Sylvester addresses the British Association

James Joseph Sylvester delivered his Inaugural Presidential Address to the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Exeter in August 1869. In this address, he tried to convey the great changes that were taking place in mathematics - some call it a "total philosophical revolution." His audience did not consist of mathematicians but was a broad mix of educated people so he tried to pitch his talk appropriately. We give a version of Sylvester's address.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A few days ago I noticed in a shop window the photograph of a Royal mother and child, which seemed to me a very beautiful group; on scanning it more closely, I discovered that the faces were ordinary, or, at all events, not much above the average, and that the charm arose entirely from the natural action and expression of the mother stooping over and kissing her child which she held in her lap; and I remarked to myself that the homeliest features would become beautiful when lit up by the rays of the soul - like the sun "gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy." By analogy, the thought struck me that if a man would speak naturally and as he felt on any subject of his predilection, he might hope to awaken a sympathetic interest in the minds of his hearers; and, in corroboration of this I remembered witnessing how the writer of a well-known article in the Quarterly Review so magnetised his audience at the Royal Institution by his evident enthusiasm that, when the lecture was over and the applause had subsided, some ladies came up to me and implored me to tell them what they should do to get up the Talmud; for that was what the lecture had been about.

Now, as I believe that even Mathematics are not much more repugnant than the Talmud to the common apprehension of mankind, and I really love my subject, I shall not quite despair of rousing and retaining your attention for a short time if I proceed to read (as, for greater assurance against breaking down, I shall beg your permission to do) from the pages I hold in my hand.

It is not without a feeling of surprise and trepidation at my own temerity that I find myself in the position of one about to address this numerous and distinguished assembly. When informed that the Council of the British Association had it in contemplation to recommend me to the General Committee to fill the office of President to the Mathematical and Physical Section, the intimation was accompanied with the tranquillising assurance that it would rest with myself to deliver or withhold an address as I might think fit, and that I should be only following in the footsteps of many of the most distinguished of my predecessors were I to resolve on the latter course.

Until the last few days I had made up my mind to avail myself of this option, by proceeding at once to the business before us without troubling you to listen to any address, swayed thereto partly by a consciousness of the very limited extent of my oratorical powers, partly by a disinclination, in the midst of various pressing private and official occupations, to undertake a kind of work new to one more used to thinking than to speaking (to making mathematics than to talking about them), and partly and more especially by a feeling of my inadequacy to satisfy the expectations that would be raised in the minds of those who had enjoyed the privilege of hearing or reading the allocution (which fills me with admiration and dismay) of my gifted predecessor, Dr Tyndall, a man in whom eloquence and philosophy seem to be inborn, whom Science and Poetry woo with an equal spell, and whose ideas have a faculty of arranging themselves in forms of order and beauty as spontaneously and unfailingly as those crystalline solutions from which, in a striking passage of his address, he drew so vivid and instructive an illustration.

From this lotus-eater's dream of fancied security and repose I was rudely awakened by receiving from the editor of an old-established journal in this city, a note containing a polite but peremptory request that I should, at my earliest convenience, favour him with a "copy of the address I proposed to deliver at the forthcoming meeting." To this invitation, my first impulse was to respond very much in the same way as did the "Needy knife-grinder" of the 'Antijacobin,' when summoned to recount the story of his wrongs to his republican sympathiser: "Story, God bless you, I have none to tell, Sir!" "Address, Mr Editor, I have none to deliver."

I have found, however, that increase of appetite still grows with what it feeds on, that those who were present at the opening of the Section last year, and enjoyed my friend Dr Tyndall's melodious utterances, would consider themselves somewhat ill-treated if they were sent away quite empty on the present occasion, and that, failing an address, the Members would feel very much like the guests at a wedding-party where no one was willing or able to propose the health of the bride and bridegroom.

Yielding, therefore, to these considerations and to the advice of some officially connected with the Association, to whose opinions I feel bound to defer, and unwilling also to countenance by my example the too prevailing opinion that mathematical pursuits unfit a person for the discharge of the common duties of life and cut him off from the exercise of Man's highest prerogative, "discourse of reason and faculty of speech divine," - rather, I say than favour the notion that we Algebraists (who are wont to regard each other as the flower and salt of the earth) are a set of mere calculating-machines endowed with organs of locomotion, or, at best, a sort of poor visionary dumb creatures only capable of communicating by signs and symbols with the outer world, I have resolved to take heart of grace and to say a few words, which I hope to render, if not interesting, at least intelligible, on a subject to which the larger part of my life has been devoted.

