Science in the Humanities


IN mediæval days, when ecclesiasticism ruled, there were venturesome spirits who held that there might be truth without dogma. They sought to discover from the literature and life of Greece and Rome those facts of human nature which were available, and yet were wholly removed by their antiquity from the speculations of dogma and the dangers of heresy. These fields of research became known in time as the Humanities, and as such they are known to-day. The subject includes, not only Greek and Latin literature, but the general domains of philology, history, and archœology. The habits of Science have aided in the organization, the thoroughness, and the order of these studies; but I make bold to postulate that Science has not yet developed sufficiently to be classed among the Humanities. It has been a servant, but not a companion of the temple.

Science has accomplished miracles of research in regard to human comfort and well-being, but despite the contributions of psychology and of social and political inquiry, it has not yet done its part in teaching us to understand one another better. Its language is definite, distinct, mathematical, and unconscionably ugly. If it is spoken in the presence of the uninformed, they hasten away or they strive to change the subject. It is not inviting, it is difficult to learn; and yet, once we have mastered it, we find it devoid of all refinement. Whoever has a fair reading knowledge of any of the major living languages can readily translate a scientific book from it into his mother tongue. Even to write a scientific work in a foreign language does not require very much greater facility.

This is not the case with the literature of the Humanities, which touches all the arts. It is fortunate that those who hold to the mechanistic theory of life are full of enthusiasm and believe seriously in the tenets of their creed, for they are under obligation to explain the phenomenon of personality. If this be due to reactions within the mind, qualified by its physical and chemical structure, including the action-patterns there recorded by processes of photo-chemistry, the doctrine must be set forth in other than technical language. To do this will require an achievement in the art of scientific literature which has not yet been generally attained. The refinements of speech which indicate personality are not present in the abstract language of Science.

It has been said that it makes but little difierence what one believes: it is how he believes, that is far more important. We may say that this has to do with the art of living. And again, it might be maintained that it is what a man says rather than how he says it that determines whether his utterances shall be heard or read, and remembered. Language, as we have observed before, is a vehicle of intellectual traffic. Its business is to carry ideas, mental concepts, information, and, at times, the truth. It is a clumsy invention, its steering apparatus is very defective, and with the greatest caution it often carries us along the paths of error. This is not wholly to be avoided by precision. There is always the receiving mind; and the purpose of language is not fulfilled until the receiving mind has accepted and placed in storage in its proper compartment of the brain the bundle of thought addressed to it. Meticulous precision often misdirects the bundle.

The other day Professor Simkhovitch showed me a Chinese painting made in the eleventh century, which impressed me very deeply. It was said of the artist who painted it that he depicted the souls of things. It was a simple landscape, with a little house in the foreground and beyond, a lake or an arm of the sea. Beyond and about this were mountains, and over the lake was a low fog. It was a little picture, the size of the leaf of an octavo book, taken from an album in some old collection. That is all I can say in describing it in detail, and yet it had a magic beauty, a beauty of the kind that imposes silence, that arouses a cosmic emotion and makes friends draw close together when they see it. There was not a single trick in the making of it to remind one of the painter, not a single stroke of the brush to call attention to the painting, but on the margin some owner wrote of the artist, centuries ago, ‘He useth his inks as the Lord God useth his waters, neither of which have I the gift to understand.’

I have the faith to believe that there are these cosmic emotions awaiting us in Science as soon as we learn that it takes the soul of an artist to tell the truth, the whole truth, with all the facts correlated unto the truth. If you desire to tell me how much you know, you must tell it to me in words that I can understand. As soon as you use expressions with which I am unfamiliar I cease to marvel at your wisdom, and begin to wonder whether or not you are practicing quackery. The whole armament of quackery consists in words and phrases that the listener does not understand. You must keep within my comprehension if you are to have good standing with me. My ignorance may be colossal, — indeed, I assure you that it is, — but I hold that it does not accord with the graces of life to offend me because of it. We children of the earth have our weaknesses; we are not missing the mark when we assert that every one of us is, in one respect or another, feeble-minded. It is pathetic to consider how widely the field of our vision is covered with blind spots. That, perhaps, is why we are so sensitive. It is not given to us to look intimately into the consciousness of one another, and so we do not know where the blind spots and the blurred spots are. Therefore we must be simple in our speech. We never shall know all that goes on within the consciousness, even of those closest to us; but the key to understanding is simplicity.

