Produced by An Anonymous Volunteer
REFLECTIONS ON THE DECLINE OF SCIENCE IN ENGLAND,
AND ON SOME OF ITS CAUSES.
By Charles Babbage
HAD I INTENDED TO DEDICATE THIS VOLUME, I SHOULD HAVE INSCRIBED IT TO
A NOBLEMAN WHOSE EXERTIONS IN PROMOTING EVERY OBJECT THAT CAN ADVANCE
SCIENCE REFLECT LUSTRE UPON HIS RANK. BUT THE KINDNESS OF HIS NATURE
MIGHT HAVE BEEN PAINED AT HAVING HIS NAME CONNECTED WITH STRICTURES,
PERHAPS TOO SEVERELY JUST. I SHALL, THEREFORE, ABSTAIN FROM MENTIONING
THE NAME OF ONE WHO WILL FEEL THAT HE HAS COMMANDED MY ESTEEM AND
DORSET STREET, MANCHESTER SQUARE, 29th April, 1830.
Of the causes which have induced me to print this volume I have little
to say; my own opinion is, that it will ultimately do some service
to science, and without that belief I would not have undertaken so
thankless a task. That it is too true not to make enemies, is an opinion
in which I concur with several of my friends, although I should hope
that what I have written will not give just reason for the permanence of
such feelings. On one point I shall speak decidedly, it is not connected
in any degree with the calculating machine on which I have been engaged;
the causes which have led to it have been long operating, and would have
produced this result whether I had ever speculated on that subject, and
whatever might have been the fate of my speculations.
If any one shall endeavour to account for the opinions stated in these
pages by ascribing them to any imagined circumstance peculiar to myself,
I think he will be mistaken. That science has long been neglected and
declining in England, is not an opinion originating with me, but is
shared by many, and has been expressed by higher authority than mine. I
shall offer a few notices on this subject, which, from their scattered
position, are unlikely to have met the reader's attention, and which,
when combined with the facts I have detailed in subsequent pages, will
be admitted to deserve considerable attention. The following extract
from the article Chemistry, in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, is from
the pen of a gentleman equally qualified by his extensive reading, and
from his acquaintance with foreign nations, to form an opinion entitled
to respect. Differing from him widely as to the cause, I may be
permitted to cite him as high authority for the fact.
"In concluding this most circumscribed outline of the History of
Chemistry, we may perhaps be allowed to express a faint shade of regret,
which, nevertheless, has frequently passed over our minds within the
space of the last five or six years. Admiring, as we most sincerely do,
the electro-magnetic discoveries of Professor Oersted and his followers,
we still, as chemists, fear that our science has suffered some degree
of neglect in consequence of them. At least, we remark that, during this
period, good chemical analyses and researches have been rare in England;
and yet, it must be confessed, there is an ample field for chemical
discovery. How scanty is our knowledge of the suspected fluorine! Are
we sure that we understand the nature of nitrogen? And yet these are
amongst our elements. Much has been done by Wollaston, Berzelius,
Guy-Lussac, Thenard, Thomson, Prout, and others, with regard to the
doctrine of definite proportions; but there yet remains the Atomic
Theory. Is it a representation of the laws of nature, or is it
not?" - -CHEMISTRY, ENCYC. METROP. p.596.
When the present volume was considerably advanced, the public were
informed that the late Sir Humphry Davy had commenced a work, having the
same title as the present, and that his sentiments were expressed in the
language of feeling and of eloquence. It is to be hoped that it may be
allowed by his friends to convey his opinions to posterity, and that the
writings of the philosopher may enable his contemporaries to forget some
of the deeds of the President of the Royal Society.
Whatever may be the fate of that highly interesting document, we may
infer his opinions upon this subject from a sentiment expressed in his
last work: -
" - But we may in vain search the aristocracy now for
philosophers." - - "There are very few persons who pursue science with
true dignity; it is followed more as connected with objects of profit
than those of fame." - SIR H. DAVY'S CONSOLATIONS IN TRAVEL.
