Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/May 1907/The Value of Science: The Future of Mathematical Physics IX
|THE VALUE OF SCIENCE|
Chapter IX. The Future of Mathematical Physics
MEMBER OF THE INSTITUTE OF FRANCE
The Principles and Experiment.—In the midst of so much ruin, what remains standing? The principle of least action is hitherto intact, and Larmor appears to believe that it will long survive the others; in reality, it is still more vague and more general.
In presence of this general collapse of the principles, what attitude will mathematical physics take? And first, before too much excitement, it is proper to ask if all that is really true. All these derogations to the principles are encountered only among infinitesimals; the microscope is necessary to see the Brownian movement; electrons are very light; radium is very rare, and one never has more than some milligrams of it at a time. And, then, it may be asked whether, besides the infinitesimal seen, there was not another infinitesimal unseen counterpoise to the first.
So there is an interlocutory question, and, as it seems, only experiment can solve it. We shall, therefore, only have to hand over the matter to the experimenters, and, while waiting for them to finally decide the debate, not to preoccupy ourselves with these disquieting problems, and to tranquilly continue our work as if the principles were still uncontested. Certes, we have much to do without leaving the domain where they may be applied in all security; we have enough to employ our activity during this period of doubts.
The Rôle of the Analyst.—And as to these doubts, is it indeed true that we can do nothing to disembarrass science of them? It must indeed be said, it is not alone experimental physics that has given birth to them; mathematical physics has well contributed. It is the experimenters who have seen radium throw out energy, but it is the theorists who have put in evidence all the difficulties raised by the propagation of light across a medium in motion; but for these it is probable we should not have become conscious of them. Well, then, if they have done their best to put us into this embarrassment, it is proper also that they help us to get out of it.
They must subject to critical examination all these new views I have just outlined before you, and abandon the principles only after having made a loyal effort to save them. What can they do in this sense? That is what I will try to explain.
It is a question before all of endeavoring to obtain a more satisfactory theory of the electrodynamics of bodies in motion. It is there especially, as I have sufficiently shown above, that difficulties accumulate. It is useless to heap up hypotheses, we can not satisfy all the principles at once; so far, one has succeeded in safeguarding some only on condition of sacrificing the others; but all hope of obtaining better results is not yet lost. Let us take, then, the theory of Lorentz, turn it in all senses, modify it little by little, and perhaps everything will arrange itself.
Thus in place of supposing that bodies in motion undergo a contraction in the sense of the motion, and that this contraction is the same whatever be the nature of these bodies and the forces to which they are otherwise subjected, could we not make a more simple and natural hypothesis? We might imagine, for example, that it is the ether which is modified when it is in relative motion in reference to the material medium which penetrates it, that, when it is thus modified, it no longer transmits perturbations with the same velocity in every direction. It might transmit more rapidly those which are propagated parallel to the motion of the medium, whether in the same sense or in the opposite sense, and less rapidly those which are propagated perpendicularly. The wave surfaces would no longer be spheres, but ellipsoids, and we could dispense with that extraordinary contraction of all bodies.
I cite this only as an example, since the modifications that might be essayed would be evidently susceptible of infinite variation.
Aberration and Astronomy.—It is possible also that astronomy may some day furnish us data on this point; she it was in the main who raised the question in making us acquainted with the phenomenon of the aberration of light. If we make crudely the theory of aberration, we reach a very curious result. The apparent positions of the stars differ from their real positions because of the earth's motion, and as this motion is variable, these apparent positions vary. The real position we can not ascertain, but we can observe 1?he variations of the apparent position. The observations of the aberration show us, therefore, not the earth's motion, but the variations of this motion; they can not, therefore, give us information about the absolute motion of the earth.
At least this is true in first approximation, but the case would be no longer the same if we could appreciate the thousandths of a second. Then it would be seen that the amplitude of the oscillation depends not alone on the variation of the motion, a variation which is well known, since it is the motion of our globe on its elliptic orbit, but on the mean value of this motion, so that the constant of aberration would not be quite the same for all the stars, and the differences would tell us the absolute motion of the earth in space.
This, then, would be, under another form, the ruin of the principle of relativity. We are far, it is true, from appreciating the thousandth of a second, but, after all, say some, the earth's total absolute velocity is perhaps much greater than its relative velocity with respect to the sun. If, for example, it were 300 kilometers per second in place of 30, this would suffice to make the phenomenon observable.
