Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/September 1910/The Making of the Scientific Investigator

1579431Popular Science Monthly Volume 77 September 1910 — The Making of the Scientific Investigator1910Thomas H. Montgomery Jr.




THE question is old but important, how far a man may influence his destiny and career by power of will and by training. Very often it is argued that his future lies entirely with himself, that he is modeling clay in his own hands. From this comes the expression of "the self-made man." Yet "there's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will," a might that the biologist calls inheritance. For by no manner of endeavor can a man make himself a bird or fish, nor can he divorce his mind from his body. An organism may be introduced to new conditions of life, by volition or by circumstance, and though it may change to some extent, it can not become entirely different from what it was at the start and still continue to live. As the twig is bent the tree inclines, that is, bends off from the normal path, but it does not become another kind of tree. The gardener can change the growth of a flower by placing certain solutions in the soil, but he simply adds another substance to it; or the experimenter can prevent a skeleton from developing by withdrawing from the medium certain salts, but he has only subtracted a certain substance. Some qualities may receive an added impulse, others may be retarded, monsters may be engendered, but no man has yet changed one being into a very different one.

Thus there are genetically diverse kinds of beings, and this is as true for men as for the rest of creation. What will be the outcome of any individual is to greatest extent a matter of his inheritance, it is blood that tells. All of us make our advent naked and helpless, all seemingly equally dependent upon the maternal care, all have to learn by experience. Yet no two human infants are alike, except to the inexperienced eyes of an old bachelor, for because they are of different parentage they possess at the beginning different qualities, and it is probable that infants arc as unlike as full-grown men and women, though in not the same ways. Indeed, every step in our growth has been conditioned by our ancestry. For the organism is much more than a set of substances and structures, it is a chain of processes linked continuously with the remote past and the outcome depends very largely upon the initial condition. This is the cardinal point that educators have grasped only recently, and about which some of them are still strangely in doubt. A man can not mold himself entirely, nor can his teachers wholly change him, for he is largely fashioned by his inheritance.

But though inheritance handles the reins, the course of life depends much upon the finding of the right road. Only the Universalgenie, if such exist, could arrive at the goal by any of the divergent roads.

The true aim and project of the university seems to me to be, in the first instance, to help the man to find himself, and only in the second instance to educate him. For the reason that this may appear an unusual view it should be explained. Universities arose out of the desire for freedom of thought, out of the wish to break the fetters of formalism. At various times, at Salamanca and Bologna, Strassburg, Paris and Oxford, assembled groups of men who had become dissatisfied with the crystallized curriculum offered by the church schools, who felt the curb on thought. Consequently they segregated, and from their number selected those men as teachers who had new and fertile ideas. Thus within such an assemblage all subjects came gradually to be professed, and each man chose his disciplines according to his inclinations. That is to say, universities in their inception were places for freedom of choice of subject, and this has remained the ideal in at least the more influential continental universities. One expression of it is our elective system, but it is pursued still more broadly in Germany. There the student comes from the fairly rigid curriculum of the Realschule, or the still narrower course of the gymnasium, to the university where he may select just as many courses and just what ones he cares for. The result is a double one: he frequently chooses as few lectures as possible, and then enjoys several Bummeljahre; but drones are no honey getters, and, provided he need a profession, he sooner or later comes to hear lectures on a great variety of subjects until he finds the one that most engrosses his attention, when he devotes himself to that. This system, in the nearly complete freedom of choice it allows, offers the fruits of all sciences, so that by browsing in this diverse orchard the student may find his peculiar taste.

A graduate department is not an Eden simply because all are commanded to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Men come to it from undergraduate courses where they have followed rather delimited curricula; in it they are free to make choice of the profession of their lives. It is the duty of the graduate school, the university proper as seen in the historical setting, to help each man to find himself, which is but a paraphrase of the Socratic "know thyself."

Students come with different innate propensities; they should choose the fruit that comes nearest their hearts. The decisive step towards success is to choose wisely, which means simply to elect that which attracts most strongly. That is, one should place himself in the soil for which providence or his inheritance meant him, for only by so doing can one develop his capabilities to the full. And if there be one duty set upon us, a duty to our neighbors as well as to ourselves, it is to do that for which we are best fitted, granted only that a man be of sane social judgment.

