Science and Modern Life


LAST summer it was my lot to be called out of my laboratory to attend in rapid succession (1) a meeting of the Committee on Intellectual Coöperation of the League of Nations at Geneva, a body called into being for the sake of assisting in laying better foundations for international good will and understanding than have heretofore existed; (2) the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Leeds, one of the most important of the Old World’s scientific bodies, whose meetings have marked the milestones of scientific progress; and (3) the International Congress of Physics held at Como and at Rome in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the death of Alessandro Volta, the discoverer of current electricity, and thus, in a certain sense, the initiator of this amazing electrical century — suitable errands to inspire reflections on the place of science in modern life. I should like to present them in the form of a few pictures.

As we sped, a thousand persons, across the Atlantic in an oil-burning ship in which even the modern stoker — whose ‘hard fate’ has often been held up as a symbol of the evils of our ’mechanical age’ — has now a comfortable and an interesting job, for he simply and quietly guides the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of manpower represented in the energy of separated hydrogen and oxygen and carbon atoms rushing eagerly together to fulfill their predetermined destiny, and merely incidentally in so doing sending the ship racing across the Atlantic — in the face of that situation, could I, or could anyone not completely blind to the significance of modern life, fail to reflect somewhat as follows? If Cicero, or Pericles, or any man of any preceding civilization, had been sent on a similar errand, had he had any power at all except the winds, it would have been the man-power furnished to the triremes by the straining sinews of hundreds of human slaves chained to their oars, slaves to be simply cast aside into the sea, if they weakened or gave out, and then replaced by other slaves! Could any man fail to reflect that our scientific civilization is the first one in history which has not been built on just such human slavery, the first which offers the hope, at least, and a hope already partially realized, of relieving mankind forever from the worst of the physical bondage with which all civilizations have heretofore enchained him, whether it be the slavery represented by Millet’s man with the hoe — a dumb beastlike broken-backed agricultural drudge — or the slavery at the galley pictured in Ben Hur, or the slavery of the pyramid builders referred to in the books of Moses?

Or again, could anyone who stood with me at the base of the column of Trajan, matchless relic and symbol of the unequaled magnificence of Rome, fail to muse first that ancient man in the immensity and daring of his undertakings, in the grandeur of his conceptions, in the beauty and skill of his workmanship, in his whole intellectual equipment, was fully our equal if not our superior? For we shall leave no monuments like his. But could he also fail to reflect that ancient man built these monuments solely through the unlimited control of enforced human labor, while we have not only freed that slave, but have made him the master and director of the giant but insensible Titans of the lower world? We call them now by the unromantic names Coal and Oil. It is our triumph over these that has given to him freedom and opportunity. This is one side of the picture of science and the modern world, a side that can be presented with a thousand variants, but all having the same inspiring significance.

Another picture. In a comfortable English home out in the country in North England a small group is seated, sipping after-dinner coffee, enjoying conversation, and interrupting it now and then to listen to something particularly fine that is coming in over the radio. The technique of the reproduction is superb, but no more so than that with which we are familiar in our American homes, for the whole broadcasting idea, as well as the main part of its technical development, is American in its origins. But the programme that is on the air in England is incomparably superior to anything to be heard here, for the English Government has taken over completely the control of the radio. It collects from each owner of a receiving set twelve shillings a year, and then, with the large funds thus obtained, — for there are many radio fans in England as in America, — it provides the radio-land public of England with the largest return in education and in entertainment for eight mills a night ever provided, I suspect, anywhere in the history of the world. For it employs only high-class speakers, musicians, and entertainers of all sorts, so that the whole British nation is now being given educational advantages of the finest possible sort through the radio, at less than a cent a family a night, collected only from those who wish to take advantage of them.

Nor is it merely the subject matter of the radio programmes that is commendable. The value of giving the whole British public the opportunity to hear the English language used, in intonations and otherwise, as cultured people are wont to use it, is altogether inestimable. And, sitting there in the North of England, we had but to turn the dial to the wave length used by Berlin and we heard an equally authoritative use of the German language, and I envisaged a whole population, or as many of it as wished, learning a new language, easily and correctly, instead of through the stupidities of grammar, as we now go at it. What a stimulant to the imagination! What possibilities are here, only just beginning to be realized, for public education, for the enrichment of the life of the country dweller, as well as the city resident, solely because of such an influence as this of modern physics upon modern life.