I believe that in reasoning thus one admits a too simple theory of aberration. Michelson has shown us, I have told you, that the physical procedures are powerless to put in evidence absolute motion; I am persuaded that the same will be true of the astronomic procedures, however far precision be carried.
However that may be, the data astronomy will furnish us in this regard will some day be precious to the physicist. Meanwhile, I believe that the theorists, recalling the experience of Michelson, may anticipate a negative result, and that they would accomplish a useful work in constructing a theory of aberration which would explain this in advance.
Electrons and Spectra.—This dynamics of electrons can be approached from many sides, but among the ways leading thither is one which has been somewhat neglected, and yet this is one of those which promise us the most surprises. It is movements of electrons which produce the lines of the emission spectra; this is proved by the Zeeman effect; in an incandescent body what vibrates is sensitive to the magnet, therefore electrified. This is a very important first point, but no one has gone farther. Why are the lines of the spectrum distributed in accordance with a regular law? These laws have been studied by the experimenters in their least details; they are very precise and comparatively simple. A first study of these distributions recalls the harmonics encountered in acoustics; but the difference is great. Not only are the numbers of vibrations not the successive multiples of a single number, but we do not even find anything analogous to the roots of those transcendental equations to which we are led by so many problems of mathematical physics: that of the vibrations of an elastic body of any form, that of the Hertzian oscillations in a generator of any form, the problem of Fourier for the cooling of a solid body.
The laws are simpler, but they are of wholly other nature, and to cite only one of these differences, for the harmonics of high order, the number of vibrations tends toward a finite limit, instead of increasing indefinitely.
That has not yet been accounted for, and I believe that there we have one of the most important secrets of nature. A Japanese physicist, M. Nagaoka, has recently proposed an explanation; according to him, atoms are composed of a large positive electron surrounded by a ring formed of a very great number of very small negative electrons. Such is the planet Saturn with its rings. This is a very interesting attempt, but not yet wholly satisfactory; this attempt should be renewed. We will penetrate, so to speak, into the inmost recess of matter. And from the particular point of view which we to-day occupy, when we know why the vibrations of incandescent bodies differ thus from ordinary elastic vibrations, why the electrons do not behave like the matter which is familiar to us, we shall better comprehend the dynamics of electrons and it will be perhaps more easy for us to reconcile it with the principles.
Conventions Preceding Experiment.—Suppose, now, that all these efforts fail, and, after all, I do not believe they will, what must be done? Will it be necessary to seek to mend the broken principles by giving what we French call a coup de pouce? That evidently is always possible, and I retract nothing of what I have said above.
Have you not written, you might say if you wished to seek a quarrel with me—have you not written that the principles, though of experimental origin, are now unassailable by experiment because they have become conventions? And now you have just told us that the most recent conquests of experiment put these principles in danger.
Well, formerly I was right and to-day I am not wrong. Formerly I was right, and what is now happening is a new proof of it. Take, for example, the calorimetric experiment of Curie on radium. Is it possible to reconcile it with the principle of the conservation of energy? This has been attempted in many ways; but there is among them one I should like you to notice; this is not the explanation which tends to-day to prevail, but it is one of those which have been proposed. It has been conjectured that radium was only an intermediary, that it only stored radiations of unknown nature which flashed through space in every direction, traversing all bodies, save radium, without being altered by this passage and without exercising any action upon them. Radium alone took from them a little of their energy and afterward gave it out to us in various forms.
What an advantageous explanation, and how convenient! First, it is unverifiable and thus irrefutable. Then again it will serve to account for any derogation whatever to Mayer's principle; it answers in advance not only the objection of Curie, but all the objections that future experimenters might accumulate. This new and unknown energy would serve for everything.
This is just what I said, and therewith we are shown that our principle is unassailable by experiment.
But then, what have we gained by this stroke? The principle is intact, but thenceforth of what use is it? It enabled us to foresee that in such or such circumstance we could count on such a total quantity of energy; it limited us; but now that this indefinite provision of new energy is placed at our disposal, we are no longer limited by anything; and, as I have written in 'Science and Hypothesis,' if a principle ceases to be fecund, experiment without contradicting it directly will nevertheless have condemned it.
