SCIENCE IS KING (Jun, 1938)
SCIENCE IS KING
“Men who made civilization what it is today were not famous statesmen, conquerors or philosophers. They wereâ€”and areâ€”men engaged in the mechanical sciences”
BY LOWELL THOMAS
OVER the airwaves comes a desperate appeal to the radio station at Nome. “For God’s sake, send help, if you can. We’re starving and dying. There’s an epidemic. Almost everybody is flat in bed.”
“What do you need? Food?”
“Food, yes, and milk. But above all, serum. This whole settlement will be wiped out if we don’t get serum.”
By dog-sled and man-power it would take two weeks and a lot of luck to carry the needed supplies to that stricken community. But there is Joe Crosson with his plane. Can he make it? The problem is put up to him.
“We’ll do our durndest,” he replies, speaking for himself and plane.
We won’t go in to the trouble and danger he goes through. For one thing, it’s an old story to Joe Crosson. He has done it before probably will have to do it again several times. The point at this moment is that he does it. An entire settlement in the frozen North is saved from extinction.
Such an episode, not uncommon in these days, serves here to dramatize the crescendo advance of civilization. I believe everybody agrees that one of the two highest functions of this civilization of ours is to diminish disease. A generation ago the saving of that Arctic settlement would have been impossible.
To whom did those stricken people owe their lives? All honor to Crosson. He did his errand of mercy with courage, fortitude and skill. But without the work that a number of men did before him, some in factory and machine shop, some in chemical laboratory, some in astronomical observatory, all of Joe’s courage and fortitude would have been unavailing and there would have been no call for his skill. No call for help could have been flashed through the air if the physicist Hertz had not discovered the uncanny properties of the waves named after him and if Marconiâ€” who was not educated as a physicist to begin withâ€”had not, later on, developed the means of using those waves and thus made it possible for us to communicate from anywhere to anywhere else without the aid of wires. Crosson could never have flown to the rescue of that settlement but for the experiments of a couple of bicycle mechanics named Wright in Dayton, Ohio. Going back a bit, Wilbur and Orville Wright never could have made their strange machine fly if Gottlieb Daimler had not produced the gasoline engine. And Joe could not have navigated his airship but for the contributions of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, the great trio who may safely be called the fathers of modern astronomy. Finally, would he have had any serum to stop that epidemic if Edward Jenner had not introduced vaccination and thus become the originator of serumtherapy?
From all this, it seems to me, one fact emerges clear. The men who have made civilization what it is were not the famous statesmen, conquerors or even the philosophers. They wereâ€”and areâ€”the men engaged in the mechanical sciences. Do you object that I have included a physician amongst them? Then I refer you to Arthur Keith’s “The Engines of the Human Body” or Dr. Crile’s brilliant work on “Man as an Adaptive Mechanism.” Or watch a skillful surgeon at work. You will see that he is actually a super-mechanic plus, of course, a complete knowledge of the human anatomy. Again, it is generally conceded that William Harvey was the father of modern medicine. Consider his great discovery, the circulation of the blood. It was the first true explanation of the mechanics of the life-stream. Upon it has depended every advance that we have made in the prevention and cure of disease.
The fact that I have stated above will not go undisputed.
The highbrows will say: “To the I pillory with him! He blasphemes the memory of the great philosophers.” Whereupon it occurs to me that I have heard scholars remark that, actually, philosophy has not advanced a single step in any important direction. There have been different systems of philosophy, true, but admittedly none greater than that of the ancient Greeks. And, frankly, I am one of those who are convinced that neither Schopenhauer nor Kant nor Spinoza nor Descartes nor even Papa Plato himself has contributed one jot or tittle towards the saving of a single human life, the curing of a sick child, the alleviation of poverty.
And what of the great conquerors? I can think of only one or two whose achievements had any lasting and beneficent effect. Alexander spread the culture of Europe, such as it was, through Asia and brought back some of Asia’s lore to Europe. But his work, like that of even Julius and Augustus Caesar, has left but few traces. “That which is done violently always has to be done over again.” Caesar, Hannibal, Hammurabi, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, Napoleon Bonaparteâ€”you can have the whole lot of them, for what do we owe them? I recall a line in “Man and Superman” by Shaw: “Commander, when the soldier approaches, Mankind hides away his women and buries his forks and spoons.”
Statesmen? Most of them have been parasites on the soldier’s back. The best that can be said about them is that the more intelligent have protected and encouraged the experts in the mechanical sciences. But usually the scientists had to obtain this protection by dint of their capacity for destroying human life, not saving it. Archimedes, discoverer of the lever and the greatest of Greek scientists, was employed by the Tyrant of Syracuse because he invented artillery engines. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest minds of all time, sought the favor of princes not because he was the foremost of Italian artists, a poet and mechanical genius but because he was a brilliant military engineer!
As this is being written I can think of just two statesmen who contributed something imperishable towards civilization. And in one caseâ€”that of Goetheâ€”many people forget that he was a Privy Councillor at the Weimar court and an able administrator. But his mind was the only one in Europe comparable to that of Leonardo da Vinci. He was a poet, humanist and a pathfinder in the realm of Natural Science. The other name that comes to mind is that of Benjamin Franklin, inventor as well as statesman. His experiments will always be rated as a landmark in the history of electricity. In general, however, it is safe to say that all progress in mechanical as well as other science has been made in spite of statesmen. Most statesmen have stood for traditionalism. Their attitude is exemplified in the action of the Holy Office in 1633, which brought Galileo Galilei to trial and with torture made him recant and deny the scientific discoveries he had made.
