The Principles of Mathematical Physics
|The Principles of Mathematical Physics (1904)
by , translated by George Bruce Halsted
Original French version: Poincaré, Henri (1904), “L'état actuel et l'avenir de la physique mathématique”, Bulletin des sciences mathématiques 28 (2): 302-324|
English translation in: The Foundations of Science (The Value of Science), 1913, New York: Science Press, Chap. 7-9, pp. 297-320, Online
Another translation: The Principles of Mathematical Physics, Congress of arts and science, universal exposition, St. Louis 1904, (1905), vol. 1, pp. 604-622, Online
Another translation: The present and the future of mathematical physics , Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 12 (1906), 240-260. Translated with the author's permission by Professor J. W. Young. Republished in Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 37 (2000), 25-38. Online
Lecture delivered on September 24, 1904.
- 1 The History of Mathematical Physics
- 2 The Present Crisis of Mathematical Physics
- 3 The Future of Mathematical Physics
The History of Mathematical Physics
The Past and the Future of Physics.
What is the present state of mathematical physics? What are the problems it is led to set itself? What is its future? Is its orientation about to be modified?
Ten years hence will the aim and the methods of this science appear to our immediate successors in the same light as to ourselves; or, on the contrary, are we about to witness a profound transformation? Such are the questions we are forced to raise in entering to-day upon our investigation.
If it is easy to propound them: to answer is difficult. If we felt tempted to risk a prediction, we should easily resist this temptation, by thinking of all the stupidities the most eminent savants of a hundred years ago would have uttered, if some one had asked them what the science of the nineteenth century would be. They would have thought themselves bold in their predictions, and after the event, how very timid we should have found them. Do not, therefore, expect of me any prophecy.
But if, like all prudent physicians, I shun giving a prognosis, yet I can not dispense with a little diagnostic; well, yes, there are indications of a serious crisis, as if we might expect an approaching transformation. Still, be not too anxious: we are sure the patient will not die of it, and we may even hope that this crisis will be salutary, for the history of the past seems to guarantee us this. This crisis, in fact, is not the first, and to understand it, it is important to recall those which have preceded. Pardon then a brief historical sketch.
The Physics of Central Forces.
Mathematical physics, as we know, was born of celestial mechanics, which gave birth to it at the end of the eighteenth century, at the moment when it itself attained its complete development. During its first years especially, the infant strikingly resembled its mother.
The astronomic universe is formed of masses, very great, no doubt, but separated by intervals so immense that they appear to us only as material points. These points attract each other inversely as the square of the distance, and this attraction is the sole force which influences their movements. But if our senses were sufficiently keen to show us all the details of the bodies which the physicist studies, the spectacle thus disclosed would scarcely differ from the one the astronomer contemplates. There also we should see material points, separated from one another by intervals, enormous in comparison with their dimensions, and describing orbits according to regular laws. These infinitesimal stars are the atoms. Like the stars proper, they attract or repel each other, and this attraction or this repulsion, following the straight line which joins them, depends only on the distance. The law according to which this force varies as function of the distance is perhaps not the law of Newton, but it is an analogous law; in place of the exponent —2, we have probably a different exponent, and it is from this change of exponent that arises all the diversity of physical phenomena, the variety of qualities and of sensations, all the world, colored and sonorous, which surrounds us; in a word, all nature.
Such is the primitive conception in all its purity. It only remains to seek in the different cases what value should be given to this exponent in order to explain all the facts. It is on this model that Laplace, for example, constructed his beautiful theory of capillarity; he regards it only as a particular case of attraction, or, as he says, of universal gravitation, and no one is astonished to find it in the middle of one of the five volumes of the 'Mécanique céleste.' More recently Briot believes he penetrated the final secret of optics in demonstrating that the atoms of ether attract each other in the inverse ratio of the sixth power of the distance; and Maxwell himself, does he not say somewhere that the atoms of gases repel each other in the inverse ratio of the fifth power of the distance? We have the exponent —6, or —5, in place of the exponent —2, but it is always an exponent.
Among the theories of this epoch, one alone is an exception, that of Fourier; in it are indeed atoms acting at a distance one upon the other; they mutually transmit heat, but they do not attract, they never budge. From this point of view, Fourier's theory must have appeared to the eyes of his contemporaries, to those of Fourier himself, as imperfect and provisional.
