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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/343

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square of the distance, and this attraction is the sole force which influences their movements. But if our senses were sufficiently keen to show us all the details of the bodies which the physicist studies, the spectacle thus disclosed would scarcely differ from the one the astronomer contemplates. There also we should see material points, separated from one another by intervals, enormous in comparison with their dimensions, and describing orbits according to regular laws. These infinitesimal stars are the atoms. Like the stars proper, they attract or repel each other, and this attraction or this repulsion following the straight line which joins them, depends only on the distance. The law according to which this force varies as function of the distance is perhaps not the law of Newton, but it is an analogous law; in place of the exponent 2, we have probably a different exponent, and it is from this change of exponent that arises all the diversity of physical phenomena, the variety of qualities and of sensations, all the world, colored and sonorous, which surrounds us; in a word, all nature.

Such is the primitive conception in all its purity. It only remains to seek in the different cases what value should be given to this exponent in order to explain all the facts. It is on this model that Laplace, for example, constructed his beautiful theory of capillarity; he regards it only as a particular case of attraction, or, as he says, of universal gravitation, and no one is astonished to find it in the middle of one of the five volumes of the 'Mécanique céleste.' More recently Briot believes he penetrated the final secret of optics in demonstrating that the atoms of ether attract each other in the inverse ratio of the sixth power of the distance; and Maxwell, Maxwell himself, does he not say somewhere that the atoms of gases repel each other in the inverse ratio of the fifth power of the distance? We have the exponent 6, or 5, in place of the exponent 2, but it is always an exponent.

Among the theories of this epoch, one alone is an exception, that of Fourier; in it are indeed atoms acting at a distance one upon the other; they mutually transmit heat, but they do not attract, they never budge. From this point of view, Fourier's theory must have appeared to the eyes of his contemporaries, to those of Fourier himself, as imperfect and provisional.

This conception was not without grandeur; it was seductive, and many among us have not finally renounced it; they know that one will attain the ultimate elements of things only by patiently disentangling the complicated skein that our senses give us; that it is necessary to advance step by step, neglecting no intermediary; that our fathers were wrong in wishing to skip stations; but they believe that when one shall have arrived at these ultimate elements, there again will be found the majestic simplicity of celestial mechanics.