1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Science
SCIENCE (Lat. scientia, from scire, to learn, know), a word which, in its broadest sense, is synonymous with learning and knowledge. Accordingly it can be used in connexion with any qualifying adjective, which shows what branch of learning is meant. But in general usage a more restricted meaning has been adopted, which differentiates "science" from other branches of accurate knowledge. For our purpose, science may be defined as ordered knowledge of natural phenomena and of the relations between them; thus it is a short term for "natural science," and as such is used here technically in conformity with a general modern convention.
The beginnings of physical science are to be sought in the slow and unconscious observation by primitive races of men of natural occurrences, such as the apparent movementsThe origin of science. of the heavenly bodies, and in the gradually acquired mastery over the rude implements by the aid of which such men strove to increase the security and comfort of their lives. Biological science similarly must have begun with observation of the plants and animals useful to man, and with empirical medicine and surgery. It was only when a considerable progress had been made with ordered knowledge that men began to ask questions about the meaning and causes of the phenomena, and to discern the connexions between them.
In the earliest stage of development it seems that an anthropomorphic or mythological explanation is always assigned to the phenomena of nature. With no clue to trace the regularity of sequence and connexion between those phenomena, an untutored mind inevitably refers the apparently capricious events which succeed each other to the direct and immediate intervention of some unseen being of a nature essentially similar to his own. The sun is the flaming chariot of the sun-god, driven day by day across the heavens; the clouds are cows from which milk descends as nourishing rain on the fruitful earth. We may regard such myths as childlike fancies, but they were doubtless an advance on the want of all explanation which preceded them; they supplied hypotheses which, besides giving rise to themes of beauty and suggestiveness for poetry and art, played the first and chief part of a scientific hypothesis in pointing the way for further inquiry. Much useful knowledge was acquired and much skill gained in logical analysis before these primitive explanations were proved insufficient. A false theory which can be compared with facts may be more useful at a given stage of development than a true one beyond the comprehension of the time, and incapable of examination by observation or experiment by any means then known. The Newtonian theory of gravitation might be useless to a savage, to whose mind the animistic view of nature brought conviction and helpful ideas, which he could test by experience.
The phenomena of the heavens are at once the most striking, the most easily observed and the most regular of those which are impressed inevitably on the minds of thinking men. Thus it is to astronomy we must look for the first development of scientific ideas.Early astronomy. The orientation of many prehistoric monuments shows that a certain amount of astronomical observation had been acquired at a very early age, and the Chaldeans seem to have gone so far as to recognize a law of periodicity even in eclipses. From the land of Asia the Greeks took their earliest ideas of science, and it is to the Ionian philosophers, of whom Thales of Miletus (580 B.C.) is regarded as the first, that we must turn for the earliest known example of an advance on the mythological view of nature. Anaximenes recognized the rotation of the heavens round the pole star, and saw that the dome overhead was but the half of a complete sphere. The earth was thus deprived of the base stretching to unfathomed depths imagined by the mythologists, and left free to float as a flattened cylinder at the centre of the celestial sphere. Anaximenes, too, seems to have grasped the doctrine of the uniformity of nature, teaching that all material transformations must have a true cause.
Next came the Pythagoreans, who simplified these conceptions by the suggestion that instead of a rotation of the vast sphere of the heavens the earth itself might be a sphere and revolve about a central fixed point, like a stone at the end of a string. The uninhabited side of the earth always faced the fixed point, and its inhabited side faced successively the different parts of the heavens. At the central fixed point they placed a "universal fire," which, like the fire on an altar, served as a centre for the circling of the worshipping earth. Mythology was losing its hold of science, but mystical symbolism still held sway. When, however, in the 4th century B.C. the growth of geographical discovery failed to disclose any trace of this central fire, the idea of its existence faded away, and was replaced by the conception of the revolution of the earth on its own axis. Finally, Aristarchus (280(280 B.C.), believing that the sun was larger than the earth, thought it unlikely that it should revolve round the earth, and developed a heliocentric theory. But the time was not ripe; no indisputable evidence could be adduced, no general conviction followed, and to mankind the earth remained the centre of creation till many centuries later. Even to Lucretius, the visible universe consisted of the central earth with its attendant water, air and aether founded by the sphere of the heavens, which formed the flaming walls of the world—flammantia moenia mundi.
Simultaneously with the birth of astronomy the problem of matter came into being. The old Ionian nature philosophers,The problem of matter. observing the sequence of changes from earth and water into the structure of plants and the bodies of animals, and through them again into the original g g constituents, began to grasp the conception of the indestructibility of matter, and to put forward the idea that all forms of matter might ultimately consist of a single "element." But the conception of a single ultimate basis of matter was far in advance of the age. It is only now becoming a fertile working hypothesis in the light of all the gigantic increase in knowledge of the intervening two thousand years. At the time when it was put forward, the conception was of little use, and the immediate path of advance was found in the idea of Empedocles (450 B.C.) that the primary elements were four: earth, water, air and fire-- a solid, a liquid, a gas and the flame which seemed to the ancients a type of matter of still rarer structure. This hypothesis served to interpret the phenomena of nature for many centuries, till, in modern days, the growth of chemistry disclosed the seventy or eighty elements of our text-books. Signs are not wanting that they too have served their turn as a conception of the ultimate nature of matter, while still maintaining their place as the proximate units of chemical action.
In the four elements of Empedocles we trace the germ of the ideas of the Atomists. Empedocles saw that,The theory of atoms. by combining his separate elements in different proportions, he could and explain all the endless differences in matter as known to the senses. Leucippus and Democritus developed the conception and gave to the world the theory of atoms, described at a later date by the Roman poet Lucretius. As matter is subdivided does it keep its characteristic properties throughout? Is iron always iron, however finely we divide it; is water always water? Are the properties of any kind of matter ultimate facts of which no explanation - no description in simpler terms - is possible? To avoid answering this last question in the affirmative, and resigning all hope of an advance in knowledge, the atomic theory of the Greeks was framed.
