Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/November 1906/The Value of Science: The Notion of Space III

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 69 November 1906  (1906) 
The Value of Science: The Notion of Space III by Henri Poincaré




Chapter III. The Notion of Space

1. Introduction

IN the articles I have heretofore devoted to space I have above all emphasized the problems raised by non-Euclidean geometry, while leaving almost completely aside other questions more difficult of approach, such as those which pertain to the number of dimensions. All the geometries I considered had thus a common basis, that tri-dimensional continuum which was the same for all and which differentiated itself only by the figures one drew in it or when one aspired to measure it.

In this continuum, primitively amorphous, we may imagine a network of lines and surfaces, we may then convene to regard the meshes of this net as equal to one another, and it is only after this convention that this continuum, become measurable, becomes Euclidean or non-Euclidean space. From this amorphous continuum can therefore arise indifferently one or the other of the two spaces, just as on a blank sheet of paper may be traced indifferently a straight or a circle.

In space we know rectilinear triangles the sum of whose angles is equal to two right angles; but equally we know curvilinear triangles the sum of whose angles is less than two right angles. The existence of the one sort is not more doubtful than that of the other. To give the name of straights to the sides of the first is to adopt Euclidean geometry; to give the name of straights to the sides of the latter is to adopt the non-Euclidean geometry. So that to ask what geometry it is proper to adopt is to ask, to what line is it proper to give the name straight?

It is evident that experiment can not settle such a question; one would not ask, for instance, experiment to decide whether I should call AB or CD a straight. On the other hand, neither can I say that I have not the right to give the name of straights to the sides of non-Euclidean triangles because they are not in conformity with the eternal idea of straight which I have by intuition. I grant, indeed, that I have the intuitive idea of the side of the Euclidean triangle, but I have equally the intuitive idea of the side of the non-Euclidean triangle. Why should I have the right to apply the name of straight to the first of these ideas and not to the second? Wherein does this syllable form an integrant part of this intuitive idea? Evidently when we say that the Euclidean straight is a true straight and that the non-Euclidean straight is not a true straight, we simply mean that the first intuitive idea corresponds to a more noteworthy object than the second. But how do we decide that this object is more noteworthy? This question I have investigated in 'Science and Hypothesis.'

It is here that we saw experience come in. If the Euclidean straight is more noteworthy than the non-Euclidean straight, it is so chiefly because it differs little from certain noteworthy natural objects from which the non-Euclidean straight differs greatly. But, it will be said, the definition of the non-Euclidean straight is artificial; if we for a moment adopt it, we shall see that two circles of different radius both receive the name of non-Euclidean straights, while of two circles of the same radius one can satisfy the definition without the other being able to satisfy it, and then if we transport one of these so-called straights without deforming it, it will cease to be a straight. But by what right do we consider as equal these two figures which the Euclidean geometers call two circles with the same radius? It is because by transporting one of them without deforming it we can make it coincide with the other. And why do we say this transportation is effected without deformation? It is impossible to give a good reason for it. Among all the motions conceivable, there are some of which the Euclidean geometers say that they are not accompanied by deformation; but there are others of which the non-Euclidean geometers would say that they are not accompanied by deformation. In the first, called Euclidean motions, the Euclidean straights remain Euclidean straights, and the non-Euclidean straights do not remain non-Euclidean straights; in the motions of the second sort, or non-Euclidean motions, the non-Euclidean straights remain non-Euclidean straights and the Euclidean straights do not remain Euclidean straights. It has, therefore, not been demonstrated that it was unreasonable to call straights the sides of non-Euclidean triangles; it has only been shown that that would be unreasonable if one continued to call the Euclidean motions motions without deformation; but it has at the same time been shown that it would be just as unreasonable to call straights the sides of Euclidean triangles if the non-Euclidean motions were called motions without deformation.

Now when we say that the Euclidean motions are the true motions without deformation, what do we mean? We simply mean that they are more noteworthy than the others. And why are they more noteworthy? It is because certain noteworthy natural bodies, the solid bodies, undergo motions almost similar.

