Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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to contain. Think of some new Dark Age over-
sweeping the earth again another war such as the
last may bring it yet and, a thousand years hence,
all that survives of our present knowledge of the
internal structure of atoms being some notes, taken
down by one of you, of the lectures I have been
giving this term. It might well take another
thousand years of patient study to unravel them,
during which epoch my reputed lectures would
constitute part of the classics. Punch tells a story
of how, to amuse a patient laid aside on a bed of
illness, a friend sent her a jig-saw puzzle of "The
finding of Moses," with a handful of " The Map of
Europe " thrown in to make it interesting. So,
beware of relying too implicitly upon what has come
down to us by ancient records.

To return to our theme, it is idle to pretend that
what is true must necessarily be either beautiful or
good. To adopt such a position is to assume
different kinds of truth : one for spiritual matters,
elevating and inspiring, another for the things of
the flesh, sordid and base, and yet a third for the
inanimate world, of utilitarian but of no possible
human significance. The scientific man regards
truth, not as an aspiration, but as an achievement,
and he holds that the truth he has been permitted
to achieve is but part of an ascertainable whole, to
which poets, seers and prophets have aspired.

Science can claim to have kept the ideal of truth
burning very brightly in our universities. How
have the older studies covered their part of the
field and cherished the ideals of beauty and virtue?
As regards the first, I am quite certain that a
Labour Government would not find the present
faculties of arts in our universities to be sufficiently


catholic. The cult of beauty there is confined
almost to the beauty of words. Poetry and litera-
ture, however beautiful in form, if divorced from
the spirit and knowledge of the age and finding
therein only what is ugly, sordid and low, degenerate
into one of the most artificial and insidious forms
of the aesthetic function. There surely would be a
renaissance of classical studies, more in keeping with
their original models, to the interpretation and
portrayal of the world in its present greatness. The
beauty of form sculpture in marble and bronze
the beauty of colour painting and the arts of
decoration the beauty of harmony music finds
no official recognition in most of our modern faculties
of arts, and the same may be said of the chief values
for which the ancient world stood. The drama,
the building of cities and the general ordering of
the civic and national life received attention in the
early world, but now are neglected, not because of
the growth of science or of what is termed in
contempt "materialism," but because of the decay
of the creative spirit of the past and its usurpal by
a craven imitative habit of mind, which deems the
present inferior and tries to make it so.

You may wonder that I should really look for
a revival of the lost glories of the ancient world to
Labour. First, I would answer, because Labour is
young, virile and strong, and, secondly, because
upon it has pressed without mitigation the sordid-
ness and squalor of our modern industrial and com-
mercial life. The love of beauty, like the love of
truth, is innate and inextinguishable, and from the
horrors of the nineteenth century and the mismanage-
ment of the blessings of science under systems that
had atrophied even before its advent, men are now
earnestly looking everywhere for a way of escape.

The following extract from the Report on Recon-


struction, published by the Labour Party, shows the
proposals they make for dealing with the surplus of
wealth, which science has created and which is at
present absorbed by individual proprietors. Whether
one agrees with the methods proposed or not, their
aims express a high ideal totally new in practical

" From the same source must come the greatly
increased public provision that the Labour Party will
insist on being made for scientific investigation and
original research, in every branch of knowledge, not
to say also for the promotion of music, literature and
fine arts, which have been under Capitalism so greatly
neglected, and upon which, so the Labour Party
holds, any real development of civilisation funda-
mentally depends. Society, like the individual, does
not live by bread alone, does not exist for perpetual
wealth production."

Lastly, with regard to our third ideal of virtue,
concerned with the ethical and religious perceptions,
the study of the laws of God and man, rather than
with the laws of Nature, is it not even worse served
at present in the universities than either of the other
two ? What, in these times of transition and doubt,
does the university .contribute to the innate aspira-
tions of men after virtue and justice ? The existing
codes and creeds into which human and divine laws
have been formulated and crystallised still purport
to be their authoritative expressions. But these,
with the growth of science and the upheaval it has
brought into social relationships and the whole
mode of living and outlook of men, whether in peace
or war, have become no more than the empty forms
from which the living spirit has departed. They are in
profound and irremediable disrepute. But the reality
we have had exemplified in the modern spirit of duty
and self-sacrifice, which the war has revealed to be



alight and alive amongst us more intensely than ever.
Nor is it the monopoly of a class, profession or
religion. Duty, like Truth and Beauty, is one of the
universal values without which a university cannot
live, but, of all, even less than Truth owes to any
Faculty of Science, or Beauty to the Faculty of Arts,
does Duty, as a living, burning flame in our midst,
owe to the Faculties of Law and Divinity.

