Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 6.djvu/322

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Mathematical Investigations in Physics.

I AM thus suddenly brought face to face with the second head of my subject: the mathematical and philosophical state of the physical sciences.

The luminiferous ether and the undulatory theory of light have always troubled what is supposed to be the imperturbable character of the mathematics. The proof of a theory is indisputable when it can predict consequences, and call successfully upon the observer to fulfill its prophecies. It is the boast of astronomers that the law of gravitation thus vindicates itself. The undulatory theory of light has shown a wonderful facility of adaptation to each new exigency in optics, and has opened the eye of observation to see what might never have been discovered without the promptings of theory. But this doctrine, and that of gravitation also, have more than once been arrested in their swift march and obliged to show their credentials. After Fresnel and Young had secured a firm foothold for Huyghens's theory of light in mechanics and experiment, questions arose which have perplexed, if not baffled, the best mathematical skill. How is the ether affected by the gross matter which it invests and permeates? Does it move when they move? If not, does the relative motion between the ether and other matter change the length of the undulation or the time of oscillation? These queries cannot be satisfactorily answered by analogy, for analogy is in some respects wanting between the ether and any other substance. Astronomy says that aberration cannot be explained unless the ether is at rest. Optics replies that refraction cannot be explained unless the ether moves. Fresnel produced a reconciliation by a compromise. The ether moves with a fractional velocity large enough to satisfy refraction, but too small to disturb sensibly the astronomer's aberration. In 1814, Arago reported to Fresnel that he found no sensible difference in the prismatic refraction of light, whether the earth was moving with full speed toward a star or in the opposite direction, and asked for an explanation. Fresnel submitted the question to mathematical analysis, and demonstrated that, whatever change was produced by the motion of the prism in the relative velocity of light, the wave-length in the prism, and the refraction, was compensated by the physiological aberration when the rays emerged. Very recently, Ketteler, of Bonn, has

  1. Retiring Address before the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the Hartford meeting, August 14, 1874, by the ex-President.