Horace Lamb addresses the British Association in 1904, Part 2

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 second part of his lecture.

To read the first part of Lamb's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1904, Part 1
Horace Lamb, the President, continued his Address:

I have tried to indicate the kind of continuity of subject-matter, method, and spirit which runs through the work of the whole school of mathematical physicists of which Stokes may be taken as the representative. It is no less interesting, I think, to examine the points of contrast with more recent tendencies. These relate not so much to subject-matter and method as to the general mental attitude towards the problems of Nature. Mathematical and physical science have become markedly introspective. The investigators of the classical school, as it may perhaps be styled, were animated by a simple and vigorous faith; they sought as a matter of course for a mechanical explanation of phenomena, and had no misgivings as to the trustiness of the analytical weapons which they wielded. But now the physicist and the mathematician alike are in trouble about their souls. We have discussions on the principles of mechanics, on the foundations of geometry, on the logic of the most rudimentary arithmetical processes, as well as of the more artificial operations of the Calculus. These discussions are legitimate and inevitable, and have led to some results which are now widely accepted. Although they were carried on to a great extent independently, the questions involved will, I think, be found to be ultimately very closely connected. Their common nexus is, perhaps, to be traced in the physiological ideas of which Helmholtz was the most conspicuous exponent. To many minds such discussions are repellent, in that they seem to venture on the uncertain ground of philosophy. But, as a matter of fact, the current views on these subjects have been arrived at by men who have gone to work in their own way, often in entire ignorance of what philosophers have thought on such subjects. It may be maintained, indeed, that the mathematician or the physicist, as such, has no special concern with philosophy, any more than the engineer or the geographer. Nor, although this is a matter for their own judgment, would it appear that philosophers have very much to gain by a special study of the methods of mathematical or physical reasoning, since the problems with which they are chiefly concerned are presented to them in a much less artificial form in the circumstances of ordinary life. As regards the present topic I would put the matter in this way, that between Mathematics and Physics on the one hand and Philosophy on the other there lies an undefined borderland, and that the mathematician has been engaged in setting things in order, as he is entitled to do, on his own side of the boundary.

From this point of view, it would be of interest to trace in detail the relationships of the three currents of speculation which have been referred to. At one time I was tempted to take this as the subject of my Address; but, although I still think the enterprise a possible one, I have been forced to recognise that it demands a better equipment than I can pretend to. I can only venture to put before you some of my tangled thoughts on the matter, trusting that some future occupant of this Chair may be induced to take up the question and treat it in a more illuminating manner.

If we look back for a moment to the views currently entertained not so very long ago by mathematicians and physicists, we shall find, I think, that the prevalent conception of the world was that it was constructed on some sort of absolute geometrical plan, and that the changes in it proceeded according to precise laws; that, although the principles of mechanics might be imperfectly stated in our text-books, at all events such principles existed, and were ascertainable, and, when properly formulated, would possess the definiteness and precision which were held to characterise, say, the postulates of Euclid. Some writers have maintained, indeed, that the principles in question were finally laid down by Newton, and have occasionally used language which suggests that any fuller understanding of them was a mere matter of interpretation of the text. But, as Hertz has remarked, most of the great writers on Dynamics betray, involuntarily, a certain malaise when explaining the principles, and hurry over this part of their task as quickly as is consistent with dignity. They are not really at their ease until, having established their equations somehow, they can proceed to build securely on these. This has led some people to the view that the laws of Nature are merely a system of differential equations; it may be remarked in passing that this is very much the position in which we actually stand in some of the more recent theories of Electricity. As regards Dynamics, when once the critical movement had set in, it was easy to show that one presentation after another was logically defective and confused; and no satisfactory standpoint was reached until it was recognised that in the classical Dynamics we do not deal immediately with real bodies at all, but with certain conventional and highly idealised representations of them, which we combine according to arbitrary rules, in the hope that if these rules be judiciously framed the varying combinations will image to us what is of most interest in some of the simpler and more important phenomena. The changed point of view is often associated with the publication of Kirchhoff's lectures on Mechanics in 1876, where it is laid down in the opening sentence that the problem of Mechanics is to describe the motions which occur in Nature completely and in the simplest manner. This statement must not be taken too literally; at all events, a fuller, and I think a clearer, account of the province and the method of Abstract Dynamics is given in a review of the second edition of Thomson and Tait, which was one of the last things penned by Maxwell, in 1879. A 'complete' description of even the simplest natural phenomenon is an obvious impossibility; and, were it possible, it would be uninteresting as well as useless, for it would take an incalculable time to peruse. Some process of selection and idealisation is inevitable if we are to gain any intelligent comprehension of events. Thus, in Astronomy we replace a planet by a so-called material particle - i.e., a mathematical point associated with a suitable numerical coefficient. All the properties of the body are here ignored except those of position and mass, in which alone we are at the moment interested. The whole course of physical science and the language in which its results are expressed have been largely determined by the fact that the ideal images of Geometry were already at hand at its service. The ideal representations have the advantage that, unlike the real objects, definite and accurate statements can be made about them. Thus two lines in a geometrical figure can be pronounced to be equal or unequal, and the statement is in either case absolute. It is no doubt hard to divest oneself entirely of the notion conveyed in the phrase *****, that definite geometrical magnitudes and relations are at the back of phenomena. It is recognised indeed that all our measurements are necessarily to some degree uncertain, but this is usually attributed to our own limitations and those of our instruments rather than to the ultimate vagueness of the entity which it is sought to measure. Everyone will grant, however, that the distance between two clouds, for instance, is not a definable magnitude; and the distance of the earth from the sun, and even the length of a wave of light, are in precisely the same case. The notion in question is a convenient fiction, and is a striking testimony to the ascendancy which Greek Mathematics have gained over our minds, but I do not think that more can be said for it. It is, at any rate, not verified by the experience of those who actually undertake physical measurements. The more refined the means employed, the more vague and elusive does the supposed magnitude become; the judgment flickers and wavers, until at last in a sort of despair some result is put down, not in the belief that it is exact, but with the feeling that it is the best we can make of the matter. A practical measurement is in fact a classification; we assign a magnitude to a certain category, which may be narrowly limited, but which has in any case a certain breadth.

