Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/505

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501
THE NEW THEORY OF MATTER.

kind. But if the dust beneath our feet be indeed compounded of innumerable systems, whose elements are ever in the most rapid motion, yet retain through uncounted ages their equilibrium unshaken, we can hardly deny that the marvels we directly see are not more worthy of admiration than those which recent discoveries have enabled us dimly to surmise.

Now whether the main outlines of the world-picture which I have just imperfectly presented to you be destined to survive, or whether in their turn they are to be obliterated by some new drawing on the scientific palimpsest, all will, I think, admit that so bold an attempt to unify physical nature excites feelings of the most acute intellectual gratification. The satisfaction it gives is almost esthetic in its intensity and quality. We feel the same sort of pleasurable shock as when from the crest of some melancholy pass we first see far below us the sudden glories of plain, river and mountain. Whether this vehement sentiment in favor of a simple universe has any theoretical justification, I will not venture to pronounce. There is no a priori reason that I know of for expecting that the material world should be a modification of a single medium, rather than a composite structure built out of sixty or seventy elementary substances, eternal and eternally different. Why, then, should we feel content with, the first hypothesis and not with the second? Yet so it is. Men of science have always been restive under the multiplication of entities. They have eagerly noted any sign that the chemical atom was composite, and that the different chemical elements had a common origin. Nor for my part do I think such instincts should be ignored. John Mill, if I rightly remember, was contemptuous of those who saw any difficulty in accepting the doctrine of 'action at a distance.' So far as observation and experiment can tell us, bodies do actually influence each other at a distance; and why* should they not? Why seek to go behind experience in obedience to some a priori sentiment for which no argument can be adduced? So reasoned Mill, and to his reasoning I have no reply. Nevertheless, we can not forget that it is to Faraday's obstinate disbelief in 'action at a distance,' that we owe some of the crucial discoveries on which both our electric industries and the electric theory of matter are ultimately founded. While at this very moment physicists, however baffled in the quest for an explanation of gravity, refuse altogether to content themselves with the belief, so satisfying to Mill, that it is a simple and inexplicable property of masses acting on each other across space.

These obscure intimations about the nature of reality deserve, I think, more attention than has yet been given to them. That they exist is certain; that they modify the indifferent impartiality of pure empiricism can hardly be denied. The common notion that he who