Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/February 1909/The Instruments and Methods of Research
|THE INSTRUMENTS AND METHODS OF RESEARCH|
By Dr. L. A. BAUER
CARNEGIE INSTITUTION OF WASHINGTON
WERE I to accuse you of forgetfulness, of shortness of memory, or possessed of that quality apt to prove troublesome to others, though characterized by the oldest of our past presidents, in his delightful "Reminiscences of an Astronomer" as a valuable quality—absentmindedness—I dare say you would not be much offended, though possibly a trifle annoyed. But were I to accuse you of narrow-mindedness I might meet with a different reception. To none of us would it matter much to be called short-memoried or absent-minded, but to be termed narrow-minded arouses our resentment immediately. But are we not all necessarily so, more or less, according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves?
Mind the Chief Instrument of Research
I believe it was the mathematical physicist Stokes who warned us we must not forget that the chief instrument of investigation—the mind—is itself the object of research. To the mind, then, we should devote our first and chief attention in the discussion of the subject for this evening. How to reduce and check as far as possible this natural tendency of all of us to narrow-mindedness in one or more directions, or how, realizing its necessary existence, to make due allowance for it in the formulation of conclusions which, though drawn with utmost care, are nevertheless subject to "personal equation," is, as we at once readily see, a matter of the very highest importance.
Many of you are doubtless familiar with the Hindoo fable set to rhyme by Saxe:
It was six men of Indoostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side.
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The third, happening to grasp the "squirming trunk within His hands," declared the elephant to be "very like a snake"; the fourth, feeling "about the knee," thought the elephant seemed "very like a tree"; the fifth, "chancing to touch the elephant's ear," described him as being "very like a fan," and when within the scope of the sixth came the swinging tail, the fact that the elephant "is very like a rope" was to him proved beyond dispute.
And so these men of Indoostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
And now, if you will permit me to slightly alter the poet's last verse, so as to point the moral to our own selves:
How oft in scientific wars
We disputants are seen
To rail in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean.
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of us has seen!
What is Research?
In this day of encyclopedias numerous and ponderous, one is often struck with the fact that in spite of the manifest care and conscientious thought bestowed by the responsible editors, the omissions and evidences of discontinuity of treatment, and lack of recognition of the prime purposes of the compilation, are as noteworthy as the imposing array of the results of our steadily advancing knowledge is startling. For a philosophic treatment—one fully appreciative of that which the student really requires, not only to enlighten him with regard to a particular subject, but also to stimulate him to research where it is most needed—I frequently get more satisfaction out of the older encyclopedias than from our modern ones, even though they can but present the status of the subject up to the time they were written.
As an illustration, take the word "research," appearing in our topic of this evening, or any of the associated terms—"discovery," "experiment," "investigation" and "observation." Turning to the index volumes of the ninth and tenth editions of the "Encyclopedia Britannica," I find but two references in which the word "research" appears—one to the exploring vessel, the Research, and the other to "research degrees," Turning to the page on which the latter occurs, we find this interesting statement referring to Oxford University:
Now comes the interesting statement which I beg to emphasize:
We thus see what the writer of this article thinks of the relative value in practical life, of research foundations and normal school foundations! Yet we all know that this view is not typical of that held in a country having such productive research organizations as the Royal Society or the Royal Institution. Sir Norman Lockyer, in his luminous inaugural address before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1903, on the "Influence of Brain-power on History," says: "A country's research is as important in the long run as its battleships." Why, then, does not the standard encyclopedia of that country make space for a representative article on "research"?
Under "investigation" there also appears absolutely nothing. However, we have the ship, "Investigator," Investigator Shoal, Investigator Group, etc., but not a word about the general methods employed by "scientific investigators." And so it is with the word "discovery"—there is no reference whatsoever to an article on the general principles leading up to discoveries. Likewise with the word "observation"; though there are many references to observations of various kinds, there is no one article for setting forth the general principles of "observations" or the part they play in the discovery of fundamental facts. The same experience is had with regard to the word "experiment."