The President of the Association, Prof Stokes, is so eminent alike as a mathematician and physicist, and so distinguished for accuracy and extent of erudition and research, that I felt assured I might safely assume he would, in his Address to the Association at large, take an exhaustive survey, and render a complete account, of the recent progress and present condition and prospects of Mathematical and Physical Science at home and abroad. This consideration narrowed very much and brought almost to a point the ground available for me to occupy in this Section; and as I cannot but be aware that it is as a cultivator of pure mathematics (the subject in which my own researches have chiefly, though by no means exclusively, lain) that I have been placed in this Chair, I hope the Section will patiently bear with me in the observations I shall venture to make on the nature of that province of the human reason and its title to the esteem and veneration with which through countless ages it has been, and, so long as Man respects the intellectual part of his nature, must ever continue to be regarded.

It is said of a great party leader and orator in the House of Lords that, when lately requested to make a speech at some religious or charitable (at all events a non-political) meeting, he declined to do so on the ground that he could not speak unless he saw an adversary before him - somebody to attack or reply to. In obedience to a somewhat similar combative instinct, I set to myself the task of considering certain recent utterances of a most distinguished member of this Association, one whom I no less respect for his honesty and public spirit than I admire for his genius and eloquence, but from whose opinions on a subject which he has not studied I feel constrained to differ. Goethe has said:-
Verständige Leute kannst du irren sehn:
In Sachen nämlich, die sie nicht verstehn.
Understanding people you may see erring - in those things, to wit, which they do not understand.
I have no doubt that had my distinguished friend, the probable President-elect of the next Meeting of the Association, applied his uncommon powers of reasoning, induction, comparison, observation, and invention to the study of mathematical science, he would have become as great a mathematician as he is now a biologist; indeed he has given public evidence of his ability to grapple with the practical side of certain mathematical questions; but he has not made a study of mathematical science as such, and the eminence of his position and the weight justly attaching to his name render it only the more imperative that any assertions proceeding from such a quarter, which may appear to me erroneous, or so expressed as to he conducive to error, should not remain unchallenged or be passed over in silence.

He says "mathematical training is almost purely deductive. The mathematician starts with a few simple propositions, the proof of which is so obvious that they are called self-evident, and the rest of his work consists of subtle deductions from them. The teaching of languages, at any rate as ordinarily practised, is of the same general nature - authority and tradition furnish the data, and the mental operations are deductive." It would seem from the above somewhat singularly juxtaposed paragraphs that, according to Prof Huxley, the business of the mathematical student is from a limited number of propositions (bottled up and labelled ready for future use) to deduce any required result by a process of the same general nature as a student of language employs in declining and conjugating his nouns and verbs - that to make out a mathematical proposition and to construe or parse a sentence are equivalent or identical mental operations. Such an opinion scarcely seems to need serious refutation. The passage is taken from an article in Macmillan's Magazine for June last, entitled "Scientific Education - Notes of an After-dinner Speech," and I cannot but think would have been couched in more guarded terms by my distinguished friend had his speech been made before dinner instead of after.

The notion that mathematical truth rests on the narrow basis of a limited number of elementary propositions from which all others are to be derived by a process of logical inference and verbal deduction, has been stated still more strongly and explicitly by the same eminent writer in an article of even date with the preceding in the 'Fortnightly Review,' where we are told that "Mathematics is that study which knows nothing of observation, nothing of experiment, nothing of induction, nothing of causation." I think no statement could have been made more opposite to the undoubted facts of the case; that mathematical analysis is constantly invoking the aid of new principles, new ideas, and new methods, not capable of being denned by any form of words, but springing direct from the inherent powers and activity of the human mind, and from continually renewed introspection of that inner world of thought of which the phenomena are as varied and require as close attention to discern as those of the outer physical world (to which the inner one in each individual man may, I think, be conceived to stand in somewhat the same general relation of correspondence as a shadow to the object from which it is projected, or as the hollow palm of one hand to the closed fist which it grasps of the other), that it is unceasingly calling forth the faculties of observation and comparison, that one of its principal weapons is induction, that it has frequent recourse to experimental trial and verification, and that it affords a boundless scope for the exercise of the highest efforts of imagination and invention.

