Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/185

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

main of analysis; they have entered by the same door; they have been imagined in view of applications.

The theory of partial differential equations of the second order has an analogous history. It has been developed chiefly by and for physics. But it may take many forms, because such an equation does not suffice to determine the unknown function, it is necessary to adjoin to it complementary conditions which are called conditions at the limits; whence many different problems.

If the analysts had abandoned themselves to their natural tendencies, they would never have known but one, that which Madame Kovalevski has treated in her celebrated memoir. But there are a multitude of others which they would have ignored. Each of the theories of physics, that of electricity, that of heat, presents us these equations under a new aspect. It may therefore be said that without these theories we should not know partial differential equations.

It is needless to multiply examples. I have given enough to be able to conclude: when physicists ask of us the solution of a problem, it is not a duty-service they impose upon us, it is on the contrary we who owe them thanks.


But this is not all; physics not only gives us the occasion to solve problems; it aids us to find the means thereto, and that in two ways. It makes us foresee the solution; it suggests arguments to us.

I have spoken above of Laplace's equation which is met in a multitude of diverse physical theories. It is found again in geometry, in the theory of conformal representation and in pure analysis, in that of imaginaries.

In this way, in the study of functions of complex variables, the analyst, alongside of the geometric image, which is his usual instrument, finds many physical images which he may make use of with the same success. Thanks to these images he can see at a glance what pure deduction would show him only successively. He masses thus the separate elements of the solution, and by a sort of intuition divines before being able to demonstrate.

To divine before demonstrating! Need I recall that thus have been made all the important discoveries? How many are the truths that physical analogies permit us to present and that we are not in condition to establish by rigorous reasoning!

For example, mathematical physics introduces a great number of developments in series. No one doubts that these developments converge; but the mathematical certitude is lacking. These are so many conquests assured for the investigators who shall come after us.

On the other hand, physics furnishes us not alone solutions; it furnishes us besides, in a certain measure, arguments. It will suffice