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

President of the National Academy of Sciences, Emeritus Rumford Professor and Lecturer on the Applications of Science to the Useful Arts at Harvard University.


Dr. Wolcott Gibbs presented his resignation from the presidency of the National Academy of Sciences at the recent Washington meeting, and the occasion permits the publication of his portrait and a few words in reference to his great contributions to science. Born in New York City in 1822, Dr. Gibbs graduated from Columbia College fifty-nine years ago. He studied abroad under Liebig, the founder of the first chemical laboratory, occupied a chair in the College of the City of New York, and was for twenty-four years Rumford professor at Harvard University. He became professor emeritus in 1887, and established a private laboratory at Newport, where he has continued his researches. Dr. Gibbs is one of the great chemists of the world. He is the only American honorary member of the German Chemical Society. Among other important ideas, his suggestion that the electrolytic deposition of copper be used as a means of quantitative analysis is one which has grown to a remarkable extent. There are now a number of volumes devoted solely to the amplification of this idea, which has been applied to numerous substances. Many other methods of quantitative analysis have been improved and simplified under his guidance, but perhaps his greatest work is his extended experimental study of complex salts, especially the cobaltamine compounds, and a great number of singularly complicated bodies, containing some of the rarer elements. Most of these substances are of no practical value, but they are of great theoretical interest, because they are only partially explained by the present theories of molecular structure. While the resignation of Dr. Gibbs from the presidency of the Academy is doubly regretted because it is owing to the fact that his health no longer permits the strain of the office, chemical science will profit all the more from his exclusive devotion to research.

The meetings of the National Academy of Sciences held annually at Washington during the third week of April, pass without the general attention that they deserve. For the Academy meets not only to listen to special scientific papers, but also as the official scientific adviser of the Government. As knowledge increases in range and exactness, it is evident that expert advice becomes more and more necessary, both for the enactment of legislation and for carrying it into effect. It may, indeed, be fairly claimed that the advisory or expert department of the Government should rank coördinate with its legislative, executive and judicial branches. The National Academy has on occasion been called to investigate scientific questions—thus it has recently presented a report to the Department of the Interior on a policy for the forested lands of the United States—but it has been of less service in this direction than was intended by the act of incorporation or than sound policy dictates. This limitation to the usefulness of the Academy seems to depend in part on the small membership, and the fact that it consists of the most eminent rather than the most efficient men of science of the country. The Academy has less than one hundred members, only one fourth as many as the Royal Society. Professor Jastrow shows in the present number of this journal that men of science do not become eminent until rather late in life, and the members of the Academy are apt to be somewhat lacking in initiative. University professors are now selected chiefly from younger men of promise, who are expected not only to attain scientific eminence, but also to possess executive ability and to exert personal influence. The National Academy needs a membership of this character, and has fortunately to some extent obtained it within recent years. Thus the members elected at the present meeting are Prof. James E. Keeler, director of the Lick Observatory; Prof. Franz Boas, of Columbia University and the American Museum Natural History; Prof. Henry F. Osborn, also of Columbia University and the American Museum, and Prof. Samuel L. Penfield, of Yale University.

There is perhaps no objection to regarding the National Academy of Sciences as a quasi hereditary upper house, whose functions are largely conservative, while the active duties on behalf of science devolve on a more democratic body—The American Association for the Advancement of Science. This association meets at Columbia University, New York City, during the last week of the present month, and with it some fifteen special societies devoted to different sciences. The association celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in Boston two years ago, when about half of its nearly two thousand members were present, and there is every reason to hope that the New York meeting will be as largely attended. The members will be welcomed by Governor Roosevelt and President Low, and after listening to addresses by the vice-presidents, will divide into nine sections, before which special papers will be presented. The address of the retiring president, Mr. G. K. Gilbert, of the United States Geological Survey, will be given at the American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday evening, while the president, Prof. P. S. Woodward, of Columbia University, will preside at the general sessions. The American Association has during its long history performed a useful service in bringing men of science together and in attracting the attention of the general public to scientific work, but in some respects it has been less influential than its sister associations in Great Britain, Germany and France. This has been in some measure due to the large area of the country and the heat of the summer, making it difficult for men of science to come together, but it probably represents chiefly a certain lack of organization of science in America. With the growth of university centers and of scientific work under the Government, the number of men of science has greatly increased, while with the establishment of special societies and journals their means of intercommunication have improved. There is every reason for the support of an association which can represent the whole body of scientific men and forward the scientific movements that are of such importance to the country. The membership of the association is of two classes, fellows and members. The former are selected from those who are actively engaged in advancing science, while all those who are interested in science are eligible for membership. Those who would like to have their names proposed for membership may address the local secretary of the New York meeting, Prof. J. McKeen Cattell, Columbia University, or the permanent secretary, Dr. L. O. Howard, Department of Agriculture, Washington. D. C.

