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

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 57‎ | October 1900


The British, French and German Associations for the Advancement of Science have held their annual meetings in the course of the past month. In each of these countries and in most other European countries, as well as in America, there are migratory scientific congresses of the same general character. As these have grown up somewhat independently, they evidently meet a common need. Science cannot be advanced by a man working independently and in isolation. The printing press was essential to the beginnings of modern science, while at the same time it was usual for the scientific student to travel from place to place that he might learn and teach. Then in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the cultivation of science became more general, royal academies were founded. The Royal Society was established at London in 1660 under the patronage of Charles II., the Academy of Sciences at Paris in 1666 under Louis XIV., the Royal Academy at Berlin in 1700 under Frederick I., the Imperial Academy at St. Petersburg in 1724 under Peter the Great, and in other cities similar academies were founded under similar auspices. Then in the first half of the present century, as science continued to grow, the more democratic organizations for the advancement of science were established. The Society of German Scientific Men and Physicians was formed, chiefly through the efforts of Humboldt, in 1822; the Swiss Association in 1829, and the British Association in 1831. Our own Association was established in 1847, but was then the intergrowth of a society dating from 1840. These associations are significant of the spread of science among all the people. Science is no longer the concern of a few men under royal patronage, but the two great movements of the present century—the growth of democracy and the growth of science—have united for their common good.


The British Association held its annual meeting at Bradford, beginning on September 5, under the presidency of Sir William Turner, professor of anatomy in the University of Edinburgh. We are able to publish, from a copy received in advance of its delivery, his presidential address, which traces the growth during the present century of knowledge regarding fundamental biological problems. The addresses of the presidents before the sections are usually written in a way that can be readily understood by those who are not specialists, and are consequently of greater interest to a general audience than some of the corresponding addresses before the American Association. The addresses at Bradford were: Before the section of mathematical and physical science Dr. Joseph Larmor discussed recent developments of physics with special reference to the extent to which explanation can be reduced purely to description; before the section of chemistry Prof. H. W. Perkin argued that radical changes should be made in the methods of teaching 'inorganic chemistry; before the section of geology Prof. W. J. Sollas spoke of the development of the earth, including the different critical periods in its history, before the section of zoölogy Dr. R. H. Traquair chose as his subject the bearing of fossil fishes on the doctrine of descent; before the section of geography Sir George Robertson considered certain geographical aspects of the British Empire and the changes brought about by improved means of intercommunication; before the section of economic science and statistics Major P. G. Craigie spoke of the use of statistics in agriculture; before the section of mechanical science Sir Alexander Binnie traced the historical development of science; before the section of anthropology Prof. John Rhys dealt with the ethnology of the British Isles, with special reference to language and folk-lore; before the section of botany Prof. Sidney H. Vines reviewed the development of botany during the present century. In addition to these addresses, evening discourses were given by Prof. Francis Gotch on 'Animal Electricity,' and by Prof. W. Stroud on 'Range Finders.' The usual lecture to workingmen was given by Prof. Sylvester P. Thompson, his subject being 'Electricity in the Industries.'


Bradford is situated in the coal regions, and is an industrial center devoted especially to the manufacture of textiles. More attention was paid to local interests than is usual at the meetings of the American Association. An exhibit was arranged to show the development of the elaborate fabrics from the unwashed fleeces, and another consisting of a collection of carboniferous fossils found in the neighborhood. A joint discussion was arranged between the sections of zoology and botany on the conditions which existed during the growth of the forests which supplied material for the coal, and there were a number of papers devoted to the coal measures and the fossils which they contain. Another subject connected with the place of meeting was the report of the committee on the underground water system in the carboniferous limestone. By the use of chemicals the course of the underground waters has been traced, including their percolation through rock fissures, and excursions were made to the site of the experiments. The local industries received treatment from several sides. Among other discussions of more than usual interest was that on 'Ions' before the physical section and on 'What is a Metal?' before the chemical section. Features of popular interest were accounts of adventures in Asia, Africa and the Antarctic regions, by Captain Deasy, Captain George and Mr. Borchgrevinck, respectively, and Major Ross's paper on 'Malaria and Mosquitoes.'


