Horace Lamb addresses the British Association in 1904

Horace Lamb was President of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1904. The Association met in Cambridge, England, in August and Lamb addressed Section A - Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Below is the first part of his lecture.

To read the second part of Lamb's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1904, Part 2



Horace Lamb, the President, delivered the following Address:

The losses sustained by mathematical science in the past twelvemonth have perhaps not been so numerous as in some years, but they include at least one name of world-wide import. Those of us who were students of Mathematics thirty or forty years ago will recall the delight which we felt in reading the geometrical treatises of George Salmon, and the brilliant contrast which they exhibited with most of the current text-books of that time. It was from him that many of us first learned that a great mathematical theory does not consist of a series of detached propositions carefully labelled and arranged like specimens on the shelves of a museum, but that it forms an organic whole, instinct with life, and with unlimited possibilities of future development. As systematic expositions of the actual state of the science, in which enthusiasm for what is new is tempered by a due respect for what is old, and in which new and old are brought into harmonious relation with each other, these treatises stand almost unrivalled. Whether in the originals, or in the guise of translations, they are accounted as classics in every university of the world. So far as British universities are concerned, they have formed the starting point of a whole series of works conceived in a similar spirit, though naturally not always crowned by the same success. The necessity for this kind of work grows, indeed, continually; the modern fragmentary fashion of original publication and the numerous channels through which it takes place make it difficult for anyone to become initiated into a new scientific theory unless he takes it up at the very beginning and follows it diligently throughout its course, backwards and forwards, over rough ground and smooth. The classical style of memoir, after the manner of Lagrange, or Poisson, or Gauss, complete in itself and deliberately composed like a work of art, is continually becoming rarer. It is therefore more and more essential that from time to time some one should come forward to sort out and arrange the accumulated material, rejecting what has proved unimportant, and welding the rest into a connected system. There is perhaps a tendency to assume that such work is of secondary importance, and can be safely left to subordinate hands. But in reality it makes severe demands on even the highest powers; and when these have been available the result has often done more for the progress of science than the composition of a dozen monographs on isolated points. For proof one need only point to the treatises of Salmon himself, or recall (in another field) the debt which we owe to such books as the 'Treatise on Natural Philosophy' and the 'Theory of Sound,' whose authors are happily with us.

A modest but most valuable worker has passed away in the person of Professor Allman. His treatise on the history of Greek Geometry, full of learning and sound mathematical perception, is written with great simplicity and an entire absence of pedantry or dogmatism. It ranks, I believe, with the best that has been done in the subject. It is to be regretted that, as an historian, he leaves so few successors among British mathematicians. We have amongst us, as a result of our system of university education, many men of trained mathematical faculty and of a scholarly turn of mind, with much of the necessary linguistic equipment, who feel, however, no special vocation for the details of recent mathematical research. Might not some of this ability be turned to a field, by no means exhausted where the severity of mathematical truth is tempered by the human interest attaching to the lives, the vicissitudes, and even the passions and the strife of its devotees, who through many errors and perplexities have contrived to keep alive and trim the sacred flame, and to hand it on burning ever clearer and brighter?

In another province we have to record the loss of Dr Isaac Roberts, a distinguished example of the class of non-professional investigators who have left so deep a mark on British science, and on Astronomy in particular. None of us can be unaware of his long and enthusiastic devotion to celestial photography, of the beauty and delicacy of the results which he achieved, and of the wealth of unsuspected detail which they brought to light.

Finally, we have to lament the death, within the last few days, of Professor Everett, whose name will always be associated with one of the most successful tasks which the British Association has taken in hand - viz. the promotion of a uniform system of dynamical and electrical units. He acted as Reporter to the Committee which was entrusted with this question, and by his handbook on 'Units and Physical Constants' he has done more perhaps than anyone else to popularise and establish its recommendations. He was well known to most of us as a bright and genial presence at these meetings, and contributed numerous interesting papers on optical and other subjects. He was happy in retaining his scientific faculties undimmed to the last, and was engaged up to the time of his death on some problems of a geometrical kind, on point-assemblages, suggested by the study of the recent speculations of Professor Osborne Reynolds.

Of the various subjects which fall within the scope of this Section there is no difficulty in naming that which at the present time excites the widest interest. The phenomena of Radioactivity, lonisation of Gases, and so on, are not only startling and sensational in themselves, they have suggested most wonderful and far-reaching speculations, and, whatever be the future of these particular theories, they are bound in any case deeply to influence our views on fundamental points of chemistry and physics. No reference to this subject would be satisfactory without a word of homage to the unsurpassed patience and skill in the devising of new experimental methods to meet new and subtle conditions which it has evoked. It will be felt as a matter of legitimate pride by many present that the University of Cambridge has been so conspicuously associated with this work. It would therefore have been natural and appropriate that this Chair should have been occupied, this year above others, by one who could have given us a survey of the facts as they at present stand, and of their bearing, so far as can be discerned, on other and older branches of physics. Whether from the experimental or from the more theoretical and philosophical standpoint, there would have been no difficulty in finding an exponent of unrivalled authority. But it has been otherwise ordered, and you and I must make the best of it. If the subject cannot be further dealt with for the moment, we have the satisfaction of knowing that it will in due course engage the attention of the Section, and that we may look forward to interesting and stimulating discussions, in which we trust the many distinguished foreign physicists who honour us by their presence will take an active part.

