Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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sanctuaries of ancient learning, which would be
relatively harmless, but the active agents in per-
petuating in power a type of man who is hopelessly
out of tune with his environment, however rational
he may have been in the Middle Ages. Then Latin
was much what Esperanto is trying to become
to-day, a universal written language, and as necessary


to every student as a knowledge of technical French,
German or Italian is to the student of to-day.

Most of those who otherwise would be attempting
here to reconcile to their digestions the varied menu
of the feast of learning are away attempting a more
practical reconciliation on the battlefields of Europe.
There all the discoveries and inventions of modern
times, capable of being twisted by human ingenuity
to the purpose of destruction, are being pitted against
one another in the defence of those primal instincts
of national honour and safety which we inherit from
ancient man, and to the strength of which, it has
been remarked with universal satisfaction, education
has added if possible a more terrible pertinacity and

What will be the nature of the reconciliation?
I am not thinking even vaguely of the terms of
peace, the new map of Europe or future forms of
government. We have reached a stage in the
evolution of the world when something has to give.

That something has already given is fairly
obvious. Every enthusiast deems his hour has now
come. The war, we hear, is to produce a great
spiritual revival, and the thoughts of men are to be
turned from their practical and material concerns to
higher" things. Or, if we listen again, science is
coming to its own to regulate all the affairs of a
nation chastened by catastrophe to a fitting sense of
its colossal folly. One cries that the go-as-you-please
existence of the British Empire is at an end, and
every citizen is to be trained to bear arms to defend
his country and to carry into the avocations of peace
the spirit of co-ordination and subordination to a
common purpose learned in the barrack - room.
While another cries, and the cry seems to lose its
ring of confidence as the struggle lengthens, that this
war is a war to end war for ever.


Merely to enumerate a few of these antagonistic
aspirations is to show that no decision has been
reached as regards them, nor indeed can be till a
decision is first reached on the field. It is merely as
though the bottom had dropped out of the mill-race
of human emotions and each jostling element in the
turbulence, suddenly relieved from the antagonism
and obstruction of its neighbours, had sprung forward
crying victory. Yet, all are agreed that little in our
daily lives will be the same as it was before the war.
The universities of the future will certainly not be, as
in the past, proud to be considered the last sanctuaries
of lost causes. But there is one definite decision
that has been reached, whatever be the issue of the
conflict, which concerns us deeply, and that is that
science, whether it be loved or hated, whatever else
be relegated to a museum of antiquities, is absolutely
essential and indispensable if the nation is to survive
either in war or in peace. Magna est veritas et

The reconciliation that will be arrived at on" the
battlefield will be a reconciliation of exhaustion.
The reconciliation that will endure must be one
between the old in thought and manner and the new
in things, which can no longer co-exist. The
humanist, the student of man, must admit into his
world the science of the external universe, and modify
his ideas accordingly. Instead of his being the
central figure in a system of his own creation, man
is being constrained to move in an orbit by a power
external to himself. The battle between the old and
the new has but lately been joined in earnest. But
the incongruity of the battlefield the most wonderful
and terrible of scientific weapons, submarines, dread-
noughts, zeppelins and aeroplanes, each a mass of
the most ingenious and beautifully constructed
scientific machinery grappling on behalf of political


systems that are mouldering: and codes of inter-
national ethics that are frankly savage is but a
symptom of the age. The antinomy between the old
and the new is to be seen in its greatest perfection
only in the ancient universities. As the child is
father to the man, it is in the schools and universities
of a country that the horoscope of its future is cast.
They are the microcosm wherein is to be sought the
discordant elements which have to be reconciled.
But this is a reconciliation which must begin a
generation or two before it can mature, and in this
reconciliation the council-chamber is world-wide and
the plenipotentiaries are university teachers and

It is the growth of the power of things over ideas,
of science over instincts, of external nature over
human nature, that gives to the problem of war its
only feature of novelty and therein its only hope of
solution. Science now forges the thunderbolts that
Jove is pleased to hurl. It has displaced Ceres the
giver of harvest, Mercury the messenger of the gods,
and well-nigh all the ancient deities, save Jove. Jove
remains to cultivate the artistic temperament on the
top of Olympus, dissipating on his loves and his
hates, his fears and his jealousies, the resources of
a world which he is powerless to replenish, and
which has outgrown him.