Lagrange, than whom no greater authority could be quoted, has expressed emphatically his belief in the importance to the mathematician of the faculty of observation; Gauss has called mathematics a science of the eye, and in conformity with this view always paid the most punctilious attention to preserve his text free from typographical errors; the ever-to-be-lamented Riemann has written a thesis to show that the basis of our conception of space is purely empirical, and our knowledge of its laws the result of observation, that other kinds of space might be conceived to exist subject to laws different from those which govern the actual space in which we are immersed, and that there is no evidence of these laws extending to the ultimate infinitesimal elements of which space is composed. Like his master Gauss, Riemann refuses to accept Kant's doctrine of space and time being forms of intuition, and regards them as possessed of physical and objective reality. I may mention that Baron Sartorius von Waltershausen (a member of this Association) in his biography of Gauss ("Gauss zu gedächtniss"), published shortly after his death, relates that this great man was used to say that he had laid aside several questions which he had treated analytically, and hoped to apply to them geometrical methods in a future state of existence, when his conceptions of space should have become amplified and extended; for as we can conceive beings (like infinitely attenuated bookworms in an infinitely thin sheet of paper) which possess only the notion of space of two dimensions, so we may imagine beings capable of realising space of four or a greater number of dimensions. Our Cayley, the central luminary, the Darwin of the English school of mathematicians, started and elaborated at an early age, and with happy consequences, the same bold hypothesis.

Most, if not all, of the great ideas of modern mathematics have had their origin in observation. Take, for instance, the arithmetical theory of forms, of which the foundation was laid in the Diophantine theorems of Fermat, left without proof by their author, which resisted all the efforts of the myriad-minded Euler to reduce to demonstration, and only yielded up their cause of being when turned over in the blowpipe flame of Gauss's transcendent genius; or the doctrine of double periodicity, which resulted from the observation by Jacobi of a purely analytical fact of transformation; or Legendre's law of reciprocity; or Sturm's theorem about the roots of equations, which, as he informed me with his own lips, stared him in the face in the midst of some mechanical investigations connected with the motion of compound pendulums; or Huygen's method of continued fractions, characterised by Lagrange as one of the principal discoveries of "that great mathematician, and to which he appears to have been led by the construction of his Planetary Automaton"; or the New Algebra, speaking of which one of my predecessors (Mr Spottiswoode) has said, not without just reason and authority, from this Chair, "that it reaches out and indissolubly connects itself each year with fresh branches of mathematics, that the theory of equations has almost become new through it, algebraic geometry transfigured in its light, that the calculus of variations, molecular physics, and mechanics" (he might, if speaking at the present moment, go on to add the theory of elasticity and the highest developments of the integral calculus) "have all felt its influence."

Now, this gigantic outcome of modern analytical thought, itself, too, only the precursor and progenitor of a future, still more heaven-reaching theory, which will comprise a complete study of the interoperation, the actions and reactions, of algebraic forms (Analytical Morphology in its absolute sense), how did this originate? In the accidental observation by Eisenstein, some 20 or more years ago, of a single invariant (the Quadrinvariant of a Binary Quartic) which he met with in the course of certain researches just as accidentally and unexpectedly as M Du Chaillu might meet a gorilla in the country of the Fantees, or any one of us in London a white polar bear escaped from the Zoological Gardens! Fortunately he pounced down upon his prey and preserved it for the contemplation and study of future mathematicians. It occupies only part of a page in his collected posthumous works. This single result of observation (as well entitled to be so called as the discovery of Globigerinae in chalk or of the Confoco-ellipsoidal structure of the shells of the Foraminifera), which remained unproductive in the hands of its distinguished author, has served to set in motion a train of thought and to propagate an impulse which have led to a complete revolution in the whole aspect of modern analysis, and whose consequences will continue to be felt until Mathematics are forgotten and British Associations meet no more.

