Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/October 1904/The Mathematical Physics of the Nineteenth Century
|THE MATHEMATICAL PHYSICS OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.|
PRESIDENT OF THE MATHEMATICAL AND PHYSICAL SECTION OF THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION.
THE losses sustained by mathematical science in the past twelve months have perhaps not been so numerous as in some years, but they include at least one name of world-wide import. Those of us who were students of mathematics thirty or forty years ago will recall the delight which we felt in reading the geometrical treatises of George Salmon, and the brilliant contrast which they exhibited with most of the current text-books of that time. It was from him that many of us first learned that a great mathematical theory does not consist of a series of detached propositions carefully labeled and arranged like specimens on the shelves of a museum, but that it forms an organic whole, instinct with life, and with unlimited possibilities of future development. As systematic expositions of the actual state of the science, in which enthusiasm for what is new is tempered by a due respect for what is old, and in which new and old are brought into harmonious relation with each other, these treatises stand almost unrivaled. Whether in the originals, or in the guise of translations, they are accounted as classics in every university of the world. So far as British universities are concerned, they have formed the starting point of a whole series of works conceived in a similar spirit, though naturally not always crowned by the same success. The necessity for this kind of work grows, indeed, continually; the modern fragmentary fashion of original publication and the numerous channels through which it takes place make it difficult for any one to become initiated into a new scientific theory unless he takes it up at the very beginning and follows it diligently throughout its course, backwards and forwards, over rough ground and smooth. The classical style of memoir, after the manner of Lagrange, or Poisson, or Gauss, complete in itself and deliberately composed like a work of art, is continually becoming rarer. It is therefore more and more essential that from time to time some one should come forward to sort out and arrange the accumulated material, rejecting what has proved unimportant, and welding the rest into a connected system. There is perhaps a tendency to assume that such work is of secondary importance, and can be safely left to subordinate hands. But in reality it makes severe demands on even the highest powers; and when these have been available the result has often done more for the progress of science than the composition of a dozen monographs on isolated points. For proof one need only point to the treatises of Salmon himself, or recall (in another field) the debt which we owe to such books as the 'Treatise on Natural Philosophy' and the 'Theory of Sound,' whose authors are happily with us.
A modest but most valuable worker has passed away in the person of Professor Allman. His treatise on the history of Greek geometry, full of learning and sound mathematical perception, is written with great simplicity and an entire absence of pedantry or dogmatism. It ranks, I believe, with the best that has been done on the subject. It is to be regretted that, as an historian, he leaves so few successors among British mathematicians. We have amongst us, as a result of our system of university education, many men of trained mathematical faculty and of a scholarly turn of mind, with much of the necessary linguistic equipment, who feel, however, no special vocation for the details of recent mathematical research. Might not some of this ability be turned to a field, by no means exhausted, where the severity of mathematical truth is tempered by the human interest attaching to the lives, the vicissitudes and even the passions and the strife of its devotees, who through many errors and perplexities have contrived to keep alive and trim the sacred flame, and to hand it on burning ever clearer and brighter?
Of the various subjects which fall within the scope of this section there is no difficulty in naming that which at the present time excites the widest interest. The phenomena of radioactivity, ionization of gases, and so on, are not only startling and sensational in themselves, they have suggested most wonderful and far-reaching speculations, and, whatever be the future of these particular theories, they are bound in any case deeply to influence our views on fundamental points of chemistry and physics. No reference to this subject would, I think, be satisfactory without a word of homage to the unsurpassed patience and skill in the devising of new experimental methods to meet new and subtle conditions which it has evoked. It will be felt, as a matter of legitimate pride, by many present, that the University of Cambridge has been so conspicuously associated with this work. It would therefore have been natural and appropriate that this chair should have been occupied, this year above others, by one who could have given us a survey of the facts as they at present stand, and of their bearing, so far as can be discerned, on other and older branches of physics. Whether from the experimental or from the more theoretical and philosophical standpoint, there would have been no difficulty in finding exponents of unrivaled authority. But it has been otherwise ordered, and you and I must make the best of it. If the subject can not be further dealt with for the moment, we have the satisfaction of knowing that it will in due course engage the attention of the section, and that we may look forward to interesting and stimulating discussions, in which we trust the many distinguished foreign physicists who honor us by their presence will take an active part.
