Henry Baker addresses the British Association in 1913

Henry F Baker was President of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1913. The Association met in Birmingham in September and Baker addressed Section A - Mathematical and Physical Sciences on The Place of Pure Mathematics. Below is the first part of his lecture.

To read the second part of Baker's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1913, Part 2



Henry F Baker, the President, delivered the following Address:

The Place of Pure Mathematics

It is not a very usual thing for the opening Address of this Section to be entrusted to one whose main energies have been devoted to what is called Pure Mathematics; but I value the opportunity in order to try to explain what, as I conceive it, the justification of the Pure Mathematician is. You will understand that in saying this I am putting myself in a position which belongs to me as little by vocation as by achievement, since it was my duty through many years to give instruction in all the subjects usually regarded as Mathematical Physics, and it is still my duty to be concerned with students in these subjects. But my experience is that the Pure Mathematician is apt to be regarded by his friends as a trifler and a visionary, and the consciousness of this becomes in time a paralysing dead-weight. I think that view is founded on want of knowledge.

Of course, it must be admitted that the mathematician, as such, has no part in those public endeavours that arise, from the position of our Empire in the world, nor in the efforts that must constantly be made for social adjustment at home. I wish to make this obvious remark. For surely the scientific man must give his time and his work in the faith of at least an intellectual harmony in things; and he must wish to know what to think of all that seems out of gear in the working of human relations. His own cup of contemplation is often golden; he marks that around him there is fierce fighting for cups that are earthen, and largely broken; and many there are that go thirsting. And, again, the mathematician is as sensitive as others to the marvel of each recurring springtime, when, year by year, our common mother seems to call us so loudly to consider how wonderful she is, and how dependent we are, and he is as curious as to the mysteries of the development of living things. He can draw inspiration for his own work, as he views the spectacle of a starry night, and sees
How the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
Each orb, the smallest, in his motion, sings,
but the song, once so full of dread, how much it owes to the highest refinements of his craft, from at least the time of the Greek devotion to the theory of conic sections; how much, that is, to the harmony that is in the human soul. Yet the mathematician bears to the natural observer something of the relation which the laboratory botanist has come to bear to the field naturalist. Moreover, he is shut off from inquiries which stir the public imagination; when he looks back the ages over the history of his own subject the confidence of his friends who study heredity and teach eugenics arouses odd feelings in his mind; if he feels the fascination which comes of the importance of such inquiries, he is also prepared to hear that the subtlety of Nature grows with our knowledge of her. Doubtless, too, he wishes he had some participation in the discovery of the laws of wireless telegraphy, or had something to say in regard to the improvement of internal-combustion engines or the stability of aeroplanes; it is little compensation to remember, though the mathematical physicist is his most tormenting critic, what those of his friends who have the physical instinct used to say on the probable development of these things, however well he may recall it.

But it is not logical to believe that they who are called visionary because of their devotion to creatures of the imagination can be unmoved by these things. Nor is it at all just to assume that they are less conscious than others of the practical importance of them, or less anxious that they should be vigorously prosecuted.

Why is it, then, that their systematic study is given to other things, and not of necessity, and in the first instance, to the theory of any of these concrete phenomena? This is the question I try to answer. I can only give my own impression, and doubtless the validity of an answer varies as the accumulation of data, made by experimenters and observers, which remains unutilised at any time.

The reason, then, is very much the same as that which may lead a man to abstain from piecemeal indiscriminate charity in order to devote his attention and money to some well-thought-out scheme of reform which seems to have promise of real amelioration. One turns away from details and examples, because one thinks that there is promise of fundamental improvement of methods and principles. This is the argumentum ad hominem. But there, is more than that. The improvement of general principles is arduous, and if undertaken only with a view to results may be ill-timed and disappointing. But as soon as we consciously give ourselves to the study of universal methods for their own sake another phenomenon appears. The mind responds, the whole outlook is enlarged, infinite possibilities of intellectual comprehension, of mastery of the relations of things, hitherto unsuspected, begin to appear on the mental horizon. I am well enough aware of the retort to which such a statement is open. But, I say, interpret the fact as you will, our intellectual pleasure in life cometh not by might nor by power - arises, that is, most commonly, not of set purpose - but lies at the mercy of the response which the mind may make to the opportunities of its experience. When the response proves to be of permanent interest - and for how many centuries have mathematical questions been a fascination? - we do well to regard it. Let us compare another case which is, I think, essentially the same. It may be that early forms of what now is specifically called Art arose with a view to applications; I do not know. But no one will deny that Art, when once it has been conceived by us, is a worthy object of pursuit; we know by a long trial that we do wisely to yield ourselves to a love of beautiful things, and to the joy of making them. Well, Pure Mathematics, as such, is an Art, a creative Art. If its past triumphs of achievement fill us with wonder, its future scope for invention is exhaustless and open to all. It is also a Science. For the mind of man is one; to scale the peaks it spreads before the explorer is to open ever new prospects of possibility for the formulation of laws of Nature. Its resources have been tested by the experience of generations; to-day it lives and thrives and expands, and wins the life-service of more workers than ever before.