Now let us turn to an encyclopedia I invariably read with pleasure and profit; it frequently has supplied me with references to earlier work not to be obtained elsewhere. We shall find it instructive to us to-night, though the articles to which I beg to invite your kind attention were written three fourths of a century ago. I refer to the classic Gehler's "Physikalisches Wörterbuch"—the revised edition by the noted investigators Brandes, Gmelin, Horner, Littrow, Muncke and Pfaff, in 20 volumes and published in Leipzig, 1825-1845. A veritable fund of information is found under the headings "Beobachtung" (observation) and "Versuch" (experiment). The article on "Beobachtung," by the physicist Muncke, embraces 28 octavo pages. He shows the distinction between "Beobachtungen" (observations) and "Versuche" (experiments) to be that the former pertain to the perceptions of phenomena presented to ns by nature in her unmodified course, whereas in the latter—in the experiments—we are seeking to produce certain results or phenomena, more or less looked for, in order either to verify a law already known or to disprove one suspected of being wrong or even to discover a new one. Both classes of experiences are necessary for a piece of investigation or research work.
Thus, we may behold either visually or in some other way certain striking solar phenomena; these belong to the class of observations which we ourselves are unable to modify in any manner whatsoever. Continued observation may, however reveal a certain law which by experiment in the laboratory, conducted along more or less definite lines, we may seek to imitate in the hope of getting some clue to the modus operandi of the observed phenomena. In this article on "Observations" the author treats in detail the various elements entering into correct methods of investigation, condition of the observer and of his senses, his being unbiased, character and errors of the instruments, errors of results, methods of increasing accuracy, representations of observations by graphs and formulae, method of least squares, etc. He points out the mistake sometimes made, that an established formula satisfying the observed phenomenon within certain limits represents an actual law of nature.
The article "Versuch" (experiment) consists of 44 pages and is contributed by the astronomer Littrow. He shows that the most rapid development takes place in those sciences which afford the greatest opportunity for experimentation, referring, e. g., to the slow and painful progress of the astronomer as long as he had to confine him self to mere celestial observations and the comparatively rapid strides which occurred as soon as some of the observed phenomena could be either imitated by, or be compared with, those derived by laboratory experiment. The investigator, he says, must be absolutely free from preconceptions and be careful, cautious and unbiased in his interpretation of what his senses may reveal to him. He illustrates how man, called jokingly "das Ursachenthier" (the animal ever bent on ascertaining the cause of things), proceeds in ferreting out the why and wherefore of observed phenomena, and how his methods of circumspection develop with the advance of knowledge.
Though man can not determine the "Endursachen," or ultimate causes of things, the field open to him to discover the laws governing phenomena or, vice versa, classifying and enumerating those which follow a certain revealed law, is, nevertheless, still very large and sufficient to tax his energies. Witness, for example, the host of observed phenomena obeying the law of inverse squares!
The remaining sections of Littrow's article deal with the reduction of the experiments to the laws of motion, the numerical expression of the observed results in definite units, the importance of the part played by instruments or mechanical appliances, derivation of laws governing the observations, methods of ascertaining these laws, methods of reduction and of publication, and errors to be avoided.
These two articles will show sufficiently the character and scope of similar ones we should like to see in our standard English and American encyclopedias. Such information is contained in some measure, at least, though not as comprehensively, in the modern German book of reference, Brockhaus's "Conversations-Lexikon," as also in the "Grande Encyclopedia" of the French. It is truly remarkable that there should be such an oversight in our "International Encyclopedia," when it is remembered that the editor-in-chief was one to whom research work owes a very great debt of gratitude indeed—the late and greatly lamented Daniel Coit Gilman. The only article found is one on "expert," and this pertains chiefly to "expert evidence" in courts of law. Yet what better statement concerning the "research or scientific spirit" could be made than contained in the following quotation from Gilman's writings?
With the growth of the scientific spirit grows the love of truth, and with the love of truth in the abstract comes the love of accuracy in the concrete.
Our foremost English dictionaries are in general not any more satisfying or edifying regarding the precise meaning of "research" in the scientific sense than are the standard encyclopedias. Their illustrations of the use of the word are usually neither apt nor sufficiently comprehensive.
How may we sharpen Our Senses?
