James Jeans addresses the British Association in 1934

J H Jeans was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1934. The Association met in Aberdeen, in September and Jeans addressed the Association in the Capital Cinema on Wednesday 5 September on The new world-picture of modern physics.. Below is the first part of his lecture.

To read the second part of Jeans' lecture, follow the link: British Association 1934(J), Part 2


Sir James H Jeans, the President, delivered the following Address:-

The new world-picture of modern physics

The British Association assembles for the third time in Aberdeen - under the happiest of auspices. It is good that we are meeting in Scotland, for the Association has a tradition that its Scottish meetings are wholly successful. It is good that we are meeting in the sympathetic atmosphere of a university city, surrounded no only by beautiful and venerable buildings, but also by buildings in which scientific knowledge is being industriously and successfully accumulated. And it is especially good that Aberdeen is rich not only in scientific buildings but also in scientific associations. Most of us can think of some master-mind in his own subject who worked here. My own thoughts, I need hardly say, turn to James Clerk Maxwell.

Whatever our subject, there is one man who will be in our thoughts in a very special sense to-night - Sir William Hardy, whom we had hoped to see in the presidential chair this year. It was not to be, and his early death, while still in the fullness of his powers, casts a shadow in the minds of all of us. We all know of his distinguished work in pure science, and his equally valuable achievements in applied science. I will not try to pay tribute to these, since it has been arranged that others, better qualified than myself, shall do so in a special memorial lecture. Perhaps, however, I may be permitted to bear testimony to the personal qualities of one whom I was proud to call a friend for a large part of my life, and a colleague for many years. Inside the Council room, his proposals were always acute, often highly original, and invariably worthy of careful consideration; outside, his big personality and wide range of interests made him the most charming and versatile of friends. And now I must turn to the subject on which I have specially undertaken to speak - the new world-picture presented to us by modern physics. It is a full half-century since this chair was last occupied by a theoretical physicist in the person of the late Lord Rayleigh. In that interval the main edifice of science has grown almost beyond recognition, increasing in extent, dignity and beauty, as whole armies of labourers have patiently added wing after wing, story upon story, and pinnacle to pinnacle. Yet the theoretical physicist must admit that his own department looks like nothing so much as a building which has been brought down in ruins by a succession of earthquake shocks.

The earthquake shocks were, of course, new facts of observation, and the building fell because it was not built on the solid rock of ascertained fact, but on the ever-shifting sands of conjecture and speculation. Indeed it was little more than a museum of models, which had accumulated because the old-fashioned physicist had a passion for trying to liken the ingredients of Nature to familiar objects such as billiard-balls, jellies and spinning tops. While he believed and proclaimed that Nature had existed and gone her way for countless aeons before man came to spy on her, he assumed that the latest newcomer on the scene, the mind which could never get outside itself and its own sensations would find things within its limited experience to explain what had existed from all eternity. It was expecting too much of Nature, as the ruin of our building has shown. She is not so accommodating as this to the limitations of the human mind; her truths can only be made comprehensible in the form of parables.

Yet no parable can remain true throughout its whole range to the facts it is trying to explain. Somewhere or other it must be too wide or too narrow, so that 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the, truth' is not to be conveyed by parables. The fundamental mistake of the old-fashioned physicist was that he failed to distinguish between the half-truths of parables and the literal truth.

Perhaps his mistake was pardonable, perhaps it was even natural. Modern psychologists make great use of what they describe as 'word-association.' They shoot a word at you, and ask you to reply immediately with the first idea it evokes in your uncontrolled mind. If the psychologist says 'wave,' the boy-scout will probably say 'flag,' while the sailor may say 'sea,' the musician 'sound,' the engineer 'compression,' and the mathematician 'sine' or 'cosine.' Now the crux, of the situation is that the number of people who will give this last response is very small. Our remote ancestors did not survive in the struggle for existence by pondering over sines and cosines, but by devising ways of killing other animals without being killed themselves. As a consequence, the brains we have inherited from them take more kindly to the concrete facts of everyday life than to abstract concepts; to particulars rather than to universals, Every child, when first it begins to learn algebra, asks in, despair 'But what are x, y and z?' and is satisfied when, and only when, it has been told that they are numbers of apples or pears or bananas or something such. In the same way, the old-fashioned physicist could not rest content with x,yx, y and zz, but was always trying to express them in terms of apples or pears or bananas. Yet a simple argument will show that he can never get beyond x,yx, y and zz.

