The New Principles: Book I: The New Bases of the Physics of the Universe

Chapter I – The Present Anarchy of Science

Every philosopher devoted to the study of subjects with rather vague outlines and uncertain conclusions, such as Psychology, Politics, or History; who had a few years ago to peruse a work on Physical Science, must have been struck by the clearness of the definitions, the exactness of the demonstrations, and the precision of the experiments. Everything was strictly linked together and interpreted. By the side of the most complicated phenomenon there was always figured its explanation.

If this same philosopher had the curiosity to look for the general principles on which these precise sciences were founded, he could not but be compelled to admire their marvelous simplicity and their imposing grandeur. Chemistry and mechanics had the indestructible atom for their foundation, physics the indestructible energy. Learned equations, produced either by experiments or by pure reasoning, united by rigid formulas the four fundamental elements of things — i.e., time, space, matter and force. All the bodies in the universe, from the gigantic star describing its eternal revolutions in space down to the infinitesimal grain of dust which the wind seems to blow about at will, were subject to their laws.

We were right to be proud of such a science, the fruit of centuries of effort. To it was due the unity and simplicity which everywhere reigned. A few minds enamored of formulas thought it possible to simplify them further by taking into account only the mathematical relations between phenomena. These last appeared to them solely as manifestations of one great entity, viz.: energy. A few differential equations sufficed to explain all the facts discovered by observation. The principal researches of science consisted in discovering new formulas that from that moment became universal laws which nature was forced to obey.

Before such important results, the philosopher bent low, and acknowledged that if but little certainty existed in the surrounding in which he lived, at least it could be found in the domain of pure science. How could he doubt it? Did he not notice that the majority of learned men were so sure of their demonstrations that not even the shadow of a doubt ever crossed their minds?

Placed above the changing flux of things, above the chaos of unstable and contradictory opinions, the chaos of unstable and contradictory opinions, they dwelt in that serene region of the absolute where all uncertainty vanishes and where shines the dazzling light of pure truth.

Our great scientific theories are not all very ancient and great, since the cycle of precise experimental science hardly covers more than three centuries. This period, relatively so short, reveals two very distinct phases of evolution in the minds of scholars.

The first is the period of confidence and certainty to which I have just referred. In the face of the daily increase of discoveries, especially during the first half of the last century, the philosophical and religious dogmas on which our conception of the universe had for so long been based, faded and vanished completely. No complaint was raised. Were not absolute truths to replace the former uncertainties of ancient beliefs? The founders of each new science imagined that they had once for all built up for that science a framework which only needed filling in. This scientific edifice once built up, it would alone remain standing on the ruins of the vain imaginings and illusions of the past. The scientific creed was complete. No doubt it presented nature as regardless of mankind and the heavens as tenantless; but it was hoped to repeople the latter at an early date and to set up for adoration new idols, somewhat wooden perhaps, but which at least would never play us false.

This happy confidence in the great dogmas of modern science remained unaltered until the quite recent day when unforeseen discoveries condemned scientific thought to suffer doubts from which it imagined itself forever free. The edifice of which the fissures were only visible to a few superior intelligences has been suddenly and violently shaken. Contradictions and impossibilities, hardly perceptible at first, have become striking. The disillusion was so rapid that, in a short space of time, the question arose whether the principles which seemingly constituted the most certain foundations of our knowledge in physics were not simply fragile hypotheses which wrapped profound ignorance in a delusive veil. Then that befell scientific dogmas which formerly happened to religious dogmas so soon as any one dared discuss them. The hour of criticism was quickly followed by the hour of decadence, and then by that of disappearance and oblivion.

No doubt those great principles of which science was so proud have not yet perished entirely. For a long time they will continue to be positive truths to the multitude and will be propagated in elementary textbooks, but they have already lost their prestige in the eyes of real scholars. The discoveries just alluded to have simply accentuated the uncertainties which the latest works had already commenced to reveal; and it is thus that science herself has entered into a phase of anarchy from which she might have been thought forever safe. Principles which appeared to have a sure mathematical foundation are now contested by those whose profession it is to teach and defend them. Such profound books as La Science et l’Hypothese of M. Henri Poincare give proofs of this on nearly every page. Even in the domain of mathematics, this illustrious scholar has shown that we only subsist on hypotheses and conventions.

