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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/514

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

rial medium capable of conveying transverse vibrations, and of accounting also for the various phenomena of reflection, refraction and double refraction. It has often been pointed out, as characteristic of the French school referred to, that their physical speculations were largely influenced by ideas transferred from astronomy; as, for instance, in the conception of a solid body as made up of discrete particles acting on one another at a distance with forces in the lines joining them, which formed the basis of most of their work on elasticity and optics. The difficulty of carrying out these ideas in a logical manner was enormous, and the strict course of mathematical deduction had to be replaced by more or less precarious assumptions. The detailed study of the geometry of a continuous deformable medium which was instituted by Cauchy was a first step towards liberating the theory from arbitrary and unnecessary hypothesis; but it was reserved for Green, the immediate predecessor of Stokes among English mathematicians, to carry out this process completely and independently, with the help of Lagrange's general dynamical methods, which here found their first application to questions of physics outside the ordinary dynamics of rigid bodies and fluids. The modern school of English physicists, since the time of Green and Stokes, have consistently endeavored to make out, in any given class of phenomena, how much can be recognized as a manifestation of general dynamical principles, independent of the particular mechanism which may be at work. One of the most striking examples of this was the identification by Maxwell of the laws of electromagnetism with the dynamical equations of Lagrange. It would, however, be going too far to claim this tendency as the exclusive characteristic of English physicists; for example, the elastic investigations of Green and Stokes have their parallel in the independent though later work of Kirchhoff; and the beautiful theory of dynamical systems with latent motion which we owe to Lord Kelvin stands in a very similar relation to the work of Helmholtz and Hertz.

But perhaps the most important and characteristic feature in the mathematical work of the later school is its increasing relation to and association with experiment. In the days when the chief applications of mathematics were to the problems of gravitational astronomy, the mathematician might well take his materials at second hand; and in some respects the division of labor was, and still may be, of advantage. The same thing holds in a measure of the problems of ordinary dynamics, where some practical knowledge of the subject matter is within the reach of every one. But when we pass to the more recondite phenomena of physical optics, acoustics and electricity, it hardly needs the demonstrations which have involuntarily been given to show that the theoretical treatment must tend to degenerate into the pursuit of mere academic subtleties unless it is constantly vivified by direct con-