And then when we ask: Can one imagine non-Euclidean space? that means: Can we imagine a world where there would be noteworthy natural objects affecting almost the form of non-Euclidean straights, and noteworthy natural bodies frequently undergoing motions almost similar to the non-Euclidean motions? I have shown in 'Science and Hypothesis' that to this question we must answer yes.

It has often been observed that if all the bodies in the universe were dilated simultaneously and.in the same proportion, we should have no means of perceiving it, since all our measuring instruments would grow at the same time as the objects themselves which they serve to measure. The world, after this dilatation, would continue on its course without anything apprising us of so considerable an event. In other words, two worlds similar to one another (understanding the word similitude in the sense of Euclid, Book VI.) would be absolutely indistinguishable. But more; worlds will be indistinguishable not only if they are equal or similar, that is, if we can pass from one to the other by changing the axes of coordinates, or by changing the scale to which lengths are referred; but they will still be indistinguishable if we can pass from one to the other by any 'point-transformation' whatever. I will explain my meaning. I suppose that to each point of one corresponds one point of the other and only one, and inversely; and besides that the coordinates of a point are continuous functions, otherwise altogether arbitrary, of the corresponding point. I suppose besides that to each object of the first world corresponds in the second an object of the same nature placed precisely at the corresponding point. I suppose finally that this correspondence fulfilled at the initial instant is maintained indefinitely. We should have no means of distinguishing these two worlds one from the other. The relativity of space is not ordinarily understood in so broad a sense; it is thus, however, that it would be proper to understand it.

If one of these universes is our Euclidean world, what its inhabitants will call straight will be our Euclidean straight; but what the inhabitants of the second world will call straight will be a curve which will have the same properties in relation to the world they inhabit and in relation to the motions that they will call motions without deformation. Their geometry will, therefore, be Euclidean geometry, but their straight will not be our Euclidean straight. It will be its transform by the point-transformation which carries over from our world to theirs. The straights of these men will not be our straights, but they will have among themselves the same relations as our straights to one another. It is in this sense I say their geometry will be ours. If then we wish after all to proclaim that they deceive themselves, that their straight is not the true straight, if we still are unwilling to admit that such an affirmation has no meaning, at least we must confess that these people have no means whatever of recognizing their error.

2. Qualitative Geometry

All that is relatively easy to understand, and I have already so often repeated it that I think it needless to expatiate further on the matter. Euclidean space is not a form imposed upon our sensibility, since we can imagine non-Euclidean space; but the two spaces, Euclidean and non-Euclidean, have a common basis, that amorphous continuum of which I spoke in the beginning. From this continuum we can get either Euclidean space or Lobachevskian space, just as we can, by tracing upon it a proper graduation, transform an ungraduated thermometer into a Fahrenheit or a Réaumur thermometer.

And then comes a question: Is not this amorphous continuum that our analysis has allowed to survive a form imposed upon our sensibility? If so, we should have enlarged the prison in which this sensibility is confined, but it would always be a prison.

This continuum has a certain number of properties, exempt from all idea of measurement. The study of these properties is the object of a science which has been cultivated by many great geometers and in particular by Riemann and Betti and which has received the name of analysis situs. In this science abstraction is made of every quantitative idea and, for example, if we ascertain that on a line the point B is between the points A and C, we shall be content with this ascertainment and shall not trouble to know whether the line ABC is straight or curved, nor whether the length AB is equal to the length BC, or whether it is twice as great.

The theorems of analysis situs have, therefore, this peculiarity that they would remain true if the figures were copied by an inexpert draftsman who should grossly change all the proportions and replace the straights by lines more or less sinuous. In mathematical terms, they are not altered by any 'point-transformation' whatsoever. It has often been said that metric geometry was quantitative, while projective geometry was purely qualitative. That is not altogether true. The straight is still distinguished from other lines by properties which remain quantitative in some respects. The real qualitative geometry is, therefore, analysis situs.

The same questions which came up apropos of the truths of Euclidean geometry, come up anew apropos of the theorems of analysis situs. Are they obtainable by deductive reasoning? Are they disguised conventions? Are they experimental verities? Are they the characteristics of a form imposed either upon our sensibility or upon our understanding?

