Andrew Forsyth addresses the British Association in 1905, Part 2

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 second part of his lecture.

To read the first part of Forsyth's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1905, Part 1

Andrew Forsyth, the President, continued his Address:

I have just explained, very briefly, Halley's share in the production of Newton's 'Principia': his close concern with it made him the Mahomet of the new dispensation of the astronomical universe, and he was prepared to view all its phenomena in the light of that dispensation. A comet had appeared in 1682 - it was still the age when scientific men could think that, by a collision between the earth and a comet, 'this most beautiful order of things would be entirely destroyed and reduced to its ancient chaos'; but this fear was taken as a 'by-the-bye,' which happily interfered with neither observations nor calculations. Observations had duly been made. The data were used to obtain the elements of the orbit, employing Newton's theory as a working hypothesis; and he expresses an incidental regret as to the intrinsic errors of assumed numerical elements and of recorded observations. It then occurred to Halley to calculate similarly the elements of the comet which Kepler and others had seen in 1607, and of which records had been made; the Newtonian theory gave elements in close accord with those belonging to the comet calculated from the latest, observations, though a new regret is expressed that the 1607 observations had not been made with more accuracy. On these results he committed himself (being then a man of forty-nine years of age) to a prophecy (which could not be checked for fifty-three years to come) that the comet would return about the end of the year 1758 or the beginning of the next succeeding year; he was willing to leave his conclusion 'to be discussed by the care of posterity, after the truth is found out by the event.' But not completely content with this stage of his work, he obtained with difficulty a book by Apianus, giving an account of a comet seen in 1531 and recording a number of observations. Halley, constant to his faith in the Newtonian hypothesis, used that hypothesis to calculate the elements of the orbit of the Apianus comet; once more regretting the uncertainty of the data and discounting a very grievous error committed by Apianus himself, Halley concluded that the Apianus comet of 1531, and the Kepler comet of 1607, and the observed comet of 1682 were one and the same. He confirmed his prediction as to the date of its return, and he concludes his argument with a blend of confidence and patriotism:-

'Wherefore if according to what we have already said it should return again about the year 1758, candid posterity will not refuse to acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman.'

Such was Halley's prediction published in the year 1705. The comet pursued its course, and it was next seen on Christmas Day 1758. Candid posterity, so far from refusing to acknowledge that the discovery was made by an Englishman, has linked Halley's name with the comet, possibly for all time.

We all now could make announcements on the subject of Halley's comet; their fulfilment could be awaited serenely. No vision or inspiration is needed - calculations and corrections will suffice. The comet was seen in 1835, and it is expected again in 1910. No doubt our astronomers will be ready for it: and the added knowledge of electrical science, in connection particularly with the properties of matter, may enable them to review Bessel's often-discussed conjecture as to an explanation of the emission of a sunward tail. But Halley's announcement was made during what may be called the immaturity of the gravitation theory; the realisation of the prediction did much to strengthen the belief in the theory and to spread its general acceptance; the crown of conviction was attained with the work of Adams and Le Verrier in the discovery, propounded by theory and verified by observation, of the planet Neptune. I do not know an apter illustration of Bacon's dictum that has already been quoted, 'All true and fruitful natural philosophy hath a double scale, ascending from experiments to the invention of causes, and descending from causes to the invention of new experiments.' The double process, when it can be carried out, is one of the most effective agents for the increase or trustworthy knowledge. But until the event justified Halley's prediction, the Cartesian vortex-theory of the universe was not completely replaced by the Newtonian theory; the Cartesian votaries were not at once prepared to obey Halley's jubilant, if stern, injunction to 'leave off trifling ... with their vortices and their absolute plenum and give themselves up to the study of truth.'

