Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/October 1904/A Traveler's View of the British Association Meeting
|A TRAVELER'S VIEW OF THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION MEETING.|
By Dr. HENRY S. PRITCHETT.
PRESIDENT OF THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY.
THE meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science must always have great interest for Americans; and not alone for scientific men, but for all students of the larger national movements and sources of power in the two great English-speaking countries.
The meeting just closed (August 17-23), held in the old university town of Cambridge, brought together a large number of persons connected with or interested in the science of Great Britain. The registration reached nearly 3,000. In these days when the meetings of the American Association, even under the admirable efforts which have been put forth for some years, have shown a tendency to dwindle, this fact alone is one of interest and of significance to Americans. Two reasons combined to make the attendance at the Cambridge meeting unusually large, first the attractions which naturally belong to this charming old university town, and secondly the presence of the prime minister of Great Britain as president of the association.To one familiar with the history of our American Association and with the conduct of scientific work in the United States this fact—the presence and active participation of the head of the government—was perhaps the most curious and interesting feature of the meeting. Science and politics have seldom had in our country that close association which one finds in England, Germany and most continental countries. Fancy President Roosevelt taking a week to preside over the meetings of the American Association, to deliver an address and
Senate House, where Degrees were conferred.
Interior of the Guild Hall, where the President's address was given.
The Illustrations are from 'Memorials of Cambridge,' by J. Le Keux and C. H. Cooper and from 'Cambridge' by J. W. Clark.
to participate in its discussions! Or imagine Mr. Speaker Cannon as president of the section of economics and taking a real part in the debates! This lack of touch between scientific men and politicians in our country as compared with the older European countries is due to several causes. The high places in political life are in the older nations mainly in the hands of university men (a process that is going on with us), but more than this the profession of politics in them is not incompatible with the spirit and work of the scholar.
Jefferson more than any other president was a representative of the science of his time. During a part of his first term he was president of the American Philosophical Society and set apart some of the rooms in the executive mansion for the study of fossils, particularly of those of mammoths. It is safe to say that no other president since his day has found the time to give any serious thought to the encouragement of science or of education as a part of national development.
Perhaps the criticisms which Jefferson called down upon himself by his scientific tendencies have not served to encourage other presidents. His geological studies were pointed to, about the time of the Louisiana purchase, with great bitterness by his critics as indicating those radical and godless tendencies which culminated in the act of purchase. There is a poem of William Cullen Bryant on this transaction which is addressed to Jefferson and which begins
Go wretch, resign the presidential chair;
Reveal thy secret purpose, foul or fair;
In the course of the poem 'frogs' are significantly made to rhyme with 'Louisianian bogs.' The fact that the poet was but thirteen at the time may be taken as a measure of the sharpness of the criticism which awaits a president who compromises himself by too great intimacy with science. It is easier, if not safer, for a president to look after the post offices and let science take care of herself.
Mr. Balfour himself did not altogether escape this sort of criticism. His address had for a title 'Reflections Suggested by the New Theory of Matter.' The opposition papers were not slow to suggest that the prime minister and practical ruler of a great commercial country could spend his time to better advantage than in discoursing transcendental philosophy to admiring audiences of scientists!
The critics were so far right in terming Mr. Balfour's address philosophical rather than scientific. By disposition and by education Mr. Balfour is a speculative philosopher rather than a man of science, and his address leaned strongly toward that mildly pessimistic attitude of the speculative philosopher, which balances in a nice way this and that conclusion, and goes no whither.
The address sketched a brief comparison between the scientific conception of the physical universe to-day and that of one hundred years ago. It was remarkable in this respect that a man so full of other work, as Mr. Balfour must be, should be able to frame such a statement without committing errors of fact of a serious sort. As an analytic review it had no great value (notwithstanding the one or two ingenious points brought forward) on account of the speaker's lack of expert knowledge in physics and on account of the constant assumption of a position entirely apart from and unlike that of the physical investigator. The address could be called on the whole clever, interesting and suggestive from the philosophical standpoint, and to have
presented such a paper is an evidence of great intellectual alertness and ability on the part of a man whose hands are full of practical business.
The occasion of the presidential address on the evening of the first day was the most interesting event of the meeting and the one which brought together the most interesting audience. Mr. Balfour read his address, explaining that in this he followed precedent, although speaking was easier to him than reading. He spoke with a clear, pleasant voice and in a perfectly natural and easy manner. His delivery throughout was most effective. On the platform beside him sat many of the best known men in British scientific circles, the veteran Lord Kelvin occupying a place to the Left of the speaker, and looking like an idealized version of Uncle Joe Cannon.
