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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/March 1908/The Progress of Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 72‎ | March 1908



The award of the Nobel prize and the Copley medal to Dr. A. A. Michelson, professor of physics in the University of Chicago, is of interest to Americans from more view points than one. Naturally and properly, it gratifies their national pride. But more than this, it marks a widespread recognition of the development of pure science which has recently occurred in this country, and the partial attainment of those ideals advocated so vigorously by Rowland in his "Plea for Pure Science," addressed to the American Association for the Advancement of Science at its Minneapolis meeting. In the past these ideals have been typified by the work of Franklin, Henry, Gibbs and Rowland—honorable names—but separated by intervals all too long.

But most important of all is the encouragement which pure science is now receiving from various sources. For while all prizes and research funds combined can do little to kindle or encourage the spirit of investigation in the mature mind, they do elevate the position of the investigator-and foster the ideals of pure science in such a way as to make a career of research more attractive to able and ambitious youth. Great things may be hoped for American science when once the trend of young talent has set less exclusively to commerce and engineering.

In the history of optics Professor Michelson's work is certain to form a large chapter. His highly accurate determination of the speed of light is already a classic. His interferometer, devised for the purpose of detecting relative motion between earth and ether, bids fair to become the standard richly earned instrument for the measurement of all minute distances. Few facts in contemporary science are, indeed, more striking than the quiet and modest, but effective, manner in which Michelson and Benoit have, by their determination of the standard meter in terms of the red cadmium wave-length, morally, though not legally, established the wave-length of light as the international standard of length.

Another means for dealing with quantities in the sixth and seventh decimal places is Michelson's echelon grating which is perhaps the most powerful spectroscopic device now available. The product of his new engine for ruling diffraction gratings is awaited with great interest especially by astrophysicists.

The superficial observer may be tempted to identify the work of Michelson with the accurate determination of certain numerical constants. A greater mistake could not be made. For in nearly every case these determinations have been made possible by the discovery of some important method or principle whose fruitfulness it is impossible as yet to estimate.

For forty years after its enunciation the principle of Avogadro remained practically unrecognized by chemists. Nor is this tardiness in the recognition of scientific values confined to scientific men. Faraday had both the dynamo and the electric motor in full operation in 1831; but these machines were not placed on the market until about 1876. We therefore attempt no accurate estimate of the achievements of Professor Michelson, but merely extend to him the congratulations which he has so
PSM V72 D288 Albert Abraham Michelson.png
Professor A. A. Michelson,
Head of the Department of Physics in the University of Chicago.


The award of one Nobel prize in science to a citizen of the United States, even though his birthplace was in Germany, is a recognition as great as this country may properly claim. Indeed, it seems that the award in physics should have been made to Kelvin, if the plan of conferring the prize for distinguished services were to be followed, rather than the original instructions of Nobel's will, which required that the prizes should be conferred on those who contributed most materially to benefit mankind during the year immediately preceding. On the other hand, if the prizes had been conferred in accordance with the terms of the will, for "the most important discovery or invention in the domain of physics" "contributing to the benefit of mankind, the prize should have been awarded first of all to Dr. A. Graham Bell and Mr. Thomas A. Edison. The awards in the sciences so far made have been:

Physics Chemistry Medicine
1901  Röntgen  Van't Hoff  Behring
1902  Lorentz and Zeeman  Fischer  Ross
1903  Becquerel and and Mme Curie  Arrhenius  Finsen M.
1904  Rayleigh  Ramsay  Pavlov
1905  Lenard  von Baeyer  Koch
1906  J. J. Thomson  Moissan  Ramon y Cajal & Golgi
1907  Michelson  Buchner  Laveran

The national distribution is: Germany 7, England 4, France 3, Holland 2, Denmark 1, Sweden 1, Russia 1, America 1, Italy ½, Spain ½. It is certainly somewhat disquieting if one accept these figures as measuring the scientific productivity of this country as compared with others, and there is, as a matter of fact, some reason to fear that one out of twenty does not seriously misrepresent our proportion of eminent scientific men. In his widely-quoted Harvard address, Mr. Owen Wister allows us three of his forty-three immortals. If he will kindly permit us to amend his list by making the obvious substitution in philosophy of Professor James for Professor Cohen, and the addition of Professor Newcomb and Dr. Hill, as astronomers without peers, we should be allowed one eighth of the world's most eminent scholars, which is probably a larger proportion than we possess.