It is, I believe, not an unknown thing for your President to look up the records of previous meetings in search of inspiration, and possibly of an example. I have myself not had to look very far, for I found that when the British Association last met in Cambridge, in the year 1862, this Section was presided over by Stokes, and moreover that the Address which he gave was probably the shortest ever made on such an occasion, for it occupies only half a page of the report, and took, I should say, some three or four minutes to deliver. It would be to the advantage of the business of the meeting, and to my own great relief, if I had the courage to follow so attractive a precedent ; but I fear that the tradition which has since established itself is too strong for me to break without presumption. I will turn, therefore, to a theme which, I think, naturally presents itself - viz., a consideration of the place occupied by Stokes in the development of Mathematical Physics. It is not proposed to attempt an examination or appreciation of his own individual achievements; this has lately been done by more than one hand, and in the most authoritative manner. But it is part of the greatness of the man that his work can be reviewed from more than one standpoint. What I wish to direct attention to on this occasion is the historical or evolutionary relation in which be stands to predecessors and followers in the above field.

The early years of Stokes's life were the closing years of a mighty generation of mathematicians and mathematical physicists. When he came to manhood Lagrange, Laplace, Poisson, Fourier, Fresnel, Ampère, had but lately passed away. Cauchy alone of this race of giants was still alive and productive. It is upon these men that we must look as the immediate intellectual ancestors of Stokes, for, although Gauss and Franz Neumann were in their full vigour, the interaction of German and English science was at that time not very great. It is noteworthy, however, that the development of the modern German school of mathematical physics, represented by Helmholtz and Kirchhoff, in linear succession to Franz Neumann, ran in many respects closely parallel to the work of Stokes and his followers.

When the foundations of Analytical Dynamics had been laid by Euler and d'Alembert, the first important application was naturally to the problems of Gravitational Astronomy; this formed, of course, the chief work of Laplace, Lagrange, and others. Afterwards came the theoretical study of Elasticity, Conduction of Heat, Statical Electricity, and Magnetism. The investigations in Elasticity were undertaken mainly in relation to Physical Optics, with the hope of finding a material medium capable of conveying transverse vibrations, and of accounting also for the various phenomena of reflection, refraction, and double refraction. It has often been pointed out, as characteristic of the French school referred to, that their physical speculations were largely influenced by ideas transferred from Astronomy; as, for instance, in the conception of a solid body as made up of discrete particles acting on one another at a distance with forces in the lines joining them, which formed the basis of most of their work on Elasticity and Optics. The difficulty of carrying out these ideas in a logical manner were enormous, and the strict course of mathematical deduction had to be replaced by more or less precarious assumptions. The detailed study of the geometry of a continuous deformable medium which was instituted by Cauchy was a first step towards liberating the theory from arbitrary and unnecessary hypothesis; but it was reserved for Green, the immediate predecessor of Stokes among English mathematicians, to carry out this process completely and independently, with the help of Lagrange's general dynamical methods, which here found their first application to questions of physics outside the ordinary Dynamics of rigid bodies and fluids. The modern school of English physicists, since the time of Green and Stokes, have consistently endeavoured to make out, in any given class of phenomena, how much can be recognised as a manifestation of general dynamical principles, independent of the particular mechanism which may be at work. One of the most striking examples of this was the identification by Maxwell of the laws of Electromagnetism with the dynamical equations of Lagrange. It would, however, be going too far to claim this tendency as the exclusive characteristic of English physicists; for example, the elastic investigations of Green and Stokes have their parallel in the independent though later work of Kirchhoff; and the beautiful theory of dynamical systems with latent motion which we owe to Lord Kelvin stands in a very similar relation to the work of Helmholtz and Hertz.

But perhaps the most important and characteristic feature in the mathematical work of the later school is its increasing relation to and association with experiment. In the days when the chief applications of Mathematics were to the problems of Gravitational Astronomy, the mathematician might well take his materials at second hand; and in some respects the division of labour was, and still way be, of advantage. The same thing holds in a measure of the problems of ordinary Dynamics, where some practical knowledge of the subject-matter is within the reach of everyone. But when we pass to the more recondite phenomena of Physical Optics, Acoustics, and Electricity, it hardly needs the demonstrations which have involuntarily been given to show that the theoretical treatment must tend to degenerate into the pursuit of academic subtleties unless it is constantly vivified by direct contact with reality. Stokes, at all events, with little guidance or encouragement from his immediate environment, made himself from the first practically acquainted with the subjects he treated. Generations of Cambridge students recall the enthusiasm which characterised his experimental demonstrations in Optics. These appealed to us all; but some of us, I am afraid, under the influence of the academic ideas of the time, thought it a little unnecessary to show practically that the height of the lecture-room could be measured by the barometer, or to verify the calculated period of oscillation of water in a tank by actually timing the waves with the help of the image of a candle-flame reflected at the surface.

