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Classics: Developing Scientific Thouht


By William Francis Magie, Former President of the American Physical Society, Professor of Physics and Dean of the Faculty, Princeton University, 1917

Besides the knowledge of mathematics and training in its use the physicist needs mainly training in the use of the inductive or scientific method of reasoning. This can be obtained in no better way than by the use of the grammar and dictionary in the interpretation of the meaning of some classical author. There is in the problem offered by each sentence of a classical book just the admixture of known and unknown, just the combination of previous acquisition with the necessity for discriminating choice among possibilities that is encouraged in a physical investigation. The student of a settled language is exercising all the time the same method he applies to a scientific question. Indeed he is engaged in a scientific study. There is no reason why we should restrict the term "science" to the study of external nature. The mode in which men have expressed their thoughts is just as much a subject for scientific inquiry as is the mode in which light traverses a prism or electricity distributes itself on a conductor. . . .

It may be added that training in the classical languages leads the student to the consideration of his own methods of thought and expression, and promotes accuracy in argument and precision of statement. If this study is carried so far that the student's taste and literary judgment are developed they serve the scientific man still further. Without going so far as to say, as Matthew Arnold seems to say, that truth and falsehood can be perceived by the man of culture without exact and profound study of the evidence, it may be maintained with confidence that even in subjects as precise and clear as it usually is in physics there is still room and large room for the exercise of tact and discrimination both in the balancing of rival arguments and in the statement of one's own views in such a way as to receive consideration and win acceptance.

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