Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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train, in the eternal antagonism of authority to
new knowledge, verbal subtleties like the above
were a perfect god-send. When, however, we were
at grips with a scientific enemy, whose science was
of the Huxley type rather than that of the 1881
Commissioners, and with the character of which
Carnegie was more familiar than his trustees,
verbal subtleties did not save the situation, and
youth paid the bill. If science is not to get ordinary
decent fair-play in ancient educational establish-
ments, it is the youth of the country who will pay
again. It is not good to be young in a country
that is governed by worm-eaten prejudices and
absurd conjuring-tricks with words.

The teaching of a single main science subject,
such as chemistry, which demands full lecture and
practical courses almost without number for students
drawn from the three Faculties of Arts, Medicine
and Science, to-day involves probably more actual
work than the teaching given in the whole Faculty of
Arts a century ago. Of course it could not be
done at all, but for the loyal and devoted staff of
lecturers, assistants and demonstrators.

Throughout Scotland since, with the B.Sc.,
serious training in science began, which, though
the numbers formerly attending were relatively


small, more than doubled the amount of tuition
to be undertaken, it is to the juniors very largely
indeed that science students owe the, in many cases,
really excellent courses, especially in practical work,
that have been provided. In my own subject, from
a knowledge of two Scottish Universities, I can
say that when I was a student there was nothing-
then to approach it in thoroughness, and it can be
compared without hesitation to what is done, so
far as systematic training is concerned, anywhere.
The juniors have seen the needs and tried to meet
them, until sometimes their whole time and energy
has been absorbed in carrying on in a single depart-
ment the work that in former days would have
been spread among a whole faculty of professors.
Whether you take as the criterion duties and
responsibilities, or the national indispensableness
of the training, or the contribution of the subject
to the highest realms of philosophy and inspiration,
a subject such as chemistry, in any university
attempting to keep abreast of its work, should be
represented not miserably by one professorship,
but adequately by three or four. Research, worth
the name, is a practical impossibility, and it is idle
to pretend that a teacher can teach others to
research, if he is not carrying on research himself,
or indeed can teach first-class students at all for
long very much better than they themselves could
learn from books.

Of the income of the million pounds given by
Carnegie to the Scottish Universities, with the
primary object of promoting scientific study and
research, up to 1915, 14 per cent, has been spent
on research of all kinds, including historical, lin-
guistic, and economic subjects. Twice as much has
been saved, and the loss on the money saved,
occasioned by the depreciation of British investments


owing to the war, would have maintained several
first-class Research Professorships since the Trust
was founded. I may seem to exaggerate the import-
ance of research in the scientific departments of the
Scottish Universities, but the science students can
be assured of this, that unless active and famous
centres of original investigation spring up in Scotland,
and make themselves known all over the scientific
world, the whole body of students turned out will
suffer grievously in competition with those trained
from institutions where such centres exist.

There has lately been much valuable discussion
in the Scientific Society and elsewhere of the needs
of science students and their perplexities, animated
by the commendable desire that the University
should afford a serious life-training rather than a
collection of academic distinctions and degrees. The
state of war has hitherto prevented anything being
actually accomplished in the way of bringing the
training afforded in science into line with modern
requirements, but now that the war is over these
matters have a paramount claim for settlement, and
it is to be hoped that the new magazine will serve as
the focus through which the wants and difficulties of
the science students may be brought into general
notice and prominence.

As regards the grave and pressing question of the
reform of the Science curriculum, I have heard but
two kinds of objections. There is first the objection
of vested interests, which I will not deal with here
because I want to make myself as pleasant as I can,
and no discussions are so unpleasant as those which
turn on such points. And there is, secondly, the
much more respectable objection, which takes the
general form of the reproach that, in thus limiting
the curriculum, we are seeking to narrow it. We are
told that the scientific man ought to be a person of


good general education and general information, if
his profession is to hold its own among other
professions. . . . Did I not say that you had to read
Huxley's address of 1874 if you wish to be abreast
of the times ?

It is a somewhat portentous moment, perhaps, to
launch a new venture. True, it is peace, and we are
soon to have bonfires, but there is peace, as sudden
and strange, in the centre of the hurrying typhoon,
which but heralds its renewal from another quarter.
It was at some such moment that H.M.S. Caliope
put to sea from the harbour of Samoa, upon which
every other vessel there, riding powerlessly at anchor,
was about to be piled, and pitting the science of
which she was the embodiment against the forces
against her, came through with her flag flying the
right way up. Science seeks no treacherous anchor-
age in the wreck-strewn harbours of make-believe,
but a clear course with unthrottled power to drive
on. Let us wish then for the new launch a voyage
as adventurous and triumphant, and power in its
engine-room to tow out a whole regatta !