There is one custom always observed on such occasions, which the American learns to recognize after a while as a part of English politeness, hut which never ceases to amuse him. I refer to the speeches made in moving a vote of thanks after an address. This custom seems an invariable one; at business boards, at scientific gatherings, at charity meetings the chairman or the speaker is always formally and specifically thanked. The process is as follows: First a distinguished
member of the audience (the more distinguished the better) moves a vote of thanks in a speech of greater or less length and full of personal compliment for the speaker; then a second member of the audience of equal distinction, if possible, seconds the resolution in a speech in which he tries to mention all the good points not mentioned by the first. A vote is then taken. It goes without saying that the resolution passes unanimously. The most amusing part of this naive proceeding comes when the original speaker rises to reply to the vote of thanks. The mover of the vote of thanks on the occasion of Mr. Balfour's Cambridge address would naturally have been the chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the Duke of Devonshire, but owing to the politicalchanges of the last eighteen months the duke and the premier could not very comfortably meet on the same platform. The vote was therefore moved by the vice chancellor and seconded by the lord mayor of Cambridge. In his reply Mr. Balfour acquitted himself admirably, showing not only the ability of a polished speaker, but acknowledging the praise of his address in modest and fitting words.On the following morning visitors in section A (which in the British Association includes both mathematics and physics) had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Balfour in the opposite rôle, as the mover of a vote of thanks to Professor Lamb after the delivery of his address as cordial and his handshake as hearty as at the beginning. For each member, and particularly for all visitors from outside England, ho had a kindly word, and a greeting which while most hospitable was never overdone; which carried the pleasure of a friendly welcome without losing at any moment the stamp of good breeding. Except perhaps President McKinley, I have never seen a man in public station who could receive so many persons in a public reception and so successfully make each one feel that he had been given a special welcome. As an American who has seen much of political life remarked, 'A man who can shake hands
like that would be a successful politician in any country.' Mr. Balfour was in fact an ideal president of the association, democratic, yet dignified. He left on those who saw him for the first time the impression of a man who had not only intellectual power, but also one who combined with this good breeding, good nature and common sense.A very interesting comparison between the American and the British Association could be found in a study of the sectional addresses and other leading papers of the one as contrasted with the other. In such a comparison the American would find little to minister to national vanity. The presidents of the sections in the British Association are almost always men of assured scientific standing and reputation. Their audiences include many of the best known men of science in England. The addresses are prepared with more care and are generally given in a more interesting and effective manner. The occasion
means more to a speaker than it does with us, at least during the last fifteen years since the tendency to segregate into special scientific societies has been so marked. It would be difficult to bring together in America any such group of mathematicians and physicists as sat with Professor Lamb on the platform on Thursday morning while he read his presidential address before section A. The vote of thanks after the address was moved by Mr. Balfour and seconded by Lord Kelvin. Nevertheless admitting all this, it is evident to one who listens to papers in both associations that the essential difference in the character of the papers presented at the two meetings lies in the difference in scientific training and habits of scientific work in England and in America; and one can not but be struck with the fact that the scientific training and methods of work in America are far more German than English. While the addresses in American scientific societies lack the philosophic interest and charm which characterize many of those given before the British Association, the authors of these papers are trained to go more directly at their problems, laying bare the difficulties and even the failures of the method or the process, but passing on to some point of vantage. One finds in many English scientific papers a clever use of words and terms; a tendency to philosophize instead of doing the hard work of investigation; a disposition to deal charmingly, sometimes half humorously, with the results and observations costing great labor; and in the end the whole subject loft in a sort of agreeable haze in which one seems to have traveled a long distance without going any whither. The method of attack adopted is somewhat akin to that of the modern military practice, under which frontal attacks are abandoned in favor of a less direct method of assault. One sees in English scientific papers a greater tendency to attack by the flank than in America or Germany; a somewhat readier disposition to be satisfied with a general statement of facts already known rather than the concentration of effort on particular problems which need to be cleared up. All of which simply means that the methods of education and of national life in England have not brought into existence a large army of disciplined students of research such as one finds, for example, in Germany.
The fact that physics and mathematics are still retained in one section in the British Association is not without significance. The necessary connection between the two was many times referred to in the addresses and papers of the section. Notwithstanding this there was more than one reference to the fact that mathematics, as taught in the universities and colleges, is seldom grasped by the student so that it becomes a facile tool in his hands. This is a disappointing fact in our present day teaching on this side the Atlantic no less than in England. Why is it that mathematics, the oldest of the sciences, should lend itself less readily as an instrument of research or of practice than chemistry or physics? Is it because we fail to use the laboratory method in mathematics? or because we are still tied to the methods of the past? or is it due in part to the fact that too little time
is given to learning elementary mathematical concepts before rushing on to complicated theory and partly perhaps to the fact that those who teach mathematics in the colleges are almost always those who never have occasion to apply it?