Future Mathematical Physics. This, therefore, is not what would have to he done; it would be necessary to rebuild anew. If we were reduced to this necessity, we could moreover console ourselves. It would not be necessary thence to conclude that science can weave only a Penelope's web, that it can raise only ephemeral structures, which it is soon forced to demolish from top to bottom with its own hands.
As I have said, we have already passed through a like crisis. I have shown you that in the second mathematical physics, that of the principles, we find traces of the first, that of central forces; it will be just the same if we must know a third. Just so with the animal that exuviates, that breaks its too narrow carapace and makes itself a fresh one, under the new envelope one will recognize the essential traits of the organism which have persisted.
We can not foresee in what way we are about to expand; perhaps it is the kinetic theory of gases which is about to undergo development and serve as model to the others. Then the facts which first appeared to us as simple thereafter would be merely resultants of a very great number of elementary facts which only the laws of chance would make cooperate for a common end. Physical law would then assume an entirely new aspect; it would no longer be solely a differential equation, it would take the character of a statistical law.Perhaps, too, we shall have to construct an entirely new mechanics that we only succeed in catching a glimpse of, where, inertia increasing with the velocity, the velocity of light would become an impassable limit. The ordinary mechanics, more simple, would remain a first approximation, since it would be true for velocities not too great, so that the old dynamics would still be found under the new. We should not have to regret having believed in the principles, and even, since velocities too great for the old formulas would always be only exceptional, the surest way in practise would be still to act as if we continued to believe in them. They are so useful, it would be necessary to keep a place for them. To determine to exclude them altogether would be to deprive oneself of a precious weapon. I hasten to say in conclusion that we are not yet there, and as yet nothing proves that the principles will not come forth from out the fray victorious and intact.
PART THIRD. The Objective Value of Science
Chapter X. Is Science Artificial?
§ 1. The Philosophy of M. LeRoy
There are many reasons for being sceptics; should we push this scepticism to the very end or stop on the way? To go to the end is the most tempting solution, the easiest, and that which many have adopted, despairing of saving anything from the shipwreck.
Among the writings inspired by this tendency it is proper to place in the first rank those of M. LeRoy. This thinker is not only a philosopher and a writer of the greatest merit, but he has acquired a deep knowledge of the exact and physical sciences, and even has shown rare powers of mathematical invention. Let us recapitulate in a few words his doctrine, which has given rise to numerous discussions.
Science consists only of conventions, and to this circumstance solely does it owe its apparent certitude; the facts of science and, a fortiori, its laws are the artificial work of the scientist; science therefore can teach us nothing of the truth; it can only serve us as rule of action.
Here we recognize the philosophic theory known under the name of nominalism; all is not false in this theory; its legitimate domain must be left it, but out of this it should not be allowed to go.
This is not all; M. LeRoy's doctrine is not only nominalistic; it has besides another characteristic which it doubtless owes to M. Bergson, it is anti-intellectualistic. According to M. LeRoy, the intellect deforms all it touches, and that is still more true of its necessary instrument 'discourse.' There is reality only in our fugitive and changing impressions, and even this reality, when touched, vanishes.
And yet M. LeRoy is not a sceptic; if he regards the intellect as incurably powerless, it is only to give more scope to other sources of knowledge, to the heart for instance, to sentiment, to instinct or to faith.
However great my esteem for M. LeRoy's talent, whatever the ingenuity of this thesis, I can not wholly accept it. Certes, I am in accord on many points with M. LeRoy, and he has even cited, in support of his view, various passages of my writings which I am by no means disposed to reject. I think myself only the more bound to explain why I can not go with him all the way.
M. LeRoy often complains of being accused of scepticism. He could not help being, though this accusation is probably unjust. Are not appearances against him? Nominalist in doctrine, but realist at heart, he seems to escape absolute nominalism only by a desperate act of faith.
The fact is that anti-intellectualistic philosophy in rejecting analysis and 'discourse,' just by that condemns itself to being intransmissible, it is a philosophy essentially internal, or, at the very least, only its negations can be transmitted; what wonder then that for an external observer it takes the shape of scepticism?
Therein lies the weak point of this philosophy; if it strives to remain faithful to itself, its energy is spent in a negation and a cry of enthusiasm. Each author may repeat this negation and this cry, may vary their form, but without adding anything.
And yet, would it not be more logical in remaining silent? See, you have written long articles; for that, it was necessary to use words. And therein have you not been much more 'discursive' and consequently much farther from life and truth than the animal who simply lives without philosophizing? Would not this animal be the true philosopher?
However, because no painter has made a perfect portrait, should we conclude that the best painting is not to paint? When a zoologist dissects an animal, certainly he 'alters it.' Yes, in dissecting it, he condemns himself to never know all of it; but in not dissecting it, he would condemn himself to never know anything of it and consequently to never see anything of it.
Certes, in man are other forces besides his intellect, no one has ever been mad enough to deny that. The first comer makes these blind forces act or lets them act; the philosopher must speak of them; to speak of them, he must know of them the little that can be known, he should therefore see them act. How? With what eyes, if not with his intellect? Heart, instinct, may guide it, but not render it useless; they may direct the look, but not replace the eye. It may be granted that the heart is the workman, and the intellect only the instrument. Yet is it an instrument not to be done without, if not for action, at least for philosophizing. Therefore a philosopher really anti-intellectualistic is impossible. Perhaps we shall have to declare for the supremacy of action; always it is our intellect which will thus conclude; in allowing precedence to action it will thus retain the superiority of the thinking reed. This also is a supremacy not to be disdained.
Pardon these brief reflections and pardon also their brevity, scarcely skimming the question. The process of intellectualism is not the subject I wish to treat: I wish to speak of science, and about it there is no doubt; by definition, so to speak, it will be intellectualistic or it will not be at all. Precisely the question is, whether it will be.
§ 2. Science, Rule of Action
For M. LeRoy, science is only a rule of action. We are powerless to know anything and yet we are launched, we must act, and at all hazards we have established rules. It is the aggregate of these rules that is called science.
It is thus that men, desirous of diversion, have instituted rules of play, like those of tric-trac for instance, which, better than science itself, could rely upon the proof by universal consent. It is thus likewise that, unable to choose, but forced to choose, we toss up a coin, head or tail to win.
The rule of tric-trac is indeed a rule of action like science, but does any one think the comparison just and not see the difference? The rules of the game are arbitrary conventions, and the contrary convention might have been adopted, which would have been none the less good. On the contrary, science is a rule of action which is successful, generally at least, and I add, while the contrary rule would not have succeeded.
If I say, to make hydrogen cause an acid to act on zinc, I formulate a rule which succeeds; I could have said, make distilled water act on gold; that also would have been a rule, only it would not have succeeded. If therefore scientific 'recipes' have a value, as rule of action, it is because we know they succeed, generally at least. But to know this is to know something and then why tell us we can know nothing?
Science foresees, and it is because it foresees, that it can be useful and serve as rule of action. I well know that its previsions are often contradicted by the event; that shows that science is imperfect and if I add that it will always remain so, I am certain that this is a prevision which, at least, will never be contradicted. Always the scientist is less often mistaken than a prophet who should predict at random. Besides the progress though slow is continuous, so that scientists, though more and more bold, are less and less misled. This is little, but it is enough.
I well know that M. LeRoy has somewhere said that science was mistaken oftener than one thought, that comets sometimes played tricks on astronomers, that scientists, who apparently are men, did not willingly speak of their failures and that, if they should speak of them, they would have to count more defeats than victories.
That day, M. LeRoy evidently overreached himself. If science did not succeed, it could not serve as rule of action; whence would it get its value? Because it is 'lived,' that is, because we love it and believe in it? The alchemists had recipes for making gold, they loved them and had faith in them, and yet our recipes are the good ones, although our faith be less lively, because they succeed.
There is no escape from this dilemma; either science does not enable us to foresee, and then it is valueless as rule of action; or else it enables us to foresee in a fashion more or less imperfect, and then it is not without value as means of knowledge.
It should not even be said that action is the goal of science; should we condemn studies of the star Sirius, under pretext that we shall probably never exercise any influence on that star? To my eyes, on the contrary, it is the knowledge which is the end, and the action which is the means. If I felicitate myself on the industrial development, it is not alone because it furnishes a facile argument to the advocates of science; it is above all because it gives to the scientist faith in himself and also because it offers an immense field of experience where clash forces too colossal to be interfered with. Without this ballast, who knows whether it would not quit the earth, seduced by the mirage of some scholastic novelty, or whether it would not despair, believing it had fashioned only a dream?
§ 3. The Crude Fact and the Scientific Fact
What was most paradoxical in M. LeRoy's thesis was that affirmation that the scientist creates the fact; this was at the same time its essential point and it is one of those which have been most discussed.
