David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
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The Great War brought about a dramatic change in the scientists' image of their role in American society, stimulating a renewed interest in popularization which came to fruition in the founding of Science Service in 1920. 17 Activated by the war, two vital concerns of the scientists led to the renaissance of popularization in the 1920s: the solicitation of public support and funding for the centralized organization of science that evolved during the war, and the suppression of a rising tide of antiscientism and irrationalism believed to have been unleashed by the war.

Prior to World War I, most research was conducted by isolated groups in universities and private institutes, and what little research occurred within the government was rigidly pragmatic. With the founding of the National Research Council in 1916 to coordinate war-related research, through the efforts of George Ellery Hale and the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from many fields were united in the collective task of helping win the war. Their participation in the war effort, in the development of gas warfare, submarine detection devices, and artillery-locating equipment, gave them a new awareness of social importance and responsibility. John J. Carty, an engineer for AT&T, exuberantly predicted that

historians of the future of these times will note as the most important thing going on in the world today, not the great war, but the fact of the awakening among men of science to the fact of the immense purpose which they have to fulfill in the affairs of mankind. 18

Historian Robert Kargon thus makes the observation that the war "did in fact focus attention upon the expanded role of scientists in society, and it imbued scientists with a new sense of destiny soon to be realized. 19 This unification of science with national goals proved exhilarating to many scientists, and with the hope of continuing this unity into the postwar era, the National Research Council was made a permanent agency in 1918. 20

Not only were American scientists awakened by the war to a new sense of destiny, but their brief experience with government funding awakened their appreciation of the potential benefits to science of patronage, both federal and private, and turned their attention to popularization as a means of soliciting such patronage. George Ellery Hale, for instance, stressed that scientists could "multiply the friends of pure science and receive new and larger endowments" if they could convince the industrialists of the importance of research to engineering. 21 In a letter to Hale, John J. Carty stated the case for popularization even more frankly; he wrote that

I am becoming more and more persuaded that the greatest good that can possibly be done the cause of science is to arouse a proper sentiment among the people. If they only knew, they would furnish money by the million and the billion. 22
One historian, Ronald Tobey, has proposed that the scientists' new sense of destiny and their desire to perpetuate the wartime organization of science evolved into an "ideology of national science":
There was no longer a great enterprise like the war effort which would justify the new organization of science. With the expectation of correspondence between their restoring the lost values and broad cultural values and of obtaining new sources of financial support, leading scientists endeavored to convince the public that the scientific method was the ultimate guarantee of the existence of the values of progressivism individualism, political and economic democracy, and progress. 23
The ideology of national science, according to Tobey, was the set of assertions linking science and national values which the scientists attempted to impress upon the public mind, through Science Service and other means of popularization, for the purpose of continuing the centralized organization of science that developed during the war.

Ironically, the national values adopted by the scientists were those of prewar progressivism, as expounded in 1914 by Walter Lippmann, for example, in Drift and Mastery. The war, however, brought disillusionment with the moral idealism of progressives like Woodrow Wilson, and as scientists began promoting science in terms of progressive ideals during the 1920s, intellectuals such as Lippmann were abandoning them. Tobey argues that because the scientific community clung to an outmoded philosophy, and for other reasons as well, its efforts to popularize, including Science Service, were severely hampered in establishing a public consensus on the importance of science to the nation. Although Tobey's conclusion as to the "failure'' of popular science is questionable, and will be addressed later in this study, his analysis does identify a central and pragmatic motive of popularization in the twenties also common in the nineteenth-century popular science tradition, the desire to garner public support and establish new sources of funding for the advancement of American science. 24

Tobey also recognizes, but does not adequately emphasize, a motive for popularization deriving from the conservative reaction of scientists to the First World War and what were perceived as its cultural manifestations. The atrocities of the war convinced many scientists that a tidal wave of irrationality was engulfing the world. During the 1920s, conservative scientists saw this cult of irrationality emerging in such various guises as the revival of astrology, telepathy and other "pseudo-sciences"; a return to "primitivism" in art, music and literature; and certain reactionary tendencies in American society exemplified by the Red Scare, Fundamentalism and the anti-evolution movement. Robert Millikan, for example, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, found himself repelled by what he regarded as the "emotional, destructive, oversexed, neurotic influences . . . of modern art and literature. 25 Scientists hoped to use popular science to counteract this revolt against reason by demonstrating the falsity of the pseudo-sciences, the validity of evolution, and the superior value of the scientific way of thinking. Millikan expressed a widespread sentiment of American scientists when he voiced his belief that the diffusion of the scientific method was "the most important contribution of science to life, for it represents the only hope of the race of ultimately getting out of the jungle at 26

Particularly upsetting to scientists was the fact that some of the more revolutionary discoveries of science were being used against science. As Henry May states, "much of the authority for the new irrationalism . . . seemed to come from science itself." 27 The breakdown of nineteenth-century materialism, especially in physics, seemed to lend scientific weight to the belief that life transcends man's rational knowledge, and to reopen the door to metaphysics that had been closed by classical, deterministic science. Ouspensky's Tertium Organon, for example, published in 1920, equated Einstein's fourth dimension with consciousness and the spirit world, while relativity was interpreted in some circles as a "declaration of independence from the tyranny of classical physics. 28 Another function of popular science in the 1920s was thus to prevent the misuse of science in the cause of antiscience.

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

Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979

National Museum of American History

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