This conception was not without grandeur; it was seductive, and many among us have not finally renounced it; they know that one will attain the ultimate elements of things only by patiently disentangling the complicated skein that our senses give us; that it is necessary to advance step by step, neglecting no intermediary; that our fathers were wrong in wishing to skip stations; but they believe that when one shall have arrived at these ultimate elements, there again will be found the majestic simplicity of celestial mechanics.
Neither has this conception been useless; it has rendered us an inestimable service, since it has contributed to make precise the fundamental notion of the physical law.
I will explain myself; how did the ancients understand law? It was for them an internal harmony, static, so to say, and immutable; or else it was like a model that nature tried to imitate. For us a law is something quite different; it is a constant relation between the phenomenon of to-day and that of to-morrow; in a word, it is a differential equation.
Behold the ideal form of physical law; well, it is Newton's law which first clothed it forth. If then one has acclimated this form in physics, it is precisely by copying as far as possible this law of Newton, that is by imitating celestial mechanics. This is, moreover, the idea I have tried to bring out in Chapter VI.
The Physics of the Principles.
Nevertheless, a day arrived when the conception of central forces no longer appeared sufficient, and this is the first of those crises of which I just now spoke.
What was done then? The attempt to penetrate into the detail of the structure of the universe, to isolate the pieces of this vast mechanism, to analyze one by one the forces which put them in motion, was abandoned, and we were content to take as guides certain general principles the express object of which is to spare us this minute study. How so? Suppose we have before us any machine; the initial wheel work and the final wheel work alone are visible, but the transmission, the intermediary machinery by which the movement is communicated from one to the other, is hidden in the interior and escapes our view; we do not know whether the communication is made by gearing or by belts, by connecting-rods or by other contrivances. Do we say that it is impossible for us to understand anything about this machine so long as we are not permitted to take it to pieces? You know well we do not, and that the principle of the conservation of energy suffices to determine for us the most interesting point. We easily ascertain that the final wheel turns ten times less quickly than the initial wheel, since these two wheels are visible; we are able thence to conclude that a couple applied to the one will be balanced by a couple ten times greater applied to the other. For that there is no need to penetrate the mechanism of this equilibrium and to know how the forces compensate each other in the interior of the machine; it suffices to be assured that this compensation can not fail to occur.
Well, in regard to the universe, the principle of the conservation of energy is able to render us the same service. The universe is also a machine, much more complicated than all those of industry, of which almost all the parts are profoundly hidden from us; but in observing the motion of those that we can see, we are able, by the aid of this principle, to draw conclusions which remain true whatever may be the details of the invisible mechanism which animates them.
The principle of the conservation of energy, or Mayer's principle, is certainly the most important, but it is not the only one; there are others from which we can derive the same advantage. These are:
Carnot's principle, or the principle of the degradation of energy.
Newton's principle, or the principle of the equality of action and reaction.
The principle of relativity, according to which the laws of physical phenomena must be the same for a stationary observer as for an observer carried along in a uniform motion of translation; so that we have not and can not have any means of discerning whether or not we are carried along in such a motion.
The principle of the conservation of mass, or Lavoisier's principle.
I will add the principle of least action.
The application of these five or six general principles to the different physical phenomena is sufficient for our learning of them all that we could reasonably hope to know of them. The most remarkable example of this new mathematical physics is, beyond question, Maxwell's electromagnetic theory of light.
We know nothing as to what the ether is, how its molecules are disposed, whether they attract or repel each other; but we know that this medium transmits at the same time the optical perturbations and the electrical perturbations; we know that this transmission must take place in conformity with the general principles of mechanics, and that suffices us for the establishment of the equations of the electromagnetic field.
These principles are results of experiments boldly generalized; but they seem to derive from their very generality a high degree of certainty. In fact, the more general they are, the more frequent are the opportunities to check them, and the verifications multiplying, taking the most varied, the most unexpected forms, end by no longer leaving place for doubt.
Utility of the Old Physics.
Such is the second phase of the history of mathematical physics and we have not yet emerged from it. Shall we say that the first has been useless? that during fifty years science went the wrong way, and that there is nothing left but to forget so many accumulated efforts that a vicious conception condemned in advance to failure? Not the least in the world. Do you think the second phase could have come into existence without the first? The hypothesis of central forces contained all the principles; it involved them as necessary consequences; it involved both the conservation of energy and that of masses, and the equality of action and reaction, and the law of least action, which appeared, it is true, not as experimental truths, but as theorems; the enunciation of which had at the same time something more precise and less general than under their present form.