It is, I believe, not an unknown thing for your president to look up the records of previous meetings in search of inspiration, and possibly of an example. I have myself not had to look very far, for I found that when the British Association last met in Cambridge, in the year 1862, this section was presided over by Stokes, and moreover that the address which he gave was probably the shortest ever made on such an occasion, for it occupies only half a page of the report, and took, I should say, some three or four minutes to deliver. It would be to the advantage of the business of the meeting, and to my own great relief, if I had the courage to follow so attractive a precedent; but I fear that the tradition which has since established itself is too strong for me to break without presumption. I will turn, therefore, in the first instance, to a theme which, I think, naturally presents itself—viz., a consideration of the place occupied by Stokes in the development of mathematical physics. It is not proposed to attempt an examination or appreciation of his own individual achievements; this has lately been done by more than one hand, and in the most authoritative manner. But it is part of the greatness of the man that his work can be reviewed from more than one standpoint. What I specially wish to direct attention to on this occasion is the historical or evolutionary relation in which he stands to predecessors and followers in the above field.
The early years of Stokes's life were the closing years of a mighty generation of mathematicians and mathematical physicists. When he came to manhood, Lagrange, Laplace, Poisson, Fourier, Fresnel, Ampère had but recently passed away. Cauchy alone of this race of giants was still alive and productive. It is upon these men that we must look as the immediate intellectual ancestors of Stokes, for, although Gauss and F. Neumann were alive and flourishing, the interaction of German and English science was at that time not very great. It is noteworthy, however, that the development of the modern German school of mathematical physics, represented by Helmholtz and Kirchoff, in linear succession to Neumann, ran in many respects closely parallel to the work of Stokes and his followers.
When the foundations of analytical dynamics had been laid by Euler and d'Alembert, the first important application was naturally to the problems of gravitational astronomy; this formed, of course, the chief work of Laplace, Lagrange and others. Afterwards came the theoretical study of elasticity, conduction of heat, statical electricity, and magnetism. The investigations in elasticity were undertaken mainly in relation to physical optics, with the hope of finding a material medium capable of conveying transverse vibrations, and of accounting also for the various phenomena of reflection, refraction and double refraction. It has often been pointed out, as characteristic of the French school referred to, that their physical speculations were largely influenced by ideas transferred from astronomy; as, for instance, in the conception of a solid body as made up of discrete particles acting on one another at a distance with forces in the lines joining them, which formed the basis of most of their work on elasticity and optics. The difficulty of carrying out these ideas in a logical manner was enormous, and the strict course of mathematical deduction had to be replaced by more or less precarious assumptions. The detailed study of the geometry of a continuous deformable medium which was instituted by Cauchy was a first step towards liberating the theory from arbitrary and unnecessary hypothesis; but it was reserved for Green, the immediate predecessor of Stokes among English mathematicians, to carry out this process completely and independently, with the help of Lagrange's general dynamical methods, which here found their first application to questions of physics outside the ordinary dynamics of rigid bodies and fluids. The modern school of English physicists, since the time of Green and Stokes, have consistently endeavored to make out, in any given class of phenomena, how much can be recognized as a manifestation of general dynamical principles, independent of the particular mechanism which may be at work. One of the most striking examples of this was the identification by Maxwell of the laws of electromagnetism with the dynamical equations of Lagrange. It would, however, be going too far to claim this tendency as the exclusive characteristic of English physicists; for example, the elastic investigations of Green and Stokes have their parallel in the independent though later work of Kirchhoff; and the beautiful theory of dynamical systems with latent motion which we owe to Lord Kelvin stands in a very similar relation to the work of Helmholtz and Hertz.