The century that followed the publication of Halley's prediction shows a world that is steadily engaged in the development of the inductive sciences and their applications. Observational astronomy continued its activity quite steadily, reinforced towards the end of the century by the first of the Herschels. The science of mathematical (or theoretical) astronomy was created in a form that is used to this day; but before this creation could be effected, there had to be a development of mathematics suitable for the purpose. The beginnings were made by the Bernoullis (a family that must be of supreme interest to Dr Francis Galton in his latest statistical compilations, for it contained no fewer than seven mathematicians of mark, distributed over three generations), but the main achievements are due to Euler, Lagrange, and Laplace. In particular, the infinitesimal calculus in its various branches (including, that is to say, what we call the differential calculus, the integral calculus, and differential equations) received the development that now is familiar to all who have occasion to work in the subject. When this calculus was developed, it was applied to a variety of subjects; the applications, indeed, not merely influenced, but immediately directed, the development of the mathematics. To this period is due the construction of analytical mechanics at the hands of Euler, d'Alembert, Lagrange, and Poisson; but the most significant achievement in this range of thought is the mathematical development of the Newtonian theory of gravitation applied to the whole universe. It was made, in the main, by Lagrange, as regards the wider theory, and by Laplace, as regards the amplitude of detailed application. But it was a century that also saw the obliteration of the ancient doctrines of caloric and phlogiston, through the discoveries of Rumford and Davy of the nature and relations of heat. The modern science of vibrations had its beginnings in the experiments of Chladni, and, as has already been stated, the undulatory theory of light was rehabilitated by the researches of Thomas Young. Strange views as to the physical constitution of the universe then were sent to the limbo of forgotten ignorance by the early discoveries of modern chemistry; and engineering assumed a systematic and scientific activity, the limits of which seem bounded only by the cumulative ingenuity of successive generations. But in thus attempting to summarise the progress of science in that period, I appear to be trespassing upon the domains of other Sections; my steps had better be retraced so as to let us return to our own upper air. If I mention one more fact (and it will be a small one), it is because of its special connection with the work of this Section. As you are aware, the elements of Euclid have long been the standard treatise of elementary geometry in Great Britain; and the Greek methods, in Robert Simson's edition, have been imposed upon candidates in examination after examination. But Euclid is on the verge of being disestablished; my own University of Cambridge, which has had its full share in maintaining the restriction to Euclid's methods, and which was not uninfluenced by the report of a Committee of this Association upon the subject, will, some six or seven weeks hence, hold its last examination in which those methods are prescriptively required. The disestablishment of Euclid from tyranny over the youthful student on the continent of Europe was effected before the end of the eighteenth century.

But it is time for me to pass on to the third of the centenaries with which the present year can be associated. Not so fundamental for the initiation of modern science as was the year in which the 'Advancement of Learning' was published, not so romantic in the progress of modern science as was the year in which Halley gave his prediction to the world, the year 1805 (turbulent as it was with the strife of European politics) is marked by the silent voices of a couple of scientific records. In that year Laplace published the last progressive instalment of his great treatise on Celestial Mechanics, the portion that still remained for the future being solely of an historical character; the great number of astronomical phenomena which he had been able to explain by his mathematical presentation of the consequences of the Newtonian theory would, by themselves, have been sufficient to give confidence in the validity of that theory. In that year also Monge published his treatise, classical and still to be read by all students of the subject, 'The Application of Algebra to Geometry'; it is the starting point of modern synthetic geometry, which has marched in ample development since his day. These are but landmarks in the history of mathematical science, one of them indicating the completed attainment of a tremendous task, the other of them initiating a new departure; both of them have their significance in the progress of their respective sciences.

