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The Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lecture

Issue date: 
Monday, 10 October 1960
Viscount Cobham, GCMG, TD

To be asked to give the Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lecture is a great honour, but it is an honour fraught with almost paralysing responsibility for its recipient.

Before he has been in the country of his adoption for many months, a Governor-General becomes fairly adept in the gentle art of equivocation; he learns to sheath the sharp blade of his opinion in the protective scabbard of verbiage, heedless of the ironical beatitude of George Elliot:

"Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact."

Moreover, I can say with Charles Lamb that in everything related to science, I am a whole encyclopaedia behind the rest of the world. Every public speaker, I imagine, fears that one day he may become as mute as a member of a famous Eton Society who, upon being called upon to make his maiden speech, rose to his feet, repeated "Mr President" three times, and resumed his seat without further troubling the audience.

I sigh, to be sure, for the return of some faint memory of scientific lore, learned during the one hour a week which was all that was accorded to Classical specialists at my old school. Unfortunately, not only were my studies in science not overtaken, they were pursued, so to speak, at a walk; the hour was given to darkness and the manufacture of sulphuretted hydrogen.

The authorities, too, regarded science with reserve, if not with suspicion; scientists were regarded much in the same light as oddities who wished to study Arabic or learn the bassoon. This partly arose, I imagine, from an occasion whereon an ingenious chemistry student filled with fireworks the gigantic Austrian siege-gun which stood in the yard used for "Roll-Call," and placed a beautifully-made time-bomb among the fireworks as detonator, times to explode at precisely 11 o'clock on the fourth of June. It worked perfectly, and for a few moments chaos reigned. But so few were the science specialists capable of manufacturing the infernal machine that the culprit was all-too-easily detected and executed.

And so,, ladies and gentlemen, I begin with a comprehensive apology for my shortcomings in this wide and fertile subject. I am merely one of those miserable mortals who, while taking for granted all the great benefits which scientists have bestowed on the world, tend to apostrophise them for the evil use to which some of their discoveries have been put.

It is illogical to blame Rutherford and J. J. Thompson for Hiroshima as it would be to accuse the silkworm of being responsible for the man who strangles his wife with a stocking. I have never believed that "the sight of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done"; I suppose that bicycle-chains had been in use for quite a time before somebody thought what good weapons they would make.

But when Erasmus described humanity as "a drunken rider falling off his horse alternately to right and left," he spoke nothing less that the truth. Science is alternately under-estimated and over-estimated. In one century people tend to regard it with suspicion, if not hostility; in the next, the whole world accepts it lock, stock and barrel as the golden key which can unl9ock not only all earthly gates, but those of Heaven as well.

Both are wrong. The great majority of scientists would be among the first to admit that science is an aid to understanding, not a substitute for it. Some time ago I had the honour to address the Convocation of the National Council of Churches on the subject of "Science and Religion." Since then, new ground for discussion has, I think, been prepared by Sir David Smith's recent address to the Senate of the University of New Zealand, in the course of which he joins Sir Charles Snow in deploring the division of the intellectual life of Western society into two polar groups - the groups respectively of the literary intellectuals who represent the traditional culture, and of the scientists.

Nobody who has considered the subject would, I imagine, deny that this split exists. The literary intellectuals accuse the scientists of having upset the whole traditional applecart with their theories on biology and evolution, of having ventilated all sorts of strongly-expressed opinions upon subjects outside their competence, and finally by their discoveries in the field of nuclear physics, of having made it possible to blot out millions of the inhabitants of the world and to achieve, for the first time in history, the condemnation of their descendants to unforeseeable suffering for generations to come.

The scientist retort to the effect that the literary intellectuals are out of touch with reality, that they are clinging to an outworn philosophy while unconscious of the roaring factories which daily spin their comfort, and that they are wilfully blind to the finger of truth which clearly points the way to progress and peace in a world in which reason will reign supreme through the revelations of science.

And so, ever since Joseph Priestly, and probably before, the broadsides have rumbled, the climax of the cannonade being reached, I suppose, at the famous meeting of the British Association in Oxford when Huxley defied the clergy in the spirit of Luther at Worms.