What is simplicity to one is not simplicity to another, and yet the crossroads from achievement into the minds of our fellows must be maintained as well-beaten paths if Science is to enter into the daily life of the world. It is not childishness to speak in a language that a child can understand. It is art. If we leave the simplicity of art out of consideration when we say simple things, if we load our everyday speech with unnecessary technicalities, what medium shall we have when we want to explain something difficult? Then language will fail us. We may have the thoughts, but they will die within us.

Let us consider for a moment how much good thought dies. It is not alone by the fires of wrath that libraries, and storehouses of wisdom, and temples made holy by enshrining the worship of many generations are destroyed. That which is ruined by war and hate, or even consumed by age, is less than that which is lost because the mind that conceives it cannot find the words with which to tell it. Every one of us knows the tragedy of talent wasted or gone astray — lost because its possessor could not speak; because the words were not available. It is not precision that such men lack; it is the art of speech.

Suppose the language of chemistry, instead of being the kind of Volapük that it is, were something desired of all men and women who look for the fine and beautiful things in life. The imagination is almost stunned at what might ensue. We cannot invent this thing, but if we wish for it hard enough, maybe it will come some day. Then the world may be vastly different, and better than now.

The man of research must set forth his findings in terms that will be understood. If he studies merely for his own satisfaction, and does not contribute his results to the great store of knowledge, he is far more reprehensible than the miser; for the miser cannot carry his treasures with him when he dies. The man of research can do what amounts to just this, and it is his duty, his obligation, to contribute what he has learned, the treasures of Nature that he has won, to the world. Unless he does so, he may die insolvent, a debtor to the world, a bankrupt in human history.

The man of science in industry has a similar problem, which is not only a duty, but a necessity, if he would succeed. Unless he owns the works, he cannot direct them; and unless he can explain the problems of materials and reactions to his directors, he can hardly ask them to follow his advice. How many industries have been ruined because some man who knew and would gladly have explained lacked the art to explain.


We talk of Science and Art as if they were beautiful twin sisters of Culture, gracefully standing in the open portal of Academe. Following this vague abstraction, a painter will drape a brunette model for Science and a blonde one for Art, and pose them as bringing gifts to his favorite girl or his more insistent wife, seated in a big chair as the Civic Spirit. Science is likely to offer an apothecary’s balance, and Art a piece of a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo. Then the picture goes up in the new City Hall.

To all appearances these two lovely sisters are inseparable; they vie with each other only in the abundance of their gifts. Gifts they do indeed bring, but this is the whole substance of their relationship. They are not intimate at all. They do not like each other; they do not understand each other, and they do not even speak the same language. And they are not sisters.

The other day a gentleman distinguished for his eminence in affairs, as well as for his achievements as a patron of the arts, said in substance, ’The day of the industrial pioneer is passing. The day of the artist is at hand. The Greeks, who knew innumerable things that we have not yet learned, knew also the value of art in the development of citizenship. The mediæval kings knew this, too, and they built cities of incomparable beauty: the capitals of states adorned with the best that we know of architecture and decoration; and then and there lived happy men and women who found joy in their daily tasks. They sang at their work. They did the things they wanted to do and they wanted to do good things, being inspired by the beauty around and about them. And so they were good citizens.’

Those were days when Art reigned and Science was not. These are days when Science reigns and Art is puny and sick. Art shows some signs of recovery and growth, but it is not yet thriving because it has not yet found its place in the hearts of the people. Science, on the other hand, has grown and prospered enormously, and it shows the effects of too rapid growth. Indeed, Science is bad-mannered, with all the faults of the newly rich; and it has no ethical standards. It will take any job that comes along: it will purify air and water and make life more comfortable and wholesome and clean; or it will, with equal ardor, take up its latest task and carry out its latest achievements, which, to its shame be it said, have made war more murderous, more cruel, more horrible than ever it was before.

