Ernest Hobson addresses the British Association in 1910

Ernest Hobson was President of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1910. The Association met in Sheffield, in September and Hobson addressed Section A - Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Below is the first part of his lecture.

To read the second part of Hobson's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1910, Part 2

To read the third part of Hobson's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1910, Part 3




Ernest Hobson, the President, delivered the following Address:-

Since the last meeting of our Association one of the most illustrious of the British workers in science during the nineteenth century has been removed from us by the death of Sir William Huggins. In the middle of the last century Sir William Huggins commenced that pioneer work of examination of the spectra of the stars which has ensured for him enduring fame in connection with the foundation of the science of Astrophysics. The exigencies of his work of analysis of the stellar spectra led him to undertake a minute examination of the spectra of the elements with a view to the determination of as many lines as possible. To the spectroscope he later added the photographic film as an instrument of research in his studies of the heavenly bodies. In 1864 Sir William Huggins made the important observation that many of the nebulae have spectra which consist of bright lines; and two years later he observed, in the case of a new star, both bright and dark lines in the same spectrum. In 1868 his penetrating and alert mind made him the first to perceive that the Doppler principle could be applied to the determination of the velocities of stars in the line of sight, and he at once set about the application of the method. His life-work, in a domain of absorbing interest, was rewarded by a rich harvest of discovery, obtained as the result of most patient and minute investigations. The 'Atlas of Representative Stella Spectra,' published in the names of himself and Lady Huggins, remains as a monumental record of their joint labours.

The names of the great departments of science, Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy, Meteorology, which are associated with Section A, are a sufficient indication of the vast range of investigation which comes under the purview of our Section. An opinion has been strongly expressed in some quarters that the time has come for the erection of a separate Section for Astronomy and Meteorology, in order that fuller opportunities may be afforded than hitherto for the discussion of matters of special interest to those devoted to these departments of Science. I do not share this view. I believe that, whilst the customary division into sub-sections gives reasonable facilities for the treatment of questions interesting solely to specialists in the various branches with which our Section is concerned, a policy of disruption would be injurious to the wider interests of science. The close association of the older Astronomy with Mathematics, and of the newer Astronomy with Physics, form strong presumptions against the change that has been suggested. Meteorology, so far as it goes beyond the purely empirical region, is, and must always remain, a branch of Physics. No doubt, the more technical problems which arise in connection with these subjects, though of great importance to specialists, are often of little or no interest to workers in cognate departments. It appears to me, however, that it is unwise, in view of the general objects of the British Association, to give too much prominence in the meetings to the more technical aspects of the various departments of science. Ample opportunities for the full discussion of all the detailed problems, the solution of which forms a great and necessary part of the work of those who are advancing science in its various branches, are afforded by the special Societies which make those branches their exclusive concern. The British Association will, in my view, be performing its functions most efficiently if it gives much prominence to those aspects of each branch of science which are of interest to a public at least in some degree larger than the circle of specialists concerned with the particular branch. To afford an opportunity to workers in any one department of obtaining some knowledge of what is going on in other departments, to stimulate by means of personal intercourse with workers on other lines the sense of solidarity of men of science, to do something to counteract that tendency to narrowness of view which is a danger arising from increasing specialisation, are functions the due performance of which may do much to further that supreme object, the advancement of science, for which the British Association exists.

I propose to address to you a few remarks, necessarily fragmentary and incomplete, upon the scope and tendencies of modern Mathematics. Not to transgress against the canon I have laid down, I shall endeavour to make my treatment of the subject as little technical as possible.

Probably no other department of knowledge plays a larger part outside its own narrower domain than Mathematics. Some of its more elementary conceptions and methods have become part of the common heritage of our civilisation, interwoven in the, everyday life of the people. Perhaps the greatest laboursaving invention that the world has seen belongs to the formal side of Mathematics; I allude to our system of numerical notation. This system which, when scrutinised, affords the simplest illustration of the importance of Mathematical form, has become so much an indispensable part of our mental furniture that some effort is required to realise that an apparently so obvious idea embodies a great invention; one to which the Greeks, with their unsurpassed capacity for abstract thinking, never attained. An attempt to do a multiplication sum in Roman numerals is perhaps the readiest road to an appreciation of the advantages of this great invention. In a large group of sciences, the formal element, the common language, so to speak, is supplied by Mathematics; the range of the application of mathematical methods and symbolism is ever increasing. Without taking too literally the celebrated dictum of the great philosopher Kant, that the amount of real science to be found in any special subject is the amount of Mathematics contained therein, it must be admitted that each branch of science which is concerned with natural phenomena, when it has reached a certain stage of development, becomes accessible to, and has need of, mathematical methods and language; this stage has, for example, been reached in our time by parts of the science of Chemistry. Even Biology and Economics have begun to require mathematical methods, at least on their statistical side. As a science emerges from the stages in which it consists solely of more or less systematised descriptions of the phenomena with which it is concerned in their more superficial aspect; when the intensive magnitudes discerned in the phenomena become representable as extensive magnitudes, then is the beginning of the application of mathematical modes of thought; at a still later stage, when the phenomena become accessible to dynamical treatment, Mathematics is applicable to the subject to a still greater extent.