It is the mathematical physics of our fathers which has familiarized us little by little with these various principles; which has habituated us to recognize them under the different vestments in which they disguise themselves. They have been compared with the data of experience, it has been seen how it was necessary to modify their enunciation to adapt them to these data; thereby they have been extended and consolidated. Thus they came to be regarded as experimental truths; the conception of central forces became then a useless, support, or rather an embarrassment, since it made the principles partake of its hypothetical character.The frames then have not broken, because they are elastic; but they have enlarged; our fathers, who established them, did not labor in vain, and we recognize in the science of to-day the general traits of the sketch which they traced.
The Present Crisis of Mathematical Physics
The New Crisis.
Are we now about to enter upon a third period? Are we on the eve of a second crisis? These principles on which we have built all, are they about to crumble away in their turn? This has been for some time a pertinent question.
When I speak thus, you no doubt think of radium, that grand revolutionist of the present time, and in fact I shall come back to it presently; but there is something else. It is not alone the conservation of energy which is in question; all the other principles are equally in danger, as we shall see in passing them successively in review.
Carnot's Principle. — Let us commence with the principle of Carnot. This is the only one which does not present itself as an immediate consequence of the hypothesis of central forces; more than that, it seems, if not to directly contradict that hypothesis, at least not to be reconciled with it without a certain effort. If physical phenomena were due exclusively to the movements of atoms whose mutual attraction depended only on the distance, it seems that all these phenomena should be reversible; if all the initial velocities were reversed, these atoms, always subjected to the same forces, ought to go over their trajectories in the contrary sense, just as the earth would describe in the retrograde sense this same elliptic orbit which it describes in the direct sense, if the initial conditions of its motion had been reversed. On this account, if a physical phenomenon is possible, the inverse phenomenon should be equally so, and one should be able to reascend the course of time. Now, it is not so in nature, and this is precisely what the principle of Carnot teaches us; heat can pass from the warm body to the cold body; it is impossible afterward to make it take the inverse route and to reestablish differences of temperature which have been effaced. Motion can be wholly dissipated and transformed into heat by friction; the contrary transformation can never be made except partially.
We have striven to reconcile this apparent contradiction. If the world tends toward uniformity, this is not because its ultimate parts, at first unlike, tend to become less and less different; it is because, shifting at random, they end by blending. For an eye which should distinguish all the elements, the variety would remain always as great; each grain of this dust preserves its originality and does not model itself on its neighbors; but as the blend becomes more and more intimate, our gross senses perceive only the uniformity. This is why for example, temperatures tend to a level, without the possibility of going backwards.
A drop of wine falls into a glass of water; whatever may be the law of the internal motion of the liquid, we shall soon see it colored of a uniform rosy tint, and however much from this moment one may shake it afterwards, the wine and the water do not seem capable of again separating. Here we have the type of the irreversible physical phenomenon: to hide a grain of barley in a heap of wheat, this is easy; afterwards to find it again and get it out, this is practically impossible. All this Maxwell and Boltzmann have explained; but the one who has seen it most clearly, in a book too little read because it is a little difficult to read, is Gibbs, in his 'Elementary Principles of Statistical Mechanics.'
For those who take this point of view, Carnot's principle is only an imperfect principle, a sort of concession to the infirmity of our senses; it is because our eyes are too gross that we do not distinguish the elements of the blend; it is because our hands are too gross that we can not force them to separate; the imaginary demon of Maxwell, who is able to sort the molecules one by one, could well constrain the world to return backward. Can it return of itself? That is not impossible; that is only infinitely improbable. The chances are that we should wait a long time for the concourse of circumstances which would permit a retrogradation; but sooner or later they will occur, after years whose number it would take millions of figures to write. These reservations, however, all remained theoretic; they were not very disquieting, and Carnot's principle retained all its practical value. But here the scene changes. The biologist, armed with his microscope, long ago noticed in his preparations irregular movements of little particles in suspension; this is the Brownian movement. He first thought this was a vital phenomenon, but soon he saw that the inanimate bodies danced with no less ardor than the others; then he turned the matter over to the physicists. Unhappily, the physicists remained long uninterested in this question; one concentrates the light to illuminate the microscopic preparation, thought they; with light goes heat; thence inequalities of temperature and in the liquid interior currents which produce the movements referred to. It occurred to M. Gouy to look more closely, and he saw, or thought he saw, that this explanation is untenable, that the movements become brisker as the particles are smaller, but that they are not influenced by the mode of illumination. If then these movements never cease, or rather are reborn without cease, without borrowing anything from an external source of energy, what ought we to believe? To be sure, we should not on this account renounce our belief in the conservation of energy, but we see under our eyes now motion transformed into heat by friction, now inversely heat changed into motion, and that without loss since the movement lasts forever. This is the contrary of Carnot's principle. If this be so, to see the world return backward, we no longer have need of the infinitely keen eye of Maxwell's demon; our microscope suffices. Bodies too large, those, for example, which are a tenth of a millimeter, are hit from all sides by moving atoms, but they do not budge, because these shocks are very numerous and the law of chance makes them compensate each other; but the smaller particles receive too few shocks for this compensation to take place with certainty and are incessantly knocked about. And behold already one of our principles in peril.