The last authority which I shall adduce is more valuable, from the
varied acquirements of its author, and from the greater detail into
which he enters. "We have drawn largely, both in the present Essay, and
in our article on LIGHT, from the ANNALES DE CHEMIE, and we take this
ONLY opportunity distinctly to acknowledge our obligations to that most
admirably conducted work. Unlike the crude and undigested scientific
matter which suffices, (we are ashamed to say it) for the monthly and
quarterly amusement of our own countrymen, whatever is admitted into ITS
pages, has at least been taken pains with, and, with few exceptions, has
sterling merit. Indeed, among the original communications which
abound in it, there are few which would misbecome the first academical
collections; and if any thing could diminish our regret at the long
suppression of those noble memoirs, which are destined to adorn future
volumes of that of the Institute, it would be the masterly abstracts
of them which from time to time appear in the ANNALES, either from the
hands of the authors, or from the reports rendered by the committees
appointed to examine them; which latter, indeed, are universally models
of their kind, and have contributed, perhaps more than any thing, to the
high scientific tone of the French SAVANS. What author, indeed, but
will write his best, when he knows that his work, if it have merit, will
immediately be reported on by a committee, who will enter into all its
meaning; understand it, however profound: and, not content with MERELY
understanding it, pursue the trains of thought to which it leads; place
its discoveries and principles in new and unexpected lights; and bring
the whole of their knowledge of collateral subjects to bear upon it. Nor
ought we to omit our acknowledgement to the very valuable Journals of
Poggendorff and Schweigger. Less exclusively national than their Gallic
compeer, they present a picture of the actual progress of physical
science throughout Europe. Indeed, we have been often astonished to
see with what celerity every thing, even moderately valuable in the
scientific publications of this country, finds its way into their pages.
This ought to encourage our men of science. They have a larger audience,
and a wider sympathy than they are perhaps aware of; and however
disheartening the general diffusion of smatterings of a number of
subjects, and the almost equally general indifference to profound
knowledge in any, among their own countrymen, may be, they may rest
assured that not a fact they may discover, nor a good experiment they
may make, but is instantly repeated, verified, and commented upon, in
Germany, and, we may add too, in Italy. We wish the obligation were
mutual. Here, whole branches of continental discovery are unstudied,
and indeed almost unknown, even by name. It is in vain to conceal the
melancholy truth. We are fast dropping behind. In mathematics we have
long since drawn the rein, and given over a hopeless race. In
chemistry the case is not much letter. Who can tell us any thing of the
Sulfo-salts? Who will explain to us the laws of Isomorphism? Nay, who
among us has even verified Thenard's experiments on the oxygenated
acids, - Oersted's and Berzelius's on the radicals of the
earths, - Balard's and Serrulas's on the combinations of Brome, - and a
hundred other splendid trains of research in that fascinating science?
Nor need we stop here. There are, indeed, few sciences which would not
furnish matter for similar remark. The causes are at once obvious and
deep-seated; but this is not the place to discuss them." - MR. HERSCHEL'S
TREATISE ON SOUND, printed in the ENCYCLOPAEDIA METROPOLITANA.
With such authorities, I need not apprehend much doubt as to the fact of
the decline of science in England: how far I may have pointed out some
of its causes, must be left to others to decide.
Many attacks have lately been made on the conduct of various scientific
bodies, and of their officers, and severe criticism has been lavished
upon some of their productions. Newspapers, Magazines, Reviews, and
Pamphlets, have all been put in requisition for the purpose. Odium has
been cast upon some of these for being anonymous. If a fact is to be
established by testimony, anonymous assertion is of no value; if it
can be proved, by evidence to which the public have access, it is of
no consequence (for the cause of truth) who produces it. A matter of
opinion derives weight from the name which is attached to it; but a
chain of reasoning is equally conclusive, whoever may be its author.