Chemistry, for instance, is so little mated to Art that if we are to mention the two together without causing a smile, we must call chemistry by the abstract name of Science. We do not maintain that chemists are not artists in life, or that they are men without the refinements and graces that follow the best there is in thinking. In fact, we are not writing of chemists at all; we are writing of chemistry as an entity; of what is suggested by that blackhaired girl with the scales, if you please.

Let us go further than this, and say that we are not yet civilized in applied science. Neither, for that matter, is any other people; but this is no reason why we should not make the effort to improve ourselves. And Science will not become wholly civilized in its work until it becomes much more closely affiliated with Art than as a mere purveyor of raw materials. The relation of Science to Art to-day is that of the quarryman who gets out marble for the sculptor; a worthy task and good service, but it is not companionship.

When news is brought that a chemical factory is to be built in a neighborhood, the disinterested neighbors, as a rule, do not like it. After it is built, and when it proceeds to befoul the air and bemess the streets, those who can move away do so. I am not blaming anybody for this; I am merely regretting the fact that there is so little of art in its civic or public sense in applied chemistry. In the industries we do not know how to do better than hide our works in some desolate place where there is least likelihood that a protest will be registered against us. Our business with the authorities is usually of a legal sort in which we appear as defendants. Then, when the civic powers intervene and make us contain our nuisances within our gates, they are teaching us the first principles of Art. With no attempt at definition, we know that Art does not offend against enlightenment, and we shall also postulate that it makes for good citizenship.

No; Science and Art are not twin sisters; the decorative painters have been all wrong. They are not even of the same sex. Science should bear in mind that the world is not complete, and should address itself to the wooing of Art. Then, when they are wedded, and we are all their children by adoption; when chemical factories shall have become adornments to the places where they are built; when industrial works shall be wished for along with cathedrals and schools and museums and public libraries; when the opening of a mine shall predicate a centre of enlightened citizenship among those who work in it, and the master shall be, as in Leonardo’s day, an artist because he is an engineer; and when the language of science shall have become human, living speech — then will dreams come true and a golden age be at hand. By this sign we shall know that Science has united with the Humanities. Until then is our boasting vain.


It has been our habit to regard Science as an impersonal thing, its findings absolute rather than relative; and in this respect I fear we have been led astray by the vanity of dogma. Now, dogma is the result of what Professor Sumner called the innate laziness of human nature, whereby each generation takes for granted the conclusions of the generations past, merely to save trouble.

Of course, we cannot find answers to all our problems as we meet them, without drawing upon the experiences of the fathers; but in consequence of this ability to find our problems ready solved for us, have come some of the vicious sequelœ of dogma. Among them is the tradition of monkish aloofness and scorn of the public which does not understand. This leads us into unsocial dullness and involves us in serious faults of omission.

Here is an example. One of the great leaders in astronomy made a record of his observations for publication. It was a work of momentous importance. The author found such joy and inspiration in it that he embodied in his preface a popular exposition of what was demonstrated in the pages that followed. The preface was at once a scientific summing-up of the work, a contribution of rare merit to literature, and an illuminating source of information about astronomy for the appreciative lay public. He sent a copy of it to a colleague, asking his opinion in regard to the propriety of writing the preface in terms of popular speech. The reply came promptly. It was highly improper, said the critic, — contrary to the dignity of the profession of astronomy, — and it would surely lower the standing of the author!

Now, the author’s standing had already been made by his achievements in research. His colleague, however, seemed to think that the light of day would dim the truth, and he succeeded in destroying for all of us a beautiful and great thing. For many of us are not learned in astronomy: we needed just that elucidation which the preface contained. But it is lost.