I HAVE chosen, for my farewell address to the
Scientific Association, the ideals of a science school,
because there is no subject in which greater mis-
conceptions exist at the present time. The deluded
victims of our curiously archaic system of classical
education point to the manifold evils of the world
which they have misgoverned and the terrible conse-
quences of science under their misdirection as the
proof of the superiority of the ancient culture and
ideals. I wish to show that the ideals of science, no
less than its achievements, compare favourably with
their own, and that they must ultimately prevail and
permeate the whole university with their spirit,
because, like the age in which they have originated,
they are creative, insatiable and prospective, whereas
the ideals we owe to the age of the revival of learning
and the rediscovery of the civilisation of ancient and
extinct races are essentially imitative, self-sufficing
and retrospective. I would not waste your or my
own time with a theme so trite, and which only in
academical circles is still actively and bitterly opposed,
if I did not believe the time of change is at hand.
The old regime in our universities and schools is so
discredited that now it is merely carrying on in the
interregnum between war and peace. Science for
more than a hundred years has had every vested

1 Farewell Address to the Scientific Association, Aberdeen
University, 2otK June 1919.

181 2 13


interest in the established order of things in league
against it, happily, as we now may feel assured, quite
in vain. Haphazard as we are as a nation, mere
mental inertia and conservatism does not explain the
unfortunate position in which we find ourselves
to-day as regards the neglect of science in our
universities and educational institutions. Without
the powerful and active opposition of the representa-
tives of the established and organised religions,
clinging to old creeds which have ceased to be
credible, the classical element alone would have been
powerless. Men of common sense may be trusted
not to commit the cause, say, of temperance to
brewers, or to hand over key industries to the control
of foreign rivals and competitors. So in the new
regime, which may not be better but at least can
hardly be worse, I trust there may be sufficient men
of ordinary common sense not to entrust the direction
of science in our universities to the unholy alliance of
the pagan classics and the Christian Church which
hitherto has been dominant therein.

It is only because of the lessons we, as a nation,
have learned in the war that I have thought it worth
while raising again such questions while I have been
in Aberdeen. I am well aware that for more than
fifty years scientific men in this country have given
their testimony in vain, regarding the evil conse-
quences of the survival of the classical system of
education and the ignorance and misunderstanding
of science. The sphere of knowledge in which, by
common consent, this age is the greatest that the
world has ever seen remains still outside the under-
standing of those in whose hands our national and
educational destinies have been committed. Its
rightful place has been taken by the studies of the
languages, history and customs of two, or, if we
include the ancient Hebrews, three nations, which,


great as they were in their day, have now given place
to greater. It is only fair to say that some of the
most severe critics of the social effects of classical
education have been drawn from the ranks of scholars
and men of letters. I can recommend to your
perusal the Essays on a Liberal Education, edited
by the Rev. F. W. Farrar, and published by
Macmillan and Co. in 1867. Lord Houghton, the
father of a recent Minister of Education, the Marquis
of Crewe, in the concluding essay is the author of one
of the most notable of these indictments, to which it
would be possible to add little even to-day. Dis-
cussing the product of this education he says, for
example: "To the social phenomenon of all this
elaborate study, which cannot be applied to any
practical purpose, must be added this other peculiarity
of the system, that, when once the ordinary British
youth has bidden farewell to school and college, any
attempt to prosecute, or even keep up, his classical
attainments and interests, would make him an object
of curiosity, if not of censure and alarm, to all who
might be solicitous for his future welfare." He
touches on the snobbery of the assumed universality
of classical culture on the one hand and the artificial
barrier which "makes it seem something incongruous
and offensive in any man's assuming to know or care
about classic objects or classic letters without having
been taught to construe Greek and Latin," though
no one needs to have a first-hand acquaintance with
Italian to enjoy Dante, or with Oriental languages
to appreciate the Arabian Nights or Sanskrit
philosophy. And he remarks :

"There are too many flagrant examples in the
history of the human mind of the persistent adher-
ence, not only of public opinion and private judgment,
but of the religious conscience and the moral sense,
to forms and ceremonies after the belief on which


they were founded have faded into shadows, to permit
the hope that any amount of negative experience will
bring about a reformation in the matter we are now
considering. It is solely to a growing conviction of
the necessity of larger and wiser instruction of our
governing classes, if they are to remain our governors,
that we must look as the source of any beneficial

The instinct of self-preservation, to which Lord
Houghton appealed, is one of those primitive instincts
which are weakened by security and protection from
the struggle for existence. What neither it, nor any
amount of negative experience, was able in fifty years
to accomplish has been accomplished by the last five
years' bitter positive experience, which nearly made
of us just one more of those flagrant examples which
the history of the human mind affords. Since Lord
Houghton's day the further operation for fifty years
of the causes which he deplored, has made the
necessity, or even the desirability of preserving our
governing classes, if they are to remain our governors,
a question of relatively small importance. But the
necessity of preserving the nation if it is to remain a
nation has become obvious to the remotest inhabitant
of our wide-flung Empire. There is therefore every
hope that the unholy combination against science in
our universities has done its worst, and that once
more, as at the Renaissance, the love of truth for its
own sake and the enlargement of the boundaries of
knowledge, the present ideals of science in other
words, will again dominate our universities and
schools, and through them all classes and conditions
of the people.

