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Inaugural Address to the Prussian Academy of Sciences (1914)

GENTLEMEN,

FIRST OF ALL, I have to thank you most heartily for conferring the greatest benefit on me that anybody can confer on a man like myself. By electing me to your Academy you have freed me from the distractions and cares of a professional life and so made it possible for me to devote myself entirely to scientific studies. I beg that you will continue to believe in my gratitude and my industry even when my efforts seem to you to yield but a poor result.

Perhaps I may be allowed a propos of this to make a few general remarks on the relation of my sphere of activity, which is theoretical physics, towards experimental physics. A mathematician friend of mine said to me the other day half in jest: “The mathematician can do a lot of things, but never what you happen to want him to do just at the moment.” Much the same often applies to the theoretical physicist when the experimental physicist calls him in. What is the reason for this peculiar lack of adaptability?

The theorist’s method involves his using as his foundation general postulates or “principles” from which he can deduce conclusions. His work thus falls into two parts. He must first discover his principles and then draw the conclusions which follow from them. For the second of these tasks he receives an admirable equipment at school. Once, therefore, he has performed the first task in some department, or for some complex of related phenomena, he is certain of success, provided his industry and intelligence are adequate. The first of these tasks, namely, that of establishing the principles which are to serve as the starting point of his deduction, is of an entirely different nature. Here there is no method capable of being learned and systematically applied so that it leads to the goal. The scientist has to worm these general principles out of nature by perceiving certain general features which permit of precise formulation, amidst large complexes of empirical facts.

Once this formulation is successfully accomplished, inference follows on inference, often revealing relations which extend far beyond the province of the reality from which the principles were drawn. But as long as the principles capable of serving as starting points for the deduction remain undiscovered, the individual fact is of no use to the theorist; indeed he cannot even do anything with isolated empirical generalizations of more or less wide application. No, he has to persist in his helpless attitude towards the separate results of empirical research, until principles which he can make the basis of deductive reasoning have revealed themselves to him.

This is the kind of position in which theory finds itself at present in regard to the laws of heat, radiation, and molecular movement at low temperatures. About fifteen years ago nobody had yet doubted that a correct account of the electrical, optical and thermal properties of bodies was possible on the basis of Galileo-Newtonian mechanics applied to the movement of molecules and of Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electro-magnetic field. Then Planck showed that in order to establish a law of heat radiation consonant with experience, it was necessary to employ a method of calculation the incompatibility of which with the principles of classical physics became clearer and clearer. For with this method of calculation Planck introduced the quantum hypothesis into physics, which has since received brilliant confirmation. With this quantum hypothesis he dethroned classical physics as applied to the case where sufficiently small masses are moved at sufficiently low speeds and high rates of acceleration, so that today the laws of motion propounded by Galileo and Newton can only be allowed validity as limiting laws. In spite of assiduous efforts, however, the theorists have not yet succeeded in replacing the principles of mechanics by others which fit in with Planck’s law of heat radiation or the quantum hypothesis. No matter how definitely it has been proved that heat is to be explained by molecular movement, we have nevertheless to admit today that our position in regard to the fundamental laws of this motion resembles that of astronomers before Newton in regard to the motions of the planets.

I have just now referred to a group of facts for the theoretical treatment of which the principles are lacking. But it may equally well happen that clearly formulated principles lead to conclusions which fall entirely, or almost entirely, outside the sphere of reality at present accessible to our experience. In that case it may need many years of empirical research to ascertain whether the theoretical principles correspond with reality. We have an instance of this in the theory of relativity.

An analysis of the fundamental concepts of space and time has shown us that the principle of the constant velocity of light in empty space, which emerges from the optics of bodies in motion, by no means forces us to accept the theory of a stationary luminiferous ether. On the contrary, there is nothing to prevent our framing a general theory which takes account of the fact that in experiments carried out on the earth we are wholly unconscious of the translatory motion of the earth. This involves using the principle of relativity, which says that the laws of nature do not alter their form when one proceeds from the original (legitimate) system of co-ordinates to a new one which is in uniform translatory motion with respect to it. This theory has received impressive confirmation from experience and has led to a simplification of the theoretical description of groups of facts already connected together.

On the other hand, from the theoretical point of view this theory is not wholly satisfactory, because the principle of relativity just formulated prefers uniform motion. If it is true that no absolute significance can be attached to uniform motion from the physical point of view, the question arises whether this statement must not also be extended to non-uniform motions. It became clear that one arrives at a quite definite enlargement of the relativity theory if one postulates a principle of relativity in this extended sense. One is led thereby to a general theory of gravitation which includes dynamics. For the present, however, we have not the necessary array of facts to test the legitimacy of our introduction of the postulated principle.

We have ascertained that inductive physics asks questions of deductive, and vice versa, to answer which demands the exertion of all our energies. May we soon succeed in making permanent progress by our united efforts!

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