One of M. Poincare’s most eminent colleagues in the institute, the mathematician Emile Picard, has shown in one of his publications how “incoherent” are the present principles of another almost fundamental science — mechanics. He says: “At the end of the 18th century, the principles of mechanics seemed to defy all criticism, and the work of the founders of the science of motion formed a block which seemed for ever safe against the lapse of time. Since that epoch, searching analysis has examined the foundations of the edifice with a magnifying glass. As a matter of fact, where learned men like Lagrange and Laplace deemed everything quite simple, we today meet with the most serious difficulties. Every one who has had to teach the first steps of mechanics, and who has troubled to think for himself, has experienced how incoherent are the more or less traditional explanations of its principles”.

The principles of mechanics, which are apparently most simple, writes Prof. Mach in his History of Mechanics, “are of a very complicated nature. They are based on unrealized, and even on unrealizable, experiments. In no way can they be considered in themselves as demonstrated mathematical truths”.

At the present time we possess three systems of mechanics, each of which declares the other two to be absurd. Even if none of them, perhaps, deserves this qualification, they may at least be considered very incoherent, and as furnishing no acceptable expantion of phenomena.

“There hardly now exist”, writes M. Lucien Poincare, “any of those great theories once universally admitted, to which, by common consent, all searchers subscribed. A certain anarchy reigns in the domain of the natural sciences, all presumptions are allowed, and no law appears rigidly necessary… We are witnessing at this moment, rather a demolition than a definite work of construction… The ideas which to our predecessors seemed strongly established are now controverted… Today the idea that all phenomena are capable of mechanical explanations is generally abandoned… The very principles of mechanics are contests, and recent facts unsettle our belief in the absolute value of laws hitherto considered fundamental”.

Assuredly the great theories which dominated the science of each epoch, and gave direction to its studies, did not remain forever undisputed. After an existence generally pretty long, they slowly vanished, but did not give place to new doctrines, until these last were strongly founded. Today the old principles are dead or dying, and those destined to replace them are only in course of formation. Modern man destroys faster than he builds. The legacies of the past are merely shadows. Gods, ideas, dogmas, and creeds vanish one after the other. Before new edifices capable of sheltering our thoughts can be built, many ruins will have crumbled into dust. We are still in an age of destruction, and therefore of anarchy.

Noting, fortunately, is more favorable to progress than this anarchy. The world is full of things we do not see, and it is of the erroneous or insufficient ideas imposed by the traditions of classic teachings that the bandage is woven which covers our sight. History shows to what degree scientific theories retard progress so soon as they have acquired a certain fixity. A fresh forward only becomes possible after a sufficient dissociation of the earlier ideas. To point out error and to follow up its consequences is at times as useful as discovering new facts. Perhaps the most dangerous thing to the progress of the human mind is to place before readers — as is invariably the case with all educational works — uncertainties as indisputable truths, and to presume to impose limits to science, or, as Auguste Comte wished to do, to the knowable. The celebrated philosopher even proposed the creation of an Areopagus of scholars with the mission of fixing limits to the researches which should be permitted. Such tribunals are, unfortunately, already too numerous, and no one can be unaware how baneful has been their influence.

There should therefore be no hesitation to examine closely the fundamental dogmas of science for the sole reason that they are venerated and at first sight appear indestructible. The great merit of Descartes lay in his viewing as doubtful what down to his time had been considered uncontested truth. Too often do we forget the scientific idols of the present day have no more right to invulnerability than those of the past.

The two dogmas of modern science formerly most respected were those of the indestructibility of matter and energy. The first was already 2000 years old, and all discoveries had only tended to confirm it. By a marvelous exception, the strangeness of which struck no one, while all things in the universe were condemned to perish, matter remained indestructible. The beings formed by the combinations of atoms had but an ephemeral existence; but they were composed of immortal elements. Created at the beginning of the ages, these elements defied the action of centuries and, like the gods of ancient legends, enjoyed eternal youth.

