Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/328

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
324
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

of it. Indeed, just where physics and chemistry leave off, I feel a real and deeper problem begins. If so, the question lies at present beyond the reach of natural science which biologist and physicist alike interpret as the science of matter and energy.

In what follows I shall try to review very briefly the principal ideas upon which modern physics rests and shall say something about where we think we have arrived in our search for knowledge. I need scarcely remind you that in the natural sciences as in more practical affairs, how we have arrived is as important as where we have arrived. I shall therefore spend some time in presenting detached fragments of the experimental evidence and inferences upon which certain conclusions are based, hoping in this way to illustrate some of the constructive methods of reasoning employed in research.

The ideas which underlie all our thinking are space, time and inertia or mass. With space and time as a background, the physicist must pursue inertia and everything related to it, along every conceivable path. In this pursuit he comes upon four ultimate though related conceptions: matter, ether, electricity and energy.

The historical development of these conceptions can not even be sketched in such a "lecture as this, but it should be remembered an important part of our present knowledge of matter, and nearly all that we know of the ether and electricity has been gained not immediately, but by inference. In so many cases we see or know directly only the first and last link of a chain of events and must search by indirect means for the mechanism lying between.

At bottom, I suppose, the ether, electricity, force, energy, molecule, atom, electron, are but the symbols of our groping thoughts, created by an inborn necessity of the human mind which strives to make all things reasonable. In thus reasoning from things seen and tangible, to things unseen and intangible, the resources of mathematical analysis are applied to the mental images of the investigator, images often suggested to him by his knowledge of the behavior of material bodies. This process leads first to a working hypothesis, which is then tested in all its conceivable consequences, and any phenomena not already known which it requires for its fulfilment, are sought in the laboratory. By this slow advance a working hypothesis which has satisfied all the demands put upon it gradually becomes a theory which steadily gains in authority as more and more new lines of evidence converge upon it and confirm it.

If we now consider more closely the nature of the conceptions, matter, ether, electricity and energy, we shall later find that matter, ether and electricity possess some attributes in common, and if we take careful heed to what we shall understand by the word, we may call them substances. Energy appears as the measure of their possible interactions.