Perhaps it would be better for science, that all criticism should be
avowed. It would certainly have the effect of rendering it more matured,
and less severe; but, on the other hand, it would have the evil of
frequently repressing it altogether, because there exists amongst the
lower ranks of science, a "GENUS IRRITABILE," who are disposed to argue
that every criticism is personal. It is clearly the interest of all who
fear inquiries, to push this principle as far as possible, whilst those
whose sole object is truth, can have no apprehensions from the severest
scrutiny. There are few circumstances which so strongly distinguish the
philosopher, as the calmness with which he can reply to criticisms he
may think undeservedly severe. I have been led into these reflections,
from the circumstance of its having been stated publicly, that I was
the author of several of those anonymous writings, which were considered
amongst the most severe; and the assertion was the more likely to be
credited, from the fact of my having spoken a few words connected with
one of those subjects at the last anniversary of the Royal Society.
[I merely observed that the agreement made with the British Museum for
exchanging the Arundel MSS. for their duplicates, (which had just been
stated by the President,) was UNWISE; - because it was not to be expected
that many duplicates should be found in a library like that of the
Museum, weak in the physical and mathematical sciences: that it was
IMPROVIDENT and UNBUSINESSLIKE; - because it neither fixed the TIME
when the difference was to be paid, in case their duplicates should be
insufficient; nor did it appear that there were any FUNDS out of
which the money could be procured: and I added, that it would be more
advantageous to sell the MSS., and purchase the books we wanted with the
produce.] I had hoped in that diminutive world, the world of science, my
character had been sufficiently known to have escaped being the subject
of such a mistake; and, in taking this opportunity of correcting it, I
will add that, in the present volume, I have thought it more candid to
mention distinctly those whose line of conduct I have disapproved, or
whose works I have criticised, than to leave to the reader inferences
which he might make far more extensive than I have intended. I hope,
therefore, that where I have depicted species, no person will be so
unkind to others and unjust to me, as to suppose I have described
With respect to the cry against personality, which has been lately set
up to prevent all inquiry into matters of scientific misgovernment, a
few words will suffice.
I feel as strongly as any one, not merely the impropriety, but the
injustice of introducing private character into such discussions. There
is, however, a maxim too well established to need any comment of mine.
The public character of every public servant is legitimate subject
of discussion, and his fitness or unfitness for office may be fairly
canvassed by any person. Those whose too sensitive feelings shrink from
such an ordeal, have no right to accept the emoluments of office, for
they know that it is the condition to which all must submit who are paid
from the public purse.
The same principle is equally applicable to Companies, to Societies, and
to Academies. Those from whose pocket the salary is drawn, and by whose
appointment the officer was made, have always a right to discuss the
merits of their officers, and their modes of exercising the duties they
are paid to perform.
This principle is equally applicable to the conduct of a Secretary of
State, or to that of a constable; to that of a Secretary of the Royal
Society, or of an adviser to the Admiralty.
With respect to honorary officers, the case is in some measure
different. But the President of a society, although not recompensed by
any pecuniary remuneration, enjoys a station, when the body over which
he presides possesses a high character, to which many will aspire, who
will esteem themselves amply repaid for the time they devote to the
office, by the consequence attached to it in public estimation. He,
therefore, is answerable to the Society for his conduct in their chair.
There are several societies in which the secretaries, and other
officers, have very laborious duties, and where they are unaided by a
train of clerks, and yet no pecuniary remuneration is given to them.
Science is much indebted to such men, by whose quiet and unostentatious
labours the routine of its institutions is carried on. It would be
unwise, as well as ungrateful, to judge severely of the inadvertencies,
or even of the negligence of such persons: nothing but weighty causes
should justify such a course.
Whilst, however, I contend for the principle of discussion and inquiry
in its widest sense, because I consider it equally the safeguard of our
scientific as of our political institutions, I shall use it, I hope,
temperately; and having no personal feelings myself, but living in terms
of intercourse with almost all, and of intimacy with several of those
from whom I most widely differ, I shall not attempt to heap together
all the causes of complaint; but, by selecting a few in different
departments, endeavour to convince them that some alteration is
essentially necessary for the promotion of that very object which we
both by such different roads pursue.
