Henry Baker addresses the British Association in 1913, Part 2

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 first part of Baker's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1913, Part 1

Henry F Baker, the President, continued his Address:

The Theory of Groups.

To-day we characterise a geometry by the help of another general notion, also, for the most part, elaborated in the last hundred years, by means of its group. A group is a set of operations which is closed, in the same sense that the performance of any two of these operations in succession is equivalent to another operation of the set, just as the result of two successive movements of a rigid body can be achieved by a single movement. One of the earliest conscious applications of the notion was in the problem of solving algebraic equations by means of equations of lower order. All equation of the fourth order can be solved by means of a cubic equation, because there exists a rational function of the four roots which takes only three values when the roots are exchanged in all possible ways. Following out this suggestion for an equation of any order, we are led to consider, taking any particular rational function of its roots, what is the group of interchanges among them which leaves this function unaltered in value. This group characterises the function, all other rational functions unaltered by the same group of interchanges being expressible rationally in terms of this function. On these lines a complete theory of equations which are soluble algebraically can be given. Anyone who wishes to form some idea of the richness of the landscape offered by Pure Mathematics might do worse than make himself acquainted with this comparatively small district of it. But the theory of groups has other applications. It may be interesting to refer to the circumstance that the group of interchanges among four quantities which leave unaltered the product of their six differences is exactly similar to the group of rotations of a regular tetrahedron whose centre is fixed, when its corners are interchanged among themselves. Then I mention the historical fact that the problem of ascertaining when that well-known linear differential equation called the hypergeometric equation has all its solutions expressible in finite terms as algebraic functions, was first solved in connection with a group of similar kind. For any linear differential equation it is of primary importance to consider the group of interchanges of its solutions when the independent variable, starting from an arbitrary point, makes all possible excursions, returning to its initial value. And it is in connection with this consideration that one justification arises for the view that the equation can be solved by expressing both the independent and dependent variables as single-valued functions of another variable. There is, however, a theory of groups different from those so far referred to, in which the variables can change continuously; this alone is most extensive, as may be judged from one of its lesser applications, the familiar theory of the invariants of quantics. Moreover, perhaps the most masterly of the analytical discussions of the theory of geometry has been carried through as a particular application of the theory of such groups.

The Theory of Algebraic Functions.

If the theory of groups illustrates how a unifying plan works in mathematics beneath bewildering detail, the next matter I refer to well shows what a wealth, what a grandeur, of thought may spring from what seem slight beginnings. Our ordinary integral calculus is well-nigh powerless when the result of integration is not expressible by algebraic or logarithmic functions. The attempt to extend the possibilities of integration to the case when the function to be integrated involves the square root of a polynomial of the fourth order, led first, after many efforts, among which Legendre's devotion of forty years was part, to the theory of doubly-periodic functions. To-day this is much simpler than ordinary trigonometry, and, even apart from its applications, it is quite incredible that it should ever again pass from being among the treasures of civilised man. Then, at first in uncouth form, but now clothed with delicate beauty, came the theory of general algebraical integrals, of which the influence is spread far and wide; and with it all that is systematic in the theory of plane curves, and all that is associated with the conception of a Riemann surface. After this came the theory of multiply-periodic functions of any number of variables, which, though still very far indeed from being complete, has, I have always felt, a majesty of conception which is unique. Quite recently the ideas evolved in the previous history have prompted a vast general theory of the classification of algebraical surfaces according to their essential properties, which is opening endless new vistas of thought.

Theory of Functions of Complex Variables: Differential Equations.

But the theory has also been prolific in general principles for functions of complex variables. Of greater theories, the problem of automorphic functions alone is a vast continent still largely undeveloped, and there is the incidental problem of the possibilities of geometry of position in any number of dimensions, so important in so many ways. But, in fact, a large proportion of the more familiar general principles, taught to-day as theory of functions, have been elaborated under the stimulus of the foregoing theory. Besides this, however, all that precision of logical statement of which I spoke at the beginning is of paramount necessity here. What exactly is meant by a curve of integration, what character can the limiting points of a region of existence of a function possess, how even best to define a function of a complex variable, these are but some obvious cases of difficulties which are very real and pressing to-day. And then there are the problems of the theory of differential equations. About these I am at a loss what to say. We give a name to the subject, as if it were one subject, and I deal with it in the fewest words. But our whole physical outlook is based on the belief that the problems of Nature are expressible by differential equations; and our knowledge of even the possibilities of the solutions of differential equations consists largely, save for some special types, of that kind of ignorance which, in the nature of the case, can form no idea of its own extent. There are subjects whose whole content is an excuse for a desired solution of a differential equation; there are infinitely laborious methods of arithmetical computation held in high repute of which the same must be said. And yet I stand here to-day to plead with you for tolerance of those who feel that the prosecution of the theoretic studies, which alone can alter this, is a justifiable aim in life! Our hope and belief is that over this vast domain of differential equations the theory of functions shall one day rule, as already it largely does, for example, over linear differential equations.

Theory of Numbers.