The practical character of the mathematical work of Stokes and his followers is shown especially in the constant effort to reduce the solution of a physical problem to a quantitative form. A conspicuous instance is furnished by the labour and skill which he devoted, from this point of view, to the theory of the Bessel's Function, which presents itself so frequently in important questions of Optics, Electricity, and Acoustics, but is so refractory to ordinary methods of treatment. It is now generally accepted that an analytical solution of a physical question, however elegant it may be made to appear by means of a judicious notation, is not complete so long as the results are given merely in terms of functions defined by infinite series or definite integrals, and cannot be exhibited in a numerical or graphical form. This view did not originate, of course, with Stokes; it is clearly indicated, for instance, in the works of Fourier and Poinsot, but no previous writer had, I think, acted upon it so consistently and thoroughly.

We have had so many striking examples of the fruitfulness of the combination of great mathematical and experimental powers that the question may well be raised, whether there is any longer a reason for maintaining in our minds a distinction between mathematical and experimental physics, or at all events whether these should be looked upon as separate provinces which may conveniently be assigned to different sets of labourers. It may be held that the highest physical research will demand in the future the possession of both kinds of faculty. We must be careful, however, how we erect barriers which would exclude a Lagrange on the one side or a Faraday on the other. There are many mansions in the palace of physical science, and work for various types of mind. A zealous, or overzealous, mathematician might indeed make out something of a case if he were to contend that, after all, the greatest work of such men as Stokes, Kirchhoff, and Maxwell was mathematical rather than experimental in its complexion. An argument which asks us to leave out of account such things as the investigation of Fluorescence, the discovery of Spectrum Analysis, and the measurement of the Viscosity of Gases, may well seem audacious; but a survey of the collected works of these writers will show how much, of the very highest quality and import, would remain. However this may be, the essential point, which cannot, I think, be contested, is this, that if these men had been condemned and restricted to a mere book knowledge of the subjects which they have treated with such marvellous analytical ability, the very soul of their work would have been taken away. I have ventured to dwell upon this point because, although I am myself disposed to plead for the continued recognition of mathematical physics as a fairly separate field, I feel strong that the traditional kind of education given to our professed mathematical students does not tend to its most effectual cultivation. This education is apt to be one-sided, and too much divorced from the study of tangible things. Even the student whose tastes lie mainly in the direction of pure mathematics would profit, I think, by a wider scientific training. A long list of instances might be given to show that the most fruitful ideas in pure mathematics have been suggested by the study of physical problems. In the words of Fourier, who did so much to fulfil his own saying:
'L'étude approfondie de la nature est la source la plus féconde des découvertes mathématiques. Non-seulement cette étude, en offrant aux recherches un but déterminé, a I'avantage d'exclure les questions vagues et les calculs sans issue; elle est encore un moyen assuré de former I'analyse elle-mème, et d'en découvrir les éléments qu'il nous importe le plus de connaitre, et que cette science doit toujours conserver: ces éléments fondamentaux sont ceux qui se reproduisent dans tous les effets naturels.'
Another characteristic of the past century of applied mathematics is that it was, on the whole, the age of linear equations. The analytical armoury fashioned by Lagrange, Poisson, Fourier, and others, though subject, of course, to continual improvement and development, has served the turn of a long line of successors. The predominance of linear equations, in most of the physical subjects referred to, rests on the fact that the changes are treated as infinitely small. The theory of small oscillations, in particular, runs as a thread through a great part of the literature of the period in question. It has suggested many important analytical results, and still gives the best and simplest intuitive foundation for a whole class of theorems which are otherwise hard to comprehend in their various relations, such as Fourier's theorem, Laplace's expansion, Bessel's functions, and the like. Moreover, the interest of the subject, whether mathematical or physical, is not yet exhausted; many important problems in Optics and Acoustics, for example, still await solution. The general theory has in comparatively recent times received an unexpected extension (to the case of 'latent motions') at the hands of Lord Kelvin; and Lord Rayleigh, by his continual additions to it, shows that, in his view, it is still incomplete.

When the restriction to infinitely small motions is abandoned, the problems become of course much more arduous. The whole theory, for instance, of the normal modes of vibration which is so important in Acoustics, and even in Music, disappears. The researches hitherto made in this direction have, moreover, encountered difficulties of a less patent character. It is conceivable that the modern analytical methods which have been developed in Astronomy may have an application to these questions. It would appear that there is an opening here for the mathematician; at all events, the numerical or graphical solution of any one of the numerous problems that could be suggested would be of the highest interest. One problem of the kind is already classical-the theory of steep water-waves discussed by Stokes; but even here the point of view has perhaps been rather artificially restricted. The question proposed by him, the determination of the possible form of waves of permanent type, like the problem of periodic orbits in Astronomy, is very interesting mathematically, and forms a natural starting-point for investigation; but it does not exhaust what is most important for us to know in the matter. Observation may suggest the existence of such waves as a fact; but no reason has been given, so far as I know, why free water-waves should tend to assume a form consistent with permanence, or be. influenced in their progress by considerations of geometrical simplicity.

To read the second part of Lamb's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1904, Part 2

Last Updated April 2007