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Nullius In Verba Post by :Empire Category :Essays Author :Francis Darwin Date :November 2011 Read :2765

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Nullius In Verba


There is a well-known story of Charles Darwin which I shall venture to repeat, because nothing can better emphasise the contrast between Shrewsbury School as it is and as it was.

Charles Darwin used, as a boy, to work at chemistry in a rough laboratory fitted up in the tool-house at his home in Shrewsbury. The fact that he did so became known to his school-fellows, and he was nicknamed "Gas." I have an old Delphine Virgil of my father's in which this word is scrawled, together with the name Miss Case, no doubt a sneer at his having come from Case's preparatory school. Dr. Butler, the Head Master, heard of the chemical work, and Charles Darwin was once publicly rebuked by that alarming person for wasting his time on such useless subjects. My father adds, "He called me very unjustly a poco curante, and as I did not understand what he meant it seemed to me a fearful reproach." A poco curante means of course "a don't-care person" or one who takes no interest in things, and might perhaps be translated by "slacker." I do not suppose that Dr. Butler is likely ever to be forgotten, but as it is, he is sure of a reasonable share of immortality as the author of a description so magnificently inappropriate. {141a}

This is the contrast I referred to; on one hand a Head Master in 1822 doing his best to discourage a boy from acquiring knowledge of a great subject in the best possible way, i.e. by experiment. And on the other, a Head Master of the same school in 1911 encouraging, with a wise zeal, the rational study of science as a regular part of the school course. It may not be possible to trace out the complete evolution of these Darwin Buildings, but I like to fancy that the germ from which they have sprung is that tool house at the Mount. {141b}

It is some comfort to us to know that Shrewsbury was not the only place which failed to educate my father in the regulation lines. When he left school he went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. But he found anatomy and materia medica intolerable, and the operating theatre was a horror. So he began to work at science in his own way. He learned to stuff birds from an old negro who had known Waterton. Of this instructor he says, "I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man." He also caught sea beasts in the pools on the shore, and made one or two small observations, which were communicated to the Plinian Society.

Then he was sent to Cambridge with a view to taking Orders. He enjoyed himself riding and shooting, and especially in catching beetles in the fens. But also in more intellectual ways, as in listening to the anthem in King's Chapel, and looking at the pictures in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Henslow, the Professor of Botany treated him as a friend rather than as a pupil, and finally settled his career by sending him round the world in H.M.S. Beagle. He entered the ship an undergraduate, and left it after five years a man of science. I give these well known details to show how little he profited by any regular course of study either at Shrewsbury, Edinburgh, or Cambridge. His start in life depended on the recognition of his capacity by Henslow, and was nearly wrecked by FitzRoy, the Captain of the Beagle, suspecting that no one with a nose like my father's could be an energetic person.

Are we therefore to conclude that the best method of scientific education is to force a boy to work at uncongenial subjects? In the case of a genius it may not much matter what he is taught; he will succeed, in spite of his education. But for us lesser mortals it does matter. I am not going to talk about the way in which science should be taught in schools, a matter about which I am not competent to speak. What I shall speak of is the learning rather than teaching of the subject.

I once heard Lord Rayleigh refer to the necessity of putting one's subject-matter clearly before an audience, and he illustrated his point by the following story. Somebody, possibly a lady, came from listening to a lecture by Mr. So-and-So, and when asked what it was about, replied, "He didn't say." I shall follow Lord Rayleigh's advice and tell you that my subject is "Why science should be learned." Why it is worth while for a boy to give up some of his time to this particular form of knowledge, and what advantage he may expect to gain from so doing.

There are many possible reasons for a boy's learning science.

I Because he is told to. This is an excellent reason, but
not inspiriting.
II To get marks in an Entrance Scholarship examination. This
is a virtuous reason but not intellectual.
III To gain knowledge which will be of use when he comes to
follow a profession, and wants to know physics in view of
becoming an engineer, or physiology as a part of medical
training. This is a worthy reason, but not a common one.
IV Lastly, a boy may learn science because he wants to;
because he finds it entertaining; because it satisfies an
unreasoning desire to know how things in general work.

This is the best possible reason and the most efficient, and what I propose, is to inquire whether this wish to know something of science can be justified.