To recognize the significance of the doctrines of the Greek Atomists, we must remove from our minds all sense of comparison with the atomic theory of to-day. The Greeks had none of the detailed physical and chemical knowledge on which that theory is founded, and which it was framed to explain. The object of Leucippus and Democritus was quite different from that of Dalton and Avogadro. To the latter, the conception of atoms and molecules served as a means of explaining certain definite and detailed facts of chemical combination and gaseous volume in a more definite and exact way than any other hypothesis available at the time. To the Greek philosophers, the atomic theory was an attempt to make the universe intelligible. The particular explanation offered was not of so much importance as the idea that an explanation of some kind was possible. When we see the beliefs that held sway before their day, we realize the advance their ideas produced. The qualities of substances were thought to be of their essence - the sweetness of sugar was as much a reality as sugar itself, the black colour of water must survive all changes in its form, so that, to one who knew this doctrine, snow could never look white again. It was such confusion as this - such denial of facts if they failed to support a theory - that Democritus assailed: - "According to convention there is a sweet and a bitter, a hot and a cold, and according to convention there is colour. In truth there are atoms and a void." Atoms were many in size and shape, but identical in substance. All qualitative differences in substances were to be assigned to differences in size, shape, situation and movement of particles of the same ultimate nature. No attempt was made to examine into the nature of this ultimate substance; but one set of phenomena was expressed in terms of something simpler, and no "explanation" even of the most recondite observation by the most modern physicist can do more.
The atomic theory of the Greeks as transmitted to us by the poem of Lucretius presented a wonderfully consistent picture of nature within the limits of the knowledge of their day. It is easy to show where it fails in the light of the knowledge of phenomena we now possess; it is easy to point to places where, as in its application to psychological problems, its authors passed in imagination over logical chasms without even seeing that a difficulty existed. But the attempt to frame an intelligible picture was a great step in advance, and a study of the flaws which we can now detect may serve to suggest the provisional nature of some of the theories by the aid of which knowledge is advancing so fast in our own day.
But the great difference between the position of the Greeks and that of ourselves in regard to natural knowledge consists in the small number of phenomena known to them contrasted with the enormous wealth of accumulated observation which is available for us, as the result of years of experiment with the aid of apparatus unknown to the ancients. When a new theory is put forward, it is now almost always possible to test its concordance with facts by the use of material already accumulated, or to suggest, in the light of such material, experiments which will serve to refute it, or to lend it greater probability. Thus a theory which survives the trials that follow its birth has nowadays a fairly long expectation of life—probably the theory will serve to interpret phenomena discovered either by its means or in other ways for some time to come. But in the ancient world this was not so. To test a new theory, other phenomena were very rarely available than those which suggested it, or to explain which it was put forward. Thus thought was much more speculative, and, as is still the case with metaphysics, no general consensus of opinion was reached. Each philosopher had a system of his own in science, just as he still has in metaphysics—a system which, beginning from first principles anew, raises on them a superstructure, which, even if it logically follows from them, can have no more validity than the premises on which it is based. When the premises are not accepted by other philosophers, the whole scheme becomes merely the doctrine of one man, and, if it lives at all, may oppress by the dead weight of authority the struggle of living thought beneath it.
The history of the atomic theory of Leucippus and Democritus illustrates the difficulties of a position where speculation hasAristotle. outstripped observation. The theory was nearer what is now accepted as truth than any other of the ancient schemes of physics. Yet the grounds on which it was based were so insecure that Aristotle (c. 340 B.C.), who started with other preconceptions, was able to bring to bear such destructive criticism that the theory ceased to occupy the foremost place in Greek thought. Although, with the knowledge then available, we can but admit that some of Aristotle's criticism was just, much of it consists of metaphysical arguments against the atomists, while in parts he rejects true conclusions owing to what he considers their impossibility. Democritus, for instance, had held that all things would fall with equal speed in a vacuum, and that the fact that heavy bodies were observed to fall faster than very light ones was due to the resistance of the air. Democritus's belief was true, though he was of course quite unconscious of the grounds on which it can alone be demonstrated - the universal attraction of gravity, and the remarkable and curious experimental fact that the weights of bodies are proportional to their masses. Aristotle agrees that in a vacuum all bodies would fall at an equal rate, but the conclusion appears to him so inconceivable that he rejects the idea of the existence of any empty space at all, and with the "void" rejects the rest of the allied concepts of the atomic theory. If all bodies were composed of the same ultimate matter, he argues, they must all be heavy, and nothing would be light in itself and disposed to rise. A large mass of air or fire would then necessarily be heavier than a small mass of earth or water. This result he thinks impossible, for certain bodies always tend upwards and rise faster as their bulk increases. It will be seen that Aristotle has no idea of the conceptions we now call density and specific gravity, though clear views about the question why some things rise through water or air might have been obtained without the aid of physical apparatus. Aristotle's doctrine that bodies are essentially heavy or light in themselves persisted all through the middle ages, and did much to delay the attainment of more exact knowledge. It was not till Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) discovered by actual experiment that, in cases where the resistance of the air is negligible, heavy things fall at the same speed as light ones, that the Aristotelian dogma was overthrown.
Turning to the biological sciences, we may trace a somewhat similar course of development. Owing to its practical importanceEarly biology., medicine has left many records by which its progress can be traced. Just as primitive man personified the sun and the moon, the wind and the sea, so he regarded disease as due to the action of some malignant demon or to the spells of some human enemy. Once more Greek literature enables us to trace the gradual decrease in the importance assigned to charms and magic, and the growth of more rational ideas among physicians. But here, as in the physical sciences, the philosophic range of the intellect of the Greeks led them astray. Assumptions as to the nature of man or the origin of organic life were too often made the starting point of a train of deductive reasoning, the consequences of which were not always compared with the results of observation and experiment, even where such comparison was possible. The Greek philosophers tried to make bricks without straw, usually in sublime unconsciousness that straw was necessary. Many centuries of humble observation and tentative fitting together of small parts of the great puzzle were needed before enough material was collected to make possible useful generalizations about the questions, answers to which the Greeks assumed as the very basis of their inquiries.
