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The Education of Henry Adams

The Grammar Of Science (1903)
OF all the travels made by man since the voyages of Dante, this new exploration along
the shores of Multiplicity and Complexity promised to be the longest, though as yet it had
barely touched two familiar regions -- race and sex. Even within these narrow seas the
navigator lost his bearings and followed the winds as they blew. By chance it happened
that Raphael Pumpelly helped the winds; for, being in Washington on his way to Central
Asia he fell to talking with Adams about these matters, and said that Willard Gibbs
thought he got most help from a book called the "Grammar of Science," by Karl Pearson.
To Adams's vision, Willard Gibbs stood on the same plane with the three or four greatest
minds of his century, and the idea that a man so incomparably superior should find help
anywhere filled him with wonder. He sent for the volume and read it. From the time he
sailed for Europe and reached his den on the Avenue du Bois until he took his return
steamer at Cherbourg on December 26, he did little but try to kind out what Karl Pearson
could have taught Willard Gibbs.
Here came in, more than ever, the fatal handicap of ignorance in mathematics. Not so
much the actual tool was needed, as the right to judge the product of the tool. Ignorant as
one was of the finer values of French or German, and often deceived by the intricacies of
thought hidden in the muddiness of the medium, one could sometimes catch a tendency
to intelligible meaning even in Kant or Hegel; but one had not the right to a suspicion of
error where the tool of thought was algebra. Adams could see in such parts of the
"Grammar" as he could understand, little more than an enlargement of Stallo's book
already twenty years old. He never found out what it could have taught a master like
Willard Gibbs. Yet the book had a historical value out of all proportion to its science. No
such stride had any Englishman before taken in the lines of English thought. The progress
of science was measured by the success of the "Grammar," when, for twenty years past,
Stallo had been deliberately ignored under the usual conspiracy of silence inevitable to all
thought which demands new thought-machinery. Science needs time to reconstruct its
instruments, to follow a revolution in space; a certain lag is inevitable; the most active
mind cannot instantly swerve from its path; but such revolutions are portentous, and the
fall or rise of half-a-dozen empires interested a student of history less than the rise of the
"Grammar of Science," the more pressingly because, under the silent influence of
Langley, he was prepared to expect it.
For a number of years Langley had published in his Smithsonian Reports the
revolutionary papers that foretold the overthrow of nineteenth-century dogma, and among
the first was the famous address of Sir William Crookes on psychical research, followed
by a series of papers on Roentgen and Curie, which had steadily driven the scientific
lawgivers of Unity into the open; but Karl Pearson was the first to pen them up for
slaughter in the schools. The phrase is not stronger than that with which the "Grammar of
Science" challenged the fight: "Anything more hopelessly illogical than the statements
with regard to Force and Matter current in elementary textbooks of science, it is difficult
to imagine," opened Mr. Pearson, and the responsible author of the "elementary
textbook," as he went on to explain, was Lord Kelvin himself. Pearson shut out of science