibrate in unison with that of which it is in search." It is in search of truth, and it must therefore vibrate in unison with truth. The follower of science must have a truthfulness beyond that of the ordinary man, who does not set a great price upon exactness in his observations or conclusions, and readily confounds things which, superficially similar, are fundamentally different. Nature resents even the most trifling inexactness, and the careless student will find that the further he carries his inquiries the further he goes astray. The scientific mind must also be alert. The indications and hints which Nature gives are sometimes very slight, and only one who is watchful in the extreme and attentive to the smallest things will catch them. Then the problems which Nature sets are often complicated, and call for a high degree of courage and perseverance. An inquiry which seemed easy at first will suddenly become overcast by what seems the most hopeless obscurity, and the scientific worker, unless he possesses the necessary moral as well as intellectual qualities, will fail in his quest. Considering the characteristics which the pursuit of science tends to develop in its votaries, and considering that scientific method is now and has been for many years past a wonderfully devised system for carrying on research, Professor Foster is surprised that the progress of science is not even more rapid than it is. He fears that perhaps Science does not get the best minds enrolled in her service, and rather hints that our institutions of education are responsible for turning aside many who might lend great aid in the advancement of real knowledge to less profitable pursuits. In words of almost precisely similar import to some that we used in these columns not very long ago, he observes that "that teaching is one-sided, and therefore misleading, which deals with the doings of man only and is silent about the works of Nature, in the sight of which he and his doings shrink almost to nothing." The whole address is stamped with the high thoughtfulness which so eminently distinguishes its author, and deserves to be carefully pondered by all who would understand the character and mission of science and the intellectual needs of the present age.



As many of our readers will have learned through the daily press, Mr. William H. Appleton, long the head of the well-known publishing house of D. Appleton and Company, passed away at his home in Riverdale on the Hudson, October 19, 1899, having reached the advanced age of eighty-five years. As one of the founders of this magazine, who from the start was in close sympathy with its aims, kept up an active interest in its management, and was ever ready to aid its conductors with advice and encouragement, it is fitting that a few memorial words should be spoken of him in these columns.

The career of Mr. Appleton was a marked one in many respects. Entering the book business of his father, Mr. Daniel Appleton, at an unusually early age, he soon developed such an aptitude for affairs that at twenty-one he went abroad for the purpose of making the acquaintance of the leading foreign publishers and paving the way for closer relations with them in the importation and sale of their books in this country. Three years later, or at the age of twenty-four, his father made him a partner in the business, which had previously been extended so as to include the publication as well as the sale of books, and had now so increased in volume as to compel removal to more commodious quarters. Ten years of growth and uninterrupted prosperity followed, when Mr. Daniel Appleton, in 1848, retired from the now well-established firm, William H. Appleton, at the age of thirty-four, becoming its head, with his brothers John A. and Daniel Sidney as partners. In co-operation with these and other brothers who afterward entered the business, Mr. Appleton guided the operations of the firm for a period of nearly fifty years, successfully piloting it through several financial crises and carrying it to a foremost place among the publishing houses of America.

Besides the routine of an extensive publishing business, the history of the house during this time includes a number of large undertakings involving the expenditure of vast sums of money, and years of labor by many workers, and attended with risks that only the most farseeing business sagacity could justify. We may presume that the several members of the firm shared a common faith in the success of these great enterprises, but it is fair to infer that as the head of the house William H. Appleton took a leading part in their origin and execution. One of these ventures was the publication of the American Cyclopædia, which in its present revised form represents an outlay of over a million dollars and some ten years of time. Another undertaking, and the one that we wish more particularly to speak of here, was the extension of the business in the line of popular scientific publications.

Scientific circles in this country have never realized the debt they owe to D. Appleton and Company, and especially to William H. Appleton, in this regard. It is no exaggeration to say that the advance of science in the United States was hastened by more than a quarter of a century by the enlightened and courageous policy which led the firm to add this class of books to their lists at the time they did. Everything apparently was against it—nothing in its favor. Our scientific literature consisted mainly of a few text-books having only a limited sale. Science itself was an affair of laboratories and bug collectors, the one to be shunned and the other commiserated. The few utterances of scientific men having a bearing on the great questions of the right interpretation of Nature, man's relations to his fellows and to the world at large, social betterment, etc., that here and there arrested public attention were received with contemptuous sneers or scouted as the rankest infidelity. Few who are not past middle life will find it possible now to realize that this was the general attitude toward science forty years ago, but we have only to refer the reader to the writings of the time for abundant confirmation of our statements.

It was such conditions as these that the firm was called upon to face when considering the question of entering this new field of publication. All ordinary business instincts were against it. Scarcely a publisher either here or abroad would even listen to the proposal to risk his capital in such an enterprise. Nevertheless, Mr. Appleton, lending an appreciative ear to the arguments of the former editor of this journal and displaying his usual foresight, finally decided in favor of the project, which afterward resulted in the introduction of the works of Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, Bain, Romanes, and other distinguished writers to American readers. A further step in the same direction, taken later, was the publication of the International Scientific Series, now numbering some eighty volumes. The scheme as originated and shaped by Professor Youmans was heartily seconded by Mr. Appleton, as was also the plan of the Popular Science Monthly.

A distinctive feature of the arrangements for the issue of all these foreign books, and one which redounds in no small degree to the credit of the firm, was the voluntary agreement, in the absence of an international copyright law, to pay their authors the usual royalties, making no distinction between them and authors at home. Mr. Appleton had been a lifelong advocate of international copyright, founding his contention on the simple justice of recognizing the property rights of the author, no matter where he lived. Although to adopt such a course was to expose themselves to the possibility of heavy loss through the issue of reprints by irresponsible parties, a thing which actually happened in the case of a good many of the volumes, the principle was faithfully adhered to, thus anticipating by many years the central provision of our present law.

The storm of denunciation raised abroad by the appearance of the earlier installments of these writings might well have deterred the boldest from repeating the experiment of giving them currency in America. But in spite of solemn warnings that dire consequences would be visited on the publisher who ventured to issue them here, the books continued to appear, while the predicted evils never came to pass.

It must not be inferred from the foregoing, however, that Mr. Appleton was either unmindful or wanting in respect for the opposition which his course aroused. Much of this had its origin in the religious convictions of the community, not a little of the criticism, be it said, emanating directly from the Church or its leading representatives. But, being a strong churchman himself, actively furthering the work of the Church with his private means and personal co-operation, in full sympathy with its purposes, and rejoicing in its beneficent influence, he was the last one who would wantonly outrage the sacred beliefs of his fellow-men. Yet, gifted with a large-mindedness that is at least unusual in the walks of business, he was enabled to see that the onward march of natural knowledge which had so often before excited alarm among men of narrow views could have nothing in it that was inconsistent with a truly religious life; while, on the other hand, to promote its advance and diffusion was to contribute by so much to the highest human welfare.

The wisdom of Mr. Appleton's course has been fully justified by the event. As we look over the last half of the century, which has been so fruitful in discovery and has witnessed the development of so many agencies for the amelioration of human ills and so manifold an increase in man's power for right living, we can see at the various stages of this evolution how large a part the broadening of thought fostered by these authors and the new aims and methods in inquiry suggested by them have contributed to the advance. It could not, in short, have been made so rapidly or effectively without the stimulus they gave. For what has been done in this line in this country we think—when we reflect that it was he who had the courage to bring the works of those thinkers here, and who made them accessible to students and the reading public, who constituted the agency through which the new thoughts and aims were spread—a very important part in the achievement may fairly be ascribed to Mr. William H. Appleton.