Address to the Mathematical and Physical Sections of the British Association.
[From the _British Association Report_, Vol. XL.]
The student who wishes to master any particular science must make himself familiar with the various kinds of quantities which belong to that science. When he understands all the relations between these quantities, he regards them as forming a connected system, and he classes the whole system of quantities together as belonging to that particular science. This classification is the most natural from a physical point of view, and it is generally the first in order of time.
But when the student has become acquainted with several different sciences, he finds that the mathematical processes and trains of reasoning in one science resemble those in another so much that his knowledge of the one science may be made a most useful help in the study of the other.
When he examines into the reason of this, he finds that in the two sciences he has been dealing with systems of quantities, in which the mathematical forms of the relations of the quantities are the same in both systems, though the physical nature of the quantities may be utterly different.
He is thus led to recognize a classification of quantities on a new principle, according to which the physical nature of the quantity is subordinated to its mathematical form. This is the point of view which is characteristic of the mathematician; but it stands second to the physical aspect in order of time, because the human mind, in order to conceive of different kinds of quantities, must have them presented to it by nature.
I do not here refer to the fact that all quantities, as such, are subject to the rules of arithmetic and algebra, and are therefore capable of being submitted to those dry calculations which represent, to so many minds, their only idea of mathematics.
The human mind is seldom satisfied, and is certainly never exercising its highest functions, when it is doing the work of a calculating machine. What the man of science, whether he is a mathematician or a physical inquirer, aims at is, to acquire and develope clear ideas of the things he deals with. For this purpose he is willing to enter on long calculations, and to be for a season a calculating machine, if he can only at last make his ideas clearer.
But if he finds that clear ideas are not to be obtained by means of processes the steps of which he is sure to forget before he has reached the conclusion, it is much better that he should turn to another method, and try to understand the subject by means of
well-chosen illustrations derived from subjects with which he is more familiar.
We all know how much more popular the illustrative method of exposition is found, than that in which bare processes of reasoning and calculation form the principal subject of discourse.
Now a truly scientific illustration is a method to enable the mind to grasp some conception or law in one branch of science, by placing before it a conception or a law in a different branch of science, and directing the mind to lay hold of that mathematical form which is common to the corresponding ideas in the two sciences, leaving out of account for the present the difference between the physical nature of the real phenomena.
The correctness of such an illustration depends on whether the two systems of ideas which are compared together are really analogous in form, or whether, in other words, the corresponding physical quantities really belong to the same mathematical class. When this condition is fulfilled, the illustration is not only convenient for teaching science in a pleasant and easy manner, but the recognition of the formal analogy between the two systems of ideas leads to a knowledge of both, more profound than could be obtained by studying each system separately.
There are men who, when any relation or law, however complex, is put before them in a symbolical form, can grasp its full meaning as a relation among abstract quantities. Such men sometimes treat with indifference the further statement that quantities actually exist in nature which fulfil this relation. The mental image of the concrete reality seems rather to disturb than to assist their contemplations. But the great majority of mankind are utterly unable, without long training, to retain in their minds the unembodied symbols of the pure mathematician, so that, if science is ever to become popular, and yet remain scientific, it must be by a profound study and a copious application of those principles of the mathematical classification of quantities which, as we have seen, lie at the root of every truly scientific illustration.
There are, as I have said, some minds which can go on contemplating with satisfaction pure quantities presented to the eye by symbols, and to the mind in a form which none but mathematicians can conceive.
There are others who feel more enjoyment in following geometrical forms, which they draw on paper, or build up in the empty space before them.
Others, again, are not content unless they can project their whole physical energies into the scene which they conjure up. They learn at what a rate the planets rush through space, and they experience a delightful feeling of exhilaration. They calculate the forces with which the heavenly bodies pull at one another, and they feel their own muscles straining with the effort.
To such men momentum, energy, mass are not mere abstract expressions of the results of scientific inquiry. They are words of power, which stir their souls like the memories of childhood.
For the sake of persons of these different types, scientific truth should be presented in different forms, and should be regarded as equally scientific whether it appears in the robust form and the vivid colouring of a physical illustration, or in the tenuity and paleness of a symbolical expression.
Time would fail me if I were to attempt to illustrate by examples the scientific value of the classification of quantities. I shall only mention the name of that important class of magnitudes having direction in space which Hamilton has called vectors, and which form the subject-matter of the Calculus of Quaternions, a branch of mathematics which, when it shall have been thoroughly understood by men of the illustrative type, and clothed by them with physical imagery, will become, perhaps under some new name, a most powerful method of communicating truly scientific knowledge to persons apparently devoid of the calculating spirit.
The mutual action and reaction between the different departments of human thought is so interesting to the student of scientific progress, that, at the risk of still further encroaching on the valuable time of the Section, I shall say a few words on a branch of physics which not very long ago would have been considered rather a branch of metaphysics. I mean the atomic theory, or, as it is now called, the molecular theory of the constitution of bodies.
Not many years ago if we had been asked in what regions of physical science the advance of discovery was least apparent, we should have pointed to the hopelessly distant fixed stars on the one hand, and to the inscrutable delicacy of the texture of material bodies on the other.
Indeed, if we are to regard Comte as in any degree representing the scientific opinion of his time, the research into what takes place beyond our own solar system seemed then to be exceedingly unpromising, if not altogether illusory.
The opinion that the bodies which we see and handle, which we can set in motion or leave at rest, which we can break in pieces and destroy, are composed of smaller bodies which we cannot see or handle, which are always in motion, and which can neither be stopped nor broken in pieces, nor in any way destroyed or deprived of the least of their properties, was known by the name of the Atomic theory. It was associated with the names of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, and was commonly supposed to admit the existence only of atoms and void, to the exclusion of any other basis of things from the universe.
In many physical reasonings and mathematical calculations we are accustomed to argue as if such substances as air, water, or metal, which appear to our senses uniform and continuous, were strictly and mathematically uniform and continuous.
We know that we can divide a pint of water into many millions of portions, each of which is as fully endowed with all the properties of water as the whole pint was; and it seems only natural to conclude that we might go on subdividing the water for ever, just as we can never come to a limit in subdividing the space in which it is contained. We have heard how Faraday divided a grain of gold into an inconceivable number of separate particles, and we may see Dr Tyndall
produce from a mere suspicion of nitrite of butyle an immense cloud, the minute visible portion of which is still cloud, and therefore must contain many molecules of nitrite of butyle.
But evidence from different and independent sources is now crowding in upon us which compels us to admit that if we could push the process of subdivision still further we should come to a limit, because each portion would then contain only one molecule, an individual body, one and indivisible, unalterable by any power in nature.
Even in our ordinary experiments on very finely divided matter we find that the substance is beginning to lose the properties which it exhibits when in a large mass, and that effects depending on the individual action of molecules are beginning to become prominent.
The study of these phenomena is at present the path which leads to the development of molecular science.
Physical research is continually revealing to us new features of natural processes, and we are thus compelled to search for new forms of thought appropriate to these features. Hence the importance of a careful study of those relations between mathematics and Physics which determine the conditions under which the ideas derived from one department of physics may be safely used in forming ideas to be employed in a new department.
The figure of speech or of thought by which we transfer the language and ideas of a familiar science to one with which we are less acquainted may be called Scientific Metaphor.
Thus the words Velocity, Momentum, Force, &c. have acquired certain precise meanings in Elementary Dynamics. They are also employed in the Dynamics of a Connected System in a sense which, though perfectly analogous to the elementary sense, is wider and more general.
These generalized forms of elementary ideas may be called metaphorical terms in the sense in which every abstract term is metaphorical. The characteristic of a truly scientific system of metaphors is that each term in its metaphorical use retains all the formal relations to the other terms of the system which it had in its original use. The method is then truly scientific--that is, not only a legitimate product of science, but capable of generating science in its turn.
There are certain electrical phenomena, again, which are connected together by relations of the same form as those which connect dynamical phenomena. To apply to these the phrases of dynamics with proper distinctions and provisional reservations is an example of a metaphor of a bolder kind; but it is a legitimate metaphor if it conveys a true idea of the electrical relations to those who have been already trained in dynamics.
Suppose, then, that we have successfully introduced certain ideas belonging to an elementary science by applying them metaphorically to some new class of phenomena. It becomes an important philosophical question to determine in what degree the applicability of the old ideas to the new subject may be taken as evidence that the new phenomena are physically similar to the old.
The best instances for the determination of this question are those in which two different explanations have been given of the same thing.
The most celebrated case of this kind is that of the corpuscular and the undulatory theories of light. Up to a certain point the phenomena of light are equally well explained by both; beyond this point, one of them fails.
To understand the true relation of these theories in that part of the field where they seem equally applicable we must look at them in the light which Hamilton has thrown upon them by his discovery that to every brachistochrone problem there corresponds a problem of free motion, involving different velocities and times, but resulting in the same geometrical path. Professor Tait has written a very interesting paper on this subject.
According to a theory of electricity which is making great progress in Germany, two electrical particles act on one another directly at a distance, but with a force which, according to Weber, depends on their relative velocity, and according to a theory hinted at by Gauss, and developed by Riemann, Lorenz, and Neumann, acts not instantaneously, but after a time depending on the distance. The power with which this theory, in the hands of these eminent men, explains every kind of electrical phenomena must be studied in order to be appreciated.
Another theory of electricity, which I prefer, denies action at a distance and attributes electric action to tensions and pressures in an all-pervading medium, these stresses being the same in kind with those familiar to engineers, and the medium being identical with that in which light is supposed to be propagated.
Both these theories are found to explain not only the phenomena by the aid of which they were originally constructed, but other phenomena, which were not thought of or perhaps not known at the time; and both have independently arrived at the same numerical result, which gives the absolute velocity of light in terms of electrical quantities.
That theories apparently so fundamentally opposed should have so large a field of truth common to both is a fact the philosophical importance of which we cannot fully appreciate till we have reached a scientific altitude from which the true relation between hypotheses so different can be seen.
I shall only make one more remark on the relation between Mathematics and Physics. In themselves, one is an operation of the mind, the other is a dance of molecules. The molecules have laws of their own, some of which we select as most intelligible to us and most amenable to our calculation. We form a theory from these partial data, and we ascribe any deviation of the actual phenomena from this theory to disturbing causes. At the same time we confess that what we call disturbing causes are simply those parts of the true circumstances
which we do not know or have neglected, and we endeavour in future to take account of them. We thus acknowledge that the so-called disturbance is a mere figment of the mind, not a fact of nature, and that in natural action there is no disturbance.
But this is not the only way in which the harmony of the material with the mental operation may be disturbed. The mind of the mathematician is subject to many disturbing causes, such as fatigue, loss of memory, and hasty conclusions; and it is found that, from these and other causes, mathematicians make mistakes.
I am not prepared to deny that, to some mind of a higher order than ours, each of these errors might be traced to the regular operation of the laws of actual thinking; in fact we ourselves often do detect, not only errors of calculation, but the causes of these errors. This, however, by no means alters our conviction that they are errors, and that one process of thought is right and another process wrong. I
One of the most profound mathematicians and thinkers of our time, the late George Boole, when reflecting on the precise and almost mathematical character of the laws of right thinking as compared with the exceedingly perplexing though perhaps equally determinate laws of actual and fallible thinking, was led to another of those points of view from which Science seems to look out into a region beyond her own domain.
"We must admit," he says, "that there exist laws" (of thought) "which even the rigour of their mathematical forms does not preserve from violation. We must ascribe to them an authority, the essence of which does not consist in power, a supremacy which the analogy of the inviolable order of the natural world in no way assists us to comprehend."