Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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whether appertaining to peace or war, to the body,
the brain or the soul, awaits its turn to be re-
examined, and, if found wanting, discarded.

Science multiplied man's physical powers ten
thousand-fold, and increased his capacity both of
construction and destruction in like ratio. He spent
the vast increase of wealth, which had accrued to
him from the peaceful applications of science, in
preparing, like his ancestors, for war. The war has
come. As to its results, there is nothing in history
that can give the slightest clue. The principle of
force as the ultimate arbiter is now undergoing its
re-examination. It has survived nineteen centuries



of Christianity. Is it to be perpetuated or destroyed
by science ?

Some thought science had already made war
impossible. As it has not, it may be concluded
that no future development of science, however
world-shattering, will of itself have that effect.
Others thought that the sensitive and elaborate
ramifications of international commerce and credit
would effectually prevent war, or quench it quickly
if it broke out, relying, as it seems, on a cobweb to
stop the rush of a tiger. Everyone of us will carry
to our graves some real knowledge of what modern
war is and means. Future generations, let us hope
at least, will know as little about it as we ourselves
knew a couple of years ago. They will read about
it in books, as we read, and it will mean as little in
comparison to them as the Napoleonic Wars meant
to us. It is our duty, therefore, to spend our lives
and brains thinking this thing out for ourselves.
It must not be left for our successors to relearn all
over again.

We are faced with a new factor of unlimited
possibilities of development. Science will not stand
still, even though the foreshadowed release of
interatomic energy be delayed for centuries. The
increasing horrors and the certain ruin of war both
to victor and vanquished will not stop it, though it
must make it of necessity less frequent. The more
deeply we ponder on this as a practical question we
shall find, I think, that the first step is to narrow
the issue and to ask whether, and if so how, wars,
such as this war that is now being waged, can be
prevented from ever occurring again. Then we come
to grips with a practical problem. For consider the
absolute stupidity and wantonness of the present
war. We are fighting Germany as we would fight
a homicidal maniac who has suddenly started to run


amok, and we have to kill the maniac or he will kill
us. There is no great question of irreconcilable
principle involved, I mean in the sense that there
was in the great American Civil War, or that
was at issue when contending religions as the
Cross and the Crescent came to death -grips.
Before the war the Germans were our friends and
equals. We intermarried without social stigma
or disability. There are some nationalities the
Jews are an example which do not mix with
any other even after centuries of life together.
There are others the negro race of the United
States offer an example with whom, rather than
mix, a nation will break every law, human and
divine. Again there are others the British Empire
affords as good and as perplexing examples as
any against whom, for fear of being cheapened
economically and socially, preventive measures are
taken to forbid or hamper their free immigration
into our territories.

These are a few examples of what for comparison
I will describe as racial causes of war. I indicate
them merely to show how very far from practical
politics any attempt to banish war and the thought
of war from the world at one step is likely for long
to remain, unless we are content to solve the simpler
problem first.

But the present war does not come within their
category. Let us take Germany at her own valua-
tion, as a virile and expanding people, denied a place
in the sun, hemmed in on all sides by decadent and
stagnant populations in possession of the fairest
parts of the earth. Individually her people were
peculiarly capable of fighting for their own hands
according to the recognised, if lax, standards of
private law and commercial morality, and so they had
already peacefully penetrated far and wide into the


less crowded countries of the earth. Everywhere
they were treated as friends and equals. There were
no restrictions as to their owning property or inter-
marrying with nationals in their adopted countries.
The feelings of Germans towards neighbouring
nations, and those whose hospitality they sought,
would be better described as the ordinary one of
national contempt rather than racial horror the
contempt which no nation, least of all ours, is free
from in its estimate of others. She thought she
could win, she knew what she wanted I am not
sure that we yet know and as, since the Franco-
Prussian War, she has always declared frankly was
the German method, she struck when she was ready
to strike, with no more thought or compunction than
if her neighbours had not been human beings. It is
commonly supposed that the completion of the Kiel
Canal fixed the exact time. The war has already
lasted long enough to show that she had to wait
for something vastly more fundamental. A group
of chemical processes technically referred to as the
fixation of atmospheric nitrogen had to be perfected
and put into practice in the especial form necessary
for her war needs, before she had any chance of
success, for on these new processes, cut off as she is
from most outside supplies, she depends for the raw
materials of explosives. It all seems to have been
nationally thought out in cold blood to the dotting
of the last i. Had it been successful they would
have gloried in it, as some of the more sanguine still
are glorying.

