Chapter 1

The Evolution Of Physics

by Lucien Poincaré

Physics has of recently undergone a veritable revolution.

  • All its principles have been made new.
  • All the edifices constructed by our fathers have been overthrown, and that on the field thus cleared has sprung up the most abundant harvest that has ever enriched the domain of science.

It is in fact true that the crop becomes richer and more fruitful, thanks to the development of our laboratories, and that the quantity of seekers has considerably increased in all countries, while their quality has not diminished. We should be sustaining an absolute paradox, and at the same time committing a crying injustice, were we to contest the high importance of recent progress, and to seek to diminish the glory of contemporary physicists. Yet it may be as well not to give way to exaggerations, however pardonable, and to guard against facile illusions. On closer examination it will be seen that our predecessors might at several periods in history have conceived, as legitimately as ourselves, similar sentiments of scientific pride, and have felt that the world was about to appear to them transformed and under an aspect until then absolutely unknown.

Let us take an example which is salient enough; for, however arbitrary the conventional division of time may appear to a physicist’s eyes, it is natural, when instituting a comparison between two epochs, to choose those which extend over a space of half a score of years, and are separated from each other by the gap of a century. Let us, then, go back a hundred years and examine what would have been the state of mind of an erudite amateur who had read and understood the chief publications on physical research between 1800 and 1810.

Let us suppose that this intelligent and attentive spectator witnessed in 1800 the discovery of the galvanic battery by Volta. He might from that moment have felt a presentiment that a prodigious transformation was about to occur in our mode of regarding electrical phenomena. Brought up in the ideas of Coulomb and Franklin, he might till then have imagined that electricity had unveiled nearly all its mysteries, when an entirely original apparatus suddenly gave birth to applications of the highest interest, and excited the blossoming of theories of immense philosophical extent.

In the treatises on physics published a little later, we find traces of the astonishment produced by this sudden revelation of a new world. “Electricity,” wrote the Abbé Haüy, “enriched by the labour of so many distinguished physicists, seemed to have reached the term when a science has no further important steps before it, and only leaves to those who cultivate it the hope of confirming the discoveries of their predecessors, and of casting a brighter light on the truths revealed. One would have thought that all researches for diversifying the results of experiment were exhausted, and that theory itself could only be augmented by the addition of a greater degree of precision to the applications of principles already known. While science thus appeared to be making for repose, the phenomena of the convulsive movements observed by Galvani in the muscles of a frog when connected by metal were brought to the attention and astonishment of physicists…. Volta, in that Italy which had been the cradle of the new knowledge, discovered the principle of its true theory in a fact which reduces the explanation of all the phenomena in question to the simple contact of two substances of different nature. This fact became in his hands the germ of the admirable apparatus to which its manner of being and its fecundity assign one of the chief places among those with which the genius of mankind has enriched physics.”

Shortly afterwards, our amateur would learn that Carlisle and Nicholson had decomposed water by the aid of a battery; then, that Davy, in 1803, had produced, by the help of the same battery, a quite unexpected phenomenon, and had succeeded in preparing metals endowed with marvellous properties, beginning with substances of an earthy appearance which had been known for a long time, but whose real nature had not been discovered.

In another order of ideas, surprises as prodigious would wait for our amateur. Commencing with 1802, he might have read the admirable series of memoirs which Young then published, and might thereby have learned how the study of the phenomena of diffraction led to the belief that the undulation theory, which, since the works of Newton seemed irretrievably condemned, was, on the contrary, beginning quite a new life. A little later—in 1808—he might have witnessed the discovery made by Malus of polarization by reflexion, and would have been able to note, no doubt with stupefaction, that under certain conditions a ray of light loses the property of being reflected.

He might also have heard of one Rumford, who was then promulgating very singular ideas on the nature of heat, who thought that the then classical notions might be false, that caloric does not exist as a fluid, and who, in 1804, even demonstrated that heat is created by friction. A few years later he would learn that Charles had enunciated a capital law on the dilatation of gases; that Pierre Prevost, in 1809, was making a study, full of original ideas, on radiant heat. In the meantime he would not have failed to read volumes iii. and iv. of the Mecanique celeste of Laplace, published in 1804 and 1805, and he might, no doubt, have thought that before long mathematics would enable physical science to develop with unforeseen safety.