Now turn to another picture which presents the other side of the story. Sir Arthur Keith, the foremost British anthropologist, is now the president of the British Association. The Leeds meeting represented the fiftieth anniversary of the meeting at which Darwin’s then new theory of evolution had been first vigorously debated. Sir Arthur took last summer, as the subject of his presidential address, ‘Darwin’s Theory of Man’s Descent As It Stands To-day.’ He showed that fifty years of fossil study had given extraordinary confirmation to the general outline of the evolutionary conception, had placed it, indeed, upon well-nigh impregnable foundations.

The following Sunday the Bishop of Ripon preached upon science and modern life. He thought we were gaining new scientific knowledge, and acquiring control of stupendous new forces, faster than we were developing our abilities to control ourselves, faster than we were exhibiting capacity to be entrusted with these new forces, and hence he suggested that science as a whole take a ten-year holiday.

When, the next day, the newspaper men, who had had as good a story out of the whole incident as our newspapers got out of the Scopes trial, pressed the Bishop to define more sharply just what he meant by a ten-year scientific holiday, he was reported to have said that he thought the workers in medicine and in public health ought not to stop, since then the germs of disease might steal a march on us, and avoidable suffering be thereby caused. He had had in mind, rather, a vacation for physics and chemistry and the parts of biology not associated with the improvement of health and the alleviation of suffering.

The Bishop’s explanation is of value as throwing an illuminating side light upon the sort of emotionalism and misunderstanding that is represented in much of the present public antagonism to our scientific progress. The question which the Bishop raises is proper enough, but the conclusion is altogether incorrect. For, first, physics and chemistry cannot take a holiday without turning off the power on all the other sciences that depend upon them, for biological science is at bottom only one of the applications of physics and chemistry; and, second, physics, chemistry, and genetics are, in fact, the great, constructive sciences which alone stand between mankind and its dire fate foreseen by Malthus. The palliative sciences, such as the Bishop mentioned, are indeed worthy of support, but without the fundamental sciences they only hasten and make inevitable the horrors of that day.

The incident is presented because it is illustrative of a widespread attitude as to the danger of flooding the world with too much knowledge. The fear of knowledge is quite as old as the Garden of Eden. Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver torn out by a vulture because he had dared to steal knowledge from the gods and bring it down to men. The story of Faust, which permeates literature up to within a hundred years, is evidence of the widespread, age-long belief in the liaison between the man of knowledge and the powers of darkness. It will persist so long as superstition, as distinct from reverence, lasts.

But there is a real question, not to be thus easily disposed of, which the Bishop’s sermon puts before the man of science. It is this. ‘Am I myself a broadly enough educated man to distinguish, when I am engaged in the work of reconstruction, between the truth of the past and the error of the past, and not to pull them both down together? Am I sufficiently familiar with what the past has learned, and what it therefore actually has to teach, and am I enough of a statesman not to remove any brick from the structure of man’s progress until I see how to replace it by a better one? ’ I am sorry to be obliged to admit that some of us scientists will have to answer that question in the negative. Such justification as there may be for the public’s distrust of science is due chiefly to the misrepresentation of science by some of its uneducated devotees. For men without any real understanding are of course to be found in all the walks of life.

This problem, however, is not at all peculiar to science. In fact, the most wantonly destructive forces in modern life, and the most sordidly commercial, are not in general found in the field of science, nor having anything to do with it. It is literature and art, much more than science, which have been the prey of those influences through which the chief menace to our civilization comes. After the law of gravitation, or the principle of conservation of energy, has been once discovered and established, physics understands quite well that its future progress must be made in conformity with these laws, at least that Einstein must include Newton, and it succeeds fairly well in keeping its levitators and its inventors of devices for realizing perpetual motion under suitable detention, or restraint, somewhere. But society has as yet developed no protection against its perpetual-motion cranks — the devotees of the new, regardless of the true—in the fields of literature and art, and that despite the fact that sculpture has had its Phidias and literature its Shakespeare just as truly as physics has had its Newton or biology its Pasteur.