But perhaps the most important and characteristic feature in the mathematical work of the later school is its increasing relation to and association with experiment. In the days when the chief applications of mathematics were to the problems of gravitational astronomy, the mathematician might well take his materials at second hand; and in some respects the division of labor was, and still may be, of advantage. The same thing holds in a measure of the problems of ordinary dynamics, where some practical knowledge of the subject matter is within the reach of every one. But when we pass to the more recondite phenomena of physical optics, acoustics and electricity, it hardly needs the demonstrations which have involuntarily been given to show that the theoretical treatment must tend to degenerate into the pursuit of mere academic subtleties unless it is constantly vivified by direct contact with reality. Stokes, at all events, with little guidance or encouragement from his immediate environment, made himself from the first practically acquainted with the subjects he treated. Generations of Cambridge students recall the enthusiasm which characterized his experimental demonstrations in optics. These appealed to us all; but some of us, I am afraid, under the influence of the academic ideas of the time, thought it a little unnecessary to show practically that the height of the lecture-room could be measured by the barometer, or to verify the calculated period of oscillation of water in a tank by actually timing the waves with the help of the image of a candle-flame reflected at the surface.
The practical character of the mathematical work of Stokes and his followers is shown especially in the constant effort to reduce the solution of a physical problem to a quantitative form. A conspicuous instance is furnished by the labor and skill which he devoted, from this point of view, to the theory of the Bessel's function, which presents itself so frequently in important questions of optics, electricity and acoustics, but is so refractory to ordinary methods of treatment. It is now generally accepted that an analytical solution of a physical question, however elegant it may be made to appear by means of a judicious notation, is not complete so long as the results are given merely in terms of functions defined by infinite series or definite integrals, and can not be exhibited in a numerical or graphical form. This view did not originate, of course, with Stokes; it is clearly indicated, for instance, in the works of Fourier and Poinsot, but no previous writer had, I think, acted upon it so consistently and thoroughly.
We have had so many striking examples of the fruitfulness of the combination of great mathematical and experimental powers that the question may well be raised, whether there is any longer a reason for maintaining in our minds a distinction between mathematical and experimental physics, or at all events whether these should be looked upon as separate provinces which may conveniently be assigned to different sets of laborers. It may be held that the highest physical research will demand in the future the possession of both kinds of faculty. We must be careful, however, how we erect barriers which would exclude a Lagrange on the one side or a Faraday on the other. There are many mansions in the palace of physical science, and work for various types of mind. A zealous, or over-zealous, mathematician might indeed make out something of a case if he were to contend that, after all, the greatest work of such men as Stokes, Kirchhoff and Maxwell was mathematical rather than experimental in its complexion. An argument which asks us to leave out of account such things as the investigation of fluorescence, the discovery of spectrum analysis and the measurement of the viscosity of gases, may survey of the collected works of these writers will show how much, of the very highest quality and import, would remain. However this may be, the essential point, which can not, I think, be contested, is this, that if these men had been condemned and restricted to a mere book knowledge of the subjects which they have treated with such marvelous analytical ability, the very soul of their work would have been taken away. I have ventured to dwell upon this point because, although I am myself disposed to plead for the continued recognition of mathematical physics as a fairly separate field, I feel strongly that the traditional kind of education given to our professed mathematical students does not tend to its most effectual cultivation. This education is apt to be one-sided, and too much divorced from the study of tangible things. Even the student whose tastes lie mainly in the direction of pure mathematics would profit, I think, by a wider scientific training. A long list of instances might be given to show that the most fruitful ideas in pure mathematics have been suggested by the study of physical problems. In the words of Fourier, who did so much to fulfil his own saying, "L'étude approfondie de la nature est la source la plus féconde des découvertes mathematiques. Non-seulement cette étude, en offrant aux recherches un but déterminé, a l'avantage d'exclure les questions vagues et les calculs sans issue; elle est encore un moyen assure de former l'analyse elle-même, et d'en découvrir les éléments qu'il nous importe le plus de connaître, et que cette science doit toujours conserver: ces éléments fondamentaux sont ceux qui se reproduisent dans tous les effets naturels."audacious; but a
Another characteristic of the applied mathematics of the past century is that it was, on the whole, the age of linear equations. The analytical armory fashioned by Lagrange, Poisson, Fourier and others, though subject, of course, to continual improvement and development, has served the turn of a long line of successors. The predominance of linear equations, in most of the physical subjects referred to, rests on the fact that the changes are treated as infinitely small. The electric theory of light forms at present an exception; but even here the linear character of the fundamental electrical relations is itself remarkable, and possibly significant. The theory of small oscillations, in particular, runs as a thread through a great part of the literature of the period in question. It has suggested many important analytical results, and it still gives the best and simplest intuitive foundation for a whole class of theorems which are otherwise hard to comprehend in their various relations, such as Fourier's theorem, Laplace's expansion, Bessel's functions, and the like. Moreover, the interest of the subject, whether mathematical or physical, is not yet exhausted; many important problems in optics and acoustics, for example, still await solution. The general theory has in comparatively recent times received an unexpected extension (to the case of 'latent motions') at the hands of Lord Kelvin; and Lord Rayleigh, by his continual additions to it, shows that, in his view, it is still incomplete.
