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Epilogue Americanization of Science [I]n considering the history of science in relation to civilization, [we call] attention to the growth of the utilitarian spirit, which is gradually substituting immediate, practical, wealth-yielding studies for the more elevated, disinterested, and ennobling intellectual pursuits which have been cherished in past times. . . . This influence [is] strengthening in Europe, but [it is] so predominating in this country that it is now generally known by the term Americanization. —Popular Science Monthly (1878) How to measure civilization? There were many ways: fine arts, literature , religion, government, education, industry. Not surprisingly, Popular Science Monthly decided that “the best criterion of the position which a nation has gained in the scale of civilization is the contributions which its men [of science ] have made toward the understanding and conquest of Nature.” By this standard, the United States ranked well below its European counterparts and, what was more troubling, was falling further behind. “The science that gives promise of immediate results, that can be turned into money, is appreciated,” Popular Science Monthly lamented,“that which aims only at the extension of scienti fic truth wins little support.” At best, then, Americanization meant an illadvised inversion of the practical over the theoretical; at worst, it portended a neglect for truth and ultimately“the perversion and degradation of civilization itself.”1 For many post–Civil War Americans, their civilization, rife with graft, fraud, and disillusionment, did seem degraded. Corruption bedeviled the two administrations of President Ulysses S. Grant and Republican governments at all lev313 els, with particularly brutal results in the South. In the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1873, to take one spectacular example, half a dozen prominent members of the House of Representatives were caught enjoying the profits plundered from government railroad contracts. Later that year the collapse of Jay Cooke and Company, the most respected bankers in the nation, brought down the Northern Pacific Railroad and brought on the Panic of 1873 and an economic depression from which the United States would not emerge until 1879. The debacle of the 1876 presidential election only deepened the despair.2 One root of these evils, to be sure, was the pursuit of the almighty dollar,“the vulgar passion of Americans for money,” carped Popular Science Monthly. The cries of greed, bribery, and swindling were widespread and alarming. Josiah Whitney’s excoriations of Benjamin Silliman’s“exorbitant”consulting fees were of a piece with journalists’ exposés of lawmakers on the take. “We are greatly stirred,”Andrew D.White,the president of Cornell University,soberly explained “as this fraud or that scoundrel is dragged to light; and there rise cries and moans over the corruption of the times.” Corruption, White believed, festered on indifference,“indifference to truth as truth,” and materialism,“that struggle for place and pelf, [which] is the very opposite of the spirit that gives energy to scientific achievement.”3 Jeremiads about American scientific achievement were very popular around the nation’s centennial.4 Simon Newcomb (1835–1909), superintendent of the Naval Observatory in Washington,DC,bemoaned“our contributions to the exact sciences [are] nearly zero.” In accounting for this stunning lack of progress, Newcomb conflated exact science with theoretical science, a not uncommon tactic among mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers. For Newcomb, America was theoretically bankrupt.5 Joseph Henry, the senior statesman of American science, was not so dismissive of American contributions, especially in geology, but he was no less concerned about recent trends.6 For Henry,the danger facingAmerican science was not intellectual poverty but money. The man imbued with the proper spirit of science does not seek for immediate pecuniary reward from the practical applications of his discoveries, but derives sufficient gratification from his pursuit and the consciousness of enlarging the bounds of human contemplation, and the magnitude of human power, and leaves others to gather the golden fruit he may strew along his pathway.7 Henry, the idealist, conjured up an implausible scenario: men of science doing science at their leisure rather than as their livelihood. Henry, the realist, knew it had never ever been thus. As president of the National Academy of Sciences,Henry had had to steer the members around the crisis over scientific ethics raised by the Silliman-Whitney 314 scientists and swindlers controversy. In addition, he had had to guide the academy to a new policy on membership. The original restriction limiting the size of the academy to fifty members was removed...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781421402857
Related ISBN
9780801890031
MARC Record
OCLC
612809998
Pages
448
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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