Monday, May 12, 2008

Asimov of the 1920s--Edwin Slosson

Edwin Slosson [left]

Edwin Slosson was a popularizer of science and one expressing bias [as in science vs literature] and racist but nevertheless did reach the public with science especially his book Easy Lessons in Einstein.

David J. Rhees in 1979 wrote:

Edwin Slosson was born in the frontier town of Albany (now Sabetha), Kansas, in 1865, a descendant of New England colonial stock, with no fewer than three ancestors of Mayflower vintage. His father came to Kansas from New York in 1857 to help promote abolition during the "Free Soil" movement, and settled in Albany where he opened the first store and ran an underground railroad station. From his father, Slosson reputedly derived a "pioneer spirit," while from his mother, a school teacher, he absorbed a love of reading. Slosson's interest in books was fortunate, for he acquired a strong dislike of the outdoor life after a few summers of farm work. His other encounters with nature were similarly unpleasant, as the chief events he recalled from his Kansas boyhood were Indian raids, buffalo hunts and grasshopper plagues. Religion also was an important part of Slosson's life, for his family was Congregationalist, and Slosson served as a deacon in that church for nearly thirty years. The Puritan and pioneer traditions were thus the two most important influences on Slosson's early development.

After a European trip upon graduation from high school, Slosson enrolled at the University of Kansas, taking his Bachelor of Science degree in 1890 and the Master of Science degree in 1892. Although his principal studies were in chemistry, physics, geology, and psychology, his interests were not limited to science, as is evident in his election to Phi Beta Kappa in addition to Sigma Xi. An omnivorous appetite for learning was one of his most distinctive characteristics, and he was said to be contemptuous of what he regarded as the artificial division of knowledge. On receiving his Master's degree, Slosson received two job offers, one from G. Stanley Hall, who offered him a fellowship in experimental psychology at Clark University; the other from the University of Wyoming, which offered him an assistant professorship in chemistry. Slosson chose the latter position, in part because it allowed him the money to marry May Preston, the first woman to receive the Ph.D. from Cornell University, a YMCA director, and a prominent suffragette.

For the next thirteen years, Slosson taught chemistry at the fledgling University of Wyoming in Laramie, a town of only seven thousand people though still the second largest city in the state. Slosson was a one-man department at Wyoming, teaching all the chemistry courses in addition to acting as State Chemist at the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station. His research included investigations of soils, Wyoming petroleum deposits, and food adulteration, and he was the first to use the bomb calorimeter to determine the fuel value of cereal foods. During summer vacations he studied organic chemistry under Julius Steiglitz at the newly-founded University of Chicago, receiving his doctorate magna cum laude in 1902. Not one to let his literary interests lie dormant, Slosson also wrote articles for various periodicals during his spare time, most frequently for the Independent, a respected Congregationalist journal based in New York City. With his Ph.D. in chemistry attained, the restless Slosson wangled a summer job at the Independent. Its editor, Hamilton Holt, was evidently impressed with the chemistry professor from Wyoming--Slosson worked in exchange for only a railroad pass and his board--and offered him a full-time position as Literary Editor. Why Slosson deserted chemistry so soon after taking his doctorate is somewhat puzzling, though perhaps he had grown tired of the routine of college teaching and analyzing soils for local farmers at the Agricultural Experiment Station (as Watson Davis would later grow weary of testing concrete). Or perhaps Laramie had grown too civilized for him and lacked the excitement of a frontier. Whatever his reasons, as the first automobiles began to appear on the streets of Laramie, Slosson dropped a huge unfinished project on the chemical causes of odors, and fled eastward to a new, personal frontier as a journalist. As his son, Preston, observed, "Dr. Slosson could still be a pioneer in ideas, but no longer in geography."