Among the multitude of their guesses, a few somewhat resembled the views that are now again rising into prominence from the basis of definite and exact experiment. A good example of the strength and weakness of ancient speculation is found in the cosmogony of the atomists, both on its physical and on its biological side. Lucretius describes how the world was formed by the conjunction of streams of atoms, which condensed into the earth, with its attendant water, air and aether, to form a self-contained whole. Unconscious of the mighty gap between inorganic matter and living beings, he proceeds to tell how, in the chances of infinite time, all possible forms of life appeared, while only those fittest to survive persisted and reared offspring. Here, surrounded by unsupported statements and false conclusions, we see dimly the germs of the ideas of the nebular hypothesis and the theory of natural selection, though Lucretius had the profoundest ignorance of the difficulties of the problem, and the vast stretches of time necessary for cosmical and biological development.
In those branches of biological science in which less ambitious theorizing and more detailed observation were forced on the Greeks, considerable progress was made. Aristotle compiled a laborious account of the animals known in his day, with many accurate details of their anatomical structure. Beginning from an earlier date, steady advance was made with geographical discovery. Maps of the known world, developed from the local maps invented by the Egyptians for the purposes of landsurveying, gave definiteness to the knowledge thus acquired, and showed its bearing on wider problems.
One of the most striking successes of Greek thought is seen in the development of geometry. Geometry has a twofold importance, as being itself the study of the propertiesGeometry. of the space known to our senses, and as teaching us methods and means of studying nature by unfolding the full logical consequences of any hypothesis: geometry is the best type of deductive reasoning. Based on axioms, the result of simple experience, it traces from the ideas of solids, surfaces, lines and points the properties of other figures defined in terms of those ideas. As an example to other sciences, the deductive geometry of Euclid (c. 300 B e.) had, perhaps, an unfortunate influence in emphasizing the deductive method, and teaching men to neglect the need of verifying by experiment the theories put forward to explain the more complex phenomena of nature at the conclusion, and at each possible step, of the deduction. But, in itself, the science of Euclidian geometry was brought to such a state of perfection that no advance was made till modern times: no change even in form attempted till quite recently. Unlike some other branches of inquiry we have mentioned, Euclid's geometry carried universal conviction, and represented a permanent step in advance which never had to be retraced.
Alongside the study of individual sciences, the Greeks paid even more attention to the laws of thought, and to the examination of the essence of the methods by which knowledgeTheories of knowledge. in general is acquired. In opposition to Plato's theory that all knowledge is but the unfolding and development of forgotten memories of a previous state of existence, Aristotle taught that we learn to reach the generalizations, which alone the Greeks regarded as knowledge, by remembering, comparing and co-ordinating numerous particular acts or judgments of sense, which are thus used as a means of gaining knowledge by the action of the innate and infallible nous or intellect. Neither Plato nor Aristotle could be satisfied without finding infallibility somewhere. Aristotle, it is true, investigated the logical processes by which we pass from particular instances to general propositions, and laid stress on the importance of observing the facts before generalizing about them, but he had little appreciation of the conditions in which observation and the induction based on it must be conducted in practice in order to obtain results where the probability of error is a minimum. Aristotle regarded induction merely as a necessary preliminary to true science of the deductive type best seen in geometry, and, in applying his principles, he never reached the "positive" stage, in which metaphysical problems are evaded, if not excluded, and a scheme of natural knowledge built up in a consistent manner, so that metaphysical ideas, though they may underlie the foundation of the ultimate conceptions, do not intrude between the parts of the building. Hence Aristotle's explanations often turn directly on metaphysical ideas such as form, cause, substance, terms which do not occur (in the Aristotelian sense) in modern scientific terminology.
A century later than the time of Aristotle, Archimedes of Syracuse (287 to 212 B.C.) formulated the fundamental conceptionsThe origin of mechanics. of hydrostatics and took what may be regarded as the first step in the exact science of mechanics. The use of the lever must have been discovered at a very early date, and Archimedes set to work to investigate its quantitative laws by the application of principles learnt from the geometers. He begins by laying down two axioms: (1) Equal weights placed at equal distances from the point of support of a bar will balance: (2) Equal weights placed at unequal distances do not balance, but that which hangs at the greater distance descends. The ancient philosophers based such axioms as the first of these two on the "principle of sufficient reason." No motion can take place, because, from the symmetry of the system, there is no reason why the balance should descend on one side more than the other. Even if we grant the theoretical validity of this principle, it is impossible to make sure without trial that the system in any given case is really symmetrical. Electrification of the bar, for instance, though imperceptible to our senses, would cause one end to descend if an oppositely electrified body were placed near that end; we cannot assume without trial that the position of the sun, or the colour of the arms, will not affect the result. Archimedes based the second axiom on the sounder ground of direct experience. On these two axioms he proceeded to construct an elaborate deductive proof of the numerical law of the lever, but, in the course of it, he assumed as known the principle of the centre of gravity. In reality, this principle is identical with that of the lever, and assuming one, implicitly we assume the other. Nevertheless, Archimedes' proof is of use and interest. On the assumptions made, it shows the connexion between the general case of the lever with unequal arms, and the special and more familiar case when the arms are equal. Indeed, if we also treat the principle of the centre of gravity as an axiom known by experience, Archimedes' proof is a true type of all scientific "explanations"; it reduces an unfamiliar phenomenon to others already well known to our minds, which, creatures of habit as they are, regard the familiar cases as in no need of explanation. Nowadays we should treat the law of the lever of unequal arms as one that is verified by direct and familiar experiment, and use it, in its turn, as the starting point for further deduction.
