An Estimate of German Scientific Culture

GERMANY’S claim to preëminence in culture is upheld by the largest body of professors in the world, and there is a tendency in America, a neutral country, to accept it. But is Germany preëminent in science?

In my discussion of this claim, I shall concede that the Germans lead in the subject of organic chemistry, which demands patient industry and the assiduous collection of facts, and which has not yet been absorbed by the subject of electrodynamics, which is so rapidly becoming all-embracing; I shall confine my discussion to physical science, — which treats of those fundamental subjects, light, heat, electricity, and magnetism, — and to mathematics and physical chemistry.

Physics may be called the subject of energy, upon the ramifications of which all life depends. Achievement in it demands the highest powers of the human mind — imagination, mathematical knowledge, and the philosophical insight to plan crucial experiments. It is my contention that the AngloSaxons have shown these powers to the greatest degree; that in the exhibition of scientific culture England and France lead Germany; and moreover, that under the Empire, since the Franco-Prussian war, Germany has fallen to the third place in physics. The question whether this deterioration has been due to militarism and commercialism I leave to the psychologists.

Let us consider the history of physical science. The subject did not exist until, in the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon advocated the necessity of experimental science and wrote his Opus Majus, which is full of philosophical and scientific insight. Bacon also outlined the principle of the telescope. Four hundred years later, Francis Bacon, enlarging upon the work of his predecessor and namesake, established the doctrine of inductive reasoning pursued to-day in all laboratories.

Sir Isaac Newton, taking Kepler’s carefully ascertained principles concerning planetary motions, established the law of gravitation. In doing so, he manifested the peculiar strength of the British mind in scientific generalization. It is probable that no man ever combined the demonstrative and inductive faculties in such a high degree as Newton. The Germans claim that Leibnitz anticipated Newton in the great mathematical discovery of differential and integral calculus; a study of the minds of the two men, however, brings out forcibly the preëminence of the Englishman’s culture.

While Huygens of Holland, as well as Newton, contributed greatly to our knowledge of optics, it may be said that the undulatory theory was established by Thomas Young. Young’s reasoning upon the phenomena of interference of light was one of the greatest contributions ever made to science; the interference of waves of light has long since been recognized as an incontrovertible fact.

It was Count Rumford, an AngloAmerican, who measured the heat developed in boring a cannon, compared it with the amount of work done, and thereby proved that heat has its exact equivalent in motion. Here was exhibited the Anglo-Saxon power of trying crucial experiments. Rumford’s philosophical views were tersely expressed in the words, ‘I hope to live to see the day when phlogiston and caloric will be buried in the same grave.’ Phlogiston was the supposed agent in supporting fire, and caloric was the essence of heat. Priestly, who proved that combustion was supported by oxygen, contributed with Rumford to make the burial a fact. The labors of these two men, together with the contributions of Lavoisier, Regnault, and a great number of other distinguished Frenchmen, laid the foundations of chemistry in the subject of energy. Hydrogen was discovered by Cavendish in England, which thus gave to the world the knowledge of both oxygen and hydrogen.

In the field of electricity, too, Cavendish was a leader, being the forerunner of Faraday in researches concerning the behavior of electricity toward insulators, or in other words concerning its specific capacity; these researches were of great importance to ocean telegraphy. He also anticipated Ohm in the fundamental law which connects the strength of an electrical current with electromotive force and the resistance of the circuit. Sir Humphry Davy contributed, besides the discovery of chlorine, that of the effect of strong electric currents in decomposing earths and alkalis, — a discovery which has led to the establishment of great metallurgical works in Germany and also in America, notably the great plant at Niagara Falls.

Michael Faraday proved the fundamental law that the amount of decomposition of fluids is proportioned to the amount of electricity employed. He was also the father of all the great practical employments of electricity; his experiments and reasoning led to the invention of the dynamo, the telephone, and the apparatus employed in wireless telegraphy. We can imagine with what elation of spirit he wrote to a friend, during his experiments on induction, saying that he had caught hold of a fish which might prove a large one! Faraday’s reasoning was said by Maxwell, the author of the greatest physical hypothesis since the time of the Franco-Prussian War, to be essentially mathematical.

De Candolle, a distinguished Swiss scientist, gives in an interesting book entitled Histoire des Sciences et des Savants pendant deux Siècles some suggestive statistics with regard to the foreign membership in the French Academy from its inception in 1666 to 1883. De Candolle’s list offers an interesting basis for a comparison of English and German scientific culture. In physics, mathematics, and chemistry I find the following Englishmen: Cavendish, Watt (the inventor of the steam-engine) , Davy, Young, Faraday, Brewster (distinguished in optics), Wheatstone (a pioneer in telegraphy), Lord Kelvin, Franklin, Rumford, and Newton. These men were the movers of the world. The Germans in the same subjects were Leibnitz, Gauss, Olbers, Dirichlet, and Bunsen, the latter being, with Kirchhoff, the discoverer of spectrum analysis. (Helmholtz, who is not in De Candolle’s list, was probably elected later. It is interesting, by the way, to note that Helmholtz’s mother was partly Anglo-Saxon; she was a lineal descendant of William Penn, the Quaker.) There are in De Candolle’s list eleven Englishmen and seven Germans.

It is worth remarking as well that the rise of scientific culture in England came largely at the time when peace and liberty prevailed over the pursuit of war. That this culture cannot flourish to the highest degree in a country given over to militarism is an incontestable fact. De Candolle remarks, in his book above mentioned, that science was at a low ebb in England and Scotland during the period of unrest, of dissensions, and of wars in the eighteenth century. His words are especially interesting as he continues: ‘Later, after fifty or sixty years of completely established security, the torch of science burst into fresh flame in the hands of Hunter, Priestly, and Hutton, and eventually when the social order was still more solidly organized, the world beheld the great epoch of Anglo-Scottish science represented at the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries by Cavendish, Davy, Wollaston, Brewster, Herschell, Robert Brown, Dalton, Faraday, Murchison, and the rest.’

The comparative peace which prevailed in Europe between 1840 and 1870 had probably much to do with Germany’s scientific advance during that period. She went far ahead of all other nations in building and equipping laboratories. She developed by patient routine work the general subject of physics. Yet although there was a marked increase during this period in the number of Germans admitted to the French Academy, her work in general failed to show those qualities which I have ascribed to the British. It is a fact that the great physical hypotheses have been Anglo-Saxon in origin. And culture is noticeably lacking in German scientific literature. For clearness of expression and style we must go to the French.

Since Sedan, Germany has fallen into third place in the subjects I have mentioned; England and France have led her. It is significant that with the growth of militarism Germany’s undoubted genius for science has been repressed. Meanwhile England has supplied her with mental food by Maxwell’s electrodynamic theory of light, which postulates that light and heat are electrical phenomena, and that electric waves differ from light waves only in length, — a theory which makes electricity the most important physical agent in the world. Then, too, England and France together have laid the foundations of the new great subject of radioactivity, which is based upon the action of the electron. The electron, the smallest particle known to science, being one thousandth the size of the hydrogen atom, was discovered and measured in England. Its discovery was not accidental, but was due to the methodical application of the mathematical work of Stokes in regard to the internal friction of gases, or what is termed viscosity.

It is true that the discovery of the X-rays in Germany — a fortunate accident, by the way — enabled the English to make the crucial experiment which measured the electron; but the phenomenon of the X-rays remained an isolated one until the English applied it to the theory of radioactivity. This theory is at present the leading one in physical science, and England may be said to have made it her own. It received its name from the discovery of radium by Professor Curie and Madame Curie, in Paris. The centre of investigation in this subject is now Cambridge, England, and American students flock there in preference to going to Germany.

The epoch-making isolation of the electron is profoundly modifying our views of the constitution of mat ter. At present English thought is grappling with the idea of intricate motions even within the atom. Think of the conception of what may be called planetary motions in a particle so minute that it is forever invisible to human eyes! The world has never seen such an exhibition of scientific imagination. Long before the discovery of the electron an English poet wrote these lines in Locksley Hall Sixty Years After: —

Sees the shadow of Himself, the boundless, thro’ the human soul;
Boundless inward, in the atom, boundless outward, in the Whole.

Tennyson’s parallel is apt; in their speculation upon motions within the atom, English scientists have pushed into a region apparently as impenetrable as the space beyond the fixed stars.

Germany is strongest in chemical science. But what achievement in chemical science in Germany equals Lord Rayleigh’s contribution of argon, which led to the discovery of neon and crypton and other gases by Ramsay; or can compare with Ramsay’s discovery of the change of radium into helium, — a fact which profoundly modifies our views of the constitution of matter?

There is always a chance for partisans in science to argue that So-and-so, when he made his great discovery, was merely acting on a previous worker’s suggestion. I suppose that if Democritus and Lucretius should come back to earth to-day, national pride would lead them to claim the origin of both the molecular hypothesis and the electron theory. Germany can reasonably claim that Hittorf anticipated the Englishman Crookes in his discovery of the cathode rays. Hertz may be said to have led the way to wireless telegraphy. But the facts serve to show that Hertz was working on Maxwell’s electrodynamic theory of electric waves; that Marconi had probably not read Hertz’s work before he made his great invention; and that, the discovery was made possible by Branly, a Frenchman, who discovered the first receiver of electric waves, the so-called coherer, — a collection of magnetic particles in a tube which becomes an electrical conductor under the influence of these waves. And American experimenters have now contributed still more sensitive receivers. Altogether the German share in the work is not so very great after all.

Those Americans who are loudest in their praise of German culture often argue from an imperfect knowledge of the history of science. How many Americans realize the importance of the work of their own countrymen? Josiah Willard Gibbs of Yale University gave German chemists a physical foundation for their facts. Langley’s work in aerodynamics led to the invention of the aeroplane. Michelson and Rowland have made the greatest advances in the subject of optics since the Franco-Prussian War. The AngloSaxons invented the telephone, which has profoundly modified and enlarged our views of electrical induction, and has made possible wireless telegraphy. America has lighted the world. It is only too easy for Americans to overlook these facts; and it is equally certain that we are too likely to underestimate England’s achievements in science.

In scientific culture, exemplified by the use of imagination, by mathematical knowledge, and by philosophical insight leading to the performance of crucial experiments, Great Britain stands first.