Andrew Forsyth addresses the British Association in 1905

Andrew Forsyth was President of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1905. The Association met in Cape Town, South Africa, in August and Forsyth addressed Section A - Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Below is the first part of his lecture.

To read the second part of Forsyth's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1905, Part 2



Andrew Forsyth, the President, delivered the following Address:

According to an established and unchallenged custom, our proceedings are inaugurated by an address from the President. Let me begin it by discharging a duty which, unhappily, is of regular recurrence. If Your President only mentions names when he records the personal losses suffered during the year by the sciences of the Section, the corporate sense of the Section will be able to appreciate the losses with a deeper reality than can be conveyed by mere words.

In Mr Ronald Hudson, who was one of our Secretaries at the Cambridge Meeting a year ago, we have lost a mathematician whose youthful promise had ripened into early performance. The original work which he had accomplished is sufficient, both in quality and in amount, to show that much has been given, and that much more could have been expected. His alert and bright personality suggested that many happy years lay before him. All these fair hopes were shattered in a moment by an accident upon a Welsh hillside; and his friends, who were many, deplore his too early death at the age of twenty-eight.

The death of Mr Frank McClean has robbed astronomy of one of its most patient workers and actively creative investigators. I wish that my own knowledge could enable me to give some not inadequate exposition of his services to the science which he loved so well. He was a man of great generosity which was wise, discriminating, and more than modest; to wide interests in science he united wide interests in the fine arts. Your Astronomer Royal, in the Royal Observatory at Cape Town, will not lightly forget his gift of a great telescope: and the University of Cambridge, the grateful recipient of his munificent endowment of the Isaac Newton Studentships fifteen years ago, and of his no less munificent bequest of manuscripts, early printed books, and objects of art, has done what she can towards perpetuating his memory for future generations by including his name in the list, that is annually recited in solemn service, of her benefactors who have departed this life.

In the early days of our gatherings, when the set of cognate sciences with which we specially are concerned had not yet diverged so widely from one another alike in subject and in method, this inaugurating address was characterised by a brevity that a President can envy and by a freedom from formality that even the least tolerant audience could find admirable. The lapse of time, perhaps assisted by presidential ambitions which have been veiled under an almost periodic apology for personal shortcomings, has deprived these addresses of their ancient brevity, and has invested them with an air of oracular gravity. The topics vary from year to year, but this variation is due to the predilection of the individual Presidents; the types of address are but few in number. Sometimes, indeed, we have had addresses that cannot be ranged under any comprehensive type. Thus one year we had an account of a particular school of long-sustained consecutive research; another year the President made a constructive (and perhaps defiant) defence of the merits of a group of subjects that were of special interest to himself. But there is one type of address which recurs with iterated frequency; it is constituted by a general account of recent progress in discovery, or by a survey of modern advances in some one or other of the branches of science to which the multiple activities of our Section are devoted. No modern President has attempted a general survey of recent progress in all the branches of our group of sciences; such an attempt will probably be deferred until the Council discovers a President who, endowed with the omniscience of a Whewell, and graced with the tongue of men and of angels, shall once again unify our discussions.

On the basis of this practice, it would have been not unreasonable on my part to have selected some topic from the vast range of pure mathematics, and to have expounded some body of recent investigations. There certainly is no lack of topics; our own day is peculiarly active in many directions. Thus, even if we leave on one side the general progress that has been made in many of the large branches of mathematics during recent years, it is easy to hint at numerous subjects which could occupy the address of a mathematical President. He might, for instance, devote his attention to modern views of continuity, whether of quantity or of space; he might be heterodox or orthodox as to the so-called laws of motion; he might expound his notions as to the nature and properties of analytic functionality; a discussion of the hypotheses upon which a consistent system of geometry can be framed could be made as monumental as his ambition might choose; he could revel in an account of the most recent philosophical analysis of the foundations of mathematics, even of logic itself, in which all axioms must either be proved or be compounded of notions that defy resolution by the human intellect at the present day. Such discussions are bound to be excessively technical unless they are expressed in unmathematical phraseology; when they are so expressed, and in so far as such expression is possible, they become very long and they can be very thin. Moreover, had I chosen any topic of this character, it would have been the merest natural justice to have given early utterance of the sibyllic warning to the uninitiated; I must also have bidden the initiated that, as they come, they should summon all the courage of their souls. So I abstain from making such an experiment upon an unwarned audience; yet it is with reluctance that I have avoided subjects in the range which to me is of peculiar interest.