Edwin Slosson spent seventeen years in New York City, where he aided Hamilton Holt in transforming the Independent from a denominational weekly of small circulation to a secular weekly with over a hundred thousand readers. At the Independent, Slosson not only produced prodigious amounts of copy, writing from three to six thousand words a week on such topics as foreign affairs, literature, and science, but also earned a reputation as a frank, fearless editor (he was known as the "Wild West editor"). His first major literary success was a series of articles on "Great American Universities," published as a book in 1910. A particularly scathing commentary on Princeton in this series won high praise from Woodrow Wilson. This work was followed by a two-part series of interviews with twelve leading intellectuals, including John Dewey, H. G. Wells, Henri Bergson, Wilhelm Ostwald, and Ernst Haeckel, published as Major Prophets of Today and Six Major Prophets. His best-known book, Creative Chemistry, was published in 1919 and consisted, as almost all his books did, of articles which had originally appeared in the Independent or other periodicals. A best-seller, Creative Chemistry sold two hundred thousand copies by 1929, putting it in the same sales league as Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt. In 1920, soon after the Eddington eclipse expedition had confirmed Einstein's general theory, Slosson produced one of the first popularizations of relativity, Easy Lessons in Einstein. Sir Oliver Lodge called it "the best book yet published to convey some idea of the theory of relativity to the general reader." From 1912 to 1920 Slosson also managed to find time to teach a course in physical science for journalists at the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University.

However, Slosson felt too much the journalist in New York just as he had felt too much the scientist in Wyoming. Thus he rejoiced at the opportunity to combine the two professions as a "scientific journalist" when he was offered the editor's position at Science Service in 1920. As the Service began to prosper late in the decade, Slosson enjoyed the happiest and most productive years of his life. His popular science articles written during this period were collected in four volumes, Chats on Science, Keeping Up With Science, Snapshots of Science, and Short Talks on Science, all of which were favorably received by the public.

Including works on psychology, education, and religion, Slosson wrote a total of eighteen books, twenty technical reports, eighty pamphlets, and over two thousand signed articles, editorials, and essays, of which about four hundred were of a popular scientific nature. In all of his writings, Slosson expressed himself with a distinctive clarity and pungence, with a facility for drawing on metaphors from everyday life to illuminate abstract concepts and using humor to lighten the tone of ponderous subjects. The quantum theory, for instance, he tagged as the "jerk theory," hormones were compared to labor "agitators," and coal-tar resins were likened to "a molecular trust, indissoluble, uncontrollable, and contaminating everything it touched." While his works were always heavily laced with facts, his argument was always easy to follow; Thomas Edison called him "a 'Star' in lucidity. By the end of the decade, Slosson's vivid style and prolific output had won him a wide following. In many ways he was the Isaac Asimov of the 1920s.

As one historian noted, Edwin Slosson's life seemed a preparation for his career at Science Service. With a doctorate in chemistry and his experience as a journalist, Slosson was familiar with both the scientific and literary worlds, and was thus ideally qualified to translate scientific ideas into popular terms. In fact, his reputation as a "Renaissance man" was such that Rollins College in Florida was about to name him "Professor of Things in General" just before he died. However, even though Slosson was well-versed in the humanities, his values were still pre-eminently those of the scientific community in which he was mainly educated and in which he spent the first thirteen years of his career as a professional member. Literature, for Slosson, was not a serious pursuit but a hobby in which he found relief from long hours in the laboratory at the University of Wyoming, and it was largely by chance that he was able to pursue a career in it. Slosson states his intellectual priorities very clearly in a rather preposterous article in the Independent entitled ''Science vs. Literature as a Professorial Profession." The scientist was far superior to the literary man because, as Slosson claimed, he has to stick to the facts. To obtain these all-important facts, the scientist must get his hands dirty and work harder than the literary man, who doesn't have to bother with reality at all. Clearly Slosson's perspective was that of a scientist, and while his literary talents strengthened his abilities as a popularizer, it was predominantly the values of the scientific culture which shaped and colored his interpretations of scientific ideas. Slosson's concerns regarding popular science were essentially those of the scientists of the postwar era, which were, as William E. Ritter expressed them, "to make science duly appreciated and adequately supported.