The Principle of Relativity.
Let us pass to the principle of relativity: this not only is confirmed by daily experience, not only is it a necessary consequence of the hypothesis of central forces, but it is irresistibly imposed upon our good sense, and yet it also is assailed. Consider two electrified bodies; though they seem to us at rest, they are both carried along by the motion of the earth; an electric charge in motion, Rowland has taught us, is equivalent to a current; these two charged bodies are, therefore, equivalent to two parallel currents of the same sense and these two currents should attract each other. In measuring this attraction, we shall measure the velocity of the earth; not its velocity in relation to the sun or the fixed stars, but its absolute velocity.
I well know what will be said: It is not its absolute velocity that is measured, it is its velocity in relation to the ether. How unsatisfactory that is! Is it not evident that from the principle so understood we could no longer infer anything? It could no longer tell us anything just because it would no longer fear any contradiction. If we succeed in measuring anything, we shall always be free to say that this is not the absolute velocity, and if it is not the velocity in relation to the ether, it might always be the velocity in relation to some new unknown fluid with which we might fill space.
Indeed, experiment has taken upon itself to ruin this interpretation of the principle of relativity; all attempts to measure the velocity of the earth in relation to the ether have led to negative results. This time experimental physics has been more faithful to the principle than mathematical physics; the theorists, to put in accord their other general views, would not have spared it; but experiment has been stubborn in confirming it. The means have been varied; finally Michelson pushed precision to its last limits; nothing came of it. It is precisely to explain this obstinacy that the mathematicians are forced to-day to employ all their ingenuity.
Their task was not easy, and if Lorentz has got through it, it is only by accumulating hypotheses.
The most ingenious idea was that of local time. Imagine two observers who wish to adjust their timepieces by optical signals; they exchange signals, but as they know that the transmission of light is not instantaneous, they are careful to cross them. When station B perceives the signal from station A, its clock should not mark the same hour as that of station A at the moment of sending the signal, but this hour augmented by a constant representing the duration of the transmission. Suppose, for example, that station A sends its signal when its clock marks the hour 0, and that station B perceives it when its clock marks the hour t. The clocks are adjusted if the slowness equal to t represents the duration of the transmission, and to verify it, station B sends in its turn a signal when its clock marks 0; then station A should perceive it when its clock marks t. The timepieces are then adjusted.
And in fact they mark the same hour at the same physical instant, but on the one condition, that the two stations are fixed. Otherwise the duration of the transmission will not be the same in the two senses, since the station A, for example, moves forward to meet the optical perturbation emanating from B, whereas the station B flees before the perturbation emanating from A. The watches adjusted in that way will not mark, therefore, the true time; they will mark what may be called the local time, so that one of them will be slow of the other. It matters little, since we have no means of perceiving it. All the phenomena which happen at A, for example, will be late, but all will be equally so, and the observer will not perceive it, since his watch is slow; so, as the principle of relativity requires, he will have no means of knowing whether he is at rest or in absolute motion.
Unhappily, that does not suffice, and complementary hypotheses are necessary; it is necessary to admit that bodies in motion undergo a uniform contraction in the sense of the motion. One of the diameters of the earth, for example, is shrunk by one two-hundred-millionth in consequence of our planet's motion, while the other diameter retains its normal length. Thus the last little differences are compensated. And then, there is still the hypothesis about forces. Forces, whatever be their origin, gravity as well as elasticity, would be reduced in a certain proportion in a world animated by a uniform translation; or, rather, this would happen for the components perpendicular to the translation; the components parallel would not change. Resume, then, our example of two electrified bodies; these bodies repel each other, but at the same time if all is carried along in a uniform translation, they are equivalent to two parallel currents of the same sense which attract each other. This electrodynamic attraction diminishes, therefore, the electrostatic repulsion, and the total repulsion is feebler than if the two bodies were at rest. But since to measure this repulsion we must balance it by another force, and all these other forces are reduced in the same proportion, we perceive nothing. Thus all seems arranged, but are all the doubts dissipated? What would happen if one could communicate by non-luminous signals whose velocity of propagation differed from that of light? If, after having adjusted the watches by the optical procedure, we wished to verify the adjustment by the aid of these new signals, we should observe discrepancies which would render evident the common translation of the two stations. And are such signals inconceivable, if we admit with Laplace that universal gravitation is transmitted a million times more rapidly than light?