I grant that in literature and art, and in nonscientific fields generally, it is more difficult than in science to know what has been found to be truth and what error, that in many cases we do not yet know; nevertheless there are even here certain broad lines of established truth recognized by thoughtful people everywhere. For example, the race long ago learned that unbridled license in the individual is incompatible with social progress, that civilization, which is orderly group life, will perish and the race go back to the jungle unless the sense of social responsibility can be kept universally alive. And yet today literature is infested here and there with unbridled license, with emotional, destructive, oversexed, neurotic influences, the product of men who either are incompetent to think anything through to its consequences or else belong to that not inconsiderable group who protest that they are not in the least interested in social consequences anyway, men who, in their own words, are merely desirous of ‘ expressing themselves.’ Such men are, in fact, nothing but the perpetual-motion cranks of literature and of art. It is from this direction, not from the direction of science, that the chief menaces to our civilization are now coming.

But, despite this situation, I should hesitate to suggest that all writers and all artists be given a holiday. This is an age of specialization, and properly so, and some evils from our specialization are to be expected. Our job is to minimize them and to find counter-irritants for them. I am not altogether discouraged even when I find a humanist of the better sort who is only half educated.

Let this incident illustrate. Not long ago I heard a certain British literary man of magnificent craftsmanship and fine influence in his own field declare that he saw no values in our modern ‘mechanical age.’ Further, this same man recently visited a plant where the very foundations of our modern civilization are being laid. A ton of earth lies underneath a mountain. Scattered through that ton in infinitesimal grains is just two dollars’ worth of copper. That ton of earth is being dug out of its resting place, transported to the mill miles away, the infinitesimal particles of copper miraculously picked out by invisible chemical forces, then deposited in great sheets by the equally invisible physical forces of the electric current, then shipped three thousand miles and again refined, then drawn into wires to transport the formerly wasted energy of a waterfall — and all these operations from the buried ton of Arizona dirt to refined copper in New York done at a cost of less than two dollars, for there was no more value there.

This amazing achievement not only did not interest this humanist, but he complained about disfiguring the desert by electrical transmission lines. Unbelievable blindness — a soul without a spark of imagination, else it would have seen the hundred thousand powerful, prancing horses which are speeding along each of those wires, transforming the desert into a garden, making it possible for him and his kind to live and work without standing on the bowed backs of human slaves as his prototype has always done in ages past. Seen in this rôle, that humanist was neither humanist nor philosopher, for he was not really interested in humanity. In this picture it is the scientist who is the real humanist. Nevertheless, the Bishop of Ripon was right enough in distrusting the wisdom, and sometimes even the morality, of individual scientists, and of individual humanists, too. But the remedy is certainly not to ‘give science a holiday.’ That is both impossible and foolish. It is rather to reconstruct and extend our educational processes so as to make broader-gauge and better-educated scientists and humanists alike. There is no other remedy.


But, says someone, these pictures so far deal only with the superficial aspects of life. What has science to say to him whose soul is hungry, to him who cries, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’? Has it anything more than a dry crust to offer him? The response is instant and unambiguous. Within the past half century, as a direct result of the findings of modern science, there has developed an evolutionary philosophy — an evolutionary religion, too, if you will — which has given a new emotional basis to life, the most inspiring and the most forward-looking that the world has thus far seen. For, first, the findings of physics, chemistry, and astronomy have within twenty-five years brought to light a universe of extraordinary and unexpected orderliness, and of the wondrous beauty and harmony that go with order. It is the same story whether one looks out upon the island universes brought to light by modern astronomy, and located definitely, some of them, a million light years away, or whether he looks down into the molecular world of chemistry, or through it to the electronic world of physics, or peers even inside the unbelievably small nucleus of the atoms. Also, in the organic world, the sciences of geology, palæontology, and biology have revealed, still more wonderfully, an orderly development from lower up to higher forms, from smaller up to larger capacities — a development which can be definitely seen to have been going on for millions upon millions of years and which therefore gives promise of going on for ages yet to be.

A fire-mist and a planet,
A crystal and a cell,
A jellyfish and a saurian,
And caves where the cavemen dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty,
And a face turned from the clod —
Some call it Evolution,
And others call it God.