A great deal of Edwin Slosson's popular science was devoted to emphasizing aspects of science--particularly its utilitarian aspects--which would be likely to increase public support for the funding of research. According to Slosson, the recognition of the practical benefits of science was the second phase of the popular appreciation of science (following the "Oh, my!" stage which centered around natural curiosities) and increasing this recognition would benefit both the public and science. Hence he was dismayed by the results of a survey of the utilization of Science Service material which revealed that two of the most popular sciences were "the most remote and impractical of all, archeology and astronomy." In reporting these results to the American Association of Adult Education in 1928, Slosson acknowledged that such "superfluities" form a necessary part of man's intellectual diet, yet he made clear his belief that the applied sciences were the real backbone of modern civilization. However, Slosson deliberately exaggerated the public's impractical interests--perhaps to dramatize his argument in favor of the opposite--for he failed to mention that the most popular stories indicated by the survey were on psychology, most of which concerned the quite practical subject of testing.

Slosson was worried that the public would mistakenly view science as a form of magic and the scientist "as a curious half-crazy creature talking a jargon of his own and absorbed in pursuits of these futilities. In an article entitled "Must Scientists Wear Whiskers?" Slosson tried to counter this Faustian image by asserting that a contemporary convention of scientists "is as clean-shaven, as youthful, and as jazzy as a foregathering of Rotarians.'' The modern scientist, Slosson claimed, is just as worldly as the businessman, for "it is [the scientist], indeed, who made the jazz age practicable; it was his researches into the properties of matter that gave us the automobile, the radio, and, one might add, the saxophone." As Daniel Kevles has noted, by associating science with business and the fruits of technology, popularizers such as Slosson helped make the scientist a respected figure of the 1920s, and established a persuasive appeal for public financial support of science. "Justification by utility," as it has been called, was used by scientists of the nineteenth century and earlier as an argument for the funding of research, and Slosson's use of it had many precedents.

Slosson's popular science involved more than just altering the scientists' public image, however. It also provided examples of how abstruse scientific concepts were vital to the life of the nation. For this purpose, World War I provided effective evidence, and Slosson's best-selling Creative Chemistry was filled with case histories. Slosson described, for instance, how science produced the poisonous chlorine gas used by the Germans and developed the new gases with which the Allies retaliated. Science also invented the rubber masks necessary for withstanding the poison gases, and, when Germany's supplies of natural rubber were cut off, science provided a method of manufacturing rubber from rotten potatoes. The war itself could be considered as simply a product of science, namely, "a series of explosive reactions involving the liberation of nitrogen." Science also had its beneficent uses, Slosson pointed out, for the nitrogen which destroyed armies also fed the world by fertilizing the soil.

No matter how abstract the theory, sooner or later it would produce tangible results, Slosson argued, for "money invested in scientific research of any sort is sure to prove a profitable investment in the end, though nobody can tell in advance when, to whom, or in what coin the dividends will pay. In some cases scientific theories paid off in hard cash; the principal cause of the great accumulation of wealth in the modern world was applied science, Slosson claimed. Even Einstein's theory of relativity might someday have practical benefits, for as soon as the mathematician invents a new formula, the mechanic snatches it from his hand and puts it to use. While theories such as relativity or heliocentrism may not seem to have practical consequences, they can alter man's world view and thus profoundly influence the current of human affairs. The philosophy of pragmatism, for instance, was inspired by the scientific methods of Ostwald and Poincare. Political systems, too, were derived from scientific innovations; since science provides the basic means of production, Slosson maintained that both "socialism and capitalism are merely by-products of the laboratory.'' Science was also making the world more democratic by abolishing class distinctions. Through artificial synthesis and mass production, science was making the clothing, perfumes, and other paraphernalia of aristocracy available to nearly everyone. Machines made possible by science would eventually eliminate hard labor, thus uniting the classes even further. Not only was the machine the "Great Liberator," it was also the "Great Leveler" and as such was "the most powerful of forces for democracy." In other words, science was the source of economic, intellectual, and political progress.

