The Crisis in Modern Physics
In his book Value of Science (Valeur de la science), the famous French physicist Henri Poincaré says that there are “signs of a serious crisis” in physics, and he devotes a special chapter to this crisis (Chap. VIII, cf. p. 171). The crisis is not confined to the fact that “radium, the great revolutionary”, is undermining the principle of the conservation of energy. “All the other principles are equally endangered” (180). For instance, Lavoisier’s principle, or the principle of the conservation of mass, has been undermined by the electron theory of matter. According to this theory atoms are composed of very minute particles called electrons, which are charged with positive or negative electricity and “are immersed in a medium which we call the ether”. The experiments of physicists provide data for calculating the velocity of the electrons and their mass (or the relation of their mass to their electric charge). The velocity proves to be comparable with the velocity of light (300,000 kilometres per second), attaining, for instance, one-third of the latter. Under such circumstances the twofold mass of the electron has to be taken into account, corresponding to the necessity of overcoming the inertia, firstly, of the electron itself and, secondly, of the ether. The former mass will be the real or mechanical mass of the electron, the latter the “electrodynamic mass which represents the inertia of the ether”. And it turns out that the former mass is equal to zero. The entire mass of the electrons, or, at least, of the negative electrons, proves to be totally and exclusively electrodynamic in its origin. Mass disappears. The foundations of mechanics are undermined. Newton’s principle, the equality of action and reaction, is undermined, and so on.
We are faced, says Poincaré, with the “ruins” of the old principles of physics, “a general debacle of principles”. It is true, he remarks, that all the mentioned departures from principles refer to infinitesimal magnitudes; it is possible that we are still ignorant of other infinitesimals counteracting the undermining of the old principles. Moreover, radium is very rare. But at any rate we have reached a “period of doubt”. We have already seen what epistemological deductions the author draws from this “period of doubt”: “it is not nature which imposes on [or dictates to] us the concepts of space and time, but we who impose them on nature”; “whatever is not thought, is pure nothing”. These deductions are idealist deductions. The break-down of the most fundamental principles shows (such is Poincaré’s trend of thought) that these principles are not copies, photographs of nature, not images of something external in relation to man’s consciousness, but products of his consciousness. Poincaré does not develop these deductions consistently, nor is he essentially interested in the philosophical aspect of the question.
V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 233-234
Part two/to be continued…
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