Thus, the principle of relativity has been valiantly defended in these latter times, but the very energy of the defense proves how serious was the attack.
Let us speak now of the principle of Newton, on the equality of action and reaction. This is intimately bound up with the preceding, and it seems indeed that the fall of the one would involve that of the other. Thus we must not be astonished to find here the same difficulties.
Electrical phenomena, according to the theory of Lorentz, are due to the displacements of little charged particles, called electrons, immersed in the medium we call ether. The movements of these electrons produce perturbations in the neighboring ether; these perturbations propagate themselves in every direction with the velocity of light, and in turn other electrons, originally at rest, are made to vibrate when the perturbation reaches the parts of the ether which touch them. The electrons, therefore, act on one another, but this action is not direct, it is accomplished through the ether as intermediary. Under these conditions can there be compensation between action and reaction, at least for an observer who should take account only of the movements of matter, that is, of the electrons, and who should be ignorant of those of the ether that he could not see? Evidently not. Even if the compensation should be exact, it could not be simultaneous. The perturbation is propagated with a finite velocity; it, therefore, reaches the second electron only when the first has long ago entered upon its rest. This second electron, therefore, will undergo, after a delay, the action of the first, but will certainly not at that moment react upon it, since around this first electron nothing any longer budges.
The analysis of the facts permits us to be still more precise. Imagine, for example, a Hertzian oscillator, like those used in wireless telegraphy; it sends out energy in every direction; but we can provide it with a parabolic mirror, as Hertz did with his smallest oscillators, so as to send all the energy produced in a single direction. What happens then according to the theory? The apparatus recoils, as if it were a cannon and the projected energy a ball; and that is contrary to the principle of Newton, since our projectile here has no mass, it is not matter, it is energy. The case is still the same, moreover, with a beacon light provided with a reflector, since light is nothing but a perturbation of the electromagnetic field. This beacon light should recoil as if the light it sends out were a projectile. What is the force that should produce this recoil? It is what is called the Maxwell-Bartholi pressure. It is very minute, and it has been difficult to put it in evidence even with the most sensitive radiometers; but it suffices that it exists.
If all the energy issuing from our oscillator falls on a receiver, this will act as if it had received a mechanical shock, which will represent in a sense the compensation of the oscillator's recoil; the reaction will be equal to the action, but it will not be simultaneous; the receiver will move on, but not at the moment when the oscillator recoils. If the energy propagates itself indefinitely without encountering a receiver, the compensation will never occur.
Shall we say that the space which separates the oscillator from the receiver and which the perturbation must pass over in going from the one to the other is not void, that it is full not only of ether, but of air, or even in the interplanetary spaces of some fluid subtile but still ponderable; that this matter undergoes the shock like the receiver at the moment when the energy reaches it, and recoils in its turn when the perturbation quits it! That would save Newton's principle, but that is not true. If energy in its diffusion remained always attached to some material substratum, then matter in motion would carry along light with it, and Fizeau has demonstrated that it does nothing of the sort, at least for air. Michelson and Morley have since confirmed this. It might be supposed also that the movements of matter proper are exactly compensated by those of the ether; but that would lead us to the same reflections as before now. The principle so understood will explain everything, since, whatever might be the visible movements, we always could imagine hypothetical movements which compensate them. But if it is able to explain everything, this is because it does not enable us to foresee anything; it does not enable us to decide between the different possible hypotheses, since it explains everything beforehand. It therefore becomes useless.
And then the suppositions that it would be necessary to make on the movements of the ether are not very satisfactory. If the electric charges double, it would be natural to imagine that the velocities of the diverse atoms of ether double also; but, for the compensation, it would be necessary that the mean velocity of the ether quadruple.
This is why I have long thought that these consequences of theory, contrary to Newton's principle, would end some day by being abandoned, and yet the recent experiments on the movements of the electrons issuing from radium seem rather to confirm them.
I arrive at the principle of Lavoisier on the conservation of mass. Certainly, this is one not to be touched without unsettling all mechanics. And now certain persons think that it seems true to us only because in mechanics merely moderate velocities are considered, but that it would cease to be true for bodies animated by velocities comparable to that of light. Now these velocities are believed at present to have been realized; the cathode rays and those of radium may be formed of very minute particles or of electrons which are displaced with velocities smaller no doubt than that of light, but which might be its one tenth or one third.
These rays can be deflected, whether by an electric field, or by a magnetic field, and we are able, by comparing these deflections, to measure at the same time the velocity of the electrons and their mass (or rather the relation of their mass to their charge). But when it was seen that these velocities approached that of light, it was decided that a correction was necessary. These molecules, being electrified, can not be displaced without agitating the ether; to put them in motion it is necessary to overcome a double inertia, that of the molecule itself and that of the ether. The total or apparent mass that one measures is composed, therefore, of two parts: the real or mechanical mass of the molecule and the electrodynamic mass representing the inertia of the ether.
The calculations of Abraham and the experiments of Kaufmann have then shown that the mechanical mass, properly so called, is null, and that the mass of the electrons, or, at least, of the negative electrons, is of exclusively electrodynamic origin. This is what forces us to change the definition of mass; we can not any longer distinguish mechanical mass and electrodynamic mass, since then the first would vanish; there is no mass other than electrodynamic inertia. But in this case the mass can no longer be constant; it augments with the velocity, and it even depends on the direction, and a body animated by a notable velocity will not oppose the same inertia to the forces which tend to deflect it from its route, as to those which tend to accelerate or to retard its progress.
There is still a resource; the ultimate elements of bodies are electrons, some charged negatively, the others charged positively. The negative electrons have no mass, this is understood; but the positive electrons, from the little we know of them, seem much greater. Perhaps they have, besides their electrodynamic mass, a true mechanical mass. The real mass of a body would, then, be the sum of the mechanical masses of its positive electrons, the negative electrons not counting; mass so defined might still be constant.
Alas! this resource also evades us. Recall what we have said of the principle of relativity and of the efforts made to save it. And it is not merely a principle which it is a question of saving, it is the indubitable results of the experiments of Michelson.
Well, as was above seen, Lorentz, to account for these results, was obliged to suppose that all forces, whatever their origin, were reduced in the same proportion in a medium animated by a uniform translation; this is not sufficient; it is not enough that this take place for the real forces, it must also be the same for the forces of inertia; it is therefore necessary, he says, that the masses of all the particles be influenced by a translation to the same degree as the electromagnetic masses of the electrons.
So the mechanical masses must vary in accordance with the same laws as the electrodynamic masses; they can not, therefore, be constant.
Need I point out that the fall of Lavoisier's principle involves that of Newton's? This latter signifies that the center of gravity of an isolated system moves in a straight line; but if there is no longer a constant mass, there is no longer a center of gravity, we no longer know even what this is. This is why I said above that the experiments on the cathode rays appeared to justify the doubts of Lorentz concerning Newton's principle.
From all these results, if they were confirmed, would arise an entirely new mechanics, which would be, above all, characterized by this fact, that no velocity could surpass that of light, (1 Because bodies would oppose an increasing inertia to the causes which would tend to accelerate their motion; and this inertia would become infinite when one approached the velocity of light.) any more than any temperature can fall below absolute zero.
No more for an observer, carried along himself in a translation he does not suspect, could any apparent velocity surpass that of light; and this would be then a contradiction, if we did not recall that this observer would not use the same clocks as a fixed observer, but, indeed, clocks marking 'local time.'
Here we are then facing a question I content myself with stating. If there is no longer any mass, what becomes of Newton's law? Mass has two aspects: it is at the same time a coefficient of inertia and an attracting mass entering as factor into Newtonian attraction. If the coefficient of inertia is not constant, can the attracting mass be? That is the question.
At least, the principle of the conservation of energy yet remained to us, and this seemed more solid. Shall I recall to you how it was in its turn thrown into discredit? This event has made more noise than the preceding, and it is in all the memoirs. From the first works of Becquerel, and, above all, when the Curies had discovered radium, it was seen that every radioactive body was an inexhaustible source of radiation. Its activity seemed to subsist without alteration throughout the months and the years. This was in itself a strain on the principles; these radiations were in fact energy, and from the same morsel of radium this issued and forever issued. But these quantities of energy were too slight to be measured; at least that was the belief and we were not much disquieted.
The scene changed when Curie bethought himself to put radium in a calorimeter; it was then seen that the quantity of heat incessantly created was very notable.
The explanations proposed were numerous; but in such case we can not say, the more the better. In so far as no one of them has prevailed over the others, we can not be sure there is a good one among them. Since some time, however, one of these explanations seems to be getting the upper hand and we may reasonably hope that we hold the key to the mystery.
Sir W. Ramsay has striven to show that radium is in process of transformation, that it contains a store of energy enormous but not inexhaustible. The transformation of radium then would produce a million times more heat than all known transformations; radium would wear itself out in 1,250 years; this is quite short, and you see that we are at least certain to have this point settled some hundreds of years from now. While waiting, our doubts remain.
The Future of Mathematical Physics
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 Role 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.
It is a question before all of endeavoring to obtain a more satisfactory theory of the electrodynamics of bodies in motion. It is there especially, as I have sufficiently shown above, that difficulties accumulate. It is useless to heap up hypotheses, we can not satisfy all the principles at once; so far, one has succeeded in safeguarding some only on condition of sacrificing the others; but all hope of obtaining better results is not yet lost. Let us take, then, the theory of Lorentz, turn it in all senses, modify it little by little, and perhaps everything will arrange itself.
Thus in place of supposing that bodies in motion undergo a contraction in the sense of the motion, and that this contraction is the same whatever be the nature of these bodies and the forces to which they are otherwise subjected, could we not make a more simple and natural hypothesis? We might imagine, for example, that it is the ether which is modified when it is in relative motion in reference to the material medium which penetrates it, that, when it is thus modified, it no longer transmits perturbations with the same velocity in every direction. It might transmit more rapidly those which are propagated parallel to the motion of the medium, whether in the same sense or in the opposite sense, and less rapidly those which are propagated perpendicularly. The wave surfaces would no longer be spheres, but ellipsoids, and we could dispense with that extraordinary contraction of all bodies.
I cite this only as an example, since the modifications that might be essayed would be evidently susceptible of infinite variation.
Aberration and Astronomy.
It is possible also that astronomy may some day furnish us data on this point; she it was in the main who raised the question in making us acquainted with the phenomenon of the aberration of light. If we make crudely the theory of aberration, we reach a very curious result The apparent positions of the stars differ from their real positions because of the earth's motion, and as this motion is variable, these apparent positions vary. The real position we can not ascertain, but we can observe the variations of the apparent position. The observations of the aberration show us, therefore, not the earth's motion, but the variations of this motion; they can not, therefore, give us information about the absolute motion of the earth.
At least this is true in first approximation, but the case would be no longer the same if we could appreciate the thousandths of a second. Then it would be seen that the amplitude of the oscillation depends not alone on the variation of the motion, a variation which is well known, since it is the motion of our globe on its elliptic orbit, but on the mean value of this motion, so that the constant of aberration would not be quite the same for all the stars, and the differences would tell us the absolute motion of the earth in space.
This, then, would be, under another form, the ruin of the principle of relativity. We are far, it is true, from appreciating the thousandth of a second, but, after all, say some, the earth's total absolute velocity is perhaps much greater than its relative velocity with respect to the sun. If, for example, it were 300 kilometers per second in place of 30, this would suffice to make the phenomenon observable.
I believe that in reasoning thus one admits a too simple theory of aberration. Michelson has shown us, I have told you, that physical procedures are powerless to put in evidence absolute motion; I am persuaded that the same will be true of the astronomic procedures, however far precision be carried.
However that may be, the data astronomy will furnish us in this regard will some day be precious to the physicist. Meanwhile, I believe that the theorists, recalling the experience of Michelson, may anticipate a negative result, and that they would accomplish a useful work in constructing a theory of aberration which would explain this in advance.
Electrons and Spectra.
This dynamics of electrons can be approached from many sides, but among the ways leading thither is one which has been somewhat neglected, and yet this is one of those which promise us the most surprises. It is movements of electrons which produce the lines of the emission spectra; this is proved by the Zeeman effect; in an incandescent body what vibrates is sensitive to the magnet, therefore electrified. This is a very important first point, but no one has gone farther. Why are the lines of the spectrum distributed in accordance with a regular law? These laws have been studied by the experimenters in their least details; they are very precise and comparatively simple. A first study of these distributions recalls the harmonics encountered in acoustics; but the difference is great. Not only are the numbers of vibrations not the successive multiples of a single number, but we do not even find anything analogous to the roots of those transcendental equations to which we are led by so many problems of mathematical physics: that of the vibrations of an elastic body of any form, that of the Hertzian oscillations in a generator of any form, the problem of Fourier for the cooling of a solid body.
