Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 69.djvu/402

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398
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

THE VALUE OF SCIENCE
By M. H. POINCARÉ

MEMBER OF THE INSTITUTE OF FRANCE

Chapter III. The Notion of Space

1. Introduction

IN the articles I have heretofore devoted to space I have above all emphasized the problems raised by non-Euclidean geometry, while leaving almost completely aside other questions more difficult of approach, such as those which pertain to the number of dimensions. All the geometries I considered had thus a common basis, that tri-dimensional continuum which was the same for all and which differentiated itself only by the figures one drew in it or when one aspired to measure it.

In this continuum, primitively amorphous, we may imagine a network of lines and surfaces, we may then convene to regard the meshes of this net as equal to one another, and it is only after this convention that this continuum, become measurable, becomes Euclidean or non-Euclidean space. From this amorphous continuum can therefore arise indifferently one or the other of the two spaces, just as on a blank sheet of paper may be traced indifferently a straight or a circle.

In space we know rectilinear triangles the sum of whose angles is equal to two right angles; but equally we know curvilinear triangles the sum of whose angles is less than two right angles. The existence of the one sort is not more doubtful than that of the other. To give the name of straights to the sides of the first is to adopt Euclidean geometry; to give the name of straights to the sides of the latter is to adopt the non-Euclidean geometry. So that to ask what geometry it is proper to adopt is to ask, to what line is it proper to give the name straight?

It is evident that experiment can not settle such a question; one would not ask, for instance, experiment to decide whether I should call AB or CD a straight. On the other hand, neither can I say that I have not the right to give the name of straights to the sides of non-Euclidean triangles because they are not in conformity with the eternal idea of straight which I have by intuition. I grant, indeed, that I have the intuitive idea of the side of the Euclidean triangle, but I have