Thus before the intellectual activity of Greece was absorbed by the utilitarianism of Rome, which, in its turn, was lost in the dark agesThe dark ages. following the barbarian conquests, the seeds were sown which, germinating after the lapse of centuries, developed in the more fruitful soil of the age of experiment. But for a time they were buried, and only remembered by compendiums written just before the ancient light was wholly lost. During the dark ages, the contents of secular learning, based on those compendiums, settled down into the elementary "trivium," consisting of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic, and the more advanced "quadrivium" music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. Music included a halfmystical doctrine of numbers and the rules of plainsong; geometry consisted of a selection of the propositions of Euclid without the demonstrations; while arithmetic and astronomy were cultivated chiefly because they taught the means of finding Easter. Meanwhile, the early alchemists of Alexandria, by the aid of mystical analogies with the conceptions of astrology, were making primitive experiments on the transformations of various substances. It was probably from them that the "sacred science" passed to the Arabs, among whom Gebel. ,(c. A.D. 750) discovered many new chemical reactions and compounds.
With the intellectual revival which began in the 11th century, and the gradual recovery of some of the lost works of the ancient writers, we turn a new page. The controversy between Plato and Aristotle upon the doctrine of ideas fascinated the minds of the middle agesMedieval learning., saturated as they were with the logical subtleties of dialectic. This controversy originated the long debate on the reality of universals, which absorbed the intellectual energies of many generations of men. Did reality belong only to the idea or universal—to the class rather than to the individual—to the common humanity of mankind, for instance, rather than to each isolated being? Or were the individuals the reality, and the universals mere names? In this question, trivial, almost meaningless, as it seems at first sight, logical analysis disclosed to the medieval mind the whole theory of the universe. Either answer contained danger to theological orthodoxy as then understood; hence the fervour with which it was debated. But, as communication with the East was reopened early in the 13th century, Latin translations of Aristotle's works gradually were recovered; the whole of Aristotle's philosophy was reimported into the schools of Europe, and reconciled and adopted by Christian theology. For three hundred years Aristotle reigned supreme in European thought, and exponents of the scholastic philosophy, ignoring their master's teaching on the need of experiment, settled questions of fact as well as those of opinion by an appeal to his books. But outside the academic schools of the newly founded universities, experiment was kept alive by the labours of the alchemists, who, early in the 13th century, caught their ideas from the Arabs, and began to search for an elixir vitae and for a means of transmuting baser metals into gold. But alchemy never quite squared its account with orthodox theology, and the "sacred science" of the Alexandrians became associated in the medieval mind with the "black art" of witchcraft. Even a man like Roger Bacon, who, with some astrological mysticism, had a more modern idea of experiment both in chemical and physical problems, did not escape condemnation.
We now reach the period in the history of the world known as the Renaissance, when many converging streams of thought were given room to join by the increased materialThe Renaissance. prosperity and improved political stability of 15th and 16th centuries. The Renaissance was not, as it is sometimes represented, a sudden break with medievalism and a birth of the modern world. But a number of conditions favourable to rapid development happened to coincide, and, in the course of a century, men's outlook on themselves and on nature became profoundly modified. The recovery of the Greek language, the voyages of Columbus, the decay of the Western and the passing of the Eastern empire, the temporary diminution in power of the papacy, the invention of printing, all tended to produce new ideas and to prepare men's minds to accept the more human and naturalistic view of the universe which had been current among the Greeks, in place of the mystical aspect which it wore to the medieval schoolmen and ecclesiastics. At first the tendency was to substitute the authority of the ancients for the authority of the schoolmen, but gradually more independence of thought was secured; men like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) began to experiment and to record their results; Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) revived the heliocentric theory, and showed how the accumulated mass of astronomical observations could be interpreted by its means; and anatomy began again to be studied in the schools of medicine, gradually making its way in face of the prejudice against mutilating the human body.
The philosophy of the new experimental methods was first studied deeply by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Sensible of the confused and disjointed informationFrancis Bacon. which then con stituted the only scientific knowledge, Bacon set himself to describe a new method by which definite knowledge might be acquired with certainty. Warned by the failure of the scholastic methods, Bacon laid exclusive stress on experimental research, and it was perhaps natural that he should incline to the other extreme and ignore almost entirely the use of hypothesis and the deductive method. To arrive at the underlying causes, said Bacon, we must study the natural history of the phenomena, collect and tabulate all observations which bear on them, notice which phenomena are related in such a way as to vary together, and then, by a merely mechanical process of exclusion, we discover the cause of any given phenomenon. As a corrective of the medieval philosophy Bacon's work was of the greatest value in the history of thought, and, from this point of view, it is perhaps but a small drawback that scientific discovery is seldom or never made by the pure Baconian method. The multitude of phenomena are too great for any subject to be attacked with success without the aid of hypothesis framed by the use of the scientific imagination. Facts are collected to prove or disprove the consequences deduced from the hypothesis, and thus the number of facts to be examined becomes manageable.