We expect, of course, professional soldiers to
think along these lines and to act, under civil con-
trol, according to these tenets. But for an entire
nation once great in philosophy, literature and the
arts, once possessing an empire vastly wider than
the material possessions that can be seized and


fought over by soldiers for such a nation to have
adopted militarism as the national soul and con-
science, and to take its orders and ideas from
soldiers, appears to us to-day, however it may be
viewed by the historian, to have brought the world
to a parting of the ways. Whether it is because of
our more fortunate geographical position, or whether
it is because we are an older nation than Germany,
whatever fate the future holds for us individually
and as a nation, we cannot accept that as the end.
It means, simply, that man has risen in intellectual
stature to the point at which he is in league rather
than at war with mighty Nature, in order that
nations may never be able to live mutually at
peace again. It is not a war between irreconcilable
principles. It is a war between the fundamental
principle of all national co-existence and its con-
temptuous negation.

If we concern ourselves, when the time comes,
merely with the relatively small task of making wars
of this sort more difficult or impossible to recur, we
can leave with a good conscience to our successors
the wider and more complex task of dealing with the
racial causes of internecine strife, wherein peoples of
different colours and civilisations strive for mastery.
No doctor talks at large about the termination of
disease. He knows too well the almost infinite
variety of disease. But where would you find a
doctor who, knowing leprosy, let us say, to be
incurable, not only discountenanced any attempt to
cure it, but also would not hear of any attempt to
cure, let us say, consumption. So it is with war.
Its causes are as manifold and as ineradicated as
the causes of disease. But there are many kinds of
war, each requiring totally different consideration.
If we are either unduly discouraged on the one
hand, or unduly sanguine on the other, as the result


of the present conflict, and tolerate vague platitudes
about war and peace in the large, then, when peace
comes to be settled, we shall have difficulty in
escaping from the chains of the very militarism
which, instinctively, millions of our people have
sprung to arms to destroy.


I HAVE been asked by the Aberdeen Chamber of
Commerce to say a few words on the importance of
chemistry in the affairs of the nation, and the part
that skilled chemists can play in furthering the
general prosperity of the community.

The war has been already the means of removing
some misconceptions and of the making of some
discoveries. It has, for example, discovered the
science of chemistry to a vast number of people,
not excluding Cabinet ministers, who hitherto have
associated it vaguely with the gilded mortar and
pestle and mysterious flagons of brightly coloured
fluids of the apothecary. Long ago a French savant
described us as a country where the apothecaries
call tfiemselves chemists. Another discovery that is
destined to be made is the difference between money
and wealth.

The wealth of a country is in its matter and
energy, matter, the passive resister, that in the
raw state will not do anything you want it to do ;
and energy, both animate and inanimate, which is
for ever trying to do what you do not want it to do,
and needs to be controlled. So man found the
world, and so, largely, till the beginning of last

1 Address to the Annual Meeting of the Aberdeen Chamber of
Commerce, 8th February 1916.


century he left it, moralising and philosophising
eternally about himself, and leaving- a vast legacy of
these elegant accumulations for the "education" of
his children. Ignorant of the most elementary facts
outside himself, and of the simplest principles which
control absolutely his life from the cradle to the
grave, he was worse than that. He attempted, with
considerable initial success, by means of a cunningly
devised "educational" system to entail the con-
clusions of these preposterous self-examinations in
perpetuity upon his children. We have first to
break this entail, or so much of it, if any, as still
survives after the conclusion of this disastrous war.
I read in the columns of Nature the other day that
the only officers in the British Army who receive a
scientific training are those belonging to the Royal
Artillery and the Royal Engineers who are attached
to the regular army ; that for cavalry and infantry
officers practically no facilities exist ; that the teach-
ing of science at Sandhurst was abandoned many
years ago, and has not yet been resumed ; that at
the present time boys who receive commissions
immediately on leaving school are devoting their
time to the dead languages, and enter the army
without a scrap of scientific knowledge.

However, what I want here mainly to emphasise
is that after the war, whatever be its outcome,
science and its application can retrieve every dis-
aster and make good even the present seemingly
irreparable destruction. Science is neither the up-
builder nor the destroyer. It is the docile slave of
its human masters. It will appear as the one or
the other, according as the moral outlook of the
latter is derived from a progressive and deepen ing-
sense of responsibility, awakened by the realisa-
tion of the true position which man occupies with
regard to the external realities of nature, or an


impossible compromise between this and the old
mixed mythologies.

Let us glance at the change that has come over
the world with regard to the relations of man to
energy and matter. Instead of being between these
two as between a steam-hammer and an anvil, he has
climbed to the controlling gear and has his hand
upon the valve. And the hand on this valve is the
hand of the chemist and physicist and their executive
officer, the engineer.

Power, before running to waste and making at
best but an idle show, at the bidding of these three
now works, battering raw materials into life-giving
commodities ; and so it is throughout the length and
breadth of the busy world to-day. Science has its
hand on the lever controlling the major physical
factors of our existence.