Mathematics shares with the closely allied subject of Astronomy the honour of being the oldest of the sciences. When we consider that it embodies, in an abstract form, some of the more obvious, and yet fundamental, aspects of our experience of the external world, this is not altogether surprising. The comparatively high degree of development which, as recent historical discoveries have disclosed, it had attained amongst the Babylonians more than five thousand years B.C., may well astonish us. These times must have been preceded by still earlier ages in which the mental evolution of man led him to the use of the tally, and of simple modes of measurement, long before the notions of number and of magnitude appeared in an explicit form.

I have said that Mathematics is the oldest of the sciences; a glance at its more recent history will show that it has the energy of perpetual youth. The output of contributions to the advance of the science during the last century and more has been so enormous that it is difficult to say whether pride in the greatness of achievement in his subject, or despair at his inability to cope with the multiplicity of its detailed developments, should be the dominant feeling of the mathematician. Few people outside the small circle of mathematical specialists have any idea of the vast growth of mathematical literature. The Royal Society Catalogue contains a list of nearly thirty-nine thousand papers on subjects of Pure Mathematics alone, which have appeared in seven hundred serials during the nineteenth century. This represents only a portion of the total output; the very large number of treatises, dissertations, and monographs published during the century being omitted. During the first decade of the twentieth century this activity has proceeded at an accelerated rate. Mathematical contributions to Mechanics, Physics, and Astronomy would greatly swell the total. A notion of the range of the literature relating not only to Pure Mathematics but also to all branches of science to which mathematical methods have been applied will be best obtained by an examination of that monumental work, the 'Encyclopädie der mathematischen Wissenschaften' - when it is completed.

The concepts of the pure mathematician, no less than those of the physicist, had their origin in physical experience analysed and clarified by the reflective activities of the human mind; but the two sets of concepts stand on different planes in regard to the degree of abstraction which is necessary in their formation. Those of the mathematician are more remote from actual unanalysed percepts than are those of the physicist, having undergone in their formation a more complete idealisation and removal of elements inessential in regard to the purposes for which they are constructed. This difference in the planes of thought frequently gives rise to a certain misunderstanding between the mathematician and the physicist due in the case of either to an inadequate appreciation of the point of view of the other. On the one hand it is frequently and truly said of particular mathematicians that they are lacking in the physical instinct; and on the other hand a certain lack of sympathy is frequently manifested on the part of physicists for the aims and ideals of the mathematician. The habits of mind and the ideals of the mathematician and of the physicist cannot be of an identical character. The concepts of the mathematician necessarily lack, in their pure form, just that element of concreteness which is an essential condition of the success of the physicist, but which to the mathematician would often only obscure those aspects of things which it is his province to study. The abstract mathematical standard of exactitude is one of which the physicist can make no direct use. The calculations in Mathematics are directed towards ideal precision, those in Physics consist of approximations within assigned limits of error. The physicist can, for example, make no direct use of such an object as an irrational number; in any given case a properly chosen rational number approximating to the irrational one is sufficient for his purpose. Such a notion as continuity, as it occurs in Mathematics, is, in its purity, unknown to the physicist, who can make use only of sensible continuity. The physical counterpart of mathematical discontinuity is very rapid change through a thin layer of transition, or during a very short time. Much of the skill of the true mathematical physicist and of the mathematical astronomer consists in the power of adapting methods and results carried out on an exact mathematical basis to obtain approximations sufficient for the purposes of physical measurement. It might perhaps be thought that a scheme of Mathematics on a frankly approximative basis would be sufficient for all the practical purposes of application in Physics, Engineering Science, and Astronomy; and no doubt it would be possible to develop, to some extent at least, a species of Mathematics on these lines. Such a system would, however, involve an intolerable awkwardness and prolixity in the statement of results, especially in view of the fact that the degrees of approximation necessary for various purposes are very different, and thus that unassigned grades of approximation would have to be provided for. Moreover the mathematician working on these lines would be cut off from his chief sources of inspiration, the ideals of exactitude and logical rigour, as well as from one of his most indispensable guides to discovery, symmetry, and permanence of mathematical form. The history of the actual movements of mathematical thought through the centuries shows that these ideals are the very life-blood of the science, and warrants the conclusion that a constant striving towards their attainment is an absolutely essential condition of vigorous growth. These ideals have their roots in irresistible impulses and deep-seated needs of the human mind, manifested in its efforts to introduce intelligibility into certain great domains of the world of thought.