The older subjects have one great advantage over
science. In the course of their long history they
have developed an unrivalled vocabulary of vitupera-
tion and contumely for poachers in their preserves
who have sneaked in in disguise. Would that they
might occasionally direct it against those amongst
themselves who are for ever discussing science and
scientific research, and are as intimate with either as
I am with the Greek drama. Indeed, thanks to the
compulsory Latin and Greek in our early education



and to the absence of compulsory science in theirs,
the comparison is unduly favourable. We are told
that science is materialistic and concerned with the
bread-and-butter side of life, whereas the humanistic
studies elevate human character and inspire human
ideals. Our criticism of these studies is that the
elevation of human ideals and inspiration of human
character has not progressed to keep pace with the
growth of physical power put into the hands of men
by science. They are ideals that cannot co-exist
with science without wrecking the world. As for the
bread-and-butter libel, our trouble is that scientific
knowledge and capacity in this country has been
valued so cheaply, whereas the road to prosperity
and honour has lain along the well-beaten and time-
honoured road. The smallest acquaintance with the
history of scientific progress would disclose what is a
commonplace to scientific men, that all the grandest
discoveries which have been subsequently exploited
for utilitarian ends and have brought in untold
millions of wealth to the commerce and industries of
the country, have been made uniformly by men,
without reward and without even the thought or
expectation of reward, labouring solely for pure love
of Truth. We are warned with unconscious humour
of the danger "of the divorce of science and the
scientific spirit from literature and art, from morality
and religion, and generally from the human element
of education." But the scientific man is not especially
deaf to the appeal which literature, music, painting
and sculpture, the ethics of human conduct, morality
and religion make to mankind in general, though he
may be more conscious of their limitations than
others. It is the ordinary man and his instructors,
the statesman, the headmaster, the poet, divine and
artist who, too often, through defects in their early
education, are both blind and deaf to the spirit of


science. Their present attention has been directed
to its existence by the fear of annihilation, and their
interest is mainly in its profanation to the purpose of

They inhabit a world a thousand times more
wealthy than their predecessors did, but they do not
understand why. They can wage war on a thousand
times more lavish and destructive a scale, but it is
not to them that the world can look for recuperation.
Science, which has enlarged the heritage of man
beyond reckoning, and which promises to enlarge it
beyond the dreams of phantasy, is a sealed book to
the majority, more than any other branch of human
activity and endeavour at the present time. The
opponents of science are already arguing for the
retention of everything that is time-honoured and
classical in our curricula alongside with what is
essentially modern and of present-day significance.
It is not so much that the subjects they represent
have no present-day application as that, as they
represent them, in complete isolation from the main
development of scientific thought, their influence has
become pernicious and a barrier to a properly-
balanced co-ordination between the old and the
new. Every argument they use against scientific
specialisation untempered by humanistic influences
applies with much greater aptness to their stereo-
typed humanism, uninstructed by knowledge of the
external world, and incapable of adapting itself to a
world of men which has changed in essential respects
more in the past century than in the whole previous
period of recorded history. If they are incapable of
growth and development to keep pace with the
growth of science, if enthralled with the contempla-
tion of the world as it was they cannot envisage the
world as it is, science would be the last to deny them
a sanctuary in the ancient homes of learning, but


science does deny them the right or the power to
mould the destinies of the present or of the future.
But a sanctuary in which to keep alive the memory
of the glories of departed times is in fact the thing
they dread most. They claim nothing less than that
their decadent humanism shall continue to be in the
future, as it has been in the past, the sole avenue to
positions of lucre, honour, opportunity and influence
in vast fields of State service a claim that is pre-
posterous, and from which the present holocaust
became possible.

No man can serve two masters, and, if he is a
man not specially endowed with moral courage or
special enthusiasm and talents, he will be but
human if he elects to serve that master with most
power in the State to start him on a prosperous
career. Science has hitherto had little or no power
to do that. The Civil Service is but one specially
notorious instance, but it must suffice. Eminent
scientific men have recently decided to insist, as
a practical step towards the accomplishment of
what they have been advocating for seventy years,
that capital importance be assigned to the natural
sciences in the competitive examinations for the
Home and Indian Civil Service. Hitherto these
examinations have been regulated by the desire
not to secure the best men, most suitably trained
for their work, but rather to secure men from
particularly favoured universities, especially from
Oxford. Science is not of any capital importance,
and a man professing a group of the natural sciences
as his central subject could only be successful by a
miracle. If you wish to laugh, you should read
the imaginary interview between a candidate and
the Civil Service Commissioners in Science Progress
for July 1916. Ridicule is the only weapon against
such folly.


