Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/179

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



Chapter V. Analysis and Physics


YOU have doubtless often been asked of what good are mathematics and whether these delicate constructions entirely mind-made are not artificial and born of our caprice.

Among those who put this question I should make a distinction; practical people ask of us only the means of money-making. These merit no reply; rather would it be proper to ask of them what is the good of accumulating so much wealth and whether, to get time to acquire it, art and science are to be neglected, which alone should make us capable of enjoying it, 'and for life's sake to sacrifice all reasons for living.'

Besides, a science made solely in view of applications is impossible; truths are fecund only if bound together. If we devote ourselves solely to those truths whence we expect an immediate result, the intermediary links are wanting and there will no longer be a chain.

The men most disdainful of theory get from it, without suspecting it, their daily bread; deprived of this food, progress would quickly cease, and we should soon congeal into the immobility of China.

But enough of uncompromising practicians! Besides these, there are those who are only interested in nature and who ask us if we can enable them to know it better.

To answer these, we have only to show them the two monuments already rough-hewn, Celestial Mechanics and Mathematical Physics.

They would doubtless concede that these structures are well worth the trouble they have cost us. But this is not enough. Mathematics have a triple aim. They must furnish an instrument for the study of nature. But that is not all: they have a philosophic aim and, I dare maintain, an esthetic aim. They must aid the philosopher to fathom the notions of number, of space, of time. And above all their adepts find therein delights analogous to those given by painting and music. They admire the delicate harmony of numbers and forms; they marvel when a new discovery opens to them an unexpected perspective; and has not the joy they thus feel the esthetic character, even though the senses take no part therein? Only a privileged few are called to enjoy it fully, it is true, but is not this the case for all the noblest arts?