The occupation of a lifetime is not to be chosen by cold reason, but by the warmth of the heart. When friends go and the purse gets lean, a man may be kept warm by the enthusiasm for his work. When we always recur to our work with delight we make the most of our futures. Much of the success of an investigator lies in his choosing rightly, and the test of one's fitness is the durability of one's zeal.

Many and varied temptations there are to lead one astray from such a choice, the most seductive of which is escape from financial care. All of us can appreciate this, and the more perhaps because the multitude is apt to measure social standing by material wealth. But we will not linger over this time-worn and hoary subject of dispute, beyond noting that such thinkers as Dante and Harvey, who added so marvelously to our understanding of man, were neither rich nor yet in society. What immediately concerns us is that the investigator requires all of his ability to achieve results, and he certainly will have less success if he sacrifice his stronger inclinations for any social or mercenary reason. Let our financial futures take care of themselves, let us guard our talents. There is room at the top; it is only the bottom rungs that seem insecure.

Most men when they have obtained their doctor's degrees feel suddenly helpless, thrown out upon a chilling world. As a result most feel they should secure at once some sort of a remunerative position, and they are apt to think the position better the more it pays. This seems to me to be on the whole a pitiable error, and the reason why is very simple. For if young men have decided upon scientific research they surely will require time for their researches. It is rarely the case that they can occupy any school position and still have opportunity for their own work. Therefore the positions that are best for them are ones that make the least demands upon their time, and most of these are found only in universities. Suppose then a man should be given the choice of an instructorship at $1,500, in a high school or small college in which he would have no time for investigation, and of a graduate fellowship of $500, in which he would have every minute for his work, he should choose the latter no matter what worldly sacrifices he must make. For by this choice he would be gaining time, he would have opportunity to make a name for himself, and if he did not lose heart but remained true to himself he would certainly arrive at the proper kind of a position. If a man become side-tracked into a school teacher's chair, for the poor reason that he gets a living salary quicker, he will never be heard of and never get out of it to realize his ideals. The dollar may seem big, but time is more productive capital than money.

Yet, at the same time, it should be noted that a certain amount of teaching is good for the investigator. For in the first place a body of students enables him to farm out parts of his problem, and by establishing in this way a special school he is able to accomplish much more than he could single-handed. He can not by himself answer the whole of his problem, but with the help of a corps of students, each prosecuting some particular part, he may be able to; and the students themselves gain by cooperating in such a unified project. For no one man has the ability to follow out all the clues that suggest themselves to his mind. And in the second place, a certain amount of teaching is almost necessary to prevent a man from becoming narrow, and to keep him in active touch with all sides of his subject. It is particularly important for an investigator to teach undergraduate courses, though these are the most difficult to present well, for that keeps him in touch with the broader and more generally comprehensible parts of his work. The occasional meeting with younger and fresher minds is stimulating, and clear presentation of a subject to them often clarifies our own ideas. It is probably on account of their teaching that university men are generally broader than museum curators.

Given then the opportunity to measure the different paths of knowledge, and supposing a man has made his choice congenial and has resolved to stick to it, a great step has been taken. Yet this is, after all, merely the planting of the right seed in the proper ground, much remains before the harvest. To make the simile true we should imagine that the case is one where a man is at once seed, farmer and harvest, limited and constrained by his inherited powers. We have to find our particular effective seed, to set it out with care, and to keep its nurture mainly in our hands.

The subject matter of a science can be taught us, but we have to learn to investigate mainly through our own endeavors. The teacher out of his experience can indicate a problem awaiting solution; he should be able to decide whether it be soluble, but the real work, the research, is with us. One can learn investigation only by investigation, and each man must find his own path through the maze.

Encyclopedic knowledge is often more an impediment than a help to investigation; the two are contradictory. The student may become so charged with scholastic learning that he has no room left for thinking. And as we recall the creative thinkers of the past, we find they were on the whole rather undertrained men, in consequence untired and active in thought, picking up knowledge only when it was needed. For knowledge is not an end but only a tool. Yet there still lingers the idea that during the three or four years the student devotes to his doctorate, he should try to learn the whole of his subject! University teaching, it seems to me, should be called successful only when it helps a man to independent thinking. It is wholesome to recognize our limitations, to realize that we can not carry heavy freight and at the same time make headway. The mind that has to interpret must be fresh and agile, not loaded with the thousand and one opinions of forerunners. Let us avoid burdening our strength with laborious compilation. We sometimes think we are getting wise when we are only getting rusty.