In the name of conscience, what authority have those of us who follow Science with interest to hold in scorn our neighbors whose paths of study have led them through other than our familiar fields? What is the difference between our ignorance of what they have studied and their ignorance of what they think we know? Do we not ask compassion for our own shortcomings? Then should we not grant it unto others? It is only through such scorn as this, or from laziness, or lack of sufficient general culture to express ourselves in measures of grace, that the world at large, both schooled and vulgar, has come to the conclusion that it cannot understand the man of science when he speaks. Even the history of science has not yet been written. Why is there no history of science? I venture to say that it is because the succeeding stations, the platforms of its intelligence, are not generally known. The clear, lucid definitions are not yet available. Somewhere in the progress there has been a lapse, and I hazard the guess that it is in the literary habits of men of research.

Lavoisier had the gift of making things clear in a remarkable measure. He had the graces of life in his speech as well as in his bearing. On that dark day for chemistry when he was led to the guillotine, he implored his executioners to let him finish the work in hand. He would follow them gladly as soon as the work was finished, and they might watch him in whatever manner they pleased. It would mean so much for humanity, he pleaded. But the sansculottes knew better. He had already freed chemistry from the bondage of phlogiston. From what other bondage might he have freed us, had he been spared? Perhaps he would have revealed things still unknown to us, which we see only as through a glass, darkly. And then the history of Science might have been written, long ago.

I am glad to say that the history of Science now bids fair to be written. At least, Professor Sarton (of the University of Ghent, until the blackness of 1914, and now of Harvard) is devoting his life to it.

When we consider the nature and ways of matter we find that it is far from being impersonal. Nitrogen, for instance, has ways of its own that are as baffling to the understanding as are the ways of genius. The family of halogens have any number of Celtic traits; the green chlorine and its cousin fluorine are as full of tricks and potentialities of danger as any Irish lass who ever lived. What is the cosmic history of lead? Consider the allotropy of tin! We cannot all enter into research as to these whimsical qualities; so why not take a good-natured view of all inanimate things and tell of their ways? They are very interesting. Then, when some future disciple of Willard Gibbs tells us all about them, that will be interesting, too. We need a new and a livelier vision of them, just as we need dull catalogues of their reactions, and speculations as to the reasons why they take place. It will do us no harm to consider the personality of matter. There is an æsthetic side to Science if we would but look for it.

The liturgy of Science should not lack beauty. Why should we not inspire reverence and enlightenment instead of discouragement in the layman, when we relate the observations of men of vision and understanding? Why not employ Art and speak in the language of a child as often as we can in telling of reactions and phenomena which are constantly taking place and which abound in cosmic beauty?


We have observed that the Humanities do not include Science, and that Art is the needed handmaiden of all. We have noted that Science and Art are less closely related than they might be; that, in fact, they are not on speaking terms. It appears also that Art, in its simplicity of speech and directness of manner, can guide Science into the fold of the Humanities, and that Science must make the next move if this is to be done. The step is to be taken by the adoption of human, living, colloquial speech whenever and wherever this is possible, in place of the employment of technical terms. We must educate ourselves to do this.

Now, whatever the substance of education may be, we know that it is not promiscuous memorizing. Dr. Martin Rosanoff, when assistant to Professor Friedel in Paris, once asked his master a question in organic chemistry.

Sais pas,’ answered the professor; ‘look it up in Beilstein.’

A few days later he asked another question and received the same response: ‘Sais pas; look it up.’

Finally the assistant said, ‘ The world knows you as one of the greatest authorities on this subject; yet, whenever I ask you, you tell me to look up answers to questions that surely are familiar to you. Is this because you do not remember, or because you want to train me in habits of research ? ’

The old man took him by the arm and led him into the library.

‘ Voilà! ’ he exclaimed; ‘there is all I know. Do you expect me to make a beehive of my mind, storing fragments of information into every little compartment, to the exclusion of all the good things of life? No, indeed!’ he continued; ‘ books are useful instruments and we should use them. But the general principles — these I must ever keep alive in my mind.’