We have had no academical lesson of the stern
reality of duty. As a memorial let us install in our
universities, not only a pure Faculty of Art, charged
with and carrying on the creative work which, rather
than their languages, made our ancestors great, but
also a pure Faculty of Duty, pursuing the tasks
which, in these days, have fallen from flaccid hands.
The duties which I am advocating should be the
concern of a pure university Faculty of Duty, to be
studied like a natural science solely in the interests
of the advancement of knowledge and the love of
truth ; are the duties of the twentieth century, as
distinct from mythological, ancient or feudal man,
rather than the codes and creeds, the survival of
which brings into contempt our whole ethical system.
In earlier times, more corrupt or more openly corrupt
than our own, the profession of the law was magnified,
rather than the research aspect into the application
of its principles and spirit to modern life, which is now
the most pressing need. The status, emoluments
and pensions, for example, of judges were fixed on a
scale such as to make them superior to the temptation
of bribery. To-day the power of money and its con-
centration into the hands of wealthy corporations
makes, on the one hand, such a device absurd, and,
on the other, we have a more generally developed
sense of public honour, which makes it seem nothing
remarkable that duties calling for equal integrity and
incorruptibility should be honestly done without such


inducements, and by officials frequently among the
humblest and least well-paid in the State. To ensure
a higher respect for law rather than for the legal
profession, it should not be so apt to shut up like a
steel trap to the humble wayfarer, and open of its
own accord to the gilded coach-and-four.

In feudal times, again, vast powers and privileges
were acquired by territorial magnates in return for
the distinct duty of maintaining on their estates, in
times of peace, the people from whom, in times of
war, armies could be raised for the defence of the
realm and the king's external adventures. These
rights survive, but we do not now raise armies in
this manner. On the very lowest ground of expedi-
ency, and apart from ethical considerations altogether,
a State that calls on fit men to serve in time of war
must, in time of peace, provide conditions of existence
capable of producing an Ai instead of a 3 army.

It is impossible to reconcile the cold, unrestricted
operation of soulless economic law, the beggar-
my-neighbour, devil-take-the-hindmost competitive
individualism associated with nineteenth - century
industrialism and commerce, with the supreme
socialism and self-sacrifice for the common weal
which is asked of a section of the population in time
of war. It seems impossible that we should say to
these men, "Good fellows! upon you has fallen the
nobler and better portion of sacrificing, for the
national good, that individualism which we prize so
highly as essential to efficiency, enterprise and
progress. At home we will carry on as usual and
expect to make fortunes, as individuals, out of the
nation's necessities. It is for you to display the
communal virtues of loyalty and devotion to the
common weal, which we personally loathe, abominate
and fear " ; at least, it is impossible to say so more
than once.


The question of a citizen's duty and place in a
complex State to-day would surely be a better basis
for his education than Latin and Greek or intro-
spective philosophy. Parliament and the country
are being daily confronted and settle by votes
similar questions of practical twentieth - century
ethics, which it should be as much the function of
a university to explore, in a scientific spirit, and
reduce to a reasoned and complete form, as it is its
recognised duty to enlarge the boundaries of natural
knowledge. Applied professional Faculties of Law,
Divinity, Medicine, Education and so on, without
the pure Faculties to carry out constructive and
creative work in the subjects with which they deal,
are just one example of our artificially engendered
retrospective habit of mind. Professional Faculties
merely carry on, but whose business is it at present
to say what it is shall be carried on when what is
being carried on becomes anti-social and out of date ?
We pride ourselves on being the greatest nation on
earth, with an empire on which the sun never sets,
and all that sort of thing, and we leave to haphazard,
popular vote and professional interests, the settlement
of the problems arising out of the very growth and
development upon which greatness alone depends.

There is only one principle, and that an undeniable
one, which needs to be logically accepted and carried
out in practice to make this nation exorcise the evil
spirit which has brought us so near to the brink of
ruin and made of us the object of real concern and
despair to every one of our daughter dominions
beyond the seas. We must act as we have been
forced to act during the war, as though we were
great because of ourselves, our environment, our
powers of making original discoveries and of applying
them without fear to the peculiar problems of our
day, not merely in science but universally. Act upon