It is this consideration that indicates a man should receive very little help with his doctor's thesis, he should sink or swim without the help of a convenient raft—or professor. For then is the witching time when he is finding out whether he holds the power of research, and he alone can tell whether he has it; he can tell by a certain elation and undefined feeling of strength. The student should be given a soluble problem for his thesis, also certain technical aid, then left rather severely to his own devices. If he succeed he will have proved his ability; if he fail it is still well, for he will be saved from an ill-chosen career. While, on the other hand, the result of aid constantly given is what we may call the "one-thesis man," he who finishes his thesis, to be sure, and gets his degree, but who afterwards, when he is thrown upon himself, proves unable to carry out further investigation. The best test of a leader of a school of investigation is not the number of doctors graduated, but the number who afterwards actively continue to investigate. For their own good students should prosecute their problems so far as possible without extraneous help.

The highest that graduate work can foster is independent thinking, not scholastic learning. A man may be led to knowledge, but he can not be made to think.

There are three particular gifts that the investigator should cherish to his utmost, imagination, judgment and the maintenance of an ideal.

As the insect stretches out his antennae, feeling and smelling at once, forming thereby an idea of what is ahead of him, so it is that by the help of our imagination we can reach out into the unknown. Blind searching for a clue is not profitable, and it is waste of time to expect some happy fortune to bring an answer to us. Science is not a game of chance. It is necessary to form tentative explanations, and the working hypothesis is the outcome of the imagination much more than of the reason. The reason deals with the known and experienced, it is the imagination that must as a pioneer leap into the unknown. Thus the scientist makes his soundings and feels the depths. He has to forecast various possibilities, and to test these severally. Yet the imagination is only a feeler and not a leg to stand upon. We must bear in mind that hypotheses are but suggestions, invaluable though they be in directing effort, and that the real labor of the scientist is the testing of his hypotheses. The immediate subject matter of all of us, physicist, mathematician, chemist, philologist, whatever our calling may be, is hypothesis, and out of hypotheses we have to reach explanations; an explanation so attained is a theory. We must not confuse hypothesis with theory, nor inflict upon suffering colleagues, much less publish, all our hypotheses. If, as Goethe says, all theory is gray, how colorless must hypothesis be until it has been turned to account.

For these reasons the man of science may be very directly benefited by a study of the great poets, and he will learn thereby how close is the bond between science and art. Yet many still hold the strange idea that the scientist lacks all fancy, as though he could ever explain without the help of it! He who has no gift of imagination has no place in science.

It is by what we call judgment that we measure our hypotheses. This comes in the main from experience, is capable of nurture, and is well characterized as good sense.

In his haste a man may try to run straight through a briar patch, but if he has common sense he will, like the renowned Br'er Rabbit, hunt out some trail; so he will reach the clearing quicker though he can not show so many honorable scars. Herein lies the main value of studying the lives of the masters of thought. Of each man who has markedly advanced knowledge we should make a hero, and humbly try to follow his footsteps by analyzing his methods of work. Indeed, this study of personalities should not be limited to the great, for from every man that we meet we may learn something to help our own working method; that is, we may learn if we try to. Each of us realizes that we can not give a correct estimate of a man's work unless we know his personality, Shakspere always excepted. Therefore to judge of scientific data we can be greatly aided by measuring personalities. It is then suggested, to help us to a sound judgment, to analyze the individualities of others, to see how they came by their results. This is the chief value of all collegial intercourse in seminar and society meetings. A fellow student is often the best of all teachers. And for the same reason it is well worth the time both to study the history of one's subject, that is, the methods and especially motives of its founders, and to read reverently and lovingly classical monographs whether they be now fashinable or not. How many of us do actually read Aristotle, Newton and Helmholtz? It is such study that enables us to see modern discoveries in their proper perspective, and restrains us from fancying each mole hill to be a mountain.

Breadth of judgment may be helped by catholicity of interest. Some men seem to do their best by devoting every energy to one problem, seeing nothing outside of it. Their mind is a short-focus lens with consequent penetration, but it can not see the garden for the weeds. It is perhaps more wholesome, however, and it certainly leads to a nicer mental balance, to respect all good endeavor and to try to understand at least the fundamentals of our sister subjects. This indicates the choice of a problem that is not circumscribed, but that leads into an ever-widening field. It further indicates that we should breed acquaintance with subjects quite apart from our own, to see the relations of our work to that of others. Expression of contempt for any source of knowledge is an acknowledgment of ignorance, and meagerness of ability is to be measured by narrowness. That investigator with a foreshortened horizon will find everything small.

