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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/516

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512
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

survey of the collected works of these writers will show how much, of the very highest quality and import, would remain. However this may be, the essential point, which can not, I think, be contested, is this, that if these men had been condemned and restricted to a mere book knowledge of the subjects which they have treated with such marvelous analytical ability, the very soul of their work would have been taken away. I have ventured to dwell upon this point because, although I am myself disposed to plead for the continued recognition of mathematical physics as a fairly separate field, I feel strongly that the traditional kind of education given to our professed mathematical students does not tend to its most effectual cultivation. This education is apt to be one-sided, and too much divorced from the study of tangible things. Even the student whose tastes lie mainly in the direction of pure mathematics would profit, I think, by a wider scientific training. A long list of instances might be given to show that the most fruitful ideas in pure mathematics have been suggested by the study of physical problems. In the words of Fourier, who did so much to fulfil his own saying, "L'étude approfondie de la nature est la source la plus féconde des découvertes mathematiques. Non-seulement cette étude, en offrant aux recherches un but déterminé, a l'avantage d'exclure les questions vagues et les calculs sans issue; elle est encore un moyen assure de former l'analyse elle-même, et d'en découvrir les éléments qu'il nous importe le plus de connaître, et que cette science doit toujours conserver: ces éléments fondamentaux sont ceux qui se reproduisent dans tous les effets naturels."[1]

Another characteristic of the applied mathematics of the past century is that it was, on the whole, the age of linear equations. The analytical armory fashioned by Lagrange, Poisson, Fourier and others, though subject, of course, to continual improvement and development, has served the turn of a long line of successors. The predominance of linear equations, in most of the physical subjects referred to, rests on the fact that the changes are treated as infinitely small. The electric theory of light forms at present an exception; but even here the linear character of the fundamental electrical relations is itself remarkable, and possibly significant. The theory of small oscillations, in particular, runs as a thread through a great part of the literature of the period in question. It has suggested many important analytical results, and it still gives the best and simplest intuitive foundation for a whole class of theorems which are otherwise hard to comprehend in their various relations, such as Fourier's theorem, Laplace's expansion, Bessel's functions, and the like. Moreover, the interest of the subject, whether mathematical or physical, is not yet exhausted; many important problems in optics and acoustics, for example, still await solution. The general theory has in comparatively recent times re-


  1. "In-depth study of nature is the most fruitful source of mathematical discoveries, and not only does this study, by giving research a definite purpose, has the advantage of excluding vague questions and calculations without a solution; There is still a means of forming the analysis itself, and of discovering the elements which it is most important for us to know, and which this science must always preserve: these fundamental elements are those which reproduce in all the natural effects."