Now it is true to say that all but extremists on both sides have hauled off and buried their dead, ruefully admitting that the whole truth about the universe cannot be ascertained in the laboratory or divined in the Church. But there are some extremists left, who carry on a sort of mild guerilla war. For example, I venture to join issue with Sir Charles Snow when he writes:

"Those of the traditional culture fail to understand the scientific revolution of the 20th Century, which is creating an industrial society of electronics, atomic energy and automation."

It seems to me that this is altogether too sweeping a statement. That the scientific and industrial revolution has undoubtedly transformed the world in many material respects, not even the most case-hardened scholar would deny. Those of the traditional culture understand what is happening only too well. They certainly cannot understand much of the detail, mainly because scientists are often compelled to try to explain their discoveries in language which the layman cannot comprehend. Sometimes, like most people, they do it unnecessarily.

For example, a recent article in the magazine "Flight" proclaimed: "Aerodynamic kinetic heating of light-alloy structures at Mach Numbers above 2 to 2.5 seriously diminishes the strength and aeroelastic properties of the structure."

Anyone can understand that, as a matter of fact, but Sir George Edwards, managing director of Vickers Aircraft, remarked drily that all this means is that "if you go faster than about 1600 m.p.h. with light alloy, the thing melts."

And a paper read recently to the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers was entitled: "The steady-state and transient response of the Unsymmetrical Parallet-T network as a transfer-bridge, used in conjunction with variable-capacitance transducers."

This to the layman means absolutely nothing: and it probably couldn't be put into what we like to describe as "plain English." But what I fail to see is why knowledge, however profound, of "variable-capacitance transducers" should be deemed to be useful in any field other than that of electrical engineering.

I hasten to disclaim any inference that an electrical engineer is not as capable as any other specialist of having a wide understanding of what are loosely called "the humanities." Indeed, I would agree whole-heartedly with Sir David that Alpha-plus scientists, well-grounded in the humanities, are and always will be of great value to our present civilisation.

What I take leave to doubt, however, is whether the production of brilliant all-rounders is possible under our present system of education when the trend is toward greater specialisation.

In England, the recent Industrial Grant to Public Schools was specifically designed to achieve this purpose. This grant was a substantial fund raised by a group of large English companies with the object of providing faculties of science for both boys' and girls' public schools. (When I speak of public schools in Britain, I am, of course, alluding to what in New Zealand would be called private schools, such as King's, Wanganui and Christ's.)

It is, I think, widely recognised that these schools in England provide the best liberal education to be found anywhere. Mr J. M. Petersen, Headmaster of Shrewsbury, described them as "Royal and religious foundations, which at least try not only to maintain Christian standards but also insist that man's duty to serve his fellow men is rooted in his primary duty to God." Like many British institutions, their methods have evolved slowly throughout the centuries; they have at least been well-tried, and have stood Time's test pretty well.

Several famous firms, then, combined in providing roughly 20,000 for each of these schools (and they are many), recognising that on the whole they produced young people with certain qualities of mind and spirit which were badly needed in industry - qualities to which, however, there needed to be added some scientific knowledge by the time that the students were due to go to their university.

Here was at least an attempt to go some way toward a closer alliance between science and the traditional culture. The public school boys and girls would probably produce no "Alpha-plus scientists" but they could be depended upon to produce good, well-disciplined scholars in the liberal tradition, who had undergone, in addition, not merely a rudimentary, but a reasonably good, scientific training.

The scheme was generous and imaginative, but several factors are militating against its success. To begin with, the grammar school boy will, by university entrance age, almost certainly know more science than the public school boy. The grammar school boy receives a far more intensive scientific training, and starts it at an earlier age. For centuries, the public schools have aimed at the formation of character rather than the acquisition of specialised knowledge, and it is difficult to combine in the time available a worth-while grounding in science with the old liberal education, rooted in divinity, the classics and English.