A very ambitious project is on the stocks for the foundation of an 'International Association for the Advancement of Science, Arts and Education.' It will be remembered that there was last year an interchange of visits between the British Association meeting at Dover and the French Association meeting at Boulogne. Arrangements were then made resulting in the appointment of general committees for Great Britain and France, and it was decided to hold an international assembly at Paris during the Exposition. Prof. Patrick Geddes, secretary of the British Group, has since visited the United States, and a general committee has been formed with Dr. W. T. Harris. United States Commissioner of Education, and Prof. R. S. Woodward, president-elect of the American Association, as vice-presidents. M. Bourgeois, late French Minister of Education, is the general president, and M. Gréard, rector of the University of Paris, is president of the French Group. The plans for the Assembly this summer are based directly on the Paris Exposition. It is proposed to establish headquarters on the grounds of the Exposition, in the buildings of the University of Paris and at other places, where those interested in the scientific aspects of the Exposition and in the scientific and educational congresses may meet and receive information and guidance. Special visits to the Exposition and other excursions, special lectures and entertainments, special summaries of the work of the congresses, etc., are promised. The Association is not, however, limited to the Paris Exposition, but proposes a permanent organization for the holding of assemblies and the organization of relations between men of science of different nations. Those interested in the Paris Assembly may secure further information from Mr. Ely, secretary of the American Group, 23 East Forty-fourth street, New York City.

The Government of the United States does more to develop the resources of the country and advance science than any other nation. On these objects the sum of over $8,000,000 is spent annually and over 5,000 officers are employed. Yet in one direction it has fallen far behind the great European nations. Our Department of Agriculture, our Geological Survey and many other agencies surpass in range and efficiency the similar institutions eleswhere, but the applications of physics and chemistry to the arts have not enjoyed equal advantages. The Physikalische-Technische Reichsanstalt, the national physical laboratory of the German Empire, established under the direction of von Helmholtz, is conducted at an annual cost of $80,000, and there is in addition a German bureau of weights and measures on which the sum of $36,000 is annually expended. For similar purposes Great Britain spends annually $62,000, Austria, $46,000, and Russia, $17,500, whereas, our office of Standard Weights and Measures receives the meager appropriation of $10,400. We are very glad to learn that the Secretary of the Treasury has submitted an amendment to the pending sundry civil bill, creating in place of the present office a National Standardizing Bureau. According to the amendment the functions of the bureau shall consist in the custody of the standards; the comparison of the standards used in scientific investigations, engineering, manufacturing, commerce and educational institutions with the standards adopted or recognized by the Government; the construction when necessary of standards, their multiples and subdivisions; the testing and calibration of standard measuring apparatus; the solution of problems which arise in connection with standards; the determination of physical constants and the properties of materials when such data are of great importance to scientific or manufacturing interests and are not to be obtained of sufficient accuracy elsewhere. Provision is also made for the erection of a laboratory and its equipment, and for the employment of an adequate staff, with a director, whose salary shall be $6,000 per annum.

It is satisfactory that the Secretary of the Treasury should recommend a reasonable salary for the director of the proposed bureau. Men of science are, as a rule, but poorly paid, and the officers in the scientific departments of the Government receive in many cases salaries that are a small part of what they could earn as physicians or lawyers. There is, of course, danger that if salaries are large, the offices will be sought by 'practical* politicians, and it is probably the part of wisdom to offer the best facilities for research rather than large salaries. Still, if the scientific man has the salary of a clerk, he will be ranked in the same class by legislators and executive officers. The small salaries offered at Washington also lead to the continual loss of those whose services are of the greatest value to the Government. Thus, the recent call to the presidency of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of Dr. Henry S. Pritchett, Superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, is a serious blow to the bureau and to science at Washington. Dr. Pritchett's scientific attainments and executive ability will find ample scope at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he worthily succeeds Presidents Rogers, Runkle, Walker and Crafts. But he was also greatly needed in the Coast and Geodetic Survey, where, after the excellent administration of Dr. T. C. Mendenhall, there had been an unfortunate interregnum of three years. During the past three years, however, the work of the Survey has been placed on an excellent basis by Dr. Pritchett, and there is every reason to believe that the ground gained will not be lost.