It has become a question, no longer of the issue
at stake, but merely of the means by which the
necessary changes are to be effected. There is a
widespread feeling that witfain a few years we shall


have a Labour Party in power in this country, and,
whether or no this does occur, much that is taking-
place can be traced at all events to the possibility
that it may occur. It is well that the universities,
especially, should re-examine their ideals, for the
Labour Party, unlike the parties of which we have
had experience, profess very high ideals indeed,
judged by the canons of a literary and classical
education, altogether Utopian ideals. From the
standpoint of science the ideals they profess are not
Utopian, whatever may be the case from the moral
and human standpoint. On the score of physical
practicability they are no longer visionary, for
science within the past century has multiplied the
resources of this planet to support a higher standard
of living among all workers to an extent that even
the criminally wasteful and ignorant methods of the
existing competitive and individualistic system has
not been able altogether to conceal.

The President of the Board of Education, the
Rt. Hon. H. A. L. Fisher, at the recent Anniversary
Dinner of the Chemical Society, after a reference to
the issue of the recent conflict as one of the greatest
victories which chemistry had ever won in the
history of mankind, and, incidentally and humorously,
to himself as a melancholy product of the dark ages
of compulsory Greek, went on to say : " Nevertheless,
if we turn over the pages of Huxley's Addresses on
the place of science in national education and there
are few finer specimens of virile English prose I
think we shall feel that if the great master were
among us here, he would acknowledge that the cause
to which he dedicated his life has been practically
won. We want more money for science we want a
great deal more money for science we want more
teachers, we want more learners, but in the main the
battle is won. If there are any sceptics to-day they


must surely have been converted by the achieve-
ments of science in the war."

Unfortunately, science has been so outrageously
used as the stalking-horse for less popular crusades,
for the support of systems of education which have
had their day but not yet ceased to be, that one is
bound to add that what we want even more is that
science should get the money when it is given. I
trust in my successor's time an end will be put to
the scandal of the Chemistry Department here being
practically self-supporting in a university which
derives the greater part of its revenue from grants
from the Carnegie Trust and the State already, and
that some of this promised support may go to the
doubling or trebling of the staff so that everyone in
the department may have some uninterrupted time
to pursue investigations as well as teach.

I had intended to deal in some detail with the
backward condition of our B.Sc. regulations and the
absurdity, in these days, of making a man who
wished to train himself properly as a chemist take
two other subjects on an equal standard for the
B.Sc. degree. But that also has been rendered
unnecessary by the recent action of the Privy
Council in arranging a conference of the four univer-
sities in respect of the new science ordinances which
have been framed, or are in preparation in all four
universities. This conference, which was held last
Saturday, I am glad to say resulted in complete
agreement being reached as regards the main prin-
ciples. By the session 1920-21 the other three
universities certainly will have in operation a science
degree providing for pass and honours candidates,
which will mark a great advance. The battle, as
Mr Fisher said, is won, and all that is necessary is
to see that Aberdeen does not suffer by virtue of its
geographical remoteness from other centres of intel-


lectual activity, and that nothing- is permitted to
prevent the university from being in a position by
the session 1920-21 to compete on equal terms with
the other three.

It will still be necessary to see that the teaching
provided for the new degree is strengthened. As
regards chemistry, the greatest need is that students
should be able to get within the university training
in experimental physics and mathematics more suited
to their requirements than the courses in natural
philosophy and mathematics provided for the honours
M.A., as it is recognised that it is not essential to
follow the traditional order of classical mathematics
to give the student a practical working knowledge
for the purposes of engineering and chemistry. For
those who wish to become experimental rather than
mathematical scientists, in which mathematics is a
tool rather than a branch of philosophy, an entirely
different and more practical curriculum is essential
and desirable.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have
agreed, at Mr Fisher's suggestion, to co-operate
with the Government in setting up Commissions of
Enquiry into their affairs ; and in Scotland, though
there is no comparison, the feeling everywhere is
gaining ground that a thorough reconstruction of
the universities is the essential first step towards

