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Achievements and Obligations of Modern Science

AFEW years ago at a New York City luncheon, a business acquaintance expressed a keen desire to have a conference with a Chicago scientific friend of one of the luncheon guests. He said: "Will you not telephone him and see if he will meet me in New York tomorrow?" Thus, at 12:00 noon, the telephone connection with Chicago was made, a conversation held with the friend, and at 12:45 P.M. the Chicago scientist took his train. At 10 o'clock next day the conference was held in New York, and at 2:45 p.m. the man of science was on his return journey which placed him in Chicago next morning, ready for his regular day's work. What an age in which to live!

A science man, almost a thousand miles away, is needed for a conference. The telephone permits a brief conversation with words so clear that the peculiarities of friends' voices are heard almost as in the speaker's presence. A modern train transports the passenger while he eats, sleeps, and writes his plans for his meeting. The necessary conference is held next morning, and the following morning he is back at his regular post. This ready and effective communication and dizzy speed of travel have become ordinary and slow, as modern science continues to work. By wireless we speak not merely from New York to Chicago or to San Francisco, but over the oceans—around the earth in a few relays. So rapidly is science improving communication that we hesitate to write of "wireless," knowing full well that what we say will be out of date, possibly, before the statements appear on the printed page. And what of human transportation? The Twentieth Century, the Broadway Limited, or the Transcontinental Express, apparently creeps along as the modern airplane above speeds on its way. A regular service route is proposed which will permit the passenger to dine in New York or Chicago, go to a theatre, then take his airplane sleeper, and breakfast in the other city. Even the erstwhile astounding feat of a non-stop flight in twenty-seven hours from New York to San Diego has ceased to give us its early thrill, so confident are we that modern science contains possibilities surpassing our wildest expectations. "Twenty thousand leagues under the sea" no longer seems fanciful. "You can no more do that than you can fly," is now meaningless. "Voices passing through the air," is now so true that even we as speak to one another there may be passing through the atmosphere about you unseen messages pertaining to peace and war, love and hate, commerce, industry, government—every topic which holds men's minds—all being transmitted through a common medium, none necessarily interfering with any other. Surely the imagery of the past seems trivial when compared with the reality of today.

Science has successfully attacked many of the ills to which men succumb. We need not now have smallpox unless we prefer not to do the things which science has shown will prevent this disease. Typhoid, far less common than two decades ago, is so well understood and its transmission so definitely associated with uncleanliness that we shall soon see the day when it will be not only unfortunate but not respectable to have the disease. It would now be more indecent to have typhoid than it is to have the "itch," were each person as fully in control of his own personal environment for the one disease as for the other. Yellow fever, the awful plague of many countries, not only can be destroyed, but has actually been destroyed in certain of its worst centres. It is a picturesque campaign now being waged, one with a vision of service to the human race, to remove yellow fever from the earth. The most dreaded disease of all, perhaps, tuberculosis, is slowly but surely yielding. Though big tasks are ahead, enough is now known and proved in practice with tuberculosis patients to give abundant hope to hundreds of thousands of discouraged people who have this disease. It is but a brief time since a clear diagnosis of tuberculosis was all but a death warrant. Surely science is making the earth a better home for men.

In instruments of warfare science has produced an antithesis not yet understood by men. In the World War the airplane dropped bombs within the range over which the airplane could fly. The dirigible balloon could carry heavier bombs over a longer range, but the gas which carried the dirigible aloft was highly inflammable, and a gun shot through the gas bag meant conflagration and a terrible death to those who were in the balloon. But a scientist studying the sun found helium in the sun's chromosphere. Of what use to us would the sun's helium be? Then helium was found in a mineral in the earth. Helium, lighter than air, was not inflammable, was not easily affected by electric currents—thus an ideal gas for dirigible balloons.