Even while Bacon was philosophizing, the true method was being used by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) to found the scienceGalileo. of dynamics. We have seen how the Aristotelians held the belief that every body sought its natural place, the place of heavy bodies being below and that of light ones above. Innate qualities of heaviness and lightness were thus invoked to explain why some things fell, and others, in similar circumstances, rose. Galileo, rightly rejecting the whole current point of view, set himself to examine not why, but how, things fell. This change of attitude was in itself one of his great achievements. Now a falling body starts from rest and falls with a speed which is increasing constantly. Galileo sought to find the law of increase. To isolate the real law out of all possible laws he made a guess at a simple law which seemed likely to be true. He assumed that the speed acquired is proportional to the distance fallen through. But, working out the consequences of this hypothesis, he soon convinced himself that it involved a contradiction. He abandoned the hypothesis and made another. He supposed that the speed was proportional to the time of fall. Again he deduced mathematically the consequences of this new hypothesis, and, finding no inconsistencies, put some of his deductions to the test of experiment, and verified their accuracy. Thus Galileo proved mathematically that, if the speed of fall is proportional to the time from the moment of starting, the space traversed by a falling body must be proportional to the square of the time of fall. To verify this result experimentally, Galileo convinced himself that a body falling down an inclined plane acquired a speed which is the same as that it would have attained in falling through the same vertical height. He was able therefore to use a slow fall down a plane for his experiments instead of the unmanageably rapid course of a body falling freely. Nor was this all. From this stage to the investigation another consequence of his results was found to spring. A ball after running down an inclined plane of a certain height will run up another plane of the same height irrespective of its inclination - that is, if friction be small. The second plane may be made very long, but still, if its final height be the same, the ball will reach its end. Hence it is the height that matters; none of the speed of the ball is destroyed unless it rises. If the second plane be made horizontal, the ball will thus run on for ever unless stopped by friction or some other applied force. This fundamental result, put into definite words by Newton, is known as the first law of motion, and is the foundation of the whole science of dynamics. In Galileo's day it was an entirely new conception. It has been assumed that every motion required some cause or force to maintain it. Hence arose the need of hypothetical vortices to maintain planetary movements, and similar complications in astronomy and mechanics. But it now became evident that it was not the continuous motion of the planets which needed explanation, but the constant deflection of that motion from the straight path it would hold if no applied force were in action. The way was open for Newton.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) proved mathematically that the observed motion of the planets about the sun could be explainedNewton., and explained only, by the supposition that the sun exerted a force on each planet proportional inversely to the square of its distance from the planet. But the earth, at any rate, does attract bodies on or near its surface, the phenomenon being the familiar but mysterious gravity. Is this force competent to account for the motion of the moon round the earth? On the assumption of the law of inverse squares, Newton calculated what the known force of gravity would become at the distance of the moon. Owing to faulty data, his first result indicated that the force would be too great, and Newton put aside his calculations. Six years later a new determination of the size of the earth gave him a new basis for calculation, and, in an excitement so great that he could hardly see his figures, Newton found that the fall of a stone to the earth and the sweep of the moon in her orbit were due to the same cause. The mechanism by means of which the force is exerted remained unrevealed to Newton, and has baffled all inquirers since his day, but the discovery that all the movements of the heavens could be described by one simple physical law, represents the greatest achievement in the history of science.
Newton brought the existing state of the solar system within the cognizance of known dynamical principles, and the logical extension of such principles to explain the origin of that systemLaplace. was made by the speculations of Pierre Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749-1827), and developed by those who followed him. They imagined a primitive state of nebulosity from which, by the action of known dynamical processes, the sun and planets would be evolved.
These speculations, isolated at first, coalesced with the more detailed conclusions of geology during the 19th century. The earlier conceptionsGeology. of the origin of the rocks of the earth imagined catastrophes of fire or water, processes alien to those of everyday experience. But the "uniformitarian" school, founded by James Hutton (1726-1797) and expounded by Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), produced evidence to show that much, at any rate, of the structure of the surface of the globe was produced by the action of causes and processes still going on under our eyes. The deposition of material by the action of seas and rivers and other natural agencies, e.g. volcanoes, &c., was seen to need only time enough to produce beds of rock like those which make up our mountains. Comparison of the fossil remains of plants and animals found in different kinds of rock then enabled geologists to classify the rocks, and place them in a chronological sequence. Moreover, it became evident that a series of animal and plant types was associated with the gradual formation of the rocks, and that the age both of the earth itself and of the organic life found on it was much greater than had been suspected. The few thousand years of received cosmogonies stretched out into untold millions, during which the same familiar laws described the phenomena of development. The remains and traces of man, found, it is true, only in the later sedimentary deposits of the earth, still were enough to prove his existence through ages beside which the dawn of history was but as yesterday. As Newton had extended known principles throughout the gigantic spaces of the heavens, so the later geologists pushed them back over enormous epochs of time. The extent of the kingdom of ordered knowledge expanded both in space and time to a degree truly marvellous.
The discovery by Sir George G. Stokes (1819-1903), R. W. Bunsen (1811-1898) and G. R. Kirchhoff (1824-1887)The Spectroscope., that the spectroscope gave a means of investigating the chemical composition of the sun and the stars, brought another set of phenomena under the control of ter restrial experiment. Moreover, the differences in stellar spectra once more suggested the idea of cosmical development, familiar from the nebular hypothesis of Laplace.
Besides the direct extension of the dominion of science produced by geology and spectroscopy the new results emphasized the idea of developmentDarwin., and prepared the way for the biological work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). The origin of living beings from a few ancestral types was an old conception, but Darwin first found an adequate intelligible cause in the slow action of sexual selection, joined to the pressure of the struggle for life, which allowed only those individuals most suited by favourable variation to the environment to survive and rear their offspring. The advantage thus given to beings with useful variations may develop into permanent modifications in the course of ages, and, when the parent types have disappeared, their common posterity may exhibit the marked differences characteristic of the separate and distinct species now existent. From the point of view of scientific thought, the significance of Darwin's theory lies in the new and vast extension it gives to the field in which causes intelligible to the human mind can be sought as explanations of phenomena. Thus evolution is co-ordinated in the history of thought with the Newtonian theory of gravitation, and with the uniformitarian theory of geology.
Both before and after the appearance of Darwin's work, biologists devoted their attention to the study of how the useful variations arise.Variations. Three views have been held. (1) Jean Baptiste, chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829), regarded variation as due to the accumulated and inherited effect of use. Thus the giraffe acquires his long neck by the successive efforts of countless generations to browse on leaves just beyond their reach. (2) Darwin, while accepting changes in accordance with Lamarck's ideas as exceptional aids to variation, revolutionized biology by showing the primary importance of the struggle for life, when extended over long periods of time, in selecting useful variations which arise accidentally or in other ways. (3) Darwin also recognized the possible occasional effect of discontinuous variations or "sports," when a plant or an animal diverges from its parents in a marked manner. But of late years the study by Hugo de Vries, William Bateson and others, of discontinuous variations which arise spontaneously has pointed to the conclusion that in nature such sudden leaps are the normal cause of development. If a "sport" has advantages over the parental type, it tends to survive, while, if it is not as fitted for its life struggle, it is destroyed by natural selection and never establishes itself. Such a theory avoids the difficulty of pure "Darwinism," that organs useful, when fully developed, to an animal or plant are of no advantage in incipient stages. Statistical methods, too, suggest that a definite limit may exist to the amount of a given variation which proceeds by small steps, each insignificant in itself.
