Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 74.djvu/198

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

statement of the general principles of research, such as has already been given.

A prevalent fault is observed in scientific publications whenever the investigator has had good training only on the observational side and but very little experience in scientific computing. He is very apt to violate one of the first and fundamental principles of good observing, viz., to employ such a method or scheme of observing as will yield tut one definite result, and that with the highest possible accuracy and with the least amount of computation. Oftener than may be thought, schemes of observation are used which leave an arbitrary element to the computer, and in consequence a different result is forthcoming, according to who makes the computation. Had we time apt illustrations could readily be given from published works. The point made, that the observer must also bear in mind the computation side, and work up his results as soon as possible, is of fundamental importance in research work.

It may be worth while to consider briefly the insatiable desire of the analyst to "ring" in a series of sines and cosines to resemble the course of some natural phenomenon of which he does not know the exact law. Is this the old story over again, though in somewhat altered garb, of the epicycles and deferents of ancient astronomical mechanics, which received its highest development in the Ptolemaic System of the Universe? You will recall that Ptolemy, building on the suggestions of Appollonius and Hipparchus, supposed a planet to describe an epicycle by a uniform revolution in a circle whose center was carried uniformly in an eccentric round the earth. By suitable assumptions as to his variable factors, he was thus able to represent with considerable accuracy the apparent motions of the planets and to reproduce quite satisfactorily other astronomical facts. This was the artifice employed by the astronomer of the period before the modern and more subtle art of simulating nature, by the sine-cosine method, had become known.

What seemed so intricate and complex in Ptolemy's time could be expressed in very simple language indeed, when a Kepler discovered the true functions as embodied in his three fundamental laws. The present method of hiding our ignorance of the real law, which seems at times to exert such a mesmerizing influence over us as to make us mistake the fictitious for the real, reminds one of the old conundrum: "Patch on, patch on, hole in the middle; if you guess this riddle, I'll give you a golden fiddle." If the sine and cosine of the angle does not represent the curve of observation, patch on a sine and cosine of twice the angle; then, if necessary, thrice the angle; next, four times, and so ad infinitum! Now guess the riddle!

Of course I do not mean to discard this useful and in fact indis-