Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/181

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
177
THE VALUE OF SCIENCE

ately. Experiment is individual, the law deduced from it is general; experiment is only approximate, the law is precise, or at least pretends to be. Experiment is made under conditions always complex, the enunciation of the law eliminates these complications. This is what is called 'correcting the systematic errors.'

In a word, to get the law from experiment, it is necessary to generalize; this is a necessity imposed upon the most circumspect observer. But how generalize? Every particular truth may evidently be extended in an infinity of ways. Among these thousand routes opening before us, it is necessary to make a choice, at least provisional; in this choice, what shall guide us?

It can only be analogy. But how vague is this word! Primitive man knew only crude analogies, those which strike the senses, those of colors or of sounds. He never would have dreamt of likening light to radiant heat.

What has taught us to know the true, profound analogies, those the eyes do not see but reason divines?

It is the mathematical spirit, which disdains matter to cling only to pure form. This it is which has taught us to give the same name to things differing only in material, to call by the same name, for instance, the multiplication of quaternions and that of whole numbers.

If quaternions, of which I have just spoken, had not been so promptly utilized by the English physicists, many persons would doubtless see in them only a useless fancy, and yet, in teaching us to liken what appearances separate, they would have already rendered us more apt to penetrate the secrets of nature.

Such are the services the physicist should expect of analysis; but for this science to be able to render them, it must be cultivated in the broadest fashion without immediate expectation of utility—the mathematician must have worked as artist.

What we ask of him is to help us to see, to discern our way in the labyrinth which opens before us. Now, he sees best who stands highest. Examples abound, and I limit myself to the most striking.

The first will show us how to change the language suffices to reveal generalizations not before suspected.

When Newton's law has been substituted for Kepler's, we still know only elliptic motion. Now, in so far as concerns this motion, the two laws differ only in form; we pass from one to the other by a simple differentiation. And yet from Newton's law may be deduced by an immediate generalization all the effects of perturbations and the whole of celestial mechanics. If, on the other hand, Kepler's enunciation had been retained, no one would ever have regarded the orbits of the perturbed plants, those complicated curves of which no one has ever written the equation, as the natural generalizations of the ellipse. The