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Poor Richard's Almanack: Benjamin Franklin's Incredibly Popular Book of Aphorisms, Forecasts, and More
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“Worship the spirit of criticism.”
LOUIS PASTEUR, French chemist of the nineteenth century who founded the science of microbiology, made the most important discovery in medical history: contagious diseases are transmitted by germs. A champion of rigorous scientific inquiry, he was honored in 1888 with the opening in Paris of the Pasteur Institute.
As the first director of this institute named for him, Pasteur was asked to address his colleagues on November 14, 1888. He was, it is reported, "overcome by his feelings." and his son delivered for him the prepared speech in praise of education, a talk that specifically expressed Pasteur's pride in his country's respect for educational progress ("From village schools to laboratories, everything has been founded or renovated").
Pasteur's speech celebrates the accomplishments of his countrymen while mourning the passage of time, with a series of subordinate "if" clauses to express regrets. The speech begins and ends in patriotic sentiment, marked by a study in contrast of "two contrary laws" ("The one seeks violent conquests; the other, the relief of humanity"). It also contains straightforward advice, always effective in a speech, especially by an acknowledged expert.
The portion of the speech that follows is from René Valery-Radot's The Life of Pasteur, translated from the French by Mrs. R. L. Devonshire.
When the day came that, foreseeing the future which would be opened by the discovery of the attenuation of virus, I appealed to my country, so that we should be allowed, through the strength and impulse of private initiative, to build laboratories to be devoted, not only to the prophylactic treatment of hydrophobia, but also to the study of virulent and contagious diseases—on that day again, France gave in handfuls.... It is now finished, this great building, of which it might be said that there is not a stone but what is the material sign of a generous thought. All the virtues have subscribed to build this dwelling place for work.
Alas! mine is the bitter grief that I enter it, a man "vanquished by time," deprived of my masters, even of my companions in the struggle, Dumas, Bouley, Paul Bert, and lastly Vulpian, who, after having been with you, my dear Grancher, my counselor at the very first, became the most energetic, the most convinced champion of this method.
However, if I have the sorrow of thinking that they are no more, after having valiantly taken their part in discussions which I have never provoked but have had to endure; if they cannot hear me proclaim all that I owe to their counsels and support; if I feel their absence as deeply as on the morrow of their death, I have at least the consolation of believing that all that we struggled for together will not perish. The collaborators and pupils who are now here share our scientific faith... Keep your early enthusiasm, dear collaborators, but let it ever be regulated by rigorous examinations and tests. Never advance anything which cannot be proved in a simple and decisive fashion.
Worship the spirit of criticism. If reduced to itself, it is not an awakener of ideas or a stimulant to great things, but, without it, everything is fallible; it always has the last word. What I am now asking you, and you will ask of your pupils later on, is what is most difficult to an inventor.
It is indeed a hard task, when you believe you have found an important scientific fact and are feverishly anxious to publish it, to constrain yourself for days, weeks, years sometimes, to fight with yourself, to try and ruin your own experiments and only to proclaim your discovery after having exhausted all contrary hypotheses.
But when, after so many efforts, you have at last arrived at a certainty, your joy is one of the greatest, which can be felt by a human soul, and the thought that you will have contributed to the honor of your country renders that joy still deeper.
If science has no country, the scientist should have one, and ascribe to it the influence which his works may have in this world.... Two contrary laws seem to be wrestling with each other nowadays; the one, a law of blood and of death, ever imagining new means of destruction and forcing nations to be constantly ready for the battlefield-the other, a law of peace, work and health, ever evolving new means of delivering man from the scourges which beset him.
The one seeks violent conquests; the other, the relief of humanity. The latter places one human life above any victory; while the former would sacrifice hundreds and thousands of lives to the ambition of one. The law of which we are the instruments seeks, even in the midst of carnage, cure the sanguinary ills of the law of war; the treatment inspired by our antiseptic methods may preserve thousands of soldiers. Which of those two laws will ultimately prevail, God alone knows. But we may assert that French science will have tried, by obeying the law of humanity, to extend the frontiers of life.