Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/511

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
507
MATHEMATICAL PHYSICS.
THE MATHEMATICAL PHYSICS OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
By Professor HORACE LAMB, LL.D., D.Sc, F.R.S.,
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