Helium, supposedly very rare, could be secured only at a cost of something like $1,500 per cubic foot, and a large dirigible balloon requires a million or more cubic feet of the gas. Then another scientist discovered that helium may be secured from natural gas and the gas be improved for domestic use when the helium is removed. Later developments will permit men now to secure large quantities of helium at a cost of a few cents per cubic foot. Thus dirigible balloons may be floated on the air by a non-inflammable, non-electrifiable gas at heights and over distances hitherto thought impossible.

During this development, new discoveries regarding explosives have increased their efficiency, so that now it is said that a single ton of the highest explosive will, if advantageously placed, serve to destroy the largest existing battleship. Or if the bomb is loaded with the latest destructive gases, it will snuff out the life of all the occupants of a modern city. Helium gas for use in balloons, other new substances for modern explosives and killing gases—these are instruments of destruction which will completely change warfare in its methods. Even modern battleships are now said to be obsolete, since none is protected against modern scientific bombs. Helium carried dirigibles may go anywhere and drop destructive gases hundreds, even thousands, of miles from the base of operations.

The achievements of science are very great both in their number and in the magnitude of their influences. Tremendously powerful for good and for ill as are the material advantages gained through modern science, it is possible that still greater advantages may be gained through certain attitudes of thinking, judging, and acting which modern science is patiently teaching to a slowly learning human race. It is but a little while, in the comparative history of men, since those who disagreed too loudly with generally accepted ideas were put to death. This was done presumably to show others the terrible results of permitting one's thinking processes to lead him to unconventional conclusions.

If a daring honest mind led one to say that the earth is round, not flat, this thinker's life had to be taken, lest his heresy should be accepted by others. If a patriot questioned the divine rights of the king, this patriot was thought to be dangerous to the common good. If one claimed the right and accepted the responsibility of thinking through and acting according to his own conclusions regarding spiritual problems, his life was endangered because his thinking might undo the systems then in vogue. Even in a country to which our ancestors came in order to think freely, they themselves soon began to shackle, and occasionally destroy, those whose alleged freedom in thinking led to conclusions unacceptable to those in authority. In the present age of science and renewed belief in the power of truth, we see the old and inevitable strife between those who do and those who do not believe in the progressive nature of truth. Attempted legislation against truth merely increases the caution and obligation of inquiring minds, thus helps to refine the inquiry and make the results more secure. Certainly an attack upon a progressive thinker cannot kill progressive thought, but rather by antithesis creates one more spiritual monument in the name of truth seeking. Legislation against truthful, progressive thinking helps to advertise the issues involved, and to cause plastic minds to desire to know.

Even if legislative walls could be erected, progressive truth would leak through, filter beneath, fly above, or, radium-like, would radiate by processes too elusive, too intangible, and too fundamental to be denied its logical advance. Did the persecution of Columbus keep the earth from being round, even though many of the ideas of Columbus's times have since been found to be faulty? Did the persecution of Harvey stop the complete circulation of human blood, even though later investigations have corrected many of Harvey's ideas? Could legislation stop biological development even though thousands of research workers are earnestly endeavouring to ascertain unknown truths about the processes involved?

During the unprecedented scientific development of the past half century, there have frequently arisen certain tendencies on the part of men of science which have caused many non-scientific persons to misunderstand the real nature of scientific truth. A scientific discovery is usually much involved in scientific terminology and is complicated by its intellectual associations with a field of special facts and theories. The public usually does not understand the terminology or the related facts and theories as does the scientific worker. Hence the public cannot fully comprehend the discovery or new line of thought. It is extremely difficult for the worker to explain, since his field and even his vocabulary are not sufficiently sensed to provide a common basis of understanding. So the worker in science too often belittles the "common man's" ability to understand and too often makes no effort to inform him.

He does, however, more or less inconsistently expect the "common man" to accept his conclusions in so far as these scientific conclusions touch the fields in which this "common man" operates. The man who knows sometimes becomes intolerant toward the man who does not know, quite as the uninformed man becomes intolerant of the man who knows. Most men, most of the time at least, desire to do what is right, and will oppose or support an idea because their conclusions, or their prejudices which they think are their conclusions, seem right to them. The intolerance of scientific men toward a public which is more or less uninformed about science may easily become quite as objectionable intellectually, and perhaps as dangerous socially, as the intolerance of a group which is uninformed regarding scientific matters.