I have found it necessary, in the course of this volume, to speak of the
departed; for the misgovernment of the Royal Society has not been
wholly the result of even the present race. It is said, and I think with
justice, in the life of Young, inserted amongst Dr. Johnson's, that the
famous maxim, "DE MORTUIS NIL NISI BONUM," "appears to savour more of
female weakness than of manly reason." The foibles and the follies of
those who are gone, may, without injury to society, repose in oblivion.
But, whoever would claim the admiration of mankind for their good
actions, must prove his impartiality by fearlessly condemning their evil
deeds. Adopt the maxim, and praise to the dead becomes worthless, from
its universality; and history, a greater fable than it has been hitherto
Perhaps I ought to apologize for the large space I have devoted to the
Royal Society. Certainly its present state gives it no claim to that
attention; and I do it partly from respect for its former services,
and partly from the hope that, if such an Institution can be of use to
science in the present day, the attention of its members may be excited
to take steps for its restoration. Perhaps I may be blamed for having
published extracts from the minutes of its proceedings without the
permission of its Council. To have asked permission of the present
Council would have been useless. I might, however, have given the
substance of what I have extracted without the words, and no one could
then have reproached me with any infringement of our rules: but
there were two objections to that course. In the first place, it is
impossible, even for the most candid, in all cases, to convey precisely
the same sentiment in different language; and I thought it therefore
more fair towards those from whom I differed, as well as to the public,
to give the precise words. Again: had it been possible to make so
accurate a paraphrase, I should yet have preferred the risk of incurring
the reproach of the Royal Society for the offence, to escaping their
censure by an evasion. What I have done rests on my own head; and I
shrink not from the responsibility attaching to it.
If those, whose mismanagement of that Society I condemn, should accuse
me of hostility to the Royal Society; my answer is, that the party which
governs it is not the Royal Society; and that I will only admit the
justice of the accusation, when the whole body, becoming acquainted
with the system I have exposed, shall, by ratifying it with their
approbation, appropriate it to themselves: an event of which I need
scarcely add I have not the slightest anticipation.
CHAP. I. On the Reciprocal Influence of Science and Education.
CHAP. II. Of the Inducements to Individuals to cultivate Science.
- Sect. 1. Professional Impulses.
- - - 2. Of National Encouragement.
- - - 3. Of Encouragement from learned Societies.
CHAP. III. General State of learned Societies in England.
CHAP. IV. State of the Royal Society in particular.
- Sect. 1. Mode of becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society.
- - - 2. Of the Presidency and Vice-Presidencies.
- - - 3. Of the Secretariships
- - - 4. Of the Scientific Advisers.
- - - 5. Of the Union of several Offices in one person.
- - - 6. Of the Funds of the Society.
- - - 7. Of the Royal Medals.
- - - 8. Of the Copley Medals.
- - - 9. Of the Fairchild Lecture.
- - - 10. Of the Croonian Lecture.
- - - 11. Of the Causes of the Present State of the Royal Society.
- - - 12. Of the Plan for Reforming the Society.
CHAP. V. Of Observations.
- Sect. 1. Of Minute Precision.
- - - 2. On the Art of Observing.
- - - 3. On the Frauds of Observers.
CHAP. VI. Suggestions for the Advancement of Science in England.
- Sect. 1. Of the Necessity that Members of the Royal Society
- - - - - should express their Opinions.
- - - 2. Of Biennial Presidents.
- - - 3. Of the Influence of the Colleges of Physicians and
- - - - - Surgeons in the Royal Society.
- - - 4. Of the Influence of the Royal Institution on the Royal
- - - - - Society.
- - - 5. Of the Transactions of the Royal Society.
- - - 6. Order of Merit.
- - - 7. Of the Union of Scientific Societies.
APPENDIX NO. 1.
- - - - NO. 2.
- - - - NO. 3.
REFLECTIONS ON THE DECLINE OF SCIENCE IN ENGLAND, AND ON SOME OF ITS
It cannot have escaped the attention of those, whose acquirements enable
them to judge, and who have had opportunities of examining the state of
science in other countries, that in England, particularly with respect
to the more difficult and abstract sciences, we are much below other
nations, not merely of equal rank, but below several even of inferior
power. That a country, eminently distinguished for its mechanical
and manufacturing ingenuity, should be indifferent to the progress of
inquiries which form the highest departments of that knowledge on whose
more elementary truths its wealth and rank depend, is a fact which is
well deserving the attention of those who shall inquire into the causes
that influence the progress of nations.
