Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/494

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observations within the limits of temperature from which we have drawn our observations could equally be so satisfied. Having once ascertained that such a formula is possible, it is a mere affair of arithmetic to find the values of a, b, and c, which will make the formula satisfy the observations best. This is what physicists call an empirical formula, because it rests upon mere induction, and is not explained by any hypothesis.

Such formulæ, though very useful as means of describing in general terms the results of observations, do not take any high rank among scientific discoveries. The induction which they embody, that expansion by heat (or whatever other phenomenon is referred to) takes place in a perfectly gradual manner without sudden leaps or innumerable fluctuations, although really important, attracts no attention, because it is what we naturally anticipate. But the defects of such expressions are very serious. In the first place, as long as the observations are subject to error, as all observations are, the formula cannot be expected to satisfy the observations exactly. But the discrepancies cannot be due solely to the errors of the observations, but must be partly owing to the error of the formula which has been deduced from erroneous observations. Moreover, we have no right to suppose that the real facts, if they could be had free from error, could be expressed by such a formula at all. They might, perhaps, be expressed by a similar formula with an infinite number of terms; but of what use would that be to us, since it would require an infinite number of coefficients to be written down? When one quantity varies with another, if the corresponding values are exactly known, it is a mere matter of mathematical ingenuity to find some way of expressing their relation in a simple manner. If one quantity is of one kind—say, a specific gravity—and the other of another kind—say, a temperature—we do not desire to find an expression for their relation which is wholly free from numerical constants, since if it were free from them when, say, specific gravity as compared with water, and temperature as expressed by the centigrade thermometer, were in question, numbers would have to be introduced when the scales of measurement were changed. We may, however, and do desire to find formulas expressing the relations of physical phenomena which shall contain no more arbitrary numbers than changes in the scales of measurement might require.

When a formula of this kind is discovered, it is no longer called an empirical formula, but a law of Nature; and is sooner or later made the basis of an hypothesis which is to explain it. These simple formulæ are not usually, if ever, exactly true, but they are none the less important for that; and the great triumph of the hypothesis comes when it explains not only the formula, but also the deviations from the formula. In the current language of the physicists, an hypothesis of this importance is called a theory, while the term hypothesis is restricted to suggestions which have little evidence in their favor. There is some justice