Matter was not, however, alone in possessing this privilege of immortality. The Forces — which are now termed Energy — were equally indestructible. This last might incessantly change its form, but the quantity of it in the world remained invariable. A form of energy could not disappear without being replaced by another equivalent one.

I have devoted nearly 10 years of the experimental researched summarized in my book, The Evolution of Matter, to proving that the first of the above-mentioned dogmas can no longer be maintained, and that matter also must enter into the cycle of things condemned to grow old and die. But if matter be perishable, can we suppose that energy alone enjoys the privilege of immortality? The dogma of the conservation of energy still retains so much prestige that no criticism seems to shake it. In this work we shall have to discuss its value, and this study will necessitate many others. My own experimental researches have lead me to explore somewhat different chapters of physics without much heeding what was taught regarding them. Notwithstanding the necessarily fragmentary character of these researches, they will perhaps interest those readers whose scientific beliefs are not yet settled.

What has finally given very great force to certain principles of physics and mechanics has been the very complicated mathematical apparatus in which they have been wrapped. Everything presented in an algebraic form at once acquires for certain minds the character of indisputable truth. The most perfect skeptic willingly attributes a mysterious virtue to equations and bows to their supposed power. They tend more and more to replace, in teaching, reason and experiments. These delusive veils which now surround the most simple principles only too often serve to mask uncertainties. It is by lifting them that I have succeeded more than once in showing the frailty of scientific beliefs which for many scholars possess the authority of revealed dogmas.

Chapter II – The New Doctrines

Newton, wrote Lagrange, was the greatest, and, at the same time, the most fortunate of geniuses, for one does not more than once in a way find a universe in want of a system.

In saying this, the illustrious mathematician was evidently persuaded that the system of the universe must be considered as established once and for all. This simple belief has no longer many adherents. It now appears pretty clearly that we know very little of the general laws of out universe. We can only dimly see in the far-off future the epoch when these laws will be established. It is, however, already felt that the actual mechanism of the world differs greatly from that constructed by the science of the past. We now feel ourselves surrounded by gigantic forces of which we can only get a glimpse, and which obey laws unknown to us.

Ideas necessarily follow one another in a chain. A new theory cannot be started without bringing with it a series of equally new consequences. After I had proved that the dissociation of atoms was a universal phenomenon, and that matter is an immense reservoir of an energy hitherto unsuspected in spite of its colossal grandeur, I was naturally led to ask myself whether all the forces of the universe — notably solar heat and electricity — did not proceed solely from this reservoir of energy, and therefore from the dissociation of matter.

As regards solar heat, the source of most terrestrial energies, dissociation appeared sufficient to explain the maintenance of the sun’s temperature on the hypothesis that the atoms of incandescent stars must have contained more intra-atomic energy than they possess when once grown cool. As regards electricity, I recall the result of my experiments: — that the particles emitted by an electrified point are identical with those which come forth from a radioactive body such as radium. This fact proves that electricity also is a product of the dematerialization of matter.

The phenomenon of the dissociation of atoms presented therefore consequences of considerable importance, since it was possible to regard it as the origin of the forces of the universe. Matter became a simple reservoir of forces, and could itself be considered as a relatively stable form of energy. This conception caused the disappearance of the classic dichotomy between matter and energy, and between matter and the ether. It allowed us to connect the two worlds of the Ponderable and the Imponderable, once considered very distinct, which science believed she had definitely separated. Berthelot even asserted at the recent inauguration of the Lavoisier monument, that the distinction between ponderable matter and imponderable agencies is one of the greatest discoveries ever made”.

It now seems, however, that physicists should have seen a long time ago — that is, long before the recent discoveries — that matter and the ether are intimately connected, that they are unceasingly interchanging energies, and are in no way separate worlds. Matter continuously emits luminous or calorific radiations, and can absorb them. Down to the absolute zero it radiates continuously — that is to say, it emits ethereal vibrations. The agitations of matter propagate themselves in the ether, and those of the ether in matter, and without this propagation there would be neither heat nor light. The ether and matter are one thing under different forms, and we cannot put them asunder. If we had not taken as a starting point the narrow view that light and heat are imponderable agents because they appear to add nothing to the weight of bodies, the distinction between the ponderable and imponderable, to which scholars attach so much importance, would have long ago vanished.