The French Association met at Paris in the month of August, with the numerous other congresses. General Sebert, in his presidential address, reviewed the progress of the mechanical industries during the century and devoted the last third of his time to a discussion of international bibliography, but without mentioning the International Catalogue which now seems to be an accomplished fact. The secretary of the Association, in his review of the year, devoted special attention to the joint meetings of the British and French associations last summer at Dover and Calais. The treasurer was able to make a report that the treasurers of other national associations will envy. The capital is over $250,000, and the income from all sources about $17,000, of which about $3,000 was awarded for the prosecution of research and to defray the cost of publication of scientific monographs. The national association for the advancement of science of Germany— the 'Gesellschaft deutscher Naturforscher und Aerzte'—held its annual meeting at Aachen toward the middle of September. An account of the proceedings has not yet reached us, but the congresses are always largely attended and the combination of addresses of general interest, of special papers before the numerous sections and of social functions, is perhaps more effective than in any other society. It also appears to be a considerable advantage for medical men and scientific men to meet together.


While from the scientific point of view the present century has been notable for the development of national associations for the advancement of science, its latter decades have witnessed a growth of international scientific meetings which may be expected to become dominant in the twentieth century. There are at least one hundred congresses, having more or less reference to science, meeting at Paris during the present summer. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these, from the point of view of the organization of science, is the International Association of Academies, which was established last year at a conference held at Wiesbaden. In this Association eighteen of the great academies of the world, including our own National Academy of Sciences, have been united to promote the interests of science. Literature is also included— of the eighteen academies, twelve include in their scope both science and literature, four are devoted to science only and two to literature only. It is planned to have a general meeting every three years, to which each academy will send as many delegates as it regards as desirable, though each academy will have but one vote. In the interval between the general meetings, the business of the Association is to be directed by a committee, on which each academy is represented. The object of the Association is to plan and promote scientific work of international interest which may be proposed by one of the constituent academies, and generally to promote scientific relations between different countries. The Royal Society has proposed the measurement, by international coöperation, of an extended arc of the meridian in the interior of Africa.


The International Congress of Physics marked an advance owing to the fact that it met for the first time this year, and it appears that the proceedings were of unusual interest. This was in a large measure due to the arrangements of the French Physical Society, which did not simply make up a programme from a mass of heterogeneous researches, but secured some eighty reports on the present condition of physical science. These were prepared by many of the leading physicists of the world and when published—as they are about to be in three volumes—will set forth the condition of the science with completeness and authority. There were in all seven sections. In the first, which was concerned with measurement, in addition to numerous reports several propositions were brought forward in regard to units, which, being international in character, are specially fitted for discussion at such a congress. As the members, however, were not in most cases delegates from governments and scientific bodies, no definite action was taken, though some recommendations were made. The decimalization of time was not recommended, nor was the proposal to give a name to units of velocity and acceleration. It was, however, decided that the 'Barrie' be adopted as the unit of pressure. The other sections were for mechanical physics, for optics, for electricity, for magneto-optics and radio-activity, for cosmical physics and for biological physics. Among the reports and papers of commanding interest only two can be mentioned—the introductory address by M. Poincaré, discussing the relations between experimental and mathematical physics, and one by Lord Kelvin on the waves produced in an elastic solid traversed by a body acting on it by attraction or repulsion, in which, from a strictly mathematical point of view, he advanced the hypothesis of a movable atom surrounded by an immovable ether. In addition to various receptions, a session was held at the Sorbonne, where Messrs. Becquerel and Curie gave demonstrations with radioactive substances, and one at the Ecole Polytechnique, where President Cornu showed apparatus which had been used in the determination of the velocity of light. At the close of the congress the foreign secretaries placed a crown on the tomb of Fresnel.


While a physical congress was meeting at Paris this year for the first time, the Geological Congress, which was one of the first international congresses to be organized, held its eighth session, beginning on August 16. America, in spite of the number and importance of the inventions it has given to the world, has not as yet done its share for the advancement of physical science, but in geology it occupies a foremost place. It was natural, therefore, that while American physicists were scarcely represented on the programme of the Physical Congress, they occupied a prominent place on the programme of geological papers. Among the three hundred members present, the representation from America included Messrs. Stevenson, Hague, Osborn, Ward, Willis, White, Cross, Scott, Todd, Kunz, Choquette, Adams, Mathew and Rice, and they presented a number of the more important papers. M. Karpinsky, the retiring president, gave the opening address, which was followed by an address of welcome by M. Gaudry, the president of the congress. A geological congress can offer special attractions in the way of excursions, and these were admirably arranged on the present occasion—both the shorter excursions to the classic horizons in the neighborhood of Paris and the more extended ones that followed the close of the meeting. The guide for the twenty long excursions and numerous shorter trips, prepared by the leading French geologists, was an elaborately illustrated volume representing the present condition of our knowledge of French geology. The ninth geological congress will be held at Vienna three years hence.


The International Congress of Mathematics met for the second time at Paris, though there had been a preliminary meeting on the occasion of the Chicago Exposition. There were about two hundred and twenty-five mathematicians in attendance, including seventeen from the United States. M. Poincaré presided, and the vice-presidents, some of whom were not present, were Messrs. Czuber, Gordon, Greenhill, Lindelöf, Lindemann, Mittag-Leffler, Moore, Tikhomandritzky, Volterra, Zeuthen and Geiser. The sections and their presiding officers were as follows: (1) Arithmetic and Algebra: Hilbert; (2) Analysis: Painlevé; (3) Geometry: Darboux; (4) Mechanics and Mathematical Physics: Larmor; (5) Bibliography and History: Prince Roland Bonaparte; (6) Teaching and Methods: Cantor. Valuable papers were presented by M. Cantor on works and methods concerned with the history of mathematics, by Professor Hilbert on the future problems of mathematics and by Professor Mittag-Leffler on an episode in the life of Weierstrass, but the programme appears to have been not very full nor particularly interesting. Time was found for a half-day's discussion of a universal language, but not to carry into effect the plans begun at Zurich three years ago for a mathematical bibliography. The next congress will meet four years hence in Germany, probably at Baden-Baden.


The untimely death of James Edward Keeler, director of the Lick Observatory, is a serious blow to astronomy and to science. Born at La Salle, 111., forty-three years ago, he was educated at the Johns Hopkins University and in Germany. When only twenty-one years old he observed the solar eclipse of 1878, and drew up an excellent report. Three years later he was a member of the expedition to Mt. Whitney under Professor Langley, whose assistant he had become at the Allegheny Observatory, and whose bolometric investigations owe much to him. He became astronomer at the Lick Observatory while it was in course of erection, and in 1891 he succeeded Professor Langley as director of the Allegheny Observatory. He was called to the directorship of the great Lick Observatory in 1898. Keeler's work in astrophysics, including his photographs of the spectra of the red stars and his spectroscopic proof of the meteoric constitution of Saturn's rings, demonstrated what he could accomplish at a small observatory unfavorably situated. At Mt. Hamilton he was able in the course of only two years to organize thoroughly the work of the Observatory, and to adapt the Crossley reflector for his purpose, taking photographs of the nebulae that have never been equalled. His discovery that most nebulae have a spiral structure is of fundamental importance. It is not easy to overestimate what might have been accomplished by Keeler in the next twenty or thirty years, both by his own researches and by his rare executive ability, for it must be remembered that his genius as an investigator was rivaled by personal qualities which made his associates and acquaintances his friends.


Henry Sidgwick, late Knightbridge professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, died on August 28, at the age of sixty-two years. There are usually not many events to record in the life of a university professor, but Sidgwick had an opportunity to prove his character when he resigned a fellowship in Trinity College because holding it implied the acceptance of certain theological dogmas. Liberalizing influences, however, were at work, of which he himself was an important part, and he was later elected honorary fellow of the same college, and in 1883 became professor of moral philosophy in the University. Sidgwick published three large works—'Methods of Ethics' (1874), 'Principles of Political Economy' (1883) and 'Elements of Politics' (1891)—in addition to a great number of separate articles. All these works, especially the 'Ethics,' show an intellect to a rare degree both subtle and scientific. There was a distinction and a personal quality in what he wrote that made each book or essay a work of art, as well as a contribution to knowledge. Those who knew Professor Sidgwick—and the writer of the present note regards it as one of the fortunate circumstances of his life that he was for several years a student under him—realize that the qualities of the man were even more rare than those of the author. His hesitating utterance, always ending in exactly the right word, but represented the caution and correctness of his thought. Subtlety, sincerity, kindliness and humor were as happily combined in his daily conversation as in his writings. It is said that he was never 'entrapped into answering a question by yes or no,' but his deeds and his influence were positive without qualification or limitation.


Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who died on almost the same day as Sidgwick, was also a writer on ethics and once a university professor, but the life and writings of the two men present a strange contrast. Where Sidgwick's touch was light as an angel's, Nietzsche trampled like a bull; the one was the embodiment of reason, caution, consideration and kindliness, the other represented paradox, recklessness, violence and brute force. Still Nietzsche deserves mention here, as his ethical views, based on the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fit, are not unlikely to be urged hereafter by saner men, and to become an integral part of ethics when ethics becomes a science. As a matter of fact, after resigning his professorship at Zurich, and even while writing his remarkable books, Nietzsche suffered from brain disease, and during the past eleven years his reason was completely lost.