Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/327

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
323
PHYSICS

PHYSICS[1]
By Professor ERNEST FOX NICHOLS

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

IN the upbuilding of all the great and diverse departments of thought, characteristic methods have arisen which the human reason has found best suited to the pursuit of the many phases of truth which it seeks. In the perfection of methods and resourcefulness in applying them, no age has been more fertile than our own. Yet one ever present danger to the orderly and symmetrical development of modern thought, is that those working in different fields for its advancement may lose touch with one another, and the interchange of methods and results so essential to balanced growth be neglected.

If in such a course of lectures as this, each lecturer coming from a neighboring or distant field succeeds in showing the nature of the evidence he has been taught to consider, his methods of weighing it and some of his results, the university will be the gainer in increased knowledge, in broadened sympathies and in a deeper realization of the wholeness of truth.

It is doubtful if our understanding of the unity of external nature can ever be illuminated by the lamp of any one of the natural sciences. The division of nature into separate departments of study has been an intellectual necessity caused by the greatness of the task.

The easiest cleavage would separate the animate from the inanimate, the biological from the physical sciences. This cleft, the first to form, will be the last to close; for to define the precise relations of life to matter is now one of the most intricate and difficult problems in the whole range of human endeavor. Who will fundamentally answer the question, how does a seed become a tree?

The phenomena of inanimate matter are involved and complicated in the extreme, but those of living matter are even harder to understand. The outward or objective manifestations of life are of a material or physical character, and the purpose of the biologist is to apply to them the principles of physics and chemistry as far as these will carry him, and in many directions they have already carried him far. When, however, we consider the subjective phenomena of life, or consciousness, the question seems to me a metaphysical one and we are without assurance that physics and chemistry can lead us beyond the boundaries

  1. A lecture delivered at Columbia University in the series on science, philosophy and art, as the opening lecture in the natural science group, October 23, 1907.