This, at least, is what I wanted to say, and I have said it with the greatest brevity I could command. But may I dare attempt to carry you further? If this seems fanciful, what will you say to the setting in which I would wish to place this point of view? And yet I feel bound to try to indicate something more, which may be of wider appeal. I said a word at starting as to the relations of science to those many to whom the message of our advanced civilisation is the necessity, above all things, of getting bread. Leaving this aside, I would make another reference. In our time old outlooks have very greatly changed; old hopes, disregarded perhaps because undoubted, have very largely lost their sanction, and given place to earnest questionings. Can anyone who watches doubt that the courage to live is in some danger of being swallowed up in the anxiety to acquire? May it not be, then, that it is good for us to realise, and to confess, that the pursuit of things that are beautiful, and the achievement of intellectual things that bring the joy of overcoming, is at least as demonstrably justifiable as the many other things that fill the lives of men? May it not be that a wider recognition of this would be of some general advantage at present? Is it not even possible that to bear witness to this is one of the uses of the scientific spirit? Moreover, though the pursuit of truth be a noble aim, is it so new a profession; are we so sure that the ardour to set down all the facts without extenuation is, unassisted, so continuing a purpose? May science itself not be wise to confess to what is its own sustaining force?

Such, ladies and gentlemen, in crude, imperfect phrase, is the apologia. If it does not differ much from that which workers in other ways would make, it does, at least, try to represent truly one point of view, and it seems to me specially applicable to the case of Pure Mathematics. But you may ask: What, then, is this subject? What can it be about if it is not primarily directed to the discussion of the laws of natural phenomena? What kind of things are they that can occupy alone the thoughts of a lifetime? I propose now to attempt to answer this, most inadequately, by a bare recital of some of the broader issues of present interest - though this has difficulties, because the nineteenth century was of unexampled fertility in results and suggestions, and I must be as little technical as possible.

Precision of Definitions.

First, in regard to two matters which illustrate how we are forced by physical problems into abstract inquiries. It is a constantly recurring need of science to reconsider the exact implication of the terms employed; and as numbers and functions are inevitable in all measurement, the precise meaning of number, of continuity, of infinity, of limit, and so on, are fundamental questions, those who will receive the evidence can easily convince themselves that these notions have many pitfalls. Such an imperishable monument as Euclid's theory of ratio is a familiar sign that this has always been felt, The last century has witnessed a vigorous inquiry into these matters, and many of the results brought forward appear to be new; nor is the interest of the matter by any means exhausted. I may cite, as intelligible to all, such a fact as the construction of a function which is continuous at all points of a range, yet possesses no definite differential coefficient at any point. Are we sure that human nature is the only continuous variable in the concrete world, assuming it be continuous, which can possess such a vacillating character? Or I may refer to the more elementary fact that all the rational fractions, infinite in number, which lie in any given range, can be enclosed in intervals whose aggregate length is arbitrarily small. Thus we could take out of our life all the moments at which we can say that our age is a certain number of years, and days, and fractions of a day, and still have appreciably as long to live; this would be true, however often, to whatever exactness, we named our age, provided we were quick enough in naming it. Though the recurrence of these inquiries is part of a wider consideration of functions of complex variables, it has been associated also with the theory of those series which Fourier used so boldly, and so wickedly, for the conduction of heat. Like all discoverers, he took much for granted. Precisely how much is the problem. This problem has led to the precision of what is meant by a function of real variables, to the question of the uniform convergence of an infinite series, as you may see in early papers of Stokes, to new formulation of the conditions of integration and of the properties of multiple integrals, and so on. And it remains still incompletely solved.

Calculus of Variations.

Another case in which the suggestions of physics have caused grave disquiet to the mathematicians is the problem of the variation of a definite integral. No one is likely to underrate the grandeur of the aim of those who would deduce the whole physical history of the world from the single principle of least action. Everyone must be interested in the theorem that a potential function, with a given value at the boundary of a volume, is such as to render a certain integral, representing, say, the energy, a minimum. But in that proportion one desires to be sure that the logical processes employed are free from objection. And, alas! to deal only with one of the earliest problems of the subject, though the finally sufficient conditions for a minimum of a simple integral seemed settled long ago, and could be applied, for example, to Newton's celebrated problem of the solid of least resistance, it has since been shown to be a general fact that such a problem cannot have any definite solution at all. And, although the principle of Thomson and Dirichlet, which relates to the potential problem referred to, was expounded by Gauss, and accepted by Riemann, and remains to-day in our standard treatise on Natural Philosophy, there can be no doubt that, in the form in which it was originally stated, it proves just nothing. Thus a new investigation has been necessary into the foundations of the principle. There is another problem, closely connected with this subject, to which I would allude: the stability of the solar system. For those who can make pronouncements in regard to this I have a feeling of envy; for their methods, as yet, I have a quite other feeling. The interest of this problem alone is sufficient to justify the craving of the Pure Mathematician for powerful methods and unexceptionable rigour.

Non-Euclidian Geometry.

But I turn to another matter. It is an old view, I suppose, that geometry deals with facts about which there can be no two opinions. You are familiar with the axiom that, given a straight line and a point, one and only one straight line can be drawn through the point parallel to the given straight line. According to the old view the natural man would say that this is either true or false. And, indeed, many and long were the attempts made to justify it. At length there came a step which to many probably will still seem unintelligible. A system of geometry was built up in which it is assumed that, given a straight line and a point, an infinite number of straight lines can be drawn through the point, in the plane of the given line, no one of which meets the given line. Can there then, one asks at first, be two systems of geometry, both of which are true, though they differ in such an important particular? Almost as soon believe that there can be two systems of Laws of Nature, essentially differing in character, both reducing the phenomena we observe to order and system - a monstrous heresy, of course! I will only say that, after a century of discussion we are quite sure that many systems of geometry are possible, and true; though not all may be expedient. And if you reply that a geometry is useful for life only in proportion as it fits the properties of concrete things, I will answer, first, are the heavens not then concrete? And have we as yet any geometry that enables us to form a consistent logical idea of furthermost space? And, second, that the justification of such speculations is the interest they evoke, and that the investigations already undertaken have yielded results of the most surprising interest.

To read the second part of Baker's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1913, Part 2

Last Updated April 2007