James Prescott Joule
1818 - 1889
IN HIS OWN WORDS
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
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
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 Joules 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.