Arthur H. Compton

Banquet speech

Arthur H. Compton’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1927

Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Several years ago I was reading Marco Polo’s account of his experiences in the employ of the great Emperor of China, Kublai Khan. He was telling his incredulous Venetian friends of the daily life of the Chinese. “They take two baths daily”, he wrote, “one in the morning and another in the evening. Not only this, but the baths are in warm water”. The idea of daily baths was itself sufficiently difficult for the Venetians to believe, but that water could be warmed twice daily seemed to them to present an insurmountable difficulty.

Polo replied that it would indeed have been impossible to heat the water for millions of Chinese if they had relied on wood for fuel. They had however solved the difficulty by finding a kind of black rock which would burn. This rock had the advantage over wood that it would hold its fire overnight and have the water warm for the morning bath. Then Polo described in accurate detail how this black rock occurred in veins in the mountains, and the manner in which it was quarried. If the idea of baths twice daily was marvelous, the story of the burning rocks was beyond the realm of possibility.

Marco Polo’s stories read like the tales of a man who after visiting a highly civilized country returns to his semi-barbaric home to tell of the wonders he has seen. At that time, hardly seven centuries ago, China was far in advance of Italy, a land whose culture was the pride of our Western civilization.

Last year I had the privilege of visiting China, and I saw what, gauged by Western standards, was a primitive country. In seven short centuries the leadership has passed from the East to the West, until now we are as far ahead of the Orient as in Polo’s day China was ahead of Italy.

Why this rapid change? Differences in native ability will not explain it. It was only a few centuries ago that a Mongolian ruler, Jenghis Khan, held sway over the greatest empire, with regard to both area and population, which has ever been united under one government. Nor have the Chinese been lacking in feats of engineering. The Great Wall of China, a massive pile of masonry extending over mountainous country for fifteen hundred miles, takes a high place among the wonders of the world. Is it doubtful whether either in individual ability or in aptitude for organization the European has any real advantage over the Mongolian.

Shortly after the days of Polo, however, there arose in various parts of Europe the scientific spirit – the eagerness to learn from Nature her truths, and to put these truths to the use of mankind. The rapid change in our mode of living since that time can certainly be traced to the consequences of the development of this spirit of science. When we seek the reason for the present preeminence of the European peoples, we find that it lies in the great power given to us by the search for truth and its application to our daily lives.

I verily believe that in the advancement of science lies the hope of our civilization.

The benefits of science are not only material ones. The truths that science teaches are of common interest the world over. The language of science is universal, and is a powerful force in bringing the peoples of the world closer together. We are all acquainted with the sharp divisions which religions draw between men. In science there are no such divisions: all peoples worship at the shrine of truth. The spirit of science knows no national or religious boundaries, and it is thus a powerful force for the peace of the world.

The prize which you have given me today I consider the highest honor that a man can receive, for Nobel prizes have been a great stimulus to the advancement of science. In thanking you for the high honor you have conferred, I want also to congratulate the Swedish nation for having men of the far vision of Nobel, who could see clearly the importance to the world of encouraging the growth of science, and for having men with the enthusiasm and ability necessary to carry out Nobel’s ideas and to extend them. Sweden has thus made good use of an unusual opportunity for stimulating science and for the promotion of international fellowship. Through her encouragement of science she has given us a greater hope for the future of our civilization.

I thank you.

Prior to the speech, M. Söderblom, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: My dear Mr. Compton. Your name is associated for the present and for the future with a curious phenomenon belonging to the radiation as seen by Science. Being superior to dead and living nature, the human mind proves its superiority not by trying to rule nature from above with sweeping suppositions and dogmas, but only by penetrating and observing again and again, by distrusting and revising its findings, with self-forgetfulness seeking truth. Let me quote a few sentences from that proud Song of Songs of Science written by one of your countrymen: “To be a scientist is a tangle of very obscure emotions, like mysticism, or wanting to write poetry; it makes its victim all different from the good normal man. The scientist is intensely religious – he is so religious that he will not accept quarter-truths, because they are an insult to his faith. He wants that everything should be subject to inexorable laws. He is the only real revolutionary, the authentic scientist, because he alone knows how little he knows. He lives in a cold, clear light. Yet he is not cold nor heartless. And he prays for unclouded eyes and freedom from haste, for a quiet and relentless anger against all pretence and all pretentious work and all work left slack and unfinished, for a restlessness whereby he may neither sleep nor accept praise till his observed results equal his calculated results or in pious glee he discovers and assaults his error”. We pay our reverence for such human beings.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1927, Editor Carl Gustaf Santesson, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1928

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1927

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