Of the senses, sight plays the greatest part in investigation. To this organ we have thus far devoted most attention to supplement and increase its natural powers by mechanical means—the telescope, microscope, etc. Next would rank the sense of hearing; but the appliances for increasing our sensations in this respect are comparatively few, and still more is this the case with regard to the senses of taste, smell and touch.
Yet what truly wonderful powers of touch are developed by the blind, and how extraordinary are the capabilities of certain animals for foretelling the distant approach of a deadly foe by the means of hearing or of smell! There are well-authenticated cases on record where animals unquestionably appear to have "felt" the coming of a great natural catastrophe, like an earthquake, several hours before any human being had the same knowledge.
Might not man also, to his advantage, increase or stimulate his less-used senses in some manner, to the same degree or approximately so, as that of sight? If he did, is it not possible that thereby he might have perceptions which would materially assist him in solving some of the vexed riddles of the universe? May he not, for lack, of proper development of these senses, be in much the same plight as the "six men of Indoostan to learning much inclined who went to see the elephant, though all of them were blind"?
If there is some possibility in this direction, how about the power of stimulating or interpreting our muscle sensations, the sensations of heat and cold, of pain, of pleasure, etc.? Efforts have been made, as you know, to trace a definite connection between certain atmospheric phenomena and bodily sensations, or between the impelling motives to commit suicide or other crimes and certain meteorological conditions. Likewise are there attempts by well-known men of science to sharpen and interpret the psychic sensations.
There is revealed here a field of research but little explored as yet—the increase of our powers of perception along other lines than chiefly those of sight. No one can foretell the future possibilities in these directions.
The doctrine of evolution teaches the result of long-discontinued use of any particular organ, and has familiarized us with the wonderful achievements of nature brought about by sustained and continued effort along some definite direction. Both the physical and the psychic conditions of the observer require their highest and healthiest development to insure not only the best results with the ever-increasing accuracy or precision required by the steady advance of knowledge, but also to bring about that round-or broad-mindedness needed for the proper interpretation of the results observed.
The Mathematical Instruments of Research.
A good-sized chapter might be written on the "Mathematical Instruments or Tools of Research." The predominating tendency of resolving or expressing every natural phenomenon—periodic or otherwise—by a Bessel or a Fourier series or by spherical harmonic functions has brought about at times, especially in geophysical and cosmical phenomena, if not direct misapplications, at least misinterpretations of the meaning and value of the coefficients derived. Like a certain class of "naturalists," we also may have laid ourselves open to the approbrious term of "nature-fakir," and instead of clarifying the situation our calculations may have actually contributed instead to "befog" it.
Frequently by the purely mathematical process there have been eliminated, in the attempt to represent a more or less irregularly occurring natural phenomenon by a smoothly flowing function, the very things of chief and permanent interest. The normal or average diurnal temperature curve, for example, or a uniform magnetic distribution over land, so as to yield perfectly regular lines of equal magnetic declination, never occurs in nature. There is thus being impressed upon us more and more forcibly the fact that what we have been regarding as "abnormal features"—the outstanding residuals between observations and the results derived from the mathematical formula—are in truth not "abnormal" from the standpoint of nature, but are rather to be taken as indicative of the "abnormality" or "narrow-mindedness," which means the same thing, of ourselves in trying to dictate to nature the artificial and regular channels she should pursue in her operations.
Louis Agassiz said:
The fundamental law of nature is to invariably follow the paths of least resistance, and by examining these lines of structural weakness of the opposing systems we may have opened to us the very facts which are to be of real value and of sure benefit to mankind. The irregularity of the banks bordering a natural watercourse serves to differentiate the work of nature from that of the builder of the artificial and regular channel.
No, instead of rejecting, we must learn to retain the outstanding residuals and study them most carefully and regard them as the true facts of nature, and not those which we so egotistically and presumptuously try to force on her. What great discoveries may lie open to us when we once have grasped the true significance of the facts we have been so fond of measuring by our own standard and have been terming as "abnormal" or "irregular"!