The transition of Dr. Pritchett from the professorship of mathematics and astronomy in Washington University to the superintendency of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey and now to the presidency of the Massachusetts Institute., calls attention to the fact that the only promotion possible to men of science or university professors is an executive position. The type of the German Gelehrte, still current in literature and on the stage, is not common in America. The modern methods of advancing science—the laboratory, the observatory, the museum, the expedition, with their complex equipment—demand administrative ability of a high order. Science has been able to supply presidents, not only to the great technical schools, but also to Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and other universities. Still, it is unfortunate that the man of science can not look forward to promotion in the direction of his own work. He becomes a college professor or the like at a comparatively early age with a moderate salary. He has now as a motive the increase of his reputation, rather likely to degenerate into vanity, and the nobler motive of contributing to the advance of science and of civilization. But these motives appeal differently to different men—in any case, they bake no bread and educate no children. The average salary of scientific men can not be greatly increased; there must be a certain relation between supply and demand, and the average earnings of other professional men are also small. But the lawyer may look forward to becoming a judge, the physician to a large city practice, the clergyman to a bishopric, etc. In Germany a university professor may look forward to being called to Berlin, to becoming a Hofrat, a Geheimrat and a 'von.' It seems that we need in each American university one or two chairs with very large endowments, the occupation of which would be a special honor.

The French Academy of Sciences and French Science have lost two of their most distinguished representatives in the deaths of Joseph Bertrand and of Alphonse Milne-Edwards. Bertrand was born in 1823, and was somewhat of a prodigy when a boy, having published a paper on the theory of electricity when but sixteen years old, and being the author of numerous mathematical papers before he was twenty-one. His original contributions to mathematics and mathematical physics are of great importance, and he was the author of standard works on algebra, on arithmetic and on the calculus. As permanent secretary of the Paris Academy of Sciences he was continually engaged in administrative work, preparing obituary notices, acting as judge in the annual awards of its prizes, etc. He also contributed a large number of biographies and other articles to non-technical journals. Milne-Edwards, born in 1835, was a son of the eminent zoölogist, Henri Milne-Edwards, and the grandson of Bryan Edwards, the historian and member of the British Parliament. Milne-Edwards published important researches in paleontology and in zoölogy, especially in relation to birds, and was at the time of his death professor of zoölogy at Paris and director of the Jardin des Plantes.

In the deaths of the Duke of Argyll and Prof. St. George Mivart, Great Britain loses two men of a type more common there than in the United States, Argyll was a man of great wealth, whose interests in science were only secondary, but who did much directly and indirectly for its advancement. His work, 'The Reign of Law,' published some twenty-five years ago, has been widely read, and he is the author of many books and articles concerned with the natural sciences. Mivart, although trained as a barrister, became perhaps a professional man of science, but he never occupied a regular university position. He published numerous contributions to comparative anatomy and zoology, but is perhaps best known for books and articles on general scientific subjects. Just before his death, it will be remembered, he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church owing to articles which were supposed not to be in conformity with its tenets. Both Argyll and Mivart represented an attitude towards the doctrine of evolution which may be regarded as now practically extinct.