Finally, the boys, being mainly drawn from the professional classes, have a home background which is usually liberal rather than scientific. You will see why the public school boy finds it hard to compete under the open examination system with his science-specialist brother from the grammar school. And when the university authorities are accused of prejudicing the whole scheme by setting science papers of too high a standard, they merely retort: "The boys set their own standards under the 'open' system; there may be 150 young scientists seeking 12 places; and we want to discover the best 12."

"In modern mobile warfare," wrote General Von Thoma, "the tactics are not the main thing. The decisive factor is the organisation of one's resources to maintain the momentum."

Today, ladies and gentlemen, the momentum is increasing almost daily, and our resources are, so to speak, being more and more diluted by a natural law - a state of affairs which must continue so long as our populations increase. Education, no less than politics, is the art of the possible.

I do think, however, that there are some things that can be done. The first is recognition by the educational authorities, as well as by school teachers, that to force hard mental work on to a really stupid boy is as senseless and cruel as making a frail intellectual child play hard football. There is a grave danger that both will hate their school-days, and profit little from them. And there is a not inconsiderable danger that both may develop a subsequent dislike of all constituted authority.

What I am trying to say is this: The ordinary average boy need discipline at school. He goes not so much to learn facts as to become a civilised being; living a community life - in short, a decent, responsible citizen. For the really clever boy, the hard work of which he is capable, and which he probably loves, is itself an important educative factor in the widest sense; the best disciplinary education must always lie in a narrow circle. I am inclined to think that these special boys need special tuition - the best possible - from a very early age. It is sheer waste of first-class material to hold them back to the speed of the whole fleet.

In his brilliantly clear analysis in a previous Cawthron Memorial Lecture, entitled "Science is Human," Professor Hugh Parton wrote the following:

"Scientific theories are human inventions; they are instruments of thought, but they are also genuine conjectures abut the nature of the world. We cannot say they are true in any absolute sense, or even that they are highly probable. We can say that they are well tested. We see that they can make two kinds of prediction. One kind is instrumental; the recurrence of known repetitive phenomena such as eclipses. The other is the prediction of new kinds of events, and, as we have seen lately, new kinds of particles."

"You have only got to put forward a hypotheses," wrote Clerk Maxwell, "for the proofs to follow."

I suspect that as a non-scientific layman, graduated neither "cum laude" nor summa cum laude" but only "mirabile dictu," I will never understand quite what that means. But since this saying is confirmed by Professor Parton, I can only bow my head and accept it as true.

But when this principle is carried into other fields, I would contend that it breaks down. In spite of all hypotheses, despite profound investigation into patterns of behaviour, into the "Libido" and the "Id," man still remains "the wonder, jest and glory of the world," wilful, complex and unpredictable. In the field of psychology, the hypotheses of investigators have seldom been vindicated by proof, if only by reason of the fact that they are dealing with a subject whose reaction to treatment differs widely from one individual to another.

In what is rather loosely termed "sociology," there are, I think, at least two false hypotheses: First, that man, a spiritual being, is destined to progress solely by the light of new advances in scientific and technological knowledge; and second, that all evil can in the last analysis be attributed to something known rather vaguely as "a low standard of living."

The word that Horace Walpole coined for us, "Serendipity," has an important place in scientific history; there is a story that stainless steel was discovered through a happy accident. But it is when empirical theories are applied to human beings that we begin to find ourselves in serious trouble, for by the time that those theories have been proved wrong, we may have produced a generation sufficiently irresponsible and hedonistic to have severed the links between past and present, and so to have endangered the future.

"Technology and the soul are entirely separate matters." The American philosopher Lewis Mumford wrote a most penetrating passage on the decline of Rome, which may have a bearing on the subject:

"Rome held neither a unified religion nor a body of scientific thought that was equal to the task of transforming the debris of numerous dying cultures into a unified and living organism The connoisseur has replaced the creator. Such a community faces too many incompatible choices; and as a result, fashion takes the place of organic necessity, and novelty becomes a substitute for rational development. Roman power, Roman sanitation, Roman engineering were everywhere. But the inner logic that held all these parts together, the structure of meaning, collapsed; as life became mechanically disciplined, it became spiritually incoherent.

"Presently the inner life of the Roman was peopled by demons, fantasies, chimaeras, philosophies created by people other than themselves, swallowed whole - an indigestible mass. By attempting to grab everything, the Roman lost the power to pick and choose."