An interesting example of not wholly successful application of the continuous and ever-recurring functions of spherical harmonics to a typical geophysical phenomenon—the distribution of magnetism over the earth's surface—has been discussed by the speaker elsewhere. Though the number of unknowns has been increased in recent computations from the original 24 of Gauss to 48, nevertheless the difference between theory and observation is of such an order of magnitude as to preclude the use of the formula for even the purely practical demands of the navigator and surveyor. Nor has any one succeeded in giving any physical interpretation of the laboriously derived coefficients beyond the first three. And what do these three stand for? The simplest possible case of a first approximation to the actual state of the earth's magnetism, viz., that of a uniform magnetization about a diameter inclined to the axis of rotation!
The prime difficulty here may be summed up in a word. The very surface over which the spherical harmonic functions are spread is itself such a prolific source of disturbance as to cause effects embracing a continent, a state or a locality. Such a large number of terms would be requisite for an adequate representation as to make their computation prohibitive. We are dealing here with more or less noncontinuous effects that cannot be imitated by continuous functions without leaving behind a train of residuals, precisely as though we were to try to fit to the actual configuration of the earth some standard pattern of our own. Let me ask what phenomenon have we, in fact, which will admit of the determination of 48, or even of 24, physical constants?
It had been my intention to say a few words on the value and limitation of that much-used as well as abused mathematical instrument of research, the method of least squares. Properly employed, it is a most useful adjunct to investigation; but, as intimated, the true significance of formulae established by this method is at times pushed far beyond the limitations. What the tenor of my remarks might be will be sufficiently evident to you if I submit this query for your consideration: What actual laws of nature have been discovered by the method of least squares?
The Mechanical Instruments of Research
A few minutes were to have been given to the instruments employed by the scientific man to sharpen and amplify his natural senses and sensations—in a word, the tools furnished him by the mechanician. I am glad, however, both for your sake and mine, that this part of the subject was covered by an interesting paper presented at the previous meeting of the society. It was emphasized there that for the best results it is essential that the investigator be able to work with instruments so constructed as to permit him to control or renew the various adjustments without the necessity of returning the instrument to the maker. The principle at times employed, which assumes that when adjustments are once made they are to "remain put," is apt to prove a very pernicious one. A number of very interesting examples from my own experience in the purchase of magnetic instruments during the past ten years might be cited; but, as has been said, this part of the subject having already been covered, there is no need to dwell further upon it than to emphasize the injunction that the research worker, if he desires the best results, must know his instruments as thoroughly as himself.
Subjects of Research
We come next to a brief consideration of the subjects of research, though not specifically mentioned in the title of our paper, yet implied in it. The rapid progress made by a science as soon as it reaches the stage of experimentation has already been noted. A crucial experiment has at times furnished information which by mere observation of phenomena, running their natural and unmodified course, might either have never come into our possession or at best would have taken a considerably longer time than that of the decisive experiment. You are all familiar with such cases, for almost every science can furnish examples.
Now it is an extremely interesting and suggestive fact that the greatest experimental discoveries to-day are not made in the older, well-recognized sciences, but on their borderlands—in the "twilight zones" of more or less related sciences. I have but to mention the words "physical chemistry," "physical geology," "astrophysics," "biochemistry," etc., and you will readily grant the assertion made. In the overlapping regions there seem to be the greatest opportunities afforded for solid, thorough, and at the same time remarkably rapid, experimental achievements. And so we are having produced almost daily new specialties or new sub-specialties.
What is the effect on the general broad-mindedness of man by this extreme specialization so necessary for the production of the best and most far-reaching results? Is the modern specialist more narrow-minded than the generalist of a century or two ago? In view of our opening statement that the prime instrument of research is, after all, the mind, the question is, as you see, not an irrelevant one. We find statements occasionally made which would imply an affirmative answer to our question; but I, for one, would most emphatically protest against such an inference. I should maintain that the specialist, other things being equal, is likely to be a broader man than he who has no specialty, but simply a general knowledge of some particular science. The reason for my positive statement would be found in the fact mentioned, that the greatest part of the research work to-day is being done on the border-lands of the general sciences; for he who wishes to take part in this very active competition must needs be far better equipped than the mere generalist. The physical chemist, to be most successful, must have a very intimate knowledge of both physics and chemistry, and the more mathematical skill he possesses the better. The astrophysicist must be a physicist, a chemist, a mathematician, besides being an astronomer. And so with regard to the geophysicist.