On the other hand, I must ask your indulgence for not conforming to average practice and expectation. My desire is to mark the present occasion by an address of unspecialised type which, while it is bound to be mainly mathematical in tenor, and while it will contain no new information, may do little more than recall some facts that are known, and will comment briefly upon obvious tendencies. Let me beg you to believe that it is no straining after novelty which has dictated my choice; such an ambition has a hateful facility of being fatal both to the performer and to the purpose. It is the strangeness of our circumstances, both in place and time, that has suggested my subject. With an adventurous audacity that quite overshadows the spirit of any of its past enterprises, the British Association for the Advancement of Science has travelled south of the Equator and, in accepting your hospitality, proposes to traverse much of South Africa. The prophet of old declared that 'many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased;' if the second part of the prophecy is not fulfilled, it will not be for the want of our efforts to fulfil the first part. And if the place and the range of this peripatetic demonstration of our annual corporate activity are unusual, the occasion chosen for this enterprise recalls memories that are fundamental in relation to our subject. It is a modern fashion to observe centenaries. In this Section we are in the unusual position of being able to observe three scientific centenaries in one and the same year. Accordingly I propose to refer to these in turn, and to indicate a few of the events filling the intervals between them; but my outline can be of only the most summary character, for the scientific history is a history of three hundred years, and, if searching enough, it could include the tale of nearly all mathematical and astronomical and physical science.

It is exactly three hundred years since Bacon published 'The Advancement of Learning.' His discourse, alike in matter, in thought, in outlook, was in advance of its time, and it exercised no great influence for the years that immediately followed its appearance; yet that appearance is one of the chief events in the origins of modern natural science. Taking all knowledge to be his province, he surveys the whole of learning: he deals with the discredits that then could attach to it; he expounds both the dignity and the influence of its pursuit; and he analyses all learning, whether of things divine or of things human, into its ordered branches. He points out deficiencies and gaps; not a few of his recommendations of studies, at his day remaining untouched, have since become great branches of human thought and human inquiry. But what concerns us most here is his attitude towards natural philosophy, all the more remarkable because of the state of knowledge of that subject in his day, particularly in England. It is true that Gilbert had published his discovery of terrestrial magnetism some five years earlier, a discovery followed only too soon by his death; but that was the single considerable English achievement in modern science down to Bacon's day.

In order to estimate the significance of Bacon's range of thought let me recite a few facts, as an indication of the extreme tenuity of progressive science in that year (1605). They belong to subsequent years, and may serve to show how restricted were the attainments of the period, and how limited were the means of advance, The telescope and the microscope had not yet been invented. The simple laws of planetary motion were not formulated, for Kepler had them only in the making. Logarithms were yet to be discovered by Napier, and to be calculated by Briggs. Descartes was a boy of nine and Fermat a boy of only four, so that analytical geometry, the middle-life discovery of both of them, was not yet even a dream for either of them. The Italian mathematicians, of whom Cavalieri is the least forgotten, were developing Greek methods of quadrature by a transformed principle of indivisibles; but the infinitesimal calculus was not really in sight, for Newton and Leibniz were yet unborn. Years were to elapse before, by the ecclesiastical tyranny over thought, Galileo was forced to make a verbal disavowal of his adhesion to the Copernican system of astronomy of which he was still to be the protagonist in propounding any reasoned proof. Some mathematics could be had, cumbrous arithmetic and algebra, some geometry lumbering after Euclid, and a little trigonometry; but these were mainly the mathematics of the Renaissance, no very great advance upon the translated work of the Greeks and the transmitted work of the Arabs. Even our old friend the binomial theorem, which now is supposed to be the possession of nearly every able schoolboy, remained unknown to professional mathematicians for more than half a century yet to come.

