Page:The atomic theory (1914).djvu/8

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The Atomic Theory

proof that a theory can only grow by the co-operation of thought and facts, and that all that is valuable in a physical theory is not only tested, but in most cases suggested, by the study of physical phenomena. In the interplay between mind and matter in scientific discovery, the parts played by the two are, I think, widely different from those usually assigned to them in popular estimation. There is a widespread belief that the mind itself is desperately speculative, that it is only kept from wild imaginings by the control of its stolid and prosaic partner, the physical facts. The true state of affairs is, I think, that it is the mind which acts as the brake in this combination, that the impulsive partner is the facts, and that these spur on the mind to take leaps which it would shudder at when not under the influence of this stimulus. Nature is far more wonderful and unconventional than anything we can evolve from our inner consciousness. The most far-reaching generalizations which may influence philosophy as well as revolutionize physics, may be suggested, nay, forced on the mind by the discovery of some trivial phenomenon. To take an example, an improvement in the method of exhausting air from closed vessels enabled experimenters to send an electric discharge through gas more highly ratified than had previously been possible. When they did this they observed that the glass of the vessel shone with a peculiar phosphorescent light: the study of this light led to the discovery of cathode rays, cathode rays led on to Röntgen rays, and the study of those rays started ideas which have entirely changed our conceptions of matter.

As facts play such a large part in stimulating our imagination and suggesting new ideas, every mechanical improvement in our apparatus, every new method which