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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/518

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

be ultimately very closely connected. Their common nexus is, perhaps, to be traced in the physiological ideas of which Helmholtz was the most conspicuous exponent. To many minds such discussions are repellant, in that they seem to venture on the uncertain ground of philosophy. But, as a matter of fact, the current views on these subjects have been arrived at by men who have gone to work in their own way, often in entire ignorance of what philosophers have thought on such subjects. It may be maintained chiefly, indeed, that the mathematician or the physicist, as such, has no special concern with philosophy, any more than the engineer or the geographer. Nor, although this is a matter for their own judgment, would it appear that philosophers have very much to gain by a special study of the methods of mathematical or physical reasoning, since the problems with which they are concerned are presented to them in a much less artificial form in the circumstances of ordinary life. As regards the present topic I would put the matter in this way, that between mathematics and physics on the one hand and philosophy on the other there lies an undefined borderland, and that the mathematician has been engaged in setting things in order, as he is entitled to do, on his own side of the boundary.

Adopting tins point of view, it would be of interest to trace in detail the relationships of the three currents of speculation which have been referred to. At one time, indeed, I was tempted to take this as the subject of my address; but, although I still think the enterprise a possible one, I have been forced to recognize that it demands a better equipment than I can pretend to. I can only venture to put before you some of my tangled thoughts on the matter, trusting that some future occupant of this chair may be induced to take up this question and treat it in a more illuminating manner.

If we look back for a moment to the views currently entertained not so very long ago by mathematicians and physicists, we shall find, I think, that the prevalent conception of the world was that it was constructed on some sort of absolute geometrical plan, and that the changes in it proceeded according to precise laws; that, although the principles of mechanics might be imperfectly stated in our text-books, at all events such principles existed, and were ascertainable, and, when properly formulated, would possess the definiteness and precision which were held to characterize, say, the postulates of Euclid. Some writers have maintained, indeed, that the principles in question were finally laid down by Newton, and have occasionally used language which suggests that any fuller understanding of them was a mere matter of interpretation of the text. But, as Hertz has remarked, most of the great writers on dynamics betray, involuntarily, a certain malaise when explaining the principles, and hurry over this part of their task as quickly as is consistent with dignity. They are not really at their ease until,