One historian, Ronald Tobey, has asserted that the principal function of Edwin Slosson's popular science was proving the "fundamental philosophical proposition" that scientific ideas are the prime determinants of human progress. Tobey claims that this proposition was central to the ideology of science evolved by scientists in the postwar era to establish financial support for nationally organized science. Tobey is certainly correct that the progress-inducing nature of science was a central theme of Slosson's popular science. In the tradition of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, Slosson was a vigorous advocate-along with such leading scientists as Robert Millikan--of what Daniel Kevles calls the "conservative syllogism" of the 1920s, i.e., "that science was good for business, business good for America, and, in consequence, science good for the nation's economic and spiritual well-being.'' That Slosson, a staunch Republican, clearly supported this conservative syllogism is indicated by his frequent assertions to the effect that "with science in the lead mankind will make more progress. And he certainly agreed with the Science News-Letter advertisement which proclaimed that "only through the development of science does a nation, a profession, an industry progress."

Slosson's faith in the conservative syllogism and his commitment to popularizing science both derived from his personal theory of the nature of progress. Progress, he speculated, was produced by the intelligent direction of power; power, by the intelligent direction of force. As an example he cited the force in the random motion of gas molecules which the scientist, through discovery of the gas laws, learned how to manipulate to move a piston in an engine; the mechanic then built the automobiles which harnessed the engine's power for the benefit of mankind. The popularizer had a particularly important role in this process in that scientific ideas must be translated and interpreted before they can be applied. The purpose of the scientific interpreter was "to bring the results of scientific investigations as quickly as possible to the knowledge of those who are to put them into effect." By reducing the time lag between scientific discovery and practical application, the popularizer helped accelerate human progress. Thus for Slosson, progress was, by definition, the product of science aided by popular science.

Slosson's sweeping reduction of progress, and indeed all history, to a function of scientific advance strikes the modern reader as circular, if not simply false. Ronald Tobey has noted, for instance, that many of Slosson's claims for science as the sole source of progress are based on post hoc, ergo propter hoc arguments. Tobey cites Slosson's presentation of such diverse historical developments as urban growth and changes in courtship patterns as inevitable products of the automobile, the automobile of the engine, and the engine of the gas laws. With such pseudo-deductive reasoning, Slosson reduced philosophies, political and economic systems, and even wars to the consequences of scientific discoveries. While Tobey is quite right in claiming that Slosson's arguments, as historical generalizations, were patently fallacious, it should be noted that Slosson was writing not as a historian but as a popularizer, and as Tobey himself acknowledges, "the character of popular science . . . prohibited intensive reasoning." It is quite difficult to imagine anyone establishing the truth of a "fundamental philosophical proposition" in the space of five hundred words, the typical length of the majority of Edwin Slosson's writings. Thus to apply rigorous logical criteria, as Tobey does, to a literary form which eschews intensive reasoning in order to reach the widest possible audience, is inappropriate to the spirit and substance of popular science, and severely limits the value to be gained from studying its history. Such an approach, as Charles Gillispie has noted, leads to the pessimistic view that "the history of the influence of science in culture is bound to be the history of a misunderstanding, in which what changes is the way in which the import of science is misunderstood. Such an approach focuses unduly on the faults of Edwin Slosson's popular science, rather than seeking to understand the cultural tensions which it sought to resolve, successfully or not.

One of the cultural tensions with which Slosson was most concerned was, as mentioned above, the status of the scientific profession in American society. For Slosson's popular science to win the American public's support for science, particularly its financial support, it was not necessary to provide conclusive philosophical proof that science was the source of all historical change, it was sufficient merely to associate the scientist with the businessman and scientific ideas with practical achievements. Although it is true that this "strategy" at times resembled a public relations campaign, such a tactic is not necessarily as reprehensible as Tobey seems to suggest. The popularization of science by scientists has traditionally bordered on the edge of propaganda ever since the need for equipment and materials exceeded the means of individual scientists. One historian has found, for instance, that in the popular scientific writings of the eighteenth-century mathematician, Bernard de Fontenelle, "propaganda for science went hand in hand with popularization. As secretary of the Academie des Sciences in Paris, Fontenelle consciously stressed the utilitarian aspects of science in his writings in order to secure funds for research from the government on which the Academie depended. In the 1920s, science was at least as economically dependent on society as in the eighteenth century, and Slosson's popular science, in boosting science as the source of progress, was using a time-honored tactic for approaching the age-old problem of patronage. As the "Statement of Purpose" of Science Service frankly claimed, Science Service "engages in no propaganda, unless it be called propaganda to urge the value of research and the usefulness of science. Whether or not the popular science of Edwin Slosson and Science Service is construed as propaganda, the justification-by-utility argument was, and is still today, made necessary by the dependent relationship of science with society.

