The New Mechanics

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The New Mechanics  (1908) 
by Henri Poincaré, translated by George Bruce Halsted

In French: Poincaré, Henri (1908), “La dynamique de l’électron”, Revue générale des sciences pures et appliquées 19: 386–402 

English translation: Poincaré, Henri (1913), “The New Mechanics”, The foundations of science (Science and Method), New York: Science Press, pp. 486-522, <> 


Mechanics and Radium[edit]



THE general principles of Dynamics, which have, since Newton, served as foundation for physical science, and which appeared immovable, are they on the point of being abandoned or at least profoundly modified? This is what many people have been asking themselves for some years. According to them, the discovery of radium has overturned the scientific dogmas we believed the most solid: on the one hand, the impossibility of the transmutation of metals; on the other hand, the fundamental postulates of mechanics.

Perhaps one is too hasty in considering these novelties as finally established, and breaking our idols of yesterday; perhaps it would be proper, before taking sides, to await experiments more numerous and more convincing. None the less is it necessary, from to-day, to know the new doctrines and the arguments, already very weighty, upon which they rest.

In few words let us first recall in what those principles consist:

A. The motion of a material point isolated and apart from all exterior force is straight and uniform; this is the principle of inertia: without force no acceleration;

B. The acceleration of a moving point has the same direction as the resultant of all the forces to which it is subjected; it is equal to the quotient of this resultant by a coefficient called mass of the moving point.

The mass of a moving point, so defined, is a constant; it does not depend upon the velocity acquired by this point; it is the same whether the force, being parallel to this velocity, tends only to accelerate or to retard the motion of the point, or whether, on the contrary, being perpendicular to this velocity, it tends to make this motion deviate toward the right, or the left, that is to say to curve the trajectory;

C. All the forces affecting a material point come from the action of other material points; they depend only upon the relative positions and velocities of these different material points.

Combining the two principles B and C, we reach the principle of relative motion, in virtue of which the laws of the motion of a system are the same whether we refer this system to fixed axes, or to moving axes animated by a straight and uniform motion of translation, so that it is impossible to distinguish absolute motion from a relative motion with reference to such moving axes;

D. If a material point A acts upon another material point B, the body B reacts upon A, and these two actions are two equal and directly opposite forces. This is the principle of the equality of action and reaction, or, more briefly, the principle of reaction.

Astronomic observations and the most ordinary physical phenomena seem to have given of these principles a confirmation complete, constant and very precise. This is true, it is now said, but it is because we have never operated with any but very small velocities; Mercury, for example, the fastest of the planets, goes scarcely 100 kilometers a second. Would this planet act the same if it went a thousand times faster? We see there is yet no need to worry; whatever may be the progress of automobilism, it will be long before we must give up applying to our machines the classic principles of dynamics.

How then have we come to make actual speeds a thousand times greater than that of Mercury, equal, for instance, to a tenth or a third of the velocity of light, or approaching still more closely to that velocity? It is by aid of the cathode rays and the rays from radium.

We know that radium emits three kinds of rays, designated by the three Greek letters α, β, γ; in what follows, unless the contrary be expressly stated, it will always be a question of the β rays, which are analogous to the cathode rays.

After the discovery of the cathode rays two theories appeared: Crookes attributed the phenomena to a veritable molecular bombardment; Hertz, to special undulations of the ether. This was a renewal of the debate which divided physicists a century ago about light; Crookes took up the emission theory, abandoned for light; Hertz held to the undulatory theory. The facts seem to decide in favor of Crookes.

It has been recognized, in the first place, that the cathode rays carry with them a negative electric charge; they are deviated by a magnetic field and by an electric field; and these deviations are precisely such as these same fields would produce upon projectiles animated by a very high velocity and strongly charged with electricity. These two deviations depend upon two quantities: one the velocity, the other the relation of the electric charge of the projectile to its mass; we cannot know the absolute value of this mass, nor that of the charge, but only their relation; in fact, it is clear that if we double at the same time the charge and the mass, without changing the velocity, we shall double the force which tends to deviate the projectile, but, as its mass is also doubled, the acceleration and deviation observable will not be changed. The observation of the two deviations will give us therefore two equations to determine these two unknowns. We find a velocity of from 10,000 to 30,000 kilometers a second; as to the ratio of the charge to the mass, it is very great. We may compare it to the corresponding ratio in regard to the hydrogen ion in electrolysis; we then find that a cathodic projectile carries about a thousand times more electricity than an equal mass of hydrogen would carry in an electrolyte.

To confirm these views, we need a direct measurement of this velocity to compare with the velocity so calculated. Old experiments of J. J. Thomson had given results more than a hundred times too small; but they were exposed to certain causes of error. The question was taken up again by Wiechert in an arrangement where the Hertzian oscillations were utilized; results were found agreeing with the theory, at least as to order of magnitude; it would be of great interest to repeat these experiments. However that may be, the theory of undulations appears powerless to account for this complex of facts.

The same calculations made with reference to the β rays of radium have given velocities still greater: 100,000 or 200,000 kilometers or more yet. These velocities greatly surpass all those we know. It is true that light has long been known to go 300,000 kilometers a second; but it is not a carrying of matter, while, if we adopt the emission theory for the cathode rays, there would be material molecules really impelled at the velocities in question, and it is proper to investigate whether the ordinary laws of mechanics are still applicable to them.


Mass Longitudinal and Mass Transversal[edit]

We know that electric currents produce the phenomena of induction, in particular self-induction. When a current increases, there develops an electromotive force of self-induction which tends to oppose the current; on the contrary, when the current decreases, the electromotive force of self-induction tends to maintain the current. The self-induction therefore opposes every variation of the intensity of the current, just as in mechanics the inertia of a body opposes every variation of its velocity.

Self-induction is a veritable inertia. Everything happens as if the current could not establish itself without putting in motion the surrounding ether and as if the inertia of this ether tended, in consequence, to keep constant the intensity of this current. It would be requisite to overcome this inertia to establish the current, it would be necessary to overcome it again to make the current cease.

A cathode ray, which is a rain of projectiles charged with negative electricity, may be likened to a current; doubtless this current differs, at first sight at least, from the currents of ordinary conduction, where the matter does not move and where the electricity circulates through the matter. This is a current of convection, where the electricity, attached to a material vehicle, is carried along by the motion of this vehicle. But Rowland has proved that currents of convection produce the same magnetic effects as currents of conduction; they should produce also the same effects of induction. First, if this were not so, the principle of the conservation of energy would be violated; besides, Crémieu and Pender have employed a method putting in evidence directly these effects of induction.

If the velocity of a cathode corpuscle varies, the intensity of the corresponding current will likewise vary; and there will develop effects of self-induction which will tend to oppose this variation. These corpuscles should therefore possess a double inertia: first their own proper inertia, and then the apparent inertia, due to self-induction, which produces the same effects. They will therefore have a total apparent mass, composed of their real mass and of a fictitious mass of electromagnetic origin. Calculation shows that this fictitious mass varies with the velocity, and that the force of inertia of self-induction is not the same when the velocity of the projectile accelerates or slackens, or when it is deviated; therefore so it is with the force of the total apparent inertia.