Unfortunately, however, the times are too serious
for ridicule. At the first prick of the lance of a
scientific enemy, the indispensability of science to
the nation, if it is to continue to exist, became
for the first time universally recognised. Were she
all that her worst and most ignorant detractors
have alleged, wooed she must be in earnest now,
if only for the defence of her superior sisters. Before
that realisation, every sort of objection that cant
has hitherto invented to bar the way must now go
down. We shall be a stronger people in future
in the competitions of peace, as well as in the
actual struggle of war, in consequence, but this will
be but a small gain indeed compared with what
we shall become if science teaches the nation to
recognise Truth apart from traditional belief. To
those to whom science is associated only with the
carnage of the battlefield or with the hubbub of
the market-place such an aspiration will be unin-
telligible. Nevertheless, to-day, in the orgy of lying
which has accompanied the war, scientific truth is
the only aspect of truth that has not been cheapened
and made nauseating, and which stands so far
above all personal prejudice and passion as to
be unshaken. Until a similar veracity of thought
and action becomes universal, there can, in the words
of Huxley, be no alleviation of the sufferings of

The cult of science is becoming daily, almost
hourly, more difficult to gainsay, but, in the curricula
of the ancient universities, a culture that reached
its zenith before the birth of Christ still struggles
to retain its complete ascendency in human affairs
and over the human mind. It has been said of
mathematical analysis that it is merely a mill.
Nothing can be got out in the answer, which,
wittingly or unwittingly, was not introduced in the


enunciation. But the same is generally true even
of the humanistic and scientific philosophies. The
mind is merely the mill, and what comes out depends
only on what you put in. This does not detract
from the value of the process, assuming, of course,
as in mathematical analysis, that the mind is
capable of reasoning correctly, and does not introduce
errors of its own. In every sphere the solution
of a problem is a vastly important step forward
from its enunciation, though errors usually arise from
the latter rather than from the former.

The humanistic philosophy feeds its mill with man
and it gets out man. Man is the raw material, the
reasoning machine, and the sole judge of the product,
whether it is true or false, noble or base. Thinking
that he was appealing beyond himself to a higher
external power, and often indeed claiming direct
inspiration therefrom, he created deities in the image
of himself, and endowed them with various aspects of
his own nature. There was no break in the vicious
circle of thought, no real appeal beyond his own
instincts and intuitions, until men of science, in
their study of the laws of external nature, became
acquainted with a very different and totally im-
personal aspect of Truth, and a very different ruler
of the universe than that which hitherto had appealed
to the uninstructed and self-centred imagination of
man. Now, in so far as the realm of external nature
interacts with, and in the most fundamental sense
possible, absolutely controls humanity, the mistake
of neglecting it is serious. Conclusions which may
have appealed irresistibly to the jury of the human
intellect for thousands of years may be false, and
may indeed raise the question whether man in fact is
not essentially insane. That would certainly be the
verdict at the present moment, if any outside rational
being surveyed the world, seeing nothing but the


physical aspects of the present struggle. Hitherto,
Nature destroyed merely such men as got in the way,
by chance and without any design, vindictive or
benevolent. But now, for the first time on such a
universal scale, Nature is organised to the uttermost
by man with the design of destroying man, and there
can be no question of her powers of accomplishing
the work to which she has been put. Philosophies
that have come down to us from the day of the
wooden horse of Troy are not capable of dealing with
such a new fact.

In the experimental philosophy of science the raw
material is not man, but the ascertained facts of
external nature so far as these can be discovered
and established. The mill is still the human mind,
but the raw material is external to and independent
of the mind. That this is so is evidenced by no
dialectical argument, but by the state of the world
to-day and the progress it has made in the last
hundred years, since the new philosophy reached its
general and consistent fruition. Errors are still
possible, as the mind still enters into the conclusion.
But the mind is not now trying to lead, to dream
dreams or to see visions, but "to give up every
preconceived notion and to follow humbly wherever
and to whatsoever abysses Nature leads," as Huxley
said. The consensus arrived at when a number of
minds, so striving, reach by different roads the
same result in their pursuit of natural knowledge, is
unique. The Oriental mind, as the Japanese and
Hindu students of science have shown, meet on
common ground with the American and European
mind in the pursuit of natural science. Science is the
only aspect of Truth that is universal and independent
of the barriers that divide East from West and people
of one religion from those of another. The mind is
no longer dealing with its own unverifiable impres-


sions. Nature is in the witness-box and experiment
is the interrogating- counsel. Provided the counsel is
skilful and Nature communicative, the jury honest,
receptive and free from preconceived opinion, the
decision is true not merely to the canons of human
reasoning, but true also to external reality. The
verdicts of the humanistic and scientific philosophies
differ from one another, as the rule rather than the
exception, as much as did the Pythagorean and
Copernican solar systems, when external reality is
involved, and, after all, how often is it not? Just
so far as the raw material is not concerned with man
at all, directly, and in direct ratio to the extent that
it is not concerned with life at all, other than the
purely mechanistic and physico-chemical aspect of
the vital process, a new world opens out independent
of and hardly dreamt of by the older philosophy.

