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David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
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THE NEW PUBLIC INTEREST IN SCIENCE (CHAPTER I - PART III)


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Not only did the war awaken the scientists to a new vision of the role of science in society, but it also brought a new public awareness of the influence of science on modern life. Americans could hardly have failed to be impressed by the importance of chemistry, for example, which provided synthetic substitutes for raw materials whose supply was cut off during the war. It was generally recognized that Germany's superior chemical industries helped prolong the war by manufacturing synthetic nitrates for use in explosives when their supply from Chile was blockaded by the Allied Powers. Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the military uses of chemistry, however, was the debut of gas warfare in 1915 at the Battle of Ypres. Robert Millikan now rejoiced that "for the first time in history the world has been waked up by the war to an appreciation of what science can do. 29

The rising public interest in science was also stimulated by some of the remarkable discoveries and inventions that were just coming to light. David Dietz observed, for instance, that the advent of commercial radio broadcasting created a "radio craze" in the early 1920s, and people everywhere began constructing their own crystal sets from plans printed in newspapers and magazines. Dietz remarked that relativity generated tremendous public interest as well, in spite of the fact that no one seemed to comprehend it. Dietz noted that "everyone wanted to know more about the Einstein theory, and the more they were told they could not understand it, the more determined they were to hear about it. 30 The theories of Freud, Adler, Jung, and Watson also enjoyed a tremendous vogue; in the 1920s, claims Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday, "psychology was king. 31

Perhaps the most tangible impressions of the significance of science came from its technological manifestations such as the radio and other new appliances, the automobile, and the airplane. As Frederick Lewis Allen writes:

The prestige of science was colossal. The man in the street and the woman in the kitchen, confronted on every hand with new machines and devices which they owed to the laboratory, were ready to believe that science could accomplish almost anything . . . .The word science was a shibboleth. To preface a statement with "Science teaches us" was enough to silence argument. 32

As a result of the war and the impressive achievements in science and technology, combined with a simultaneous decline in the prestige of religion, there arose what has been called a "cult of science" that looked to science for the authority and certainty that religion was rapidly losing. 33 Science, in a sense, became the new religion. A quantitative reflection of this shift in the locus of public esteem is indicated by the fact that popular science magazines quadrupled their percentage of total circulation from 1900 to 1930, during which time the circulation of Protestant religious periodicals dropped to one-fifth their former level. 34 The reversal in prestige was so radical that even the clergy turned to science for support. As liberal minister Harry Emerson Fosdick said:

When a prominent scientist comes out strongly for religion, all the churches thank Heaven and take courage as though it were the highest possible compliment to God to have [Sir Arthur] Eddington believe in Him. Science has become the arbiter of this generation's thought. 35

In response to its new popularity, thee "arbiter of this generation's thought" soon became the subject of a flood of popular books, especially in the "outline" format, which distilled a particular branch of science (in some cases the whole of science) into a clearly organized and readable form. Outlines were written about many other topics in the 1920s (the first outline of them all was H. G. Wells' Outline of History in 1921), but scientific subjects were among the most popular. For instance, John Arthur Thomson's Outline of Science, published in 1922, sold more than one hundred thousand copies in five years. There was such a glut of these books (which included five by Edwin Slosson), and they were so well-received that one literary critic has asserted that "never before has the attempt to popularize appeared so intense and so vigorous, and so spectacular in the response." 36 Such a spectacular response, of course, could never have occurred without the increases in the 1920s of leisure time, literacy, and the number of high school and college graduates. 37

Strangely, however, the newspapers were slow to respond to the new demand for popular knowledge. Silas Bent, author of a study of "ballyhoo" (sensationalism) in the press remarked upon the trend that the "outlines of history, of literature and of philosophy; biographies, and popularized expositions of technical subjects, sold on a comparatively large scale long before the daily press awoke to this new appetite. 38 Bent attributed the awakening of the press to the appearance of press agents for scientific organizations. In 1919, for example, the American Chemical Society began its own news service, and in 1922 the American Association for the Advancement of Science hired its first public relations director. Other contemporary sources, however, give a greater share of credit to Science Service, which, according to a 1933 Carnegie Corporation report, was chiefly responsible for convincing the editors of American newspapers that their readers were interested in science. 39 A principal aim of this study is to support the claim that Science Service was the salient factor in pioneering new standards in science journalism and in exposing relatively large numbers of people, through the daily press, to the concepts and methods of science.

The climate was certainly favorable at the opening of the decade for the founding of such an institution. The war had awakened scientists to the favors popularization might bring, and to the need for spreading the scientific gospel to an increasingly irrational world. The war, exciting new theories, and remarkable technological achievements had simultaneously quickened the public's interest in science, creating a great potential market for popularization. Thus when the outlines and other popular books on science appeared early in the decade they came, according to Will Durant, author of a popular outline on philosophy, "because a million voices called for them. 40

Science Service answered those voices and responded with its own voice, a new voice for science that spoke calmly and with authority as it led the way in satisfying and encouraging the American public's demand for popularized scientific knowledge.

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


Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979



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