To trace the gradual decline of mathematical, and with it of the highest
departments of physical science, from the days of Newton to the present,
must be left to the historian. It is not within the province of one who,
having mixed sufficiently with scientific society in England to see
and regret the weakness of some of its greatest ornaments, and to see
through and deplore the conduct of its pretended friends, offers these
remarks, with the hope that they may excite discussion, - with the
conviction that discussion is the firmest ally of truth, - and with the
confidence that nothing but the full expression of public opinion can
remove the evils that chill the enthusiasm, and cramp the energies of
the science of England.
The causes which have produced, and some of the effects which have
resulted from, the present state of science in England, are so mixed,
that it is difficult to distinguish accurately between them. I shall,
therefore, in this volume, not attempt any minute discrimination,
but rather present the result of my reflections on the concomitant
circumstances which have attended the decay, and at the conclusion of
it, shall examine some of the suggestions which have been offered for
the advancement of British science.
CHAPTER I. ON THE RECIPROCAL INFLUENCE OF SCIENCE AND EDUCATION.
That the state of knowledge in any country will exert a directive
influence on the general system of instruction adopted in it, is a
principle too obvious to require investigation. And it is equally
certain that the tastes and pursuits of our manhood will bear on them
the traces of the earlier impressions of our education. It is therefore
not unreasonable to suppose that some portion of the neglect of science
in England, may be attributed to the system of education we pursue. A
young man passes from our public schools to the universities, ignorant
almost of the elements of every branch of useful knowledge; and at these
latter establishments, formed originally for instructing those who
are intended for the clerical profession, classical and mathematical
pursuits are nearly the sole objects proposed to the student's ambition.
Much has been done at one of our universities during the last fifteen
years, to improve the system of study; and I am confident that there
is no one connected with that body, who will not do me the justice to
believe that, whatever suggestions I may venture to offer, are prompted
by the warmest feelings for the honour and the increasing prosperity of
its institutions. The ties which connect me with Cambridge are indeed of
no ordinary kind.
Taking it then for granted that our system of academical education ought
to be adapted to nearly the whole of the aristocracy of the country, I
am inclined to believe that whilst the modifications I should propose
would not be great innovations on the spirit of our institutions, they
would contribute materially to that important object.
It will be readily admitted, that a degree conferred by an university,
ought to be a pledge to the public that he who holds it possesses a
certain quantity of knowledge. The progress of society has rendered
knowledge far more various in its kinds than it used to be; and to meet
this variety in the tastes and inclinations of those who come to us for
instruction, we have, besides the regular lectures to which all must
attend, other sources of information from whence the students may
acquire sound and varied knowledge in the numerous lectures on
chemistry, geology, botany, history, &c. It is at present a matter of
option with the student, which, and how many of these courses he shall
attend, and such it should still remain. All that it would be necessary
to add would be, that previously to taking his degree, each person
should be examined by those Professors, whose lectures he had attended.
The pupils should then be arranged in two classes, according to their
merits, and the names included in these classes should be printed. I
would then propose that no young man, except his name was found amongst
the "List of Honours," should be allowed to take his degree, unless he
had been placed in the first class of some one at least of the courses
given by the professors. But it should still be imperative upon the
student to possess such mathematical knowledge as we usually require. If
he had attained the first rank in several of these examinations, it
is obvious that we should run no hazard in a little relaxing: the
strictness of his mathematical trial.
If it should be thought preferable, the sciences might be grouped, and
the following subjects be taken together: -
Laws of England.
Applications of Science to Arts and Manufactures.
Zoology, including Physiology and Comparative Anatomy.
Botany, including Vegetable Physiology and Anatomy.
One of the great advantages of such a system would be, that no young
person would have an excuse for not studying, by stating, as is most