Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/September 1904/The Coming International Congress of Arts and Science at St Louis on September 19-24

Popular Science Monthly Volume 65 September 1904 (1904)
The Coming International Congress of Arts and Science at St Louis on September 19-24 by Simon Newcomb
1419145Popular Science Monthly Volume 65 September 1904 — The Coming International Congress of Arts and Science at St Louis on September 19-241904Simon Newcomb


By Professor SIMON NEWCOMB, U. S. N. (retired),


AMONG the numerous attractions of the Universal Exposition at St. Louis, there is one which appeals with special force to all interested in the progress of learning. The assembling of congresses on various subjects has, especially in recent years, been so prominent a feature of great expositions of industry that such gatherings have recently tended to lose in interest. But the directors of the St. Louis World's Fair decided, at an early stage in their preparations, to make special efforts for bringing together a congress which should be more comprehensive in its scope, of wider interest in its discussions, and of more permanent value as a memorial of the exposition, than the usual conventions of this class. After holding several consultations with eminent scholars it was decided that the field of the congress should be as wide as that of science itself. The first question to arise in considering such a scheme would be how it was possible with the present multiplication of specialties in science to arrange a congress whose discussions should embrace a field as wide as that of knowledge.

It must be admitted that if the principal aim were to rend and present scientific papers and researches nothing could result but the addition of a few more volumes to the almost unmanageable collection of published scientific literature. Farther consultations with educators and others led the directors to adopt a new plan for reaching the desired result, which was suggested and worked out in detail by Professor Münsterberg. Its idea was to supplement all the specialties by a discussion of the principles of the more important groups of sciences, and of the methods by which the sciences should be brought together, unified, and made mutually helpful.

That some effort of this kind is desirable must be evident to any one who contemplates the almost alarming increase of specialties in scientific research, coupled as it necessarily is with lack of knowledge on the part of any one investigator of the work being done by his fellows. We all know that new fields of research are continually being opened, and that the older fields are continually being extended into minuter specialties. New societies with their proceedings, and new journals are continually being established. Moreover the volume of papers published in any one established journal frequently goes on increasing in a geometric ratio. To take a single instance; the Astronomische Nachrichten established about 1825, now the oldest and most reputable astronomical journal of the world, began by supplying practically all the needs of astronomers for a medium of communication, by issuing perhaps one volume in a year. With every decade the number of volumes went on increasing until, in recent years, three or four volumes have been issued annually, and the one hundred and seventieth volume is soon to appear. But this is not all. Even with this continually increasing number, the publication has fallen short of the requirements of astronomical investigators, so that fresh media of communication have from time to time been opened. New scientific societies including astronomy, and new astronomical societies, are from time to time founded. The American Astronomical Journal founded by Dr. Gould in 1849, and revived in 1885, takes the place of the Astronomische Nachrichten in this country. The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society have continually grown until the annual volume has become of alarming thickness. New astronomical societies add to the mass, and as if these were not sufficient, several great observatories have commenced series of their own. The result is that an astronomer can hardly know more than a small fraction of what is being done in his own field, and, if an attempt were made to subdivide this science into its minutest specialties, one would hardly know where to stop.

What is true of astronomy is true not only of all the older sciences, but of the new ones, which are from time to time being opened up, and of the various specialties into which every branch of science is divided. Dictionaries can not keep pace with the new -ologies,  -ographies and  -onomies,—and he is a scholar indeed who, on hearing the name of any science, could on the moment accurately define its field. Depressing indeed would be the prospect if scientific investigators could look forward only to an unending increase of this process of subdivision. When the number of serials becomes so great that a mere catalogue of them makes a book, as is now the case, and when the volumes of a serial mount up into the thousands, as they must before many generations pass, who shall be able to know what is contained in them? Most happily, we can see the possibility of an opposite process—the addition of integration to the indefinite differentiation with which we are so familiar. As we go deeper into all the laws of nature, we are led nearer and nearer to the belief that the fundamental principles on which her operations are carried on may be few in number, and that what seems to us a great diversity of laws may consist in the action of one and the same law under a variety of different conditions. It is true that the process of reducing all natural operations, even those of inanimate nature, to their first principles, is a very slow one. We may well despair of ever reducing the phenomena of nature to such simple laws as that of gravitation. It may be that our hope of doing anything of the kind has received a great set-back by the iconoclastic way in which the discovery of radio-activity has shaken to its foundations what, ten years ago, were supposed to be fundamental principles at play in the material world.

But we still find the process of integration to be going on as our knowledge advances. The discovery of principles more or less general which, being mastered, will enable a single mind to grasp a continually widening field of research is constantly going forward. It is true that we are not to expect the revival of the medieval professor of all science; but we may look for a class of widely educated men who, if not masters of the details of any one science, will yet have at command so comprehensive a grasp of great principles as to be able to form an intelligent judgment on those questions of science and learning which are of the widest human interest, and which most influence the progress of the world. It is not necessary to burden the memory with details of the forms and habits of every species of animal or vegetable in order to form an intelligent idea of the general laws of life and of the conditions of its propagation. The intelligent reader of history may condense its lessons into small space, even though he fails to remember details of dynasties, battles or treaties.

This process is facilitated by the natural tendency of every science, when pursued by the best methods, to become more precise in the expression of its laws, and thus to bring mathematical conceptions to the aid of its investigators. When we have not only assigned a name to an object of study, but have made measurement of its size, or of the intensity of any ascertained properties it exhibits, we have taken a great step toward giving precision to our results, and making them comprehensible to a wider body of investigators.

With these preliminary considerations we see what interest attaches to the enterprise of bringing all the sciences together for a week's discussion of their problems and relations. That this is no easy task will be conceded, indeed serious doubts and great incredulity as to its practicality were expressed. But the promoters of the plan have gone on, confident that the farther it was pursued and the better it was understood, the more hopeful the view that would be taken of its outcome. The central theme around which the whole is grouped is the unity of science. This theme is carried through from the center into details which shall include every branch of learning. With it is associated the discussion of the conceptions, progress, relations and problems of the various sciences. The details of the plan as finally worked out are round in the programs of the congress, which so many readers of The Popular Science Monthly have probably seen, that only a brief résumé will be necessary. A genera] address on the work of the congress will be followed by discourses on the inner unity of seven greal divisions of knowledge. These seven meetings will be followed by others in twenty-four departments in each of which will be set forth the fundamental conceptions of the various branches, and the progress of each during the nineteenth century. The remaining days of the congress will be occupied with meetings, each lasting three hours, for discussions of the present problems of each science and of its relations to cognate branches.

A necessary condition to success, which was had in view from the beginning, was that the leading addresses should be given by the most eminent representatives of every branch of science whose attendance at the congress could be secured. This must be regarded as one of the novelties of the scheme, calculated to heighten its interest. But the problem of realizing it was no easy one. To invite all eminent investigators of various countries was not a difficult matter—no doubt it has been clone in the case of many a congress—but it would obviously be impossible to bring together even one representative of every branch of science by merely extending this invitation. The difficulty was heightened by the fact that two principal addresses were to be delivered in each of the great branches. Only three hours being allotted to each branch, the number of addresses could not be increased. After a careful consideration of the exigencies of the situation it was found impracticable to extend the number of individual branches that could be treated in a single week beyond a limit which might approximate to 130. By frequent additions and exclusions as the development of the scheme was worked out the maximum was found to be 128. It seemed that the most satisfactory result would be reached by having sixteen simultaneous meetings, each for the discussion of a single branch, on each half-day. The number of available days being four, it would thus be possible to arrange for 128 meetings of three hours each. The limitations thus imposed rendered necessary the exclusion of many important branches of science from the list of subjects to be specially treated. The best that could be done w r as in each case to give preference to branches of such interest or so widely cultivated that it was not difficult to find speakers to treat them.

Much having been written on the adopted scheme of classification and its defects, a word on this subject may not be out of place. I do not suppose that any one concerned would for a moment claim that the field of knowledge could be separated into exactly seven divisions, neither more nor less—or that there are twenty-four separate departments of knowledge, and 128 branches of sciences of sufficient importance to be separately treated. Nor is it important whether the scheme of classification is or is not ideally a good one. The main object was tc obtain a grouping of the subjects and speakers which would have sufficient logical symmetry to enable the whole scheme to be understood and carried into practical execution. These ends have been attained, and having been attained the discussion of the logical merits and demerits of the scheme may be left to those interested. I shall only mention one feature of the classification which more than any other may have struck the reader of the program as a departure from a usage consecrated by time, and presumably convenient in practise. In classifying books and in organizing academies of science it has been common to group the mathematical and physical sciences together, putting pure mathematics in the same class with physics. This practise is very natural because of the close association in the development of these two branches. The same men frequently took part in both, and there was formerly a sharp division between the physical sciences which need mathematics, and the biological sciences which do not. But in the program, mathematics is put with philosophy under the division of normative science. No one will contest the correctness of this course in an ideal system, since philosophy and pure mathematics both have the fundamental qualities designated by the term 'normative.' It would also have been logically misleading if the organizers had at the present time placed mathematics among the physical sciences, because we should thereby be ignoring that mathematical methods and nomenclature are being introduced into a constantly increasing mass of biological science and that, as knowledge advances in precision, it must continually become more and more mathematical in form.

To recapitulate—the congress will hold only one meeting as a single body; and its first act on the second day will be to divide itself into seven grand divisions, in each of which will be treated the unity of one of these divisions of knowledge. These 'divisions' will next separate into twenty-four departments in each of which will be treated the fundamental conceptions and the progress of knowledge in these departments during the nineteenth century. The congress will then be divided into about 128 sections, in each of which the present problems of the special science and its relations to other sciences will be treated. The plan of the congress thus involves the preparation and reading of some 300 principal addresses by eminent investigators from various parts of the world on the unity, conceptions, history, relations and problems of the main subdivisions of knowledge.

It will be seen that one important point in which the congress deviates from the familiar type is that it is not primarily a meeting for the reading and discussion of scientific researches. The publication of new results is not aimed at, but rather the communication of ideas which will result in stimulating research in the future. Breadth of treatment is the characteristic of the plan. Still, there is one arrangement now to be mentioned which will admit of reading or discussing subjects of interest, though technical in character. After assigning due time for the reading of the principal papers, and making the necessary arrangements, there will remain about an hour, perhaps a little more, in each sectional meeting, for such intercommunication of ideas as will promote the object of the congress. This hour will be filled by 'brief communications'—of which it is supposed the average or ordinary length may be ten minutes. The conditions will be of so varied a character in the different sections that it is impossible to lay down unchangeable rules, or make uniform arrangements for these discussions. Everything must depend upon the number in attendance who desire to speak, and their respective wishes. An effort has been made to obtain in advance promises from five or six who expect to be present to make such communications. It is quite likely that, in many cases, the requisite number will not be prepared beforehand. But it is not to be expected that two elaborate scholarly papers of wide scope will be listened to without some one being able to add a few ideas. It should, however, be emphasized that discussions of the papers in the ordinary sense such as are usual in scientific meetings, is not expected. Many, perhaps most, of these papers will have involved weeks and months of preparation; and it is scarcely respectful to assume that an off-hand discussion of them, without previous knowledge of their contents, will be possible. But this will not preclude expression of the ideas to which the hearing will undoubtedly give rise in the minds of the auditors.

As already intimated, no attempt has been made to place absolute limitations on the themes of these brief communications. It has been deemed wise to prepare discussions which will promote the general object of the congress, and to ask that technical papers be on subjects of wide general or professional interest.

Another new feature is that the program of the congress not only includes all the great branches of science in its scope, but several subjects of wide human interest which we are accustomed to regard as lying outside the boundaries of exact knowledge. History, art, diplomacy, religion, education—and indeed most of the great fields of human activity are brought into the plan. An effort is thus being made to correlate not only what has been in the narrow sense of the term called science, but other great subjects which admit of the treatment proposed in the general plan of the congress.

An idea of the extent to which there will be a bringing together not only of the sciences but of representatives of wide fields of human activity is also shown by the men who are to treat them. For example, it is expected that the subject of national administration will be treated by the eminent author of the 'American Commonwealth.' unless the exigencies of his important duties at home prevent his attendance, a result which now seems unlikely. Baron d'Estournelles De Constant, the leader of the arbitration group in the French Chamber of Deputies, whose party has achieved so splendid a triumph through the completion of an arbitration treaty between France and England, is to deliver the principal address in the section of international law. Signor Attilio Brunialti, councillor of state, at Rome, will be the principal speaker on the subject of constitutional law. The history of the christian church will be treated by Professor Jean Réville, of the faculty of protestant theology at the University of Paris, and also by Professor Harnack, of the University of Berlin. Other foreign speakers in the division of historical sciences are Professor Ettore Pais, director of the National Museum of Antiquities at Naples, Professor Arminius Vambéry, the Asiatic traveler and oriental scholar of the University of Budapest, and Professor Henri Cordier, of Paris.

The sections of biology and medicine are especially strong. Among the expected foreign speakers are Professors Hugo De Vries, of Amsterdam; Oskar Drude, of Dresden; Alfred Giard and Yves Delage, of the Sorbonne; Sir Ronald Ross, of Liverpool, and Professor Celli, of Rome, the two last being leaders in discovering the causes of malaria. Sir Lauder Brunton, of London, Professor Kitasato of Japan, the eminent bacteriologist, Sir Felix Semon, physician extraordinary to the King, and Professor Escherich, of Vienna, are among the foreign medical men. Professor Hugo de Vries will treat the subject of the origin of races, while Wiessner, Drude, Giard, Fürbringer and Waldeyer will represent their several branches.

Our mathematicians will be afforded an opportunity to meet a brilliant trio from the French Academy of Science,—Darboux, Poincaré and Picard. Our astronomers will greet with warmth Dr. Backlund, director of the Pulkowa Observatory and Professors Kapteyn and Turner. Sir William Ramsay and Professors Moissan and Van't Hoff will be among the speakers on chemistry. Professor Arrhenius is to set forth his new and striking views on the more mysterious phenomena of cosmical physics, and Sir John Murray will be the principal speaker in the section of oceanography.

That every specialist in research will derive both pleasure and profit by withdrawing his attempts for a brief period from his own province and listening to what his fellow investigators in widely different specialties have to say in regard to the problems and relations of their several fields of study is too obvious to need enforcement. But we should err in confining the benefits thus arising to actual suggestions. We must recognize the historic fact that modern science really began, not with investigations, but with the ideas which were necessary to the beginnings of investigation. Even to-day an ingenious philosopher who propounds an entirely faulty system may be an important factor in.the advance of truth through the sharpening

of the mental faculties of his critics by analyzing his system, pointing out its defects, and either correcting his results, or putting them into proper shape. Since the time of the schoolmen it has beer recognized that the analysis of fallacies is one of the best methods of discipline in the art of correct reasoning.

The arrangements made by the authorities of the fair for enabling the scientific men of our country to avail themselves of the advantages of this remarkable assemblage and to listen to its discussions have been of the most liberal kind. No admission fee is required other than that to the fair itself, and the meetings are open to all known to be interested, so far as room can be found. The attendance of members of national scientific societies and professors in colleges and universities and scientific men generally is especially desired. Whether room can be found for all who wish to attend can not be known until the wishes of more are heard from. Subject to this condition, every professional scholar and scientific teacher or investigator is welcome to avail himself of an opportunity which may not recur in a lifetime.