By a frank process of idealisation a logical system of Abstract Dynamics can doubtless be built up, on the lines sketched by Maxwell in the passage referred to. Such difficulties as remain are handed over to Geometry. But we cannot stop in this position; we are constrained to examine the nature and the origin of the conceptions of Geometry itself. By many of us, I imagine, the first suggestion that these conceptions are to be traced to an empirical source was received with something of indignation and scorn; it was an outrage on the science which we had been led to look upon as divine. Most of us have, however, been forced at length to acquiesce in the view that Geometry, like Mechanics, is an applied science that it gives us merely an ingenious and convenient symbolic representation of the relations of actual bodies; and that, whatever may be the à priori forms of intuition, the science as we have it could never have been developed except for the accident (if I may so term it) that we live in a world in which rigid or approximately rigid bodies are conspicuous objects. On this view the most refined geometrical demonstration can be resolved into a series of imagined experiments performed with such bodies, or rather with their conventional representations.

It is to be lamented that one of the most interesting chapters in the history of science is a blank; I mean that which would have unfolded the rise and growth of our system of ideal Geometry. The finished edifice is before us, but the record of the efforts by which the various stones were fitted into their places is hopelessly lost. The few fragments of professed history which we possess were edited long after the achievement. It is commonly reckoned that the first rude beginnings of Geometry date from the Egyptians. I am inclined to think that in one sense the matter is to be placed much further back, and that the dawn of geometric ideas is to be traced among the prehistoric races who carved rough but thoroughly artistic outlines of animals on their weapons. I do not know whether the matter has attracted serious speculation, but I have myself been led to wonder how men first arrived at the notion of an outline drawing. The primitive sketches referred to immediately convey to the experienced mind the idea of a reindeer or the like; but in reality the representation is purely conventional, and is expressed in a language which has to be learned. For nothing could be more unlike the actual reindeer than the few scratches drawn on the surface of a bone; and it is of course familiar to ourselves that it is only after a time, and by an insensible process of education, that very young children come to understand the meaning of an outline. Whoever he was, the man who first projected the world into two dimensions, and proceeded to fence off that part of it which was reindeer from that which was not, was certainly under the influence of a geometrical idea, and had his feet in the path which was to culminate in the refined idealisations of the Greeks. As to the manner in which these latter were developed, the only indication of tradition is that some propositions were arrived at first in a more empirical or intuitional, and afterwards in a more intellectual way. So long as points had size, lines had breadth, and surfaces thickness, there could be no question of exact relations between the various elements of a figure, any more than is the case with the realities which they represent. But the Greek mind loved definiteness, and discovered that if we agree to speak of lines as if they had no breadth, and so on, exact statements became possible. If any one scientific invention can claim pre-eminence over all others, I should be inclined myself to erect a monument to the unknown inventor of the mathematical point, as the supreme type of that process of abstraction which has been a necessary condition of scientific work from the very beginning.

It is possible, however, to uphold the importance of the part which Abstract Geometry has played, and must still play, in the evolution of scientific conceptions, without committing ourselves to a defence, on all points, of the traditional presentment. The consistency and completeness of the usual system of definitions, axioms, and postulates has often been questioned; and quite recently a more thorough-going analysis of the logical elements of the subject than has ever before been attempted has been made by Hilbert. The matter is a subtle one, and a general agreement on such points is as yet hardly possible. The basis for such an agreement may perhaps ultimately be found in a more explicit recognition of the empirical source of the fundamental conceptions. This would tend, at all events, to mitigate the rigour of the demands which are sometimes made for logical perfection.

Even more important in some respects are the questions which have arisen in connection with the applications of Geometry to purposes of graphical representation. It is not necessary to dwell on the great assistance which this method has rendered in such subjects as Physics and Engineering. The pure mathematician, for his part, will freely testify to the influence which it has exercised in the development of most branches of Analysis; for example, we owe to it all the leading ideas of the Calculus. Modern analysts have discovered, however, that Geometry may be a snare as well as a guide. In the mere act of drawing a curve to represent an analytical function we make unconsciously a host of assumptions which are difficult not merely to prove, but even to formulate precisely. It is now sought to establish the whole fabric of mathematical analysis on a strictly arithmetical basis. To those who were trained in an earlier school, the results so far are in appearance somewhat forbidding. If the shade of one of the great analysts of a century ago could revisit the glimpses of the moon, his feelings would, I think, be akin to those of the traveller to some mediaeval town, who finds the buildings he came to see obscured by scaffolding, and is told that the ancient monuments are all in process of repair. It is to be hoped that a good deal of this obstruction is only temporary, that most of the scaffolding will eventually be cleared away, and that the edifices when they reappear will not be entirely transformed, but will still retain something of their historic outlines. It, would be contrary to the spirit of this Address to undervalue in any way the critical examination and revision of principles; we must acknowledge that it tends ultimately to simplification, to the clearing up of issues, and the reconciliation of apparent contradictions. But it would be a misfortune if this process were to absorb too large a share of the attention of mathematicians, or were allowed to set too high a standard of logical completeness. In this particular matter of the 'arithmetisation of Mathematics' there is, I think, a danger in these respects. As regards the latter point, a traveller who refuses to pass over a bridge until he has personally tested the soundness of every part of it is not likely to go very far; something must be risked, even in Mathematics. It is notorious that even in this realm of 'exact' thought discovery has often been in advance of strict logic, as in the theory of imaginaries, for example, and in the whole province of analysis of which Fourier's theorem is the type. And it might even be claimed that the services which Geometry has rendered to other sciences have been almost as great in virtue of the questions which it implicitly begs as of those which it resolves.

I would venture, with some trepidation, to go one stop further. Mathematicians love to build on as definite a foundation as possible, and from this point of view the notion of the integral number, on which (we are told) the Mathematics of the future are to be based, is very attractive. But, as an instrument for the study of Nature, is it really more fundamental than the geometrical notions which it is to supersede? The accounts of primitive peoples would seem to show that, in the generality which is a necessary condition for this purpose, it is in no less degree artificial and acquired. Moreover, does not the act of enumeration, as applied to actual things, involve the same process of selection and idealisation which we have already met with in other cases? As an illustration, suppose we were to try to count the number of drops of water in a cloud. I am not thinking of the mere practical difficulties of enumeration, or even of the more pertinent fact that it is hard to say where the cloud begins or ends. Waiving these points, it is obvious that there must be transitional stages between a more or less dense group of molecules and a drop, and in the case of some of these aggregates it would only be by an arbitrary exercise of judgment that they would be assigned to one category rather than to the other. In whatever form we meet with it, the very notion of counting involves the highly artificial conception of a number of objects which for some purposes are treated as absolutely alike, whilst yet they can be distinguished.

The not result of the preceding survey is that the systems of Geometry, of Mechanics, and even of Arithmetic, on which we base our study of Nature, are all contrivances of the same general kind: they consist of series of abstractions and conventions devised to represent, or rather to symbolise, what is most interesting and most accessible to us in the world of phenomena. And the progress of science consists in a great measure in the improvement, the development, and the simplification of these artificial conceptions, so that their scope may be wider and the representation more complete. The best in this kind are but shadows, but we may continually do something to amend them.

As compared with the older view, the function of physical science is seen to be much more modest than was at one time supposed. We no longer hope by levers and screws to pluck out the heart of tile mystery of the universe. But there are compensations. The conception of the physical world as a mechanism, constructed on a rigid mathematical plan, whose most intimate details might possibly some day be guessed, was, I think, somewhat depressing. We have been led to recognise that the formal and mathematical element is of our own introduction; that it is merely the apparatus by which we map out our knowledge, and has no more objective reality than the circles of latitude and longitude on the sun. A distinguished writer not very long ago speculated on the possibility of the scientific mine being worked out within no distant period. Recent discoveries seem to have put back this possibility indefinitely; and the tendency of modern speculation as to the nature of scientific knowledge should be to banish it altogether. The world remains a more wonderful place than ever; we may be sure that it abounds in riches not yet dreamed of; and, although we cannot hope ever to explore its innermost recesses, we may be confident that it will supply tasks in abundance for the scientific mind for ages to come.

One significant result of the modern tendency is that we no longer with the same obstinacy demand a mechanical explanation of the phenomena of Light and Electricity, especially since it has been made clear that if one mechanical explanation is possible, there will be an infinity of others. Some minds, indeed, revelling in their new-found freedom, have attempted to disestablish ordinary or 'vulgar' matter altogether. I may refer to a certain treatise which, by some accident, does not bear its proper title of 'Aether and no Matter,' and to the elaborate investigations of Professor Osborne Reynolds, which present the same peculiarity, although the basis is different. Speculations of this nature have, however, been so recently and (if I may say it) so brilliantly dealt with by Professor Poynting before this Section that there is little excuse for dwelling further on them now. I will only advert to the question whether, as some suggest, physical science should definitely abandon the attempt to construct mechanical theories in the older sense. The question would appear to be very similar to this, whether we should abandon the use of graphical methods in analysis? In either case we run the risk of introducing extraneous elements, possibly of a misleading character; but the gain in vividness of perception and in suggestiveness is so great that we are not likely to forego it, by excess of prudence, in one case more than in the other.

We have travelled some distance from Stokes and the mathematical physics of half a century ago. May I add a few observations which might perhaps have claimed his sympathy? They are in substance anything but new, although I do not find them easy to express. We have most of us frankly adopted the empirical attitude in physical science; it has justified itself abundantly in the past, and has more and more forced itself upon us. We have given up the notion of causation, except as a convenient phrase; what were once called laws of Nature are now simply rules by which we can tell more or less accurately what will be the consequences of a given state of things. We cannot help asking, How is it that such rules are possible? A rule is invented in the first instance to sum up in a compact form a number of past experiences; but we apply it with little hesitation, and generally with success, to the prediction of new and sometimes strange ones. Thus the law of gravitation indicates the existence of Neptune; and Fresnel's wave-surface gives us the quite unsuspected phenomenon of conical refraction. Why does Nature make a point of honouring our cheques in this manner; or, to put the matter in a more dignified form, how comes it that, in the words of Schiller [applied by Sir J Herschel to the discovery of Neptune],
Mit dem Genius steht die Natur im ewigen Bunde,
Was der eine verspricht, leistet die andre gewiss?
The question is as old as science, and the modern tendencies with which we have been occupied have only added point to it. It is plain that physical science as such has no answer; its policy indeed has been to retreat from a territory which it could not securely occupy. We are told in some quarters that it is vain to look for an answer anywhere. But the mind of man is not wholly given over to physical science, and will not be content for ever to leave the question alone. It will persist in its obstinate questionings, and, however hopeless the attempt to unravel the mystery may be deemed, physical science, powerless to assist, has no right to condemn it.

I would like, in conclusion, to read to you a characteristic passage from that Address of Stokes in 1862 which has formed the starting-point of this discourse:-.
In this Section, more perhaps than in any other, we have frequently to deal with subjects of a very abstract character, which in many cases can be mastered only by patient study, at leisure, of what has been written. The question may not unnaturally be asked, If investigations of this kind can best be followed by quiet study in one's own room, what is the use of bringing them forward in a Sectional meeting at all? I believe that good may be done by public mention, in a meeting like the present, of even somewhat abstract investigations; but whether good is thus done, or the audience merely wearied to no purpose, depends upon the judiciousness of the person by whom the investigation is brought forward.
It might be urged that these remarks are as pertinent now as they were forty years ago, but I will leave them on their own weighty authority. I will not myself venture to emphasise them, lest some of my hearers should be tempted to retort that the warning might well be borne in mind, not only in the ordinary proceedings of the Section, but in the composition of a Presidential Address!

Last Updated April 2007