Quite so: "As life became mechanically disciplined, it become spiritually incoherent." Who can deny a similar trend in our Western civilisation? All the elements in decadent Rome are with us today - the technological excellence, the "bread and circuses" for which can be substituted "food subsidies and professional football," the decline in family life, the marked pornography of contemporary literature and theatre, and the fantasies of modern artists.

"Fashion takes the place of organic necessity." It was, I think, Einstein who wrote: "I can never understand why fashion, particularly in periods of change and uncertainty, plays almost as significant a part in science as in women's clothing. In everything man is indeed an all-too-suggestible animal."

It is because man is a suggestible animal that Voltaire wrote his famous aphorism: "If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." Over and over again the great men of science have found themselves agreeing. Perhaps it was the central perplexity in Thomas Huxley's life; he found it hard to reconcile a theology founded mainly upon faith with his scientific knowledge, based wholly on proof.

There is no humbler mortal than the really eminent man of science because his profound knowledge of one subject inclines him to be diffident about his opinions on all others. Most of us, like the gardener in E. F. Benson's novel, "see what we see and hear what we hear, and draw our own delusions."

The danger today, however, lies in the dogmatic enunciation of personal prejudices, and the fact that in order to secure attention, so many men seek the "striking phrase," careless either of its accuracy of or its power to wound.

H. J. Laski once wrote, "'When in doubt, try God' is nothing more than the specific of cowardice." It may be all right not to believe in God oneself, but it is certainly not all right to disparage what God has meant in the lives of millions of others; while to brand with the stigma of cowardice practically all the saints and many of the sages who have lit the long corridor of Western civilisation, is doubtless very "advanced" and epigrammatical, but it is also a grotesque over-simplification. It cannot be proved or disproved, because it doesn't lie in a realm which possesses any instruments of measurement.

The Christian would reply, perhaps, "None of my doubts has even been satisfactorily resolved, none of my sorrows healed, except through resignation to the Divine Will"; and cowardice and resignation lie at opposite poles.

Few of the world's great problems are capable of solution through the intellect alone. Scientists may be able to handle our old friend "X," but, unknown quantity as he is, he is not as unknown a quantity as a human being. X doesn't suddenly fall in love with Y for no apparent reason, nor assassinate Z; still less does 1000X suddenly become a new quantity altogether.

"The social philosophers," wrote Sir David Kelly, "are hard to understand because they mask their arguments by different terminologies, but there is a remarkable consensus of opinion among them when they set out to define and classify the general phases of disintegration. They divide a historical civilisation into three periods: First, the early rising period - a phase of creative intuition, or spiritual values, absolute, not relative. Purely utilitarian ethics are practically unknown; the phrase 'as cold as charity' would have been meaningless in the Middle Ages. Physical science is in an early stage, and society is firmly based upon the family.

"The sociologists differ about the middle period and how long is has lasted in different civilisations, but all agree that there is a final phase in every civilisation, marked by complete secularism in art, ethics, law and general outlook; in which creative intuition decays, technical skill replaces genius, quantity is admired instead of quality; family and corporate relationships are replaced first by contract and finally by compulsion on the individual. All associate this phase with the growth of large cities, with their uprooted and anonymous herds of floating individuals without property or tradition, and the elimination of creative middle-class minorities by irresponsible wealth and dictatorship.

"All agree that this last phase is marked by at least an attempt at religious revival. And all agree that no purely rational or empirical philosophy, no utilitarian calculation can create a new civilisation or culture to replace one which disintegrates; it can only arise from genuine religion, founded on intuition, and it must eventually ripen by a union of the intuitional, rational and sense values."

I imagine that the scientist, contrary to popular opinion, would be the last man to undervalue the quality of intuition, a moment of which is so often worth a lifetime of study and experience. Perhaps that is why there is so close a kinship between poets and men of science. "Shelley," somebody said, "had he not been one of the greatest poets of his age, might well have been one of the greatest scientists."