The ether is doubtless a mysterious agent which we have not yet learnt to isolate, but its reality is manifest, since no phenomenon can be explained without it. Its existence now seems to several physicists more certain than even that of matter. It cannot be isolated, but it is impossible to say it cannot be seen or touched. It is, on the contrary, the substance we most often see and touch. When a body radiates the heat which warms or burns us, what constitutes this heat, if it be not the vibrations of the ether? When we see a green landscape on the ground glass of a camera obscura, what constitutes this image, if not the ether?

The theory of the dissociation of matter has not only served to clear away the two great dichotomies, force and matter, ponderable and imponderable, which seemed established forever. The doctrine of the vanishing of matter by its transformation into energy carries with it important consequences in regard to current ideas of energy.

According to the most fundamental principles of mechanics, when we communicate to a material body a determined quantity of energy, this energy may be transformed, but the body will never give back a quantity in excess of that received by it. This principle was considered too self-evident ever to have been disputed. In fact it was indisputable so long as it was admitted that matter could only give up the energy transmitted to it and was unable to create any. By showing that matter is an immense reservoir of energy, I at the same time proved that the quantity of energy it emits, under the influence of an outside force acting on it as a kind of excitant, may far exceed that which it has received.

With such a very slight excitement as that of a thin pencil of invisible ultraviolet radiations, — or even with no excitement at all, we observe in the emission of spontaneously dissociating bodies such as radium, — we can obtain considerable quantities of energy. No doubt, we do not create this liberated energy, since it already exists in matter, but we obtain it under conditions which the old laws of mechanics could never have imagined. The idea that matte cold be transformed into energy would have seemed absolutely absurd only a very few years ago.

It will be part of the science of the future to discover the means of freeing, in a practical form, the considerable forces which matter contains.

“Intra-atomic energy, scientifically brought into play”, recently wrote M. Ferrand, “will create the totally new science of modern Energetics: it will give us the formula of the thermodynamic potential of energy freed from matter. Turned commercially to account, it is capable of turning upside down the productive activity of our old world”.

The researches which I have set forth in numerous papers for the last 10 years have rapidly spread through the laboratories, and have been largely utilized, especially by those physicists who have not quoted them. Some of my propositions, considered very revolutionary when first formulated, are now beginning to be almost commonplace, although they are far from having yet produced all their consequences. When those last are unfolded, they will lead to the renewal of a great part of a scientific edifice the stability of which seemed eternal.

It is useful to prove that this edifice, so stable in appearance, is far from being so, and that things may be viewed from very different points from those to which our regular education has accustomed us. It is to the demonstration of this that a portion of this work will be devoted.

The fundamental principles which will guide us are those enumerated in my preceding work, which I repeat: —

  1. Matter, hitherto deemed indestructible, slowly vanishes by the continuous dissociation of its component atoms.
  2. The products of the dematerialization of matter constitute substances placed by their properties between ponderable bodies and the imponderable ether — that is to say, between two worlds hitherto considered as widely separate.
  3. Matter, formerly regarded as inert and only able to give back the energy originally supplied to it, is, on the other hand, a colossal reservoir of energy — intra-atomic energy — which it can expend without borrowing anything from without.
  4. It is from the intra-atomic energy liberated during the dissociation of matter that most of the forces in the universe are derived, and notably electricity and solar heat.
  5. Force and matter are two different forms of one and the same thing. Matter represents a stable form of intra-atomic energy: heat, light, electricity, etc., represent unstable forms of it.
  6. By the dissociation of atoms — that is to say by the materialization of matter, the stable form of energy termed matter is simply changed into those unstable forms known by the names of electricity, light, heat, etc., matter therefore is continuously transformed into energy.
  7. The law of evolution applicable to living beings is also applicable to simple bodies; chemical species are no more invariable than are living species.
  8. Energy is no more indestructible than the matter from which it emanates.