When the restriction to infinitely small motions is abandoned, the problems become of course much more arduous. The whole theory, for instance, of the normal modes of vibration which is so important in acoustics, and even in music, disappears. The researches hitherto made in this direction have, moreover, encountered difficulties of a less patent character. It is conceivable that the modern analytical methods which have been developed in astronomy may have an application to these questions. It would appear that there is an opening here for the mathematician; at all events, the numerical or graphical solution of any one of the various problems that could be suggested would be of the highest interest. One problem of the kind is already classical—the theory of steep water-waves discussed by Stokes; but even here the point of view has perhaps been rather artificially restricted. The question proposed by him, the determination of the possible forms of waves of permanent type, like the problem of periodic orbits in astronomy, is very interesting mathematically, and forms a natural starting-point for investigation; but it does not exhaust what is most important for us to know in the matter. Observation may suggest the existence of such waves as a fact; but no reason has been given, so far as I know, why free water-waves should tend to assume a form consistent with permanence, or be influenced in their progress by considerations of geometrical simplicity.
I have tried to indicate the kind of continuity of subject-matter, method and spirit which runs through the work of the whole school of mathematical physicists of which Stokes may be taken as the representative. It is no less interesting, I think, to examine the points of contrast with more recent tendencies. These relate not so much to subject matter and method as to the general mental attitude towards the problems of nature. Mathematical and physical science have become markedly introspective. The investigators of the classical school, as it may perhaps be styled, were animated by a simple and vigorous faith; they sought as a matter of course for a mechanical explanation of phenomena, and had no misgivings as to the trustiness of the analytical weapons which they wielded. But now the physicist and the mathematician alike are in trouble about their souls. We have discussions on the principles of mechanics, on the foundations of geometry, on the logic of the most rudimentary arithmetical processes, as well as the more artificial operations of the calculus. These discussions are legitimate and inevitable, and have led to some results which are now widely accepted. Although they were carried on to a great extent independently, the questions involved will, I think, be found to be ultimately very closely connected. Their common nexus is, perhaps, to be traced in the physiological ideas of which Helmholtz was the most conspicuous exponent. To many minds such discussions are repellant, in that they seem to venture on the uncertain ground of philosophy. But, as a matter of fact, the current views on these subjects have been arrived at by men who have gone to work in their own way, often in entire ignorance of what philosophers have thought on such subjects. It may be maintained chiefly, indeed, that the mathematician or the physicist, as such, has no special concern with philosophy, any more than the engineer or the geographer. Nor, although this is a matter for their own judgment, would it appear that philosophers have very much to gain by a special study of the methods of mathematical or physical reasoning, since the problems with which they are concerned are presented to them in a much less artificial form in the circumstances of ordinary life. As regards the present topic I would put the matter in this way, that between mathematics and physics on the one hand and philosophy on the other there lies an undefined borderland, and that the mathematician has been engaged in setting things in order, as he is entitled to do, on his own side of the boundary.
