Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 76, 1946-47
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Presidential Address
By Professor W. N. Benson.

This is the first occasion since 1939 on which our Annual Meeting is being held during a time of peace. Though there are still many anxieties and problems to be faced, our country, indeed, our civilisation, has come through the period of stress when all that we held to be right in human relationships was in danger, and with reverent thankfulness for this we turn to the task of re-building the world-society on firmer foundations than existed before.

During the past year there have gone from among us three former members of this Council whose death we deeply mourn. The Reverend Dr. J. E. Holloway, F.R.S., Hector and Hutton Medallist of this Society and our President during 1940–41, filled a unique place in the esteem of those privileged to be associated with him. Working under difficult conditions, he completed a number of brilliant and significant researches on Pteridophyta, proved himself to be an inspiring teacher, and built up a school of enthusiastic research workers. His whole life was a quiet but effective demonstration of the high ideals and spiritual purposes by which he was guided.

Mr. G. V. Hudson, F.E.S., F.R.S.N.Z., Hector, Hutton, and Sidey Medallist of this Society, joined it in 1885 and had been a member of this Council since 1923, representing at first the Wellington Branch and later the Hawke's Bay Branch. He was one of the outstanding amateur scientists in the Dominion, and had a wide range of interests. His astronomical studies were rewarded by his discovery of Nova Aquilae in 1918, but the greater part of his attention was given to entomology, upon which he wrote a number of papers and four books. By the terms of his will this Society is to receive his valuable collection of entomological publications.

The late Mr. M. A. Eliott represented the Manawatu Branch of our Society during the years 1918–38, and as Honorary Treasurer gave most helpful care to its finances.

We remember with gratitude the service rendered to science by these gentlemen.

We have to express our pleasure in the honours received during the past year by two members of this Council: Dr. Marsden, who represents this Society on the Empire Scientific Conference soon to meet in London, has been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of London; Dr. F. J. Turner, F.R.S.N.Z., who represented the Otago Branch of this Society, and [ unclear: ] years edited our Transactions, has been appointed to the Chair of Metamorphic Petrology at the University of California, having accomplished a large amount of research work of fundamental importance to petrology, much of it arising out of his study of the metamorphic rocks of Southern New Zealand.

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It is a custom that a President's address to the Annual Meeting of our Council should deal briefly not with any one aspect of science with which he may be familiar, but with the general outlook for science, its ideals, and the direction of its endeavours as they appear to an individual worker, a duty to which I now turn.

Never so much as in the last decade has mankind in general become aware of the impact of science in the practical affairs of life. The urgency of our situation has lessened the “frustration of science”; the prevention or delay of the utilisation of new discoveries, inventions or improved processes through consideration, inter alia, of the initial costs of such developments and the retardation of advances in social organisation and public health by the inertia of long-established custom. The large-scale investigation of natural resources of energy, of minerals, fuels, forest products, and natural fibres with regard to their distribution and utilisation; the development of special alloys and the mechanics of transport; the widespread adoption of improved methods of agriculture and the combatting of soil-impoverishment and soil-erosion; the increase in the value of plant and animal products for food and manufacturing industries through genetic techniques and more efficient use; the advance in medical and surgical procedures; the application of psychological researches to the wiser exercise of human capabilities; the achievements of the industrial chemist in the production of synthetic fibres, rubber, and plastics; the results of applied radio-physics, and the co-operative work of physicists, chemists, and engineers which has culminated in the large-scale release of atomic energy; these are but some of the fruits of applied science during the past decade. All of them are based on researches in pure science in earlier years, though much fundamental research has been accomplished within the war period.

Several features of this decade may be noted:

(1)

The increasing importance of major scientific investigations of the co-operative efforts of groups or teams of diversely qualified research workers and technicians directed towards a common goal.

(2)

The extension of the scientific services of Governments.

(3)

The increasing recognition by both administrators and scientists of the social significance of advancing scientific knowledge.

(4)

The growing realisation that the welfare of communities rests ultimately on that of their individual members, a realisation which is increasingly expressed in administrative policies, and extended beyond national frontiers. As has been said, “The conclusion is overwhelming that international, national, and personal problems are indissoluble.”

The great objective before science now is so to maintain its present momentum that it may contribute increasingly towards the well-being of humanity. To this end the Empire Scientific Conference, on which this Society and Dominion will be strongly represented, will

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consider “practical measures for promoting closer collaboration between scientific people and organisations in the countries of the British Commonwealth and Empire,” and proposals are being considered to institute on a yet wider basis an international co-operative scientific service under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. Tredgold's (1818) famous dictum, “Engineering is the art of controlling the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man,” seems now to embrace a far wider range of application than may have been originally contemplated.

But does this definition include all science worthy of our study? What is comprised in or excluded by the phrase “use and convenience of man”? Shall we consider as worth while only such aspects of scientific study as appear now to be likely to contribute to our material advantage, excluding by so doing investigations into pure science such as in the past have opened up vast fields of thought, the developments of which could not be foreseen, or the modern work in astrophysics which is revealing the structure of the universe, broadening immeasurably our cosmic conceptions? The question surely carries its own negation. Or shall we agree with the late Dr. E. F. Armstrong that “the influence (of science) on modes of thought and learning and on spiritual attitudes is very great, and in the application of the scientific mode of thought to the problems of man and society is perhaps our chief hope for the future,” and add to this Leyton Richard's view that “No scheme of planning, political or economic, is adequate unless it take into account the spirit of man as well as of his body”? I suggest that the very nature of man requires an affirmative answer.

