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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/342

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Chapter VII. The History of Mathematical Physics

The Past and the Future of Physics

WHAT is the present state of mathematical physics? What are the problems it is led to set itself? What is its future? Is its orientation about to be modified?

Ten years hence will the aim and the methods of this science appear to our immediate successors in the same light as to ourselves; or, on the contrary, are we about to witness a profound transformation? Such are the questions we are forced to raise in entering to-day upon our investigation.

If it is easy to propound them: to answer is difficult. If we felt tempted to risk a prediction, we should easily resist this temptation, by thinking of all the stupidities the most eminent savants of a hundred years ago would have uttered, if some one had asked them what the science of the nineteenth century would be. They would have thought themselves bold in their predictions, and after the event, how very timid we should have found them. Do not, therefore, expect of me any prophecy.

But if, like all prudent physicians, I shun giving a prognosis, yet I can not dispense with a little diagnostic; well, yes, there are indications of a serious crisis, as if we might expect an approaching transformation. Still, be not too anxious: we are sure the patient will not die of it, and we may even hope that this crisis will be salutary, for the history of the past seems to guarantee us this. This crisis, in fact, is not the first, and to understand it, it is important to recall those which have preceded. Pardon then a brief historical sketch.


The Physics of Central Forces

Mathematical physics, as we know, was born of celestial mechanics, which gave birth to it at the end of the eighteenth century, at the moment when it itself attained its complete development. During its first years especially the infant strikingly resembled its mother.

The astronomic universe is formed of masses, very great, no doubt, but separated by intervals so immense that they appear to us only as material points. These points attract each other inversely as the