Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/113

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101
AIMS, ETC., OF SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT.

between exactness and universality. It is found that the deviation, if it exists, must be nearly proportional to the area of the triangle. So that the error in the case of a triangle whose sides are a mile long would be obtained by dividing that in the case I have just been considering by four hundred quadrillions; the result must be a quantity inconceivably small, which no experiment could detect. But between this inconceivably small error and no error at all, there is fixed an enormous gulf—the gulf between practical and theoretical exactness, and what is even more important, the gulf between what is practically universal and what is theoretically universal. I say that a law is practically universal which is more exact than experiment for all cases that might be got at by such experiment as we have. We assume this kind of universality, and we find that it pays us to assume it. But a law would be theoretically universal if it were true of all cases whatever; and this is what we do not know of any law at all.

I said there were two ways in which a law might be inexact. There is a law of gases which asserts that when you compress a perfect gas the pressure of the gas increases exactly in the proportion in which the volume diminishes. Exactly; that is to say, the law is more accurate than the experiment, and experiments are corrected by means of the law. But it so happens that this law has been explained; we know precisely what it is that happens when a gas is compressed. We know that a gas consists of a vast number of separate molecules, rushing about in all directions with all manner of velocities, but so that the mean velocity of the molecules of air in this room, for example, is about twenty miles a minute. The pressure of the gas on any surface with which it is in contact is nothing more than the impact of these small particles upon it. On any surface large enough to be seen there are millions of these impacts in a second. If the space in which the gas is confined be diminished, the average rate at which the impacts take place will be increased in the same proportion; and, because of the enormous number of them, the actual rate is always exceedingly close to the average. But the law is one of statistics; its accuracy depends on the enormous numbers involved; and so, from the nature of the case, its exactness cannot be theoretical or absolute.

Nearly all the laws of gases have received these statistical explanations; electric and magnetic attraction and repulsion have been treated in a similar manner; and an hypothesis of this sort has been suggested even for the law of gravity. On the other hand, the manner in which the molecules of a gas interfere with each other proves that they repel one another inversely as the fifth power of the distance; so that we here find, at the basis of a statistical explanation, a law which has the form of theoretical exactness. Which of these forms is to win? It seems to me, again, that we do not know, and that the recognition of our ignorance is the surest way to get rid of it.

The world, in general, has made just the remark that I have attrib-