Two lectures have been recently delivered by Prof. James Dewar at the Royal Institution on the subject of liquid and solid hydrogen. These lectures have been illustrated by experiments and have attracted the attention of the most distinguished chemists and physicists of England. It is easy to understand such interest in the subject when we consider that even Clerk Maxwell thought it improbable that hydrogen would ever be liquified, and yet Dewar was able to exhibit not only liquid, but solid, hydrogen to his audience. Briefly recapitulated, the steps in the condensation of what were formerly called the permanent gases are these: in 1878 Cailletet, in Paris, and Pictet, at Geneva, by suddenly expanding gases which had been compressed to a high degree and cooled to a low temperature, succeeded in obtaining these gases in the shape of a mist or of a transitory liquid jet. In 1884 Wroblewski and Olszewski at Crakow obtained oxygen and nitrogen as static liquids. By expanding hydrogen from a compression of 190 atmospheres in a vessel cooled by liquid air evaporating under diminished pressure, this gas was obtained as a mist or momentary froth, though it was affirmed by Olszewski that he observed the liquid hydrogen in colorless drops and as a liquid running down the sides of the tube. In May, 1898, Dewar obtained hydrogen as a static liquid by allowing compressed hydrogen, cooled in a bath of boiling air, to escape rapidly at a jet, the liquid hydrogen being collected in a doubly isolated vacuum vessel. This liquid hydrogen is a colorless liquid, with a specific gravity of 0.07 or less than one sixth the weight of liquid marsh gas, the lightest liquid hitherto known. This is better realized by saying that while one gram of water has the volume of one cubic centimeter, one gram of liquid hydrogen has a volume of over 14 c. c. The boiling point of hydrogen is —252° C. or 21° above the absolute zero, and by boiling in a vacuum the temperature of 15° can be obtained. Very recently by slowly evaporating, very perfectly isolated liquid hydrogen, solid hydrogen was obtained by Dewar as a white mass of solidified form, of the lowest temperature ever obtained,—258° C.

Among the most suggestive results obtained through recent work in experimental embryology are those of Prof. Jacques Loeb, of the University of Chicago, on the chemical fertilization of the eggs of sea-urchins without participation of the male element. There has for some time been reason to suspect that cell-division, both in tissue cells and in the egg, is incited by chemical stimulus; and several observers before Loeb had shown that when unfertilized seaurchin eggs are treated by the addition to the sea-water of various substances, such as strychnine or chlorides of sodium or magnesium, they may undergo some of the preliminary changes of development and may even segment. Loeb was able to induce complete and normal development by first bringing the eggs for about two hours into a mixture of sea-water and a weak solution of magnesium chloride, and then transferring them to normal sea-water. Eggs thus treated segmented and underwent a development which, though somewhat slower than usual, was otherwise normal and produced perfect larvæ. This effect can not properly be called fertilization in the ordinary sense of the word, but is rather to be regarded as artificially induced parthenogenesis. It points unmistakably, however, to the possibility, or rather probability, that in normal fertilization the spermatozoon incites the egg to development by bringing to it certain definite chemical substances; and Loeb gives reasons for the view that these substances are probably in the form of ions, concluding that these and not the nucleins are essential to the process of fertilization. A highly suggestive new field for work is opened by these experiments.

Astronomers can not bring the phenomena they study into the laboratory or test the behavior of the heavenly bodies under artificial conditions. They have to be satisfied with such opportunities as nature gives, even though she bestows them as meagerly as she does solar eclipses. Consequently, the total eclipse of the forenoon of May 28th has been the object of much preparation. Most of the important astronomical observatories in this country will have parties stationed along the path of the eclipse from New Orleans to Norfolk, Va. Many European parties will observe the eclipse in Portugal, Spain and North Africa. It has been pointed out by Prof. R. W. Wood and Mr. A. L. Rotch[1] that there are several important physical observations to be made apart from the astronomical observations on the sun's corona described by Professor Bigelow, in the May number of this magazine. Just before and after totality alternate bright and dark bands are observed sweeping across the country. It is hoped that by the coöperation of a number of observers more complete and exact data concerning this phenomena may be gathered and its explanation found. The changes in the wind noted during eclipses will also be observed to ascertain whether the sudden cooling of the atmosphere by the passage of the moon's shadow is a sufficient explanation of the so-called 'eclipse wind.' Those who know nothing about theories of the corona or of the 'eclipse wind' will be interested in the more obvious phenomena and in some cases, in the opportunity to take such a photograph as can not be duplicated in this country until 1918. The most favored ones are those who live in the fifty-mile belt of the total eclipse, but the sun will be seen nine tenths covered in the eastern and southern States, and will be six tenths covered to those in the least favorable locality of the United States, the extreme northwest. The proper methods of observing and photographing the corona were described in Professor Bigelow's article on the eclipse in the May number of the Popular Science Monthly.

  1. In 'Science,' Apr. 27th and May 11th.