The word 'science' simply means knowledge, but it is usually applied to knowledge that can be verified. Thus we learn by heart that Queen Anne died in 1714. I believe this to be a fact, but I have no means of verifying it. But if I am told that putting chalk into acid will produce a heavy gas having the quality of extinguishing a lighted match, I can verify it. I can do the thing and see the results. I am now the equal of my teacher; I know it in the same way that he does. It has become my very own fact, and it seems to have the satisfactory quality that possession gives. This characteristic of scientific knowledge is not always recognised. I mean the profound difference between what we know and what we are told. When science began to flourish at Cambridge in the 'seventies, and the University was asked to supply money for buildings, an eminent person objected and said, "What do they want with their laboratories?—why can't they believe their teachers, who are in most cases clergymen of the Church of England?" This person had no conception of what the word 'knowledge' means as understood in science.

Another characteristic of science is that it makes us able to predict. I have already referred to the fact that Queen Anne is dead, and we know, or are told, that she died, as I said before, in 1714; we also know that George I. died in 1727, and George II. in 1760, but that would not enable us to predict that George III. would die in 1820. They are isolated facts not connected by the causal bond that knits together a series of scientific truths. And this is after all a fortunate thing for the peace of mind of reigning sovereigns.

It is said that you should never prophesy unless you know. But science is made up of prophecies. Some are famous, like the prediction of Adams and Leverrier that a new planet would be found in a stated position. Some are on a humbler scale, such as my father's prediction that a big moth would be found to carry the pollen of Hedychium by brushing it off with the tips of its hovering wings, a method of fertilisation unheard of at the time, which however proved to be the fact.

You may say that it does not matter whether the moth does this particular thing or not. This is no doubt true from a strictly commercial point of view. But in science all facts have some value. We should cultivate a point of view about facts the very reverse of that of the unknown person who said that all books are rather dull.

I once heard a celebrated physicist describe how he explained to an American business man an elaborate spectroscope for examining the sun. The American asked what good it was. The physicist explained that with it you can discover whether or no sodium exists in the sun. The American was silent for some time, and then said, "But who the 'nation cares whether there is sodium in the sun or not?" He had not the scientific spirit which does care about sodium in the sun.

Scientific discovery is, as I said, made up of a series of prophecies. You observe fact No. 1, and you say if this be so No. 2 ought to be true, and on examination you find this is true, and No. 2 suggests No. 3. Or else you find 2 not to be true; this makes you suspect your original fact, and on carefully going over your observation you find No. 1 was a mistaken observation. The successful man of science is one to whom familiar objects suggest those prophecies generally known as theories. My father was remarkable for not letting what seem to be trifling facts pass without suggesting to him a theory. The flies that are caught on the sundew must have been seen by innumerable people—but it remained for him to prove the truth of his guess that some plants possess digestive ferments like our own, and live on the insects they catch and digest.

The art of being guided by slight indications is sometimes called the method of Zadig, which I learn from Mr. Huxley's essay and not from Voltaire. Mr. Huxley points out that it is not only possible thus to prophesy what will happen, but also to determine what has happened; and he suggests that there should be a word 'backtell' as well as foretell. Zadig, who was an oriental philosopher, met one day the King's servants in great trouble about the loss of their master's favourite horse. When asked whether he had seen it he said, "A fine galloper, is it not? small hoofed, five feet high, tail 3½ feet long. Cheek-pieces of the bit 23-carat gold, shoes silver." They of course begged to know where it was, and he said he had not seen it.

This will be recognised as the method of Sherlock Holmes, but it is also the method of science. Surely you would like to become scientific under the guidance of that great man. Of course you are not to be Watsons, but actual detectives, with Watsons of your own to admire you. And lest you should fear that the scientific method is alarmingly difficult, I may add that the method of Zadig or Sherlock Holmes, or of science in general, is nothing more than glorified common-sense.

It is difficult to talk about a subject which interests one without seeming to claim that it is superior to all others. I have not meant to imply this. I have only tried to explain in what way science differs from some other sort of knowledge. Nor do I wish to imply that the mind that excels in science is better or worse than that which one finds in a great literary man. An eminent oar is worthy of as much respect as a great cricketer, but he is eminent in a different way.

I am glad to think that there are points in which science, literature, and art are equally excellent—namely, in giving to mankind some of the deepest pleasures of which he is capable, in making him realise the wonder, the beauty and the romance of the world. I spoke of the power of science in knitting together isolated facts into a theory. And such a theory may become so all embracing that it is called a law of nature. Those great generalisations, the laws of gravity and the laws of evolution, or the laws of chemical combination, have a beauty and dignity which appeal to everyone.

And on the practical rather than on the theoretical, side there is wonder, and to my mind beauty, in the bigness and in the smallness of the spaces that man can deal with. The astronomer measures out his work, not by miles, but by the inconceivable distance that light can travel in a year. The man who studies bacteria measures by the micron, 25,000 of which go to the inch. To me there is more fascination in the very small than in the other extreme. It is wonderful to think that a plant—a big tree for instance—is made up of countless millions of cells, each of which was built by a minute protoplasmic body, which Huxley has compared to a delicate Ariel imprisoned like Shakespeare's sprite in an oak-tree.