Is the distinction often drawn between pure or fundamental science and applied science more significant than that between the two hands of a man, both essential for his full efficiency? As a great American leader in scientific industry has said, “What is fundamental research to-day is applied research to-morrow.” The scientist's endless search for truth, worthy for its own sake, brings with it not only intellectual satisfactions, but also discoveries of the highest practical importance. It is needless in such a gathering to quote examples. Every achievement already mentioned rests on a basis of fundamental science. Let me recall, however, one of the last sentences published by Sir Edgeworth David, an intrepid explorer, a vigorous investigator both in fundamental and in applied science, and a tireless worker for the welfare both of science and of humanity. Concluding, while racked with bodily pain, a summary of his life's work, he wrote: “To attain to absolute truth we neither aspire or desire, content, however faint and weary, to be still pursuing, for in the pursuit itself we find exceeding great reward.”

Perhaps we may look on the growing fabric of present-day science as the product of three not sharply distinct groups of workers whom we may think of as the builders, the organisers, and the architects. The simile suggested is an imperfect one, however, for the architects have not yet completed their work but are constantly extending it.

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We all commence as labourers and apprentices in the first group and nearly all of us remain in it throughout our working lives. Each builder according to his particular calling adds his share of tested knowledge to the growing structure. The worker in pure chemistry studies the composition; structure, properties and synthesis of substances and thereupon bases investigations towards the production of other substances of desired properties. The industrial chemist applies the results of such work to the problems of large-scale production and manufacture, needing in so doing the co-operation of the physicist and the engineer.

Similarly, every other phase of applied science grows and develops along with work in one or more of the fundamental sciences. Our builders' work is valuable when carried out with unbiased precision, affording a foundation upon which others may safely build. Hints of wider views, of new possibilities, new methods, new applications, new correlations and deductions which may flash on us at rare occasions during the course of our work, will illumine our labours and give zest to our further endeavours to add some detail to the great design.

Beside us are the organisers, often experienced in the procedures and needs of several types of work and possessing such administrative abilities that they may plan our efforts so as to lead most directly toward a desired end, a group becoming more essential as the increasing complexity of the tasks to be accomplished calls for the co-operation of workers of widely varying skills. Planning necessarily follows at first on more or less well-known lines. It is such valuable work that “planning for the future” has become a popular phrase. But a fact which Langmuir has stressed may be in danger of some neglect. He pointed out that systems of phenomena may be either “convergent” or “divergent.” Convergent systems are those the behaviour of which can be predicted from the average behaviour of their constituents, can be expressed in formulae yielding curves the extrapolation of which may be made with confidence. But in the very frequently occurring divergent systems there may arise many phenomena the appearance and course of which it is impossible to predict. Hence, says Sir David Rivett, most plans are to be regarded as at best well-informed guesses that such and such courses will lead to the best results, and “be held, like any other hypothesis of the scientific worker, ready to be dropped or amended the instant that facts prove such treatment to be necessary.” No one knows with certainty what the morrow of new inquiry may bring forth, and the more fundamental the scientific effort the more is this the case. Long range plans are apt to become vested interests, or even handicaps, substitutes for perpetual alertness. Only eternal vigilance will enable us to steer the wisest course.”

Beyond us are the rare men whom we have called architects, who have a vision of the whole as well as exact knowledge of the parts, who can see the great possibilities that may flow from discoveries others might overlook, find hitherto unrecognised widely-extending relationships, evolve new and far-reaching generalisations—and in so doing may invalidate much careful planning founded on more limited

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apprehension. They are the most inspiring of scientists, if at times the most disconcerting, for they may call for changes in the whole basis of our thought.

And so, to abandon our allegory, we note that it is becoming more generally recognised that only by the collaboration of creative scientific workers with organisers can allowance adequately be made for the possibilities of expanding knowledge, the unforseen complexities which may be met, and for the modification and rejection of plans when they have outgrown their usefulness, changes requiring the wisest judgment and intuition of the ablest research scientists. “They only are in touch with truth as it is born.”

As Dr. Archey has finely argued from this chair, complete freedom of thought is essential to the highest development of science. One of the greatest of American industrial physicists, Dr. Kettering, puts the matter thus: “All productive science, both fundamental and applied, is essentially creative. It is the result of the operation of men's minds, and it flowers most profusely in an atmosphere of maximum freedom. No man or group of men can predict in advance what will come out of other men's minds. Nor can they constrain men to produce new ideas. The most they can do is to provide a favourable environment for creative effort and, if necessary, later impose controls on the use of those creations to the end that they will be employed for the benefit and not the detriment of society.” The favourable environment must include freedom to extend thought in every direction, and especially constantly to test and re-test as new criteria of truth are evolved, the validity of supposedly basic principles, and freedom to reject those which fail to withstand unbiased and critical scrutiny. It is this most vital of his requirements which may cause the scientist at times to find himself opposed to current thought, but “magna est veritas et praevalebit.”

Scientists have many privileges and, therefore, responsibilities. Few other groups of citizens have more opportunities for contacts beyond the limits of their homelands through continuous interchange of publications and correspondence with fellow-workers in other lands, and sometimes through international congresses. Is it not, therefore, incumbent upon us to make and to encourage the widest possible use of scientific methods of thought in international affairs? Among such are the thorough study of the essential features of a problem, the search for alternative explanations and their retention as possible working hypotheses so long as they are still tenable, the prompt rejection of concepts proved to be faulty, avoidance of premature judgments, ill-founded generalisations or biased thinking. Mindful ever of man's twofold nature and needs, may we not as scientists affirm our belief that in the application of scientific modes of thought to the problems of man and of society lies hope for the future?

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The Late John Ernest Holloway.