the principle which has dominated the past century
in our education and government but a little longer
and the time for reform will be past. The principle
in question cannot be better illustrated than by
quoting- the opening words of Charles Stuart Parker's
"Essay on the History of Classical Education," in
the volume to which I have already alluded. Referring
to the Greeks and Romans, as well as the Jews, as
our spiritual ancestors, he says : "They left treasures
of recorded thought, word and deed, by the timely
and judicious use of which their heirs have become
the leaders of mankind. But they left them in their
native tongues." If one comes out of a fog or mist
among the mountains, natural colours of grass,
flowers and sky take on an unreal vividness in
contrast to the blank pall of a moment before.
I can imagine that after the Dark Ages, when the
world once more emerged from the fog of barbarism,
the treasures of the recorded thoughts of the ancients
must, by contrast, have appeared similarly vivid and
satisfying, and I can imagine how the tradition arose
that to these treasures the renaissance of Italy,
France, Germany, and, though assuredly least of all,
Britain, as great nations, was to be traced. I am
not concerned with its historical truth or otherwise.
But if we ask ourselves to-day, fifty years after the
words I have quoted were written, whether the great
nations of the earth the United States, France,
Germany, Italy, Austria, Britain, Japan, to name
them in haphazard order do actually lead the world,
or can ever hope to do so again, either the world of
thought, the world of action, or even the world of
art, because of the recorded treasures of Greeks,
Romans and Jews, the question appears too
ridiculous to be answered. They will lead or fail,
primarily, because of the timely and judicious use or
the suicidal neglect of those treasures also written

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in their own peculiar jargon as unintelligible to the
scholar as Greek to the multitude which they, to
a greater or less extent, have themselves discovered,
the treasures of modern science. So utterly have
these changed the whole mode of living of the world
that, not only in science, but in the other great
divisions of learning as well, the past has proved
rather a millstone round the neck of the future than
a source of inspiration and wisdom. One knows
from experience in scientific research how easy it is
to immerse oneself in a subject that was fascinating
to a past generation, and waste time in the minutiae
of still ungleaned detail, until one finds oneself in a
backwater which the main tide of discovery has left
long since, and wherein one can waste a lifetime,
which, if spent among the real outposts of knowledge,
would have resulted in substantial and permanent
progress being made.

Although science, in the sense it is understood
to-day, owes but little to the past, it has already, in
its conception of research, contributed to the ideals
of a university immensely more than has ever been
contributed by preceding ages, and the contribution
it has made in its own sphere, if logically applied to
the older branches of study, would be productive of
the most valuable and far-reaching social conse-
quences. The association of scientific research with
the universities is mainly due to the exigencies under
which it, as distinct from other creative work, can
alone be pursued. One may read Parker's "Essay
on the History of Classical Education " from end to
end in vain to find the remotest parallel to the ideal
which science holds up as the most important and
the highest function of a university to-day, little as it
has yet been realised even in science by actual British
universities. From it there follows at once the idea
I have here developed of pure Faculties of Art and


Duty to carry on research and constructive work in
the aesthetic and ethical questions of to-day, to
inspire the applied professional faculties, the imperial
and local legislature, and the primary and secondary
schools, and to do, without bias or political and
sectarian passion, just that for lack of which the
nation perishes, the deliberate reconstruction of the
social order to meet the entirely altered conditions
that prevail in consequence of the growth of science.
Never yet in the history of the world have such
faculties found a place in the universities. In early
days the university was simply a divinity faculty, and
its glory was that it provided the ladder, of which
we hear so much to-day, whereby children of the
humblest origin could rise through the Church to
the highest positions of the State, though that was
not its raison d'etre. Then, all business requiring
education was transacted by ecclesiastics, and the
spirit of research in the sense of finding out the new,
not that which is old but has been lost, had not
arisen. It would indeed have been very dangerous
for any one to act on the view that the pagan classics
and Christian writings did not between them contain
all there was to know. The revival of learning was
literally the re-learning of what had been known, but
now was inaccessible save to those possessing the
Greek, Latin and Hebrew languages. Discovery
connoted rediscovery of lost territories rather than
being the first entrant into some new and hitherto
undreamt - of world. There is, unfortunately, a
tendency to confuse this sort of original investigation
and research with that understood by scientific men.
In those days the extraordinary idea that there was
a peculiar virtue in the teaching of Latin and Greek
and ancient philosophy as the foundation of a liberal
education was natural and justifiable enough. Latin
was the universal written language of the learned


world. It was in no sense the dead language that
it is to-day, but the key to learned literature, not only
of the past, but also of the present. When it became
necessary for a gentleman to know how to write, it
was Latin that he wrote, not his mother tongue.
The Faculty of Arts has never yet, though the
necessity has long since ceased to exist, dissociated
itself from its original preoccupation with the teaching
of dead languages, as a, then, necessary preliminary
to any kind of learning and culture. Original creative
work in painting, sculpture, architecture, the drama,
music and so on have hitherto been pursued outside
the university, and this applies also to by far the
greater and most valuable part of poetry, and
literature generally.