That sort of sentiment is the gift of modern science to the world.

And there is one further finding of modern science which has a tremendous inspirational appeal. It is the discovery of the vital part which we ourselves are playing in this evolutionary process. For man himself has within two hundred years discovered new forces with the aid of which he is now consciously and very rapidly making over both his physical and his biological environment. The Volta Centenary, a symbol of our electrical age, was representative of the one, the stamping out of yellow fever is an illustration of the other. And if the biologist is right that the biological evolution of the human organism is going on so slowly that man himself is not now endowed with capacities appreciably different from those which he brought with him into the period of recorded history, then since, within this period, the forward strides that he has made in his control over his environment, in the development of his civilization, have been stupendous and unquestionable, it follows that this progress has been due, not to the betterment of his stock, but rather primarily to the passing on of the accumulated knowledge of the race to the generations following after. The great instruments of progress for mankind are then research — the discovery of new knowledge — and education — the passing on of the store of accumulated wisdom to our followers. This puts the immediate destinies of the race or of our section of the race, or of our section of our country, largely in our own hands. This spirit and this conviction are the gift of modern science to the world. Is it, then, too much to say that modern science has remade philosophy and revivified religion?


The next picture brings into the foreground what I regard as the most important contribution of science to modern life. The scene is laid in Geneva; the occasion, a meeting of the Council of the League of Nations. The speaker is Nansen, the tall, whitehaired, rugged-faced, heavily moustached Norwegian explorer, now directing the tamed and controlled energies of his fierce viking blood to trying to find a solution to the tragic situation of the Armenians, a situation to which heretofore there has been no solution except extermination. After four years of effort he brings in a discouraging report, and thinks the League of Nations must write down ‘the record of its first failure.’ He requests the Council to strike the Armenian matter from its programme, promising, however, to keep at it himself and to try through other agencies to find a solution. Then Briand of France speaks. Quietly he begs Nansen not yet to despair of the League’s assistance. He is sure some solution can be found, and promises that his country, in financial straits though it be, will not be lacking in lending its assistance. The representatives of other nations follow in similar vein, the problem is retained on the Council’s programme, and the conviction is at least fortified that with the right kind of attack a solution may yet be found to an age-old difficulty — that extermination is not the only answer to race rivalry.

With the right sort of attack! What is it that the League of Nations as a whole is trying to do? It is trying for the first time in human history to use the objective mode of approach to international difficulties, in the conviction that there is some better solution than the arbitrament of war. But whence has come that conviction? Without the growth of modern science it certainly would have been slower in coming. Perhaps it would not have come at all. In the days of the jungle, war was probably the best solution — at least it was the only solution. It was Nature’s way of enabling the fittest to survive, and we are not so far past the days of the jungle yet. Within fifty years as great an historian as Eduard Meyer and as great a humanist as John Ruskin have lauded war as the finest developer of a people. But it has been quite recently demonstrated that war is no longer, in general, the best way to enable the fittest to survive. The Great War profited no one. It injured all the main participants. Modern science has created a new world in which the old rules no longer work.

New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Alfred Nobel was perhaps not far from right when he thought that he had taken the main step to the abolition of war by the invention of nitroglycerine. He has, I suspect, exerted a larger influence in that direction than have all the sentimental pacificist organizations that have ever existed. For sentimental pacificism is, after all, but a return to the method of the jungle. It is in the jungle that emotionalism alone determines conduct, and wherever that is true no other than the law of the jungle is possible. For the emotion of hate is sure sooner or later to follow on the emotion of love, and then there is a spring for the throat. It is altogether obvious that the only quality which really distinguishes man from the brutes is his reason. You may call that an unsafe guide, but he has absolutely no other unless he is to turn his face back toward the jungle from which he has come. There is no sort of alternative except to set up in international matters, precisely as we have already done in intercommunity and interstate affairs, some sort of organization for making studies by the objective method of international difficulties and finding other solutions.