Closely connected with such problems is the question of inheritance. Lamarck's theory required the inheritance of characteristics acquired during the life of a parent.Inheritance. But difficulties, such as that of seeing how such a change could affect the simple germ cells, has led some more recent biologists to pass to the other extreme, and to deny the possibility of any acquired characteristic being transmitted to offspring.
A new light has been thrown on the problem of inheritance by the recent re-discovery of the work of G. J. Mendel, abbot of Brunn (1822-1884).Mendel. Certain characters in both plants and animals have been found to be separable, and some of these characters exist in pairs, so that the presence of one involves the absence of the other. To take a simple example. Blue Andalusian fowls do not breed "true." On the average, half the offspring of two blue parents are blue, while the remaining half are divided equally between black and white birds. Both black and white when mated with a consort of the same colour breed "true" and yield only offspring similar to the parents. A white bird mated with a black, however, produces invariably all blue chicks. White mated with blue gives half blue and half white, while black mated with blue gives half blue and half black. Such phenomena are explained if we suppose that of the germ cells of the blue birds half bear the black character and half the white. If, in reproduction, a "black" cell meets a "black" the resulting chick is black; if "white" meets "white" the chick is white; while if "white" meets "black" the chick possesses a mixture of the two characters which in this case yield blue colour. But the reproductive cells of this intermediate form are not intermediate in character; they possess the pure parental characters in equal numbers. Knowing these facts, it is evident that we can reproduce any of the results at will, and from the mixed blue type produce a pure true breed of either black or white birds. Experiments of this kind must lead to a power of breeding new varieties of plants and animals hitherto undreamed of, and already have changed altogether our views of the problems of heredity. Instead of a vague mixture of all our ancestors, we possess definite characteristics of some of them only, though, like the blue Andalusian fowl, we may transmit to our children ancestral characters we do not ourselves exhibit. The family or race is more important in heredity than the individual parent. Thus the aristocratic theory of politics receives support from the experience of biology.
Simultaneously with the growth of geology, and the birth of the Darwinian hypothesis, a new development took place in physical science—the development of the conceptionThe theory of energy. of energy as a quantity invariable in amount throughout a series of physical changes. The genesis of the idea in its modern form may be traced in the work of Newton and C. Huygens (1629-1695), who applied it to the problems of pure dynamics. But, in the middle of the 19th century, by the work of James Prescott Joule (1818-1889), Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), H. L. F. von Helmholtz (1821-1894), J. Willard Gibbs (1839-1903), R. J. E. Clausius (1822-1888) and others, it was extended to physical processes. The amount of heat produced by friction was found to bear a constant proportion to the work expended, and this experimental result led to the conception of an invariable quantity of something, to which the name of energy was given, manifesting itself in various forms such as heat or mechanical work. Energy thus took its place beside mass as a real quantity, conserved throughout a series of physical changes. Of late years, as we shall see below, evidence has appeared to show that mass is not absolutely constant, but may depend on the velocity when the velocity approaches that of light. Since the only essential quality of matter is its mass, this result seems to strike at the root of the metaphysical conception of matter as a real, invariable quantity. It remains to be seen whether the conception of energy as an invariable quantity will hold its place or give way to some similar modification as science develops. But, in the present state of knowledge, we may accept the principle of the conservation of energy as one of the most firmly established of physical laws.
The amount of energy in an isolated system remains invariable, but, if changes are going on in the system, the energy tends continually to become less and less available for the performance of useful work. All heat engines require a difference of temperature - a boiler and refrigerator, or their equivalents. We cannot continue to transform heat into mechanical work if all available objects are at a uniform temperature. But, if temperature differences exist, they tend to equalize themselves by irreversible processes of thermal conduction, and it becomes increasingly difficult to get useful work out of the supplies of heat. In an isolated system, then, equilibrium will be reached when this process of "dissipation of energy" is complete, and, from this single principle, the whole theory of the equilibrium of physical and chemical systems was worked out by Willard Gibbs. Such a method avoids altogether the use of atomic and molecular conceptions. In fact, some supporters of the theory of "energetics" expressly disclaim the conceptions of natural atoms and molecules as unnecessary and misleading, and prefer to found all science on the idea of energy. Matter, they argue, is known to us only as a vehicle for energy, and may itself be but a manifestation of that energy.
But the other great line of advance in recent physics, although it may lead us in the end to somewhat similar conclusions, has been tracedThe theory of electric ions. by a method which used atomic and molecular conceptions in an extreme form. The passage of electricity through liquids had been explained by Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and others as a transference of a succession of electric charges carried by moving particles of matter or ions. At the end of the 19th century these ideas were extended, chiefly by the labours of J. J. Thomson, to elucidate also the conduction of electricity through gases. In 1897 Thomson discovered that, in certain cases, the moving particles which carried the electric current were of much smaller mass than the smallest chemical atom, that of hydrogen, and that these minute particles, to which he gave the name of corpuscles, were identical from whatever substance they were obtained. They enter into the structure of all matter, and form a common constituent of all chemical atoms. The only known properties of these corpuscles are their mass and their electric charge. Now, a charged body when set in motion spreads electromagnetic energy into the surrounding medium. Thus, more force is needed to produce a given acceleration than if the body were uncharged. The body acts as though its mass were greater than when it is uncharged. Now there is reason to believe that the whole apparent mass of the minute corpuscles to which we have referred is an effect of their electric charge. The idea of a material particle thus disappears with that of material mass, and the corpuscle becomes an isolated unit of electricity - an electron. It is impossible to resist making the speculation that the whole of an atom is made up of electrons, and that mass is to be explained in terms of electricity, though it must be pointed out that there is no conclusive evidence in favour of this hypothesis.