Nor is it merely on the negative side that the times seemed unpropitious for a new departure; the spirit of the age in the positive activities of thought and deed was not more sympathetic. Those were the days when the applications of astronomy had become astrology. Men sought for the elixir of life and pondered over the transmutation of baser metals into gold. Shakespeare not long before had produced his play As You Like It, where the strange natural history of the toad which,
Ugly and venomous,
Bears yet a precious jewel in his head,
is made a metaphor to illustrate the sweetening uses of adversity. The stiffened Elizabethan laws against witchcraft were to be sternly administered for many a year to come. It was an age that was pulsating with life and illuminated by fancy, but the life was the life of strong action and the fancy was the fancy if ideal imagination; men did not lend themselves to sustained and abstract thought concerning the nature of the universe. When we contemplate the spirit that such a state of knowledge might foster towards scientific learning, and when we recall the world into which Bacon's treatise was launched, we can well be surprised at his far-reaching views, and we can marvel at his isolated wisdom.

Let me select a few specimens of his judgments, chosen solely in relation to our own subjects. When he says:
'All true and fruitful natural philosophy hath a double scale or ladder, ascendent and descendent, ascending from experiments to the invention of causes, and descending from causes to the invention of new experiments; therefore I judge it most requisite that these two parts be severally considered and handled'-
he is merely expounding, in what now is rather archaic phrase, the principles of the most ambitious investigations in the natural philosophy of subsequent centuries. When he speaks of
'the operation of the relative and adventive characters of essences, as quantity, similitude, diversity, possibility, and the rest; with this distinction. and provision, that they be handled as they have efficacy in, nature, and not logically' -
I seem to hear the voice of the applied mathematician warning the pure mathematician off the field. When, after having divided natural philosophy into physic and metaphysic (using these words in particular meanings, and including mathematics in the second of the divisions), he declares
'physic should contemplate that which is inherent in matter, and therefore transitory, and metaphysic that which is abstracted and fixed; . . . physic describeth the causes of things, but the variable or respective causes; and metaphysic the fixed and constant causes' -
there comes before my mind the army of physicists of the present day, who devote themselves unwearyingly to the properties of matter and willingly cast aside elaborate arguments and calculations. When he argues that
'many parts of nature can neither be invented with sufficient subtilty, nor demonstrated with sufficient perspicuity, nor accommodated unto use with sufficient dexterity, without the aid and intervening of the mathematics' -
he might be describing the activity of subsequent generations of philosophers, astronomers, and engineers. And in the last place (for my extracts must have some end), when he expresses the opinion
'that men do not sufficiently understand the excellent use of the pure mathematics, in that they do remedy and cure many defects in the wit and faculties intellectual. For if the wit be too dull, they sharpen it; if too wandering, they fix it; if too inherent in the sense, they abstract it; ... . in the mathematics, that which is collateral and intervenient is no less worthy than that which is principal and intended' -
I seem to hear an advocate for the inclusion of elementary mathematics in any scheme of general education. At the same time, I wonder what Bacon, who held such an exalted estimate of pure mathematics in its grey dawn, would have said by way of ampler praise of the subject in its fuller day.

It was a splendid vision of inductive science as of other parts of learning: it contained a revelation of the course of progress through the centuries to come. Yet the facts of to-day are vaster than the vision of that long-ago yesterday, and human activity has far outstripped the dreams of Bacon's opulent imagination. He was the harbinger (premature in many respects it must be confessed, but still the harbinger) of a new era. At a time when we are making a new departure in the fulfilment of the purpose of our charter, which require us 'to promote the intercourse of those who cultivate Science in different parts of the British Empire, our Association for the Advancement of Science may pause for a moment to gaze upon the vision revealed three centuries ago in the 'Advancement of Learning' by a philosopher whose influence upon the thought of the world is one of the glories of our nation.