I might go on, were it necessary, piling instance upon instance, to prove the paramount importance of the faculty of observation to the progress of mathematical discovery. Were it not unbecoming to dilate on one's personal experience, I could tell a story of almost romantic interest about my own latest researches in a field where Geometry, Algebra, and the Theory of Numbers melt in a surprising manner into one another, like sunset tints or the colours of the dying dolphin, "the last still loveliest," (a sketch of which has just appeared in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society), which would very strikingly illustrate how much observation, divination, induction, experimental trial, and verification, causation, too (if that means, as I suppose it must, mounting from phenomena to their reasons or causes of being), have to do with the work of the mathematician. In the face of these facts, which every analyst in this room or out of it can vouch for out of his own knowledge and personal experience, how can it be maintained, in the words of Professor Huxley, who, in this instance, is speaking of the sciences as they are in themselves and without any reference to scholastic discipline, that Mathematics "is that study which knows nothing of observation, nothing of induction, nothing of experiment, nothing of causation?"

I, of course, am not so absurd as to maintain that the habit of observation of external nature will be best or in any degree cultivated by the study of mathematics, at all events as that study is at present conducted, and no one can desire more earnestly than myself to see natural and experimental science introduced into our schools as a primary and indispensable branch of education: I think that that study and mathematical culture should go on hand in hand together, and that they would greatly influence each other for their mutual good. I should rejoice to see mathematics taught with that life and animation which the presence and example of her young and buoyant sister could not fail to impart: short roads preferred to long ones; Euclid honourably shelved or buried "deeper than did ever plummet sounded" out of the schoolboy's reach; morphology introduced into the elements of Algebra; projection, correlation, and motion accepted as aids to geometry; the mind of the student quickened and elevated and his faith awakened by early initiation into the ruling ideas of polarity, continuity, infinity, and familiarisation with the doctrine of the imaginary and inconceivable.

It is this living interest in the subject which is so wanting in our traditional and mediaeval modes of teaching. In France, Germany, and Italy, everywhere where I have been on the Continent, mind acts direct on mind in a manner unknown to the frozen formality of our academic institutions; schools of thought and centres of real intellectual co-operation exist; the relation of master and pupil is acknowledged as a spiritual and a lifelong tie, connecting successive generations of great thinkers with each other in an unbroken chain, just in the same way as we read in the catalogue of our French Exhibition, or of the Salon at Paris, of this man or that being the pupil of one great painter or sculptor and the master of another. When followed out in this spirit, there is no study in the world which brings into more harmonious action all the faculties of the mind than the one of which I stand here as the humble representative, there is none other which prepares so many agreeable surprises for its followers, more wonderful than the changes in the transformation-scene of a pantomime, or, like this, seems to raise them, by successive steps of initiation, to higher and higher states of conscious intellectual being.

This accounts, I believe, for the extraordinary longevity of all the greatest masters of the Analytical art, the Dii Majores of the mathematical Pantheon. Leibniz, lived to the age of 70; Euler to 76; Lagrange to 77; Laplace to 78; Gauss to 78; Plato, the supposed inventor of the conic sections, who made mathematics his study and delight, who called them the handles (or aids) to philosophy, the medicine of the soul, and is said never to have let a day go by without inventing some new theorems, lived to 82; Newton, the crown and glory of his race, to 85; Archimedes, the nearest akin, probably, to Newton in genius, was 75, and might have lived on to be 100, for aught we can guess to the contrary, when he was slain by the impatient and ill-mannered sergeant, sent to bring him before the Roman general, in the full vigour of his faculties, and in the very act of working out a problem; Pythagoras, in whose school, I believe, the word mathematician (used, however, in a somewhat wider than its present sense) originated, the second founder of geometry, the inventor of the matchless theorem which goes by his name, the precognizer of the mis-called Copernican theory, the discoverer of the regular solids and the musical canon, who stands at the very apex of this pyramid of flame (if we may credit the tradition), after spending 22 years studying in Egypt, and 12 in Babylon, opened school when 56 or 57 years old in Magna Graecia, married a young wife when past 60, and died, carrying on his work with energy unspent to the last, at the age of 99. The mathematician lives long and lives young; the wings of his soul do not early drop off, nor do its pores become clogged with the earthy particles blown from the dusty highways of vulgar life.