I wish simply to observe that the last two solutions exclude each other. We can not admit at the same time that it is impossible to imagine space of four dimensions and that experience proves to us that space has three dimensions. The experimenter puts to nature a question: Is it this or that? and he can not put it without imagining the two terms of the alternative. If it were impossible to imagine one of these terms, it would be futile and besides impossible to consult experience. There is no need of observation to know that the hand of a watch is not marking the hour 15 on the dial, because we know beforehand that there are only 12, and we could not look at the mark 15 to see if the hand is there, because this mark does not exist.

Note likewise that in analysis situs the empiricists are disembarrassed of one of the gravest objections that can be leveled against them, of that which renders absolutely vain in advance all their efforts to apply their thesis to the verities of Euclidean geometry. These verities are rigorous and all experimentation can only be approximate. In analysis situs approximate experiments may suffice to give a rigorous theorem and, for instance, if it is seen that space can not have either two or less than two dimensions, nor four or more than four, we are certain that it has exactly three, since it could not have two and a half or three and a half.

Of all the theorems of analysis situs, the most important is that which is expressed in saying that space has three dimensions. This it is that we are about to consider, and we shall put the question in these terms: When we say that space has three dimensions, what do we mean?

3. The Physical Continuum of Several Dimensions

I have explained in 'Science and Hypothesis' whence we derive the notion of physical continuity and how that of mathematical continuity has arisen from it. It happens that we are capable of distinguishing two impressions one from the other, while each is indistinguishable from a third. Thus we can readily distinguish a weight of 12 grams from a weight of 10 grams, while a weight of 11 grams could neither be distinguished from the one nor the other. Such a statement, translated into symbols, may be written:


This would be the formula of the physical continuum, as crude experience gives it to us, whence arises an intolerable contradiction that has been obviated by the introduction of the mathematical continuum. This is a scale of which the steps (commensurable or incommensurable numbers) are infinite in number, but are exterior to one another instead of encroaching on one another as do the elements of the physical continuum, in conformity with the preceding formula.

The physical continuum is, so to speak, a nebula not resolved; the most perfect instruments could not attain to its resolution. Doubtless if we measured the weights with a good balance instead of judging them by the hand, we could distinguish the weight of 11 grams from those of 10 and 12 grams, and our formula would become:


But we should always find between and and between and new elements and such that

and the difficulty would only have receded and the nebula would always remain unresolved; the mind alone can resolve it and the mathematical continuum it is which is the nebula resolved into stars.

Yet up to this point we have not introduced the notion of the number of dimensions. What is meant when we say that a mathematical continuum or that a physical continuum has two or three dimensions?

First we must introduce the notion of cut, studying first physical continua. We have seen what characterizes the physical continuum. Each of the elements of this continuum consists of a manifold of impressions; and it may happen either that an element can not be discriminated from another element of the same continuum, if this new element corresponds to a manifold of impressions not sufficiently different, or, on the contrary, that the discrimination is possible; finally it may happen that two elements indistinguishable from a third, may, nevertheless, be distinguished one from the other.

That postulated, if and are two distinguishable elements of a continuum a series of elements may be found, , , ⋅⋅⋅, , all belonging to this same continuum and such that each of them is indistinguishable from the preceding, that is indistinguishable from and n indistinguishable from Therefore we can go from to by a continuous route and without quitting If this condition is fulfilled for any two elements and of the continuum we may say that this continuum is all in one piece. Now let us distinguish certain of the elements of which may either be all distinguishable from one another, or themselves form one or several continua. The assemblage of the elements thus chosen arbitrarily among all those of will form what I shall call the cut or the cuts.

Take on any two elements and Either we can also find a series of elements , , ⋅⋅⋅, , such: (1) that they all belong to (2) that each of them is indistinguishable from the following, indistinguishable from and from (3) and besides that none of the elements E is indistinguishable from any element of the cut. Or else, on the contrary, in each of the series , , ⋅⋅⋅, satisfying the first two conditions, there will be an element indistinguishable from one of the elements of the cut. In the first case we can go from to by a continuous route without quitting and without meeting the cuts; in the second case that is impossible.

If then for any two elements and of the continuum it is always the first case which presents itself, we shall say that remains all in one piece despite the cuts.

