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Address at Columbia University, New York, January 15

SCIENCE AS SOMETHING existing and complete is the most objective thing known to man. But science in the making, science as an end to be pursued, is as subjective and psychologically conditioned as any other branch of human endeavor—so much so that the question, What is the purpose and meaning of science? receives quite different answers at different times and from different sorts of people.

It is, of course, universally agreed that science has to establish connections between the facts of experience, of such a kind that we can predict further occurrences from those already experienced. Indeed, according to the opinion of many positivists the completest possible accomplishment of this task is the only end of science.

I do not believe, however, that so elementary an ideal could do much to kindle the investigator’s passion from which really great achievements have arisen. Behind the tireless efforts of the investigator there lurks a stronger, more mysterious drive: it is existence and reality that one wishes to comprehend. But one shrinks from the use of such words, for one soon gets into difficulties when one has to explain what is really meant by “reality” and by “comprehend” in such a general statement.

When we strip the statement of its mystical elements we mean that we are seeking for the simplest possible system of thought which will bind together the observed facts. By the “simplest” system we do not mean the one which the student will have the least trouble in assimilating, but the one which contains the fewest possible mutually independent postulates or axioms; since the content of these logical, mutually independent axioms represents that remainder which is not comprehended.

When a man is talking about scientific subjects, the little word “I” should play no part in his expositions. But when he is talking about the purposes and aims of science, he should be permitted to speak of himself; for a man experiences no aims and desires so immediately as his own. The special aim which I have constantly kept before me is logical unification in the field of physics. To start with, it disturbed me that electro-dynamics should pick out one state of motion in preference to others, without any experimental justification for this preferential treatment. Thus arose the special theory of relativity, which, moreover, welded together into comprehensible unities the electrical and magnetic fields, as well as mass and energy, or momentum and energy, as the case may be. Then out of the endeavor to understand inertia and gravitation as having a unified character there arose the general theory of relativity, which also avoided those implicit axioms which underlie our thinking when we use special co-ordinate systems in the process of formulating basic laws.

At the present time it is particularly disturbing that the gravitational field and the electrical field should enter into the theory as mutually independent fundamental concepts. After many years of effort, however, an appropriate logical unification has been achieved—so I believe—through a new mathematical method, which I have invented together with my distinguished collaborator, Dr. W. Mayer.

In the meantime there still remains outstanding an important problem of the same kind, which has often been proposed but has so far found no satisfactory solution—namely the explanation of atomic structure in terms of field theory. All of these endeavors are based on the belief that existence should have a completely harmonious structure. Today we have less ground than ever before for allowing ourselves to be forced away from this wonderful belief.

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