Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 66/November 1904/The Evolution of the Scientific Investigator

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 66‎ | November 1904

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


AMONG the tendencies characteristic of the science of our day is one toward laying greater stress on questions of the beginning of things, and regarding a knowledge of the laws of development of any object of study as necessary to its complete understanding in the form in which we find it. It may be conceded that the principle here involved is as applicable in the broadest field of thought as in a special research into the properties of the minutest organism. It, therefore, seems meet that the comprehensive survey of the realm of knowledge on which we are about to enter should begin by seeking to bring to light those agencies which have brought about the remarkable development of that realm to which the world of to-day bears witness. The principle in question is recognized in the plan of our proceedings by providing for each great department of knowledge a review of its progress during the century that has elapsed since the great event which the scene around us is intended to commemorate. But such reviews do not make up that general survey of science at large which is necessary to the development of our theme, and which must include the action of causes that had their origin long before our time. The movement which culminated in making the nineteenth century ever memorable in history is the outcome of a long series of causes, acting through many centuries, which are worthy of being brought into especial prominence on such an occasion as this. In setting them forth we should avoid laying stress on those visible manifestations which, striking the eye of every beholder, are in no danger of being overlooked, and search rather for those agencies whose activities underlie the whole visible scene, but which are liable to be blotted out of sight by the very brilliancy of the results to which they have given rise. It is easy to draw attention to the wonderful qualities of the oak; but, from that very fact, it may be needful to point out that the real wonder lies concealed in the acorn from which it grew.

Our inquiry into the logical order of the causes which have made our civilization what it is to-day will be facilitated by bringing to mind certain elementary considerations—ideas so familiar that setting them forth may seem like citing a body of truisms—and yet so frequently overlooked not only individually, but in their relation to each other, that the conclusion to which they lead may be lost to sight. One of these propositions is that psychical rather than material causes are those which we should regard as fundamental in directing the development of the social organism. The human intellect is the really active agent in every branch of endeavor—the primum mobile of civilization—and all those material manifestations to which our attention is so often directed are to be regarded as secondary to this first agency. If it be true that 'in the world is nothing great but man; in man is nothing great but mind,' then should the keynote of our discourse be the recognition at every step of this first and greatest of powers.

Another well-known fact is that those applications of the forces of nature to the promotion of human welfare which have made our age what it is are of such comparatively recent origin that we need go back only a single century to antedate their most important features, and scarcely more than four centuries to find their beginning. It follows that the subject of our inquiry should be the commencement, not many centuries ago, of a certain new form of intellectual activity.

Having gained this point of view our next inquiry will be into the nature of that activity, and its relation to the stages of progress which preceded and followed its beginning. The superficial observer, who sees the oak but forgets the acorn, might tell us that the special qualities which have produced such great results are expert scientific knowledge and rare ingenuity, directed to the application of the powers of steam and electricity. From this point of view the great inventors and the great captains of industry were the first agents in bringing about the modern era. But the more careful inquirer will see that the work of these men was possible only through a knowledge of laws of nature which had been gained by men whose work took precedence of theirs in logical order, and that success in invention has been measured by completeness in such knowledge. While giving all clue honor to the great inventors, let us remember that the first place is that of the great investigators whose forceful intellects opened the way to secrets previously hidden from men. Let it be an honor and not a reproach to these men that they were not actuated by the love of gain, and did not keep utilitarian ends in view in the pursuit of their researches. If it seems that in neglecting such ends they were leaving undone the most important part of their work, let us remember that nature turns a forbidding face to those who pay her court with the hope of gain, and is responsive only to those suitors whose love for her is pure and undefiled. Not only is the special genius required in the investigator not that generally best adapted to applying the discoveries which he makes, but the result of his having sordid ends in view would be to narrow the field of his efforts, and exercise a depressing effect upon his activities. It is impossible to know what application knowledge may have until after it is acquired, and the seeker after purely useful knowledge will fail to acquire any real knowledge whatever.

We have here the explanation of the well-known fact that the functions of the investigator of the laws of nature, and of the inventor who applies these laws to utilitarian purposes are rarely united in the same person. If the one conspicuous exception which the past century presents to this rule is not unique, we should probably have to go back to Watt to find another. The true man of science of to-day and of all past time has no such expression in his vocabulary as useful knowledge. His domain is the whole of nature, and were he to attempt its division into the useful and the useless, he would drop from his high estate.