In concluding this table of contents, I would also refer, with becoming brevity, to the modern developments of theory of numbers. Wonderful is the fascination and the difficulty of these familiar objects of thought - ordinary numbers. We know how the great Gauss, whose lynx eye was laboriously turned upon all the physical science of his time, has left it on record that in order to settle the law of a plus or minus sign in one of the formulae of his theory of numbers he took up the pen every week for four years. In these islands perhaps our imperial necessities forbid the hope of much development of such a theoretical subject. But in the land of Kummer and Gauss and Dirichlet the subject to-day claims the allegiance of many eager minds. And we can reflect that one of the latest triumphs has been with a problem known by the name of our English senior wrangler, Waring - the problem of the representation of a number by sums of powers.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have touched only a few of the matters with which Pure Mathematics is concerned. Each of those I have named is large enough for one man's thought; but they are interwoven and interlaced in indissoluble fashion and form one mighty whole, so that to be ignorant of one is to be weaker in all. I am not concerned to depreciate other pursuits, which seem at first sight more practical; I wish only, indeed, as we all do, it were possible for one man to cover the whole field of scientific research; and I vigorously resent the suggestion that those who follow these studies are less careful than others of the urgent needs of our national life. But Pure Mathematics is not the rival, even less is it the handmaid, of other branches of science. Properly pursued, it is the essence and soul of them all. It is not for them; they are for it; and its results are for all time. No man who has felt its fascination can be content to be ignorant of any manifestation of regularity and law, or can fail to be stirred by all the need of adjustment of our actual world.

And if life is short, if the greatest magician, joining with the practical man reminds us that, like this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And .... leave not a rack behind,

we must still believe that it is best for us to try to reach the brightest light. And all here must believe it; for else - no fact is more firmly established - we shall not study science to any purpose.

But that is not all I want to say, or at least to indicate. I have dealt so far only with proximate motives; to me it seems demonstrable that a physical science that is conscientious requires the cultivation of Pure Mathematics; and the most mundane of reasons seem to me to prompt the recognition of the aesthetic outlook as a practical necessity, not merely a luxury, in a successful society. Nor do I want to take a transcendental ground. Every schoolboy, I suppose, knows the story of the child born so small, if I remember aright, that he could be put into a quart pot, in a farmhouse on the borders of Lincolnshire - it was the merest everyday chance. By the most incalculable of luck his brain-stuff was so arranged, his parts so proportionately tempered, that he became Newton, and taught us the laws of the planets. It was the blindest concurrence of physical circumstances; and so is all our life. Matter in certain relations to itself, working by laws we can examine in the chemical laboratory, produces all these effects, produces even that state of brain which accompanies the desire to speak of the wonder of it all. And the same laws will inevitably hurl all into confusion and darkness again; and where will all our joys and fears, and all our scientific satisfaction, be then?

As students of Science, we have no right to shrink from this point of view; we are pledged to set aside prepossession and dogma, and examine what seems possible, wherever it may lead. Even life itself may be mechanical, even the greatest of all things, even personality, may some day be resoluble into the properties of dead matter, whatever that is. We can all see that its coherence rises and falls with illness and health, with age and physical conditions. Nor, as it seems to me, can anything but confusion of thought arise from attempts to people our material world with those who have ceased to be material.

An argument could perhaps be based on the divergence, as the mathematician would say, of our comprehension of the properties of matter. For though we seem able to summarise our past experiences with ever-increasing approximation by means of fixed laws, our consciousness of ignorance of the future is only increased thereby. Do we feel more, or less, competent to grasp the future possibilities of things, when we can send a wireless message 4,000 miles, from Hanover to New Jersey?

Our life is begirt with wonder, and with terror. Reduce it by all means to ruthless mechanism, if you can; it will be a great achievement. But it can make no sort of difference to the fact that the things for which we live are spiritual. The rose is no less sweet because its sweetness is conditioned by the food we supply to its roots. It is an obvious fact, and I ought to apologise for remarking it, were it not that so much of our popular science is understood by the hasty to imply an opposite conclusion. If a chemical analysis of the constituents of sea water could take away from the glory of a mighty wave breaking in the sunlight, it would still be true that it was the mind of the chemist which delighted in finding the analysis. Whatever be its history, whatever its physical correlations, it is an undeniable fact that the mind of man has been evolved; I believe that is the scientific word. You may speak of a continuous upholding of our material framework from without; you may ascribe fixed qualities to something you call matter; or you may refuse to be drawn into any statement. But anyway, the fact remains that the precious things of life are those we call the treasures of the mind. Dogmas and philosophies, it would seem, rise and fall. But gradually accumulating throughout the ages, from the earliest dawn of history, there is a body of doctrine, a reasoned insight into the relations of exact ideas, painfully won and often tested. And this remains the main heritage of man; his little beacon of light amidst the solitudes and darknesses of infinite space; or, if you prefer, like the shout of children at play together in the cultivated valleys, which continues from generation to generation.

Yes, and continues for ever! A universe which has the potentiality of becoming thus conscious of itself is not without something of which that which we call memory is but an image. Somewhere, somehow, in ways we dream not of, when you and I have merged again into the illimitable whole, when all that is material has ceased, the faculty in which we now have some share, shall surely endure; the conceptions we now dimly struggle to grasp, the joy we have in the effort, these are but part of a greater whole. Some may fear, and some may hope, that they and theirs shall not endure for ever. But he must have studied Nature in vain who does not see that our spiritual activities are inherent in the mighty process of which we are part; who can doubt of their persistence.

And, on the intellectual side, of all that is best ascertained, and surest, and most definite, of these; of all that is oldest and most universal; of all that is most fundamental and far-reaching, of these activities, Pure Mathematics is the symbol and the sum.

Last Updated April 2007