That we have not produced great men in proportion to our population and our wealth amply justifies the arraignment which Professor Webster prints in the present number of the Monthly It must, however, be remembered that in so far as scientific productivity is measured by the number of men of international eminence a country may possess, this would refer to the preceding rather than to the present generation. Most eminent men have done their great work at least thirty years ago, and it is perhaps not discouraging that the possibilities for scientific work in this country were small in the seventies as compared with the opportunities to-day. Whether we are now accomplishing research proportionate in importance to the numbers engaged in it and to the facilities given them is a different question and one which it is probably impossible to answer. It appears from various bibliographies that about one seventh of the titles are American. There are no grounds for assuming that their average value is either above or below that of those from other countries. It seems that we are clearly out-classed by Germany in the number and value of our scientific publications, that we stand pretty close to Great Britain and France, and that we are surely before any other nation. Then if we wish to take the patriotic and optimistic point of view, we can find comfort in the fact that no other nation has in the past twenty years enjoyed such a notable increase in scientific activity. Should this activity continue to increase at the same rate for the next twenty years, there will be no occasion to shun comparison with other nations.

PSM V72 D290 American scientists group picture.png
C. M Woodward. John M. Coulter.
R. S. Woodward. Edward W. Morley Edward L. Nichols.

PSM V72 D291 Ludwig Hektoen.pngProfessor Ludwig Hektoen,
Vice-president for the Section of Physiology and Experimental Medicine.


It is one of the pleasures of attending a large meeting of scientific men to see the leaders of science and to personify work with which we are familiar by associating it with the face and presence of its authors. A lesser but still legitimate satisfaction is found in seeing their portraits, and we have regarded it as desirable to present to readers of the Monthly photographs of the officers of the American Association with whom they would like to be acquainted. In the last issue of the Monthly there was a portrait of the president, Professor Chamberlin, who, like Professor Michelson, gives distinction to the University of Chicago, and deserves a second Nobel prize, were there one established in geology. We give now a plate showing five presidents of the association and the chairman of the local committee. On the right is the president of the Chicago meeting. Professor E. L. Nichols, of Cornell University, eminent for his work in optics and electricity and honored for his services to education and scientific organization. Next is Dr. W. H. Welch, of the Johns Hopkins University, the retiring president, the leader among our pathologists both in research and medical instruction. PSM V72 D291 Edmund Beecher Wilson.pngProfessor E. B. Wilson,
Vice-president of the Section of Zoology.
Adjacent is Dr. E. W. Morley, who has recently retired from his chair at the Western Reserve University, equally distinguished as a physicist and as a chemist, the recipient of the Davy medal from the Royal Society at the same time that Dr. Michelson received the Copley medal. To the left is Dr. R. S. Woodward, the author of valuable researches in mathematical physics, as president of the Carnegie Institution occupying the most important executive scientific position in the world. By him is Dr. C. M. Woodward, of Washington University, known both as an engineer and as a leader in educational work, especially in the introduction of manual training. The remaining portrait is of Dr. John M. Coulter, head of the Department of Botany at Chicago and one of those who have given the university in the

PSM V72 D292 Franz Boas.png
PSM V72 D292 Henry Paul Talbot.png
Professor Franz Boas,
Vice-president of the Section for Anthropology.
Professor Henry P. Talbot,
Vice-president of the Section of Chemistry.

few years of its history a position in scientific research rivaled only by Harvard and Columbia.

The four vice-presidents of the association whose portraits are given are Dr. Ludwig Hektoen, professor of pathology in the University of Chicago and director of the Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases, known for his work in pathological anatomy and bacteriology; Dr. E. B. Wilson, professor of zoology in Columbia University, eminent for his contributions to cytology and experimental morphology; Dr. Franz Boas, of Columbia University, whose researches have given him the leading place among anthropologists in the country, and Dr. Henry P. Talbot, one of those who has made the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a great center for chemical research as well as instruction. When the American Association can secure officers such as those mentioned here, we can with satisfaction place our working men of science beside those of any other nation.



We regret to record the death of Mr. Morris K. Jesup, president of the American Museum of Natural History. By his will $1,000,000 is given to the museum. Professor Henry F. Osborn, curator of vertebrate paleontology and professor in Columbia University, has been elected president of the institution to succeed Mr. Jesup.

The hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, which occurred on February 12, 1909, and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the origin of species, which occurred on November 24, 1859, will be celebrated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at its Baltimore meeting a year hence. Cambridge University also proposes an adequate celebration.

Professor Reginald W. Brock, professor of geology in the School of Mining, Kingston, has been appointed director of the Geological Survey of Canada.—M. Bailloud, of the Toulouse Observatory, has been appointed director of the Paris Observatory.—M. Henri Becquerel has been elected president of the Paris Academy of Sciences, and is succeeded in the vice-presidency by M. Bouchard.