Thus, if we choose the cuts in a certain way, otherwise arbitrary, it may happen either that the continuum remains all in one piece or that it does not remain all in one piece; in this latter hypothesis we shall then say that it is divided by the cuts.

It will be noticed that all these definitions are constructed in setting out solely from this very simple fact, that two manifolds of impressions sometimes can be discriminated, sometimes can not be. That postulated, if, to divide a continuum, it suffices to consider as cuts a certain number of elements all distinguishable from one another, we say that this continuum is of one dimension; if, on the contrary, to divide a continuum, it is necessary to consider as cuts a system of elements themselves forming one or several continua, we shall say that this continuum is of several dimensions.

If to divide a continuum cuts forming one or several continua of one dimension suffice, we shall say that is a continuum of two dimensions; if cuts suffice which form one or several continua of two dimensions at most, we shall say that is a continuum of three dimensions; and so on.

To justify this definition it is proper to see whether it is in this way that geometers introduce the notion of three dimensions at the beginning of their works. Now, what do we see? Usually they begin by defining surfaces as the boundaries of solids or pieces of space, lines as the boundaries of surfaces, points as the boundaries of lines, and they affirm that the same procedure can not be pushed further.

This is just the idea given above: to divide space, cuts that are called surfaces are necessary; to divide surfaces, cuts that are called lines are necessary; to divide lines, cuts that are called points are necessary; we can go no further, the point can not be divided, so the point is not a continuum. Then lines which can be divided by cuts which are not continua will be continua of one dimension; surfaces which can be divided by continuous cuts of one dimension will be continua of two dimensions; finally space which can be divided by continuous cuts of two dimensions will be a continuum of three dimensions.

Thus the definition I have just given does not differ essentially from the usual definitions; I have only endeavored to give it a form applicable not to the mathematical continuum, but to the physical continuum, which alone is susceptible of representation, and yet to retain all its precision. Moreover, we see that this definition applies not alone to space; that in all which falls under our senses we find the characteristics of the physical continuum, which would allow of the same classification; that it would be easy to find there examples of continua of four, of five, dimensions, in the sense of the preceding definition; such examples occur of themselves to the mind.

I should explain finally, if I had the time, that this science, of which I spoke above and to which Riemann gave the name of analysis situs, teaches us to make distinctions among continua of the same number of dimensions and that the classification of these continua rests also on the consideration of cuts.

From this notion has arisen that of the mathematical continuum of several dimensions in the same way that the physical continuum of one dimension engendered the mathematical continuum of one dimension. The formula

which summed up the data of crude experience, implied an intolerable contradiction. To get free from it it was necessary to introduce a new notion while still respecting the essential characteristics of the physical continuum of several dimensions. The mathematical continuum of one dimension admitted of a scale whose divisions, infinite in number, corresponded to the different values, commensurable or not, of one same magnitude. To have the mathematical continuum of dimensions, it will suffice to take like scales whose divisions correspond to different values of independent magnitudes called coordinates. We thus shall have an image of the physical continuum of dimensions, and this image will be as faithful as it can be after the determination not to allow the contradiction of which I spoke above.

4. The Notion of Point

It seems now that the question we put to ourselves at the start is answered. When we say that space has three dimensions, it will be said, we mean that the manifold of points of space satisfies the definition we have just given of the physical continuum of three dimensions. To be content with that would be to suppose that we know what is the manifold of points of space, or even one point of space.

Now that is not as simple as one might think. Every one believes he knows what a point is, and it is just because we know it too well that we think there is no need of defining it. Surely we can not be required to know how to define it, because in going back from definition to definition a time must come when we must stop. But at what moment should we stop?

We shall stop first when we reach an object which falls under our senses or that we can represent to ourselves; definition then will become useless; we do not define the sheep to a child; we say to him: See the sheep.

So, then, we should ask ourselves if it is possible to represent to ourselves a point of space. Those who answer yes do not reflect that they represent to themselves in reality a white spot made with the chalk on a blackboard or a black spot made with a pen on white paper, and that they can represent to themselves only an object or rather the impressions that this object made on their senses.

