Living in a Scientific World


By WATSON DAVIS, Director of Science Service, Washington

Before the annual luncheon of the General Science Association of New York, Hotel Astor, New York City, February 28, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 329-331

WE are all living in a very different kind of world than we were just a few months ago. It is a world in which scientific and technical knowledge which will result in production for offense is precious and must be cherished and used to the utmost. It is a world in which the scientific method and the mode of thought and doing which science has developed must be put to use.

This world of 1942 is a test of whether science and democracy can be made effective and survive in competition with barbarians who have been given the weapons that science and technology have fashioned in innocence and goodwill. As the posters say: "Time is short." Destiny is trampling upon our heels. We are fighting strong men, mad men, ruthless men, armed with weapons that in a large measure they have stolen from us.

If we can project ourselves as best we may into the problems of a warring world, there is a good chance that we canmeet two major objectives: 1. To win the immediate war in its wide-spread envelopment of the world. 2. To reorder the world when the military war is won.

Both of these objectives are important. The winning of the war is immediately urgent in terms of the next five years or so. We, all of us, must also make ready to construct the civilization we save so that the debauch of destruction will not be indulged in again. We are fighting for a constructive, livable world for ourselves and all the peoples of the earth.

In this great fight the prime factor is education. By education I do not mean alone the hours spent in school. Education begins in the cradle. It may be most formative in the pre-school years, the years spent in the home or, for very fortunate children, in nursery school. It certainly does not end with high school or college. It is perhaps fortunate that it ends with the grave, for what a misfortune it would be

for an evolving world if the germ plasm passed on from generation to generation had a memory.

The great American process of formal education to which, at least theoretically, everyone is exposed is the great common denominator of our culture. It is our national boot strap. It is up to us to pull hard and swiftly.

It is our concern that the precious time and energy of our schooling is spent to the best advantage. Previously efficiency in education may have been a luxury, but now it is a necessity. Teacher and pupil, parent and citizen, must demand that each within his powers and capabilities will equip himself to do the job most needed that can be done.

In this training period for service to the world—for that is what our schooling is—the important things must come first. And what comes first in this civilization is the necessity of living, thinking and doing scientifically—in the very broad sense of the word. Science encompasses making tanks and airplanes, making rubber out of oil, organizing industry, living without waste in a rationed world, keeping one's self and fellows in health, and a million other things. It also means understanding human behavior, recognizing the hidden motives of human conduct, visualizing the differences and similarities of other peoples, both enemy and ally. It is good production, good consumption, good teaching, good understanding. It means, fundamentally, the ability to tell the true from the false, the effective from the ineffective, that which does work from that which does not.

I assume in these circles these truths are self-evident, although they are worth stating. I am not convinced that the world at large is convinced, emotionally, that these truths are in fact truth. That is the big job of education. And it is a big job, bigger than it ever has been.

Those of us past our school days get our continuing education from the daily tasks we perform, the newspapers, the radio, the movies, magazines and books, our neighbors and our other contacts with each other. The press and the other media of intelligence or communication have a great responsibility and opportunity which they are fulfilling with considerable success. This sphere of education is one in which in present times our scientific civilization will be doing very well if it can conduct primarily a defense or holding operation, to use military terms.

It is in the schools that scientific education can go on the offensive with good hope of success, if you teachers who are in the front line will plan your campaign rightly and conduct it diligently.

First and most important is a conviction that science is a mode of thought and action, not just a body of knowledge, or a course, or a unit of instruction. The method of science must be made to permeate the whole experience of the boy or girl, in school and out, in courses and classes not labeled "science" as well as those that get that classification. You who are science teachers must recruit the teachers in other fields for your campaign. You must enlist mothers and fathers.

Schools as well as factories must have longer hours. I am not advocating any lengthening of the hours of formal instruction—that would not be effective—but the boys and girls must be so introduced to science, which is rational living, that they won't stop when the dismissal bell rings. Education and schooling, to be real, must be creative. The torch of understanding within must take fire. The light created must blaze on.

Formal instruction must be supplemented by the spontaneous researching and exploring done by groups eager to carry out projects of their own. This is the place for the science club, absorbing energies and enthusiasms. It is a wiseteacher who lets the infective creativeness of such a group carry the burden of real instruction, who almost makes the classes during school hours an adjunct to the consuming interest of the student-developed activity. It is for this reason that Science Clubs of America, the national organization of science clubs, has received the sponsorship of Science Service.

