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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/346

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energy and that of masses, and the equality of action and reaction, and the law of least action, which appeared, it is true, not as experimental truths, but as theorems; the enunciation of which had at the same time something more precise and less general than under their present form.

It is the mathematical physics of our fathers which has familiarized us little by little with these various principles; which has habituated us to recognize them under the different vestments in which they disguise themselves. They have been compared with the data of experience, it has been seen how it was necessary to modify their enunciation to adapt them to these data; thereby they have been extended and consolidated. Thus they came to be regarded as experimental truths; the conception of central forces became then a useless support, or rather an embarrassment, since it made the principles partake of its hypothetical character.

The frames then have not broken, because they are elastic; but they have enlarged; our fathers, who established them, did not labor in vain, and we recognize in the science of to-day the general traits of the sketch which they traced.


Chapter VIII. The Present Crisis of Mathematical Physics

The New Crisis.—Are we now about to enter upon a third period? Are we on the eve of a second crisis? These principles on which we have built all, are they about to crumble away in their turn? This has been for some time a pertinent question.

When I speak thus, you no doubt think of radium, that grand revolutionist of the present time, and in fact I shall come back to it presently; but there is something else. It is not alone the conservation of energy which is in question; all the other principles are equally in danger, as we shall see in passing them successively in review.

Carnot's Principle.—Let us commence with the principle of Carnot. This is the only one which does not present itself as an immediate consequence of the hypothesis of central forces; more than that, it seems, if not to directly contradict that hypothesis, at least not to be reconciled with it without a certain effort. If physical phenomena were due exclusively to the movements of atoms whose mutual attraction depended only on the distance, it seems that all these phenomena should be reversible; if all the initial velocities were reversed, these atoms, always subjected to the same forces, ought to go over their trajectories in the contrary sense, just as the earth would describe in the retrograde sense this same elliptic orbit which it describes in the direct sense, if the initial conditions of its motion had been reversed. On this account, if a physical phenomenon is possible,