All these results may doubtless be compared in importance with the present discoveries. When strange metals like potassium and sodium were isolated by an entirely new method, the astonishment must have been on a par with that caused in our time by the magnificent discovery of radium. The polarization of light is a phenomenon as undoubtedly singular as the existence of the X rays; and the upheaval produced in natural philosophy by the theories of the disintegration of matter and the ideas concerning electrons is probably not more considerable than that produced in the theories of light and heat by the works of Young and Rumford.

If we now disentangle ourselves from contingencies, it will be understood that in reality physical science progresses by evolution rather than by revolution. Its march is continuous. The facts which our theories enable us to discover, subsist and are linked together long after these theories have disappeared. Out of the materials of former edifices overthrown, new dwellings are constantly being reconstructed.

The labour of our forerunners never wholly perishes. The ideas of yesterday prepare for those of to-morrow; they contain them, so to speak, in potentia. Science is in some sort a living organism, which gives birth to an indefinite series of new beings taking the places of the old, and which evolves according to the nature of its environment, adapting itself to external conditions, and healing at every step the wounds which contact with reality may have occasioned.

Sometimes this evolution is rapid, sometimes it is slow enough; but it obeys the ordinary laws. The wants imposed by its surroundings create certain organs in science. The problems set to physicists by the engineer who wishes to facilitate transport or to produce better illumination, or by the doctor who seeks to know how such and such a remedy acts, or, again, by the physiologist desirous of understanding the mechanism of the gaseous and liquid exchanges between the cell and the outer medium, cause new chapters in physics to appear, and suggest researches adapted to the necessities of actual life.

The evolution of the different parts of physics does not, however, take place with equal speed, because the circumstances in which they are placed are not equally favourable. Sometimes a whole series of questions will appear forgotten, and will live only with a languishing existence; and then some accidental circumstance suddenly brings them new life, and they become the object of manifold labours, engross public attention, and invade nearly the whole domain of science.

We have in our own day witnessed such a spectacle. The discovery of the X rays—a discovery which physicists no doubt consider as the logical outcome of researches long pursued by a few scholars working in silence and obscurity on an otherwise much neglected subject—seemed to the public eye to have inaugurated a new era in the history of physics. If, as is the case, however, the extraordinary scientific movement provoked by Röntgen’s sensational experiments has a very remote origin, it has, at least, been singularly quickened by the favourable conditions created by the interest aroused in its astonishing applications to radiography.

A lucky chance has thus hastened an evolution already taking place, and theories previously outlined have received a singular development. Without wishing to yield too much to what may be considered a whim of fashion, we cannot, if we are to note in this book the stage actually reached in the continuous march of physics, refrain from giving a clearly preponderant place to the questions suggested by the study of the new radiations. At the present time it is these questions which move us the most; they have shown us unknown horizons, and towards the fields recently opened to scientific activity the daily increasing crowd of searchers rushes in rather disorderly fashion.

One of the most interesting consequences of the recent discoveries has been to rehabilitate in the eyes of scholars, speculations relating to the constitution of matter, and, in a more general way, metaphysical problems. Philosophy has, of course, never been completely separated from science; but in times past many physicists dissociated themselves from studies which they looked upon as unreal word-squabbles, and sometimes not unreasonably abstained from joining in discussions which seemed to them idle and of rather puerile subtlety. They had seen the ruin of most of the systems built up a priori by daring philosophers, and deemed it more prudent to listen to the advice given by Kirchhoff and “to substitute the description of facts for a sham explanation of nature.”

It should however be remarked that these physicists somewhat deceived themselves as to the value of their caution, and that the mistrust they manifested towards philosophical speculations did not preclude their admitting, unknown to themselves, certain axioms which they did not discuss, but which are, properly speaking, metaphysical conceptions. They were unconsciously speaking a language taught them by their predecessors, of which they made no attempt to discover the origin. It is thus that it was readily considered evident that physics must necessarily some day re-enter the domain of mechanics, and thence it was postulated that everything in nature is due to movement. We, further, accepted the principles of the classical mechanics without discussing their legitimacy.

