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New Zealanders and Science

1 — Introduction

page 1


'The Value of man's life on earth is to be valued only by the standard of the spirit, to which the thing achieved is little and the quality of the mind that achieved it much, which cares less for the sum of knowledge attained than for the love of knowledge.' These brave words were written by Gilbert Murray in appraising the achievements of Greece; but the criterion is not less true if applied to more recent triumphs of the spirit of man in a locality less remote. The panegyric may have to be worded more humbly because the achievements are relatively recent and the men who achieved them relatively familiar; yet this chronicle of science in New Zealand is a story of the life-work of great men, men who were imbued with a true love of knowledge, men who set the task above the prize. It would be a matter of scorn for the chronicler and pity for the chronicled if, in an unpardonable mood of idle braggadocio, I were to attempt to raise up unprofitable deeds and futile actors to an eminence that could page 2 not be claimed for them as an incontestable right. But that danger is not present to unnerve me. The claims may be advanced in halting phrases, the records may have been carelessly gathered, and the evidence may be unskilfully handled; but the spirit of the men themselves and the quality of the work that uplifted them must surely emerge 'in a manner far above our poor power to add or to detract'.

I may now permit myself to make the statement I have been leading up to: In proportion to their numbers, New Zealanders have done more for the progress of modern science than any other people. To clinch this assertion it is necessary only to call to mind the eminent, if not in each case the pre-eminent, position held in world science by Rutherford in atomic physics, Mellor in inorganic chemistry, Cockayne in ecological botany, Gifford in stellar physics, and Cotton in geomorphology. When all these men were living, as they were early in 1934, it is doubtful if any other country could proclaim such a galaxy of living scientists. I will be accused of being bold, to the point of rashness, in making this assertion and the boast it implies. To the charge of boldness I must plead guilty. I know full well the daring involved but I also know full well wherein it lies: it lies in daring to leave off where I did. The names of Hector, Hutton, and von Haast in our initial phase of observational science, of Buck, Elsdon Best, Jenness, and Firth in recent anthropology, of the rising star page 3 Aitken in mathematics, and of Guthrie-Smith in 'Tutiraology' might also seem to demand inclusion. It is true that in a thousand years the names of but one or two may have endured the ravages of time. But of the heroes of Marathon the name of only one comes easily to the mind.

In a book devoted to scientists and their work it would seem desirable that a definition of what is meant by the word 'science' should be given as early as possible. Unfortunately this is, on the authority of that very eminent scientist and great historian of science, Professor Charles Singer, 'a question that cannot be answered easily, nor perhaps exactly answered at all. None of the definitions seem to cover the field exactly; they are either too wide or too narrow.' Any such dictum as that 'science is classified or systematised knowledge' is, of course, only begging the question. The Greeks with their clarity of mind and lucidity of language would have prevented the difficulty by having different words for the 'mechanic' and 'theoretic' sides of science; indeed they did this for their own particular science, mathematics, using one word for the 'calculator' and another for the scientist of the theory of numbers. They were the only people who have done so.

The gathering of facts by direct observation is a preliminary but essential part in the development of page 4each science. The Arabs knew the facts relating to the velocity of falling bodies, but it remained for Newton to generalise the law of gravitation and for Einstein to attempt to universalise it. The Egyptians knew the distance of the sun from the earth probably as accurately as we know it,* but it was left for Gifford to consider what bearing the figure has on the origin of the planets. A better example still is furnished by the work of Aristotle. Many of his years of scientific labour had to be used in first-hand observation, gathering that amazing collection of facts in natural history which still surpasses that of any scientist who has ever worked in the same field. While doing this work he was engaged only on the 'mechanic side of science', and although he made great use of his collected facts, it was still left for Darwin to generalise the theory of evolution and write the Origin of Species. But, alike while merely gathering facts by mechanic observation or while working to build up a rational theory of life based on these observations, Aristotle was all the time a great scientist. Roger Bacon wrote of him that 'although Aristotle did not arrive at the end of knowledge, he set in order all parts of philosophy'; and Singer also tells us that Darwin himself page 5wrote to that other great naturalist, Ogle, in 1882: 'From quotations I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle's merits, but I had not the most remote notion of what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, although in very different ways; but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.'