Even theology has been more progressive. After
science had shown the value of the patient, unbiassed
examination of data, pursued solely with the desire
to elicit the truth, the traditional records, upon which
theology is based, became the subject of critical
examination, especially in Germany. Parker, writ-
ing in 1867, says : " Much of our embarrassment in
Biblical Criticism is due to our ignorance of Hebrew
and German. For Latin, as a common language,
has died out, and German has now for a long time
been the tongue in which all questions relating to
antiquity are discussed with the most research and
learning." But the popular attitude to such inquiries
apparently is still similar to that which unbiassed
inquiries in science evoked in the Middle Ages, and
many times during the war have I read letters in the
press tracing the decline of the moral forces in
Germany to her eminence in theological studies,
with never a protest from our own learned theo-
logians against such bigotry.

But if to the old Faculties of Arts and Theology
the ideals of science are not without application, the


case is even more striking- when we consider the
professional Faculties of Medicine and Law. Here
there is the most clearly marked distinction between
the interests of the country as a whole and of those
who follow these professions. The worse the con-
dition of the country the more must both these
professions thrive, and, the more free from disease
and litigation it is, the worse, financially, for these

Until the most recent years there was nobody in
this country primarily concerned with the scientific
study and prevention of disease. The best and most
energetic of the young doctors might, and often did,
spend a few years in purely voluntary research into
the scientific aspects of medicine, but so soon as their
success in their profession grew, and their consulting-
rooms commenced to fill up, such investigations
became more and more competitors with actual
lucrative and bread-winning service. With the
passing of the Health Insurance Act, the State, for ,f
the first time, became interested in the health of the <,,
people. At first its interest was purely a financial
one, and was concerned with the solvency of the
Insurance scheme, but, during the war, with the
state of health revealed by recruiting statistics, its
interest assumed also a military character. In
consequence, just those aspects of medicine which
are not of interest, financially, to the medical
profession, the research aspect and the preventive
aspect, are now receiving more consideration. It is
clear that, from the national standpoint, it is more
important to study, scientifically, the causes and
character of disease with a view to its prevention
and elimination than even to provide that disease,
after it has been contracted and begun its work,
should be properly treated. The prevention of
disease is the creation of health, and modern uni-


versities ought to be no mere professional schools
of medicine, but primarily concerned with the
research and creative aspect of their subject.

But is not the case of the Faculty of Law and
its relation to the legal profession an even more
forcible one ? The study of the cause and character
of social maladies with a view to their prevention,
the elimination of the causes of dispute and litigation,
the simplification and modernisation of our inherited
codes with continual and timely regard to ever-
changing conditions, the tasks which, in an ideal
university, I have assigned to the hypothetical
research Faculty of Duty, to be pursued for its own
sake, by students of the foundation of human law, is
surely more in keeping with the real character of a
university than even the training and qualification
of professional lawyers. That is the true preventive
medicine of social injustice and its attendant con-
tempt for the law and tendency toward anarchy and
Bolshevism. It is sad to ponder on the history of
the great conflicts with which the advance in
knowledge has inundated society, in which every
change has been forced, as it were, at the point of
the bayonet, against the existing law, and hardly a
single one has been intelligently anticipated and
forestalled by suitable legislation. No anomaly
however glaring, no injustice however scandalous,
is rectified without a wearing and demoralising
political agitation. The principles of equity and
justice and esteem for the higher value of life in
general are, to-day, whatever was the case in the
ancient world, indigenous to society and come into
conflict rather with its rulers than with the masses.

Of modern times research in science has more
and more been confined to universities, and the
number of scientific amateurs, who once did so much
good work, grows yearly less. For if it is not


pursued in the universities it can hardly be pursued
anywhere. A mathematician, even a purely mathe-
matical physicist, is under no such restriction, for
he does not need a laboratory, and even in books
his requirements are relatively modest. He is no
more necessarily attached to a university than a
poet, painter, preacher or musical composer. But
an experimental physicist, chemist or biologist can
hardly carry on research outside a university, for
a laboratory is essential. It thus has come about,
largely through the exigencies of the work, that experi-
mental science, practically alone of the great creative
activities, is necessarily almost wholly bound up with
universities, and has thereby enlarged their whole
raison d'etre. There are many advocates for retain-
ing and strengthening the connection, even at great
sacrifice to the interests of research itself, because
only can the teaching in science be living and
up-to-date if research is being pursued.

But in Scotland and England alike the bond
is weakening. Unintelligent "pseudo-democratic"
administration, increasing numbers of students and
the never-ending expansion and multiplication of
curricula and examinations, and the lack of any
clear financial distinction between the dual functions
of the university have brought serious research,
in many institutions, practically to the point of
extinction. On the other hand there is an ever-
growing technical demand for research workers of
the highest quality. Some of the finest research
in pure physical science that is being produced
in America to-day emanates from the General
Electric Company's Research Laboratories at
Schenectady, New York. In this country the
Government scheme of scientific and industrial

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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 15 of 18)