Little more than a hundred years back, one man might have been able to make himself an expert in almost every branch of science. There are some now living whose fathers were friends of the man who made the discovery of O2 (oxygen), and who were themselves at school with Darwin was writing The Origin of the Species. While they were young, the first books on science were making their way to the East, and only yesterday were the new developments which have been changing the face of the earth taken seriously by the millions of China and Japan.
Today Biology has to take into account the work of Sir Jagadis Bose, but if equally important observations were now being recorded in Chinese or Japanese it might be a long time before they got attention. In certain fields new ideas are more or less readily exchanged through international 'Abstracts', but these short accounts are frequently not very clear, and for material printed in any but the chief European languages, even Russian, the range covered is not very wide.
There is still no English-Japanese or English-Chinese Dictionary which is of any value for the purposes of science, though hundreds of good brains from China and Japan are being trained in English and American Universities. Before long these hundreds will become thousands, working with a curtain of strange signs between them and their friends in other countries. The loss on this side may still be small, but let us keep in mind the other side of the picture.
Readers in the East, in tens of thousands, are interesting themselves in medical questions and the sciences of biology, chemistry, engineering, and so on -- whose development, at least in theory, is going forward in Europe at an unparalleled rate. Is the Siamese medical man to get his training in the language of his country or in the languages of science? If he gives five years to English and then comes to France or Germany, his time will be wasted on another unnecessary list of 20,000 units.
It is frequently said that the East will quickly get tired of its new plaything, but there are no signs of such a change. The same arguments were used in Europe two hundred years back; and it is not surprising that education authorities are turning at this point to Basic, not only for the training of the expert but for giving the general public an account of complex ideas in the simplest possible form.
At a time when public opinion may have increasingly important effects on the future of education, the current view that any newspaper story is good enough for the public may do great damage to the cause of science. With the help of Basic, such account may be made simple without becoming bad science. Mr. S. L. Salzedo's A Basic Astronomy is an interesting example of what is being done in this connection; and of the papers in The Outlook of Science and Science and Well-Being, Professor J. B. S. Haldane was even ready to say that in some places his argument was the better for being put into Basic.
In fields such as economic, where everyday questions are frequently under discussion, Basic may be a help to anyone who is trouble by statements such as this (by Sir Josiah Stamp):
"Narrow dispersions, skewed negatively, signify deliberate human restriction of output. Skewed positively, after the introduction of selection of employees by test or examinations, a narrow dispersion indicated a successful system of selection."
This goes into Basic quite simply at the level of the general reader, and, it would seem, without serious loss, as: --
"The tendency to a common level of output being more frequent, is a sign that output is being consciously kept inside a certain limit. When the lowest outputs are most frequent and the output of workers not widely different and generally high, after selection of workers by test has come into use, the tendency may be taken as a sign of the efficiency of the system of selection."
Here only one word from the list of 50 special economics words has been made use of. On the other hand, for material in which no one but the expert is interested, words which are international in all the seven chief languages of science will be used frequently. Then we get accounts of this sort:--
"The explanation of the fact that the range of radio waves is shorter by day then by night is based on the absorption of the electro-magnetic waves in the ionosphere. By day the ionization of the air is very strong. The highest degree of ionization in Picture 3 will be in a much lower position, and the deeper layers have a great power of electric conduction. For this reason the radio waves (those ranging between 200 and 600 meters in wave-length) undergo reflection at lower levels, and would come back to earth if there did not take place in the layers of reflection a great absorption caused by the frequent violent meetings of ions and electrons at such levels. Further, it is clear from the latest investigations of the 'fine structure' of the ionosphere that there are present in the lower air other layers of electrons and ions by which absorption is effected, and the range of the rays limited. (The level of ionization may be as low as 50 km.). At night the ionization becomes less; there is no chance of refraction or reflection till very high levels (where the mean free paths are very great), and at these levels the numbers of meetings in a second is very much smaller, so there is much less absorption. This makes possible a much greater range, and that is the explanation of the increased range of radio waves at night."
To those working in this field, international words such as ionosphere and ionization are necessarily clear. For others there will be the Dictionary of 10,000 science words whose sense are given in Basic; and whatever is designed for the wider public will make no use of any words outside the Basic 850 other than the simplest internationals. Notes may give the sense of a new word here and there to make the reading smoother, but no special knowledge is needed to get his sense fully. The level of such writing may be judged from Professor Haldane's discussion, in Basic, of the future behavior of the moon.
"In the last four or five million years the moon quickly came nearer to the earth. When it was clear that the end would not be long in coming we go news that the use of sea-power had in a great degree been given up, and wind and other forms of power were used in place of it. But the earthmen were not certain that the smashing up of the moon would necessarily be their destruction, and the turning-motion of the earth-moon system was still used for getting some power. In the year 36,000,000 the moon was only a fifth of the distance it had been from the earth at the start of history. It seemed twenty-five times the size of the sun, and made the sea-level 200 meters higher about four times a year. The effects of the force of the earth's attraction on it might now be seen. Great landslips were seen in the mountains of the moon, and cracks were sometimes formed on its face. Earth-shocks became more frequent on the earth.
"At last there were signs that the moon was getting broken up. It was so near to the earth that about 1/10th of the sky was covered when the first bits of stone came off its face. The part nearest to the earth, which was very much cracked before, now came away bit by bit in the form of great stone sup to a kilometer across, which went round the earth separately. For about a thousand years this process slowly went on, and at last no further interest was taken in it on the earth. The end came quite suddenly. It was watched from Venus, but details about the earlier stages were sent from the earth in addition. The hollow part in the side of the moon faced the earth was suddenly cracked open and there came out of it a current of liquid stone at white heat. When the moon went round the earth, the heat in the middle band of the earth was increased to such a degree that all the rivers and stretches of water became dry and no plants were able to go on living."
The great need now is for Committees to be formed by those responsible for the organizations of science in different countries, so that workers in every branch may be in no doubt a to which words are international. Signs of all sorts are becoming more and more necessary and are getting a wider distribution every year, so a new form of picture language is taking the place of words for a great number of purposes. [International Picture Language, by Otto Neurath (in Basic), 1936.] Science has its international signs in chemistry, where the structure of a substance is pictured by letters and numbers without any words. Basic put such systems of word, letters, numbers, or signs into operations, and the more of them there are the quicker the Babel of the experts will come to an end and the mind be free to get on with the work mapped out for it by Bacon and Bentham, Euclid and Einstein, Napier and Newton, Orpheus and -- Orthology.