Neither has this conception been useless; it has rendered us an inestimable service, since it has contributed to make precise the fundamental notion of the physical law.
I will explain myself; how did the ancients understand law? It was for them an internal harmony, static, so to say, and immutable; or else it was like a model that nature tried to imitate. For us a law is something quite different; it is a constant relation between the phenomenon of to-day and that of to-morrow; in a word, it is a differential equation.
Behold the ideal form of physical law; well, it is Newton's law which first clothed it forth. If then one has acclimated this form in physics, it is precisely by copying as far as possible this law of Newton, that is by imitating celestial mechanics. This is, moreover, the idea I have tried to bring out in chapter VI.
The Physics of the Principles
Nevertheless, a day arrived when the conception of central forces no longer appeared sufficient, and this is the first of those crises of which I just now spoke.
What was done then? The attempt to penetrate into the detail of the structure of the universe, to isolate the pieces of this vast mechanism, to analyze one by one the forces which put them in motion, was abandoned, and we were content to take as guides certain general principles the express object of which is to spare us this minute study. How so? Suppose we have before us any machine; the initial wheel work and the final wheel work alone are visible, but the transmission, the intermediary machinery by which the movement is communicated from one to the other, are hidden in the interior and escape our view; we do not know whether the communication is made by gearing or by belts, by connecting-rods or by other contrivances. Do we say that it is impossible for us to understand anything about this machine so long as we are not permitted to take it to pieces? You know well we do not, and that the principle of the conservation of energy suffices to determine for us the most interesting point. We easily ascertain that the final wheel turns ten times less quickly than the initial wheel, since these two wheels are visible; we are able thence to conclude that a couple applied to the one will be balanced by a couple ten times greater applied to the other. For that there is no need to penetrate the mechanism of this equilibrium and to know how the forces compensate each other in the interior of the machine; it suffices to be assured that this compensation can not fail to occur.
Well, in regard to the universe, the principle of the conservation of energy is able to render us the same service. The universe is also a machine, much more complicated than all those of industry, of which