Some people have been found to regard all mathematics, after the 47th proposition of the first book of Euclid, as a sort of morbid secretion, to be compared only with the mother-of-pearl generated in the diseased oyster, or, as I have heard it described, "une excroissance maladive de l'esprit humain." Others find its justification, its raison d'être, in its being either the torch-bearer leading the way, or the handmaiden holding up the train of Physical Science; and a very clever writer in a recent magazine article, expresses his doubts whether it is, in itself, a more serious pursuit, or more worthy of interesting an intellectual human being, than the study of chess problems or Chinese puzzles. What is it to us, they say, if the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or if every even number is, or may be, the sum of two primes, or if every equation of an odd degree must have a real root ? How dull, stale, flat, and unprofitable are such and such like announcements! Much more interesting to read an account of a marriage in high life, or the details of an international boat-race. But this is like judging of architecture from being shown some of the brick and mortar, or even a quarried stone, of a public building, or of painting from the colours mixed on the palette, or of music by listening to the thin and screechy sounds produced by a bow passed haphazard over the strings of a violin. The world of ideas which it discloses or illuminates, the contemplation of divine beauty and order which it induces, the harmonious connection of its parts, the infinite hierarchy and absolute evidence of the truths with which it is concerned, these, and such like, are the surest grounds of the title of mathematics to human regard, and would remain unimpeached and unimpaired were the plan of the universe unrolled like a map at our feet, and the mind of man qualified to take in the whole scheme of creation at a glance.

In conformity with general usage, I have employed the word mathematics in the plural; but I think it would be desirable that this form of word should be reserved for the applications of the science, and that we should use mathematic in the singular number to denote the science itself, in the same way as we speak of logic, rhetoric, or (own sister to algebra) music. Time was when all parts of the subject were dissevered, when algebra, geometry, and arithmetic either lived apart or kept up cold relations of acquaintance confined to occasional calls upon one another; but that state of things is now happily at an end; they are drawn together and are constantly becoming more and more intimately related and connected by a thousand fresh ties, and we may confidently look forward to a time when they shall form but one body with one soul. Geometry formerly was the chief borrower from arithmetic and algebra, but it has since repaid its obligations with abundant usury; and if I were asked to name, in one word, the pole-star round which the mathematical firmament revolves, the central idea which pervades as a hidden spirit the whole corpus of mathematical doctrine, I should point to Continuity as contained in our notions of space, and say, it is this, it is this ! Space is the Grand Continuum from which, as from an inexhaustible reservoir, all the fertilising ideas of modern analysis are derived; and as Brindley, the engineer, once allowed before a parliamentary committee that, in his opinion, rivers were made to feed navigable canals, I feel almost tempted to say that one principal reason for the existence of space, or at least one principal function which it discharges, is that of feeding mathematical invention. Everybody knows what a wonderful influence geometry has exercised in the hands of Cauchy, Puiseux, Riemann, and his followers Clebsch, Gordan, and others, over the very form and presentment of the modern calculus, and how it has come to pass that the tracing of curves, which was at one time to be regarded as a puerile amusement, or at best useful only to the architect or decorator, is now entitled to take rank as a high philosophical exercise, inasmuch as every new curve or surface, or other circumscription of space, is capable of being regarded as the embodiment of some specific organised system of continuity.

The early study of Euclid made me a hater of geometry, which I hope may plead my excuse if I have shocked the opinions of any in this room (and I know there are some who rank Euclid as second in sacredness to the Bible alone, and as one of the advanced outposts of the British Constitution) by the tone in which I have previously alluded to it as a school-book; and yet, in spite of this repugnance, which had become a second nature in me, whenever I went far enough into any mathematical question, I found I touched, at last, a geometrical bottom; so it was, I may instance, in the purely arithmetical theory of partitions; so, again, in one of my more recent studies, the purely algebraical question of the invariantive criteria of the nature of the roots of an equation of the fifth degree, - the first inquiry landed me in a new theory of polyhedra; the latter found its perfect and only possible complete solution in the construction of a surface of the ninth order, and the sub-division of its infinite contents into three distinct natural regions.

Having thus expressed myself at much greater length than I originally intended on the subject, which, as standing first on the muster-roll of the Association, and as having been so recently and repeatedly arraigned before the bar of public opinion, is entitled to be heard in its defence (if anywhere) in this place, having endeavoured to show what it is not, what it is, and what it is probably destined to become, I feel that I must enough, and more than enough, have trespassed on your forbearance, and shall proceed with the regular business of the Meeting.

Last Updated January 2021