There is a dramatic effect in even the simplest of experiments. I, for one, am never weary of the time-honoured demonstration of a water-plant giving off oxygen as it assimilates. A twig of Elodea in a large beaker of water gives off no bubbles in the dull light at the back of the room, but when close to the window it does so. And with proper precautions the rate of bubbling becomes an accurate measure of the intensity of assimilation. To complete the demonstration the experiment should be repeated with water which has been boiled, and therefore roughly freed from CO2, when the rate of bubbling is very greatly diminished. Finally, by blowing vigorously into the water it may be charged once more with CO2, and the normal rate of bubbling may be established.

There are of course innumerable experiments in pure chemistry and physics which have this romantic quality in the manner in which they reveal the secrets of the invisible structure of matter—but of these I have not much personal experience.

I think, too, that the human interest of science should always be encouraged. I mean that those classical experiments, by which great men have advanced human knowledge, should be shown: and performed moreover by the original methods, e.g. the discoveries of Black, Priestley and Cavendish.

After all, the real fun of science begins when one finds out something that was not known before. This is what is rather pompously called original research. It is interesting to see in my father's life how the sporting instinct gave way to the love of discovery. To show this passionate love of sport, he mentions that when as a boy he had just shot his first snipe, his hands trembled so that he could hardly reload his gun. Yet the same boy on the voyage of the Beagle found out how much more entrancing than shooting was the chase of new facts and new theories, and he handed over his gun to his servant. And something of this delight one may have as the merest learner. You are not likely to find out things that nobody knew before, but you may easily find out things quite new to yourself—which to you personally are as good as the brand-newest discovery. Lastly, there is another excellent reason for scientific work, namely, that the bodily welfare of the human race and of its friendly animals and plants depends on accurate knowledge of the nature and behaviour of everything in the world. It is this truth that makes us believe that every fact has its value. Its value may remain unrecognised for long periods, and then it may suddenly find its place in the great jig-saw puzzle of knowledge. The two most exciting sciences just now seem to me to be Physics and Pathology; one as bringing us nearer to the knowledge of the structure of matter, the other in disentangling the causes of deadly and mysterious diseases such as malaria, diphtheria, hydrophobia, sleeping sickness, in a manner and with a success hitherto undreamt of. But because the advances in these sciences are so brilliant and hopeful, no civilised worker will venture to despise the pursuits of less fortunate people whose work seems rather humdrum. There are botanists who spend their whole lives in describing and classifying dried plants in a herbarium. But these are really doing highly valuable work, for the simple reason that we cannot make any accurate use of plants until they have names. I am omitting the purely commercial use of such work, which is very great. I only want to insist that the mere naming of living things is an indispensable stone in the building of the palace of science. All who work at science may recognise that they belong to a guild which makes for the happiness of the human race. And this they must do, not with any pride, but humbly acknowledging how small is their personal share in the total of progress.

The Darwin Buildings, that is to say, the three new laboratories which are open to-day, were absolutely needed to carry out the Head Master's plan of giving every boy in the School a chance of learning science. When I say that at the present time 270 boys under five masters are at work in the laboratories, you will realise to what good use they are being put. As I happen to represent the Royal Society on your Governing Body it is especially satisfactory to me to know that science is here taught on the principle expressed by the motto of the Society: "Nullius in verba," that is to say, not in other people's words, but in your own observation lies the path of Science.


{140} An Address on the occasion of the opening of the Darwin Laboratories at Shrewsbury School, October 20, 1911.

{141a} In the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., are given my father's autobiographical recollections. He wrote (pp. 31–32): "Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler's school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught, except a little ancient geography and history." This seems to be an exaggeration, as the following list shows. It is taken from Samuel Butler's Life and Letters of Dr. Samuel Butler, 1896, Vol I., p. 196. The "weekly course of instruction for the fifth and sixth forms, under Dr. Butler," is given, and the items which are not classical are as follows:—

Monday.—English History follows Grecian and Roman history. The rest of a very full day is classical.

Tuesday.—Half-holiday. All classical except that the Masters of accomplishments attend in the afternoon.

Wednesday.—All classical.

Thursday.—Half-holiday. All classical except a "Lecture in algebra" for the sixth and upper fifth forms.

Friday.—All classical.

Saturday.—All classical except "Lecture in Euclid to sixth and upper fifth."

{141b} Charles Darwin's home at Shrewsbury.

(The end)
Francis Darwin's essay: Nullius In Verba

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