The total apparent mass is therefore not the same when the real force applied to the corpuscle is parallel to its velocity and tends to accelerate the motion as when it is perpendicular to this velocity and tends to make the direction vary. It is necessary therefore to distinguish the total longitudinal mass from the total transversal mass. These two total masses depend, moreover, upon the velocity. This follows from the theoretical work of Abraham.

In the measurements of which we speak in the preceding section, what is it we determine in measuring the two deviations? It is the velocity on the one hand, and on the other hand the ratio of the charge to the total transversal mass. How, under these conditions, can we make out in this total mass the part of the real mass and that of the fictitious electromagnetic mass? If we had only the cathode rays properly so called, it could not be dreamed of; but happily we have the rays of radium which, as we have seen, are notably swifter. These rays are not all identical and do not behave in the same way under the action of an electric field and a magnetic field. It is found that the electric deviation is a function of the magnetic deviation, and we are able, by receiving on a sensitive plate radium rays which have been subjected to the action of the two fields, to photograph the curve which represents the relation between these two deviations. This is what Kaufmann has done, deducing from it the relation between the velocity and the ratio of the charge to the total apparent mass, a ratio we shall call ε.

One might suppose there are several species of rays, each characterized by a fixed velocity, by a fixed charge and by a fixed mass. But this hypothesis is improbable; why, in fact, would all the corpuscles of the same mass take always the same velocity? It is more natural to suppose that the charge as well as the real mass are the same for all the projectiles, and that these differ only by their velocity. If the ratio ε is a function of the velocity, this is not because the real mass varies with this velocity; but, since the fictitious electromagnetic mass depends upon this velocity, the total apparent mass, alone observable, must depend upon it, though the real mass does not depend upon it and may be constant.

The calculations of Abraham let us know the law according to which the fictitious mass varies as a function of the velocity; Kaufmann's experiment lets us know the law of variation of the total mass.

The comparison of these two laws will enable us therefore to determine the ratio of the real mass to the total mass.

Such is the method Kaufmann used to determine this ratio. The result is highly surprising: the real mass is naught.

This has led to conceptions wholly unexpected. What had only been proved for cathode corpuscles was extended to all bodies. What we call mass would be only semblance; all inertia would be of electromagnetic origin. But then mass would no longer be constant, it would augment with the velocity; sensibly constant for velocities up to 1,000 kilometers a second, it then would increase and would become infinite for the velocity of light. The transversal mass would no longer be equal to the longitudinal: they would only be nearly equal if the velocity is not too great. The principle B of mechanics would no longer be true.


The Canal Rays[edit]

At the point where we now are, this conclusion might seem premature. Can one apply to all matter what has been proved only for such light corpuscles, which are a mere emanation ofmatter and perhaps not true matter? But before entering upon this question, a word must be said of another sort of rays. I refer to the canal rays, the Kanalstrahlen of Goldstein.

The cathode, together with the cathode rays charged with negative electricity, emits canal rays charged with positive electricity. In general, these canal rays not being repelled by the cathode, are confined to the immediate neighborhood of this cathode, where they constitute the 'chamois cushion,' not very easy to perceive; but, if the cathode is pierced with holes and if it almost completely blocks up the tube, the canal rays spread back of the cathode, in the direction opposite to that of the cathode rays, and it becomes possible to study them. It is thus that it has been possible to show their positive charge and to show that the magnetic and electric deviations still exist, as for the cathode rays, but are much feebler.

Radium likewise emits rays analogous to the canal rays, and relatively very absorbable, called α rays.

We can, as for the cathode rays, measure the two deviations and thence deduce the velocity and the ratio ε. The results are less constant than for the cathode rays, but the velocity is less, as well as the ratio ε; the positive corpuscles are less charged than the negative; or if, which is more natural, we suppose the charges equal and of opposite sign, the positive corpuscles are much the larger. These corpuscles, charged the ones positively, the others negatively, have been called electrons.


The Theory of Lorentz[edit]

But the electrons do not merely show us their existence in these rays where they are endowed with enormous velocities. We shall see them in very different roles, and it is they that account for the principal phenomena of optics and electricity. The brilliant synthesis about to be noticed is due to Lorentz.

Matter is formed solely of electrons carrying enormous charges, and, if it seems to us neutral, this is because the charges of opposite sign of these electrons compensate each other. We may imagine, for example, a sort of solar system formed of a great positive electron, around which gravitate numerous little planets, the negative electrons, attracted by the electricity of opposite name which charges the central electron. The negative charges of these planets would balance the positive charge of this sun, so that the algebraic sum of all these charges would be naught.

All these electrons swim in the ether. The ether is everywhere identically the same, and perturbations in it are propagated according to the same laws as light or the Hertzian oscillations in vacuo. There is nothing but electrons and ether. When a luminous wave enters a part of the ether where electrons are numerous, these electrons are put in motion under the influence of the perturbation of the ether, and they then react upon the ether. So would be explained refraction, dispersion, double refraction and absorption. Just so, if for any cause an electron be put in motion, it would trouble the ether around it and would give rise to luminous waves, and this would explain the emission of light by incandescent bodies.

In certain bodies, the metals for example, we should have fixed electrons, between which would circulate moving electrons enjoying perfect liberty, save that of going out from the metallic body and breaking the surface which separates it from the exterior void or from the air, or from any other non-metallic body.

These movable electrons behave then, within the metallic body, as do, according to the kinetic theory of gases, the molecules of a gas within the vase where this gas is confined. But, under the influence of a difference of potential, the negative movable electrons would tend to go all to one side, and the positive movable electrons to the other. This is what would produce electric currents, and this is why these bodies would he conductors. On the other hand, the velocities of our electrons would be the greater the higher the temperature, if we accept the assimilation with the kinetic theory of gases. When one of these movable electrons encounters the surface of the metallic body, whose boundary it can not pass, it is reflected like a billiard ball which has hit the cushion, and its velocity undergoes a sudden change of direction. But when an electron changes direction, as we shall see further on, it becomes the source of a luminous wave, and this is why hot metals are incandescent.

In other bodies, the dielectrics and the transparent bodies, the movable electrons enjoy much less freedom. They remain as if attached to fixed electrons which attract them. The farther they go away from them the greater becomes this attraction and tends to pull them back. They therefore can make only small excursions; they can no longer circulate, but only oscillate about their mean position. This is why these bodies would not be conductors; moreover they would most often be transparent, and they would be refractive, since the luminous vibrations would be communicated to the movable electrons, susceptible of oscillation, and thence a perturbation would result.

I can not here give the details of the calculations; I confine myself to saying that this theory accounts for all the known facts, and has predicted new ones, such as the Zeeman effect.


Mechanical Consequences[edit]

We now may face two hypotheses :

1° The positive electrons have a real mass, much greater than their fictitious electromagnetic mass; the negative electrons alone lack real mass. We might even suppose that apart from electrons of the two signs, there are neutral atoms which have only their real mass. In this case, mechanics is not affected; there is no need of touching its laws; the real mass is constant; simply, motions are deranged by the effects of self-induction, as has always been known; moreover, these perturbations are almost negligible, except for the negative electrons which, not having real mass, are not true matter;

2° But there is another point of view; we may suppose there are no neutral atoms, and the positive electrons lack real mass just as the negative electrons. But then, real mass vanishing, either the word mass will no longer have any meaning, or else it must designate the fictitious electromagnetic mass; in this case, mass will no longer be constant, the transversal mass will no longer be equal to the longitudinal, the principles of mechanics will be overthrown.