But what exactly do I mean by the objective method? Somebody has said that ‘what we call the process of reasoning is merely the process of rearranging one’s prejudices,’ and we admit the truth of this assertion when we say, as we so often do, ‘Oh yes, I understand that is the excuse, but what is, after all, the reason?’ Indeed, there is no question that a large part of what we call reasoning is in fact simply the rearranging of prejudices. In so far, for example, as we are Republicans, or Democrats, or Presbyterians, or Catholics, or Mohammedans, or prohibitionists, because our fathers bore those brands, — and many of us will be admitted by our acquaintances, at least, to have no other real grounds for our labels, — our so-called reasonings on these subjects certainly consist in nothing more than the rearrangement of our prejudices. The lawyer who takes a case first, and develops his argument later, is obviously only rearranging his preconceptions.

If, however, one wishes to obtain a clear idea of what the objective method is, he has only to become acquainted with the way in which all problems are attacked in the analytical sciences. In physics, for example, the procedure in problem solving is always first to collect the facts — namely, to make the observations with complete honesty and complete disregard of all theories and all presuppositions, and then to analyze the data to see what conclusions follow necessarily from them, or what interpretations are consistent with them. This method, while not confined at all to the physical sciences, is nevertheless commonly known as the scientific method in recognition of the fact that it has had its fullest development and its most conspicuous use in the sciences. Indeed, I regard the development and spread of this method as the most important contribution of science to life, for it represents the only hope of the race of ultimately getting out of the jungle. The method can in no way be acquired and understood so well as by the study of the analytical sciences, and hence an education which has left out these sciences has, in my judgment, lost the most vital element in all education.

Nor is that merely the individual judgment of a prejudiced scientist, as the following quotation from one of our most prominent humanists, a member of the faculty of Harvard University, shows: —

It is the glory of pure science and of mathematics that these subjects train men in orderly and objective thinking as no other subjects can. Here are fields of study in which loose or crooked thought leads inevitably to demonstrable error, to error which cannot be glossed over or concealed. Here are branches of knowledge in which there is no confusion between right and wrong, between post hocs and propter hocs, between the mere coincidences and the consequences of a cause. When you have finished with a problem in any of the exact sciences you are either right or wrong, and you know it. That is why we call them exact sciences, to distinguish them from philosophy, sociology, economics, and the other social sciences, in which the difference between truth and error is still, in most cases, a matter of individual opinion. Many years ago physics was known as ‘natural philosophy’; it was merely a body of speculative ideas concerning the mechanics of nature. It became an exact science by developing an inductive methodology, which makes all the difference between science and guesswork.

Some years ago, in the Harvard Law School, we thought it worth while to inquire into the educational antecedents of the student body, with a view to ascertaining whether there was any relation between success in the study of law and the previous collegiate training of these young men. In the Harvard Law School there are more than a thousand students, all of them college graduates, drawn from every section of the country. Nearly all of them have specialized, during their undergraduate years, in some single subject or group of subjects — languages, history, science, philosophy, economics, mathematics, and so on. Offhand one would probably say that the young man who had devoted most of his attention to the study of history, government, and economics while in college would be gaining the best preparation for the study of law — for these are the subjects which in their content come nearest to the law; but that is not what we found. On the contrary the results of this inquiry showed that the young men who had specialized in ancient languages, in the exact sciences, and especially in mathematics, were on the whole better equipped for the study of law, and were making higher rank in it, than were those who had devoted their energies to subjects more closely akin.

But can education, even in the sciences, do the work fast enough to prevent the catastrophe feared by the Bishop of Ripon? Can we learn to control our emotions and impulses and our new-found powers, to take the long view, and to do the rational thing instead of the emotional, or the vicious, thing with the enormous forces given to us by science? Can we alter human nature?

Perhaps the following is a partial answer; twenty-five years ago if anyone had asked you or me or any body of men, however intelligent, whether human nature could be so altered in a reasonable time as to make it safe to entrust practically every grown man in California and part of the women and children with a thirty-horsepower locomotive which they might drive at will through the crowded cities, and race at express-train speed over the country roads of California, the answer would certainly have been a decided negative. Nobody on earth, I suspect, would have thought such a result possible. And yet that is precisely what has happened. It is true we have accidents, too many of them by far. There is still much to improve, and yet the risk is so small that we never think of it when we enter an automobile. I marvel at the success of it every time I drive in city streets. I glory in it when I see the new race of men the taxi business has created in a city like London. Contrast the clear-eyed, sober, skillful, intelligent-looking London taxi-driver of to-day with the red-nosed wreck of a human being who used to be the London cabby of a quarter century ago, and see what responsibility and power do in altering human nature.