Adopting tins point of view, it would be of interest to trace in detail the relationships of the three currents of speculation which have been referred to. At one time, indeed, I was tempted to take this as the subject of my address; but, although I still think the enterprise a possible one, I have been forced to recognize that it demands a better equipment than I can pretend to. I can only venture to put before you some of my tangled thoughts on the matter, trusting that some future occupant of this chair may be induced to take up this question and treat it in a more illuminating manner.
If we look back for a moment to the views currently entertained not so very long ago by mathematicians and physicists, we shall find, I think, that the prevalent conception of the world was that it was constructed on some sort of absolute geometrical plan, and that the changes in it proceeded according to precise laws; that, although the principles of mechanics might be imperfectly stated in our text-books, at all events such principles existed, and were ascertainable, and, when properly formulated, would possess the definiteness and precision which were held to characterize, say, the postulates of Euclid. Some writers have maintained, indeed, that the principles in question were finally laid down by Newton, and have occasionally used language which suggests that any fuller understanding of them was a mere matter of interpretation of the text. But, as Hertz has remarked, most of the great writers on dynamics betray, involuntarily, a certain malaise when explaining the principles, and hurry over this part of their task as quickly as is consistent with dignity. They are not really at their ease until, having established their equations somehow, they can proceed to build securely on these. This has led some people to the view that the laws of nature are merely a system of differential equations; it may be remarked in passing that this is very much the position in which we actually stand in some of the more recent theories of electricity. As regards dynamics, when once the critical movement had set in, it was easy to show that one presentation after another was logically defective and confused; and no satisfactory standpoint was reached until it was recognized that in the classical dynamics we do not deal immediately with real bodies at all, but with certain conventional and highly idealized representations of them, which we combine according to arbitrary rules, in the hope that if these rules be judiciously framed the varying combinations will image to us what is of most interest in some of the simpler and more important phenomena. The changed point of view is often associated with the publication of Kirchhoff's lectures on mechanics in 1876, where it is laid down in the opening sentence that the problem of mechanics is to describe the motions which occur in nature completely and in the simplest manner. This statement must not be taken too literally; at all events, a fuller, and I think a clearer, account of the province and method of abstract dynamics is given in a review of the second edition of Thomson and Tait, which was one of the last things penned by Maxwell in 1879. A 'complete' description of even the simplest natural phenomenon is an obvious impossibility; and, were it possible, it would be uninteresting as well as useless, for it would take an incalculable time to peruse. Some process of selection and idealization is inevitable if we are to gain any intelligent comprehension of events. Thus, in astronomy we replace a planet by a so-called material particle—i. e., a mathematical point associated with a suitable numerical coefficient. All the properties of the body are here ignored except those of position and mass, in which alone we are at the moment interested. The whole course of physical sciences and the language in which its results are expressed have been largely determined by the fact that the ideal images of geometry were already at hand at its service. The ideal representations have the advantage that, unlike the real objects, definite and accurate statements can be made about them. Thus two lines in a geometrical figure can be pronounced to be equal or unequal, and the statement is in either case absolute. It is no doubt hard to divest oneself entirely of the notion conveyed in the Greek phrase ὰεὶ ὀ θεὸς γεωμετρεἲ, that definite geometrical magnitudes and relations are at the back of phenomena. It is recognized indeed that all our measurements are necessarily to some degree uncertain, but this is usually attributed to our own limitations and those of our instruments rather than to the ultimate vagueness of the entity which it is sought to measure. Every one will grant, however, that the distance between two clouds, for instance, is not a definable magnitude; and the distance of the earth from the sun, and even the length of a wave of light, are in precisely the same case. The notion in question is a convenient fiction, and is a striking testimony to the ascendency which Greek mathematics have gained over our minds, but I do not think that more can be said for it. It is, at any rate, not verified by the experience of those who actually undertake physical measurements. The more refined the means employed, the more vague and elusive does the supposed magnitude become; the judgment flickers and wavers, until at last in a sort of despair some result is put down, not in the belief that it is exact, but with the feeling that it is the best we can make of the matter. A practical measurement is in fact a classification; we assign a magnitude to a certain category, which may be narrowly limited, but which has in any case a certain breadth.
By a frank process of idealization a logical system of abstract dynamics can doubtless be built up, on the lines sketched by Maxwell in the passage referred to. Such difficulties as remain are handed over to geometry. But we can not stop in this position; we are constrained to examine the nature and the origin of the conceptions of geometry itself. By many of us, I imagine, the first suggestion that these conceptions are to be traced to an empirical source was received with something of indignation and scorn; it was an outrage on the science which we had been led to look upon as divine. Most of us have, however, been forced at length to acquiesce in the view that geometry, like mechanics, is an applied science; that it gives us merely an ingenious and convenient symbolic representation of the relations of actual bodies; and that, whatever may be the a priori forms of intuition, the science as we have it could never have been developed except for the accident (if I may so term it) that we live in a world in which rigid or approximately rigid bodies are conspicuous objects. On this view the most refined geometrical demonstration can be resolved into a series of imagined experiments performed with such bodies, or rather with their conventional representations.
It is to be lamented that one of the most interesting chapters in the history of science is a blank; I mean that which would have unfolded the rise and growth of our system of ideal geometry. The finished edifice is before us, but the record of the efforts by which the various stones were fitted into their places is hopelessly lost. The few fragments of professed history which we possess were edited long after the achievement.
It is commonly reckoned that the first rude beginnings of geometry date from the Egyptians. I am inclined to think that in one sense the matter is to be placed much further back, and that the dawn of geometric ideas is to be traced among the prehistoric races who carved rough but thoroughly artistic outlines of animals on their weapons. E do not know whether the matter has attracted serious speculation, but I have myself been led to wonder how men first arrived at the notion of an outline drawing. The primitive sketches referred to immediately convey to the experienced mind the idea of a reindeer or the like; but in reality the representation is purely conventional, and is expressed in a language which has to be learned. For nothing could be more unlike the actual reindeer than the few scratches drawn on the surface of a bone; and it is of course familiar to ourselves that it is only after a time, and by an insensible process of education, that very young children come to understand the meaning of an outline. Whoever he was, the man who first projected the world into two dimensions, and proceeded to fence off that part of it which was reindeer from that which was not, was certainly under the influence of a geometrical idea, and had his feet in the path which was to culminate in the refined idealizations of the Greeks. As to the manner in which these latter were developed, the only indication of tradition is that some propositions were arrived at first in a more empirical or intuitional, and afterwards in a more intellectual way. So long as points had size, lines had breadth and surfaces thickness, there could be no question of exact relations between the various elements of a figure, any more than is the case with the realities which they represent. But the Greek mind loved definiteness, and discovered that if we agree to speak of lines as if they had no breadth, and so on, exact statements became possible. If any one scientific invention can claim preeminence over all others, I should be inclined myself to erect a monument to the inventor of the mathematical point, as the supreme type of that process of abstraction which has been a necessary condition of scientific work from the very beginning.
It is possible, however, to uphold the importance of the part which abstract geometry has played, and must still play, in the evolution of scientific conceptions, without committing ourselves to a defense, on all points, of the traditional presentment. The consistency and completeness of the usual system of definitions, axioms and postulates have often been questioned; and quite recently a more thoroughgoing analysis of the logical elements of the subject than has ever before been attempted has been made by Hilbert. The matter is a subtle one, and a general agreement on such points is as yet hardly possible. The basis for such an agreement may perhaps ultimately be found in a more explicit recognition of the empirical source of the fundamental conceptions. This would tend, at all events, to mitigate the rigor of the demands which are sometimes made for logical perfection.
Even more important in some respects are the questions which have arisen in connection with the applications of geometry to purposes of graphical representation. It is not necessary to dwell on the great assistance which this method has rendered in such subjects as physics and engineering. The pure mathematician, for his part, will freely testify to the influence which it has exercised in the development of most branches of analysis; for example, we owe to it all the leading ideas of the calculus. Modern analysts have discovered, however, that geometry may be a snare as well as a guide. In the mere act of drawing a curve to represent an analytical function we make unconsciously a host of assumptions which are difficult not merely to prove, but even to formulate precisely. It is now sought to establish the whole fabric of mathematical analysis on a strictly arithmetical basis. To those who were trained in an earlier school, the results so far are in appearance somewhat forbidding. If the shade of one of the great analysts of a century ago could revisit the glimpses of the moon, his feelings would, I think, be akin to those of the traveler to some medieval town, who finds the buildings he came to see obscured by scaffolding, and is told that the ancient monuments are all in process of repair. It is to be hoped that a good deal of this obstruction is only temporary, that most of the scaffolding will eventually be cleared away, and that the edifices when they reappear will not be entirely transformed, but will still retain something of their historic outlines. It would be contrary to the spirit of this address to undervalue in any way the critical examination and revision of principles; we must acknowledge that it tends ultimately to simplification, to the clearing up of issues, and the reconciliation of apparent contradictions. But it would be a misfortune if this process were to absorb too large a share of the attention of mathematicians, or were allowed to set too high a standard of logical completeness. In this particular matter of the 'arithmetization of mathematics' there is, I think, a danger in these respects. As regards the latter point, a traveler who refuses to pass over a bridge until he has personally tested the soundness of every part of it is not likely to go very far; something must be risked, even in mathematics. It is notorious that even in this realm of 'exact' thought discovery has often been in advance of strict logic, as in the theory of imaginaries, for example, and in the whole province of analysis of which Fourier's theorem is the type. And it might even be claimed that the services which geometry has rendered to other sciences have been almost as great in virtue of the questions which it implicitly begs as of those which it resolves.
I would venture, with some trepidation, to go one step further. Mathematicians love to build on as definite a foundation as possible, and from this point of view the notion of the integral number, on which (we are told) the mathematics of the future are to be based, is very attractive. But, as an instrument for the study of nature, is it really more fundamental than the geometrical notions which it is to supersede? The accounts of primitive peoples would seem to show that, in the generality which is a necessary condition for this purpose, it is in no less degree artificial and acquired. Moreover, does not the act of enumeration, as applied to actual things, involve the very same process of selection and idealization which we have already met with in other cases? As an illustration, suppose we were to try to count the number of drops of water in a cloud. I am not thinking of the mere practical difficulties of enumeration, or even of the more pertinent fact that it is hard to say where the cloud begins or ends. Waiving these points, it is obvious that there must be transitional stages between a more or less dense group of molecules and a drop, and in the case of some of these aggregates it would only be by an arbitrary exercise of judgment that they would be assigned to one category rather than to the other. In whatever form we meet with it, the very notion of counting involves the highly artificial conception of a number of objects which for some purposes are treated as absolutely alike, whilst yet they can be distinguished.
The net result of the preceding survey is that the systems of geometry, of mechanics and even of arithmetic, on which we base our study of nature, are all contrivances of the same general kind: they consist of series of abstractions and conventions devised to represent, or rather to symbolize, what is most interesting and most accessible to us in the world of phenomena. And the progress of science consists in a great measure in the improvement, the development and the simplification of these artificial conceptions, so that their scope may be wider and the representation more complete. The best in this kind are but shadows, but we may continually do something to amend them.
As compared with the older view, the function of physical science is seen to be much more modest than was at one time supposed. We no longer hope by levers and screws to pluck out the heart of the mystery of the universe. But there are compensations. The conception of the physical world as a mechanism, constructed on a rigid mathematical plan, whose most intimate details might possibly some day be guessed, was, I think, somewhat depressing. We have been led to recognize that the formal and mathematical element is of our own introduction; that it is merely the apparatus by which we map out our knowledge, and has no more objective reality than the circles of latitude and longitude on the sun. A distinguished writer not very long ago speculated on the possibility of the scientific mine being worked out within no distant period. Recent discoveries seem to have put back this possibility indefinitely; and the tendency of modern speculation as to the nature of scientific knowledge should be to banish it altogether. The world remains a more wonderful place than ever; we may be sure that it abounds in riches not yet dreamed of; and although we can not hope ever to explore its innermost recesses, we may be confident that it will supply tasks in abundance for the scientific mind for ages to come.
One significant result of the modern tendency is that we no longer with the same obstinacy demand a mechanical explanation of the phenomena of light and electricity, especially since it has been made clear that, if one mechanical explanation is possible, there will be an infinity of others. Some minds, indeed, reveling in their new-found freedom, have attempted to disestablish ordinary or 'vulgar' matter altogether. J may refer to a certain treatise which, by some accident, does not bear its proper title of 'Æther and no Matter,' and to the elaborate investigations of Professor Osborne Reynolds, which present the same peculiarity, although the basis is different. Speculations of this nature have, however, been so recently and (if I may say it) so brilliantly dealt with by Professor Poynting before this section that there is little excuse for dwelling further on them now. I will only advert to the question whether, as some suggest, physical science should definitely abandon the attempt to construct mechanical theories in the older sense. The question would appear to be very similar to this, whether we should abandon the use of graphical methods in analysis. In either ease we run the risk of introducing extraneous elements, possibly of a misleading character; but the gain in vividness of perception and in suggestiveness is so great that we are not likely altogether to forego it, by excess of prudence, in one case more than in the other.
We have traveled some distance from Stokes and the mathematical physics of half a century ago. May I add a few observations which might perhaps have claimed his sympathy? They are in substance anything but new, although I do not find them easy to express. We have most of us frankly adopted the empirical altitude in physical science; it has justified itself abundantly in the past, and has more and more forced itself upon us. We have given up the notion of causation, except as a convenient phrase; what were once called laws of nature are now simply rules by which we can tell more or less accurately what will be the consequences of a given state of things. We can not help asking, How is it that such rules are possible? A rule is invented in the first instance to sum up in a compact form a number of past experiences; but we apply it with little hesitation, and generally with success, to the prediction of new and sometimes strange ones. Thus the law of gravitation indicates the existence of Neptune; and Fresnel's wave-surface gives us (he quite unsuspected phenomenon of double refraction. Why does nature make a point of honoring our cheques in this manner; or, to put the matter In a more dignified form, how comes it that, in the words of Schiller,
Mit dem Genius steht die Natur im ewigen Bunde
Was der eine verspricht, leistet die andre gewiss'?
The question is as old as science, and the modern tendencies with which we have been occupied have only added point to it. II is plain that physical science has do answer; its policy indeed has been to retreat from a territory which it could not securely occupy. We are told in some quarters that it is vain to look for an answer anywhere. But the mind of man is not wholly given over to physical science, and will not be content forever to leave the question alone. It will persist in its obstinate questionings, and, however hopeless the attempt to unravel the mystery may be deemed, physical science, powerless to assist, has no right to condemn it.
I would like, in conclusion, lo read to you n characteristic passage from that address of Stokes in 1862 which has formed the starting-point of this discourse:
"In this section, more perhaps than in any other, we have frequently to deal with subjects of a very abstract character, which in many cases can be mastered only by patient study, at leisure, of what has been written. The question may not, unnaturally be asked, If investigations of this kind can best be followed by quiet study in one's own room, what is the use of bringing them forward in a sectional meeting at all? I believe that good may be done by public mention, in a meeting like the present, of even somewhat, abstract investigations; but, whether good is thus done, or the audience merely wearied to no purpose, depends upon the judiciousness of the person by whom the investigation is brought forward."
It might be urged that these remarks are as pertinent now as they were forty years ago, but I will leave them on their own weighty authority. I will not myself attempt to emphasize them, lest some of my hearers should be tempted to retort that the warning might well be home in mind, not only in the ordinary proceedings of the section, but, in the composition of a presidential address!
- "In-depth study of nature is the most fruitful source of mathematical discoveries, and not only does this study, by giving research a definite purpose, has the advantage of excluding vague questions and calculations without a solution; There is still a means of forming the analysis itself, and of discovering the elements which it is most important for us to know, and which this science must always preserve: these fundamental elements are those which reproduce in all the natural effects."
- Nature, Vol. XX., p. 213; Scientific Papers, Vol. II., p. 776.
- Applied by Herschel to the discovery of Neptune.