Only a few names need be cited—like those, for example, of Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin, von Helmholtz, Mascart—to support the contention that the broadest physicists are, as a rule, those who have regarded their laboratory experiments and deductions therefrom merely as a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and who have accordingly sought to apply the knowledge gained to the solution of some of the great problems affecting the general welfare of man. There is the greatest need in this country of well-trained and well-equipped physicists in the solution of the many perplexing problems of the earth's physics with regard to the phenomena of seismology, vulcanology, meteorology, geodesy, atmospheric electricity, terrestrial magnetism, etc. When the investigator makes the attempt to apply some of his laboratory facts to geophysical and cosmical phenomena, he has opened to himself a world of which he never dreamed; he finds zest in familiarizing himself with the fundamental facts of other sciences in which until now he could take no interest.
Methods of Research; Discovery of Laws
The methods in general have already received treatment in connection with the foregoing topics. It is always interesting to know what was the precise course followed in the discovery of a great law. However, no two investigators have ever pursued, or at least but rarely, precisely the same paths, and we must therefore be content with the statement of the general principles of research, such as has already been given.
A prevalent fault is observed in scientific publications whenever the investigator has had good training only on the observational side and but very little experience in scientific computing. He is very apt to violate one of the first and fundamental principles of good observing, viz., to employ such a method or scheme of observing as will yield tut one definite result, and that with the highest possible accuracy and with the least amount of computation. Oftener than may be thought, schemes of observation are used which leave an arbitrary element to the computer, and in consequence a different result is forthcoming, according to who makes the computation. Had we time apt illustrations could readily be given from published works. The point made, that the observer must also bear in mind the computation side, and work up his results as soon as possible, is of fundamental importance in research work.
It may be worth while to consider briefly the insatiable desire of the analyst to "ring" in a series of sines and cosines to resemble the course of some natural phenomenon of which he does not know the exact law. Is this the old story over again, though in somewhat altered garb, of the epicycles and deferents of ancient astronomical mechanics, which received its highest development in the Ptolemaic System of the Universe? You will recall that Ptolemy, building on the suggestions of Appollonius and Hipparchus, supposed a planet to describe an epicycle by a uniform revolution in a circle whose center was carried uniformly in an eccentric round the earth. By suitable assumptions as to his variable factors, he was thus able to represent with considerable accuracy the apparent motions of the planets and to reproduce quite satisfactorily other astronomical facts. This was the artifice employed by the astronomer of the period before the modern and more subtle art of simulating nature, by the sine-cosine method, had become known.
What seemed so intricate and complex in Ptolemy's time could be expressed in very simple language indeed, when a Kepler discovered the true functions as embodied in his three fundamental laws. The present method of hiding our ignorance of the real law, which seems at times to exert such a mesmerizing influence over us as to make us mistake the fictitious for the real, reminds one of the old conundrum: "Patch on, patch on, hole in the middle; if you guess this riddle, I'll give you a golden fiddle." If the sine and cosine of the angle does not represent the curve of observation, patch on a sine and cosine of twice the angle; then, if necessary, thrice the angle; next, four times, and so ad infinitum! Now guess the riddle!
Of course I do not mean to discard this useful and in fact indispensable tool of research, but simply wish to call attention to its limitations and to the importance of not overlooking the fertile byproducts, the residuals which, because of our neglect of them, may some day rise and smite us in their wrath. Each one of us at one time or another has doubtless established, by least squares, an empirical formula of some kind which so beautifully fits the observations as to make us bold and venturesome. Now comes a new observation, somewhat outside of the range for which the expression was established. Eagerly the test is applied, and we find, to our chagrin, that the formula on which so much work had been spent will not fit the new result, and that we have a "counterfeit" and not the real law.
A graphical process, like the crucial and decisive experiment, may at times reveal an essential fact that the mind of even the greatest of mathematicians has failed to extract from his formulas.