When we contemplate the activity and the achievements of the century that has elapsed since the stages which have just been mentioned were attained in mathematical science, the amount, the variety, the progressive diligence, are little less than bewildering. It is not merely the vast development of all the sciences that calls for remark: no less striking is their detailed development. Each branch of science now has an enormous array of workers, a development rendered more easily possible by the growing increase in the number of professional posts; and through the influence of these workers and their labours there is an ever-increasing body of scientific facts. Yet an aggregate of facts is not an explanatory theory any more necessarily than a pile of carefully fashioned stones is a cathedral; and the genius of a Kepler and a Newton is just as absolutely needed to evolve the comprehending theory as the genius of great architects was needed for the Gothic cathedrals of France and of England. Not infrequently it is difficult to make out what is the main line of progress in any one subject, let alone in a group of subjects; and though illumination comes from striking results that appeal, not merely to the professional workers, but also to unprofessional observers, this illumination is the exception rather than the rule. We can allow, and we should continue to allow, freedom of initiative in all directions. That freedom sometimes means isolation, and its undue exercise can lead to narrowness of view. In spite of the complex ramification of the sciences which it has fostered, it is a safer and a wiser spirit than that of uncongenial compulsion, which can be as dogmatic in matters scientific as it can be in matters theological. Owing to the varieties of mind, whether in individuals or in races, the progress of thought and the growth of knowledge are not ultimately governed by the wishes of any individual or the prejudices of any section of individuals. Here, a school of growing thought may be ignored; there, it may be denounced as of no importance; somewhere else, it may be politely persecuted out of possible existence. But the here, and the there, and the somewhere else do not make up the universe of human activity; and that school, like Galileo's earth in defiance of all dogmatic authority, still will move.

This complete freedom in the development of scientific thought, when the thought is applied to natural phenomena, is all the more necessary because of the ways of Nature. Physical nature cares nothing for theories, nothing for calculations, nothing for difficulties, whatever their source; she will only give facts in answer to our questions, without reasons and without explanations; we may explain as we please and evolve laws as we like, without her help or her hindrance. If from our explanations and our laws we proceed to prediction, and if the event justifies the prediction through agreement with recorded fact, well and good: so far we have a working hypothesis. The significance of working hypotheses, in respect of their validity and their relation to causes, is a well-known battle-ground of dispute between different schools of philosophers; it need not detain us here and now. On the other hand, when we proceed from our explanations and our laws to a prediction, and the prediction in the end does not agree with the fact to be recorded, it is the prediction that has to give way. But the old facts remain and the new fact is added to them; and so facts grow until some working law can be extracted from them. This accumulation of facts is only one process in the solution of the universe: when the compelling genius is not at hand to transform knowledge into wisdom, useful work can still be done upon them by the construction of organised accounts which shall give a systematic exposition of the results, and shall place them as far as may be in relative significance.

Let me pass from these generalities, which have been suggested to my mind by the consideration of some of the scientific changes that have taken place during the last hundred years, and let me refer briefly to some of the changes and advances which appear to me to be most characteristic of that period. It is not that I am concerned with a selection of the most important researches of the period. Estimates of relative importance are often little more than half-concealed expressions of individual preferences or personal enthusiasms; and though each enthusiastic worker, if quite frank in expressing his opinion, would declare his own subject to be of supreme importance, he would agree to a compromise that the divergence between the different subjects is now so wide as to have destroyed any common measure of comparison. My concern is rather with changes, and with tendencies where these can be discerned.

The growth of astronomy has already occupied so large a share of my remarks that few more words can be spared here. Not less, but more, remarkable than the preceding centuries in the actual exploration of the heavens, which has been facilitated so much by the improvements in instruments and is reinforced to such effect by the co-operation of an ever-growing band of American astronomers, the century has seen a new astronomy occupy regions undreamt of in the older days. New methods have supplemented the old; spectroscopy has developed a science of physics within astronomy; and the unastronomical brain reels at the contents of the photographic chart of the heavens which is now being constructed by international co-operation and will, when completed, attempt to map ten million stars (more or less) for the human eye.