The whole conception of unity with nature is a theme more often reiterated by saints, scientists and poets than by all the other professions put together - if one can call sainthood a profession. No sociologist, no historian, has ever yet got so close to the feelings that inspire patriotism as W. B. Yeats, when he wrote:

"There is a Unity everywhere; everything fulfils a purpose that is not its own the grass-blade carries the Universe upon its point. But to this Universalism, this seeing of Unity everywhere, you can only attain through what is near you - your nation, or if you be no traveller, your village and the cobwebs on your walls. One can only reach out to the Universe with a gloved hand - that glove is one's nation, the only thing one knows even a little of."

Whitehead, in his "Principia Mathematica," wrote: "All atoms throughout the Universe interpenetrate each other; and all physical objects such as atoms - and all forces - are connected with each other because they are 'aware' of everything else."

Years before, Shelley had written:
"All things by a law divine
In one another's being mingle."

A civilisation is born Stoic and dies Epicurean; it is born in ecstasy and dies in disillusionment. And the reason is plain. It loses the virtue of humility. Jack is so busy being as good as his master, his master is so frantically busy trying to be good at his business, that both are inclined to forget that there is such a thing as just being good. People still profess to be humble, but deep down they are not.

"It is no good merely being humble," wrote Galsworthy. "What is good is to be humble in good taste as, for instance, Nietzsche was not, but Christ was."

I find the following passage taken from Robert Jungk's "Brighter than a Thousand Suns," interesting but baffling. He is writing of the period between the wars:
"The underestimation of politics by men of science was surpassed at that time by the underestimation of science among politicians, and the politically-minded public. If the number of times that the name of Hitler cropped up in those days was to be compared statistically with the number of times the word 'neutron' was mentioned, the ratio of 1,000,000 to 1 would probably put the figure too low. So little are we ourselves in the 'age of information' able to judge which of contemporary events may prove in the end to be of real importance and an omen for the future."

Well, now, what does this mean? Why is the atom of such vast importance? It all depends on how one looks at things. Most people know that it may in due course, if properly harnessed, produce power and light very cheaply and in great quantity, but they know that it is also a threat to mankind's continued existence on this planet.

In so far as the great mass of ordinary decent home- and family-loving folk is concerned, the discovery of nuclear fission implies menace rather than hope. Can mankind, through his splitting of the atom, add one cubit to his stature? Will it help produce better morality, better literature, better pictures? All the evidence is to the contrary. Its discovery is a great tribute to man's brain, but so far its application has proved a poor one to his ethical sense.

Regarded "in vacuo" as a pure scientific achievement, nuclear fission is a massive one indeed, but it seems to me to be wholly without significance, except in so far as it has enormously increased man's power of destruction. And since, as Mark Twain observed, main is the only animal that blushes - or needs to - allied to the fact that the smallest measure of power is apt to go to his head, most people find it hard to greet with enthusiasm new weapons which will enable him to destroy people and property on an unprecedented scale.

I would appear far better to work at the prevention of misery than at means by which it can be ended only by sudden death. During the past few centuries, man, as an intellectual being, has developed mainly in one direction - the scientific and technological one. He has outstripped all the other dimensions at his disposal - and surely they are legion. It may well be that the next great discovery in the scientific world will be a metaphysical one; perhaps nothing in the world could effect such a sudden and dramatic change in the hearts of men than the certain knowledge of personal immortality.

I mentioned Thomas Huxley previously, and I wish to mention him again in connection with a matter that is of prime importance to us all. You may remember that in 1870 he was elected a member of the newly-constituted London School Board. He served on it for only two years, but during that time he left his mark, probably to a greater extent than any other man, on the foundations of national elementary education. He made great changes in teaching methods, and widened the range of the subjects to be taught. But he insisted on the teaching of the Bible, partly as a great literary heritage, partly because he confessed himself "seriously perplexed to know by what practical measure the religious feeling which is the essential basis of conduct, was to be kept up, in the present utterly chaotic state of opinion in these matters, without its use."

"Our certain knowledge does not extend beyond our states of consciousness." That was Huxley's defence against the charge of materialism that was levelled at him. But how sure are we that our knowledge, within our states of consciousness, is certain? Or if certain, relevant? Or if certain and relevant, whether it is significant and ethical?

