|THE VALUE OF SCIENCE|
Chapter IX. The Future of Mathematical Physics
MEMBER OF THE INSTITUTE OF FRANCE
The Principles and Experiment.—In the midst of so much ruin, what remains standing? The principle of least action is hitherto intact, and Larmor appears to believe that it will long survive the others; in reality, it is still more vague and more general.
In presence of this general collapse of the principles, what attitude will mathematical physics take? And first, before too much excitement, it is proper to ask if all that is really true. All these derogations to the principles are encountered only among infinitesimals; the microscope is necessary to see the Brownian movement; electrons are very light; radium is very rare, and one never has more than some milligrams of it at a time. And, then, it may be asked whether, besides the infinitesimal seen, there was not another infinitesimal unseen counterpoise to the first.
So there is an interlocutory question, and, as it seems, only experiment can solve it. We shall, therefore, only have to hand over the matter to the experimenters, and, while waiting for them to finally decide the debate, not to preoccupy ourselves with these disquieting problems, and to tranquilly continue our work as if the principles were still uncontested. Certes, we have much to do without leaving the domain where they may be applied in all security; we have enough to employ our activity during this period of doubts.
The Rôle of the Analyst.—And as to these doubts, is it indeed true that we can do nothing to disembarrass science of them? It must indeed be said, it is not alone experimental physics that has given birth to them; mathematical physics has well contributed. It is the experimenters who have seen radium throw out energy, but it is the theorists who have put in evidence all the difficulties raised by the propagation of light across a medium in motion; but for these it is probable we should not have become conscious of them. Well, then, if they have done their best to put us into this embarrassment, it is proper also that they help us to get out of it.
They must subject to critical examination all these new views I have just outlined before you, and abandon the principles only after having made a loyal effort to save them. What can they do in this sense? That is what I will try to explain.