Science has been subjected to so much misrepre-
sentation and depreciation by the champions of
ancient studies, no doubt much of it on perfectly
honest, if mistaken, grounds by the victims of those
studies, that, in criticising them, I must not give you
the impression that I am dominated with the same
feelings of animosity and distrust to them as they
have shown for the last century towards science. At
various periods of the world's history great move-


ments have arisen which have permanently enlarged
the common heritage of the race, and which have
been followed by an aftermath of Pharisaism, when
the high priests of learning holding the keys of
knowledge can neither enter in themselves nor allow
others to do so. Youth has so far preserved science
from that fate, but there is another powerfully con-
tributive factor in the usefulness of much of scientific
knowledge. Great and striking discoveries to-day
are to-morrow the starting-points of whole industries
and professions, and the pioneer is compelled to keep
marching on. If a contemporary of James Watt
were to return and attempt to lecture to us on the
design and construction of the steam-engine, tens of
thousands of quite humble people would in turn
instruct him. No doubt he would feel much the
same as a classical scholar being corrected by some
cad who had got his classics from a crib, but he
would have to recognise that his first-hand acquaint-
ance with James Watt made of him no high-priest of
the steam-engine. So a pioneer in what but yester-
day was an abstruse field of inquiry, purchasing
instruments for its pursuit, may receive a lucid
exposition of the principle of his subject from the
instrument maker, and any wireless operator on
board ship would probably be equal to expounding
to one Hertz, were he alive to profit by the informa-
tion, the ether waves by which messages were sent.
To be a scientific pioneer to-day, in any of the useful
branches of science, at any rate, it is necessary to
keep moving on.

It is just because we, to-day, are not such great
sculptors or poets as the Greeks, so great law-
givers as the Romans, or so great architects as
the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages, and
because the desire to study these past ages of
pre-eminence has not resulted in any overmastering


ability to emulate and surpass them, that they
are revered and cherished. At their own valuation
their present-day exponents are feeble and pale
imitations of the original masters, who uphold an
example which they genuinely believe it is impossible
to improve upon, and to them of all people are
entrusted the shaping of the youth of an age, in
science the greatest that has ever been, and in
which the achievements are not objects of venera-
tion impossible to be imitated, but stepping-stones
to greater. Science would accord to the ancient
studies the fullest and most generous appreciation
were the original ideals which dominated the creative
ages of the past, rather than the overgrown ruins
of those creations themselves, still in active and
effective existence.

But the overwhelming love of truth for its own
sake, and the passion for enlarging the boundaries
and deepening the foundations of knowledge, which
are the ideals of science and therefore of any
scientific school worthy of the name, need not lead
us into the error of supposing that these ideals
alone are sufficient to satisfy the human mind,
though we may believe that, apart from the aspira-
tion for truth, and, moreover, apart from the belief
that truth is humanly attainable, other aspirations
are likely to prove evanescent.

If we may cut ourselves adrift completely from
the past and, in imagination, attempt to state, in
this twentieth century, the objects for which a
university should live, we shall find them expressed
fairly comprehensively in a favourite phrase of
Professor J. Arthur Thomson, "the true, the beauti-
ful, the good." But we shall not mean precisely
by those terms what they would have connoted in
any earlier epoch of human thought, for we are
living in the twentieth century, and quotations from

2 C


other ages must be interpreted with regard to the
state of learning at the time. Thus, to take the
well-known quotation from Keats :

" Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,"

and to make of it the motto of a university to-day
would be absurd. Even as an answer to the famous
question of Pontius Pilate, " What is truth ? " in
the spirit of the pagan classics he worshipped, it
was out of date. For had not Plato written over
the garden gates of the place destined to give the
name Academy to a school of learning, "Let no
one enter who is destitute of geometry?" Now
nothing is truer than geometry, nor so far removed
from the aesthetic emotions. It has been contended l
that this inscription secures for Plato the priority
for the discovery that real truth is ascertainable
by mortal men, and that his famous Dialogues were
satirical commentaries on the systems of education
in vogue among the Athenian youth of his day,
in which that important discovery had not been
grasped. If so, would he were alive still, for what
a first-rate champion of science he would be, and
what a wealth of illustration for his argument he
would find in sciences other than geometry.

Of another of these great masters, Aristotle, it
is of interest to note that Huxley put forward the
theory that the text of his works, which blindly
dominated intellectual Europe to the time of Galileo,
is in reality nothing more than a collection of the
notes of his lectures taken down by one of his
students. It is impossible otherwise to account
for such an amazing juxtaposition of marvellously

1 William Whewell, "Science and Education," p. 23. W.
Heinemann, 1917. (Lectures delivered at the Royal Institution of
Great Britain, edited by Sir E. Ray Lankester.)


accurate observation and absolute rubbish, as, from
the standpoint of present knowledge, they are found

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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 14 of 18)