Slosson was well-schooled in the difficulties of financing research during his thirteen years with the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station, from 1892 to 1904. In a study of agricultural experiment station scientists during this period, historian Charles Rosenberg recounts some of the obstacles encountered by the young chemists who staffed the station laboratories. In the first place, few station scientists had time for research, overburdened as they were by questions from farmers and demands for testing. As Rosenberg notes, many of the young chemists "often found themselves prisoners of the deadening routine of fertilizer analysis." Teaching responsibilities also encroached on research time since many station scientists, like Slosson, also held appointments at a nearby university. If time was available, money was not, for many of the stations were forced to rely on local farmers for contributions for equipment and supplies, and farmers were not easily convinced of the value of basic research to agriculture. Rosenberg found that many station scientists thus evolved a "rhetorical stance" which justified pure science on the basis of its potential usefulness. This "rhetorical stance" was, as Rosenberg noted, a vital necessity for those station scientists who wished to maintain their professional integrity and also relate the values of science with those of their agricultural constituency. Edwin Slosson was undoubtedly among those station scientists who used the justification-by-utility argument in soliciting badly-needed financial support for science, and it was only natural that it became a cornerstone of his popular science.

Edwin Slosson held that there was yet a third phase in the development of the public's appreciation of science, which advanced beyond mere interest in natural curiosities or the practical applications of science. This third phase involved "the realization of the value of science as a guide in personal and political affairs . . . ." Promoting this realization was the second integral concern of Slosson's popular science. Not only was science the instrument of progress, Slosson argued, it was a way of life, a state of mind, and a guide for correct thinking and behavior. A new era was dawning, the "Era of Enlightenment," in which "science shall devise and direct and not merely interpret." In this new age, foretold by Francis Bacon, science would not only provide the means of living, "it will point out in what direction the human race may progress" and "it will discover what conduct is most conducive to human welfare." To achieve this utopian state of affairs, it was necessary to cultivate the "scientific habit of mind" among the masses, the task not just of popular science but of all education, more important even than the dissemination of useful scientific facts. Once established, the scientific habit of mind would endow the public with the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood and thus make correct decisions on important issues, particularly scientific issues such as racial mixing.

In a democracy, this ability was crucial to the survival of the nation, for "an unsound popular opinion of the scientific question may bring popular ruin to a race." The popular ruin which Slosson most feared was the "degeneration [of the white race] through indiscriminate multiplication of the unfit." The threat of racial decline was not only a source of alarm to Slosson, it was a matter of general concern in the 1920s, a concern that was exacerbated by the studies of reputable scientists. In the Science News-Letter, for instance, it was reported that Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, a prominent anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, had issued a warning at the Race Betterment Conference in 1928 that "the greatest danger before the American people today is the blending of the negro tenth of the population into the superior blood of the white race.'' The science of eugenics, Slosson believed, could prevent race suicide if only the masses could be made to understand that "the fate of a nation depends . . . on how they combine their chromosomes." By giving prominent coverage to eugenics in the publications of Science Service, Slosson hoped to enable the public to make scientifically sound decisions in selecting marriage partners.

A more immediate threat than racial decline perceived by Edwin Slosson was a moral and intellectual decline, or, as he worded it, "a reversion to that primitive psychology that arose out of the [First World War], or out of which the war arose." Despite his exuberant prophesies of a dawning scientific age, Slosson was deeply troubled by the war and its cultural consequences, which engendered in him a pessimism from which, according to his son Preston, he never recovered. In his 1921 report to the trustees of Science Service, Slosson called attention to the "wave of superstition and reaction which is now sweeping over the world [and] threatens to carry away a large part of the gains made during the last century.'' In one of a series of moralistic essays in his book, Sermons of a Chemist, Slosson asserted that this dangerous movement contained two seemingly opposite but related trends, naturalism and supernaturalism, both of which deviated from rational religion and sound scientific thinking.

