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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/521

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517
MATHEMATICAL PHYSICS.

metric ideas is to be traced among the prehistoric races who carved rough but thoroughly artistic outlines of animals on their weapons. E do not know whether the matter has attracted serious speculation, but I have myself been led to wonder how men first arrived at the notion of an outline drawing. The primitive sketches referred to immediately convey to the experienced mind the idea of a reindeer or the like; but in reality the representation is purely conventional, and is expressed in a language which has to be learned. For nothing could be more unlike the actual reindeer than the few scratches drawn on the surface of a bone; and it is of course familiar to ourselves that it is only after a time, and by an insensible process of education, that very young children come to understand the meaning of an outline. Whoever he was, the man who first projected the world into two dimensions, and proceeded to fence off that part of it which was reindeer from that which was not, was certainly under the influence of a geometrical idea, and had his feet in the path which was to culminate in the refined idealizations of the Greeks. As to the manner in which these latter were developed, the only indication of tradition is that some propositions were arrived at first in a more empirical or intuitional, and afterwards in a more intellectual way. So long as points had size, lines had breadth and surfaces thickness, there could be no question of exact relations between the various elements of a figure, any more than is the case with the realities which they represent. But the Greek mind loved definiteness, and discovered that if we agree to speak of lines as if they had no breadth, and so on, exact statements became possible. If any one scientific invention can claim preeminence over all others, I should be inclined myself to erect a monument to the inventor of the mathematical point, as the supreme type of that process of abstraction which has been a necessary condition of scientific work from the very beginning.

It is possible, however, to uphold the importance of the part which abstract geometry has played, and must still play, in the evolution of scientific conceptions, without committing ourselves to a defense, on all points, of the traditional presentment. The consistency and completeness of the usual system of definitions, axioms and postulates have often been questioned; and quite recently a more thoroughgoing analysis of the logical elements of the subject than has ever before been attempted has been made by Hilbert. The matter is a subtle one, and a general agreement on such points is as yet hardly possible. The basis for such an agreement may perhaps ultimately be found in a more explicit recognition of the empirical source of the fundamental conceptions. This would tend, at all events, to mitigate the rigor of the demands which are sometimes made for logical perfection.

Even more important in some respects are the questions which have