First a word of explanation. We have said that, for the same charge, the total mass of a positive electron is much greater than that of a negative. And then it is natural to think that this difference is explained by the positive electron having, besides its fictitious mass, a considerable real mass; which takes us back to the first hypothesis. But we may just as well suppose that the real mass is null for these as for the others, but that the fictitious mass of the positive electron is much the greater since this electron is much the smaller. I say advisedly: much the smaller. And, in fact, in this hypothesis inertia is exclusively electromagnetic in origin; it reduces itself to the inertia of the ether; the electrons are no longer anything by themselves; they are solely holes in the ether and around which the ether moves; the smaller these holes are, the more will there be of ether, the greater, consequently, will be the inertia of the ether.

How shall we decide between these two hypotheses? By operating upon the canal rays as Kaufmann did upon the β rays? This is impossible; the velocity of these rays is much too slight. Should each therefore decide according to his temperament, the conservatives going to one side and the lovers of the new to the other? Perhaps, but, to fully understand the arguments of the innovators, other considerations must come in.


Mechanics and Optics[edit]



You know in what the phenomenon of aberration, discovered by Bradley, consists. The light issuing from a star takes a certain time to go through a telescope; daring this time, the telescope, carried along by the motion of the earth, is displaced. If therefore the telescope were pointed in the true direction of the star, the image would be formed at the point occupied by the crossing of the threads of the network when the light has reached the objective; and this crossing would no longer be at this same point when the light reached the plane of the network. We would therefore be led to mis-point the telescope to bring the image upon the crossing of the threads. Thence results that the astronomer will not point the telescope in the direction of the absolute velocity of the light, that is to say toward the true position of the star, but just in the direction of the relative velocity of the light with reference to the earth, that is to say toward what is called the apparent position of the star.

The velocity of light is known; we might therefore suppose that we have the means of calculating the absolute velocity of the earth. (I shall soon explain my use here of the word absolute.) Nothing of the sort; we indeed know the apparent position of the star we observe ; but we do not know its true position; we know the velocity of the light only in magnitude and not in direction.

If therefore the absolute velocity of the earth were straight and uniform, we should never have suspected the phenomenon of aberration; but it is variable; it is composed of two parts: the velocity of the solar system, which is straight and uniform; the velocity of the earth with reference to the sun, which is variable. If the velocity of the solar system, that is to say if the constant part existed alone, the observed direction would be invariable. This position that one would thus observe is called the mean apparent position of the star.

Taking account now at the same time of the two parts of the velocity of the earth, we shall have the actual apparent position, which describes a little ellipse around the mean apparent position, and it is this ellipse that we observe.

Neglecting very small quantities, we shall see that the dimensions of this ellipse depend only upon the ratio of the velocity of the earth with reference to the sun to the velocity of light, so that the relative velocity of the earth with regard to the sun has alone come in.

But wait! This result is not exact, it is only approximate; let us push the approximation a little farther. The dimensions of the ellipse will depend then upon the absolute velocity of the earth. Let us compare the major axes of the ellipse for the different stars: we shall have, theoretically at least, the means of determining this absolute velocity.

That would be perhaps less shocking than it at first seems; it is a question, in fact, not of the velocity with reference to an absolute void, but of the velocity with regard to the ether, which is taken by definition as being absolutely at rest.

Besides, this method is purely theoretical. In fact, the aberration is very small; the possible variations of the ellipse of aberration are much smaller yet, and, if we consider the aberration as of the first order, they should therefore be regarded as of the second order: about a millionth of a second; they are absolutely inappreciable for our instruments. We shall finally see, further on, why the preceding theory should be rejected, and why we could not determine this absolute velocity even if our instruments were ten thousand times more precise!

One might imagine some other means, and in fact, so one has. The velocity of light is not the same in water as in air; could we not compare the two apparent positions of a star seen through a telescope first full of air, then full of water? The results have been negative; the apparent laws of reflection and refraction are not altered by the motion of the earth. This phenomenon is capable of two explanations :

1° It might be supposed that the ether is not at rest, but that it is carried along by the body in motion. It would then not be astonishing that the phenomena of refraction are not altered by the motion of the earth, since all, prisms, telescopes and ether, are carried along together in the same translation. As to the aberration itself, it would be explained by a sort of refraction happening at the surface of separation of the ether at rest in the interstellar spaces and the ether carried along by the motion of the earth. It is upon this hypothesis (bodily carrying along of the ether) that is founded the theory of Hertz on the electrodynamics of moving bodies.

2° Fresnel, on the contrary, supposes that the ether is at absolute rest in the void, at rest almost absolute in the air, whatever be the velocity of this air, and that it is partially carried along by refractive media. Lorentz has given to this theory a more satisfactory form. For him, the ether is at rest, only the electrons are in motion; in the void, where it is only a question of the ether, in the air, where this is almost the case, the carrying along is null or almost null; in refractive media, where perturbation is produced at the same time by vibrations of the ether and those of electrons put in swing by the agitation of the ether, the undulations are partially carried along.

To decide between the two hypotheses, we have Fizeau's experiment, comparing by measurements of the fringes of interference, the velocity of light in air at rest or in motion. These experiments have confirmed Fresnel's hypothesis of partial carrying along. They have been repeated with the same result by Michelson. The theory of Hertz must therefore be rejected.


The Principle of Relativity[edit]

But if the ether is not carried along by the motion of the earth, is it possible to show, by means of optical phenomena, the absolute velocity of the earth, or rather its velocity with respect to the unmoving ether? Experiment has answered negatively, and yet the experimental procedures have been varied in all possible ways. Whatever be the means employed there will never be disclosed anything but relative velocities; I mean the velocities of certain material bodies with reference to other material bodies. In fact, if the source of light and the apparatus of observation are on the earth and participate in its motion, the experimental results have always been the same, whatever be the orientation of the apparatus with reference to the orbital motion of the earth. If astronomic aberration happens, it is because the source, a star, is in motion with reference to the observer.

The hypotheses so far made perfectly account for this general result, if we neglect very small quantities of the order of the square of the aberration. The explanation rests upon the notion of local time, introduced by Lorentz, which I shall try to make clear. Suppose two observers, placed one at A, the other at B, and wishing to set their watches by means of optical signals. They agree that B shall send a signal to A when his watch marks an hour determined upon, and A is to put his watch to that hour the moment he sees the signal. If this alone were done, there would be a systematic error, because as the light takes a certain time t to go from B to A, A 's watch would be behind B 's the time t. This error is easily corrected. It suffices to cross the signals. A in turn must signal B, and, after this new adjustment, B 's watch will be behind A 's the time t. Then it will be sufficient to take the arithmetic mean of the two adjustments.

But this way of doing supposes that light takes the same time to go from A to B as to return from B to A. That is true if the observers are motionless; it is no longer so if they are carried along in a common translation, since then A, for example, will go to meet the light coming from B, while B will flee before the light coming from A. If therefore the observers are borne along in a common translation and if they do not suspect it, their adjustment will be defective; their watches will not indicate the same time; each will show the local time belonging to the point where it is.