There exists a widespread impression amongst physicists, engineers, and other men of science that the effect of recent developments of Pure Mathematics, by making it more abstract than formerly, has been to remove it further from the order of ideas of those who are primarily concerned with the physical world. The prejudice that Pure Mathematics has its sole raison d'être in its function of providing useful tools for application in the physical sciences, a prejudice which did much to retard the due development of Pure Mathematics in this country during the nineteenth century, is by no means extinct. It is not infrequently said that the present devotion of many mathematicians to the interminable discussion of purely abstract questions relating to modern developments of the notions of number and function, and to theories of algebraic form, serves only the purpose of deflecting them from their proper work into paths which lead nowhere. It is considered that mathematicians are apt to occupy themselves too exclusively with ideas too remote from the physical order in which Mathematics had its origin and in which it should still find its proper applications. A direct answer to the question cui bono? when it is raised in respect of a department of study such as Pure Mathematics, seldom carries conviction, in default of a standard of values common to those who ask and to those who answer the question. To appreciate the importance of a sphere of mental activity different from our own always requires some effort of the sympathetic imagination, some recognition of the fact that the absolute value of interests and ideals of a particular class may be much greater than the value which our own mentality inclines us to attach to them. If a defence is needed of the expenditure of time and energy on the abstract problems of Pure Mathematics, that defence must be of a cumulative character. The fact that abstract mathematical thinking is one of the normal forms of activity of the human mind, a fact which the general history of thought fully establishes, will appeal to some minds as a ground of decisive weight. A great department of thought must have its own inner life, however transcendent may be the importance of its relations to the outside. No department of science, least of all one requiring so high a degree of mental concentration as Mathematics, can be developed entirely, or even mainly, with a view to applications outside its own range. The increased complexity and specialisation of all branches of knowledge makes it true in the present, however it may have been in former times, that important advances in such a department as Mathematics can be expected only from men who are interested in the subject for its own sake, and who, whilst keeping an open mind for suggestions from outside, allow their thought to range freely in those lines of advance which are indicated by the present state of their subject, untrammelled by any preoccupation as to applications to other departments of science. Even with a view to applications, if Mathematics is to be adequately equipped for the purpose of coping with the intricate problems which will be presented to it in the future by Physics, Chemistry, and other branches of physical science, many of these problems probably of a character which we cannot at present forecast, it is essential that Mathematics should be allowed to develop itself freely on its own lines. Even if much of our present mathematical theorising turns out to be useless for external purposes, it is wiser, for a well-known reason, to allow the wheat and the tares to grow together. It would be easy to establish in detail that many of the applications which have been actually made of Mathematics were wholly unforeseen by those who first developed the methods and ideas on which they rest. Recently, the more refined mathematical methods which have been applied to gravitational Astronomy by Delaunay, G W Hill, Poinearé, E W Brown, and others, have thrown much light on questions relating to the solar system, and have much increased the accuracy of cur knowledge of the motions of the moon and the planets. Who knows what weapons forged by the theories of functions, of differential equations, or of groups, may be required when the time comes for such an empirical law as Mendeléeff's periodic law of the elements to receive its dynamical explanation by means of an analysis of the detailed possibilities of relatively stable types of motion, the general schematic character of which will have been indicated by the physicist? It is undoubtedly true that the cleft between Pure Mathematics and Physical Science is at the present time wider than formerly. That is, however, a result of the natural development, on their own lines, of both subjects. In the classical period of the eighteenth century, the time of Lagrange and Laplace, the nature of the physical investigations, consisting largely of the detailed working out of problems of gravitational Astronomy in accordance with Newton's law, was such that the passage was easy from the concrete problems to the corresponding abstract mathematical ones. Later on, mathematical physicists were much occupied with problems which lent themselves readily to treatment by means of continuous analysis. In our own time the effect of recent developments of Physics has been to present problems of molecular and sub-molecular Mechanics to which continuous analysis is not at least directly applicable, and can only be made applicable by a process of averaging the effects of great swarms of discrete entities. The speculative and incomplete character of our conceptions of the structure of the objects of investigation has made the applications of Dynamics to their detailed elucidation tentative and partial. The generalised dynamical scheme developed by Lagrange and Hamilton, with its power of dealing with systems, the detailed structure of which is partially unknown, has however proved a powerful weapon of attack, and affords a striking instance of the deep-rooted significance of mathematical form. The wonderful and perhaps unprecedentedly rapid discoveries in Physics which have been made in the last two decades have given rise to many questions which are as yet hardly sufficiently definite in form to be ripe for mathematical treatment; a necessary condition of which treatment consists in a certain kind of precision in the data of the problems to be solved.

To read the second part of Hobson's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1910, Part 2

JOC/EFR April 2007

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