Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 74.djvu/194

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190
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

use of any particular organ, and has familiarized us with the wonderful achievements of nature brought about by sustained and continued effort along some definite direction. Both the physical and the psychic conditions of the observer require their highest and healthiest development to insure not only the best results with the ever-increasing accuracy or precision required by the steady advance of knowledge, but also to bring about that round-or broad-mindedness needed for the proper interpretation of the results observed.

 

The Mathematical Instruments of Research.

A good-sized chapter might be written on the "Mathematical Instruments or Tools of Research." The predominating tendency of resolving or expressing every natural phenomenon—periodic or otherwise—by a Bessel or a Fourier series or by spherical harmonic functions has brought about at times, especially in geophysical and cosmical phenomena, if not direct misapplications, at least misinterpretations of the meaning and value of the coefficients derived. Like a certain class of "naturalists," we also may have laid ourselves open to the approbrious term of "nature-fakir," and instead of clarifying the situation our calculations may have actually contributed instead to "befog" it.

Frequently by the purely mathematical process there have been eliminated, in the attempt to represent a more or less irregularly occurring natural phenomenon by a smoothly flowing function, the very things of chief and permanent interest. The normal or average diurnal temperature curve, for example, or a uniform magnetic distribution over land, so as to yield perfectly regular lines of equal magnetic declination, never occurs in nature. There is thus being impressed upon us more and more forcibly the fact that what we have been regarding as "abnormal features"—the outstanding residuals between observations and the results derived from the mathematical formula—are in truth not "abnormal" from the standpoint of nature, but are rather to be taken as indicative of the "abnormality" or "narrow-mindedness," which means the same thing, of ourselves in trying to dictate to nature the artificial and regular channels she should pursue in her operations.

Louis Agassiz said:

The temptation to impose one's own ideas upon nature, to explain her mysteries by brilliant theories rather than by patient study of the facts as we find them, still leads us away.

The fundamental law of nature is to invariably follow the paths of least resistance, and by examining these lines of structural weakness of the opposing systems we may have opened to us the very facts which are to be of real value and of sure benefit to mankind.