Let us suppose, for illustration, we are dealing with a phenomenon which almost entirely unfolds itself during the time between sunrise and sunset—the well-known diurnal variation of the earth's magnetism is a striking case of the kind. Following the usual method, the phenomenon is resolved into component parts with the aid of a Fourier series. The formula as generally adopted includes the four terms having, respectively, periodicities of 24, 12, 8 and 6 hours. For ordinary magnetic latitudes the striking result is obtained that the second term—the 12-hour one—is as important as the first, or 24-hour, one; so we might equally as well say "the semidiurnal" as "the diurnal variation of the earth's magnetism." In fact, as the semidiurnal term unfolds itself twice in 24 hours, it is in reality more important than the purely diurnal one.
Does the resolution into Fourier terms of a phenomenon of the kind given really prove their existence in nature? Can we conclude without question that in addition to the diurnal term we also have a semidiurnal one? Even with four terms, the series does not represent each hourly observation of the 24 with the same degree of precision. In fact, the residuals for the night hours are nearly of the same order of magnitude as the observed quantities. If the physical existence of the 12-hour term is not proved, then there is no need of racking our brains as to its physical origin.
The difficulty disclosed by this example is of the same kind as the one treated in spherical harmonics, viz., that we are attempting to represent a more or less non-continuous function having a duration commensurate with that of the daylight hours by functions running smoothly through their individual courses for 24 hours.
Babbage, the inventor of the calculating machine named after him, said he once had the following question put to him: "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answer come out?" Do we not at times attempt to put wrong premises into nature's machinery and then expect correct answers?
We can not close this section better than by quoting the following passage from the address of the first president of this society, Joseph Henry, given on November 24, 1877:
Henry's insistence on the application in our scientific work of "common sense" reminds one of Clifford's apt definition of science as being "organized common sense."
Publication of Results of Research Work
We come next to the question of publication of the results of research. I think it may be taken as almost axiomatic that whatever is worthy of investigation should be made known in some effective manner, so as to reach without question those concerned. The multiplicity of literature on any one subject or even on any small portion thereof is nowadays such that the worker finds it utterly impossible to keep abreast of publications, even those in his own field, to say nothing of kindred ones.
He is forced more and more to rely on abstracts—at least in so far as to direct him to that which he unquestionably must consult in the original, if possible. In my own particular line of work I rarely find that an abstract supplies all that is needed, and I almost invariably prefer to work directly with the original. I have heard similar statements from workers in other fields.
If it be true, then, that the investigator usually finds it necessary to consult the original publications, the next conclusion to be drawn is that the publication of any research work should, in general, be of such form and size as to permit the widest distribution possible, not only among the libraries and the principal seats of learning, but also among the workers and institutions immediately interested.
The scientific worker generally does not possess the means to purchase or to construct the instruments he requires for the prosecution of his work, and a book bearing in any way on the line of work to be pursued is as much to be considered part of his equipment as the purely mechanical tools. Indeed, I was told by the late von Bezold that Wilhelm Weber set his laboratory students to work by telling them, "Here are the instruments, and there are the Annalen der Physik; now go to work." The man of science usually wants his tools close by and within ready reach. He cannot afford to go to a distant library and then possibly find the book out. Private possession permits him, furthermore, to make marginal notes and references to enable him quickly to put his finger on the very thing needed.
Owing to these well-organized needs, there has grown up a courteous and friendly interchange of publications among coworkers and sympathizers in the same field that to my mind deserves the highest encouragement. The time has unfortunately gone when scientific investigators can write such delightful and voluminous letters as passed between the research workers of half a century and more ago. The present system of interchange of publications has necessarily taken the place, to a very large extent, of the early letter-writing. It is a system of gradual development along the lines of least resistance that it would be disadvantageous to contend against until some more effective means of intercommunication among scientific men has been devised.
But such free interchange of research publications can only be conducted to a limited extent and can embrace only certain kinds of publications, viz., generally reprints or those of which the original cost for publication has already been borne in some manner, be it by a journal or by some research foundation. Larger publications, however, because of their expensiveness, must generally be restricted, for one reason or another, in their general circulation, with the inevitable result that the persons directly reached may be entirely out of proportion to the importance of the work undertaken.