We hear it said that in science all facts have an equal value, just as all links in a chain have equal importance. If this were so, then all problems of science should have an equal significance and it would make no difference what choice of problems were made. But the premise is wrong, because we generally recognize that some phenomena have very wide bearings while others do not, or at least do not in our present understanding of them. Thus the phenomenon of the size of an animal has not nearly so much significance as the phenomena of its rate of growth or alternation of generations. We measure the value of a phenomenon by the number of ideas we associate with it, that is, its relative degree of complexity. As in art a painting of a basket of fruit, no matter how excellent the technique, can not be compared in value with a study of a human face, so in science the discovery and description of a new muscle, no matter how accurately made, can not be paralleled with an investigation of the process of formation of that muscle. The human face and the process of differentiation call up ever-widening associations, while the basket of fruit and the muscle suggest a meal. To be sure, a master artist might make the basket of fruit appear celestial, and a great anatomist make the muscle seem extraordinary, but they would still suggest a meal, even though a meal for angels or heroes. Men will differ as to the relative importance of any thing, and we have no right to prefer our estimates to others. But it is generally acknowledged in science that the investigation of a process is of a higher order than the contemplation of one particular step, the number of comparisons possible being the criterion of value. Thus it is certain that all problems are not of equal value, because they have very different bearings. All need solution, they are of sufficient diversity to appeal to all types of mind, but a man should assure himself that his problem has really broad significance. And when the layman approaches us on the manner of our work we should not tell him, as is often done, that he can not understand it because he is not a scientist; for if we can not make it intelligent to him it is clear we have no good comprehension of its bearings, and the fault is with us and not with him. Every scientific research has some connection with human interests we should understand what the connection is; if we do not understand this we are to blame for any lack of sympathy. It is a duty of the investigator towards his subject to make it comprehensible to the layman, and when he does so his merits will be acknowledged, but not before.

Like every other process, so thought needs time, and by reflection is meant thought pursued at leisure. When a certain result has been won in our researches, and its bearings seem misty and uncertain, we gain nothing by filling the ink pot and knotting a cold towel around our heads in full determination to settle matters. Dogged does not always do it. Put the idea away in some corner of the mind to give it time to germinate, then bring it out at intervals for consideration. This mental chewing of the cud is wholesome because natural. When the way seems darkest and most beset with stumbling blocks we may be nearest the door, and it is best to go slowly in the dark. We attain our conclusions at unexpected moments and have generally to wait until they appear subconsciously, the time varying with the individual mind.

It is often an aid to reflection to drop for a while the subject that has begun to worry us, to take up a different and fresh problem. This alternation of subject is a necessary mental recreation and frequently accomplishes more than long hammering. For any change of thought is stimulating.

Yet the investigator need not be like Heine's "gray friend between two bundles of hay," slowly starving to death because he can not decide; it is better that he choose unwisely than not choose at all, else he can not maintain himself in the arena of thought. After all, if he eats one of the bales of hay and learns later that the other was larger and sweeter, he has not gone hungry.

It would seem to be on the average best for the general man to take rather a middle stand in his judgments, which means to see the good in both sides of any question. One should be neither too critical nor too tolerant. New ideas are constantly emerging, many of them contradictory to our own, and we have to cultivate a mode of meeting them, not to be bristling like the fretful porcupine, nor yet to embrace them eagerly because they are new. Also it is not safe to say an idea is wrong because it is new. We should react towards views as towards our fellow men, hunt for the best in them. Nothing is easier than to criticize, nothing less constructive. Life is too short for full achievement, unless Metchnikoff's prophecies may come true, and "Like as the waves move on the pebbling beach, so do our minutes hasten to their end." Then why misuse the moments in picking flaws? In the orchard before us we may readily find the insect-bitten fruit if we look for it, but what pays is to gather the good. Whether it be right or wrong from the philosophical aspect, the optimistic standpoint is the most wholesome, and that man is happy who sees only the good in others—in their personalities as well as in their opinions. We all shun him who has the squinting mind of noting only mistakes. Let us be fair to other men even though we can not be impartial, if only for the reason that it is the best policy, as Franklin would have said. For if we are not so, the retort courteous will be harder than the blow we struck, and then will be our time to wince.