Now, that seems to me to be the essence of education. And since men and women are uneducated in Science, it is the business of those who have to do with it to make the subject so attractive that they will want to learn it. This cannot be accomplished by a policy of frightfulness; and it is better to be in good repute than to be feared and hated, anyway. The barrier of language still holds the followers of Science apart from the otherwise enlightened public; and yet the whole of its terminology is needed for records. So there must be invented a new habit of speech in regard to Science, familiar to the ears of the public, and shocking only to those pedants who consider it lacking in dignity for a man of science to be understood by persons who are as intelligent as he, but who have addressed their attention to other pursuits.

The way to discover this means of communicating ideas should be found in exercise and experiment, repeated again and again until the unwilling listener becomes a willing one. We might take for example the Ancient Mariner, who has left us this exposition of his method: —

I pass like night from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
The moment that his face I see
I know the man that must hear me
To him my tale I teach.

The marvelous tale that Science has to tell is still more wonderful than that of the Ancient Mariner. His unwilling listener was compelled to hear because of the old man’s emotion. His emotion gave wings to his words.

We may recall also that Huxley brought his emotion to bear upon what he said, and he was understood. Tyndall, by his consummate mastery of the art of letters, is still the unapproached example of how to write of Science. The late Robert Kennedy Duncan, with his poet’s vision of the ways of nature, could arouse interest in whatever he spoke about; and there seems to be no one left who has this gift within him.

A curious feature in regard to many efforts to make Science popular is, to use a topsy-turvy simile, that many good people so engaged have overshot their mark. Learned papers are prepared for the cognoscenti and are duly printed in the scientific journals. Then, at the point in these papers where it is shown that a bell rings, or a noise is made, or a light is shown, the popularizer makes his abstract. This is then edited down to the level of infants and idiots, and it is usually published along with puzzles and toy-news. Such literature does not induce men who are engaged in making scientific history to contribute information, nor does it appeal to the intelligent public. Our appeal for simplicity is for simplicity of speech, not for stupidity of subject.

At one time I was loud in joining the chorus that Science should at all hazards be taught in the schools. It is so easy to provide for everything desired in the next generation by adding it to the curriculum of the common schools! There is physiology taught along with the multiplication-table, and psychology sometimes taught in place of English. Chemistry and physics are urgently called for in scornful substitution for Latin and Greek, and the choice of botany or algebra may depend upon the unripe judgment of a child and his preference for the easier course. The mind of the child is a wonderful instrument, but its operation is limited in capacity. If we crowd the process of school with too many subjects, it will be of no more advantage to the pupil than several years spent in constant visits to moving-picture shows.

No; the business of schools is to effect mental preparedness to meet such conditions as may arise. I venture to say that the great problem of schools is to find teachers who have the art to teach. This requires the quick perception, the deft understanding, and the persuasiveness of the professional gambler, who must at once arouse the cupidity of his victim and put his suspicions to sleep. The teacher must arouse the curiosity of whomever he would teach, and, by subtlety of wit, find an entrance into his understanding. Of such are the teachers of a better day than ours.


It seems to me that teaching is the greatest of the arts, and that every one of us, no matter what his walk of life may be, is engaged willy-nilly for a good part of his time in teaching. Surely every father and mother is engaged in it; and I am persuaded that the vast majority of children address themselves to the problem of teaching their parents that the life of their day is wholly incompatible with the methods of a generation past. The master who learns how to handle men is taught by the men he handles. The senator and congressman in the throes of their eloquence are endeavoring to teach their honorable colleagues what they take to be wisdom, and their constituents they endeavor to tell of their impassioned patriotism. Whenever we endeavor to persuade any one to do as we want him to do, we try to teach him. Teaching is the universal art, and the greatest of them all.