Physical science obtains its knowledge of the external world by a series of exact measurements, or, more precisely, by comparisons of measurements. Typical of its knowledge is the statement that the line Ha in the hydrogen spectrum has a wave-length of so many centimetres. This is meaningless until we know what a centimetre is. The moment we are told that it is a certain fraction of the earth's radius, or of the length of a bar of platinum, or a certain multiple of the wave-length of a line in the cadmium spectrum, our knowledge becomes real, but at that same moment it also becomes purely numerical. Our minds can only be acquainted with things inside themselves - never with things outside. Thus we can never know the essential nature of anything, such as a centimetre or a wavelength, which exists in that mysterious world outside ourselves to which our minds can never penetrate; but we can know the numerical ratio of two quantities of similar nature, no matter how incomprehensible they may both be individually.

For this reason, our knowledge of the external world must always consist of numbers, and our picture of the universe - the synthesis of our knowledge - must necessarily be mathematical in form. All the concrete details of the picture, the apples and pears and bananas, the ether and atoms and electrons, are mere clothing that we ourselves drape over our mathematical symbols - they do not belong to Nature, but to the parables by which we try to make Nature comprehensible. It was, I think, Kronecker who said that in arithmetic God made the integers and man made the rest; in the same spirit, we may add that in physics God made the mathematics and man made the rest.

The modern physicist does not use this language, but he accepts its implications, and divides the concepts of physics into observables and unobservables. In brief, the observables embody facts of observation, and so are purely numerical or mathematical in their content; the unobservables are the pictorial details of the parables.

The physicist wants to make his new edifice earthquake-proof - immune to the shock of new observations - and so builds only on the solid rock, and with the solid bricks, of ascertained fact. Thus he builds only with observables, and his whole edifice is one of mathematics and mathematical formulae - all else is man-made decoration.

For instance when the undulatory theory had made it clear that light was of the nature of waves, the scientists of the day elaborated this by saying that light consisted of waves in a rigid, homogeneous ether which filled all space. The whole content of ascertained fact, in this description is the one word 'wave,' in its strictly mathematical sense; all the rest is pictorial detail, introduced to help out the inherited limitations of our minds.

Then scientists took the pictorial details of the parable literally, and so fell into error. For instance, light-waves travel in space and time jointly, but by filling space and space alone with ether, the parable seemed to make a clear-cut distinction between space and time. It even suggested that they could be separated out in practice - by performing a Michelson-Morley experiment. Yet, as we all know, the experiment when performed only showed that such a separation is impossible; the space and time of the parable are found not to be true to the facts - they are revealed as mere stage-scenery. Neither is found to exist in its own right, but only as a way of cutting up something more comprehensive - the space-time continuum.

Thus we find that space and time cannot be classified as realities of nature, and the generalised theory of relativity shows that the same is true of their product, the space-time continuum. This can be crumpled and twisted and warped, as much as we please without becoming one whit less true to nature -which, of course, can only mean that it is not itself part of nature.

In this way space and time, and also their spare-time product, fall into their places as mere mental frameworks of our own construction. They are of course very important frameworks, being nothing less than the frameworks along which our minds receive their whole knowledge of the outer world. This knowledge comes to our minds in the form of messages, passed on from our senses; these in turn have received them as impacts or transfers of electromagnetic momentum or energy. Now Clerk Maxwell showed that electromagnetic activity of all kinds could be depicted perfectly as travelling in space and time - this was the essential content of his electromagnetic theory of light. Thus space and time are of preponderating importance to our minds as the media through which the messages from the outer world enter the 'gateways of knowledge,' our senses, and in terms of which they are classified. Just as the messages which enter a telephone exchange are classified by the wires along which they arrive, so the messages which strike our senses are classified by their arrival along the space-time framework.

Physical science, assuming that each message must have had a starting-point, postulated the existence of 'matter' to provide such starting-points. But the existence of this matter was a pure hypothesis; and matter is in actual fact as unobservable as the ether, Newtonian force, and other unobservables which have vanished from science. Early science not only assumed matter to exist, but further pictured it as existing in space and time. Again, this assumption had no adequate justification; for there is clearly no reason why the whole material universe should be restricted to the narrow framework along which messages strike our senses. To illustrate by an analogy, the earthquake waves which damage our houses travel along the surface of the ground, but we have no right to assume that they originate in the surface of the ground; we know, on the contrary, that they originate deep down in the earth's interior.

The Newtonian mechanics, however, having endowed space and time with real objective existences, assumed that the whole universe existed within the limits of space and time. Even more characteristic of it was the doctrine of 'mechanistic determinism,' which could be evolved from it by strictly logical processes. This reduced the whole physical universe to a vast machine in which each cog, shaft, and thrust bar could only transmit what it received, and wait for what was to come next. When it was found that the human body consisted of nothing beyond commonplace atoms and molecules, the human race also seemed to be reduced to cogs in the wheel, and in face of the inexorable movements of the machine, human effort, initiative, and ambition seemed to become meaningless illusions. Our minds were left with no more power or initiative than a sensitised cinematograph film; they could only register what was impressed on them from an outer world over which they had, no control.