Scientific men and scientific bodies could well afford to pause and consider the tremendous cost of publication and the rather frequent waste of money incurred. Why is it, for example, that when an explorer gives an account of his travels in an unexplored region for the commercial press he finds it possible to say what he wishes in an attractive and handy octavo form, but when he is working for an endowed institution he feels compelled to present his matter in an expensive, ponderous, quarto form, inconvenient to handle?
It should he noted that it is as important to make research work known as to do it. To get our friends to read the contributions we may make to science requires nowadays no little skill and diplomacy and an attractiveness of literary style on the part of the author not so essential in the days of less frequent printed works. The original purposes of important and costly expeditions are sometimes well nigh defeated or superseded, because of the delay in publication, ensuing from the elaborateness of the plan adopted for the reduction of the field results and the form of publication decided upon.
Reduction in the pretentiousness, size and cost of scientific publications appears to me to he one of the greatest needs of research to-day.
Methods of Research by Institutions
Some time could profitably be spent on a consideration of the general agencies engaged in furthering research work and the methods employed for doing so. Being, however, connected with a "research institution," I should consider myself incompetent to enter upon a free and unbiased discussion of the methods of such organizations for the furthering of research work. Suffice it to say that it appears sometimes to be overlooked that the most valuable asset of a research organization is the research spirit of its workers, without it no amount of funds could accomplish the desired end. My remarks will be chiefly confined to a brief discussion of the methods to be used in certain investigations of a world-wide character. Craving your indulgence once more, I shall take as an example the general magnetic survey of the earth as representative of the kind of world-embracing research enterprises I have in mind.
Alexander von Humboldt, whose mental grasp was extraordinary in more than one science, set forth the following plan in his "Cosmos" for a general magnetic survey of the globe.
May the year.1850 be marked as the first normal epoch in which the materials for a magnetic chart shall be collected, and may permanent scientific institutions (academies) impose upon themselves the practise of reminding, every twenty-five or thirty years, governments, favorable to the advance of navigation, of the importance of an undertaking whose great cosmical importance depends on its long continued repetition.
Here was a noble project, universally conceded to be not only of the greatest scientific interest, but also of the greatest practical importance. Yet why is it that this grand plan has never been carried out by the foremost nations in friendly concert? Have our academies, as Humboldt suggested, never "imposed upon themselves the practise of reminding every twenty-five or thirty years governments, favorable to the advance of navigation, of the importance of an undertaking" of this character?
Instead of working along a common and definite plan, the magnetic operations hitherto have consisted of more or less isolated and incomplete surveys, independently undertaken by various nations and distributed over a great number of years. Not even for a single epoch has it been possible to construct the magnetic charts on the basis of homogeneous material, distributed over the greater part of the earth, with some attempt, at least, at uniformity. And as to the possibility of constructing the charts, with the aid of similar data, for epochs twenty-five or thirty years apart, as Humboldt had dreamed, this, in spite of the enlightened interest of many countries, is even more remote.
Why should it have remained for a purely research organization to undertake a problem touching so keenly, as this, on even the so-called sordid, highly practical interests of man? It is a fortunate fact that Humboldt's fascinating international scheme failed of execution, and that the chief brunt of the work is now being borne by a single organization? It is not for the speaker to attempt to answer. The magnetic work of the Carnegie Institution of Washington has embraced, since 1904, a general magnetic survey of the Pacific Ocean, and land observations have been made in more or less unexplored regions in different parts of the world. The ocean magnetic work is to be undertaken next in the Atlantic Ocean, in 1909, on a specially built vessel, the first of its kind.
It is believed that an effective scheme of operation has been evolved, with the aid of the valuable advice received from eminent investigators. Without danger of giving offense to any one, it is possible to deal directly with the officials concerned, submitting to them our plans and ascertaining whether they contemplate doing anything similar, and, if so, whether, in case their funds are insufficient, they could suggest some friendly basis of cooperation between their organization and ours. This plan of action has met with entire success thus far. Duplication, overlappings and possible jealousies are all avoided; and in countries where no organization whatever exists to do the work, we are free to go ahead and finish the task in less time than it would necessarily take to get an official action or official consensus of opinion from a large scientific body.