Not long ago the Bishop of Llandaff preached a sermon to the British Association, in the course of which he warned scientists not to ignore the moral and spiritual results of their researches, especially when science came to deal with such fundamental issues as birth and death.

The population problem is a grave one indeed, but its solution must be many-sided - ethical, moral and religious factors are all involved. Nor is it a mere fantasy to say that the same thing applies in the fields of agriculture and industry; for example, can any one of us yet say with certainty that artificial insemination will not have an unsuspected long-term effect upon fertility in cattle, or that it is ethically right to continue a certain industrial process that may permanently impair the health of workers?

For the first time in the long history of the world we have resources so abundant that no policies are beyond our reach for purely physical reasons. But this implies a moral challenge of tremendous power.

Power is not the only thing that tends to corrupt. When a contemporary American author wrote recently that lack of power also corrupts, he wrote more truly than he knew, for he was only alluding to political power. But this is true in a far wider field; it is true of the "silent generation," the "angry young men," many intellectuals, authors, poets and painters.

The rarefied air of pure science is beyond their reach, and they find neither comfort nor satisfaction in religion or tradition. They are too intelligent to be satisfied with the purely material comforts which the 20th Century has brought them, they dwell in a no-man's land of frustration - the are powerhouses attached to no grid, lighthouses bordering seas whereon no ships sail. They are out of touch not only with science, but also with philosophy and religion, and thus they have no contact with the world of reality at all. They refuse to recognise what Robert E. Wilson called "a fundamental educational truth," that culture in its highest sense is moral as well as intellectual and aesthetic.

Can it be doubted that our culture in this 20th Century tends to lack morality? "Every age," wrote T. S. Eliot, "gets the art it deserves and every age must accept the art it gets." When one looks at a painting such as Roualt's Christ, with its disproportioned, disintegrated features, one is driven to the conclusion that it is not merely bad art, but an intentional blasphemy.

And in the midst of all these perplexities, is it surprising that to many people science holds out the only hope for the world? Almost alone among mankind, scientists at least know what they are trying to do, and in their search for Truth, they so often produce Beauty. There is beauty in that humble instrument, the telephone, there is beauty in a swept-wing aeroplane, there is beauty in the clean precision of a turbine.

For Kipling, machinery held an irresistible appeal; like Ruskin, he had the romantic's gift for seeing the inanimate world as if it had just left the hand of the Creator.

From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy works, O God,
Predestination in the stride o' yon connecting rod.

So sang McAndrew, the old Scots engineer; for him his engines were not only his "job," but his way of life; they made his life significant.

I would like to refer for a moment to H. G. Wells' last paragraph in "The Outline of History," written in 1920. It ends with the following sentences:

Men will unify only to intensify the search for knowledge and power, and live as ever for new occasions. Animal and vegetable life, the obscure processes of psychology, the intimate structure of matter and the interior of our earth, will yield their secrets and endow their conqueror. Life begins perpetually. Gathered together at last under the leadership of man, the student-teacher of the universe, unified, disciplined, armed with the secret powers of the atom and with knowledge as yet beyond dreaming, Life, for every dying to be born afresh, for ever young and eager, will presently stand upon this earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.

This is certainly a fine visionary outburst, but are not the sights set a bit too high? Is there not something rather over-magniloquent in Wells' prophesy that man will become "the student-teacher of the universe" when the cluster-galaxy in Hydra is 2,200 million light years away?

"Everything will yield its secrets and endow their conqueror!" Man, the conqueror! Conqueror not only of the world and the universe, but conqueror over life and death and love.

No longer need any of us respond to human emotions. Sir George Thomson apparently has the answer to that. We only have to find what circuit in our brains is being excited, discover what "hindrances" are making us react, and an electrical impulse or a psychiatrist will soon put matters right. Sir George also thinks apparently that it would be possible to produce better brains by "selected mutations." No doubt. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not selected mutations, I am become as sounding brass "

Sir George Thomson concludes with these words: "Even with the present brains of intelligent people, Man may expect a glorious future. Who will dare to set limits to what he may reach as his brain improves."

The manifestations of man's brain have been carefully recorded by history over the past 23 centuries; and I take leave to doubt whether it has improved much since the days of Socrates or Leonardo.

It is at this point that the "traditionalists" begin to be seriously worried. A small minority of extremely vocal scientists seem repeatedly to imply that man has no spirit, merely a brain and a body. Similarly, when a well-known British scientist returns from Moscow and tells a crowd of people at London University that "Britain is behind Russia in education," he is using the word "education" in the sense of "technical instruction." He is telling them the truth in one sense, misleading them in another.

As John Wain, also just returned from the U.S.S.R., commented in the London Observer: "Of education in the tradition central sense, of course, the concept does not exist in Russia. Education is the process whereby the mind is freed. Their 'education' is neither ahead of ours, nor behind it, nor to one side of it. They have no education."

I believe that the great division is caused by factors such as these. The propagandists of one side proclaim to all and sundry that the intellect alone can save mankind; the other insists that it can only be saved by a return to moral principles.

What is needed, surely, is co-operation between intellect and morality; science needs ever-closer gearing to the humanities. The truth is that intellect without will is worthless, will without intellect is dangerous, and the two combined, divorced from philosophy and religion, can prove lethal.

Man has changed little from the time when Ovid sang "Video meliora proboque, deteroria sequor," and not at all since William James wrote: "Man, biologically considered, is one of the most formidable of all beast of prey, and indeed the only one that preys systematically, and often very painfully, upon its own species."

The scientists are far too clever not to recognise this fact; man is the only piece of Creation that obstinately refuses to fit neatly into a formula - the Eternal, Insoluble "X" - and this irritates some of them; hence all this talk about playing about with his brain with electrical impulses and trying to improve the species, as one would a pack of foxhounds. All they will succeed in doing on these lines is to produce further chaos on a world that has stumbled along somehow with its saints and sinners, its troubadours and its tragedians; or worse still, produce a race of soulless, docile Robots.

If our Earthly Pageant is destined to yield place to a Play in which evil and suffering have no parts, it seems that virtue and courage will also largely disappear from the stage. As Gogarty wrote of Death:

But for your terror where would be valour?
What is love for but to stand in your way?
Taker and Giver, for all your endeavour
You leave us with more than you touch with decay.

The matter is once again placed in its proper perspective by my distinguished predecessor, Professor Parton: "If it is true that science students have minds closed not only to religion but also to philosophy, politics and history, then we who teach science are failing; not in technical instruction but in relating our specialties to the wider objectives of higher education, the production of cultured minds."

No. Those who teach science, or anything else, are not failing. The failure, if any, lies in the materialism, cynicism and disillusionment which have followed in the wake of two world catastrophes. It is true that education is tending more and more toward the production of young men and women possessing measurable and marketable attainments. The acquisition of culture for its own sake is unfashionable. Besides, the humanities are not only hard to teach, but of little value unless they lead to wisdom and understanding, the qualities they exist to cultivate; they can only be absorbed within the frame of a civilisation possessing a large measure of religious and philosophical agreement.

At a time when most of the world was marvelling at the Russian achievement of launching a dog into space, a beautiful little poem appeared in an English periodical over the initials "J.R." It expresses so well the thoughts of those for whom science is not an end but a means. You will probably not remember the dog's name; it was "Limonchik," and the poem was entitled "Lines to a Dog in Space." Here it is:

Far off, the world can hear
A heart-beat ticking;
Limonchik, from your sphere
As you sit licking
The harness in your cabined emptiness,
Hammocked from Pole to Plough
Can you know the thoughts that press
Upon you from below?

At the Manger, beneath the Christmas storm,
The quiet ox and the ass, munching the corn,
Were chosen, they say, to keep our Saviour warm
The night that He was born.
Now in the man-made orbit, alone, cold but alive,
Limonchik spins, living a novel death,
Alone with the Infinite, alone with the final dive
That ends with the end of breath.

