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- Five of Maxwell's Papers - 6/8 -


be adaptations of the commonest operations of ordinary life, others may be carefully arranged exhibitions of some phenomenon which occurs only under peculiar conditions. They all, however, agree in this, that their aim is to present some phenomenon to the senses of the student in such a way that he may associate with it the appropriate scientific idea. When he has grasped this idea, the experiment which illustrates it has served its purpose.

In an experiment of research, on the other hand, this is not the principal aim. It is true that an experiment, in which the principal aim is to see what happens under certain conditions, may be regarded as an experiment of research by those who are not yet familiar with the result, but in experimental researches, strictly so called, the ultimate object is to measure something which we have already seen--to obtain a numerical estimate of some magnitude.

Experiments of this class--those in which measurement of some kind is involved, are the proper work of a Physical Laboratory. In every experiment we have first to make our senses familiar with the phenomenon, but we must not stop here, we must find out which of its features are capable of measurement, and what measurements are required in order to make a complete specification of the phenomenon. We must then make these measurements, and deduce from them the result which we require to find.

This characteristic of modern experiments--that they consist principally of measurements,--is so prominent, that the opinion seems to have got abroad, that in a few years all the great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will then be left to men of science will be to carry on these measurements to another place of decimals.

If this is really the state of things to which we are approaching, our Laboratory may perhaps become celebrated as a place of conscientious labour and consummate skill, but it will be out of place in the University, and ought rather to be classed with the other great workshops of our country, where equal ability is directed to more useful ends.

But we have no right to think thus of the unsearchable riches of creation, or of the untried fertility of those fresh minds into which these riches will continue to be poured. It may possibly be true that, in some of those fields of discovery which lie open to such rough observations as can be made without artificial methods, the great explorers of former times have appropriated most of what is valuable, and that the gleanings which remain are sought after, rather for their abstruseness, than for their intrinsic worth. But the history of science shews that even during that phase of her progress in which she devotes herself to improving the accuracy of the numerical measurement of quantities with which she has long been familiar, she is preparing the materials for the subjugation of new regions, which would have remained unknown if she had been contented with the rough methods of her early pioneers. I might bring forward instances gathered from every branch of science, shewing how the labour of careful measurement has been rewarded by the discovery of new fields of research, and by the development of new scientific ideas. But the history of the science of terrestrial magnetism affords us a sufficient example of what may be done by Experiments in Concert, such as we hope some day to perform in our Laboratory.

That celebrated traveller, Humboldt, was profoundly impressed with the scientific value of a combined effort to be made by the observers of all nations, to obtain accurate measurements of the magnetism of the earth; and we owe it mainly to his enthusiasm for science, his great reputation and his wide-spread influence, that not only private men of science, but the governments of most of the civilised nations, our own among the number, were induced to take part in the enterprise. But the actual working out of the scheme, and the arrangements by which the labours of the observers were so directed as to obtain the best results, we owe to the great mathematician Gauss, working along with Weber, the future founder of the science of electro-magnetic measurement, in the magnetic observatory of Gottingen, and aided by the skill of the instrument-maker Leyser. These men, however, did not work alone. Numbers of scientific men joined the Magnetic Union, learned the use of the new instruments and the new methods of reducing the observations; and in every city of Europe you might see them, at certain stated times, sitting, each in his cold wooden shed, with his eye fixed at the telescope, his ear attentive to the clock, and his pencil recording in his note-book the instantaneous position of the suspended magnet.

Bacon's conception of "Experiments in concert" was thus realised, the scattered forces of science were converted into a regular army, and emulation and jealousy became out of place, for the results obtained by any one observer were of no value till they were combined with those of the others.

The increase in the accuracy and completeness of magnetic observations which was obtained by the new method, opened up fields of research which were hardly suspected to exist by those whose observations of the magnetic needle had been conducted in a more primitive manner. We must reserve for its proper place in our course any detailed description of the disturbances to which the magnetism of our planet is found to be subject. Some of these disturbances are periodic, following the regular courses of the sun and moon. Others are sudden, and are called magnetic storms, but, like the storms of the atmosphere, they have their known seasons of frequency. The last and the most mysterious of these magnetic changes is that secular variation by which the whole character of the earth, as a great magnet, is being slowly modified, while the magnetic poles creep on, from century to century, along their winding track in the polar regions.

