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  James Prescott Joule     1818 - 1889 


The following excerpts are taken from J.G. Crowther, British Scientists of the 19th Century, (London, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co., ltd. 1935), pp. 138-140.  Bold quotes are by James Joule, while unquoted text is that of Crowther.  Reproduced verbatim, except bold type added for clarity.

    In addition to the note-books there are some loose sheets of paper whose contents are described by Dr. H. Lowe as “rough notes on the scope and methods of physical science” and “the aims of science and the true spirit of research.”
    The writer believes these notes may be the draft of an address Joule was to deliver in 1873, as President of the British Association meeting at Bradford.  Owing to ill health Joule had to resign the Presidency, so he did not deliver the address.
    Joule writes that natural philosophy is second only to religion.  “After the knowledge of, and obedience to, the will of God, the next aim must be to know something of His attributes of wisdom, power and goodness as evidenced by His handiwork.”
    “The study of nature and her laws“
is “essentially a holy undertaking” and is of “great importance and absolute necessity in the education of youth.”
    This pursuit of science is due to “A love of wisdom which unfolds, a love of truth for its own sake independently with regard to the advantages of whatever kind which are expected to be derived from it.”  It is inspired by “a certain inquisitiveness of mind to know that which is already unknown, a principle which is one of the most important that belongs to our nature and is in fact the principal cause that reconciles us to life which would be miserable indeed if presented merely the recurrence of the same objects or gave no hope of varied and fresh enjoyments.”
    The scientist must be humble, diligent, energetic, ardent and zealous.  He should “receive a healthy stimulus from a well-regulated love of approbation, and the hope of success.”
    The first object of natural science is to elevate humanity above the scale of creatures, and the second is to promote well-being.
    “The first object is therefore at least as much more important than the second as the intellect is more noble than the body.”
    “It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”

    Concerning applied science, “Nothing is more expensive than the endeavour to stumble blindly on an improvement or an invention.”
    Speaking of the lack of scientific knowledge in the designers of the early submarine cables, he remarks that such knowledge “ought to be possessed by a gentleman in whose position one would certainly require; what is however often found, as accurate knowledge of physical science as is commonly possessed by a joiner or a mechanic.”
    He pleads for education in science, and the communication of science to the public.  Man without science is half-educated.  “In the first place we may remark that the trite proverb that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, absurd in other cases, is peculiarly so in this.  This doctrine of fools would necessarily discountenance any education whatsoever because in passing from ignorance to the highest state of intellectual acquirement a man must be at one time induced with the dreaded little knowledge.  The truth is that a little knowledge is a little good and much knowledge is a great good, while ignorance is an unmitigated evil allying us with the beasts that perish.”
    Mathematics is of great importance to the scientist, but even advanced workers should frequently return to the simple truths.  The analyst must continually recur to the descriptive facts from which he started.
    Joule includes one passage with a tone remarkably familiar to our own days of 1935.  “Such then are the legitimate objects of science.  It is deeply to be regretted that another and most unworthy object has been introduced and has gradually and alarmingly increased in prominence.  This is the improvement of the art of war and the implements of mutual destruction.  I know there are those who think that these improvements will tend to put an end to war by making it more destructive.  I cannot think that such an opinion is based on common sense.  I believe war will not only be more destructive, but be carried on with greater ferocity.  Individual campaigns will doubtless be short as well as decisive, but this will necessarily cause the rapid rise and fall of states and unsettling of boundaries and constitutions which must eventually deteriorate civilization itself and render peace impossible.  And thus by applying itself to an improper object science may eventually fall by its own hand.  In reference to this subject we must also deplore the prostitution of science for the aggrandisement of individuals and nations, the result being that the weaker are destroyed and the stronger race is established on its rules.  In making the above remarks I allude to war generally, and intend no disparagement of the effects being made to secure the integrity and liberties of Great Britain.  These have been forced upon us and it is a matter of congratulation that we are not responsible for the present military attitude of Europe.”

Crowther concludes this section by describing Joule’s words as “expressions of his mature and experienced mind, which are so acute and in their political application so characteristically British.”
Return to biography of James Joule.