For very practical reasons born of the war effort, science in school and out must be more practical than ever. It is quite possible that boys and girls will learn the principles of electricity just as fast, or even faster, if they apply them as they learn to the essential war task of radio communication, or the spotting of airplanes by micro-waves. Principles of mechanics can be demonstrated by practical work with automotive engines. Aerodynamics becomes real when boys and girls have it applied to the immediate task of learning to fly, or design planes, or maintain them. Or when they make models needed by the Navy. Biology and hygiene can be emphasized by the practical and necessary facts of how we can keep our people healthy and nourished on the food that we have. As the principles of chemistry are taught there can also be appreciated the direct practical value of those essential methods of making plastics, synthetic fibers, and other products from plentiful raw materials, such as coal and oil, making such industrial staples as sulfuric acid, or winning metals from the earth. We must speed up the process of getting our young people ready for doing the work of the world.

Under present conditions youth must come into active service earlier than has been customary in the past. If the war lasts five years longer, the boys and girls now 13 will be needed for fighting or production. In scientific research youth is no handicap, it may even be an advantage, once the basic foundations of past progress are known. Remember that Perkin was in school and 18 when he discovered mauve, that Hall was 26 when he produced aluminum, that Newton was 19 when he worked out the principles of gravitation.

We must begin an intensive search for genius, or at least, superiority in science. Those who have been endowed by nature and their ancestors and by their training and environment with a flair for science and research must be allowed to use that ability to the best interests of our war effort and our civilization. We must see to it that the unusual boy or girl gets an opportunity to go to college or technical school and is channeled into a definite specialized responsibility in our growing national machine for fighting and producing. We must see to it that the exceptional boy or girl is given the basic education that will allow him to become a leader in the important reconstruction after the war.

This may mean a new viewpoint upon scholarships and fellowships. It may be necessary and advisable to pick the promising individuals while they are still in high school or even earlier and then assure them the training most useful to our national effort, regardless of whether their parents are rich or poor. This may be an activity in which industries should be interested or it may be a matter of governmental concern to the same degree as training airplane pilots or fighting men.

This search for genius in science is a part of the great task of selective service in which during the coming months and years we shall all have the opportunity and duty to engage.

Practical attention should be paid in this connection to the researches that indicate that there are individuals who can accomplish in remarkably short time the educational equivalents of the usual years of college, freeing their time for more advanced work that will produce research scientists or engineers with a saving of a year or two. In a wareconomy this may be of extreme importance if widely and intelligently applied, particularly in connection with the streamlining of our higher education.

We must engage in a search for competent people who, like most of us, are not geniuses. The individual with exceptional mechanical ingenuity is a precious person in this war. The boy or girl with an intense interest in radio, or medicine, or any other field of war, production or health importance must be placed in a proper position to develop that interest to national advantage.

The social superiority of the white collar job must be leveled so that the worker with hands as well as brains attains the requisite self-satisfaction and public esteem.

Not everyone can do everything in this world but there is usually something that each of us can do better than most of the other people in the world. The task of those who administer education is to find the proper job in life for each boy or girl.

Girls must not be overlooked or neglected in scientific and technical education. It is far from being merely a man's world in these troubled days. Women will, of necessity, do more of the work of industry as the war progresses. They can make major contributions to the technical research and services of production and war, if they are equipped to do so.

As science courses in the schools are streamlined for war, there should be increasing emphasis upon the experimental or the "doing" method of teaching. Any minimizing or elimination of laboratory instruction on the grounds of saving money will be false economy. Science can not be learned from books and lectures alone. Now as never before the cult of anti-science as exemplified by the spurious return to the classics of out-worn philosophies must be resisted. There is a great need for teaching by experiments that the pupils do themselves. To those who raise the objection that laboratories cost too much money, let them be answered with simple, school-made equipment. Or make this a science club project.

It should be the objective of every science teacher to inject science and the scientific methods in all the other classes in the school. Scientists as well as generals are good subjects for English themes. Spanish classes should try their hand at writing letters about science to students in the other American republics. There is rhythm and beauty in scientific experiments fit for the crayon or brush of the art classes.

Science and research must be on the offensive in this warring world. And we must be aggressive for the same reason that the United Nations are banded militantly together—to make the world scientific and worth living in.