Now, the greatest thing to teach is the science of living, the understanding of human reactions, the ways of people and things, and the cognizance of them. So my former passionate belief in the need to teach children thermodynamics, the gas-laws, the chemical elements, osmosis, and other things of the kind has lost conviction as the years of meditation have come upon me. These things are interesting, intensely interesting, but most of us do not know how to make them so. Of course, most of us do not understand anything about them; but of those who do, the majority are so anxious for precision that they lose the sense of art in the telling, and so forget the very purpose of language.

Not long ago I heard a lecture on the constitution of matter, in which the learned man who delivered it explained a certain hypothetical situation. The hypothesis was set forth with great care and elaboration, but it was difficult to comprehend. After spending several minutes in expounding the idea the professor looked up and said, ‘ Like beads on a wire,’ and straightway every one breathed a sigh of relief, and understood.

When we can teach Science so that a child can understand it, let us teach it to children; until then, is not our main business to look for teachers who have the art to teach anything that is worth while? Who wants a child to prattle Beilstein, anyway? If grown-up men and women with well-trained minds cannot bring themselves to listen to the speech of Science so long as it sounds as it does, surely children are likely to be confounded by it.

I do not want to run amuck at this point, although I can smell the danger. I have said that the way to learn how to express ourselves in Science is by experience; and here I find myself drifting into a field in which I claim no right to speak: the field of pedagogics. I hold no brief for the present curricula of our schools, nor have I any to propose. We know that the ordinary teacher cannot teach Science, and that there is a hazard in loading him with the task. On the other hand, it seems all wrong that what we call the Humanities should not include a knowledge of the intellectual tools with which men work for progress in our own day. It seems a pity that boys and girls at school should not know of the synthesis of sugars from water and carbon dioxide in the green leaves; of the polymerization (dreadful word!) of sugars to gums and starches and cellulose. It seems too bad that, in the days when their faculties of observation are most acute, their eyes should not be opened to the history of the hills and the valleys around and about them. And if they know more of the nature of the nerve-reactions of the human animal, it almost seems that it would be easier rather than harder to teach ethics.

True, the art of teaching classic lore is thousands of years old; it is well developed and complete. The art of teaching mathematics is also of ancient days, and yet I sometimes doubt if the philosophy of mathematics is efficiently taught at school. On the other hand, the art of teaching Science is only about fifty years old; consequently it often lacks the polish, the finish that we find in the teaching of other subjects. But that is no reason why we should wait a thousand years for improvement. Why not resolve to be artists at the work? Then we may become artists in the work.

Time was when all records were made in Latin and Greek. At present they are made in English, French, German, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese, and some of us have not the gift of tongues. So we are in a quandary. We have great need of scientific thinking, while teachers are not equipped in the art of developing it, and children are leaving school to avoid the hard work of thinking about what does not interest them.

Perhaps my meditations have led me astray; perhaps it would be wise to begin with Science in the grammar schools, so that a generation of teachers may arise who can impart a knowledge of the ways of stuff and the phenomena of energy. Perhaps it would be wise to try it on the present generation of children, and let them worry out their own salvation. I can speak with no authority in regard to this. But I do know enough to say that we need more earnest, more inspired, and less weary teachers all over the country, and that the way to induce the right young men and women to take up the noble vocation is to do honor to their calling. Money alone will not bring them: we must greet them with a more gracious attitude of mind and heart. Then, out of their more abundant culture and more impulsive efforts will proceed the gentle voice of wisdom.

I am convinced that, if we would grow in grace as a people and wax great in understanding and develop qualities of sympathy that throw a light on the road toward the Kingdom of God, we must first glorify the art of teaching. The teachers will bring their art with them, and then the day of the triumphant entry of Science into the temple of the Humanities will be at hand.

True, the pathway is long and arduous. But, as the people wish for it and its disciples wish to tell of it, that will be the magic, and presto! the road will be made easy. In chemistry, the redheaded family of the halogens will lead in the march of the elements. The tricksy catalysts will keep the people wishing and guessing, to maintain the magic. And all the world will join and dance in the joyous procession, if only the chanting be done in that simplicity and beauty of speech which Art knows, but which Science has not yet learned.