Slosson detected naturalism in a variety of social and cultural guises, ranging from stream-of-consciousness literature to the "primitive African rhythms" of modern music. One of his most vivid passages is a diatribe against this "cult of naturalism."

The cult of naturalism is now dominant everywhere. The call of the wild is drowning out the appeal of civilization. "Back to barbarism!" is the slogan of the hour. Sink into savagery. Praise the country and denounce the city. Admire cliffs but make fun of skyscrapers. Extol forests and despise laboratories. Exalt the physical and ignore the intellectual. Spend half a million dollars on a new stadium and let the old library go to ruin. Abolish compulsory Latin and establish compulsory swimming. Patronize football and neglect debating. Up with the soldier and down with the savant. Promote pugilism and suppress pacifism. Jazz your music and cube your painting . . . . Condemn everything new and worship everything old . . . . Reprove and repress the Christian virtues of kindliness and universal sympathy . . . . The dominant tendency of the times is undoubtedly downward and backward, and the advance of science and the uplift of religion have not yet availed to check it.

To Slosson, naturalism was essentially an antiprogress movement representing a return to the barbaric customs whose sublimation was the whole purpose of civilization.

The rise of supernaturalism was perhaps an even more virulent threat. In his "sermon" on "The Revival of Witchcraft," Slosson predicted that an archeologist of the far future, who chanced upon the popular newspapers of the 1920s, would reach some startling conclusions.

[The archeologist] would conclude from reading these papers that astrology was more in vogue than astronomy, that our medicine was mostly magic, that the credulity of the common people was bound- less, and that the practice of necromancy, divination, and other forms of witchcraft provided popular and profitable professions.

To compound the problem, the work of certain men of science, such as Sir Oliver Lodge and William Crookes, was contributing to the "recrudescence of superstition," and certain scientific concepts, such as Freud's notion of the unconscious, were being drafted by nonscientists in defense of a spirit world. Slosson complained that Einstein's fourth dimension, for instance, was widely misconstrued as "the abode of departed spirits, a spare room for ghostly visitors." While certain scientists and scientific theories seemed to fuel the revival of mysticism, Slosson was even more concerned that the revolution in twentieth-century science had created confusion and alarm in the public mind, shaking its faith in science and reason, and leaving the masses vulnerable to superstitious cults. In Easy Lessons in Einstein, Slosson wrote that

there is a feeling among the general public interested in such things that the foundations of modern science are being swept away by the recent discoveries. The layman has been led to believe that such laws as gravitation, the conservation of matter and the immutability of the elements are the most certain and absolute truths of science. But now he hears reputable men of science talk calmly about the decay of matter and the transformation of one element into another, and gravely consider a theory which makes invalid Newton's three laws of motion.

To the man on the street science seemed to be committing suicide, and as its influence on the popular mind began to wane, the public, Slosson thought, was turning to the nostrums of supernaturalism.

Edwin Slosson's sometimes bitter denunciations of the reversion to naturalism and supernaturalism derived from his fundamental belief that both Christianity and science called upon man to rise above his animal origins and conquer both nature and his own natural impulses. In Creative Chemistry, Slosson proclaimed that "the conquest of nature, not the imitation of nature, is the whole duty of man," a sentiment which, in another work, he asserted was the central theme of his book. Repeatedly in that work he argued that nature "is our treacherous and unsleeping foe, ever to be feared and watched and circumvented . . . ." Slosson's aversion to nature at times bordered on the pathological, at least from a modern point of view. This is illustrated by an incident described by Slosson himself which occurred during a college class-session he was observing, in which a female student stated that the aim of science was "'the study of nature so that Man may learn to live in accordance with the course of Nature.'" In our present era of ecological awareness such a definition would be applauded. However, Slosson found it "false and heathenish" and "rose in wrath" to reprimand her, proposing instead that "'the aim of science is to enable man to seize the forces of Nature so that he may frustrate the course of Nature.'" Describing the girl as ungrateful for the warm buildings, clothes, and automobiles made possible by science, he concluded that "she probably rarely used her own legs except for dancing and then to very unnatural music. A reviewer of Creative Chemistry understandably thought that Slosson had a "grudge" against nature, and perhaps he did, considering that his memories of his youth in frontier Kansas were dominated by buffalo hunts, Indian raids, and grasshopper plagues. Slosson also found "scientific" justification for his animosity toward nature in his interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics. In a manner reminiscent of nineteenth-century natural theology, Slosson identified the "Devil" with the entropic tendency of nature (including human civilization) to revert to the chaos from which it sprang. Therefore, Slosson believed the worship of nature was immoral and must be opposed by God and man.