Theoretical physics is no longer concerned to study the Newtonian universe which it once believed to exist in its own right in space, and time. It merely sets before itself the modest task of reducing to law and order the impressions that the universe makes on our senses. It is not concerned with what lies beyond the gateways of knowledge, but with what enters through the gateways of knowledge. It is concerned with appearances rather than reality, so that its task resembles that of the cartographer or map-make rather than that of the geologist or mining engineer.

Now the cartographer knows that a map may be drawn in many ways, or, as he would himself say, many kinds of projection are available. Each one has its merits, but it is impossible to find all the merits we might reasonably desire combined in one single map. It is reasonable to demand that each bit of territory should look its proper shape on the map; also that each should look its proper relative size. Yet even these very reasonable requirements cannot usually be satisfied in a single map; the only exception is when the map is to contain only a small part of the whole surface of the globe. In this case, and this only, all the qualities we want can be combined in a single map, so that we simply ask for a map of the county of Surrey without specifying whether it is to be a Mercator's, or orthographic or conic projection, or what not.

All this has its exact counterpart in the map-making task of the physicist. The Newtonian mechanics was like the map of Surrey, because it dealt only with a small fraction of the universe. It was concerned with the motions and changes of medium-sized objects - objects comparable in size with the human body - and for these it was able to provide a perfect map which combined in one picture all the qualities we could reasonably demand. But the inconceivably great and the inconceivably small were equally beyond its ken. As soon as science pushed out - to the cosmos as a whole in one direction and to sub-atomic phenomena in the other - the deficiencies of the Newtonian mechanics became manifest. And no modification of the Newtonian map was able to provide the two qualities, which this map had itself encouraged us to expect - a materialism which exhibited the universe as constructed of matter lying within the framework of space and time, and a determinism which provided an answer to the question 'What is going to happen next?'

When geography cannot combine all the qualities we want in a single map, it provides us with more than one map. Theoretical physics has done the same, providing us with two maps which are commonly known as the particle-picture and the wave-picture.

The particle-picture is a materialistic picture which caters for those who wish to see their universe mapped out as matter existing in space and time. The wave-picture is a determinist picture which caters for those who ask the question 'What is going to happen next?' It is perhaps better to speak of these two pictures as the particle-parable and the wave-parable. For this is what they really are, and the nomenclature warns us in advance not to be surprised at inconsistencies and contradictions.

Let me remind you, as briefly as possible, how this pair of pictures or parables have come to be in existence side by side.

The particle-parable, which was first in the field, told us that the material universe consists of particles existing in space and time. It was created by the labours of chemists and experimental physicists, working on the basis provided by the classical physicist. Its time of testing came in 1913, when Bohr tried to find out whether the two particles of the hydrogen atom could possibly produce the highly complicated spectrum of hydrogen by their motion. He found a type of motion which could produce this spectrum down to its minutest details, but the motion was quite inconsistent with the mechanistic determinism of the Newtonian mechanics. The electron did not move continuously through space and time, but jumped, and its jumps were not governed by the laws of mechanics, but to all appearance, as Einstein showed more fully four years later, by the laws of probability. Of 1000 identical atoms, 100 might make the jump, while the other 900 would not. Before the jumps occurred, there was nothing to show which atoms were going to jump. Thus the particle-picture conspicuously failed to provide an answer to the question 'What will happen next?'

Bohr's concepts were revolutionary, but it was soon found they were not revolutionary enough, for they failed to explain more complicated spectra, as well as certain other phenomena.

Then Heisenberg showed that the hydrogen spectrum - and, as we now believe, all other spectra as well - could be explained by the motion of something which was rather like an electron, but did not move in space and time. Its position was not specified by the usual co-ordinates x, y, z of co-ordinate geometry, but by the mathematical abstraction known as a matrix. His ideas were rather too abstract even for mathematicians, the majority of whom had quite forgotten what matrices were. It seemed likely that Heisenberg had unravelled the secret of the structure of matter, and yet his solution was so far removed from the concepts of ordinary life that another parable had to be invented to make it comprehensible.

The wave-parable serves this purpose; it does not describe the universe as a collection of particles but as a system of waves. The universe is no longer a deluge of shot from a battery of machine-guns, but a stormy sea with the sea taken away and only the abstract quality of storminess left - or the grin of the Cheshire cat if we can think of a grin as undulatory. This parable was not devised by Heisenberg, but by de Broglie and Schrödinger. At first they thought their waves merely provided a superior model of an ordinary electron; later it was established that they were a sort of parable to explain Heisenberg's pseudo-electron.