Nor has the progress of physics, alike on the mathematical side and the experimental side, been less remarkable or more restricted than that of astronomy. The elaborate and occasionally fantastic theories of the eighteenth century, in such subjects as light, heat, even as to matter itself, were rejected in favour of simpler and more comprehensive theories. There was one stage when it seemed as if the mathematical physicists were gradually overtaking the experimental physicists; but the discoveries in electricity begun by Faraday left the mathematicians far behind. Much has been done towards the old duty, ever insistent, of explaining new phenomena; and the names of Maxwell, Weber, Franz Neumann, and Hertz need only to be mentioned in order to suggest the progress that has been made in one subject alone. We need not hesitate to let our thoughts couple, with the great physicists of the century, the leaders of that brilliant band of workers upon the properties of matter who carry us on from wonder to wonder with the passage of each successive year.

Further, it has been an age when technical applications have marched at a marvellous pace. So great has been their growth that we are apt to forget their comparative youth; yet it was only the middle of the century which saw the awakening from what now might be regarded as the dark ages. Nor is the field of possible application nearing exhaustion: on the contrary, it seems to be increasing by reason of new discoveries in pure science that yet will find some beneficent outcome in practice. Invisible rays and wireless telegraphy may be cited as instances that are occupying present activities, not to speak of radium, the unfolding of whose future is watched by eager minds.

One gap, indeed, in this subject strikes me. There are great histories of mathematics and great histories of astronomy; I can find no history of physics on the grand scale. Some serviceable manuals there are, as well as monographs on particular topics; what seems to me to be lacking is some comprehensive and comparative survey of the whole range. The history of any of the natural sciences, like the history of human activity, is not merely an encyclopaedic record of past facts; it reveals both the spirit and the wealth which the past has bequeathed to the present, and which, in due course, the present will influence before transmission to the future. Perhaps all our physicists are too busy to spare the labour needed for the production of a comprehensive history; yet I cannot help thinking that such a contribution to the subject would be of great value, not to physicists alone.

But, as you hear me thus referring to astronomy and to physics, some of you may think of the old Roman proverb which bade the cobbler not to look above his last; so I take the opportunity of referring very briefly to my own subject. One of the features of the century has been the continued development of mathematics. As a means of calculation the subject was developed as widely during the earlier portion of the century as during the preceding century; it soon began to show signs of emergence as an independent science, and the latter part of the century has witnessed the emancipation of pure mathematics. It was pointed out, in connection with the growth of theoretical astronomy, that mathematics developed in the direction of its application to that subject. When the wonderful school of French physicists, composed of Monge, Sadi Carnot, Fourier, Poisson, Poinsot, Ampère, and Fresnel (to mention only some names), together with Gauss, Kirchhoff, and von Helmholtz in Germany, and Ivory, Green, Stokes, Maxwell, and others in England, applied their mathematics to various branches of physics, for the most part its development was that of an ancillary subject. The result is the superb body of knowledge that may be summarised under the title of 'mathematical physics'; but the final interest is the interest of physics, though the construction has been the service of mathematics. Moreover, this tendency was deliberate, and was avowed in no uncertain tone. Thus Fourier could praise the utility of mathematics by declaring that 'there was no language more universal or simpler, more free from errors or obscurity, more worthy of expressing the unchanging relations of natural entities'; in a burst of enthusiasm he declares that, from the point of view he had indicated, 'mathematical analysis is as wide as Nature herself,' and 'it increases and grows incessantly stronger amid all the changes and errors of the human mind.' Mathematicians might almost blush with conscious pleasure at such a laudation of their subject from such a quarter, though it errs both by excess and defect; but the exultation of spirit need not last long. The same authority, when officially expounding to the French Academy the work of Jacobi and of Abel upon elliptic functions, expressed his chilling opinion (it had nothing to do with the case) that 'the questions of natural philosophy, which have the mathematical study of all important phenomena for their aim, are also a worthy and principal subject for the meditations of geometers. It is to be desired that those persons who are best fitted to improve the science of calculation should direct their labours to these important applications.' Abel was soon to pass beyond the range of admonition; but Jacobi, in a private letter to Legendre, protested that the scope of the science was not to be limited to the explanation of natural phenomena. I have not quoted these extracts by way of even hint of reproach against the author of such a wonderful creation as Fourier's analytical theory of heat; his estimate could have been justified on a merely historical review of the circumstances of his own time and of past times; and I am not sure that his estimate has not its exponents at the present day. But all history shows that new discoveries and new methods can spread to issues wider than those of their origins, and that it is almost a duty of human intelligence to recognise this possibility in the domain of progressive studies. The fact is that mathematical physics and pure mathematics have given much to each other in the past and will give much to each other in the future; in doing so, they will take harmonised action in furthering the progress of knowledge. But neither science must pretend to absorb the activity of the other. It is almost an irony of circumstance that a theorem, initiated by Fourier in the treatise just mentioned, has given rise to a vast amount of discussion and attention, which, while of supreme value in the development of one branch of pure mathematics, have hitherto offered little, if anything, by way of added explanation of natural phenomena.