The laws are simpler, but they are of wholly other nature, and to cite only one of these differences, for the harmonics of high order, the number of vibrations tends toward a finite limit, instead of increasing indefinitely.
That has not yet been accounted for, and I believe that there we have one of the most important secrets of nature. A Japanese physicist, M. Nagaoka, has recently proposed an explanation; according to him, atoms are composed of a large positive electron surrounded by a ring formed of a great number of very small negative electrons. Such is the planet Saturn with its rings. This is a very interesting attempt, but not yet wholly satisfactory; this attempt should be renewed. We will penetrate, so to speak, into the inmost recess of matter. And from the particular point of view which we to-day occupy, when we know why the vibrations of incandescent bodies differ thus from ordinary elastic vibrations, why the electrons do not behave like the matter which is familiar to us, we shall better comprehend the dynamics of electrons and it will be perhaps more easy for us to reconcile it with the principles.
Conventions Preceding Experiment.
Suppose, now, that all these efforts fail, and, after all, I do not believe they will, what must be done? Will it be necessary to seek to mend the broken principles by giving what we French call a coup de pouce? That evidently is always possible, and I retract nothing of what I have said above.
Have you not written, you might say if you wished to seek a quarrel with me — have you not written that the principles, though of experimental origin, are now unassailable by experiment because they have become conventions? And now you have just told us that the most recent conquests of experiment put these principles in danger.
Well, formerly I was right and to-day I am not wrong. Formerly I was right, and what is now happening is a new proof of it. Take, for example, the calorimetric experiment of Curie on radium. Is it possible to reconcile it with the principle of the conservation of energy? This has been attempted in many ways. But there is among them one I should like you to notice; this is not the explanation which tends to-day to prevail, but it is one of those which have been proposed. It has been conjectured that radium was only an intermediary, that it only stored radiations of unknown nature which flashed through space in every direction, traversing all bodies, save radium, without being altered by this passage and without exercising any action upon them. Radium alone took from them a little of their energy and afterward gave it out to us in various forms.
What an advantageous explanation, and how convenient! First, it is unverifiable and thus irrefutable. Then again it will serve to account for any derogation whatever to Mayer's principle; it answers in advance not only the objection of Curie, but all the objections that future experimenters might accumulate. This new and unknown energy would serve for everything.
This is just what I said, and therewith we are shown that our principle is unassailable by experiment.
But then, what have we gained by this stroke? The principle is intact, but thenceforth of what use is it? It enabled us to foresee that in such or such circumstance we could count on such a total quantity of energy; it limited us; but now that this indefinite provision of new energy is placed at our disposal, we are no longer limited by anything; and, as I have written in 'Science and Hypothesis,' if a principle ceases to be fecund, experiment without contradicting it directly will nevertheless have condemned it.
Future Mathematical Physics.
This, therefore, is not what would have to be done; it would be necessary to rebuild anew. If we were reduced to this necessity, we could moreover console ourselves. It would not be necessary thence to conclude that science can weave only a Penelope's web, that it can raise only ephemeral structures, which it is soon forced to demolish from top to bottom with its own hands.
As I have said, we have already passed through a like crisis. I have shown you that in the second mathematical physics, that of the principles, we find traces of the first, that of central forces; it will be just the same if we must know a third. Just so with the animal that exuviates, that breaks its too narrow carapace and makes itself a fresh one; under the new envelope one will recognize the essential traits of the organism which have persisted.
We can not foresee in what way we are about to expand; perhaps it is the kinetic theory of gases which is about to undergo development and serve as model to the others. Then the facts which first appeared to us as simple thereafter would be merely resultants of a very great number of elementary facts which only the laws of chance would make cooperate for a common end. Physical law would then assume an entirely new aspect; it would no longer be solely a differential equation, it would take the character of a statistical law.
Perhaps, too, we shall have to construct an entirely new mechanics that we only succeed in catching a glimpse of, where, inertia increasing with the velocity, the velocity of light would become an impassable limit. The ordinary mechanics, more simple, would remain a first approximation, since it would be true for velocities not too great, so that the old dynamics would still be found under the new. We should not have to regret having believed in the principles, and even, since velocities too great for the old formulas would always be only exceptional, the surest way in practise would be still to act as if we continued to believe in them. They are so useful, it would be necessary to keep a place for them. To determine to exclude them altogether would be to deprive oneself of a precious weapon. I hasten to say in conclusion that we are not yet there, and as yet nothing proves that the principles will not come forth from out the fray victorious and intact. (1 These considerations on mathematical physics are borrowed from my St. Louis address.)
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