This state of mind was, even of late years, that of the most illustrious physicists. It is manifested, quite sincerely and without the slightest reserve, in all the classical works devoted to physics. Thus Verdet, an illustrious professor who has had the greatest and most happy influence on the intellectual formation of a whole generation of scholars, and whose works are even at the present day very often consulted, wrote: “The true problem of the physicist is always to reduce all phenomena to that which seems to us the simplest and clearest, that is to say, to movement.” In his celebrated course of lectures at l’École Polytechnique, Jamin likewise said: “Physics will one day form a chapter of general mechanics;” and in the preface to his excellent course of lectures on physics, M. Violle, in 1884, thus expresses himself: “The science of nature tends towards mechanics by a necessary evolution, the physicist being able to establish solid theories only on the laws of movement.” The same idea is again met with in the words of Cornu in 1896: “The general tendency should be to show how the facts observed and the phenomena measured, though first brought together by empirical laws, end, by the impulse of successive progressions, in coming under the general laws of rational mechanics;” and the same physicist showed clearly that in his mind this connexion of phenomena with mechanics had a deep and philosophical reason, when, in the fine discourse pronounced by him at the opening ceremony of the Congrès de Physique in 1900, he exclaimed: “The mind of Descartes soars over modern physics, or rather, I should say, he is their luminary. The further we penetrate into the knowledge of natural phenomena, the clearer and the more developed becomes the bold Cartesian conception regarding the mechanism of the universe. There is nothing in the physical world but matter and movement.”

If we adopt this conception, we are led to construct mechanical representations of the material world, and to imagine movements in the different parts of bodies capable of reproducing all the manifestations of nature. The kinematic knowledge of these movements, that is to say, the determination of the position, speed, and acceleration at a given moment of all the parts of the system, or, on the other hand, their dynamical study, enabling us to know what is the action of these parts on each other, would then be sufficient to enable us to foretell all that can occur in the domain of nature.

This was the great thought clearly expressed by the Encyclopædists of the eighteenth century; and if the necessity of interpreting the phenomena of electricity or light led the physicists of last century to imagine particular fluids which seemed to obey with some difficulty the ordinary rules of mechanics, these physicists still continued to retain their hope in the future, and to treat the idea of Descartes as an ideal to be reached sooner or later.

Certain scholars—particularly those of the English School—outrunning experiment, and pushing things to extremes, took pleasure in proposing very curious mechanical models which were often strange images of reality. The most illustrious of them, Lord Kelvin, may be considered as their representative type, and he has himself said: “It seems to me that the true sense of the question, Do we or do we not understand a particular subject in physics? is—Can we make a mechanical model which corresponds to it? I am never satisfied so long as I have been unable to make a mechanical model of the object. If I am able to do so, I understand it. If I cannot make such a model, I do not understand it.” But it must be acknowledged that some of the models thus devised have become excessively complicated, and this complication has for a long time discouraged all but very bold minds. In addition, when it became a question of penetrating into the mechanism of molecules, and we were no longer satisfied to look at matter as a mass, the mechanical solutions seemed undetermined and the stability of the edifices thus constructed was insufficiently demonstrated.

Returning then to our starting-point, many contemporary physicists wish to subject Descartes’ idea to strict criticism. From the philosophical point of view, they first enquire whether it is really demonstrated that there exists nothing else in the knowable than matter and movement. They ask themselves whether it is not habit and tradition in particular which lead us to ascribe to mechanics the origin of phenomena. Perhaps also a question of sense here comes in. Our senses, which are, after all, the only windows open towards external reality, give us a view of one side of the world only; evidently we only know the universe by the relations which exist between it and our organisms, and these organisms are peculiarly sensitive to movement.

Nothing, however, proves that those acquisitions which are the most ancient in historical order ought, in the development of science, to remain the basis of our knowledge. Nor does any theory prove that our perceptions are an exact indication of reality. Many reasons, on the contrary, might be invoked which tend to compel us to see in nature phenomena which cannot be reduced to movement.

Mechanics as ordinarily understood is the study of reversible phenomena. If there be given to the parameter which represents time,[1] and which has assumed increasing values during the duration of the phenomena, decreasing values which make it go the opposite way, the whole system will again pass through exactly the same stages as before, and all the phenomena will unfold themselves in reversed order. In physics, the contrary rule appears very general, and reversibility generally does not exist. It is an ideal and limited case, which may be sometimes approached, but can never, strictly speaking, be met with in its entirety. No physical phenomenon ever recommences in an identical manner if its direction be altered. It is true that certain mathematicians warn us that a mechanics can be devised in which reversibility would no longer be the rule, but the bold attempts made in this direction are not wholly satisfactory.