Also the picture which modern science has unfolded of the age-long history of the biological organism is one in which it is seen adapting itself with marvelous success to changes in external conditions. That we, too, at our end of this evolutionary scale, have inherited this adaptability was one of the most striking lessons of the late war, in which we settled down to the endurance of what we thought intolerable conditions with amazing rapidity.


If, then, there be any notes of optimism in modern life, one of them is certainly the note played by modern science. If there be any escape from Malthusianism, — the world’s greatest problem, — science alone can provide it. It is clearly the development of science and its application to modern life that have made possible the support in Great Britain to-day of forty million people, when a hundred and fifty years ago Benjamin Franklin called England overpopulated with eight millions, and when Robert Fulton a little later, in a prophetic mood, saw England holding sometime ‘a population of ten million souls.’ Perhaps this population has to-day gone too far, but the check is being applied. In both England and Sweden to-day the birth rate is less than it is in France. With the creative power of physical science, and the application of intelligence to the findings of biological science, even this problem of population can be faced with a good measure of hope. An international union for its continuous study was formed last summer at Geneva. That is the objective way to begin to attack it.

Finally, can science save our civilization from the fate that has befallen its predecessors, the Sumerian, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman, and the others that have risen and then declined? Are the Keyserlings, the Spenglers, and the other prophets of decay and death to be regarded as real prophets?

The answer is, of course, a secret of the gods, but that these ‘prophets’ are ‘multiplying words without knowledge’ it is easy to show. For our modern civilization rests upon an altogether new sort of foundation. These older civilizations have rested upon the discovery of new fields of knowledge or of art — fields which the discoverers have indeed cultivated with such extraordinary skill that they have been able to reach a state of perfection in them that succeeding generations have often been unable to excel. Witness the sepulchral art of the Egyptians, and the perfection of such principles of architecture as they knew how to use; witness the sculpture, the painting, the æsthetic and the purely intellectual life of the Greeks — an accomplishment so great as to inspire an outstanding modern artist to say that there has been no new principle discovered in either sculpture or painting since the age of Pericles; witness the principles of government and of social order discovered by the Romans, or the arch in architecture, altogether Roman, but reaching perhaps its perfection in the Romanesque and the Gothic of a few centuries later; witness the discovery of the principles of music in central and southern Europe in the Middle Ages, and the perfection that art attained within two or three centuries. And let us remember, too, that humanity for all time is the inheritor of these achievements. This is the truth of the past which it is our opportunity and our duty to pass on to our children.

But our modern world is distinctive not for the discovery of new modes of expression or new fields of knowledge, though it has opened up enough of these, but for the discovery of the very idea of progress, for the discovery of the method by which progress comes about, and for inspiring the world with confidence in the values of that method. So long as the world can be kept thus inspired, it is difficult to see how a relapse to another dark age can take place.

Even if the biological evolution of the human race should not continue, — though why should what has been going on for millions of years have come to an end just now?—yet the process by which progress has been made within historic times can scarcely fail to be continuously operative. This process is the discovery of new knowledge by each generation and the transmission to the following generation of the accumulated accomplishment of the past — the discovery of new truth and the passing on of old truth.

The importance of both elements in this process has not been realized in the past, and dark ages have come. But the means for the spread of knowledge, for its preservation and transmission, the facilities for universal education and inspiration, the time for leisure, and the opportunity for thought for everybody — all these have been so extended by modern science, and are capable of such further extension, that no prophecy of decline can possibly have any scientific foundation. Even arguing solely by the method of extrapolation from the past, modern science has shown that the ups and downs on the curve of history are superposed upon a curve whose general trend is upward, and it has therefore brought forth a certain amount of justification for the faith that it will continue to be upward. In the last analysis, humanity has but one supreme problem, the problem of kindling the torch of enlightened creative effort, here and there and everywhere, and of passing on for the enrichment of the lives of future generations the truth already discovered — in two words, the problem of research and of education.