Another train of reasoning, starting from a different point, reinforces this result. The phenomena of the interference of beams of light in certain circumstances, to produce darkness or colour, indicate that light is some form of wave motion, and, to carry these waves, a hypothetical luminiferous aether was invented. The theoretical work of J. Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) and the experiments of H. R. Hertz (1857-1894) showed that the properties and velocity of propagation of light and of electromagnetic waves were identical and that their other properties differed only in degree. Thus light became an electromagnetic phenomenon. But light is started by some form of atomic vibration, and to start an electromagnetic wave requires a moving electric charge. Thus electric charges must exist within the atom, and we are led again to the theory of electrons by the road opened up by H. A. Lorentz and Joseph Larmor. Such a theory suggests the occasional instability of the atom, and the phenomena of radioactivity, shown in a remarkable form by the substance radium, discovered by M. and Mme. Curie, have been explained satisfactorily by the theory of E. Rutherford and F. Soddy, who regard the energy liberated as due to the disintegration of the atom. The evolutionary view of nature, established in the biological and sociological sciences, is thus extended to physical science, not only in the development of planets and suns, but even in the chemical atoms, hitherto believed indestructible and eternal.
As we have seen, Francis Bacon described a new method of discovery in which exclusive attention was paid to the collection and tabulation of factsThe methods of science., with a view to the detection of relations between them, and the consequent reference of "effects" to their proper "causes." Impressed by the barrenness of the a priori methods of the Schoolmen, Bacon in his philosophy went to the other extreme. The use of the Baconian method in its purity would be too laborious for success. Some guide is necessary in the collection of facts at an early stage of our investigations. Here the scientific imagination is brought into play, and some hypothesis is framed to explain the phenomena under investigation. The hypothesis may be suggested by the theories which are accepted at the time in cognate branches of knowledge, or it may be suggested by the few isolated facts already known or just discovered in the phenomena to be considered. From this new hypothesis, consequences are deduced by processes of logical reasoning - consequences which may be put to the test by comparison with the results of observation or experiment. If agreement is found, the hypothesis is, so far, confirmed, and gains in authority with every fresh concordance discovered. If the deductions from the hypothesis do not agree with the accepted interpretation of facts, the hypothesis may need modification, it may have to be abandoned altogether, or the want of concordance may point to some error or inconsistency in the fundamental concepts on which the hypothesis is based - the whole framework of that branch of science may need revision, as the idea of heat as a caloric substance had to be abandoned under the pressure of the experiments of Joule on the equivalence between work done and heat developed. But the ultimate test of the validity of our knowledge can only be the consistency with each other of the parts of the whole scheme. If the received interpretation of one set of phenomena is not consistent with that of another, one or other or both of the interpretations must be wrong if we make the assumption necessary for all knowledge, namely, that the universe is intelligible to a mind capable of dealing with its complexity.
In early times, when the knowledge of nature was small, little attempt was made to divide science into parts, and men of science did not specialize.The classification of the sciences. Aristotle was a master of all science known in his day, and wrote indifferently treatises on physics or animals. As increasing knowledge made it impossible for any one man to grasp all scientific subjects, lines of division were drawn for convenience of study and of teaching. Besides the broad distinction into physical and biological science, minute subdivisions arose, and, at a cerain stage of development, much attention was given to methods of classification, and much emphasis laid on the results, which were thought to have a significance beyond that of the mere convenience of mankind.
But we have reached the stage when the different streams of knowledge, followed by the different sciences, are coalescing, and the artificial barriers raised by calling those sciences by different names are breaking down. Geology uses the methods and data of physics, chemistry and biology; no one can say whether the science of radioactivity is to be classed as chemistry or physics, or whether sociology is properly grouped with biology or economics. Indeed, it is often just where this coalescence of two subjects occurs, when some connecting channel between them is opened suddenly, that the most striking advances in knowledge take place. The accumulated experience of one department of science, and the special methods which have been developed to deal with its problems, become suddenly available in the domain of another department, and many questions insoluble before may find answers in the new light cast upon them. Such considerations show us that science is in reality one, though we may agree to look on it now from one side and now from another as we approach it from the standpoint of physics, physiology or psychology.
Having traced the development of the most important of the fundamental conceptions of science, and followed the subdivisionThe philosophical basis of science. of natural knowledge into the various sections which for convenience mankind has made, let us now examine the meaning of the knowledge thus acquired, and its relation to other branches of learning.