On the other hand, it is established that if a mechanical explanation of a phenomenon can be given, we can find an infinity of others which likewise account for all the peculiarities revealed by experiment. But, as a matter of fact, no one has ever succeeded in giving an indisputable mechanical representation of the whole physical world. Even were we disposed to admit the strangest solutions of the problem; to consent, for example, to be satisfied with the hidden systems devised by Helmholtz, whereby we ought to divide variable things into two classes, some accessible, and the others now and for ever unknown, we should never manage to construct an edifice to contain all the known facts. Even the very comprehensive mechanics of a Hertz fails where the classical mechanics has not succeeded.

Deeming this check irremediable, many contemporary physicists give up attempts which they look upon as condemned beforehand, and adopt, to guide them in their researches, a method which at first sight appears much more modest, and also much more sure. They make up their minds not to see at once to the bottom of things; they no longer seek to suddenly strip the last veils from nature, and to divine her supreme secrets; but they work prudently and advance but slowly, while on the ground thus conquered foot by foot they endeavour to establish themselves firmly. They study the various magnitudes directly accessible to their observation without busying themselves as to their essence. They measure quantities of heat and of temperature, differences of potential, currents, and magnetic fields; and then, varying the conditions, apply the rules of experimental method, and discover between these magnitudes mutual relations, while they thus succeed in enunciating laws which translate and sum up their labours.

These empirical laws, however, themselves bring about by induction the promulgation of more general laws, which are termed principles. These principles are originally only the results of experiments, and experiment allows them besides to be checked, and their more or less high degree of generality to be verified. When they have been thus definitely established, they may serve as fresh starting-points, and, by deduction, lead to very varied discoveries.

The principles which govern physical science are few in number, and their very general form gives them a philosophical appearance, while we cannot long resist the temptation of regarding them as metaphysical dogmas. It thus happens that the least bold physicists, those who have wanted to show themselves the most reserved, are themselves led to forget the experimental character of the laws they have propounded, and to see in them imperious beings whose authority, placed above all verification, can no longer be discussed.

Others, on the contrary, carry prudence to the extent of timidity. They desire to grievously limit the field of scientific investigation, and they assign to science a too restricted domain. They content themselves with representing phenomena by equations, and think that they ought to submit to calculation magnitudes experimentally determined, without asking themselves whether these calculations retain a physical meaning. They are thus led to reconstruct a physics in which there again appears the idea of quality, understood, of course, not in the scholastic sense, since from this quality we can argue with some precision by representing it under numerical symbols, but still constituting an element of differentiation and of heterogeneity.

Notwithstanding the errors they may lead to if carried to excess, both these doctrines render, as a whole, most important service. It is no bad thing that these contradictory tendencies should subsist, for this variety in the conception of phenomena gives to actual science a character of intense life and of veritable youth, capable of impassioned efforts towards the truth. Spectators who see such moving and varied pictures passing before them, experience the feeling that there no longer exist systems fixed in an immobility which seems that of death. They feel that nothing is unchangeable; that ceaseless transformations are taking place before their eyes; and that this continuous evolution and perpetual change are the necessary conditions of progress.

A great number of seekers, moreover, show themselves on their own account perfectly eclectic. They adopt, according to their needs, such or such a manner of looking at nature, and do not hesitate to utilize very different images when they appear to them useful and convenient. And, without doubt, they are not wrong, since these images are only symbols convenient for language. They allow facts to be grouped and associated, but only present a fairly distant resemblance with the objective reality. Hence it is not forbidden to multiply and to modify them according to circumstances. The really essential thing is to have, as a guide through the unknown, a map which certainly does not claim to represent all the aspects of nature, but which, having been drawn up according to predetermined rules, allows us to follow an ascertained road in the eternal journey towards the truth.

Among the provisional theories which are thus willingly constructed by scholars on their journey, like edifices hastily run up to receive an unforeseen harvest, some still appear very bold and very singular. Abandoning the search after mechanical models for all electrical phenomena, certain physicists reverse, so to speak, the conditions of the problem, and ask themselves whether, instead of giving a mechanical interpretation to electricity, they may not, on the contrary, give an electrical interpretation to the phenomena of matter and motion, and thus merge mechanics itself in electricity. One thus sees dawning afresh the eternal hope of co-ordinating all natural phenomena in one grandiose and imposing synthesis. Whatever may be the fate reserved for such attempts, they deserve attention in the highest degree; and it is desirable to examine them carefully if we wish to have an exact idea of the tendencies of modern physics.


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