Perhaps, says he (I well believe that this was a concession), it is not the scientist that creates the fact in the rough; it is at least he who creates the scientific fact.
This distinction between the fact in the rough and the scientific fact does not by itself appear to me illegitimate. But I complain first that the boundary has not been traced either exactly or precisely; and then that the author has seemed to suppose that the crude fact, not being scientific, is outside of science.
Finally, I can not admit that the scientist creates without restraint the scientific fact since it is the crude fact which imposes it upon him.
The examples given by M. LeRoy have greatly astonished me. The first is taken from the notion of atom. The atom chosen as example of fact! I avow that this choice has so disconcerted me that I prefer to say nothing about it. I have evidently misunderstood the author's thought and I could not fruitfully discuss it.
The second case taken as example is that of an eclipse where the crude phenomenon is a play of light and shadow, but where the astronomer can not intervene without introducing two foreign elements, to wit, a clock and Newton's law.
Finally, M. LeRoy cites the rotation of the earth; it has been answered: but this is not a fact, and he has replied: it was one for Galileo, who affirmed it, as for the inquisitor, who denied it. It always remains that this is not a fact in the same sense as those just spoken of and that to give them the same name is to expose one's self to many confusions.
Here then are four degrees:
1°. It grows dark, says the clown.
2°. The eclipse happened at nine o'clock, says the astronomer.
3°. The eclipse happened at the time deducible from the tables constructed according to Newton's law, says he again.
4°. That results from the earth's turning around the sun, says Galileo finally.
Where then is the boundary between the fact in the rough and the scientific fact? To read M. LeRoy one would believe that it is between the first and the second stage, but who does not see that there is a greater distance from the second to the third, and still more from the third to the fourth.
Allow me to cite two examples which perhaps will enlighten us a little.
I observe the deviation of a galvanometer by the aid of a movable mirror which projects a luminous image or spot on a divided scale. The crude fact is this: I see the spot displace itself on the scale, and the scientific fact is this: a current passes in the circuit.
Or again: when I make an experiment I should subject the result to certain corrections, because I know I must have made errors. These errors are of two kinds, some are accidental and these I shall correct by taking the mean; the others are systematic and I shall be able to correct those only by a thorough study of their causes. The first result obtained is then the fact in the rough, while the scientific fact is the final result after the finished corrections.
Reflecting on this latter example, we are led to subdivide our second stage, and in place of saying:
2. The eclipse happened at nine o'clock, we shall say:
2a. The eclipse happened when my clock pointed to nine, and 2b. My clock being ten minutes slow, the eclipse happened at ten minutes past nine.
And this is not all: the first stage also should be subdivided, and not between these two subdivisions will be the least distance; it is necessary to distinguish between the impression of obscurity felt by one witnessing an eclipse, and the affirmation; it grows dark, which this impression extorts from him. In a sense it is the first which is the only true fact in the rough, and the second is already a sort of scientific fact.
Now then our scale has six stages, and even though there is no reason for halting at this figure, there we shall stop.
What strikes me at the start is this. At the first of our six stages, the fact, still completely in the rough, is, so to speak, individual, it is completely distinct from all other possible facts. From the second stage, already it is no longer the same. The enunciation of the fact would suit an infinity of other facts. So soon as language intervenes, I have at my command only a finite number of terms to express the shades, in number infinite, that my impressions might cover. When I say: It grows dark, that well expresses the impressions I feel in being present at an eclipse; but even in obscurity a multitude of shades could be imagined, and if, instead of that actually realized, had happened a slightly different shade, yet I should still have enunciated this other fact by saying: It grows dark.
Second remark: even at the second stage, the enunciation of a fact can only be true or false. This is not so of any proposition; if this proposition is the enunciation of a convention, it can not be said that this enunciation is true, in the proper sense of the word, since it could not be true apart from me and is true only because I wish it to be.
When, for instance, I say the unit for length is the meter, this is a decree that I promulgate, it is not something ascertained which forces itself upon me. It is the same, as I think I have elsewhere shown, when it is a question for example of Euclid's postulate.
When I am asked: Is it growing dark? I always know whether I ought to reply yes or no. Although an infinity of possible facts may be susceptible of this same enunciation: it grows dark, I shall always know whether the fact realized belongs or does not belong among those which answer to this enunciation. Facts are classed in categories, and if I am asked whether the fact that I ascertain belongs or does not belong in such a category, I shall not hesitate.
Doubtless this classification is sufficiently arbitrary to leave a large part to man's freedom or caprice. In a word, this classification is a convention. This convention being given, if I am asked: Is such a fact true? I shall always know what to answer, and my reply will be imposed upon me by the witness of my senses.
If, therefore, during an eclipse, it is asked: Is it growing dark? All the world will answer yes. Doubtless those speaking a language where bright was called dark, and dark bright, would answer no. But of what importance is that?
In the same way, in mathematics, when I have laid down the definitions, and the postulates which are conventions, a theorem henceforth can only be true or false. But to answer the question: Is this theorem true? It is no longer to the witness of my senses that I shall have recourse, but to reasoning.
A statement of fact is always verifiable, and for the verification we have recourse either to the witness of our senses, or to the memory of this witness. This is properly what characterizes a fact. If you put the question to me: Is such a fact true? I shall begin by asking you, if there is occasion, to state precisely the conventions, by asking you, in other words, what language you have spoken; then once settled on this point, I shall interrogate my senses and shall answer yes or no. But it will be my senses that will have made answer, it will not be you when you say to me: I have spoken to you in English or in French.
Is there something to change in all that when we pass to the following stages? When I observe a galvanometer, as I have just said, if I ask an ignorant visitor: Is the current passing? He looks at the wire to try to see something pass; but if I put the same question to my assistant who understands my language, he will know I mean: Does the spot move? and he will look at the scale.
What difference is there then between the statement of a fact in the rough and the statement of a scientific fact? The same difference as between the statement of the same crude fact in French and in German. The scientific statement is the translation of the crude statement into a language which is distinguished above all from the common German or French, because it is spoken by a very much smaller number of people.
Yet let us not go too fast. To measure a current I may use a very great number of types of galvanometers or besides an electro-dynamometer. And then when I shall say there is running in this circuit a current of so many amperes, that will mean: if I adapt to this circuit such a galvanometer I shall see the spot come to the division a; but that will mean equally: if I adapt to this circuit such an electro-dynamometer, I shall see the spot go to the division b. And that will mean still many other things, because the current can manifest itself not only by mechanical effects, but by effects chemical, thermal, luminous, etc.
Here then is one same statement which suits a very great number of facts absolutely different. Why? It is because I assume a law according to which, whenever such a mechanical effect shall happen, such a chemical effect will happen also. Previous experiments, very numerous, have never shown this law to fail, and then I have understood that I could express by the same statement two facts so invariably bound one to the other.
When I am asked: Is the current passing? I can understand that that means: Will such a mechanical effect happen? But I can understand also: Will such a chemical effect happen? I shall then verify either the existence of the mechanical effect, or that of the chemical effect; that will be indifferent, since in both cases the answer must be the same.
And if the law should one day be found false? If it was perceived that the concordance of the two effects, mechanical and chemical, is not constant? That day it would be necessary to change the scientific language to free it from a grave ambiguity.
And after that? Is it thought that ordinary language by aid of which are expressed the facts of daily life is exempt from ambiguity?
Shall we thence conclude that the facts of daily life are the work of the grammarians?
You ask me: Is there a current? I try whether the mechanical effect exists, I ascertain it and I answer: Yes, there is a current. You understand at once that that means that the mechanical effect exists, and that the chemical effect, that I have not investigated, exists likewise. Imagine now, supposing an impossibility, the law we believe true not to be, and the chemical effect not to exist. Under this hypothesis there will be two distinct facts, the one directly observed and which is true, the other inferred and which is false. It may strictly be said that we have created the second. So that error is the part of man's personal collaboration in the creation of the scientific fact.
But if we can say that the fact in question is false, is this not just because it is not a free and arbitrary creation of our mind, a disguised convention, in which case it would be neither true nor false. And in fact it was verifiable; I had not made the verification, but I could have made it. If I answered amiss, it was because I chose to reply too quickly, without having asked nature, who alone knew the secret.
When, after an experiment, I correct the accidental and systematic errors to bring out the scientific fact, the case is the same; the scientific fact will never be anything but the crude fact translated into another language. When I shall say: It is such an hour, that will be a short way of saying: There is such a relation between the hour indicated by my clock, and the hour it marked at the moment of the passing of such a star and such another star across the meridian. And this convention of language once adopted, when I shall be asked: Is it such an hour? it will not depend upon me to answer yes or no.
Let us pass to the stage before the last: the eclipse happened at the hour given by the tables deduced from Newton's laws. This is still a convention of language which is perfectly clear for those who know celestial mechanics or simply for those who have the tables calculated by the astronomers. I am asked: Did the eclipse happen at the hour predicted? I look in the nautical almanac, I see that the eclipse was announced for nine o'clock and I understand that the question means: Did the eclipse happen at nine o'clock? There still we have nothing to change in our conclusions. The scientific fact is only the crude fact translated into a convenient language.
It is true that at the last stage things change. Does the earth rotate? Is this a verifiable fact? Could Galileo and the Grand Inquisitor, to settle the matter, appeal to the witness of their senses? On the contrary, they were in accord about the appearances, and, whatever had been the accumulated experiences, they would have remained in accord with regard to the appearances without ever agreeing on their interpretation. It is just on that account that they were obliged to have recourse to procedures of discussion so unscientific.
This is why I think they did not disagree about a fact: we have not the right to give the same name to the rotation of the earth, which was the object of their discussion, and to the facts crude or scientific we have hitherto passed in review.
After what precedes, it seems superfluous to investigate whether the fact in the rough is outside of science, because there can neither be science without scientific fact, nor scientific fact without fact in the rough, since-the first is only the translation of the second.
And then, has one the right to say that the scientist creates the scientific fact? First of all, he does not create it from nothing, since he makes it with the fact in the rough. Consequently he does not make it freely and as he chooses. However able the worker may be, his freedom is always limited by the properties of the raw material on which he works.
After all, what do you mean when you speak of this free creation of the scientific fact and when you take as example the astronomer who intervenes actively in the phenomenon of the eclipse by bringing his clock? Do you mean: The eclipse happened at nine o'clock; but if the astronomer had wished it to happen at ten, that depended only on him, he had only to advance his clock an hour?
But the astronomer, in perpetrating that bad joke, would evidently have been guilty of an equivocation. When he tells me: The eclipse happened at nine, I understand that nine is the hour deduced from the crude indication of the pendulum by the usual series of corrections. If he has given me solely that crude indication, or if he has made corrections contrary to the habitual rules, he has changed the language agreed upon without forewarning me. If, on the contrary, he took care to forewarn me, I have nothing to complain of, but then it is always the same fact expressed in another language.
In sum, all the scientist creates in a fact is the language in which he enunciates it. If he predicts a fact, he will employ this language, and for all those who can speak and understand it, his prediction is free from ambiguity. Moreover, this prediction once made, it evidently does not depend upon him whether it is fulfilled or not.
What then remains of M. LeRoy's thesis? This remains: the scientist intervenes actively in choosing the facts worth observing. An isolated fact has by itself no interest; it becomes interesting if one has reason to think that it may aid in the prediction of other facts; or better, if, having been predicted, its verification is the confirmation of a law. Who shall choose the facts which, corresponding to these conditions, are worthy the freedom of the city in science? This is the free activity of the scientist.
And that is not all. I have said that the scientific fact is the translation of a crude fact into a certain language; I should add that every scientific fact is formed of many crude facts. This is sufficiently shown by the examples cited above. For instance, for the hour of the eclipse my clock marked the hour a at the instant of the eclipse; it marked the hour at the moment of the last transit of the meridian of a certain star that we take as origin of right ascensions; it marked the hour at the moment of the preceding transit of this same star. There are three distinct facts (still it will be noticed that each of them results itself from two simultaneous facts in the rough; but let us pass this over). In place of that I say: The eclipse happened at the hour , and the three facts are combined in a single scientific fact. I have concluded that the three readings made on my clock at three different moments lacked interest and that the only thing interesting was the combination of the three. In this conclusion is found the free activity of my mind.
But I have thus used up my power; I can not make this combination have such a value and not such another, since I can not influence either the value of , or that of , or that of , which are imposed upon me as crude facts.
In sum, facts are facts, and if it happens that they satisfy a prediction, this is not an effect of our free activity. There is no precise frontier between the fact in the rough and the scientific fact; it can only be said that such an enunciation of fact is more crude or, on the contrary, more scientific than such another.
(To be continued)
- These considerations on mathematical physics are borrowed from my St. Louis address.