Slow deliberation in terrestrial magnetic work would be disastrous, for the prime reason that the phenomena of investigation in this field of research are continuously undergoing change. The time-element in the earth's magnetism, even for a period of a few years, is of such moment as to completely mask the fine, hair-splitting points which would necessarily and rightly have to be raised on some international mode of action, to say nothing of the painful and cumbersome method which would have to be employed to conform with the rules of official correspondence between nations. Many a well and carefully executed magnetic survey in the past has had its full importance for world-wide investigation destroyed because of the possibility of error in the secular variation corrections which must be applied to bring its results up to date.
Though I may be judged guilty of defending my own policy, I believe the course pursued by the Carnegie Institution of Washington in conducting the general magnetic survey of the globe is the only way in which this particular project, and similar ones to it, could not only be expeditiously conducted, but so as to realize the chief objects of the work. Judging from individual expressions received from scientific men everywhere, they appear in agreement with u.s. This policy, briefly stated, is: To make, with the aid of the friendly and harmonious cooperation of all concerned, a rapidly executed magnetic survey of the greater part of the globe, so that a general survey, all-sufficient for the solution of some of the great and world-wide problems of the earth's magnetism, will be completed within a period of ten to fifteen years. At a smaller number of points, selected in consideration of the prime questions at issue, the observations are to be repeated at intervals of five years or less, in order to supplement the rather sparsely distributed magnetic observatory data. Thus the determination of the corrections for reduction of the general work to any specific date is continuously provided for.
Now, had I the time or were this the place, I should like to add a paragraph regarding the needful accuracy and the prime questions to be considered in the conduct of such a piece of work. Permit me to say that the most evident result of all magnetic work in the past is that, for the purposes of a general survey, it is far better to make some sacrifice in accuracy if thereby it is made possible to secure observations at another point. In other words, the errors due to local disturbing conditions are far greater than the purely observational ones. Hence multiplicity of stations rather than extreme accuracy and laborious methods of ohservation and reduction is the prime requisite in magnetic survey work.
Stimulants to Research Work
Dr. Gilman, in his charming reminiscences of the non-resident lecturers of the Johns Hopkins University, related the following of the great mathematician Sylvester:
These anecdotes will serve to recall similar ones of noted men. and many of you, doubtless, were this an experience meeting, could easily occupy the balance of the evening in delightful recollections of what each has found best to stimulate him to renewed intellectual activity; and I dare say that many of you would unite with me in declaring that membership in this society has been one of the most helpful and stimulating influences.
We really have much to be proud of in the history and membership of the Philosophical Society of Washington. I should, indeed consider myself remiss in the duties imposed upon me by the subject selected did I not refer at least to the eminent part this society, through its members, has taken in bringing about the wonderful appreciation of scientific work and scientific methods we are to-day witnessing in our country. There have been several notable addresses by past presidents that might advantageously have been reviewed in connection with our topic. But we lack the time.
I cannot refrain, however, from quoting once more from Henry's address, already referred to, which I hope you may be induced to read in its entirety:
It is an essential feature of a scientific society that every communication presented to it should be subject to free critical discussion. Such discussion not only enlivens the proceedings, but is generally instructive, frequently eliciting facts which, though insignificant when isolated, when brought together mutually illustrate each other and lead ultimately to important conclusions.
My address began with statements revealing the necessity of keeping our minds ever open and free for the careful weighing and the unbiased reception of the facts observed and discovered. Throughout I have attempted to lay chief stress upon the mental and human elements involved in the topic. I can not do better in closing than to quote you a sentence from a letter which the great mathematical physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, wrote to Herbert Spencer on a subject of controversy in the latter's "First Principles," viz.:
Let our watchword therefore be: ever to keep our systems—our theories—in a colloidal condition!
- Address of the retiring president, delivered before the Philosophical Society of Washington, Saturday evening, December 5, 1908.
- "Chamber's Encyclopedia" is found to contain a short article on "Experiment"; also one on "Observation."
- Extracts from the "Launching of a University," 1906, pp. 147-150.
- The quotation is from E. C. Otté's translation of the "Cosmos," vol. II., pp. 719-720.
- "Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer," by David Duncan, Vol. II., p. 163.