I have implied that Bacon's discourse was in advance of its age, so far as England was concerned. Individuals could make their mark in isolated fashion. Thus Harvey, in his hospital work in London, discovered the circulation of the blood; Napier, away on his Scottish estates, invented logarithms; and Horrocks, in the seclusion of a Lancashire curacy, was the first to observe a transit of Venus. But for more than half a century the growth of physical science was mainly due to workers on the continent of Europe. Galileo was making discoveries in the mechanics of solids and fluids, and, specially, he was building on a firm foundation the fabric of the system of astronomy, hazarded nearly a century before by Copernicus; he still was to furnish, by bitter experience, one of the most striking examples in the history of the world that truth is stronger than dogma. Kepler was gradually elucidating the laws of planetary motion, of which such significant use was made later by Newton; and Descartes, by his creation of analytical geometry, was yet to effect such a constructive revolution in mathematics that he might not unfairly be called the founder of modern mathematics. In England the times were out of scientific joint: the political distractions of the Stuart troubles, and the narrow theological bitterness of the Commonwealth, made a poor atmosphere for the progress of scientific learning, which was confined almost to a faithful few. The fidelity of those few, however, had its reward; it was owing to their steady confidence and to their initiative that the Royal Society of London was founded in 1662 by Charles II. At that epoch, science (to quote the words of a picturesque historian) became the fashion of the day. Great Britain began to contribute at least her fitting share to the growing knowledge of Nature; and her scientific activity in the closing part of the seventeenth century was a realisation, wonderful and practical, of a part of Bacon's dream. Undoubtedly the most striking contribution made in that period is Newton's theory of gravitation, as expounded in his Principia, published in 1687.

That century also saw the discovery of the fluxional calculus by Newton, and of the differential calculus by Leibniz. These discoveries provided the material for one of the longest and most deadening controversies as to priority in all the long history of those tediously barren occupations; unfortunately they are dear to minds which cannot understand that a discovery should be used, developed, amplified, but should not be a cause of envy, quarrel, or controversy. Let me say, incidentally, that the controversy had a malign influence upon the study of mathematics as pursued in England.

Also, the undulatory theory of light found its first systematic, if incomplete, exposition in the work of Huygens before the century was out. But Newton had an emission theory of his own, and so the undulatory theory of Huygens found no favour in England until rather more than a hundred years later; the researches of Thomas Young established it on a firm foundation.

Having thus noted some part of the stir in scientific life which marked the late years of the seventeenth century, let me pass to the second of our centenaries: it belongs to the name of Edmond Halley. Quite independently of his achievement connected with the year 1705 to which I am about to refer, there are special reasons for honouring Halley's name in this section at our meeting in South Africa. When a young man of twenty-one be left England for St Helena, and there, in the years 1676-1678, he laid the foundations of stellar astronomy for the Southern Hemisphere; moreover, in the course of his work he there succeeded in securing the first complete observation of a transit of Mercury. After his return to England, the next few years of his life were spent in laying science under a special debt that can hardly be over-appreciated. He placed himself in personal relation with Newton, propounded to him questions and, offered information; and it is now a commonplace statement that Halley's questions and suggestions caused Newton to write the Principia. More than this, we know that Newton's great treatise saw the light only through Halley's persuasive insistence, through his unwearying diligence in saving Newton all cares and trouble and even pecuniary expense, and through his absolutely self-sacrificing devotion to what he made an unwavering duty at that epoch in his life. Again, he appears to have been the first organiser of a scientific expedition, as distinct, from a journey of discovery, towards the Southern Seas: he sailed as far as the fifty-second degree of southern latitude, devised the principle of the sextant in the course of his voyaging, and, as a result of the voyage, he produced a General Chart of the Atlantic Ocean, with special reference to the deviation of the compass. Original, touched with genius, cheery of soul, strenuous in thought and generous by nature, he spent his life in a continuously productive devotion to astronomical science, from boyhood to a span of years far beyond that which satisfied the Psalmist's broodings. I have selected a characteristic incident in his scientific activity, one of the most brilliant (though it cannot be claimed as the most important) of his astronomical achievements; it strikes me as one of the most chivalrously bold acts of convinced science within my knowledge. It is only the story of a comet.

To read the second part of Forsyth's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1905, Part 2

Last Updated April 2007