Further, there is no monopoly of uninformedness. Those who do not know science often do know much of human nature or practical affairs, or of government, or of literature, art, and social relations; and some of these are equally essential in accomplishing the things which are really worth while. It usually helps to get the point of view of the other man, and also increases the light of vision and reduces the heat of friction.

One of the heaviest obligations on modern science requires that it shall organize and present many of its results so that these results may be seen and understood by intelligent but non-scientific persons. People will eventually follow the truth, but they cannot follow it unless they can amidst their confusion see its light at least often enough and clearly enough to enable them to keep the general direction in which truth is moving. In our day they cannot be expected to follow truth too constantly merely by the admonitions of someone whose evidences are known to him but unknown to them.

In the rapid development of science another serious social need has arisen among the science men themselves. The separate sectors or divisions of science have been so compelling in their interest, so gigantic in their possibilities, and so exacting upon the time and energy of specialists, that many specialists have lost perspective of the whole field of science, not to speak of the other necessary human interests mentioned above. The specialist, however, like other people, guides his life by the stars which he sees, and his conclusions about affairs and people outside of his field are sometimes seriously and harmfully limited. One can and must, if he is a productive student, dig deep into a special subject. But deep wells, while suggestive of depth and height of vision, are not suggestive of broad and comprehensive views. The figure would better be changed to that of a "skyscraper mind," which rises to great heights and consequently may have broad and dependable views, since it stands upon foundations which are secure and since its structural materials are those which will endure under the seasonal and human exigencies of its working environment.

One of the greatest functions of our organizations of science men is the bringing together of scientists from various sectors of science and compelling them to learn enough of the elements, at least, of the other fields, to gain some understanding of the purposes, ambitions, and accomplishments of other science men. It would not be bad for science, nor for the public, if specialists were required to teach other specialists enough to enable all to take a reasonably elementary examination upon the special fields of one another.

There is another supremely important function to be served by means of a better public understanding of modern science and its uses. Science knowledge, scientific processes and appliances, have reached the stage where ignorance means danger, sometimes destruction. Far more people are killed at street crossings than before the gas motor became common property. The airplane which "won the war" has exacted the life of many of those who persisted in flying. Gasolene, which also "won the war," is just coming under reasonably safe control. To live in a scientific age, an age of rapidly accumulating knowledge, imposes heavy obligations upon education and upon the resultant social and industrial controls. In the presence of modern science those who do not know cannot long survive, else they must seek the primitive places of the earth where the more elemental practices may persist for a time. Even in these primitive places, science will soon catch up and there will again recur the old biological requirement to learn, to move, or to cease to exist.

But the hardest question is yet to come. Has the common appreciation of moral obligations developed to a point where it is socially safe for all science knowledge to become common property? Can the common moral sense be trusted? Does knowledge of those chemicals which will readily destroy human life ever result in an easier suicide or in the more ready destruction of one's human enemies? Poison gases and other war inventions are so terrible that it is not even safe to allow all citizens to know what a few inquisitive and trusted scientific men have discovered. If a biochemico-physicist were to discover just how to change electrical potentials over an area twenty miles square, so that the electrons of human protoplasm would instantly break down, it would not as yet be morally safe for the different nations to have possession of this secret. Since science deals with progressive truth, it should not omit its obligation toward better common knowledge of useful scientific truth. It dare not omit its due share of the obligation to have modern society develop in moral ideals and controls so that constructive and not destructive use of science shall result.

It is surely a heavy burden that is imposed upon modern education. Exact knowledge and faithful interpretations of science in themselves provide large obligations. But the still larger one—without which modern science is dangerous—asks that intellectual and moral ideals and controls shall develop in harmony with growth in possession of scientific knowledge.

By Otis W. Caldwell, Ph.D.
Teachers College, Columbia University
Published 1923

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