The century that has gone has witnessed a wonderful development of pure mathematics. The bead-roll of names in that science - Gauss; Abel, Jacobi; Cauchy, Riemann, Weierstrass, Hermite; Cayley, Sylvester; Lobachevsky, Lie - will on only the merest recollection of the work with which their names are associated show that an age has been reached where the development of human thought is deemed as worthy a scientific occupation of the human mind as the most profound study of the phenomena of the material universe.

The last feature of the century that will be mentioned has been the increase in the number of subjects, apparently dissimilar from one another, which are now being made to use mathematics to some extent. Perhaps the most surprising is the application of mathematics to the domain of pure thought; this was effected by George Boole in his treatise 'Laws of Thought,' published in 1854; and though the developments have passed considerably beyond Boole's researches, his work is one of those classics that mark a new departure. Political economy, on the initiative of Cournot and Jevons, has begun to employ symbols and to develop the graphical methods; but there the present use seems to be one of suggestive record and expression, rather than of positive construction. Chemistry, in a modern spirit, is stretching out into mathematical theories; Willard Gibbs, in his memoir on the equilibrium of chemical systems, has led the way; and, though his way is a path which chemists find strewn with the thorns of analysis, his work has rendered, incidentally, a real service in co-ordinating experimental results belonging to physics and to chemistry. A new and generalised theory of statistics is being constructed; and a school has grown up which is applying them to biological phenomena. Its activity, however, has not yet met with the sympathetic goodwill of all the pure biologists; and those who remember the quality of the discussion that took place last year at Cambridge between the biometricians and some of the biologists will agree that, if the new school should languish, it will not be for want of the tonic of criticism.

If I have dealt with the past history of some of the sciences with which our Section is concerned, and have chosen particular epochs in that history with the aim of concentrating your attention upon them, you will hardly expect me to plunge into the future. Being neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, not being possessed of the knowledge which enabled Halley to don the prophet's mantle with confidence, I shall venture upon no prophecy even so cautious as Bacon's - 'As for the mixed mathematics I may only make this prediction, that there cannot fail to be more kinds of them as Nature grows further disclosed' - a declaration that is sage enough, though a trifle lacking in precision. Prophecy, unless based upon confident knowledge, has passed out of vogue, except perhaps in controversial politics; even in that domain, it is helpless to secure its own fulfilment. Let me rather exercise the privilege of one who is not entirely unfamiliar with the practice of geometry, and let me draw the proverbial line before indulgence in prophetic estimates. The names that have flitted through my remarks, the discoveries and the places associated with those names, definitely indicate that, notwithstanding all appearance of divergence and in spite of scattered isolation, the sum of human knowledge, which is an inheritance common to us all, grows silently, sometimes slowly, yet (as we hope) safely and surely, through the ages. You who are in South Africa have made an honourable and an honoured contribution to that growing knowledge, conspicuously in your astronomy and through a brilliant succession of astronomers. Here, not as an individual but as a representative officer of our brotherhood in the British Association, I can offer you no better wish than you may produce some men of genius and a multitude of able workers who, by their researches in our sciences, may add to the fame of your country and contribute to the intellectual progress of the world.

JOC/EFR April 2007

The URL of this page is: