David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
Please consult the author for permission to republish any part of the thesis.


A selected footnote will return to the place you were reading last when using Microsoft's Internet Explorer
(this function is not recognized by Netscape versions)

In American scientific circles before the First World War, the popularization of science was equated with the vulgarization of science. In the prewar decades, at least, this prejudice was well-founded. Popular science, particularly in the newspapers, was infamous for its tendency to exaggerate and often falsify the facts of scientific discoveries. In 1915, for example, George Ellery Hale, director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, found contemporary press coverage of science to be "synonymous with rank sensationalism." 2 If science was mentioned at all in the daily press, it was in terms of magic or miracles, if not mere ridicule. David Dietz, one of the first science writers for the newspapers, claimed it once was standard practice to assign the staff humorist to cover local scientific conventions:

There were two traditional ways of dealing with it. One was to comment on the length and luxuriousness of the beards worn by the assembled scientists. The other was to make a collection of those titles of papers which contained the longest words and the ones least familiar to the ordinary reader. 3

This situation was in sharp contrast to a vigorous tradition of popularization in the latter part of the nineteenth century in which scientists themselves played an active role. 4 In the 1870s and 1880s, many of the most prestigious scientists in the United States and England popularized science in books, articles, and especially lectures. The lectures of two British scientists, John Tyndall and Thomas Henry Huxley, were particularly popular at home and in America. Tyndall's New York lectures on physics in 1872 were so popular that a special Tribune edition of the talks sold more than fifty thousand copies, while Huxley's American lectures on evolution in 1876 met with similar success. 5 British science and British scientists, in fact, seemed to enjoy a great deal of the American public's attention. Thus in 1873 a journalist speaking at Dartmouth College noted that

ten or fifteen years ago, the staple subject here for reading and talk . . . was English poetry and fiction. Now it is English science. Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Huxley, Darwin, Tyndall have usurped the places of Tennyson and Browning, and Matthew Arnold and Dickens. 6

Nineteenth-century America had its own able popularizers in Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, and John Fiske, though the science they and others popularized was predominantly British in origin. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, the mechanical theory of heat, and the conservation of energy--these were the main topics of popular science in the late nineteenth century. Of the three, evolution undoubtedly received the most attention. Agassiz, Gray, and Fiske hotly debated its scientific merits and cultural implications, stirring intense interest in Darwin's theories, an interest that seemed to multiply as the clergy increased its attacks upon the new heresy. 7 Evolution became the cause celebre of nineteenth-century popular science, and magazines were founded exclusively for the purpose of advocating it. THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY , for example, was founded in 1872 by Edward L. Youmans as a serial outlet for Herbert Spencer's social Darwinist tract, The Study of Sociology, and became an ardent champion of evolution theory; its circulation quickly reached ten thousand, quite a large number for a "class'' (i.e.,specialty) periodical. 8

While the history of the popular science movement of the late nineteenth century is unclear and not well-documented, several factors have been adduced by historians in partial explanation of its origin and of its subsequent decline, which began around the turn of the century. Generally speaking, the impulse to popularize was a product of the scientists' desire to advance the professional development of their discipline. One obvious aspect of this desire was the need to solicit the public recognition and financial support necessary for the advancement of research. As funding began to increase, as in the founding of the Carnegie Institution in 1901 with an endowment of ten million dollars, this motive for popularization assumed less importance. 9

One historian has suggested that another primary function of popular science was to justify the withdrawal of large areas of knowledge from the public domain into the esoteric province of an increasingly specialized science. 10 In a society where science was already regarded as vaguely undemocratic--the eccentric pastime of the leisured aristocracy--it was particularly important for scientists to communicate the abstract notions of modern science to the masses and convince them that jurisdiction over scientific knowledge by a select group of trained experts was to their own advantage. Also essential to securing public acceptance of science as a profession was the reconciliation of its concepts (e.g., evolution) with traditional cultural values. Hence as science gradually won public acceptance, or at least tolerance, of its arcane and sometimes revolutionary ideas, another motive for popularization was accordingly weakened.

Not only did the professionalization and specialization of science weaken some of the motives for popularizing, but it also made the process of popularization considerably more difficult. Even scientists had trouble understanding developments outside their own fields as science expanded and diversified at an exponential rate. A rough index of this expansion, in terms of the sheer number of practitioners of science, is the increase in membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which rose from 1,925 in 1900 to over eight thousand in 1914. 11 This unprecedented acceleration in growth was accompanied by the increasing use of abstract terminology and mathematical analysis, with the result that the new theories, especially relativity, resisted translation into popular (i.e., catholic) terms. The common-sense language of everyday life no longer seemed quite adequate for communicating the unworldly notions of modern physics. In 1906 the Nation vented the frustrations of the layman on this point with the following observation:

Today, science has withdrawn into realms that are hardly [intelligible]. . . . In short, one may say not that the average cultivated man has given up science, but that science has deserted him. 12
By the time of the First World War, then, popular science had reached a serious state of decline. A new generation of scientists had arisen which clearly preferred the privacy of the laboratory to the public lectern, and popularization lost its status as a respectable sideline of the well-rounded scientific man. That the scientific community was no longer concerned about the public's awareness of science is reflected in the reply of a "distinguished scientist" to an interviewer's comment that the people were ignorant of current research.

"The public does not know what is being accomplished in the laboratories," [the reporter] said. Daniel J. Kevles, "George Ellery Hale, the First World War and the Advancement of Science in "Why should they?" [the scientist] retorted. "It is none of their business." 13
Such an attitude lends support to science editor David Dietz' observation that the scientists, receiving little attention from the newspapers, returned the compliment. Even cooperation with the press was regarded as unprofessional. As Dietz wrote, "To be caught talking to [a reporter] was to risk your scientific standing. 14 That the climate of opinion in the scientific community was hostile toward popularization is also indicated in the unsuccessful attempt of George Ellery Hale to solicit support for a popular science journal to be sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. Hale's proposal was effectively blocked by Academy members from the University of Chicago, including Albert Michelson and Robert Millikan, who did not feel that the productivity of science was in any way dependent on its diffusion. Similar attempts later that year, within the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, met with similar resistance. 15

The nineteenth-century tradition of popular science had clearly come to an end by 1915 when, after losing ten thousand dollars a year, THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY discovered that popular science and professional science no longer mixed and was forced to split into two magazines, one for the public and one for the scientists. In 1915 the title of Popular Science Monthly was sold to another firm that transformed it into a gadget magazine with many photographs and advertisements. The same year, James McKeen Cattell, editor of Popular Science Monthly since 1900, began a new journal, the Scientific Monthly, with a more professional orientation. Cattell deeply regretted that Edward L. Youman's magazine could no longer fulfill its founder's goals of advancing and diffusing science; he lamented that "the objects are both important, but as science grows in complexity it becomes increasingly difficult to unite them in the same journal.'' 16 It is hardly surprising then, given the increasing resistance of science to popular translation and the scientists' abdication of their role as popularizers, that the gulf between science and the public by the eve of World War I had never been wider.

Chapter One    Part I    Part II    Part III    Part IV    Table of Contents

Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979

National Museum of American History

Search - Site Map - Subjects to Choose From - Numbering Format

Credits - Copyright - Comments