I feel that these disjointed illustrations are clarifying the problem and a chance remark of T. L. Heath seems to solve it completely. Writing in Greek Mathematics and Astronomy, he says: 'the Greek with his determination to see things as they are and to see them whole, his burning desire to be able to give a rational explanation of everything in heaven and earth, was irresistibly driven to natural science, mathematics and exact reasoning in general.' I think we have it now. Science is the knowledge gathered by minds not only determined to see things as they are and to see them whole but also filled with a burning desire to be able to give a rational explanation of everything.

Alas, I have been driven to attempt the definition of the undefinable, but this definition is exactly what I want for my purpose. It does not exclude from the ranks of scientists those who engage themselves chiefly on the mechanic side of science, so long as they are working to furnish a rational explanation of something. It explains, however, why every amateur botanist who gathers wild flowers on the hills is not a scientist, even if, as Linnaeus did, he falls on his page 6knees to thank God for the sight of a field of English gorse in bloom; why every tireless astronomer who directs his home-made telescope on the snowy poles of Mars is not a scientist, peer he ever so reverently; why every elderly gentleman who wounds the atmosphere with a whitebait net is not a scientist, even if he does exhibit so noble a scorn for appearances; why every geologist or chemist 'on location' with the oil-drill or the dredge is not a scientist, even if it is the largest drill or dredge in the world. Finally, it explains why this book is not to become a mere Who's Who of Science in New Zealand.

Another difficulty remains; that is to define the term 'New Zealander' for the purpose of this survey. Here I fear recourse to the Greeks will not help me, for the same difficulty exists in defining the word 'Greek'. That difficulty has been surmounted for all practical purposes by defining a Greek as any person who lived not less than 1,800 or more than 2,500 years ago and wrought every type of thoughtful work with surpassing excellence and in the Greek spirit. Let us hope some such definition will also be applicable to New Zealanders in 2,000 years. Obviously it will not do to claim New Zealand association for Charles Singer, the scientist, because his brother is a leading barrister in Auckland; or for Dr Schmidt, a German visitor, who was granted the munificent sum of £100 in 1855 by the Otago provincial council to explore the whole province and discover a practicable route page 7to the West Coast, but whose expedition ended in failure and in his lonely death in the Catlins bush. (Incidentally Dr Schmidt had at least leanings to science, since he proposed on his journey to test his theory that New Zealand had once been connected with South America.) The difficulty of deciding what constitutes a New Zealander remains and will be dealt with arbitrarily if the occasion arises.

One word more and this introductory chapter will end. The list of names I have already quoted is more than warrant for what should, nay must, be an illustrious chronicle. But behind these names there also stands a host of virtually unknown workers that is surely unsurpassed in any other country. The war is waged and the victories are won equally by the privates in the ranks and the leader in the saddle. So it is with the fights of science. The leaders are proudly acclaimed, and none would have it otherwise; but in the background are many obscure men on whose efforts the success of the leaders depends. I am not referring to young men eagerly worrying out a thesis for a scientific degree, or those working under some noted leader of science in the half-hope that the infection will be 'catching'. I am referring to an army of humble and frequently unlettered men who devote, and have devoted, their little leisure and scanty means to exploration, more particularly into the natural history of the Dominion, with vague hopes that in some way their records, experiences, or discoveries page 8may be of use to the leaders in the branch of science in which they are interested. It was to one section only of this army of patient observers that Dr Cockayne expressed his gratitude in these eloquent words— though the praise applied to all: 'For the plant historians here, and the plant questioners, have been but few in number; nor at any time have they been properly equipped for their work, either with books, instruments, or the all-important money. But as will be seen, they were furnished with what is better than all—love for their self-appointed task and true enthusiasm, armed with which success is certain.'

* The dubiety arises because an essential factor in the calculation consists in measuring a distance on the earth for a base line. Once this is determined it is very easy to calculate the enormous distance that divides the earth from the sun. But it is very difficult to measure exactly the relatively short base on the earth. We know the base taken by the Egyptians, but we are unable to determine whether their measurement was more exact than ours, although the discrepancy does not exceed more than 500 miles; this is well within the limits of tolerance usually stipulated in the British Standard of Specifications.