By the slow and laborious methods of observation, hypothesis, deduction, and experimental verification, a scheme has been constructed which for the most part is consistent with itself, and bears the test of the comparison of one part with another. As a chart is drawn by the explorer of unknown seas to represent his discoveries in a conventional manner, so the scientific investigator constructs a mental model of the phenomena he observes, and tests its consistency with itself and its concordance with the results of further experiment. The chart does not give a lifelike picture of the coast as does a painting, but it represents one aspect of it conventionally in a manner best adapted for the immediate purpose. So the conceptions of one branch of science mechanics let us say - represent the phenomena of nature in the conventional aspect best suited for one particular line of inquiry. It does not follow necessarily that "nature" in reality resembles the particular mental chart which mechanical science enables us to construct. It does not even follow that there is any "reality" underlying phenomena and corresponding with any of our conceptions. The whole problem which mankind has to face undoubtedly includes an inquiry into the ultimate nature of reality. But that inquiry lies in the province of metaphysics, and is not necessarily involved in the pursuit of natural science. Metaphysics uses the results of natural science, as of all other branches of learning, as evidence bearing on her own deeper and more difficult questions. But it does not follow that natural science must solve metaphysical problems before being of use to man and enlarging the sphere of his knowledge. We need not ask whether the reality is represented accurately by our conventional model, whether indeed there be any reality at all, before using that model to introduce order into what would otherwise be mental confusion, and to enable us to make systematic and progressive use of natural resources. It is true that the possibility of constructing consistent schemes of scientific concepts is an argument in favour of the existence of a definite reality underlying phenomena resembling in some respects the pictures of it we draw. But metaphysicians are not agreed that it is a conclusive argument. The difficulty of making a scientific picture of the ultimate nature of reality may be illustrated by an example. Our first conception of a wooden stick involves the ideas of a certain long-shaped form, of smoothness, of hardness, of weight, of a certain brown colour, perhaps of some amount of elasticity. A microscope reveals a structure much more detailed than we imagined, and our mental model of the stick ceases to be smooth. It becomes co-ordinated with those of a number of other bodies which we know to be parts of trees, and study, as regards growth and structure, by the help of botany. From the results of observation and experiment, physics teaches us that the properties of the stick can only be represented satisfactorily by imagining that the substance of it is not infinitely divisible, that it consists of discontinuous particles or molecules. Again, chemistry assures us that the molecules of the stick are made up of still smaller parts or atoms, which separate from each other when, for instance, the stick is burned, and afterwards can arrange themselves into new molecules. When we pursue our inquiries into the nature of these atoms, we find that they can be resolved, partly at any rate, into much smaller particles or corpuscles in continual motion within the atom. These corpuscles themselves have been identified with isolated units of negative electricity or electrons, the vibrations of which within the atom sort out the electromagnetic radiation which falls on them and allow to reach our eyes those waves only which give us the sensation of brown colour. At present pioneers are attempting to explain electrons in terms of centres of elastic strain in a hypothetical aether. But we have travelled far from our original conception of the nature of the stick, and, should the problem last stated be solved, we should only find ourselves faced by the next one, the nature of the aether. But what constitutes reality? Where, in the endless chain of explanations discovered or to be discovered, can we stop and say: “Here is the true picture of what the stick is”? But this impossibility does not prevent us from getting the full use of each conception in turn when used for its particular purpose. To the schoolboy, the effective and deterrent conception of the stick is that of a hard, elastic, long-shaped solid. The botanist regards it as built up by the action of vegetable cells, which he refers to a particular kind of tree. To the chemist the stick is made up of atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, each with definite properties and arranged in certain combinations. The physicist sees these atoms composed of whirling electrons, each an ultimate electric unit not capable of further explanation, or possibly a centre of strain in an all-pervading aether of unknown nature. Each idea is useful in turn, and each corresponds truly with certain properties of the stick, corresponds with the stick itself in certain of its aspects.
Such considerations show us the meaning of the subdivisions into which science has been arranged for convenience of study and research. They represent different aspects of nature, different sections, as it were, cut through the solid model which stands for the sum of all our scientific knowledge of the universe.
A nerve-impulse may be regarded from a psychological aspect when we deal with the thought which accompanied it; from a physiological aspect when we examine its relation to other changes in the body. But modern methods have co-ordinated it also with definite chemical and electrical changes, and are said sometimes to have “explained” the nerve-impulse in physical terms.
But, as always, an “explanation” proves to be simply a restatement of a phenomenon in terms of other phenomena which previously are familiar to the mind, and therefore appear to be better understood. Nevertheless, from our present point of view, no one of these possible aspects of the phenomenon - of the nerveimpulse - is essentially more fundamental than any other. To the psychologist the nerve-impulse is expressed in terms of thought, to the physicist by physical changes. The fact that a thought is accompanied by movement of matter or electricity does not make the thought less a fundamental conception.
But perhaps the best illustration is to be sought in the relation between the physical concepts of matter and electricity. As we have seen, J. J. Thomson discovered corpuscles which were common constituents of all matter, with masses smaller than those of any known atoms. One of these corpuscles represents a unit of negative electricity. An atom with a corpuscle in excess is an atom negatively electrified, an atom with one corpuscle less than the normal number is an atom positively electrified. In this scheme electricity is described in terms of matter. But these corpuscles have been identified with the hypothetical electrons of Lorentz and Larmor, who consider matter to be composed of such isolated units of electricity. Such electrons, it has been shown, would possess mass by virtue of their electromagnetic properties. In this theory the idea of mechanical mass is eliminated altogether, and mass, and therefore matter, explained in terms of electricity. The view has been held by some that a mechanical explanation of a phenomenon is fundamental, and that a phenomenon so explained in terms of mechanical conceptions is fully understood. This idea may be traced to the familiarity with mechanical conceptions of our everyday experience. The mind obtains its concept of matter from the resistance which that matter manifests to forces tending to set it in motion when at rest, or to change its state of motion when travelling. This fundamental property of inertia is the measure of mass, and we reach the concept of mass by our muscular sense of the force needed to set mass in motion. Force seems to be a direct sense perception, though mathematically it is better to define force in terms of acceleration and mass - since mass is found normally to keep constant throughout a series of physical changes. The familiarity we feel, then, with the conception of matter is based on our familiarity with the conception of force. Our minds form this conception from their experience of a direct sense perception of muscular effort. This seems to be the basis of the whole feeling that mechanical conceptions are more fundamental than any others, and that, for instance, it is more intelligible to explain electricity in terms of mechanics than vice versa. But the fact that we have a special muscular sense is an accident of our bodies. It is possible that the electric fish, or torpedo, has a special electric sense, and that to such a fish-philosopher the perception of electromotive force is more real than that of mechanical force. Such a being might well argue that it is intelligible and satisfactory to explain the mysterious concept of mass, which he only reaches through the other equally mysterious concept of mechanical force, in terms of the familiar concept of electricity, well known to every torpedo from his direct sense perception of electromotive force. This instance may serve to show that it is quite as correct philosophically to explain matter in terms of electricity, as to explain electricity in terms of mass. The object of science is to find connexions between phenomena and thus to correlate them. At present a greater simplification may be reached by reducing all possible phenomena to mechanical conceptions than in any other way, but that only shows that the mechanical aspect of nature gives us a fuller view than any other at present known, not that mechanics is philosophically the most fundamental science.
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