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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/August 1900/The Progress of Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 57‎ | August 1900

 
PSM V57 D348 Robert Simpson Woodward.png
PROFESSOR R. S. WOODWARD,

President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
 


THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE.

We are able to publish in the present issue of the Monthly the address given by Mr. G. K. Gilbert as retiring president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The problem that he discusses is one of the most pressing for scientific workers, while at the same time it is of interest to everyone, and the address is at once an important contribution to the subject and an exposition that all can understand. The mathematical physicists find that as an abode fitted for life the earth can not be allowed a history indefinitely long—not longer perhaps than 20,000,000 years—while the geologists with equally strong arguments claim a much greater antiquity. The biologists are also concerned, owing to the time taken up by the processes of evolution, and their facts and interests range them with the geologists rather than with the physicists. The man not versed in science would also prefer to assign a long history to the earth, for while he may be ready to let the 'dead past bury its dead,' he looks forward even to the distant future, and the shorter the past history of the earth the less the time it will continue to be habitable. We have thus a question in the solution of which all the sciences are concerned, and one possessing a dramatic interest that appeals to everyone. The unity of science is well illustrated by such a problem. It was the subject of the address of the retiring president of the Association, a geologist; it might be taken as the subject for the address of the newly elected president, a biologist and student of the processes of evolution; and it is one to which the president of the meeting, a mathematical physicist, has given special attention.

Dr. Robert Simpson Woodward, who presided over the New York meeting of the Association, is professor of mechanics and mathematical physics and dean of the Faculty of Pure Science in Columbia University. He was born at Rochester, Oakland County, Michigan, July 21, 1849, and spent his early life on a farm with the exception of about two years of experience in mercantile and manufacturing pursuits. He was prepared for college at the Rochester Academy, entered the University of Michigan in 1868, and was graduated in 1872 with the degree of C. E. Twenty years later the same institution conferred upon him the degree of Ph. D. While yet an undergraduate he entered the U. S. Lake Survey, and immediately after graduation he was appointed assistant engineer in that service. He was employed in the astronomical and geodetic work of the Lake Survey until its completion in 1882. He then accepted the position of assistant astronomer to the U. S. Transit of Venus Commission and accompanied the expedition of Prof. Asaph Hall, U. S. N., to San Antonio, Tex., to observe the transit of December, 1882. He remained with the Transit of Venus Commission until 1884, when he resigned in order to take the position of astronomer in the U. S. Geological Survey. After four years of service in this bureau he resigned to accept the position of assistant in the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. This he held until 1893, when he retired from the public service and accepted the call of Columbia University to the chair of mechanics. In 1895, and again in 1900, he was elected to the deanship of the graduate faculty of pure science in that institution. Professor Woodward has published many papers on subjects in astronomy, geodesy, mathematics and mechanics. He edited, and contributed several chapters to the final report of the U. S. Lake Survey, a volume of about one thousand quarto pages devoted chiefly to a discussion of the geodetic work of the Survey done during the forty years of its existence. He is the author of several of the Bulletins of the U. S. Geological Survey, and of a memoir on the Iced Bar and Long Tape Base Apparatus of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. These forms of apparatus, devised and perfected by him, involve many novel features and secure a much higher precision at a much smaller cost than apparatus previously used. He prepared for the Smithsonian Institution a volume entitled 'Geographical Tables,' being a manual for astronomers, geographers, engineers and cartographers, published in 1894. Several of his most important mathematical papers relate to geophysics, especially those bearing on the secular cooling and cubical contraction of the earth, on the form and position of the sea surface, and on the profoundly difficult problem presented by the recently discovered phenomenon of the variation of terrestrial latitudes. Although most of his publications are necessarily of a highly technical character, his semi-popular addresses and reviews have been widely read and appreciated. Professor Woodward was an associate editor of the 'Annals of Mathematics' from 1889 to 1899 and has been an associate editor of 'Science' since 1894. He has taken an active part in the work of the scientific societies with which he is connected, and in addition to the official positions he holds in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he has been honored by election to the presidency of the American Mathematical Society and to the presidency of the New York Academy of Sciences. Professor Woodward represents the highest type of the man of science. Eminent for his original contributions to science, a teacher of great intellectual and moral influence, an administrator with unfailing tact and unerring judgment, he confers an honor on the Association which has elected him to its highest office.

