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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1936


page 54


"The life and soul of Science is its practical application to some purpose useful to mankind."

—Lord Kelvin.

I saw a film recently, a Gaumont-British instructional short entitled "Progress." Carrying the authority of collaboration with the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, it portrayed the development of our methods of communication over the last 25 years—in brief it was a paen sung in praise of our modern god—Speed. So one saw perfectly conventional scientists working in perfectly conventional laboratories—tight-lipped men intent on their studies, tense with the excitement of new discoveries. Before one's eyes were evolved formulae for new alloys, that combined the virtues of lightness, tensile strength and malleability. Then from the smelting pot and the testing bench the film cut successively to a Tourist Trophy race, the mad roundabout at Brooklands, the frantic swoop of a Schneider trophy machine. Another phase showed the arming of Britain in the early days of the war, one amazing shot (filmed through a sort of synthetic mist of microscopes and machine guns), showed a ghostly headquarters staff appealing hysterically in chorus—"More shells, we must have more shells." Back in the laboratory we saw the development of more efficient means of destruction, and then the solid brutal dignity of the British fleet indomitably patrolling the seas. The waging of war, we inferred at this stage was the highest function of the state, of society, of science; interesting in these days of anti-Fascism to see the doctrines of Hitler and Mussolini promulgated by the Gaumont-British Films Corporation!

So this is—progress! We still press forward, we still advance. Whither? Scientists still dig deeper into the lodes of knogledge, each down his own little specialised burrow. But how many pause seriously to think, just where his work is leading him, and those who will follow in his track More important still, how many set up with a definite ideal of integrating their work with the social advance of mankind? I have come into contact with quite a number of the scientific men of our community; leaders of research, the younger men who work with them and will in the near future be leaders in their turn, and also the men who serve the public more directly as routine workers. I am afraid that few of them realise the full responsibilities of their work, or are concerned about the adaption of their discoveries to the needs of the people among whom they live.

But to return to our film. I would not decry the manufacture of materials and machinery designed for greater speed in travel if I were convinced that it would be properly employed. The film "Progress" was itself evidence to the contrary. It immediately linked the concept of speed with racing cars balancing perilously, thrillingly, on the Brooklands track; with motor-cycles bumping and broadsiding round the Isle of Man; in short with exhibitions of that craze for excitement, for thrills, that seem to have replaced in our modern life the more healthy and less nerve-shattering habit of reflection and spontaneous recreation. A motor-cycle owner informs me that these "speed trials" are scientific experiments which test the efficiency of machines under natural conditions. If that is the intention I feel there is something wrong; "scientific" experiments could be devised in a well-equipped laboratory under standardised conditions—such methods are of course actually employed. Or, even were we to admit the necessity of hurling machines around absurd corners at impossible speeds, this should at least be done in a place where the public are not admitted to the danger of their limbs, and, more important, their minds. The most outstanding results of a recent "experiment" of this type in a T.T. race were the deaths of four people and the maiming of seventeen others.

And, anyhow, just why must we increase the speed of our regular travel? For the moment I am going to define the legitimate aim of scientific investigation as an improvement in the general welfare, the standard of living, of the community. This, I know, neglects the intellectual side of science, the "pure science," the "search for a truth," and so on; but it includes in its scope the branches of science in which all but a few workers are engaged and which are to an increasing extent contributing to the general structure of society to-day. With this definition, then, what part does speed of communication and travel play in our lives? In page 55 communication, radio telephony has given us about the maximum speed attainable, and, rightly used, enables the diffusion of ideas, and culture with comparative ease. That is a Good Thing. In our ordinary means of travel the months of tossing, close herded in unsanitary quarters which our forbears endured on their journey from Europe have shrunk to as many weeks in surroundings more luxurious than most of us normally enjoy. That is progress. But the immoderate enthusiasm of press and populace when a stunt ship such as the "Queen Mary" clips an hour or so off the time for the trans-Atlantic service—is that a sign of progress? Rather it is evidence of that uncritical acceptance of dictated standards which gives the Press, and the loud-voiced and the assertive, the power to control society to-day. The excitement which attaches to the conception of speed has such a hold upon us that the questions whether it justifies the expense of obtaining it, whether it is really serving a general need, are never considered.

In another recent film, a very true and inspiring one. Louis Pasteur was credited with these words: "The benefits of science are not for scientists; they are for humanity." Such self-abnegation is put into practice by most real scientists, I believe, the biographical records in scientific publications are evidence of that. When a new anaesthetic for dentistry was produced in America last year the patent rights were taken out by the University where the discovery was made, with the expressed purpose of preventing exploitation. Similar actions would be welcomed in all branches of research. But Pasteur's words do not go far enough. Scientists must recognise that they have a further duty also—to ensure that their work is really used "for humanity" and not for restricted commercial or national interests. In the days of Davy, chlorine was a chemical curiosity. In 1915 it nearly won the war for the Central Powers. Did you forsee a science so abused by humanity, Pasteur and Davy?

Since 1898 when M. and Mme. Curie obtained radium salts from pitchblende a whole science has grown up; yet in 1935 the market price of radium for therapeutic purposes was quoted as being greater than that incurred by the Curies in the original extraction. Is this progress? Although much reduced lately, the cost of platinum is still fabulous, but the combines that control the Great Lakes supplies can produce corrosion-proof for household fittings coated with platinum as a commercial proposition. Not for scientists; for—humanity?

So the layman, seeing himself in the imminent peril of being overwhelmed by uncontrolled science, complains, "Science has gone too far." I do not think he is right; I thing science has not gone far enough. We have increased our control of the inanimate world until it can be made to minister to our needs and our comforts; we have yet to learn to control our own affairs and to work as a corporate society before we can hope to employ physical science safely and profitably. Meanwhile it is the duty for every scientist to realise the effect of the impact of his work and thought upon the rest of the world and to apply the methods which have been so profitable in his own researches to the other branches of his life and thought.

By progress in the wide sense of the term we imply the advance of human society towards an ideal of greater well-being for the whole community. An increase in the extent of our knowledge is not progress in this sense, though too often interpreted as such; where this knowledge is misapplied to the affairs of life, retrogression results. There can be progress only when the planned application of our knowledge leads to a better state of living of the people. Science and society are interdependent, but scientists have come to forget them, and laymen failed to realise it.

From an examination of the lives of great men of science Philipp Lenard of Heidelburg has said we shall find "an introduction to a world of clearer and more natural thinking, which is far from the life of to-day and from what to-day is often proclaimed as science; a world from which these investigators unselfishly brought forth all that forms the foundation of our present progress in knowledge and technical power. At the same time there can be little doubt that these men of science would find little satisfaction in the achievements of our so-called civilisation so far as they do not really make our life better, but that they would rather seek for progress in morals and true culture, which might have come about as a result of their manner of thought and their scientific achievements. Such advances might yet develop, if these men should come to be understood by us as regards their way of thinking and working, and exert their rightful influence to a greater extent than has hitherto been the case.