Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/December 1874/Editor's Table
PROFESSOR NEWCOMB ON AMERICAN SCIENCE.
A NEW standard has grown up in modern times by which the advance of nations may be measured. Hitherto, military power, extent of territory, historic prestige, and commercial resources, have been taken as the chief tests of national greatness. These were old barbaric standards. But, with the progress of civilization, which means the rule of reason in human affairs or the control of society by pacific agencies, new ideals of what constitutes national grandeur are beginning to arise. The relation of nationalities to science may be looked upon as a true test of their rank. Science is an agency of human amelioration universally acknowledged, which is already powerful in shaping the course of the world's affairs; and it is certain to be more and more appealed to in future in determining the order of nationalities in the hierarchy of civilization. What is the relation of a people to science—the highest form of knowledge? How do they estimate it? What encouragement do they give to its original investigation and popular diffusion? are questions not to be neglected in our estimates of national character. How does this country rank with other countries in its appreciation of science? is a home question, which it is desirable to have clearly and decisively answered.
In an able article, entitled "Exact Science in America," published in the last number of the North American Review, Prof. Simon Newcomb, Superintendent of the Naval Observatory in Washington, has taken up the subject of the state of science in the United States, and brought us into comparison in this respect with foreign nations. His results are not flattering to our national vanity, and the inferior rank which we take leads him to inquire into the causes of our backwardness. We cannot do our readers a better service than to state some of Prof. Newcomb's main positions, and look a little into the question he raises as to the cause of the present state of things, and what is best to be done. So important is the subject, and so excellent its presentation, that we shall make copious extracts from the article; but we must remind the reader that these extracts are but fragments, and can give no just idea of the unity and fullness of the original statement.
Prof. Newcomb confines himself to a consideration of the state of pure or exact science, "to which we are impelled by the purely intellectual wants of our nature," and omits the applications of science to the arts of life, to which we are impelled by practical motives, and in which "we should find our country in the front ranks of progress." Beginning with mathematics, he says: "When we seek for published mathematical investigation in this country, we find hardly any thing but an utter blank. Of mathematical journals designed for original investigations, such as we find in nearly every country in Europe, we have none, and never have had any. There have been a number of short-lived attempts to establish mathematical periodicals suited to the state of science here, some of them worthy of all praise; but the necessity of adapting their contents to the capacity of their readers prevented them from containing any thing of importance in the way of original investigation." Again: "The only place in which we can search for any thing in the shape of original contributions to mathematics is in the transactions of our learned societies; and here we find, since the Declaration of Independence, a score or two of papers professedly of this character, but it is not likely that more than one or two of them contain any thing worthy of quotation or remark. The whole of them together would not amount to so much as the mathematical journals of Europe publish in a month."
When we pass to the physical sciences, the prospect is said to be a little more encouraging. We have active workers of the highest character in experimental physics, but they are very few, and their productions small. "Here, as in every other science, we find our deficiency to increase just in proportion as the science becomes exact. Many branches of physics have attained, and nearly all the remaining branches are rapidly attaining, the mathematical stage of development. As they enter this stage, we find our American cultivators all dropping off." In exact astronomy, we have the eminent names of Bowditch and Peirce; observatories quite comparable with those of Europe, in charge of first-class men, "yet we do not find our astronomers engaging in investigations of the utmost delicacy; and the first determination of the parallax of a fixed star by an American astronomer has yet to come."
Taking scientific journals and transactions as the measure of work, we have but a solitary periodical of the first rank—Silliman's Journal. "Our two most active societies have been the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, each of which has brought out about a dozen volumes of transactions since the beginning of the century. Excluding societies whose publications are purely biological, we are not aware that half a dozen other volumes of transactions have appeared within the interval alluded to. Add the eighteen volumes published by the Smithsonian Institution, itself founded by a foreigner, and we shall have a total of between forty-five and fifty volumes in three-fourths of a century. This total, combined product of the Smithsonian Institution and all the scientific societies of the country is about equal to what either the Royal Society or the French Academy of Sciences publishes in one-third the time....
"The great mass of scientific papers in Europe do not, however, appear in transactions, but in scientific journals. Here we stand at a much more striking disadvantage. Against a hundred and fifty or two hundred pages annually on astronomy and physics in Silliman's Journal, Germany can show us two journals of pure mathematics, publishing together three or four large volumes of matter every year—two or more of mathematics and physics, one of astronomy, and one of physics and chemistry. Altogether, these journals issue ten or eleven volumes annually, half of them quarto, and half octavo."
Making allowance for a semi-popular element in English original contributions, "it is probable that, instead of finding in England, as we do in Germany, thirty or forty times as much publication of original research in exact science as in America, we should find only five or ten times as much. A comparison with France would probably be more to our disadvantage than that with England, as the Comptes Rendus of the French Academy alone contain ten times more matter pertaining to exact science than Silliman's Journal does."
In view of these results, Prof. Newcomb remarks: "Making every possible allowance, and viewing the facts from every stand-point, we shall be able to make only the most beggarly and humiliating showing. What is yet worse, we cannot claim to be improving our relative position, but are rather falling back, scientific activity increasing more rapidly in Europe than here."
The question now arises as to the cause of this state of things. "Why, with our numerous educational institutions and our great crowd of professors, should our contributions to the exact sciences be so nearly zero?" And to this question he answers: "The real proximate cause is found in the lack of any sufficient incentive to the activity which characterizes the scientific men of other nations, and of any sufficient inducement to make young men of the highest talents engage in scientific pursuits. The reason that so much more scientific investigation is done in Germany than in this country is, simply, that the inducements to do it are there so much more powerful."
Prof. Newcomb points out that, "in Germany, the seats of scientific activity are the universities; in France and England, the learned societies;" and that, while in Germany it is the professors who make the universities, in this country it is the universities that make the professors. "Students flock to Berlin, not because the university is an old, celebrated, and good one, but to hear Helmholtz and Virchow. If all the men like these should leave the university, the students would follow them. But, in this country, students are not attracted to Harvard and Yale by the names of individual professors, but by the reputation and organization of the colleges." Professors may, perhaps, be held in as high esteem here as in Germany, but for different reasons. The question in Germany is not, How much does he know? but, What has he added to knowledge? "What has he discovered that is new? what doubts has he cleared up? what fallacies has he exposed? what increase of precision has he given to the subject he has studied?" On the contrary, in our own so-called universities, "nothing more is expected of a professor than acquaintance with a certain defined curriculum and ability to carry the student through it. He has nothing to do but to satisfy the appointing power that he understands what is found in a certain text-book, and that he can teach what he knows to others." He is not for a moment expected to be an original investigator; while, for the kind of work not required here at all, the German is held in the highest estimation, and may secure large pecuniary rewards, and a position in the affections of a large body of educated men.
In England and France, on the contrary, it is not the universities but scientific societies which furnish the incentives to research. "It is a fact which we have to face, and which it would be folly to disguise, that our scientific societies do not compare with those of England in wealth and power.... The great weakness of most of our scientific organizations does not, however, consist in the want of financial means, but in something much more difficult to determine and define. We can only say that, with a few exceptions, they exhibit a total lack of cohesive power, vitality, and that undefinable something which may be called weight and importance. However eminent may be the men who compose them, most of them are, as organizations, insignificant, and exhibit the same liability to die from slight causes that weak and sickly individuals do. A history of all the attempts to organize learned societies in this country would afford an instructive study in human nature, and might show that they died by causes as uniform as those which cause the decay and death of individuals....
"The important fact which we wish to impress on the mind of the reader Is, that, when an Englishman makes any scientific investigation or discovery of merit and importance, he is considered a valuable member of society, and society takes pains publicly to indicate its appreciation of his value. When we say that in this country one may devote his life to science, and may gratuitously give to scientific investigation an amount of labor and talent which would secure him both wealth and distinction in any other profession, without receiving therefor a solitary public mark or expression of appreciation from any source whatever, or the slightest additional consideration from the public, hardly any thing more is necessary to show that there is here comparatively little incentive to such work."
The backwardness of science in this country is thus attributed to the lack of those incentives to its cultivation which come from public appreciation. There is talent enough, there are facilities enough, there is interest enough in research, but there is no sufficient external spur to scientific exertion. Men will not toil where their labors are unappreciated, and the general esteem of science is too low to arouse and sustain the necessary ambition in its original cultivators. Assuming this to be a correct view of the case, the question arises, What is to be done? Are we to try to repeat the experience of Europe? In European countries there has been the slow and gradual differentiation of a scientific class which has its wealthy, powerful, and venerated organizations that form a kind of scientific world, the approbation and rewards of which are sufficient to stimulate men to give their lives to research. No such class has been developed here. Our investigators are too few and widely scattered, and their associations are too weak to give inspiration and support to original work. It is a case of immaturity, and Europe has the start of us by centuries. We have tried to imitate the foreign academies and associations, but the effort is futile, for the lack is of scientific feeling—motive power to work—and that cannot be created by acts of corporation. Obviously, therefore, from the nature of our circumstances, scientific development in this country must take a different course, and connect itself with general education and public opinion. As long as we rely upon imported methods of nurture, science must languish in this country, and fall further and further behind; but when the policy of the advancement of science is made to conform to the character of our institutions, when science takes the place to which it is entitled in our system of popular education, then may we expect such an increasing appreciation of it as will give much stronger incitement to the work of original investigation. But in this matter of the popular diffusion of science it seems there has been even less interest here than abroad. Prof. Newcomb says:
"Our instrumentalities for communicating to the educated public a knowledge of the doings of the scientific world have, until very lately, been nearly as defective as our means of scientific publication, and, notwithstanding certain recent improvements, are still far behind those of other nations. In England, France, and Germany, weekly, monthly, and quarterly journals of popular science are too numerous to be recounted; while, previous to the establishment of The Popular Science Monthly by the Appletons, we had not in this country a single journal designed to diffuse the knowledge either of general or exact science. The American Naturalist, as its name implies, is devoted entirely to biology. One of our principal scientific wants has been a publication which should serve as a medium of communication between, scientific men and the educated public, as well as between the various classes of scientific workers."
And again: "Within the past three or four years there has been a large increase in the amount of popular scientific publication in this country, which is seen in the establishment of a scientific magazine, and in the appearance of a 'scientific columns' and 'scientific departments' in many of our newspapers and magazines. But the great object of educating the intelligent public in scientific matters is very imperfectly fulfilled by these publications. A considerable portion of the matter they present to us consists of fugitive items, hardly more interesting or important than the column of daily clippings, of one short sentence each, which has become a feature of our newspapers. The most notable exceptions have been the 'Science Department' of the Atlantic Monthly while it lasted; the 'Editor's Table' of The Popular Science Monthly, and, of late, the 'Science Record' of Harper's Magazine. Here we have found original discussions of scientific questions, and reviews of the progress of science by competent writers. For the rest of The Popular Science Monthly so much cannot be said. When first started, it was mostly made up of extracts from English publications, and of essays, which could hardly have found a place in any other publication. Of late, it has gradually improved by including more original matter, and that of a better class. But it has never attempted to supply the great want to which we have referred, namely, that of making known the progress of science in this country; and the reader who wishes to learn what our scientific men are doing here, will find far more copious accounts of it in Nature, an English periodical, than he will in the American magazines referred to."
And for this defective state of scientific journalism, by which "the great object of educating the intelligent public in scientific matters is very imperfectly fulfilled," we beg to ask, Who is mainly responsible? What have our eminent scientific men themselves done toward this important work of popular scientific education? Is it too much to say that, as a class, they have neglected it, and that many of them have repudiated it? They have left it to half-instructed men—to men without scientific position—and, when it was poorly done, have cast reproach upon their work. Some of our distinguished scientific men have indeed indulged more or less in popular lecturing, but often with vehement protests against the degradation, and obtrusive statements that they did it for the sake of the money alone. What have they attempted, in any concerted or systematic way, through associations or publications, "to educate the intelligent public into an appreciation of the importance of scientific investigation?"
Prof. Newcomb bears witness upon this point when he says that, "previous to the establishment of The Popular Science Monthly by the Appletons, we had not in this country a single journal designed to diffuse the knowledge either of general or exact science;" that is, scientific men had contributed absolutely nothing in the way of a periodical devoted to the promotion of their own most vital interests. We showed, in the October Monthly, how the American Association for the Advancement of Science in its organization carefully avoided committing itself to any agencies of popular influence, and deliberately placed itself behind the British Association in this respect. If the education of the public to a better appreciation of science is the one thing needful to relieve this country from the odium of its position upon this subject, and the one thing necessary for the liberal encouragement of a scientific class, why has our leading body of scientists so studiously refrained from taking any action toward so desirable an end? The subject of general scientific education is now widely confessed to be of great public moment. The community is not only ripe for action upon it, but in the chaotic state of school instruction it is asking for light and guidance as to the methods that shall he adopted. Help should have come from men of authority, and an expression of the American Association would have had great weight and a salutary influence with the people. Yet a committee was appointed at its Portland meeting to report upon the subject of better methods of general scientific instruction, and at the recent Hartford meeting it was discharged without having done any thing, the chairman stating that he had never even heard of his appointment! This indifference, we think, is very much to be regretted.
Prof. New comb says that The Popular Science Monthly has never attempted to supply the great want of making known the progress of science in this country, and is even behind the English periodical Nature in this respect. It certainly was not the chief object of the establishment of this magazine to report the doings of American investigators, and this for several reasons. In the first place, the field was already occupied by a journal of high character, which, with the proceedings of scientific societies, gave this information to the class most wanting it—the students of science. Moreover, the public press has latterly entered upon the work, and is constantly seeking for scientific novelties, as matters of ordinary news. Besides, as Prof. Newcomb shows, American contributions to the progress of science are but an insignificant portion of the total work that is doing in the scientific world, of which no single periodical could give even a synopsis. Nor is it to be forgotten that an immense amount of that which is currently published as "new results" has but a momentary importance! But a small portion of such work stands the test of time. Of the score or two of original contributions to mathematics, published in the transactions of our learned societies since the Declaration of Independence, Prof. Newcomb assures us that "it is not likely that more than one or two of them contain any thing worthy of quotation or remark." With this enormous shrinkage of scientific values, we think it is quite as well that the new results should be tested, discussed, and the chaff blown away by scientific criticism, before the final product is pressed upon the general public.
But the strongest reason why the Monthly has not assumed the duty of reporting American scientific work is, that is was started for distinctly another object—namely, to interest the non-scientific public, and to create a taste for scientific literature, and an appreciation of scientific knowledge in the reading community. The general ignorance of science is simply deplorable! The literary culture to which general education is committed does not lead to science, but, by its exclusive claims and overshadowing influence, hinders and prevents its study, so that, among so-called intelligent people, the ignorance of scientific subjects is so gross as to give much excuse to scientific men for their contempt of the hopeless work of its popularization. Between the state of mind of learned scientific explorers and that of the mass of magazine-readers throughout the country the gulf is already wider than the Pacific Ocean, and is constantly widening. As regards science, there is very little that is common between them. But a journal which aims to influence a non-scientific public must be somewhat suited to its state of mind, or it will not be read. Were we to fill the Monthly with the results of laboratory processes and observatory work, or with that which most concerns investigators, it might rise in appreciation with them, but it would not be wanted by the people, as all experience with such publications has shown. The public needs rudimentary explanations much more than the "last results" of science. The theory of this periodical is, that those who write for it shall turn their backs upon the scientific world, and address themselves to a class so uninstructed in scientific matters that every thing requires to be explained. That we have realized this ideal is not claimed; but, granting that "the great object of educating the intelligent public in scientific matters is very imperfectly fulfilled" by this publication, we have Prof. Newcomb's authority that it was not fulfilled at all by any previous periodical in this country. Our enterprise had no precedent, and, such were its obvious difficulties, that, at starting, it was generally supposed it would be a failure. We are quite aware of its shortcomings, and, thanking Prof. Newcomb for the recognition of its improvement, we hope that it will continue to grow better. But, as our pages attest, it has not been unmindful of the advances of inquiry, though it has given prominence to those extensions and widenings of scientific thought in which we believe the public has a growing interest; for the advance of science does not merely consist in new physical and chemical experiments, new mathematical solutions, or astronomical discoveries; it consists quite as much in scientific modes of thinking applied to subjects not hitherto dealt with by such methods. The great difficulty is, that the instruments, processes, problems, and general subject-matter, of advanced investigation are so completely removed from general experience; and the public interest, we think, can never be seriously enlisted in scientific inquiries until they take account of phenomena, facts, and questions, that fall within the range of familiar observation and common thought. That the public is to-day far more interested in the relations of science to religion than they are in science itself, is because one term of the relation is so thoroughly familiar to the general mind.