We are least objective about ourselves and that is why we can never decide what is our own merit and achievement. For while the ambition to excel is both justifiable and desirable, the true mirror of success must be the eyes of others. Geniuses are really exceeding rare, yet every man is inclined at some period or other of his existence to think himself one, and a fool continues to think so. On the whole, we do not deserve more praise than we get, the world's estimate being reasonably fair; and in fact it is incorrect to talk of deserts since each man carves for himself his slice out of the cake of his own baking. Perhaps the happiest stand we can take is to lose consciousness of self, to think of results but not of our part in them, to come to comprehend that our subject and the sunlit world outside of us is much more engrossing than ourselves. From the philosophical side this attitude may be incorrect. But a new philosophy is gradually forging ahead, that men do not contain the whole universe in their minds, that phenomena are not wholly subjective, but that nature is one great unit of which we are only inconspicuous morsels. This is certainly the philosophy of biology. It places us in a truer perspective, and aids us to be more objective and therefore happier. Fortune is a fickle goddess who keeps beyond those who seek her, to touch those who made their work their grail. Thus what we accomplish, and how we have done it, is a matter to be decided by other men and usually by other men of a later generation. When we try to boost our own reputations they will surely receive a great fall. Therefore let us try to forget ourselves and not be troubled about our scientific levels. This will also save that waste of time and good paper given to polemics. When some one overlooks our writings or misrepresents them, we are apt to feel we should go him one better, which may force us into such extremes that we think we can not in honor back out. A published polemic is noisome, an airing of one's dirty linen, and springs from a condition of megalocephaly. Our work is with us, our repute with others. By being true to our work we may attain a dignity never to be reached by self pushing. Science is not a business market.

In any scientific inquiry he rightly receives the most credit who presents a definite and positive solution. Such was the case with Pasteur, in many ways the master mind of the nineteenth century; what he undertook he definitely settled. Most men attain to only conjectures, but we should seek indisputable decisions. And a good method is that of Darwin, to formulate a working hypothesis and then try honestly to disprove it. Darwin gave as full and fair hearing to the objections made against the theory of natural selection as to the evidence for it. We may approximate this by using every check and control. For we do not want the elusive possible or probable, rather the decisive actual.

But what especially lends dignity and strength is the maintenance of an ideal. German students in their expansive intimacies discuss their ideals quite openly, their "Lehensphilosophien" as they term them. We Anglo-Saxons are not inclined to talk of such matters. But a man should keep a noble aim in sight and never let it be hidden by the clouds of circumstance. That ideal must be something much grander than any detail we have immediately in hand, our several efforts only approximations towards it. We are, it seems to me, to consider the investigations of science as all directed to one end, though no man will see its consummation, the interpretation of that great melody, the universe. Here is a subject without end, all human knowledge may be employed in its elaboration. Men of the world do not understand why we are busying ourselves with fixing the exact date of the first rendering of a play, the number of times that a certain prefix occurs in the writings of Pindar, the exact length of a heat wave, or the behavior of a particular microscopic particle of one kind of organic cell. And in themselves these are not great things; an average man with patience and training might deal with them. They are on the whole so generally uninteresting that each has the world over only a small group of devotees. But when they are seen as steps in a synthesis of explanations their value is at once apparent. Our business is to weld all these separated bits of knowledge together, to make of them a great sustaining wall. And when the utilitarian inquires what will be gained by this giant effort, be ready with the prompt reply: on this knowledge depends our control of ourselves and of nature. Scientific inquiries are not to be pursued wholly academically, as games to amuse. They are attempts to explain the processes of nature, in order that we may use this knowledge for the advancement of our kind. And it is as true as the night follows the day, that explanation must precede application and consequently human progress.

This is the apology for the investigator. He has to do neither with the cataloguing and rearranging of facts, nor with their transmission, but with the enlargement of knowledge by discovery and intrepretation. Both stand for the development of character, but while the undergraduate work is for the transmission of knowledge, the graduate department is for a higher aim, its increase. If it is difficult to garner and hand over knowledge, it is still harder to add to it, and no faint heart need try to be an investigator.

Our project is to try to decipher the nature of man and of the universe, and for this there is full need of every iota of strength and determination and talent there may be in us.