Every historical period in the annals of civilized mankind has had its own scientific problems. In the field of physics, the driving force of spiritual continuity has required that such problems should follow on each other uninterruptedly: the scholastic doctrine of Aristotle, the work of Galileo, Huyghens, Newton, and the foundations of classical mechanics; the mathematical development of the latter through Bernouilli, Lagrange, Gauss, and Riemann; and the introduction into the theory of electricity and optics and the mechanic wave theory which was formulated by Maxwell and Herz; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and, finally, the further great problems that confront scientific research in our own days: the structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. In the field of chemistry, the Phlogiston theory of the eighteenth century is followed by Lavoisier’s reformed chemistry and by the foundation of the Stoichiometria that still rules today. About the middle of the nineteenth century, organic chemistry came to the fore when it was somewhat splendidly initiated by Berzelius, Liebig, and Dumas. While this chemistry creates for its own purposes a figurative language of formulae, to an extent never previously imagined, physics on the other hand invades chemistry with mathematical terms, creating physical chemistry and raising the pursuit to the level of an exact science. The knowledge meanwhile acquired in the chemistry of living organisms, as well as in their physical states, makes possible the development of Biological and Colloidal Chemistry.
Does this historical sequence of new scientific problems mean that every period starts with the spontaneous appearance of a great man who triumphantly abandons all that existed previously, until his hour comes and his doctrines are proved false? It is a fact to be regretted that such is frequently the manner of presenting the steady progress of science to the public. The daily press, with its transient catchwords, is to a large degree responsible. But even at a passing glance one may easily convince oneself that science has no place for what should be called, the Theory of Catastrophes. The truth is that scientific research is like a river flowing towards a distant, still unknown sea, that perceptibly widens on its onward progress and is nourished by hundreds of tributaries. Among these there may be many small streams, quiet and meandering, or lesser and greater rivers. The geographer, of course, takes notice of the larger tributaries in particular, but even for these the smaller streams are of vital importance.
Now, the large tributaries which impart to the main river its outstanding character are in science the illustrious names, while the rivulets and brooks very often remain unnamed and obscure, although the great river was nourished by them. All often great achievements in the history of Science have their precursors. The bearer of the great name, however, joins the river of knowledge and often it becomes doubtful whether the river will continue to bear its own name or that of its confluent.
It is not only every period that has its own scientific problems; these also depend upon the country or the civilized region. Assuming that a person has the gifts of a writer, and resides in Paris, he would rather choose a theme from Parisian life than from that of a Pacific Island, and vice versa. He would choose a modern style comprehensible and appreciated by the public. If he is a genius, he might even create a new style of idea.
It is in the same way that the scientist adapts his work to local conditions. If he be a chemist in Palestine, he can hardly be expected to devote time to coal-tar dyes or brown-coal compositions, as the results would have no interest for his environment. He must on the contrary concentrate on such problems as are correlated with the nature of the country in which he lives, because then he does not lack objects for investigation, and ultimately his work may be of service to his country.
Can such work be of any moment to the great problems of his time? If he, like literary aspirants, writes his work in a style adapted to our times, his work will consist of the same interest for his contemporaries as that literary work. Like the professional writer, he too can lead the way to new forms and ideas, for these are obviously independent of local conditions. The only requirement is talent.
Thus the scientist will, in planning his work, consider the problems of his time, so that, to use our former metaphor, the waters of the stream finally flow into the great and majestic river to travel down to the distant sea.
From these considerations it becomes clear that at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, physics and chemistry are called upon to fulfill two tasks simultaneously: to adapt the subject matter of research to the natural and other conditions of Palestine, and to contribute their share to the general problem of our present times. Teaching, too, will have to be in conformity with these basic principles.
For the time being, physics at the Hebrew University serves teaching exclusively as an introductory subject for students of biological sciences; there are, so far, no facilities for research, which constitutes a serious drawback. In Chemistry, however, research is done in several directions, the nature