If we examine the history of scientists and scientific discoveries, we will find that man did not really begin to think straight until the arrival of the mechanical age. Up to chat time, practically all human thinking had been deductive. That was the weakness of even the greatest minds among the Greeksâ€”the reason why they remained so backward in a mechanical sense. They were deductive thinkers, reasoning from the general to the particular. It was the mechanical scientists who started us thinking inductively, from the particular to the general.
Bertrand Russell, in his brilliant work, “The Scientific Outlook,” attributes the beginning of modern thought to Galilei. When he discovered the four moons of Jupiter, with his primitive telescope, he did far more than add a little bit to the world’s astronomical knowledge. He established beyond doubt the truth of the theory that Copernicus had hit upon himself, but which Copernicus was unable to prove: that the Ptolemaic system, which had governed the world’s thought, was all wrong; in short, that our system is heliocentric, that we revolve around the sun.
This seems like a rather dry commonplace to us today. The mere fact that it aroused the wrath of the Holy Office reminds us how electrifying, even how horrifying it was in the Seventeenth Century. It was not only the ecclesiastical authorities who pounced upon Galileo. Some of his own students hissed him at his lectures.
As Bertrand Russell points out, “The conflict between Galileo and the Inquisition is not merely the conflict between free thought and bigotry or between science and religion. It is a conflict between the spirit of induction and the spirit of deduction. Those who believe in deduction as the method of arriving at knowledge are compelled to find their premises somewhere, usually in a sacred book. Deduction from inspired books is the method of arriving at truth employed by jurists, Christians, Mohammedans, and Communists. Since deduction as a means of obtaining knowledge collapses when doubt is thrown upon its premises, those who believe in deduction must necessarily be bitter against men who question the authority of the sacred books. Galileo questioned both Aristotle and the Scriptures and thereby destroyed the whole edifice of medieval knowledge.”
Of course there was one good substantial reason for the hostility of the deductive thinkers towards the process of induction. The inductive method requires infinitely more hard, digging, exhaustive work. Each particular fact required for a general conclusion has to be laboriously sought out and established. Galileo almost with one stroke, demolished and made useless the conclusions of those who went before him. Bertrand Russell says further: “As a matter of fact, knowledge is even harder to come by than Galileo supposed, and much that he believed was only approximate; but in the process of acquiring knowledge at once secure and general, Galileo took the first great step. He is, therefore, the father of modern times. Whatever we may like or dislike about the age in which we live, its increase of population, its improvement in health, its trains, motor-cars, radio, politics, and advertisements of soapâ€”all emanate from Galileo. If the Inquisition could have caught him young, we might not now be enjoying the blessings of air-warfare and poisoned gas, nor, on the other hand, the diminution of poverty and disease which is characteristic of our age.
“It is customary amongst a certain school of sociologists to minimize the importance of intelligence, and to attribute all great events to large impersonal causes. I believe this to be an entire delusion. I believe that if a hundred of the men of the Seventeenth Century had been killed in infancy, the modern world would not exist. And of these hundred, Galileo is the chief.”
Bertrand Russell ran into a great deal of criticism when he assigned to Galileo such an important place in the history of civilization. To me personally, his idea seems fundamentally sound. At the same time, I admit it’s perhaps unfortunate that the credit for certain lines of progress in human civilization should be concentrated so much on a few men. We talk of one man as being the Father of This, and the other as being the Originator of That, and a third as the Discoverer of So-and-So. From the story of exploration we know that all discoveries really are the work of a great number of men, most of whose names have completely disappeared and been forgotten. Geographers no longer believe that Columbus was actually the first man since Lsif Ericsson to rediscover America. All human knowledge is the result of a labor of a multitude of workers, many of them obscure. And this is particularly true in the mechanical sciences, particularly true since the world learned from Galileo the science of inductive thinking.
And a tremendous volume of progress has been achieved by the labors of men quite without academic background and education. One thinks immediately of the Wright brothers, who had a bicycle repair shop. The French Academy of Sciences and many other learned bodies bestowed all sorts of honor on them in later life. But when they started out on those experiments that astonished the world, their book-learning was exceedingly small In “The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind,” H. G. Wells points out: “The activities of the gentlemen who launched natural philosophy upon the world needed to be supplemented by work of a coarser type before they could realize its vast potentialities. There were practical men, mostly millwrights and often with no education (Brindley could scarcely read and could write only with difficulty), who understood the present needs of the day and the practical difficulties in the way of overcoming them.”
In a larger sense, however, all this discussion of who invented what comes down to a matter of almost legal quibbling. But it bears out the claim that everything in civilization today is the accumulated result of the work of thousands of minds, some of them working in obscure and forgotten channels.
I suppose the last place where such facts will be recognized is the school room. History continues to be a recitation of the acts and achievements of statesmen, soldiers, conquerors, many of them no better than gangsters. When the text books pay as much attention to Faraday and Oersted as they do now to Napoleon and Talleyrand, civilized thought will have advanced a bit further.