One way in which Edwin Slosson's popular science attempted to oppose the reversion to barbarism was by reassuring the public that the revolution in science was a benign metamorphosis and not a destructive dissolution. In this way, Slosson hoped to prevent the public from losing confidence in science and turning to mysticism. With this purpose in mind, Slosson soothingly argued that "really, the new discoveries are not so upsetting to science as they appear to the general public . . . .'' He acknowledged that "science is molting now and looks queer," but maintained that "the public ought to understand that the process means growth and not decay."

In addition to such "pep talks" intended to calm public anxieties about modern science, Slosson offered a pragmatic philosophy of science which downplayed the importance of theories, believing that the public's shocked reaction to the new scientific discoveries was the result of a failure to understand that theories were only useful tools, not immutable laws of nature. In an article entitled "The Fiction of Force," Slosson asserted that while the layman mistakenly believed that theoretical constructs such as the luminiferous ether actually existed, scientists regarded them as only useful, though imperfect, hypotheses. The concept of force, for instance, which had been radically altered by Einstein, had never been intended as a statement of truth, but only as a mathematical expression used to symbolize an incompletely understood natural phenomenon. In a somewhat condescending tone Slosson remarked that

as of old the multitude will mistake the symbol for the reality and they will be shocked when some iconoclast [such as Einstein] smashes up with his hammer the idols they have regarded as absolute and eternal.

If the public could only be made to recognize the difference between the ephemeral theories of science and the eternal facts of nature, it would not lose its confidence in science when old, familiar theories were rejected. Since theories are only useful hypotheses, it followed that their truth or falsehood was of little importance to the scientist, who cared only how much they might aid him in discovering new facts. Thus a change in theory is of little consequence, for the facts of science never change and it is the gradual accumulation of facts which constitutes the real achievement of the scientific enterprise. Slosson explained that while the scientist adheres firmly to the facts of science, he holds his theories very loosely, adding that

the scientist never bothers his head with the question whether a particular theory is true or false. He considers it simply as more or less useful, more or less adequate, succinct and comprehensive. A theory is merely a tool, and he drops one theory and picks up another at will and without a thought of inconsistency, just as a carpenter drops his saw and picks up his chisel.

And as the carpenter drops his saw and picks up his chisel, so the physicist uses wave theory to explain one group of phenomena and quantum theory for another, and there was no contradiction in doing so and no reason to believe that the revolution in science had created intellectual anarchy. Besides, new theories do not abolish old theories, they merely explain and synthesize more facts than the old theories, for "revolutions in science do not destroy; they extend. In science, Slosson claimed, revolutions . . . never go backwards, and they differ from political revolutions in that nothing worth saving is lost. The new theory must always include all that the old one does and more. In their struggle for existence formulas fight like 80 snakes; the one that can swallow the other beats.

Through such pragmatic arguments Slosson tried to rally the public's flagging faith in science and prevent the defection of the masses to mysticism, a task which he regarded as his solemn duty as both a scientist and a Christian.

"The theory of relativity: Albert Einstein"


Dr. Edwin E. Slosson


Science Service

A friend of mine--I don't know him personally, but any man who buys a book of mine is a friend of mine--writes to me: "If you will put Einstein's theory of relativity in words of one syllable perhaps I can understand it."

Now, that is a foolish notion--even though he is a friend of mine. Short words may be easier to pronounce, but not easier to understand.

But anything to oblige a friend. So here goes:

If you were on a train and saw a train on the side track slip by your pane of glass you could not tell which trained moved if yours did not jolt. You might think that your train was at rest, and that one moved back, or that both moved, but not at the same rate or the same way. It would be all the same which way you looked at it.