Just as you see that a properly authenticated
banker has the control of your money, see to the
hand that has control of your wealth. If it be in the
hands of an honest, well-trained and capable chemist,
you will be surprised what unimagined wealth is
slipping past your very doors to waste itself, as
waterfalls used to do, though rarely so inoffensively
and picturesquely. But science the knowledge of,
things outside of and independent of our own poor
selves and our imaginings though it has made the
world wealthy, is no soulless materialism. Those
who think so can know nothing of science, little
indeed of wealth, less still of the want of it, and of
all that the want of wealth has meant for humanity
in its upward progress towards control. " They have
but fed on the roses and lain on the lilies of life."

There is just this much sardonic justification for
the sedulously fostered confusion between creative
science and sordid materialism. In the old days the
genius of the pure thinker and lover of wisdom for its



own sake did not directly contribute to the immediate
material prosperity of the community. In these days
of experimental science it is this type which governs
it. Starving, in the time-honoured manner, a great
pioneer of religion, reason or art was cheap. But
starve the same type of mind in science now and
the community starves with him. It cannot possibly
compete, either in war or peace, with any modern
nation that treasures as its most fertile asset the
original mind of the discoverer and inventor and the
bold exploring spirit of the scientific investigator.

It is true that society may, like an old-established
firm, carry on in dignified rottenness in the ways of
a bygone generation and live for a while upon its
established reputation, if its rivals and competitors
are obliging enough to do the same. It is true that
ruin may apparently be staved off by the growing
power of money and the law to enslave the creators
of wealth in the community. Huge individual for-
tunes may so be built up, but at an ultimate cost to
the country altogether disproportionate to the private
gain. No quicker road to general impoverishment
could well be chosen than the treatment habitually
accorded in this country to the poor discoverer and
inventor, preyed upon by rascals of every description
who flourish under the protective majesty of the law,
and in the grip of a commercialism that deems it the
highest wisdom not to pay for anything it can get by
other means. A country that so mistakes the making
of money for the creation of wealth is going to pay in
its pocket as well as in its prestige. So is the whirli-
gig of time fast bringing its revenges !

In conclusion, I would like to say a few words
about chemists and the training of chemists. The
chemist, if he is a genuine pioneer, is not usually a
very worldly-wise person, and he suffers grievously
in any sort of beggar-my-neighbour competition.


He may be able to put on half a sheet of notepaper
that which will keep in prosperity a whole class in
the community for a generation. But, being a
chemist and not a business man, at the end of that
time he will be lucky if he is still outside the poor-
house, and still more lucky if he can still call any
shred of his discoveries his own. He is no indi-
vidualist. He knows that every step on the long-
road leading up to his discoveries, except the last
little step he made himself, was laboriously taken by
his predecessors and colleagues and presented to him
as a free gift in the past.

This sort of chemist, the real discovering person,
is a very rare bird, but a few of them would go a very
long way. It is almost needless to say that this is
not the sort of chemist that is specially catered for
by university curricula. In fact, from the business
point of view he is a thoroughly bad investment.
He pays no more fees than his far more numerous
class-mates, his training is preposterously expensive,
if he is to know his subject and not merely to know
about it, and, worse still, when he is hatched, no one,
scarcely even his own professor, can really be quite
sure whether he is a swan or a goose.

Obviously, with universities whose finances are
managed by business men, the good staple lines of
chemical students are far more attractive. You can
turn them out in large numbers relatively cheaply ;
there is always a steady demand, their fees aggregate
to a considerable sum and bear an appreciable
proportion to the costs of their education. The first-
year medical students are the most numerous and
uniform in their requirements in the Scottish univer-
sities. Then there are those who are going to be
teachers, and take chemistry for a year as one of the
science subjects they are allowed, in strict moderation,
to take for an Arts degree. Lastly, there are the


science students, who take chemistry as one of the
three subjects required for the B.Sc. And of this
last, relatively very small class, one-third, perhaps,
intend to take up the study of chemistry seriously,
and at the end of their training" have made any real
beginning- at all towards the qualification of a trained

Speaking, not even purely as a chemist, and gauging
the relative value to the nation of all this teaching, it
is to my mind in the inverse ratio to that in which it
would be regarded if numbers, or revenue earned to
the university, were the criteria. You need the small
army of professionally-trained students to keep the
machine going. But a machine that just keeps itself
going is not a prime mover. A university that does
not provide training, the best it can afford, at
whatever seemingly unremunerative expenditure, for
those who are to be pioneers, who are to stand erect
for the first time and know their way, where all before
have been befogged, in whose solitary footsteps the
small army can follow, such a university is to my
mind oblivious to the more important and more
repaying side of its dual function.