We have thus learned that the interior of the earth is subject to the influences of the heavenly bodies, but that besides this there is a constantly progressive change going on, the cause of which is entirely unknown. In each of the magnetic observatories throughout the world an arrangement is at work, by means of which a suspended magnet directs a ray of light on a preparred sheet of paper moved by clockwork. On that paper the never-resting heart of the earth is now tracing, in telegraphic symbols which will one day be interpreted, a record of its pulsations and its flutterings, as well as of that slow but mighty working which warns us that we must not suppose that the inner history of our planet is ended.

But this great experimental research on Terrestrial Magnetism produced lasting effects on the progress of science in general. I need only mention one or two instances. The new methods of measuring forces were successfully applied by Weber to the numerical determination of all the phenomena of electricity, and very soon afterwards the electric telegraph, by conferring a commercial value on exact numerical measurements, contributed largely to the advancement, as well as to the diffusion of scientific knowledge.

But it is not in these more modern branches of science alone that this influence is felt. It is to Gauss, to the Magnetic Union, and to magnetic observers in general, that we owe our deliverance from that absurd method of estimating forces by a variable standard which prevailed so long even among men of science. It was Gauss who first based the practical measurement of magnetic force (and therefore of every other force) on those long established principles, which, though they are embodied in every dynamical equation, have been so generally set aside, that these very equations, though correctly given in our Cambridge textbooks, are usually explained there by assuming, in addition to the variable standard of force, a variable, and therefore illegal, standard of mass.

Such, then, were some of the scientific results which followed in this case from bringing together mathematical power, experimental sagacity, and manipulative skill, to direct and assist the labours of a body of zealous observers. If therefore we desire, for our own advantage and for the honour of our University, that the Devonshire Laboratory should be successful, we must endeavour to maintain it in living union with the other organs and faculties of our learned body. We shall therefore first consider the relation in which we stand to those mathematical studies which have so long flourished among us, which deal with our own subjects, and which differ from our experimental studies only in the mode in which they are presented to the mind.

There is no more powerful method for introducing knowledge into the mind than that of presenting it in as many different ways as we can. When the ideas, after entering through different gateways, effect a junction in the citadel of the mind, the position they occupy becomes impregnable. Opticians tell us that the mental combination of the views of an object which we obtain from stations no further apart than our two eyes is sufficient to produce in our minds an impression of the solidity of the object seen; and we find that this impression is produced even when we are aware that we are really looking at two flat pictures placed in a stereoscope. It is therefore natural to expect that the knowledge of physical science obtained by the combined use of mathematical analysis and experimental research will be of a more solid, available, and enduring kind than that possessed by the mere mathematician or the mere experimenter.

But what will be the effect on the University, if men Pursuing that course of reading which has produced so many distinguished Wranglers, turn aside to work experiments? Will not their attendance at the Laboratory count not merely as time withdrawn from their more legitimate studies, but as the introduction of a disturbing element, tainting their mathematical conceptions with material imagery, and sapping their faith in the formulae of the textbook? Besides this, we have already heard complaints of the undue extension of our studies, and of the strain put upon our questionists by the weight of learning which they try to carry with them into the Senate-House. If we now ask them to get up their subjects not only by books and writing, but at the same time by observation and manipulation, will they not break down altogether? The Physical Laboratory, we are told, may perhaps be useful to those who are going out in Natural Science, and who do not take in Mathematics, but to attempt to combine both kinds of study during the time of residence at the University is more than one mind can bear.

No doubt there is some reason for this feeling. Many of us have already overcome the initial difficulties of mathematical training. When we now go on with our study, we feel that it requires exertion and involves fatigue, but we are confident that if we only work hard our progress will be certain.

Some of us, on the other hand, may have had some experience of the routine of experimental work. As soon as we can read scales, observe times, focus telescopes, and so on, this kind of work ceases to require any great mental effort. We may perhaps tire our eyes and weary our backs, but we do not greatly fatigue our minds.

It is not till we attempt to bring the theoretical part of our training into contact with the practical that we begin to experience the full effect of what Faraday has called "mental inertia"--not only the difficulty of recognising, among the concrete objects before us, the abstract relation which we have learned from books, but the distracting pain of wrenching the mind away from the symbols to the


Five of Maxwell's Papers - 6/8

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