Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/182

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

progress of observations would only have served to create belief in chaos.

The second example is equally deserving of consideration.

When Maxwell began his work, the laws of electro-dynamics admitted up to his time accounted for all the known facts. It was not a new experiment which came to invalidate them. But in looking at them under a new bias, Maxwell saw that the equations became more symmetrical when a term was added, and besides, this term was too small to produce effects appreciable with the old methods.

You know that Maxwell's a priori views awaited for twenty years an experimental confirmation; or if you prefer, Maxwell was twenty years ahead of experiment. How was this triumph obtained?

It was because Maxwell was profoundly steeped in the sense of mathematical symmetry; would he have been so, if others before him had not studied this symmetry for its own beauty?

It was because Maxwell was accustomed to 'think in vectors,' and yet it was through the theory of imaginaries (neomonics) that vectors were introduced into analysis. And those who invented imaginaries hardly suspected the advantage which would be obtained from them for the study of the real world; of this the name given them is proof sufficient.

In a word, Maxwell was perhaps not an able analyst, but this ability would have been for him only a useless and bothersome baggage. On the other hand, he had in the highest degree the intimate sense of mathematical analogies. Therefore it is that he made good mathematical physics.

Maxwell's example teaches us still another thing.

How should the equations of mathematical physics be treated? Should we simply deduce all the consequences, and regard them as intangible realities? Far from it; what they should teach us above all is what can and what should be changed. It is thus that we get from them something useful.

The third example goes to show us how we may perceive mathematical analogies between phenomena which have physically no relation either apparent or real, so that the laws of one of these phenomena aid us to divine those of the other.

The very same equation, that of Laplace, is met in the theory of Newtonian attraction, in that of the motion of liquids, in that of the electric potential, in that of magnetism, in that of the propagation of heat and in still many others. What is the result? These theories seem images copied one from the other; they are mutually illuminating, borrowing their language from each other; ask electricians if they do not felicitate themselves on having invented the phrase flow of force, suggested by hydrodynamics and the theory of heat.