Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 69.djvu/201

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

Intuition and Logic in Mathematics


It is impossible to stud}' the works of the great mathematicians, or even those of the lesser, without noticing and distinguishing two opposite tendencies, or rather two entirely different kinds of minds. The one sort are above all preoccupied with logic; to read their works, one is tempted to believe they have advanced only step by step, after the manner of a Vauban who pushes on his trenches against the place besieged, leaving nothing to chance. The other sort are guided by intuition and at the first stroke make quick but sometimes precarious conquests, like bold cavalrymen of the advance guard.

The method is not imposed by the matter treated. Though one often says of the first that they are analysts and calls the others geometers, that does not prevent the one sort from remaining analysts even when they work at geometry, while the others are still geometers even when they occupy themselves with pure analysis. It is the very nature of their mind which makes them logicians or intuitionalists, and they can not lay it aside when they approach a new subject.

Nor is it education which has developed in them one of the two tendencies and stifled the other. The mathematician is born, not made, and it seems he is born a geometer or an analyst. I should like to cite examples and there are surely plenty; but to accentuate the contrast I shall begin with an extreme example, taking the liberty of seeking it in two living mathematicians.

M. Méray wants to prove that a binomial equation always has a root, or, in ordinary words, that an angle may always be subdivided. If there is any truth that we think we know by direct intuition, it is this. Who could doubt that an angle may always be divided into any number of equal parts? M. Méray does not look at it that way; in his eyes this proposition is not at all evident and to prove it he needs several pages.

On the other hand, look at Professor Klein: he is studying one of the most abstract questions of the theory of functions to determine whether on a given Riemann surface there always exists a function admitting of given singularities. What does the celebrated German geometer do? He replaces his Riemann surface by a metallic surface whose electric conductivity varies according to certain laws. He connects two of its points with the two poles of a battery. The current, says he, must pass, and the distribution of this current on the surface will define a function whose singularities will be precisely those called for by the enunciation.

Doubtless Professor Klein well knows he has given here only a