Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/500

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

closing years of the old century and the opening years of the new as notable as the greatest which have preceded them.

Now what is the task which these men, and their illustrious fellow laborers out of all lands, have set themselves to accomplish? To what end led these 'new and fruitful physical conceptions' to which I have just referred? It is often described as the discovery of the 'laws connecting phenomena.' But this is certainly a misleading, and in my opinion a very inadequate account of the subject. To begin with, it is not only inconvenient, but confusing, to describe as 'phenomena' things which do not appear, which never have appeared, and which never can appear, to beings so poorly provided as ourselves with the apparatus of sense perception. But apart from this, which is a linguistic error too deeply rooted to be easily exterminated, is it not most inaccurate in substance to say that a knowledge of nature's laws is all we seek when investigating nature? The physicist looks for something more than what by any stretch of language can be described as 'coexistences' and 'sequences' between so-called 'phenomena.' He seeks for something deeper than the laws connecting possible objects of experience. His object is physical reality; a reality which may or may not be capable of direct perception; a reality which is in any case independent of it; a reality which constitutes the permanent mechanism of that physical universe with which our immediate empirical connection is so slight and so deceptive. That such a reality exists, though philosophers have doubted, is the unalterable faith of science; and were that faith per impossible to perish under the assaults of critical speculation, science, as men of science usually conceive it, would perish likewise.

If this be so, if one of the tasks of science, and more particularly of physics, is to frame a conception of the physical universe in its inner reality, then any attempt to compare the different modes in which, at different epochs of scientific development, this intellectual picture has been drawn, can not fail to suggest questions of the deepest interest. True, I am precluded from dealing with such of these questions as are purely philosophical by the character of this occasion; and with such of them as are purely scientific by my own incompetence. But some there may be sufficiently near the dividing line to induce the specialists who rule by right on either side of it, to view with forgiving eyes any trespasses into their legitimate domain which I may be tempted, during the next few minutes, to commit.

Let me then endeavor to compare the outlines of two such pictures, of which the first may be taken to represent the views prevalent towards the end of the eighteenth century; a little more than a hundred years from the publication of Newton's 'Principia,' and, roughly speaking, about midway between that epoch-making dale and the present mo-