I WISH to discuss with you to-night some of the
relations between Science and the State. I want to
show how, in the particular question we are con-
sidering, one is brought up instantly against the
democratic idea as it is applied, falsely, as I think, to
education, the idea of equal educational opportunities
to all, not in the narrow sense to which later I wish
to subscribe a hearty enough adherence, but in the
practical sense in which it finds application in the
schools and universities of this country. I have to
make what I know must appeal to many of you as a
very bolcf, not to say provocative, statement at the
outset, and it is simply this. Educate your millions,
and bring to every boy and girl in this country the
benefits of as sound and thorough an education as
you can afford. The fact remains that, for sheer
practical value to the community, and hard cash in
the pockets of each member of it, there are a few,
say one in every million, who are worth as much to
the community as the rest of the million put together,
and whom, if you miss or merge with the rest, the
education of the million will avail you little indeed.
I know, in these democratic days, it sounds like a
restatement of the doctrine of a privileged class,
living at the expense of the community. But be
assured the statement is democratic enough in this,

1 Address to the Independent Labour Party, Aberdeen, ist
October 1916.


at least, that the few geniuses I have in mind are
drawn from no exclusive hierarchy or caste, but
appear in the cradles of the world as capriciously
as the wind which bloweth where it listeth, and
according to laws, if such there be, that hitherto
have defied the search of the new-born science of

My statement is novel only in one respect. The
geniuses I have in mind are the creative geniuses of
science, rather than those of literature or art. In
this field, the statement is as commonplace as regards
Shakespeare or a Michael Angelo. Its novelty, if it
is novel, is that it applies to the practical values of
the everyday world, the measure of which is money,
as much as to sesthetical and ethical values, which
cannot be measured in the current coin. I know I
shall be told, though probably not by you, that these
latter things are of more value than money, that a
man may gain the whole world and lose his own soul,
and so on. You, at least, will not be over- impressed
by this talk about the dangers of materialism, which
comes appropriately enough from those that neither
toil nor spin. You will have sufficient acquaintance
with the realities of the world in which you live to
know that, for every soul slain by over-indulgence
and luxury, thousands perish besotted by the lack
of the bare necessities of a decent existence, and that
the animalising influence of want, and a hopeless,
unremitting battle for the primal needs of the body,
must be faithfully dealt with before you can even
begin to think of the higher spiritual and social
aspirations of humanity, rather than of the few.
Before the advent of science such universal aspira-
tions were not capable of being satisfied.

So if I choose this ground the ground of practical
everyday life rather than that of the visionary and
dreamer it is not because it is the only aspect of


science, but because it is the one of most general
practical importance.

The elevating influences of the study of Nature,
the sublime emotions awakened by the spectacle of
the mists being slowly dissipated from the veiled
countenance of Truth, are at least as potent as any
encountered by man in his persistent and unwearing
dissection of his own self. But, distinct from this,
science is unique in pointing the way to the realisation
of that necessary practical antecedent of all that
makes life universally holy rather than animal.
Neglect it, and the finer voices may call, but the
ears that should hear will be dull.

There may be a tendency on the part of some
of my audience to regard science as something
particularly associated with the waging of war and to
look upon scientific men as a class as under the
suspicion of being in the pay of the great armament
firms of the world, and as finding, in the universal
race for armaments, the most profitable and natural
outlet for their inventive and productive genius.
Whether or not I am mistaken in that impression,
at least it can hardly be gainsaid that this point of
view is foremost in the minds of those most influential
and vocal of the leaders of public opinion, to whom,
for the most part, the war has discovered the
importance and indispensability of science for the
first time.

I wish to-night, if I can, to do something first to
combat this false impression. It is true, of course, at
the moment that scientific researches and inquiries
are now very largely suspended, and that the energies
of scientific men in this country have almost wholly
been drawn into the vortex, in common with the rest
of the energies of the nation. Scientific men here
now, as much or more than any other class, are
concerned with science no longer, but only with its


profane application to the more efficient destruction
of their fellow-men. But this which, at the moment,
passes for science with the ignorant is an aspect
which is the absolute opposite of its proper function.
A fire-engine, the purpose of which is to quench a
conflagration by pouring water on the flames, could
even more effectively be used for an exactly opposite
purpose by supplying it with petroleum instead of
with water. Is the inventor of the fire-engine less
a benefactor of the community on this account? If
some lunatic used a fire-engine for this purpose,
would you immure the inventor or the lunatic ?

Those who in the early stages of the war were so
ready to regard the initial supremacy in military
science of the enemy as but one aspect of his moral
degeneracy, have now realised that science is as
indispensable to a good cause as to a bad one.
Science is not responsible for the morals of its human
employers. That is their affair. No one in his
senses would recruit Cs policemen because the cause

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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 4 of 18)