When they try to represent to themselves a point, they represent the impressions that very little objects made them feel. It is needless to add that two different objects, though both very little, may produce extremely different impressions, but I shall not dwell on this difficulty, which would still require some discussion.

But it is not a question of that; it does not suffice to represent one point, it is necessary to represent a certain point and to have the means of distinguishing it from an other point. And in fact, that we may be able to apply to a continuum the rule I have above expounded and by which one may recognize the number of its dimensions, we must rely upon the fact that two elements of this continuum sometimes can and sometimes can not be distinguished. It is necessary therefore that we should in certain cases know how to represent to ourselves a specific element and to distinguish it from an other element.

The question is to know whether the point that I represented to myself an hour ago is the same as this that I now represent to myself, or whether it is a different point. In other words, how do we know whether the point occupied by the object
at the instant is the same as the point occupied by the object at the instant , or still better, what this means?

I am seated in my room; an object is placed on my table; during a second I do not move, no one touches the object. I am tempted to say that the point which this object occupied at the beginning of this second is identical with the point which it occupies at its end. Not at all; from the point to the point is 30 kilometers, because the object has been carried along in the motion of the earth. We can not know whether an object, be it large or small, has not changed its absolute position in space, and not only can we not affirm it, but this affirmation has no meaning and in any case can not correspond to any representation.

But then we may ask ourselves if the relative position of an object with regard to other objects has changed or not, and first whether the relative position of this object with regard to our body has changed. If the impressions this object makes upon us have not changed, we shall be inclined to judge that neither has this relative position changed; if they have changed, we shall judge that this object has changed either in state or in relative position. It remains to decide which of the two. I have explained in 'Science and Hypothesis' how we have been led to distinguish the changes of position. Moreover, I shall return to that further on. We come to know, therefore, whether the relative position of an object with regard to our body has or has not remained the same.

If now we see that two objects have retained their relative position with regard to our body, we conclude that the relative position of these two objects with regard to one another has not changed; but we reach this conclusion only by indirect reasoning. The only thing that we know directly is the relative position of the objects with regard to our body. A fortiori it is only by indirect reasoning that we think we know (and, moreover, this belief is delusive) whether the absolute position of the object has changed.

In a. word, the system of coordinate axes to which we naturally refer all exterior objects is a system of axes invariably bound to our body, and carried around with us.

It is impossible to represent to oneself absolute space; when I try to represent to myself simultaneously objects and myself in motion in absolute space, in reality I represent to myself my own self motionless and seeing move around me different objects and a man that is exterior to me, but that I convene to call me.

Will the difficulty be solved if we agree to refer everything to these axes bound to our body? Shall we know then what is a point thus defined by its relative position with regard to ourselves? Many persons will answer yes and will say that they 'localize' exterior objects.

What does this mean? To localize an object simply means to represent to oneself the movements that would be necessary to reach it. I will explain myself. It is not a question of representing the movements themselves in space, but solely of representing to oneself the muscular sensations which accompany these movements and which do not presuppose the preexistence of the notion of space.

If we suppose two different objects which successively occupy the same relative position with regard to ourselves, the impressions that these two objects make upon us will be very different; if we localize them at the same point, this is simply because it is necessary to make the same movements to reach them; apart from that, one can not just see what they could have in common.

But, given an object, we can conceive many different series of movements which equally enable us to reach it. If then we represent to ourselves a point by representing to ourselves the series of muscular sensations which accompany the movements which enable us to reach this point, there will be many ways entirely different of representing to oneself the same point. If one is not satisfied with this solution, but wishes, for instance, to bring in the visual sensations along with the muscular sensations, there will be one or two more ways of representing to oneself this same point and the difficulty will only be increased. In any case the following question comes up: Why do we think that all these representations so different from one another still represent the same point?

Another remark: I have just said that it is to our own body that we naturally refer exterior objects; that we carry about everywhere with us a system of axes to which we refer all the points of space, and that this system of axes seems to be invariably bound to our body. It should be noticed that rigorously we could not speak of axes invariably bound to the body unless the different parts of this body were themselves invariably bound to one another. As this is not the case, we ought, before referring exterior objects to these fictitious axes, to suppose our body brought back to the initial attitude.

(To be continued.)