If now you were in a tight box or chest as big as a room that rests on the ground you would feel a down pull, which we call your weight. It is said to be due to a "force." But if the box is off in space where there is no force from the earth to act on it, and the box is pulled up by a rope at the same rate as a mass falls to the earth, you would feel the floor press up on your feet just the same as when you stood on the ground.

You know how it feels when you are in a lift that goes up with a jerk. If, while you were in this box off in space, you should throw a ball up in the air, it would go up a ways then fall down to the floor. So it looks to you, though to a man not in the box it seems that the floor moves so fast that it must catch up with the slow ball.

If you should fire a shot straight from the right side of the box to the left, its path would seemed curved down at the end as it would on the earth. So, then, a ray of light, which too, we say, moved straight, would seem to you curved when it passed through the box as though it, like the shot, had been pulled down by some force. But there is no down force in this case, for the box is not near the earth. It is due to the fact that the box moves up with more and more speed in the same way as a mass falls to the earth.

Then we must think that a ray of light near a large mass would not move in a straight line but in a curve. It would act just as if there were a force to pull it in. This has been found to be so. As the light from a star goes past the sun its track is bent to the sun as though the sun pulled the ray, as it does the earth, in a curved path. So when the sun is made dark by the moon the stars round about it seem pushed out of place. They do not stand so close as they do on the star map when the sun is not in their midst.

Then, too, the sphere that moves around the sun and is most near to it does not quite close up the ring of its path at the end of a year as it should by the old law. The new law shows why this is so.

A third test of the new law is still to be passed. The light and dark lines that are seen in a beam of light when it is bent out of its course by a wedge of glass should be pushed to the red end of the band if the light comes from large stars like the sun. A long light wave like the red should show more shift than the short waves. This point has not yet been proven for sure. Such a shift has been seen, but does not seem to be of the right size.

Some strange things must be true if the new law holds good. First, we must say that mass and weight are not fixed, but change when the thing moves, though the change is slight save at high speeds. But near the speed of light the change is great. A thing must weigh more when it moves fast. If a rod goes at great speed in the line of its length it will not seem so long as if it were at rest. No mass can be made to move as swift as light.

A clock in a state of rest does not show the same time as a clock that moves at high speed. As it moves fast through space it seems to slow up. A man would not seem to grow old if he could move with the speed of light.

It is a matter of choice if we say that the earth goes round the sun or that the sun goes round the earth. If a ring is seen to be one foot through when a rule is laid on it, it will be Pi (3.14159 and so on) times that length round the rim. But if there is a great weight put in the mid point of the ring, then the line will be less that Pi times the line that cuts through the ring at its mid point. If a thin steel disk whirls round fast, its rim will seem to shrink like a hot tire on the wheel of a cart.

It seems then that the scheme of points and lines that we got from the Greeks, and that is taught in our schools yet, is not quite true when we come to deal with time and space as a whole. Space would be naught if there were no time. Time would be naught if there were no space. The two must join to form a sort of fixed frame or mesh in which all things are set.

At each point, say the point where you stand, four lines cross and lead out straight in the four ways. One line runs up and down, the next runs right and left, the third runs back and forth, and the fourth runs from time past to time to come. To fix a thing we must know its point on the time line as well as its points on the three space lines. To place an act we must know when as well as where it came to pass.

Mass will wrap this mesh of space and time. A mass as it moves forms a sort of crease or ridge. A mass that is at rest in space, of course, moves on the time line. A mass, as it moves from this point to that must take the track that is most long through the mesh of space and time.

Space as a whole may be closed up in the form of a sphere or roll, and in that sense may be said to have no end, though it may not be so large as we used to think. A ray of light that starts out from the sun may not go on straight for all time, but may round the sphere of space and come back at the end of a long time to the place it set out from.

Free books:

Creative Chemistry

Easy Lessons in Einstein: A Discussion of the More Intelligible Features of the Theory of Relativity with an Article by Albert Einstein

Great American Universities

Keeping Up With Science

Plots and Personalities: A New Method of Testing and Training the Creative Imagination

Six Major Prophets

The American Spirit in Education: A Chronicle of Great Teachers

University of California

Popularization of science

No comments: