Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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prussic acid, and so on as are most deadly to life.
This means that the chemical processes occurring in
the living body, through the presence of enzymes,
are largely of the same character as those that occur
with mineral substances in presence of finely divided
platinum and similar "catalysts." The poison acts
by destroying the peculiar activities of these catalysts,
and so stops the processes they bring about.

I do not wish to imply that bio-chemistry, as yet,
has been reduced to a special branch of ordinary
chemistry, but that all the principles that govern
chemical phenomena in inanimate matter are observed
in the processes peculiar to life.


The achievement of a certain limited, but still
very significant, control over the processes of
inanimate nature so as to make them proceed to
ends different from that which naturally they would
take, and, especially, in directions which are useful,
or which produce results otherwise only attainable
by the complex processes in the living organism,


enables us to construct, as it were, a model of the
living organism. It is a machine, or mechanical
microcosm, under continuous and varying control,
by means of an internally resident directing in-
telligence or personality. It may assist in making
the abstraction of the personality from the organism
more clear if we consider a somewhat parallel case.

For ages Niagara roared over its gorge in
accordance with the laws of nature, uncontrolled.
To-day, the laws of Nature are obeyed as perfectly
as before, but the flow of the water is under human
control to a considerable extent. The sun shines
and vaporises the waters of the ocean. The solar
energy is used in lifting the water to the skies to
descend subsequently as rain, which arrives in due
course at the Falls. Here the water suddenly drops
1 60 feet clear, acquiring a velocity of about 100 feet
a second before it mingles with the river in the
pool below the fall. At this moment it has
mechanical energy, and this is the moment that
must be seized if that energy is not to be dissipated
and lost for use. A moment later, otherwise, its
motion is replaced by commotion, the water eddies
and swirls in all directions at once, until its former
motion is evenly distributed among its molecules,
moving in every possible direction. At this stage
the energy has become heat energy, which is
due to the perfectly deco-ordinated motion of
the individual molecules. If the temperature
at the bottom of the fall were taken, it would
be found to be about one-ninth of a degree,
Centigrade, higher than at the top. Such is a
simple natural system, a colossal example of waste
and aesthetic indulgence which would have delighted
the heart of a Ruskin, but which humanity is scarcely
yet so wealthy as to be able to afford.

Now tunnels have been drilled in the rock,


through which a part of the water falls, no longer
to run riot in commotion at the bottom, but smoothly
to be checked and deprived of its energy in a turbine,
to which is geared a dynamo, from which, again,
the transformed energy flows out as electric power
capable of lightening the labours of men.

Niagara to-day is a mechanism as before, but
it has been linked to an external intelligence, capable
of guiding and varying its action at will. It is thus
one step nearer to being a living organism than
before, and it may serve as a rough and partial
model of that which I have conceived the living
organism to be.

There is no life body, mind or soul, so far as
this world is concerned no birth, growth or even
existence, without a continuous supply and expendi-
ture of energy. For good or evil, man has geared
his own mechanism with the unbounded machinery
of inanimate Nature, and so has made possible
the elimination of the ugliest features of his existence,
under wisdom, or their accentuation to a degree
hitherto unimagined, under folly. Not only fertilisers
but also high explosives, or some of raw materials
from which they are made, such as nitric acid,
are now largely produced by the power of hydro-
electric installations. A modern definition of the
valleys of Switzerland is "glacier at one end and
98 per cent, nitric acid at the other."

Man is thus able to project out of himself the
personality, that is in control of his own body, into
the mechanism of Nature, so that, without violating
any law or principle, a process that goes naturally
in a useless direction may be made to go in a
direction that is useful. In the control of his
own mechanism, similarly, it is the energy of the
external inanimate universe which is guided, not
coerced, and still less created. The guidance with-


drawn, the processes of life resume their uncontrolled
natural direction. In low organisms the guidance
seems to be largely automatic, a response to stimuli
which can be artificially imitated. Even in man,
the more important routine functions of life are
performed, asleep and awake, by a subconscious
regulation, or, as some hold, a subconscious per-
sonality. But in the higher animals there has
developed a consciousness or awareness of its
individual existence and of the existence of its
environment, which intelligently varies and directs
the acts of life at will. The mystery is in none of
the phenomena of life upon which, perhaps, the
most wonder and poetic fervour have been lavished,
and which are hardly more wonderful than those
that occur in inanimate materials under human
guidance. It is in the combination of the intelligent
guidance with what, for present purposes, has to
be considered a perfectly understandable machine.
Separately the two functions are readily compre-
hensible. Their combination in a single self-contained
organism is the real mystery of life.


It is quite outside my intention or capacity to
indulge in any specifically theological argument.
But perhaps I may be allowed, in passing, to point
out that the argument might be extended in favour
of theism. The self-contained organism is not
comprehensible, but the combination of an inanimate
mechanism and an external will is more intelligible.
But there is in man a conscience as well as a con-
sciousness, an ineradicable aspiration towards virtue,
which is certainly no less difficult to understand.
The combination of the machine and soul is as
much a riddle as the combination of machine and


mind. Theology has striven to separate the two,
has abstracted the soul as an independent existence,
and regarded it as a projection from and part of a
general soul of humanity, existing distinct from
and outside of individual men. For the mechanism
of Niagara we have the bodily mechanism, and for
the personality in control, instead of the humble
representative of applied science, the humble
individual soul, acting upon orders received from
and owing allegiance to an external deity of which
it forms a part.

H. G. Wells has defined the main difference
between an ordinary, modern, intelligent, well-
educated, benevolent and morally right-minded
atheist or agnostic and the genuine religious
enthusiast, as being in the former's view of his, as
I have indicated, very high-minded and unimpeach-
able personality as a separate isolated existence,
independent of all others, and the latter's view that
what is benevolent, high-minded and noble in his
personality is not a natural consequence of the life-
process, but part of a personal God, who responds
to and lives in the closest relationship with the
individual souls of men.

The engineers in the power-house of Niagara are
assuredly not isolated existences actuating their
machinery ou<t of their own self-sufficiency. They
take their instructions from a superior, and the
science and practice embodied in those orders are an
accumulation of all that is best in the labours of
many men, alive and dead. No single mind could
create that knowledge, even if one could be found
fully to comprehend it. If you talk to these men at
their work, you would find, no doubt, that they were
astonishingly self-contained, knowing little of and
caring less for the mere theoretical amateurs who,
with a few bits of sealing-wax and wire and some


crude home-made machines, created their livelihood.
In much the same way the religious philosopher
holds that the benevolent atheist attributes to him-
self and his own innate self-righteousness a very
great deal indeed. He prefers to believe himself the
humble subordinate of a superior being that combines,
in one personality, the best of all beings that ever

There is common ground in the position, that
even though a single mind might be able to compre-
hend all that has gone to the evolution and survival
of the essentially humane type of man, no single
personality could, if isolated, arrive at it by himself.
There is a continuity that endures in the creative
achievements of humanity, whether, as the theist
believes, in the form of a personal Deity, or whether
as a collective memory, engraved in type or ancient
saga, and from which, whether we read or not, we
can hardly escape. There seems very little between
these views worth argument, and among educated
modern peoples, were it not for the priests, religious
differences would scarcely trouble the world.


There is, of course, a danger, since knowledge in
these days is of necessity patchy, and first-class
minds are rarely content with the known, but are
the first to push off into the unknown, and so become
specialists, that the mystery of life becomes auto-
matically thrust out from those regions each has
independently explored for himself into those known
only at second-hand and by hearsay or from books.
Thus, as a physicist or chemist, I hold that there is
no mystery in the proper sense in the inanimate
universe, and I put the Rubicon between mechanism
and life. A biologist would probably have a very


great deal to say on this question, and conceivably
might totally disagree. But, apart from extreme
opinions on such a point, I think there is a growing
tendency to distinguish between the mechanism of
life and its conscious regulation. I think it would be
admitted that a completeness of knowledge, equal to
that in the processes of inanimate nature, with regard
to the former, and even the artificial generation of
life of a simple kind, would not necessarily add
anything to the solution of the real mystery.

Once the Rubicon between the most complex
non-living mechanism and the simplest living cell is
crossed, the doctrine of evolution seems to point
clearly to an unbroken road of development up to
the higher expressions of life. On this view, the
peculiar problems of religion and the human soul
are not the most fundamental or incapable of
enunciation. In man, it is true, we get hopelessly
beyond the range of physical science, but, in
comparison with the simplest living organism, it
is a difference between magnitudes alike infinite.
Mechanism there is as before, and subconscious
control for most complicated routine processes, but
the mind can hardly be equal to the task of explain-
ing itself to itself. The mechanical and even the
animal or vital aspects have been thrust into the
background by a developed personality, that con-
sistently acts and tries to act and therefore, in the
language of science, already explained, is a distinct
being, resident in the body as a man may live in a
house, and, if real, then by the canons of human
thought, immortal. Thought, reasoning power,
memory, free-will, the aesthetic perceptions of beauty
and harmony, the ethical ideas of virtue, justice, duty,
and self-sacrifice, and the spiritual aspirations of
holiness and triumph over death, divide him from
the simplest form of life. Science, assuredly, has a


long road to travel from the stars to the kingdom of
heaven. But there seems to be but the one chasm
that cannot be crossed, and which, though the gulf
ever narrows, still remains unbridged. As Tennyson
has it

" Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is."


The link in the chain that binds man and his
destiny with the external universe is as dangerous
to ignore as is the link forged by ethics and
philosophy that connects man with his fellow-men
and with the realm of spiritual things. Physical
science divorces power from will, two very important
functions that theology in the past has confused to
the unutterable discomfiture of mankind. The will
to perform, and, in the special sense that concerns
human beings, the goodwill to perform good, is in
its nature and origin alone an attribute of life. The
power to perform is derived in toto from the inanimate
world, however many elaborate metamorphoses it
may undergo, and through however many organisms,
vegetable and animal, it may pass before it reaches

The world that is dead vitally and spiritually is
not dead physically. The moon, it is commonly
supposed, is a dead world, though since the same
sun shines upon it as upon us it cannot be really
dead. It is in the present state of physics impossible
to conceive of a physically dead world, that is to say,
a world without any available source of energy. The
discovery of radioactivity has revealed an immense


store of energy in the atoms of matter, compared
with which all that hitherto has been known sinks
into insignificance. In certain elements those that
show the property of radioactivity this energy is
being slowly given up. This has made, in certain
departments of thought, a complete revulsion of
outlook. Instead, for example, of the world gradually
cooling by radiation it must be getting steadily hotter
in its interior owing to the energy evolved by the
radioactive elements it contains, unless there are
unknown factors at work to compensate for this.
A world without energy, in the present state of
knowledge, implies a world without matter and,
therefore, no world at all.

Hitherto it has been supposed that we were for
ever cut off from the major sources of natural energy,
which maintain throughout the ages the profligate
expenditure from the sun and stars. The coal and
oil from which the modern world derives its new
powers represent but a limited legacy from the
past, rather than a permanent increase in its income
of energy. But the discoveries in radioactivity have
shown that, in the smallest atoms of matter all
around us, there exists stores of energy a million
times greater than any so far harnessed. Limitless
physical power awaits humanity so soon as the
knowledge that shall lead to its control and applica-
tion has been obtained. How many unrecorded
ages elapsed before the energy of fuel was controlled,
and in how short a space of subsequent time has it
altered the whole mode of life of the world ! Given
a clear course and that most rare of national qualities,
common sense, physical science can abolish the
struggle for existence so far as concerns food and

But so far the pearls of science have been cast
before swine, who have given us in return million-


aires and slums, armaments and the desolation of
war. But let us turn to the other side of the picture.
The use, rather than the abuse, of this control of the
unlimited resources of Nature brings within the
range of practicability the abolition of poverty,
destitution and economic slavery of the many, in
contrast to the few. Weighty enough influences
still prevent any approach to the realisation of
Utopia, but and this should be written on every
Church throughout the length and breadth of the
land they are not now physical but moral. The
Churches, which should have been the first to
welcome the possibility of making such a forward
step, have still to be won over to the side of the
humane man. They have hitherto in this country
proved themselves the most bigoted and powerful
opponents of the science, which alone has been able
to bring within the realm of practical politics for the
masses the Christian principles to which they have
rendered such devoted service as academic aspira-
tions and ideals.

One of Huxley's truest and most profound re-
marks is contained in the Rectorial Address he
delivered to the] students of this university. "Men
are beginning, once more, to awake to the fact that
matters of belief and speculation are of absolutely
infinite practical importance."

It is of the greatest practical sociological import-
ance to ask ourselves whether or not we believe in
God. If so, in what sort of a God absolute,
exercising complete dominion over the soul and
spirit of man, his mind, intellect and aspiration
towards the beautiful, his body, over animals,
vegetables, the inanimate universe of space and time,
matter, energy, the ether and electricity ? A religion
that on the most important questions of everyday
life has nothing to say, either definite or constructive,


is a greater danger to the vitality of a nation than
downright scepticism and unbelief.


Human nature changes very slowly and only by
painful experience. The influences that were most
progressive and elevating in the one age, have to be
fought and beaten out of the path of progress in the
next. The idea that physical power is one of the
attributes of deity, and the conception of an all-
powerful being directing the universe and the physical
affairs of men, has left behind it a legacy of nothing
but calamity. According to the scientific definition
of truth, which earlier I precisely formulated, there
is no such being. The external universe behaves as
a machine working automatically according to the
laws and principles contained in its own mechanism,
and, so far as exact knowledge extends, it does not
exhibit a vestige of that arbitrary and purposeful
variation that would imply a personality in control.
Science, through the personality of men, has in part
assumed its control, and never yet has it been inter-
fered with or resisted. We hear from well-meaning,
but rather unpractical, people that the evils the
world suffers from are due to its neglect of God, but
surely the worst of them are directly traceable to the
enthronement of God in the wrong place. Science
has banished the conception of deity for ever from
the working of the inanimate world, which behaves
in all respects as, and therefore is a simple machine
left to go. The task of controlling it is man's, not
God's. If through ignorance and incompetence he
fails, no personality, vindictive or benevolent, will
interfere. The machine will go on in the same way
as before, and as, according to geology, it has been
going on in a regular uniform manner for aeons
before man arrived on the scene.

2 A


I do not expect to escape or shirk the question,
"Who, then, created all this wonderful and intricate
machinery ? " Science answers that matter and energy
cannot be created or destroyed. The universe is
eternal. The very idea of creation and destruction
is drawn not from the inanimate universe, but from
the phenomenon of life. These ideas cannot be
considered apart from life, whereas the inanimate
universe can. Just as the man of science is unable
to push his mechanical conceptions to explain life
and the Deity, so the theist must not push his con-
ception of the Deity and life into the inanimate
universe. The Rubicon that cannot be crossed in
the one direction obviously must not be crossed in
the other.

It is not sufficient privately to make mental
reservations about a creed, and publicly to avow it.
For these ancient creeds are working an infinitude
of harm in the world, and nowhere more than to the
cause of religion.

The conceptions of the Deity as the creator of the
heavens and earth, the controller of the inanimate
universe and the worker of physical miracles, have,
with the growth of science, merely a historical con-
nection with the conceptions which to-day would be
regarded as specifically Christian and are definitely
alien to them. If to science were rendered the things
that belong to science, what is left would gain rather
than lose in significance.


THE Science Students of the University of Aberdeen
are to be congratulated on their initiative and enter-
prise in starting a magazine to be devoted to their
interests. It is badly needed. May it prosper and
become a factor making for progress.

Old wine into old bottles and the new wine into
new ! The danger of bursting the old bottles by new
wine is, in an ancient university, not a very imminent
one, but that of wasting the new wine is. Assuredly
students of classical subjects in ancient universities
and students of new subjects in modern universities
have much to be thankful for ; but it is not, so I am
told, unalloyed bliss to be a classical student in a new
university, nor a purely honorary privilege to be a
science student in an old one. From a residential
experience of six universities, three old and three
new, I should judge Aberdeen to be the oldest, from
the price paid by the science student.

It changes, I am told, rapidly, but its attitude
towards science does not change. Huxley's rectorial
address to the students of this university in 1874
before I was born will, I firmly believe, never be out
of date. I read it regularly to keep up with the
times. True we have a Faculty of Science now, a
little different from the one Huxley welcomed in
anticipation. The Commissioners in 1893 said, " Let
there be a Faculty of Science " and the Faculty of

1 Written for the first number of The Crucible, May 1919.


Science was, not to say had been for many years, for
the two youngest component Chairs in it were
already thirty-three years old, and the next was just
celebrating its tercentenary. What a gift is the
creative type of mind of the lawgiver. Huxley's poor
imagination could only suppose that " the establish-
ment of a Faculty of Science in every university
implies that of a corresponding number of Professorial
Chairs, the incumbents of which need not be so
burdened with teaching as to deprive them of ample
leisure for original work." There is, however, now
one Chair in the Faculty of Science which was not in
existence half a century ago, but I have still to hear
that its occupant is actually bored with his ample

Another perennial favourite of mine is the address
by another of Aberdeen's Lord Rectors, delivered in
Edinburgh in 1906.* I was in Scotland then, and
remember the hopes it gave rise to.

I can imagine the science students here, whose
prospective grandparents are now attending our
classes, turning to this address, as it is to be found
in Nature, 25th October 1906, for something really
fresh and up-to-date.

But Carnegie, alas ! was, like Huxley, no lawyer.
The magician's wand which could create Faculties of
Science ready-made waved again. Cinderella and
her elder sisters became hopelessly mixed. Whereas
before we had arts, lo! now they were all sciences.
Everything that ever has been, is or will be studied
can at least be studied scientifically. An even more
justifiable use of that blessed word will occur
naturally to many of my readers, at least among
the sporting .fraternity. There is a science of the
ring, of billiards, football, and so on. The Union
Committee should certainly try to get a grant for

1 Quoted on p. 224 (Appendix).


a billiard table. We have the authority of the
President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Thomson,
as to its scientific uses. He tells how he once lured
a sporting member of his class quite a long way into
the kinetic theory of gases and the primrose paths of
mathematical physics by tactful references to and
illustrations from that very science.

Joking apart, however, the price paid for putting
new wine into old bottles has become ruinous.
Before the war had branded into the consciousness of
the people what the lack of science brought in its

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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 13 of 18)