 

President Low welcomed the American Association to New York and to Columbia University in an address which recounted the increased recognition given to science by the city since the Association met there thirteen years ago and the great progress of science itself. He concluded with the following words: "I am especially glad to welcome you because you are an Association for the Advancement of Science. That, after all, is what ought to make you feel at home in the atmosphere of this university: for a university that does not assist the advancement of science has hardly a right to call itself by that great name. I heard Phillips Brooks say, in a sermon that I heard him preach in Boston when this Association met there twenty years ago, that you can get no idea of eternity, by adding century to century or by piling aeon upon aeon; but that, if you will remember how little you knew when you sat at your mother's knee to learn the alphabet, and how with every acquisition of knowledge which has marked the intervening years you have come to feel, not how much more you know, but how much more there is to be known, all can get some idea of how long eternity can be, because all can understand that there never can be time enough to enable any one to learn all that there is to know. There is so much to be known, that even the great advances of the last generation do not make us feel that everything is discovered, but they appeal to new aspirations and awaken renewed energy in order to make fresh discoveries in a region that teems with so much that is worthy of knowledge. I congratulate you upon your success, and I bid you welcome to Columbia."

 

In the course of his reply, the president of the Association, Professor Woodward, said: "But surprising and gratifying as have been the achievements of science in our day, their most important indication to us is that there is indefinite room for improvement and advancement. While we have witnessed the establishment of the two widest generalizations of science, the doctrine of energy and the doctrine of evolution, we have also witnessed the accumulation of an appalling aggregate of unrelated facts. The proper interpretation of these must lead to simplification and unification, and thence on to additional generalizations. An almost inevitable result of the rapid developments of the past three decades especially is that much that goes by the name of science is quite unscientific. The elementary teaching and the popular exposition of science have fallen, unluckily, into the keeping largely of those who can not rise above the level of a purely literary view of phenomena. Many of the bare facts of science are so far stranger than fiction that the general public has become somewhat over-credulous, and untrained minds fall an easy prey to the tricks of the magazine romancer or to the schemes of the perpetual motion promoter. Along with the growth of real science there has gone on also a growth of pseudo-science. It is so much easier to accept sensational than to interpret sound scientific literature, so much easier to acquire the form than it is to possess the substance of thought that the deluded enthusiast and the designing charlatan are not infrequently mistaken by the expectant public for true men of science. There is, therefore, plenty of work before us; and while our principal business is the direct advancement of science, an important, though less agreeable duty, at times, is the elimination of error and the exposure of fraud."

 

The meeting of the Association in New York was of more than usual importance. Not only did the nine sections of the Association hold their daily sessions, but there were also fifteen special scientific societies meeting simultaneously at Columbia University. Men of science came together from all parts of the country to present the results of the year's research, to gain profit and pleasure from association with other workers, and to return to their homes with increased knowledge and renewed interest. It is obviously impossible to give here an account of the hundreds of scientific papers presented, or even to report upon the general proceedings of the Association. Two of the more important actions may, however, be mentioned. It was decided to send 'Science,' our weekly journal of general science, to all members of the Association without charge, and a section devoted to physiology and experimental medicine was established. It was thought that the receipt of a journal such as 'Science' would increase the membership of the Association and lead to a greater interest in its work, as even those who are unable to attend the meetings will hereafter have a definite return for membership. The Association will be greatly strengthened by giving recognition to the great group of sciences—physiology, experimental psychology, anatomy, embryology, histology, morphology, pathology, bacteriology and their applications—which have developed with such remarkable activity within the past few years.

 

It is not possible to report on the scientific work of the meeting in part owing to its magnitude—the papers would fill the volumes of this journal for several years to come. It is also true that each paper taken singly is likely to be of interest only to the special student. Specialization in science is absolutely necessary for its advance, but the terminology required for exactness and economy makes the work in each department scarcely intelligible to those not immediately concerned, while the great detail necessary in careful research seems almost trivial until we realize that it is upon such special work that the general principles and the applications of science depend. We all know that our ways of thought and habits of life are chiefly based on the results of modern science. This has not been the result of a sudden revelation, but of a continual growth, scarcely perceptible until viewed from a distance. The importance of current political events is magnified by the common interest they excite, whereas in art, literature and science time is required before things can be seen in their right perspective. We can, however, take the reports of the three committees of the Association to which small grants were made for research and use these as examples of the scientific work described at the meeting. These committees were on 'Anthropometry,' on 'The Quantitative Study of Variation' and on 'The Cave Fauna of North America.'

 

The committee on anthropometry is undertaking to make measurements of the physical and mental traits of members of the Association, and to encourage such work elsewhere. At the present time there exists but little exact knowledge of how people differ from each other and of the causes and results of such differences. Much has been written regarding men of genius, criminals and other classes, but without an adequate foundation of fact. The members of a scientific society are a fairly homogeneous class, regarding whose heredity, education and achievements correct information can be secured. The measurements made at the New York meeting, determining such traits as size of head, strength, eyesight, quickness of perception, memory, etc., will supply the standard type for scientific men and their variations from this type. When other classes of the community have been measured, comparisons can be made and we shall know whether scientific men are more variable than others, have larger heads, better memory and the like. Work of this character has been carried on at Columbia University for some years. The freshmen, both the men of Columbia College and the women of Barnard College, are measured and tested with care, equal attention being paid to mental and physical traits. Then the measurements are repeated at the end of the senior year. Anthropometric work has also been done in Great Britain under the auspices of Dr. Galton and Professor Pearson, and we may perhaps hope that the time will come when we shall have as exact knowledge about human differences as we now have about different kinds of butterflies.

 

Although geologists and botanists have defined hundreds of thousands of species, they have not as a matter of fact until very recently attempted to secure exact measurements of differences, and the committee of the Association on 'The Quantitative Study of Variation,' of which Prof. Chas. B. Davenport is the recorder, aims to encourage such work. It is now over forty years since the facts and arguments presented in Darwin's 'Origin of Species' paved the way for general acceptance of the doctrine of evolution. But the objection is hardly less valid to-day than it was then that the evidence for evolution is almost wholly indirect. Over and over again naturalists have been challenged to cite one case where a species in nature has changed within historic times and repeatedly they have taken refuge in the plea that the historic period is too short for a noticeable change to have taken place. This plea can be accepted, however, only so long as we have no exact way of measuring race change. When we can express quantitatively the condition of a community to-day, we may hope to be able to say whether any change has occurred after five, ten, or a hundred years. The committee of the Association has especially concerned itself with a piece of work which may be considered typical. In the headwaters of the Tennessee River there lives a univalor mollusc which is found nowhere else in the world and which belongs to a family of molluscs that was early separated from its marine cogeners as a fluviatile species. This genus, Io, varies greatly in different parts of the Tennessee basin. In some places it is smooth; in others, spiny; in others, long drawn out. Under a grant of the Association, Mr. C. C. Adams, of Bloomington, Ill., visited this region; travelled down one of the tributaries in a boat, collecting samples from every community of Ios; and went by train up a second river collecting at every stopping place. The results of this trip were, in a word, that in passing from the mouth to the headwaters of the two parallel tributaries the shells vary in parallel fashion and show a uniform, continuous change from the spiny, elongated condition characteristic of the mouths of the rivers to the smooth, more globose condition characteristic of the headwaters. The additional grant by the Association of one hundred dollars will assist Mr. Adams in making further quantitative studies on variation in the genus Io.

 

Hardly any fact has excited more interest among evolutionists than the blindness of cave animals; and various theories have been advanced to explain the fact. It is known that the blind condition is due to a degeneration of formerly fuctional eyes. The difficulty has been to understand what advantage is gained by losing the eyes even in a locality where eyes are of no use. It has been affirmed that 'Nature is economical' and will not expend energy in building an unnecessary organ. Weismann has suggested that the only reason why we have eyes at all is because Natural Selection is constantly weeding out poor eyes. Withdraw the necessity for good eyes, and poor eyes and good eyes will have an equal chance of surviving. According to a third theory, the functional activity of any organ is essential to its maintenance. Just as the unused arm withers so the unused eye degenerates. Of course all these theories assume that the ancestors of the blind species—for instance, of the blind fishes—had originally no inherent tendency to blindness or degeneration of the eyes. This assumption has, however, be«n recently combatted by Professor Eigenmann, who has shown that although many kinds of fish are accidentally swept into caves, only one kind has become blind: of this kind the nearest allies which live in open streams shun the light, live in crevices and under stones, and have less perfect eyes than other fishes. Some of the allies of such light-shunning fishes have made their way into caves, and have there worked out their tendency to a reduction of eyes. That has been the history of eyeless fishes. To continue the researches of Professor Eigenmann, so auspiciously begun, the Association last year granted one hundred dollars to a committee on the cave vertebrates of North America. With the aid of the grant Dr. Eigenmann has during the past year penetrated into numerous caves and obtained much additional material for his researches.

 

The American Association will meet next year at Denver, beginning on August 26th. The newly elected officers are:

 

President.

Prof. Charles Sedgwick Minot, Harvard Medical School.

 

Vice-Presidents.

Mathematics and Astronomy: Prof. James McMahon, Cornell University.

Physics: Prof. D. D. Brace, University of Nebraska.

Chemistry: Prof. John H. Long, Northwestern University.

Mechanical Science and Engineering: Prof. H. S. Jacoby, Cornell University.

Geology and Geography: Prof. C. R. Van Hise, University of Wisconsin.

Zoölogy: President D. S. Jordan, Leland Stanford Jr. University.

Botany: B. T. Galloway, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D. C.

Anthropology: J. W. Fewkes, Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, D. C.

Economic Science and Statistics; John Hyde, Department of Agriculture, Washington, D. C.

 

Permanent Secretary.

L. O. Howard, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D. C.

 

General Secretary.

Prof. William Hallock, Columbia University, New York.

 

Secretary of the Council.

D. T. McDougal, New York Botanical Gardens.

 

Secretaries of the Sections.