Limonchik, will you know
Something that you can never tell?
In the last moment, when you go
After your fashion
To render up your life, and the echoing bell
Tolls for you, will God's compassion
Redeem not only you, but us as well?

By attempting to grab everything, have we, like the Roman, lost our power to pick and choose? Does our modern idea of "everything materially for everyone" mean, in the long run, nothing worth-while spiritually for everyone? Have we and our children got the ethical organs of digestion which will enable us to absorb the mass of matter, both important and trivial, which surrounds us?

These are questions which we have got to answer; and I think the answers lie in one fine sentence written recently by General Charles Lindbergh: "Our salvation, and our only salvation, lies in controlling the arm of Western science by the mind of a Western philosophy guided by the eternal truths of God."

Science must increasingly play its part in broadening and deepening human understanding rather than merely improving this or that technique. It is a combination of the liberal arts and science that is going to point the path to new fields of wisdom; just so long as we are humble enough to acknowledge the trust upon which all other truth rests - that "Man does not live by bread alone."

I do indeed hope, ladies and gentlemen, that it will not be imputed to me that I used this opportunity to make an attack upon science and scientists. This would be discourteous to my hosts and to the memory of Thomas Cawthron, the benefactor whom we are tonight gathered to honour. All I have tried to do, albeit haltingly, is to represent a view on why this division of the intellectual life of the West exists, and to try to discover whether anything can be done to bring the scientist and those whom for want of a better term I call "traditionalists" closer together.

We have all seen advertisements for various correspondence courses under the impressive headline "Knowledge is Power." Well, it may be; but power is just what we have all got to learn to use wisely. Doctors know only too well what harm can be caused by the reckless use of antibiotics; ecologists would never advocate the continuous application of sulphate of ammonia; a motorist may have 200 b.h.p. available to him, but no sane one would use more than a fraction of it when he drives in London.

Mention of a motor-car puts me in mind of an occasion when mine broke down and a passing good Samaritan with a tow-rope offered to tow me into Worcester. The good Samaritan was himself in a hurry, the tow-rope was short, and I freely confess that when my friend finally pulled up beside a garage, I was in a cold sweat, and my brakes were incandescent.

This is perhaps how the classical and literary people feel about the scientists. They feel they are being pulled along by them faster than they want to go. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are scared of them and their power, not without cause, for most of recorded history is concerned with suffering caused by misuse of power.

One last personal reminiscence and I have finished. In the summer of 1937 I was staying with Francis Brett-Young, the English novelist and poet, in his lovely little Adams house near Evesham in Worcestershire. I had been exiled from Hagley by the disappearance of my family on holiday, and the county cricket season was not yet at an end. One Sunday we went to Broadway to spend the afternoon with Madame de Novarro, a witty and beautiful old lady who had years before become famous by her playing of "Juliet" under her maiden name of Mary Anderson. We had tea under the mulberry tree in her garden and her son "Totie," then working in Cambridge, and a friend of Lord Rutherford, was one of the party.

The conversation turned to the darkening European scene, and Brett-Young said rather depressedly, "It may be that we shall live to see the end of the British Empire."

"Totie" de Novarro laughed and replied: "Oh, I don't know; if we can keep war away for another five or six years we will have so much power that nobody will ever dare attack us again. We are soon going to have at our disposal an explosive force equivalent to 100,000 tons of dynamite, which can quite easily be carried in an aeroplane."

This statement was followed by a good deal of leg-pulling and mockery, ending with his mother's saying, "Well, it all sounds very dangerous, but I'm going to have some more mulberries and cream. Anyway, somebody else will probably do the same thing before long, and then we will all be back where we started."

During the drive back, Francis Brett-Young said, "If this is true, we may indeed soon all be back where we started; in the stone-age."

And a little later he remarked rather peevishly: "I do wish Totie's friends would devise some method of keeping spring frosts off my plum trees; we have got a very thin crop this year."

We know that the scientist understood the political implications of nuclear fission little better than the poet and the old actress. It is still harder to know which, in the long run, is destined to be more important - nuclear fission or keeping the frost off plum trees. In this charming city, which will ever be associated both with atomic science and with plum trees, perhaps you know the answer. I don't.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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