The groups of individuals who made up the small army of 2,800 persons registered at the Cambridge meeting were varied. First of all there were the well-known men of science like Lord Kelvin, Lord Rayleigh, Professor Thomson, Professor Forsythe, Professor Dewar and many others. Next in interest came the large group of younger men, probably mostly from Cambridge University, who were to be seen in many of the sections. The great body of associates was made up, as is the case in meetings of the American Association, of the wives, daughters and friends of the members. The women associates, as in America, were in greatest evidence in the social functions, the excursions and in a few of the sections, particularly in that devoted to educational science, the last section organized in the British Association. On Thursday morning before this section Dr. Kölössy, of Budapest, read his paper before an audience of about fifty men and three hundred women.
Considering the present relation of public education in England to the church it was quite natural that the president of this section should be the Lord Bishop of Hereford, himself a teacher of experience. The papers before this section were however devoted to elementary educational questions rather than to problems of educational science, and the discussions which were had, particularly when they touched on such subjects as the education of women or the function of manual training, sounded curiously like those to which we were accustomed in the United States twenty-five or thirty years ago. The questions which occupied the larger part of the time were in large measure local and concerned themselves with details of educational work rather than with fundamental underlying theories of education. This also is perhaps to be expected in a country which has placed its work of education in large measure in the hands of a single section of the protestant church.
To an American visitor the large number of curates of the established church who appeared in the meetings of the association formed a pleasant picture. This presence does not mean any widespread study of science on the part of the clergy, but is rather a natural outgrowth of the association of university men. A large proportion of those who graduate at the universities enter the church, and it is to be expected that in a gathering which brings together distinguished scientific men, as well as those interested in a general way in science, there should be a number of the clergy. Their presence also serves to emphasize another feature of the association which the American is likely to overlook, and this is the fact that the British Association finds its strength and its influence, in large measure, in the social soil into which it sends its roots. Social influence is one of the most powerful factors in English life and one of the most powerful in politics. The British Association gains much of its prestige from its social and political setting, and in directing social and political power no one interest is so strong as that of the established church.
Looking at this great gathering from the standpoint of an interested outsider, the American who studies it can not but be impressed by its possibilities for usefulness in scientific and in national development. It is a fine thing to bring together the representatives of science, of politics, of religion and to have them meet face to face a large body of men and women drawn from the most intelligent homes in the kingdom. The general effect of all this is somewhat neutralized by the social machinery through which it works, but allowing for all this it still seems evident that such a gathering is a source of great intellectual stimulus both to the scientific men and to the public. It is no small thing to present a paper in a section where so many famous men sat as could be seen in section A at almost any time of its sitting. And it is no small credit to British men of science that this great gathering is preserved from year to year in undiminished enthusiasm.
Is it possible to make of the American Association such a gathering, or rather to restore to it its representative character? May we expect to gather to it the well-known men of science, the ambitious students and the scientific public?
Many things make against such a result in America which are here favorable to it. The small distances to be traveled in Great Britain make it easy and cheap for any member to come to the meetings. Again the British Association flourishes and gains its influence in the midst of a social régime entirelyfrom that which holds in our country. But in addition to all this are the differences in scientific training which prompt the American investigator, whether in pure or applied science, to prefer the society of his fellow experts to any gathering of a general character however attractive it may be by reason of the presence of scientific, political or social celebrities. That which makes the success of the British Association possible is at once the weakness as well as the strength of British science, and the influences which make these meetings what they are are intimately connected with the educational and social conditions which exist in England.
But if there is anything which would bring back once more to the American Association its old-time prestige and its old-time influence, it would be some such devotion to the cause, which the association represents, as has been shown by many of the leading men of science in England. Of all this group perhaps no other one has done so much as Lord Kelvin. For half a century this splendid old man (loved no less for his sweetness than honored for his genius) has been a prominent figure at these annual gatherings. Year after year he has not only presented his own brilliant contributions and taken his part in the discussions, but there has scarcely been presented in all these years, in the subjects in which he stands preeminent, a worthy paper by a struggling younger man whom this Nestor of British science has not encouraged by his words of praise or of friendly advice given in the most kindly and helpful spirit. The example and influence of such a man are beyond praise, and however we may criticize English science, and English methods of education, we may well hope to learn of her many things so long as she produces men like Kelvin. If anything can make of the American Association a new center of inspiration for younger men, a fresh source of popular education, a means of closer union of our scientific interests, it will come only as the result of some such unselfish service as Kelvin's on the part of the best known men of science in America.