A Plea for Pure Science 1

    Abstract

    I am required to address the so-called Physical Section of this Association. Fain would I speak pleasant words to you on this subject; fain would I recount to you the progress made in this subject by my countrymen, and their noble efforts to understand the order of the universe. But I go out to gather the grain ripe to the harvest, and I find only tares. Here and there a noble head of grain rises above the weeds; but so few are they that I find the majority of my countrymen know them not, but think that they have a waving harvest, while it is only one of weeds after all. American science is a thing of the future, and not of the present or past; and the proper course of one in my position is to consider what must be done to create a science of physics in this country, rather than to call telegraphs, electric lights, and such conveniences by the name of science. I do not wish to underrate the value of all these things: the progress of the world depends on them, and he is to be honoured who cultivates them successfully. So also the cook who invents a new and palatable dish for the table, benefits the world to a certain degree; and yet we do not dignify him by the name of a chemist. And yet it is not an uncommon thing, especially in American newspapers, to have the applications of science confounded with pure science; and some obscure American who steals the ideas of some great mind of the past and enriches himself by the application of the same to domestic uses, is often lauded above the great originator of the idea, who might have worked out hundreds of such applications had his mind possessed the necessary element of vulgarity. I have often been asked which was the more important to the world, pure or applied science. To have the applications of a science, the science itself must exist. Should we stop its progress and attend only to its applications, we should soon degenerate into a people like the Chinese, who have made no progress for generations, because they have been satisfied with the applications of science, and have never sought for reasons in what they have done. The reasons constitute pure science. They have known the application of gunpowder for centuries; and yet the reasons for its peculiar action, if sought in the proper manner, would have developed the science of chemistry, and even of physics, with all their numerous applications. By contenting themselves with the fact that gunpowder would explode, and seeking no further, they have fallen behind in the progress of the world; and we now regard this oldest and most numerous of nations as only barbarians. And yet our own country is in this same state. But we have done better; for we have taken the science of the Old World and applied it to all our uses, accepting it like the rain of heaven, without asking whence it came, or even acknowledging the debt of gratitude we owe to the great and unselfish workers who have given it to us. And, like the rain of heaven, this pure science has fallen upon our country, and made it great and rich and strong.

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    A Plea for Pure Science 1 . Nature 28, 510–512 (1883). https://doi.org/10.1038/028510a0

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