Mr A. J. Balfour, in his Glasgow Gifford lectures,
has done good service by pointing out how, time and
again, in the science of the inanimate universe,
among some of the more fundamental theories, that
particular theory which, as the subsequent history of
science has shown, is destined to survive, has appealed
irresistibly, and in the teeth of apparent evidence to
the contrary, to the human mind as correct, genera-
tions or centuries before anything like a rigid or even
satisfying proof was forthcoming. It is to be hoped
that this may do something to stimulate interest
among scientific men in a subject which has been
distasteful ever since Bishop Berkeley made the
impressive discovery that if you do not put the
world of external reality to begin with into the
mental mill, you may go on turning it for ever
without it coming out.

In certain spheres, which daily and hourly
are enlarging themselves to embrace more and
more of our daily life, and to be fraught with


weighty consequences to man, in departments where
hitherto the humanistic philosophies have been
supreme, the old intuitions have melted away in the
light of science like snow in the light of the sun.
In these spheres the world is, as it were, emerging
from beneath an accumulation of perennial snow,
which descended lightly, graciously and imperceptibly
enough, but is now compacted into unyielding fetters,
melting, it is true, but how reluctantly! Granted
there may be heights above the snow-line which
the rays of the sun can only beautify and render
the more dazzlingly white, granted there may be
deep valleys penetrating down to the common level
to which the direct rays of the sun can never find
access, the kiss of science is on all the fields where-
in men labour and earn their bread, and it is only
a matter of time before the frozen grip of the past
relaxes for ever. An exuberance as of the Alpine
meadows in spring will alternate with the desola-
tion wrought by the avalanche, as the new influence
unbuttresses the old polities and brings them roaring
down. As the geologist of to-day will show you
the scars that the surface of the earth still bears
from the time when the glacial epoch relaxed its
grip, so the conflict now fairly joined between
the old and the new will not end without leaving
scars as enduring and effecting changes as great.

The suddenness of the change would in any
case have created a condition of things dangerous
to live through. But it has been rendered im-
measurably more dangerous and incalculable in
this country by the attempt that has been made
to put the youth of the nation into cold storage,
to foster a love for a regime that is ending, never
to return, to sow in the cradles of the future a
secret contempt for and distrust of science and its
methods, ineradicable save by death and impotent



save for evil. The great function of death is to
rejuvenate the world perennially, and to keep it in
tune with a changing environment. Our wise men
have tried to defeat it by drilling the oncoming
generations in the dead languages and humanistic
philosophies and religions of their forefathers, and
the transitional period ahead promises to be most
uncomfortable in this country.

But it has now been borne in on the conscious-
ness of the most reactionary that for the State to
leave science to the tender mercies of its priests
and humanists is to ask for extermination. Our
boasted moral superiority over our enemies can
only make us deserve victory. Science alone can
achieve it on the battlefield, and safeguard it sub-
sequently. We may pray for rain, but as a shrewd
clergyman once remarked, "What is the use of
praying for rain with the wind in the east ? "

Hitherto the war has been represented as
originating in mistaken ideas of Right, but it equally
is due to mediaeval ideas of Might. The professors
of history and politics and the military publicists
of Germany, who revived and made palatable the
ancient doctrine of " Might is Right," intoxicated,
no doubt, by the new weapons and inventions of
science, regarded them from the childish standpoint
of the savage. These old ideas cannot coexist with
science. If they involved merely the destruction
of those who held them it would be just, but they
jeopardise the whole race.

If the task of altering the character of a nation's
education is, like afforestation, slow in its fruition,
when accomplished it resembles rather the pro-
cesses of geology in its initiation. Chemistry
emerged as a science from being the handmaid to
medicine 250 years ago, but in the Scottish uni-
versities its recognition, as a separate subject of


education, apart from medical education, belongs
almost wholly to the present century. Time was
when learning- and religion were synonymous, and
culture and scholarship were the exclusive pursuit
of the religious orders, who alone could read. The
emancipation of learning from religion occurred with
the Renaissance, but the two are still confused in
the education of the school. I visited this summer
a small place in Aberdeenshire, too small to be
deemed worthy of a post office, a telegraph or
telephone, but boasting two schools, a Roman
Catholic and a Protestant school. It reminded
one of the lines from lolanthe

" For every child that's born into- this world alive
Is either a little Liberal or a little Conservative."

Happy is the nation that has already settled such
questions as this. It is idle to cry peace where
there is no peace. Between the spirit of science
which welcomes criticism and knows no finality in
its beliefs, or authority to impose them, and the
spirit of the old creeds which, to survive, must
entwine themselves with the immature intelligences
of children, in the name of and in the place of educa-
tion, there can be nothing in common and no real

I now wish to consider one or two of the barriers
to the proper growth and development of science in
this university. On the educational side the tradi-
tions are all in favour of breadth or shallowness as
against narrowness or depth, according to which
point of view you take. My own view is that
education, whether in the classics, mathematics or
in science, must be deep before it can be broad.
To a man who has plumbed the depths of a single
subject the whole world takes on a new meaning.

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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 6 of 18)