It is, therefore, clear that the primary agent in the movement which has elevated man to the masterful position he now occupies is the scientific investigator. He it is whose work has deprived plague and pestilence of their terrors, alleviated human suffering, girdled the earth with the electric wire, bound the continent with the iron way, and made neighbors of the most distant nations. As the first agent which has made possible this meeting of his representatives, let his evolution be this day our worthy theme.

It has been said that the scientific investigator is a new species of the human race. If this designation is applicable to a class defined only by its functions, then it is eminently appropriate. But the biologist may object to it on the ground that a species, or even a variety, is the product of heredity, and propagates only or mainly its own kind. The evolutionist may join hands with him on the ground that only new faculties, not new modes of activity, are to be regarded as products of evolution, but let us not stop to dispute about words. We have no need of the term 'species' in our present course of thought; but to deny the term evolution to the genesis of previously non-existent forms of intellectual activity is to narrow our conception of the course of nature, and draw a line of demarkation where no tangible boundary exists.

I am the more ready to invite your attention to the evolution of the scientific investigator, not only because the subject is closely correlated with human evolution in general, but because it is one branch of evolution which seems to me not to have received due prominence in discussions of the subject.

There is an increasing recognition of methods of research and of deduction which are common to large branches or to the whole of science. We are more and more recognizing the principle that progress in knowledge implies its reduction to a more exact form, and the expression of its ideas in language more or less mathematical. The problem before the organizers of this congress was, therefore, to bring the sciences together, and seek for the unity which we believe underlies their infinite diversity. The assembling of such a body as now fills this hall was scarcely possible in any preceding generation, and is made possible now only through the agency of science itself. It differs from all preceding international meetings by the universality of its scope, which aims to include the whole of knowledge. It is also unique in that none but leaders have been sought out as members. It is unique in that so many lands have delegated their choicest intellects to carry on its work. They come from the country to which our republic is indebted for a third of its territory, including the ground on which we stand; from the land which has taught us that the most scholarly devotion to the languages and learning of the cloistered past is compatible with leadership in the practicable application of modern science to the arts of life; from the island whose language and literature have found a new field and a vigorous growth in this region; from the last seat of the holy Roman Empire; from the country which, boasting of the only monarch that ever made an astronomical observation at the Greenwich Observatory, has enthroned science in one of the highest places in its government; from the peninsula so learned that we have invited one of its scholars to come here and teach us our own language; from the land which gave birth to Leonardo, Galileo, Torricelli, Columbus, Volta—what an array of immortal names!—from the little republic of glorious history which, breeding men rugged as its eternal snow-peaks, has yet been the seat of scientific investigation since the day of the Bernoullis; from the land whose heroic dwellers did not hesitate to use the ocean itself to protect it against invaders, and which now makes us marvel at the amount of erudition compressed within its little area; from the nation of the farthest east, which, by half a century of unequaled progress in the arts of life, has made an important contribution to evolutionary science through demonstrating the falsity of the theory that the most ancient races are doomed to be left in the rear of the advancing age—in a word, from every great center of intellectual activity on the globe I see before me eminent representatives of that world-advance which we have come to celebrate.

Gentlemen and scholars all! You do not visit our shores to find great collections in which long centuries of humanity have given expression on canvas and in marble to their hopes, fears and aspirations. Nor do you expect institutions and buildings hoary with age. But as you feel the vigor latent in the fresh air of these expansive prairies, which has collected the products of human genius by which we are here surrounded and, I may add, brought us together—as you study the institutions which we have founded for the benefit not only of our own people but of humanity at large; as you meet the men who, in the short space of one century, have transformed this valley from a savage wilderness into what it is to-day—then may you find compensation for the want of a past like yours by seeing with prophetic eye a future world power of which this region shall be the seat. If such is to be the outcome of the institutions which we are now building up, then may your present visit be a blessing both to your posterity and ours, by making that power one for good to all mankind. Your deliberation will help to demonstrate to us and to the world at large that the reign of law must supplant that of brute force in the relations of the nations, just as it has supplanted it in the relations of individuals. You will help to show that the war which science is now waging against the sources of disease, pain and misery offers an even nobler field for the exercise of heroic qualities than can that of battle. We hope that when, after your all too fleeting sojourn in our midst, you return to your own shores, you will long feel the influence of the new air you have breathed in an infusion of increased vigor in pursuing your varied labors. And if a new impetus is thus given to the great intellectual movement of the past century, resulting not only in promoting the unification of knowledge, but in widening its field through new combinations of effort on the part of its votaries, the projectors, organizers and supporters of this Congress of Arts and Science will be justified of their labors.

  1. Opening and concluding parts of the address of the president of the International Congress of Arts and Science, at the St. Louis Exposition, September 19, 1904.