Now the pseudo-electron of Heisenberg did not claim to account for the spectrum emitted by a single atom of gas, which is something entirely beyond our knowledge or experience, but only that emitted by a whole assembly of similar atoms; it was not a picture of one electron in one atom, but of all the electrons in all the atoms.

In the same way the waves of the wave-parable do not picture individual electrons, but a community of electrons - a crowd - as for instance the electrons whose motion constitutes a current of electricity.

In this particular instance the waves can be represented as travelling through ordinary space. Except for travelling at a different speed, they are very like the waves by which Maxwell described the flow of radiation through space, so that matter and radiation are much more like one another in the new physics than they were in the old.

In other cases, ordinary time and space do not provide an adequate canvas for the wave-picture. The wave-picture of two currents of electricity, or even of two electrons moving independently, needs a larger canvas - six dimensions of space and one of time. There can be no logical justification for identifying any particular three of these six dimensions with ordinary space, so that we must regard the wave-picture as lying entirely outside space. The whole picture, and the manifold dimensions of space in which it is drawn, become pure mental constructs - diagrams and frameworks we make for ourselves to help us understand phenomena.

In this way we have the two co-existent pictures - the particle-picture for the materialist, and the wave-picture for the determinist. When the cartographer has to make two distinct maps to exhibit the geography of, say, North America, he is able to explain why two maps are necessary, and can also tell us the relation between the two - he can show us how to transform one into the other. He will tell us, for instance, that he needs two maps simply because he is restricted to flat surfaces - pieces of paper. Give him a sphere instead, and he can show us North America, perfectly and completely, on a single map.

The physicist has not yet found anything corresponding to this sphere; when, if ever, he does, the particle-picture and the wave-picture will be merged into a single new picture. At present some kink in our minds, or perhaps merely some ingrained habit of thought, prevents our understanding the universe as a consistent whole - just as the ingrained habits of thought of a 'flat-earther' prevent his understanding North America as a consistent whole. Yet, although physics has so far failed to explain why two pictures are necessary, it is, nevertheless, able to explain the relation between the particle-picture and the wave-picture in perfectly comprehensible terms.

The central feature of the particle-picture is the atomicity which is found in the structure of matter. But this atomicity is only one expression of a fundamental coarse-grainedness which pervades the whole of nature. It crops up again in the fact that energy can only be transferred by whole quanta. Because of this, the tools with which we study nature are themselves coarse-grained; we have only blunt probes at our disposal, and so can never acquire perfectly precise knowledge of nature. Just as, in astronomy, the grain of our photographic plates prevents our ever fixing the position of a star with absolute precision, so in physics we can never say that an electron is here, at this precise spot, and is moving at just such and such a speed. The best we can do with our blunt probes is to represent the position of the electron by a smear, and its motion by a moving smear which will get more and more blurred as time progresses. Unless we check the growth of our smear by taking new observations, it will end by spreading through the whole of space.

Now the waves of an electron or other piece of matter are simply a picture of just such a smear. Where the waves are intense, the smear is black, and conversely. The nature of the smear - whether it consists of printer's ink, or, as was at one time thought, of electricity - is of no importance; this is mere pictorial detail. All that is essential is the relative blackness of the smear at different places-a ratio of numbers which measures the relative chance of electrons being at different points of space.

The relation between the wave-picture and the particle-picture may be summed up thus: the more stormy the waves at any point in the wave-picture, the more likely we are to find a particle at that point in the particle-picture. Yet, if the particles really existed as points, and the waves depicted the chances of their existing at different points of space - as Maxwell's law does for the molecules of a gas - then the gas would emit a continuous spectrum instead of the line-spectrum that is actually observed. Thus we had better put our statement in the form that the electron is not a point-particle, but that if we insist on picturing it as such, then the waves indicate the relative proprieties of picturing it as existing at the different points of space. But propriety relative to what?

The answer is - relative to our own knowledge. If we know nothing about an electron except that it exists, all places are equally likely for it, so that its waves are uniformly spread through the whole of space. By experiment after experiment we can restrict the extent of its waves, but we can never reduce them to a point, or indeed below a certain minimum; the coarse-grainedness of our probes prevents that. There is always a finite region of waves left. And the waves which are left depict our knowledge precisely and exactly; we may say that they are waves of knowledge - or perhaps even better still, waves of imperfections of knowledge of the position of the electron.

To read the second part of Jeans' lecture, follow the link: British Association 1934(J), Part 2

Last Updated April 2007