The two observers will have no way of perceiving this, if the unmoving ether can transmit to them only luminous signals all of the same velocity, and if the other signals they might send are transmitted by media carried along with them in their translation. The phenomenon each observes will be too soon or too late; it would be seen at the same instant only if the translation did not exist; but as it will be observed with a watch that is wrong, this will not be perceived and the appearances will not be altered.

It results from this that the compensation is easy to explain so long as we neglect the square of the aberration, and for a long time the experiments were not sufficiently precise to warrant taking account of it. But the day came when Michelson imagined a much more delicate procedure: he made rays interfere which had traversed different courses, after being reflected by mirrors; each of the paths approximating a meter and the fringes of interference permitting the recognition of a fraction of a thousandth of a millimeter, the square of the aberration could no longer be neglected, and yet the results were still negative. Therefore the theory required to be completed, and it has been by the Lorentz-Fitzgerald hypothesis.

These two physicists suppose that all bodies carried along in a translation undergo a contraction in the sense of this translation, while their dimensions perpendicular to this translation remain unchanged. This contraction is the same for all bodies; moreover, it is very slight, about one two-hundred-millionth for a velocity such as that of the earth. Furthermore our measuring instruments could not disclose it, even if they were much more precise; our measuring rods in fact undergo the same contraction as the objects to be measured. If the meter exactly fits when applied to a body, if we point the body and consequently the meter in the sense of the motion of the earth, it will not cease to exactly fit in another orientation, and that although the body and the meter have changed in length as well as orientation, and precisely because the change is the same for one as for the other. But it is quite different if we measure a length, not now with a meter, but by the time taken by light to pass along it, and this is just what Michelson has done.

A body, spherical when at rest, will take thus the form of a flattened ellipsoid of revolution when in motion; but the observer will always think it spherical, since he himself has undergone an analogous deformation, as also all the objects serving as points of reference. On the contrary, the surfaces of the waves of light, remaining rigorously spherical, will seem to him elongated ellipsoids.

What happens then? Suppose an observer and a source of light carried along together in the translation: the wave surfaces emanating from the source will be spheres having as centers the successive positions of the source; the distance from this center to the actual position of the source will be proportional to the time elapsed after the emission, that is to say to the radius of the sphere. All these spheres are therefore homothetic one to the other, with relation to the actual position S of the source. But, for our observer, because of the contraction, all these spheres will seem elongated ellipsoids, and all these ellipsoids will moreover be homothetic, with reference to the point S; the excentricity of all these ellipsoids is the same and depends solely upon the velocity of the earth. We shall so select the law of contraction that the point S may be at the focus of the meridian section of the ellipsoid.

This time the compensation is rigorous, and this it is which explains Michelson's experiment.

I have said above that, according to the ordinary theories, observations of the astronomic aberration would give us the absolute velocity of the earth, if our instruments were a thousand times more precise. I must modify this statement. Yes, the observed angles would be modified by the effect of this absolute velocity, but the graduated circles we use to measure the angles would be deformed by the translation: they would become ellipses; thence would result an error in regard to the angle measured, and this second error would exactly compensate the first.

This Lorentz-Fitzgerald hypothesis seems at first very extraordinary; all we can say for the moment, in its favor, is that it is only the immediate translation of Michelson's experimental result, if we define lengths by the time taken by light to run along them.

However that may be, it is impossible to escape the impression that the principle of relativity is a general law of nature, that one will never be able by any imaginable means to show any but relative velocities, and I mean by that not only the velocities of bodies with reference to the ether, but the velocities of bodies with regard to one another. Too many different experiments have given concordant results for us not to feel tempted to attribute to this principle of relativity a value comparable to that, for example, of the principle of equivalence. In any case, it is proper to see to what consequences this way of looking at things would lead us and then to submit these consequences to the control of experiment.


The Principle of Reaction[edit]

Let us see what the principle of the equality of action and reaction becomes in the theory of Lorentz. Consider an electron A which for any cause begins to move; it produces a perturbation in the ether; at the end of a certain time, this perturbation reaches another electron B, which will be disturbed from its position of equilibrium. In these conditions there can not be equality between action and reaction, at least if we do not consider the ether, but only the electrons, which alone are observable, since our matter is made of electrons.

In fact it is the electron A which has disturbed the electron B; even in case the electron B should react upon A, this reaction could be equal to the action, but in no case simultaneous, since the electron B can begin to move only after a certain time, necessary for the propagation. Submitting the problem to a more exact calculation, we reach the following result: Suppose a Hertz discharger placed at the focus of a parabolic mirror to which it is mechanically attached; this discharger emits electromagnetic waves, and the mirror reflects all these waves in the same direction; the discharger therefore will radiate energy in a determinate direction. Well, the calculation shows that the discharger recoils like a cannon which has shot out a projectile. In the case of the cannon, the recoil is the natural result of the equality of action and reaction. The cannon recoils because the projectile upon which it has acted reacts upon it. But here it is no longer the same. What has been sent out is no longer a material projectile: it is energy, and energy has no mass: it has no counterpart. And, in place of a discharger, we could have considered just simply a lamp with a reflector concentrating its rays in a single direction.

It is true that, if the energy sent out from the discharger or from the lamp meets a material object, this object receives a mechanical push as if it had been hit by a real projectile, and this push will be equal to the recoil of the discharger and of the lamp, if no energy has been lost on the way and if the object absorbs the whole of the energy. Therefore one is tempted to say that there still is compensation between the action and the reaction. But this compensation, even should it be complete, is always belated. It never happens if the light, after leaving its source, wanders through interstellar spaces without ever meeting a material body; it is incomplete, if the body it strikes is not perfectly absorbent.

Are these mechanical actions too small to be measured, or are they accessible to experiment? These actions are nothing other than those due to the Maxwell-Bartholi pressures; Maxwell had predicted these pressures from calculations relative to electrostatics and magnetism; Bartholi reached the same result by thermodynamic considerations.

This is how the tails of comets are explained. Little particles detach themselves from the nucleus of the comet; they are struck by the light of the sun, which pushes them back as would a rain of projectiles coming from the sun. The mass of these particles is so little that this repulsion sweeps it away against the Newtonian attraction; so in moving away from the sun they form the tails.

The direct experimental verification was not easy to obtain. The first endeavor led to the construction of the radiometer. But this instrument turns backward, in the sense opposite to the theoretic sense, and the explanation of its rotation, since discovered, is wholly different. At last success came, by making the vacuum more complete, on the one hand, and on the other by not blackening one of the faces of the paddles and directing a pencil of luminous rays upon one of the faces. The radiometric effects and the other disturbing causes are eliminated by a series of painstaking precautions, and one obtains a deviation which is very minute, but which is, it would seem, in conformity with the theory.

The same effects of the Maxwell-Bartholi pressure are forecast likewise by the theory of Hertz of which we have before spoken, and by that of Lorentz. But there is a difference. Suppose that the energy, under the form of light, for example, proceeds from a luminous source to any body through a transparent medium. The Maxwell-Bartholi pressure will act, not alone upon the source at the departure, and on the body lit up at the arrival, but upon the matter of the transparent medium which it traverses. At the moment when the luminous wave reaches a new region of this medium, this pressure will push forward the matter there distributed and will put it back when the wave leaves this region. So that the recoil of the source has for counterpart the forward movement of the transparent matter which is in contact with this source; a little later, the recoil of this same matter has for counterpart the forward movement of the transparent matter which lies a little further on, and so on.

Only, is the compensation perfect? Is the action of the Maxwell-Bartholi pressure upon the matter of the transparent medium equal to its reaction upon the source, and that, whatever be this matter? Or is this action by so much the less as the medium is less refractive and more rarefied, becoming null in the void?

If we admit the theory of Hertz, who regards matter as mechanically bound to the ether, so that the ether may be entirely carried along by matter, it would be necessary to answer yes to the first question and no to the second.

There would then be perfect compensation, as required by the principle of the equality of action and reaction, even in the least refractive media, even in the air, even in the interplanetary void, where it would suffice to suppose a residue of matter, however subtile. If on the contrary we admit the theory of Lorentz, the compensation, always imperfect, is insensible in the air and becomes null in the void.

But we have seen above that Fizeau's experiment does not permit of our retaining the theory of Hertz; it is necessary therefore to adopt the theory of Lorentz, and consequently to renounce the principle of reaction.


Consequences of the Principle of Relativity[edit]

We have seen above the reasons which impel us to regard the principle of relativity as a general law of nature. Let us see to what consequences this principle would lead, should it be regarded as finally demonstrated.

First, it obliges us to generalize the hypothesis of Lorentz and Fitzgerald on the contraction of all bodies in the sense of the translation. In particular, we must extend this hypothesis to the electrons themselves. Abraham considered these electrons as spherical and indeformable; it will be necessary for us to admit that these electrons, spherical when in repose, undergo the Lorentz contraction when in motion and take then the form of flattened ellipsoids.

This deformation of the electrons will influence their mechanical properties. In fact I have said that the displacement of these charged electrons is a veritable current of convection and that their apparent inertia is due to the self-induction of this current: exclusively as concerns the negative electrons; exclusively or not, we do not yet know, for the positive electrons. Well, the deformation of the electrons, a deformation which depends upon their velocity, will modify the distribution of the electricity upon their surface, consequently the intensity of the convection current they produce, consequently the laws according to which the self-induction of this current will vary as a function of the velocity.

At this price, the compensation will be perfect and will conform to the requirements of the principle of relativity, but only upon two conditions :

1° That the positive electrons have no real mass, but only a fictitious electromagnetic mass; or at least that their real mass, if it exists, is not constant and varies with the velocity according to the same laws as their fictitious mass;

2° That all forces are of electromagnetic origin, or at least that they vary with the velocity according to the same laws as the forces of electromagnetic origin.

It still is Lorentz who has made this remarkable synthesis; stop a moment and see what follows therefrom. First, there is no more matter, since the positive electrons no longer have real mass, or at least no constant real mass. The present principles of our mechanics, founded upon the constancy of mass, must therefore be modified. Again, an electromagnetic explanation must be sought of all the known forces, in particular of gravitation, or at least the law of gravitation must be so modified that this force is altered by velocity in the same way as the electromagnetic forces. We shall return to this point.

All that appears, at first sight, a little artificial. In particular, this deformation of electrons seems quite hypothetical. But the thing may be presented otherwise, so as to avoid putting this hypothesis of deformation at the foundation of the reasoning. Consider the electrons as material points and ask how their mass should vary as function of the velocity not to contravene the principle of relativity. Or, still better, ask what should be their acceleration under the influence of an electric or magnetic field, that this principle be not violated and that we come back to the ordinary laws when we suppose the velocity very slight. We shall find that the variations of this mass, or of these accelerations, must be as if the electron underwent the Lorentz deformation.


Kaufmann's Experiment[edit]

We have before us, then, two theories: one where the electrons are indeformable, this is that of Abraham; the other where they undergo the Lorentz deformation. In both cases, their mass increases with the velocity, becoming infinite when this velocity becomes equal to that of light; but the law of the variation is not the same. The method employed by Kaufmann to bring to light the law of variation of the mass seems therefore to give us an experimental means of deciding between the two theories.

Unhappily, his first experiments were not sufficiently precise for that; so he decided to repeat them with more precautions, and measuring with great care the intensity of the fields. Under their new form they are in favor of the theory of Abraham. Then the principle of relativity would not have the rigorous value we were tempted to attribute to it; there would no longer be reason for believing the positive electrons denuded of real mass like the negative electrons. However, before definitely adopting this conclusion, a little reflection is necessary. The question is of such importance that it is to be wished Kaufmann's experiment were repeated by another experimenter.[1] Unhappily, this experiment is very delicate and could be carried out successfully only by a physicist of the same ability as Kaufmann. All precautions have been properly taken and we hardly see what objection could be made.

There is one point however to which I wish to draw attention: that is to the measurement of the electrostatic field, a measurement upon which all depends. This field was produced between the two armatures of a condenser; and, between these armatures, there was to be made an extremely perfect vacuum, in order to obtain a complete isolation. Then the difference of potential of the two armatures was measured, and the field obtained by dividing this difference by the distance apart of the armatures. That supposes the field uniform; is this certain? Might there not be an abrupt fall of potential in the neighborhood of one of the armatures, of the negative armature, for example? There may be a difference of potential at the meeting of the metal and the vacuum, and it may be that this difference is not the same on the positive side and on the negative side; what would lead me to think so is the electric valve effects between mercury and vacuum. However slight the probability that it is so, it seems that it should be considered.


The Principle of Inertia[edit]

In the new dynamics, the principle of inertia is still true, that is to say that an isolated electron will have a straight and uniform motion. At least this is generally assumed; however, Lindemann has made objections to this view; I do not wish to take part in this discussion, which I can not here expound because of its too difficult character. In any case, slight modifications to the theory would suffice to shelter it from Lindemann's objections.

We know that a body submerged in a fluid experiences, when in motion, considerable resistance, but this is because our fluids are viscous; in an ideal fluid, perfectly free from viscosity, the body would stir up behind it a liquid hill, a sort of wake; upon departure, a great effort would be necessary to put it in motion, since it would be necessary to move not only the body itself, but the liquid of its wake. But, the motion once acquired, it would perpetuate itself without resistance, since the body, in advancing, would simply carry with it the perturbation of the liquid, without the total vis viva of the liquid augmenting. Everything would happen therefore as if its inertia was augmented. An electron advancing in the ether would behave in the same way: around it, the ether would be stirred up, but this perturbation would accompany the body in its motion; so that, for an observer carried along with the electron, the electric and magnetic fields accompanying this electron would appear invariable, and would change only if the velocity of the electron varied. An effort would therefore be necessary to put the electron in motion, since it would be necessary to create the energy of these fields; on the contrary, once the movement acquired, no effort would be necessary to maintain it, since the created energy would only have to go along behind the electron as a wake. This energy, therefore, could only augment the inertia of the electron, as the agitation of the liquid augments that of the body submerged in a perfect fluid. And anyhow, the negative electrons at least have no other inertia except that.

In the hypothesis of Lorentz, the vis viva, which is only the energy of the ether, is not proportional to v². Doubtless if v is very slight, the vis viva is sensibly proportional to v², the quantity of motion sensibly proportional to v, the two masses sensibly constant and equal to each other. But when the velocity tends toward the velocity of light, the vis viva, the quantity of motion and the two masses increase beyond all limit.

In the hypothesis of Abraham, the expressions are a little more complicated; but what we have just said remains true in essentials.

So the mass, the quantity of motion, the vis viva become infinite when the velocity is equal to that of light.

Thence results that no body can attain in any way a velocity beyond that of light. And in fact, in proportion as its velocity increases, its mass increases, so that its inertia opposes to any new increase of velocity a greater and greater obstacle.

A question then suggests itself: let us admit the principle of relativity; an observer in motion would not have any means of perceiving his own motion. If therefore no body in its absolute motion can exceed the velocity of light, but may approach it as nearly as you choose, it should be the same concerning its relative motion with reference to our observer. And then we might be tempted to reason as follows: The observer may attain a velocity of 200,000 kilometers; the body in its relative motion with reference to the observer may attain the same velocity; its absolute velocity will then be 400,000 kilometers, which is impossible, since this is beyond the velocity of light. This is only a seeming, which vanishes when account is taken of how Lorentz evaluates local time.


The Wave of Acceleration[edit]

When an electron is in motion, it produces a perturbation in the ether surrounding it; if its motion is straight and uniform, this perturbation reduces to the wake of which we have spoken in the preceding section. But it is no longer the same, if the motion be curvilinear or varied. The perturbation may then be regarded as the superposition of two others, to which Langevin has given the names wave of velocity and wave of acceleration. The wave of velocity is only the wave which happens in uniform motion.

As to the wave of acceleration, this is a perturbation altogether analogous to light waves, which starts from the electron at the instant when it undergoes an acceleration, and which is then propagated by successive spherical waves with the velocity of light. Whence follows: in a straight and uniform motion, the energy is wholly conserved; but, when there is an acceleration, there is loss of energy, which is dissipated under the form of luminous waves and goes out to infinity across the ether.

However, the effects of this wave of acceleration, in particular the corresponding loss of energy, are in most cases negligible, that is to say not only in ordinary mechanics and in the motions of the heavenly bodies, but even in the radium rays, where the velocity is very great without the acceleration being so. We may then confine ourselves to applying the laws of mechanics, putting the force equal to the product of acceleration by mass, this mass, however, varying with the velocity according to the laws explained above. We then say the motion is quasi-stationary.

It would not be the same in all cases where the acceleration is great, of which the chief are the following:

1° In incandescent gases certain electrons take an oscillatory motion of very high frequency; the displacements are very small, the velocities are finite, and the accelerations very great; energy is then communicated to the ether, and this is why these gases radiate light of the same period as the oscillations of the electron;

2° Inversely, when a gas receives light, these same electrons are put in swing with strong accelerations and they absorb light;

3° In the Hertz discharger, the electrons which circulate in the metallic mass undergo, at the instant of the discharge, an abrupt acceleration and take then an oscillatory motion of high frequency. Thence results that a part of the energy radiates under the form of Hertzian waves;

4° In an incandescent metal, the electrons enclosed in this metal are impelled with great velocity; upon reaching the surface of the metal, which they can not get through, they are reflected and thus undergo a considerable acceleration. This is why the metal emits light. The details of the laws of the emission of light by dark bodies are perfectly explained by this hypothesis;

5° Finally when the cathode rays strike the anticathode, the negative electrons constituting these rays, which are impelled with very great velocity, are abruptly arrested. Because of the acceleration they thus undergo, they produce undulations in the ether. This, according to certain physicists, is the origin of the Röntgen rays, which would only be light rays of very short wave-length.

The New Mechanics and Astronomy[edit]



Mass may be defined in two ways:

1° By the quotient of the force by the acceleration; this is the true definition of the mass, which measures the inertia of the body.

2° By the attraction the body exercises upon an exterior body, in virtue of Newton's law. We should therefore distinguish the mass coefficient of inertia and the mass coefficient of attraction. According to Newton's law, there is rigorous proportionality between these two coefficients. But that is demonstrated only for velocities to which the general principles of dynamics are applicable. Now, we have seen that the mass coefficient of inertia increases with the velocity; should we conclude that the mass coefficient of attraction increases likewise with the velocity and remains proportional to the coefficient of inertia, or, on the contrary, that this coefficient of attraction remains constant? This is a question we have no means of deciding.

On the other hand, if the coefficient of attraction depends upon the velocity, since the velocities of two bodies which mutually attract are not in general the same, how will this coefficient depend upon these two velocities ?

Upon this subject we can only make hypotheses, but we are naturally led to investigate which of these hypotheses would be compatible with the principle of relativity. There are a great number of them; the only one of which I shall here speak is that of Lorentz, which I shall briefly expound.

Consider first electrons at rest. Two electrons of the same sign repel each other and two electrons of contrary sign attract each other; in the ordinary theory, their mutual actions are proportional to their electric charges; if therefore we have four electrons, two positive A and A', and two negative B and B', the charges of these four being the same in absolute value, the repulsion of A for A' will be, at the same distance, equal to the repulsion of B for B' and equal also to the attraction of A for B', or of A' for B. If therefore A and B are very near each other, as also A' and B', and we examine the action of the system A + B upon the system A' + B', we shall have two repulsions and two attractions which will exactly compensate each other and the resulting action will be null.

Now, material molecules should just be regarded as species of solar systems where circulate the electrons, some positive, some negative, and in such a way that the algebraic sum of all the charges is null. A material molecule is therefore wholly analogous to the system A + B of which we have spoken, so that the total electric action of two molecules one upon the other should be null.

But experiment shows us that these molecules attract each other in consequence of Newtonian gravitation; and then we may make two hypotheses: we may suppose gravitation has no relation to the electrostatic attractions, that it is due to a cause entirely different, and is simply something additional; or else we may suppose the attractions are not proportional to the charges and that the attraction exercised by a charge +1 upon a charge —1 is greater than the mutual repulsion of two +1 charges, or two —1 charges.

In other words, the electric field produced by the positive electrons and that which the negative electrons produce might be superposed and yet remain distinct. The positive electrons would be more sensitive to the field produced by the negative electrons than to the field produced by the positive electrons; the contrary would be the case for the negative electrons. It is clear that this hypothesis somewhat complicates electrostatics, but that it brings back into it gravitation. This was, in sum, Franklin's hypothesis.

What happens now if the electrons are in motion? The positive electrons will cause a perturbation in the ether and produce there an electric and a magnetic field. The same will be the case for the negative electrons. The electrons, positive as well as negative, undergo then a mechanical impulsion by the action of these different fields. In the ordinary theory, the electromagnetic field, due to the motion of the positive electrons, exercises, upon two electrons of contrary sign and of the same absolute charge, equal actions with contrary sign. We may then without inconvenience not distinguish the field due to the motion of the positive electrons and the field due to the motion of the negative electrons and consider only the algebraic sum of these two fields, that is to say the resulting field.

In the new theory, on the contrary, the action upon the positive electrons of the electromagnetic field due to the positive electrons follows the ordinary laws; it is the same with the action upon the negative electrons of the field due to the negative electrons. Let us now consider the action of the field due to the positive electrons upon the negative electrons (or inversely); it will still follow the same laws, but with a different coefficient. Each electron is more sensitive to the field created by the electrons of contrary name than to the field created by the electrons of the same name.

Such is the hypothesis of Lorentz, which reduces to Franklin's hypothesis for slight velocities; it will therefore explain, for these small velocities, Newton's law. Moreover, as gravitation goes back to forces of electrodynamic origin, the general theory of Lorentz will apply, and consequently the principle of relativity will not be violated.

We see that Newton's law is no longer applicable to great velocities and that it must be modified, for bodies in motion, precisely in the same way as the laws of electrostatics for electricity in motion.

We know that electromagnetic perturbations spread with the velocity of light. We may therefore be tempted to reject the preceding theory upon remembering that gravitation spreads, according to the calculations of Laplace, at least ten million times more quickly than light, and that consequently it can not be of electromagnetic origin. The result of Laplace is well known, but one is generally ignorant of its signification. Laplace supposed that, if the propagation of gravitation is not instantaneous, its velocity of spread combines with that of the body attracted, as happens for light in the phenomenon of astronomic aberration, so that the effective force is not directed along the straight joining the two bodies, but makes with this straight a small angle. This is a very special hypothesis, not well justified, and, in any case, entirely different from that of Lorentz. Laplace's result proves nothing against the theory of Lorentz.


Comparison with Astronomic Observations[edit]

Can the preceding theories be reconciled with astronomic observations?

First of all, if we adopt them, the energy of the planetary motions will be constantly dissipated by the effect of the wave of acceleration. From this would result that the mean motions of the stars would constantly accelerate, as if these stars were moving in a resistant medium. But this effect is exceedingly slight, far too much so to be discerned by the most precise observations. The acceleration of the heavenly bodies is relatively slight, so that the effects of the wave of acceleration are negligible and the motion may be regarded as quasi-stationary. It is true that the effects of the wave of acceleration constantly accumulate, but this accumulation itself is so slow that thousands of years of observation would be necessary for it to become sensible. Let us therefore make the calculation considering the motion as quasi-stationary, and that under the three following hypotheses :

A. Admit the hypothesis of Abraham (electrons indeformable) and retain Newton's law in its usual form;

B. Admit the hypothesis of Lorentz about the deformation of electrons and retain the usual Newton's law;

C. Admit the hypothesis of Lorentz about electrons and modify Newton's law as we have done in the preceding paragraph, so as to render it compatible with the principle of relativity.

It is in the motion of Mercury that the effect will be most sensible, since this planet has the greatest velocity. Tisserand formerly made an analogous calculation, admitting Weber's law; I recall that Weber had sought to explain at the same time the electrostatic and electrodynamic phenomena in supposing that electrons (whose name was not jet invented) exercise, one upon another, attractions and repulsions directed along the straight joining them, and depending not only upon their distances, but upon the first and second derivatives of these distances, consequently upon their velocities and their accelerations. This law of Weber, different enough from those which to-day tend to prevail, none the less presents a certain analogy with them.

Tisserand found that, if the Newtonian attraction conformed to Weber's law there resulted, for Mercury's perihelion, secular variation of 14", of the same sense as that which has been observed and could not be explained, but smaller, since this is 38".

Let us recur to the hypotheses A, B and C, and study first the motion of a planet attracted by a fixed center. The hypotheses B and C are no longer distinguished, since, if the attracting point is fixed, the field it produces is a purely electrostatic field, where the attraction varies inversely as the square of the distance, in conformity with Coulomb's electrostatic law, identical with that of Newton.

The vis viva equation holds good, taking for vis viva the new definition; in the same way, the equation of areas is replaced by another equivalent to it; the moment of the quantity of motion is a constant, but the quantity of motion must be defined as in the new dynamics.

The only sensible effect will be a secular motion of the perihelion. With the theory of Lorentz, we shall find, for this motion, half of what Weber's law would give; with the theory of Abraham, two fifths.

If now we suppose two moving bodies gravitating around their common center of gravity, the effects are very little different, though the calculations may be a little more complicated. The motion of Mercury's perihelion would therefore be 7" in the theory of Lorentz and 5".6 in that of Abraham.

The effect moreover is proportional to n²a², where n is the star's mean motion and a the radius of its orbit. For the planets, in virtue of Kepler's law, the effect varies then inversely as ; it is therefore insensible, save for Mercury.

It is likewise insensible for the moon though n is great, because a is extremely small; in sum, it is five times less for Venus, and six hundred times less for the moon than for Mercury. We may add that as to Venus and the earth, the motion of the perihelion (for the same angular velocity of this motion) would be much more difficult to discern by astronomic observations, because the excentricity of their orbits is much less than for Mercury.

To sum up, the only sensible effect upon astronomic observations would be a motion of Mercury's perihelion, in the same sense as that which has been observed without being explained, but notably slighter.

That can not be regarded as an argument in favor of the new dynamics, since it will always be necessary to seek another explanation for the greater part of Mercury's anomaly; but still less can it be regarded as an argument against it.


The Theory of Lesage[edit]

It is interesting to compare these considerations with a theory long since proposed to explain universal gravitation.

Suppose that, in the interplanetary spaces, circulate in every direction, with high velocities, very tenuous corpuscles. A body isolated in space will not be affected, apparently, by the impacts of these corpuscles, since these impacts are equally distributed in all directions. But if two bodies A and B are present, the body B will play the role of screen and will intercept part of the corpuscles which, without it, would have struck A. Then, the impacts received by A in the direction opposite that from B will no longer have a counterpart, or will now be only partially compensated, and this will push A toward B.

Such is the theory of Lesage; and we shall discuss it, taking first the view-point of ordinary mechanics.

First, how should the impacts postulated by this theory take place; is it according to the laws of perfectly elastic bodies, or according to those of bodies devoid of elasticity, or according to an intermediate law? The corpuscles of Lesage can not act as perfectly elastic bodies; otherwise the effect would be null, since the corpuscles intercepted by the body B would be replaced by others which would have rebounded from B, and calculation proves that the compensation would be perfect. It is necessary then that the impact make the corpuscles lose energy, and this energy should appear under the form of heat. But how much heat would thus be produced? Note that attraction passes through bodies; it is necessary therefore to represent to ourselves the earth, for example, not as a solid screen, but as formed of a very great number of very small spherical molecules, which play individually the rôle of little screens, but between which the corpuscles of Lesage may freely circulate. So, not only the earth is not a solid screen, but it is not even a cullender, since the voids occupy much more space than the plenums. To realize this, recall that Laplace has demonstrated that attraction, in traversing the earth, is weakened at most by one ten-millionth part, and his proof is perfectly satisfactory: in fact, if attraction were absorbed by the body it traverses, it would no longer be proportional to the masses; it would be relatively weaker for great bodies than for small, since it would have a greater thickness to traverse. The attraction of the sun for the earth would therefore be relatively weaker than that of the sun for the moon, and thence would result, in the motion of the moon, a very sensible inequality. We should therefore conclude, if we adopt the theory of Lesage, that the total surface of the spherical molecules which compose the earth is at most the ten-millionth part of the total surface of the earth.

Darwin has proved that the theory of Lesage only leads exactly to Newton's law when we postulate particles entirely devoid of elasticity. The attraction exerted by the earth on a mass 1 at a distance 1 will then be proportional, at the same time, to the total surface S of the spherical molecules composing it, to the velocity v of the corpuscles, to the square root of the density ρ of the medium formed by the corpuscles. The heat produced will be proportional to S, to the density ρ, and to the cube of the velocity v.

But it is necessary to take account of the resistance experienced by a body moving in such a medium; it can not move, in fact, without going against certain impacts, in fleeing, on the contrary, before those coming in the opposite direction, so that the compensation realized in the state of rest can no longer subsist. The calculated resistance is proportional to S, to ρ and to v; now, we know that the heavenly bodies move as if they experienced no resistance, and the precision of observations permits us to fix a limit to the resistance of the medium.

This resistance varying as Sρv, while the attraction varies as , we see that the ratio of the resistance to the square of the attraction is inversely as the product Sv.

We have therefore a lower limit of the product Sv. We have already an upper limit of S (by the absorption of attraction by the body it traverses); we have therefore a lower limit of the velocity v, which must be at least 24·1017 times that of light.

From this we are able to deduce ρ and the quantity of heat produced; this quantity would suffice to raise the temperature 1026 degrees a second; the earth would receive in a given time 1020 times more heat than the sun emits in the same time; I am not speaking of the heat the sun sends to the earth, but of that it radiates in all directions.

It is evident the earth could not long stand such a regime.

We should not be led to results less fantastic if, contrary to Darwin's views, we endowed the corpuscles of Lesage with an elasticity imperfect without being null. In truth, the vis viva of these corpuscles would not be entirely converted into heat, but the attraction produced would likewise be less, so that it would be only the part of this vis viva converted into heat, which would contribute to produce the attraction and that would come to the same thing; a judicious employment of the theorem of the viriel would enable us to account for this.

The theory of Lesage may be transformed; suppress the corpuscles and imagine the ether overrun in all senses by luminous waves coming from all points of space. When a material object receives a luminous wave, this wave exercises upon it a mechanical action due to the Maxwell-Bartholi pressure, just as if it had received the impact of a material projectile. The waves in question could therefore play the role of the corpuscles of Lesage. This is what is supposed, for example, by M. Tommasina.

The difficulties are not removed for all that; the velocity of propagation can be only that of light, and we are thus led, for the resistance of the medium, to an inadmissihle figure. Besides, if the light is all reflected, the effect is null, just as in the hypothesis of the perfectly elastic corpuscles.

That there should be attraction, it is necessary that the light be partially absorbed; but then there is production of heat. The calculations do not differ essentially from those made in the ordinary theory of Lesage, and the result retains the same fantastic character.

On the other hand, attraction is not absorbed by the body it traverses, or hardly at all; it is not so with the light we know. Light which would produce the Newtonian attraction would have to be considerably different from ordinary light and be, for example, of very short wave length. This does not count that, if our eyes were sensible of this light, the whole heavens should appear to us much more brilliant than the sun, so that the son would seem to us to stand out in black, otherwise the sun would repel us instead of attracting us. For all these reasons, light which would permit of the explanation of attraction would be much more like Röntgen rays than like ordinary light.

And besides, the X-rays would not suffice; however penetrating they may seem to us, they could not pass through the whole earth; it would be necessary therefore to imagine X'-rays much more penetrating than the ordinary X-rays. Moreover a part of the energy of these X'-rays would have to be destroyed, otherwise there would be no attraction. If you do not wish it transformed into heat, which would lead to an enormous heat production, you must suppose it radiated in every direction under the form of secondary rays, which might be called X" and which would have to be much more penetrating still than the X'-rays, otherwise they would in their turn derange the phenomena of attraction.

Such are the complicated hypotheses to which we are led when we try to give life to the theory of Lesage.

But all we have said presupposes the ordinary laws of mechanics.

Will things go better if we admit the new dynamics? And first, can we conserve the principles of relativity? Let us give at first to the theory of Lesage its primitive form, and suppose space ploughed by material corpuscles; if these corpuscles were perfectly elastic, the laws of their impact would conform to this principle of relativity, but we know that then their effect would be null. We must therefore suppose these corpuscles are not elastic, and then it is difficult to imagine a law of impact compatible with the principle of relativity. Besides, we should still find a production of considerable heat, and yet a very sensible resistance of the medium.

If we suppress these corpuscles and revert to the hypothesis of the Maxwell-Bartholi pressure, the difficulties will not be less. This is what Lorentz himself has attempted in his Memoir to the Amsterdam Academy of Sciences of April 25, 1900.

Consider a system of electrons immersed in an ether permeated in every sense by luminous waves; one of these electrons, struck by one of these waves, begins to vibrate; its vibration will be synchronous with that of light; but it may have a difference of phase, if the electron absorbs a part of the incident energy. In fact, if it absorbs energy, this is because the vibration of the ether impels the electron; the electron must therefore be slower than the ether. An electron in motion is analogous to a convection current; therefore every magnetic field, in particular that due to the luminous perturbation itself, must exert a mechanical action upon this electron. This action is very slight; moreover, it changes sign in the current of the period; nevertheless, the mean action is not null if there is a difference of phase between the vibrations of the electron and those of the ether. The mean action is proportional to this difference, consequently to the energy absorbed by the electron. I can not here enter into the detail of the calculations; suffice it to say only that the final result is an attraction of any two electrons, varying inversely as the square of the distance and proportional to the energy absorbed by the two electrons.

Therefore there can not be attraction without absorption of light and, consequently, without production of heat, and this it is which determined Lorentz to abandon this theory, which, at bottom, does not differ from that of Lesage-Maxwell-Bartholi. He would have been much more dismayed still if he had pushed the calculation to the end. He would have found that the temperature of the earth would have to increase 1013 degrees a second.



I have striven to give in few words an idea as complete as possible of these new doctrines; I have sought to explain how they took birth; otherwise the reader would have had ground to be frightened by their boldness. The new theories are not yet demonstrated; far from it; only they rest upon an aggregate of probabilities sufficiently weighty for us not to have the right to treat them with disregard.

New experiments will doubtless teach us what we should finally think of them. The knotty point of the question lies in Kaufmann's experiment and those that may be undertaken to verify it.

In conclusion, permit me a word of warning. Suppose that, after some years, these theories undergo new tests and triumph; then our secondary education will incur a great danger: certain professors will doubtless wish to make a place for the new theories.

Novelties are so attractive, and it is so hard not to seem highly advanced! At least there will be the wish to open vistas to the pupils and, before teaching them the ordinary mechanics, to let them know it has had its day and was at best good enough for that old dolt Laplace. And then they will not form the habit of the ordinary mechanics.

Is it well to let them know this is only approximative? Yes; but later, when it has penetrated to their very marrow, when they shall have taken the bent of thinking only through it, when there shall no longer be risk of their unlearning it, then one may, without inconvenience, show them its limits.

It is with the ordinary mechanics that they must live; this alone will they ever have to apply. Whatever be the progress of automobilism, our vehicles will never attain speeds where it is not true. The other is only a luxury, and we should think of the luxury only when there is no longer any risk of harming the necessary.

Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1922, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 99 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.


  1. At the moment of going to press we learn that M. Bucherer has repeated the experiment, taking new precautions, and that he has obtained, contrary to Kaufmann, results confirming the views of Lorentz.