Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Utility of Scientific Research
By Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard (18091889)
[Born in Sheffield, Mass., 1809. Died in New York, N. Y., 1889. Letter to the Trustees of the University of Mississippi. 1858.]
IS, then, scientific knowledge useful? Few objectors will take the broad ground of denying all utility to science; or of denying utility to all sciences. Few will hesitate to admit that every science furnishes some facts that are useful. Even the patient and diligent collector of bugs, and butterflies, and caterpillars, though looked down upon in a general way by the utilitarian with an amusingly sublime loftiness of contemptuous regard, if he but intimate a belief that he is upon the sure trace of a method of exterminating the insect scourges of the cotton-field, is listened to with respectful, nay, with greedy ears, and is elevated at once to a position of comparative dignity. No scoffer at science, therefore, ever scoffs at the science, or at the facts of science, which he understands; understands, that is to say, not as simple, isolated facts, a thing which is generally easy,but understands in all their bearings and relations, and far-reaching affiliations with other facts with which they have no obvious or visible connectiona thing which is often not easy at all. And it is because of this difficulty, because many of the most valuable of all the facts which science has revealed, present themselves to the general mind with no evidence of their usefulness about them,hence it is that the objectors, abandoning every position which permits us to meet them upon the basis of their own knowledge, resort to that vexatious system of special pleading to which allusion has been made, and demand that we shall demonstrate the utility of detached truths, one after another in endlessly provoking detail, which they do not understand. The case is even worse than this. In every branch of human investigation some truths may possibly be brought to light which are merely incidental to the inquiry, and are without perceptible ulterior importance; precisely as in working a quarry, some fragments of granite or marble may be encountered which are well enough as fragments of a mountain, but which are hardly worth the trouble of carting away. Now, though in science it is hardly safe to say that any truth, however seemingly insignificant, may not have, wrapped up within it, a latent value which may yet draw towards it the admiring attention of all mankind; and though experience has shown that it is becoming, every day we live, less and less safe to dogmatize on these subjects, yet it is not to be denied that here and there a solitary fact may, by dint of great diligence, be hunted up, which science has made known and recorded, but of which we may deem it no shame to confess that we know not at this moment how to put it to use. Now, it is precisely upon this unhappy class of facts, of immediately doubtful utility or of no presently known utility at all, that the decriers of scientific research are always ready to descend. And yet it is a matter equally notorious to every one in the slightest degree acquainted with the history of science, that in the whole list of truths which investigation has revealed, there is hardly a single one which, at the time of its discovery, and in some instances long after, did not stand in this same unfortunate class. The truth is, that speculations upon the value of any discovery whatever, in the moment in which the discovery is made, are totally idleare worse than idleare foolish. The alchemists, in their indefatigable though empirical and blind researches in quest of the philosophers stone, discovered many curious compounds which, since they availed nothing towards the production of gold, were held by them in low esteem; yet among these are some of those energetic reagents which, in the hands of modern chemistry, and directed by modern intelligence, have heaped up gold in mountains beyond even the alchemists wildest dreams, in the heart of every civilized land.
To descend to later times, and to speak with more specific particularity, when Priestley, in 1774, turning the focus of his burning lens upon the substance known in the shops of the apothecaries under the name of red precipitate, detached bubbles of a gas identical with that which, in the atmosphere, supports life, who could presume that, in thus freeing one of the metals from its companion element, he had detected the composition of many of the most useful ores, and furnished a hint which was yet to reduce all metallurgic art, from the smelting of iron to the reduction of aluminium, under the dominion of chemical science, and to the severe rule of an intelligent and a productive economy? When, in the same year, Scheele, by operating on the acid of sea-salt, made first visible to human eyes that beautifully colored gas whose suffocating odor is now so well known to all the world, who could foresee the astonishing revolution which a discovery then interesting only for its curious beauty was destined to introduce into the manufacture of paper, of linen textures, and of a vast multitude of other objects, of daily and hourly use? Or what imagination could have been extravagant enough or fantastic enough in the exercise of its inventive power to anticipate that a substance, for the moment not merely useless but seemingly noxious, would in the nineteenth century accomplish what without it no instrumentality known to science or art could have accomplished,find aliment for the rapacious maw of a letter-press whose insatiable demands, already grown vast beyond all conception, grow yet with each succeeding year? When the chemists of the last century observed the discoloration and degradation which certain metallic salts undergo in the sunlight, who could possibly read, in a circumstance so apparently trivial though occasionally troublesome, the intimation that the sun himself was about to place in the hands of Niepce, and Daguerre, and Talbot, a pencil whose magical powers of delineation should cause the highest achievements of human pictorial art to seem poor and rude in the comparison? When Malus, in 1810, watching the glare of the suns rays reflected from the windows of the Luxembourg to his own, noticed for the first time the curious phenomena attendant on that peculiar condition of light which has since been known by the name of polarization, what prescience could have connected a fact so totally without any perceptible utility, with the manufacture of sugar in France; or have anticipated that an instrument founded in principle on this very property would, forty years later, effect an annual saving to the French people to the extent of hundreds of thousands of francs? When rsted, in 1819, observed the disturbance of the magnetic needle by the influence of a neighboring galvanic current, how wild and visionary would not that man have been pronounced to be who should have professed to read in an indication so slight the grand truth that science had that day stretched out the sceptre of her authority over a winged messenger, whose fleetness should make a laggard even of Oberons familiar sprite, and render the velocity which could put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes tardy and unsatisfying?
Questions of this kind, suggested by the history of scientific progress, might be multiplied to fill a volume. Indeed, it has almost come to be a dogma in science, that there is no new truth whatever, no matter how wide a space may seem, in the hour of its discovery, to divide it from any connection with the material interests of man, which carries not within it the latent seeds of a utility which further discovery in the same field will reveal and cause to germinate. And it has also almost come to be a rule, that new discoveries in regard to the properties of material things, or of the laws that govern them, shall belong to the class of seemingly useless truths. For the obvious applications of known natural laws, the obvious utilities inherent in familiar physical qualities, have, under the untiring scrutiny of myriads of penetrating eyes, been long since brought to light, and, inwrought into the endlessly varied operations of the human art, have been made tributary to the service of mankind. The superficial placers have all been overrun and exhausted; the golden sands of the pleasant river valleys have yielded up their dazzling and easily won treasures; the rifled surface presents no longer anything to recompense the labor of the eager adventurer; but deep in the everlasting rocks, and locked in an adamantine prison, lies yet the precious object of desire; still attainable, but attainable only at the price of a toil that never tires, as the conquest of an energy which difficulties only stimulate, and as the reward of a patience which no discouragements can exhaust.