Mathematics and Astronomy: Prof. H. C. Lord, Ohio State University.

Physics: J. O. Reed, University of Michigan.

Chemistry: Prof. W. McPherson, Ohio State University.

Mechanical Science and Engineering: William H. Jacques, Boston, Mass.

Geology and Geography: Dr. R. A. F. Penrose, Pierce. Ariz.

Zoölogy: Prof. H. B. Ward, University of Nebraska.

Botany: A. S. Hitchcock, Manhattan, Kan.

Anthropology: G. G. McCurdy, Yale University.

Economic Science and Statistics: Miss C. A. Benneson, Cambridge, Mass.

 

Treasurer.

Prof. P. S. Woodward, Columbia University.

 

The National Educational Association, which held its annual session at Charleston during the week beginning on July 9th, is the leading representative of the many educational associations of the country. Its membership includes the ablest teachers of education in colleges and the most successful school superintendents and teachers. Its meetings give occasion for discussions of matters of educational theory and practice in many ways comparable to the discussions in scientific societies. The program of the present meeting shows that like the scientific associations, the National Educational Association has become differentiated into a number of practically isolated sections with differing interests. There are separate departments of Kindergarten Education, Manual Training, Child Study, Normal Schools, Libraries, etc. The Department of Superintendence now has a special meeting at a different time and place. There are also general sessions, and these have not become mere formal business meetings. The leading topic for discussion this year seems to have been the proposed National University at Washington. The most obviously important service which the Association has rendered to educational endeavor has been its elaboration (through efficient committees) and publication of reports on Secondary Education, Elementary Education, Rural Schools and College Entrance Requirements. These reports represent if not demonstrable facts, at least the well-considered opinion of competent judges and they have had a highly beneficial influence. Dr. J. M. Green, of Newark, will preside over next year's meeting. The decision in regard to the place has been left to the executive committee, the claims of Detroit, Cincinnati and Tacoma having been especially urged.

 

The opening of a summer school at Columbia University and the attendance at Harvard University of a large proportion of all the school teachers of Cuba are important steps towards increasing the usefulness of our institutions for higher education. The grounds, buildings and equipment of Columbia University have cost in the neighborhood of $10,000,000, and to let these lie idle and rusting for nearly one-third of the year is evidently wasteful. But it is not only a question of the most economical administration of these trust funds that is at issue. The teachers of the country, perhaps 500,000 in number, have had just enough education to profit particularly by attendance at a university. They are engaged at their work during three-fourths of the year, but their summers can be spent in no more pleasant and useful way than by attending a university summer school. It would be good business policy for school boards to send their teachers to the summer schools, except that the benefit might not be reaped locally, as each teacher would soon deserve a better position than he now has. It is, however, not only for teachers that university sessions during the summer are needed. The long vacation is largely a tradition from the time when boys were most usefully occupied on the farm during the summer. It is doubtful whether students now come back to college in the autumn in an improved physical or moral condition. They might spend their time to advantage, but are not likely to do so at the ordinary summer resort. It is admitted by everyone that young men are too old when they leave college and the professional schools. Reforms are needed in various directions, but an obvious one is not to take four years for three years' work. Though university professors, who for the general good need freedom from routine teaching for other work, should be allowed leave of absence for a part of the year, it does not follow that they should all be away at the same time. It seems probable that the example set by the University of Chicago, which holds four sessions extending through the year, will be followed by all our universities.

 

The third International Conference on a Catalogue of Scientific Literature was held in London on June 12th and 13th. It will be remembered by those who are interested in the organization of science that a conference on this subject was called by the Royal Society in 1896 at which it was proposed to undertake by international cooperation a catalogue of contributions to science. Certain details were arranged and others were left to a committee of the Royal Society. Under the auspices of this committee schedules of classification were drawn up and estimates of the cost secured. A second conference was held in 1898, and after various changes in the plans for the catalogue it was at the recent Conference definitely decided to proceed with its publication. It is estimated that the cost will be covered by the sale of three hundred sets, and different governments or national agencies have made themselves responsible for a certain number of sets, Germany and Great Britain for example, subscribing for forty-five sets, each costing £17. The Catalogue will be published in seventeen volumes devoted to as many sciences, and will be both an author's and a subject index. The collection of material is to commence from January 1, 1901. While all scientific men welcome improvements in cataloguing scientific literature, the arrangements proposed by the Royal Society and by the different conferences have met with some criticism. The serious mistake has been made of entirely ignoring the catalogues and bibliographies already existing for most of the sciences, and it is not certain that the elaborate and expensive machinery proposed will be as useful as some plan would have been for unifying the existing agencies. Still in the end there must be some international and uniform method for cataloguing scientific literature, and it is to be hoped that our Government will do its share toward supporting the present undertaking.