Science and Hypothesis

Chapter 7: Relative and Absolute Motion

Henri Poincaré

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The Principle of Relative Motion — Sometimes endeavours have been made to connect the law of acceleration with a more general principle. The movement of any system whatever ought to obey the same laws, whether it is referred to fixed axes or to the movable axes which are implied in uniform motion in a straight line. This is the principle of relative motion; it is imposed upon us for two reasons: the commonest experiment confirms it; the consideration of the contrary hypothesis is singularly repugnant to the mind.

Let us admit it then, and consider a body under the action of a force. The relative motion of this body with respect to an observer moving with a uniform velocity equal to the initial velocity of the body, should be identical with what would be its absolute motion if it started from rest. We conclude that its acceleration must not depend upon its absolute velocity, and from that we attempt to deduce the complete law of acceleration.

For a long time there have been traces of this proof in the regulations for the degree of B. ès Sc.

112) It is clear that the attempt has failed. The obstacle which prevented us from proving the law of acceleration is that we have no definition of force. This obstacle subsists in its entirety, since the principle invoked has not furnished us with the missing definition. The principle of relative motion is none the less very interesting, and deserves to be considered for its own sake. Let us try to enunciate it in an accurate manner. We have said above that the accelerations of the different bodies which form part of an isolated system only depend on their velocities and their relative positions, and not on their velocities and their absolute positions, provided that the movable axes to which the relative motion is referred move uniformly in a straight line; or, if it is preferred, their accelerations depend only on the differences of their velocities and the differences of their co-ordinates, and not on the absolute values of these velocities and co-ordinates. If this principle is true for relative accelerations, or rather for differences of acceleration, by combining it with the law of reaction we shall deduce that it is true for absolute accelerations. It remains to be seen how we can prove that differences of acceleration depend only on differences of velocities and co-ordinates; or, to speak in mathematical language, that these differences of co-ordinates satisfy differential equations of the second order. Can this proof be deduced from experiment or from à Priori conditions? Remembering what we

113) have said before, the reader will give his own answer. Thus enunciated, in fact, the principle of relative motion curiously resembles what I called above the generalised principle of inertia; it is not quite the same thing, since it is a question of differences of co-ordinates, and not of the coordinates themselves. The new principle teaches us something more than the old, but the same discussion applies to it, and would lead to the same conclusions. We need not recur to it.

Newton's Argument. —Here we find a very important and even slightly disturbing question. I have said that the principle of relative motion was not for us simply a result of experiment; and that à priori every contrary hypothesis would be repugnant to the mind. But, then, why is the principle only true if the motion of the movable axes is uniform and in a straight line? It seems that it should be imposed upon us with the same force if the motion is accelerated, or at any rate if it reduces to a uniform rotation. In these two cases, in fact, the principle is not true. I need not dwell on the case in which the motion of the axes is in a straight line and not uniform. The paradox does not bear a moment's examination. If I am in a railway carriage, and if the train, striking against any obstacle whatever, is suddenly stopped, I shall be projected on to the opposite side, although I have not been directly acted upon by any force. There is nothing mysterious in that, arid if 1 have not been subject to the action

(114) of any external force, the train has experienced an external impact. There can be nothing paradoxical in the relative motion of two bodies being disturbed when the motion of one or the other is modified by an external cause. Nor need I dwell on the case of relative motion referring to axes which rotate uniformly. If the sky were for ever covered with clouds, and if we had no means of observing the stars, we might, nevertheless, conclude that the earth turns round. We should be warned of this fact by the flattening at the poles, or by the experiment of Foucault's pendulum. And yet, would there in this case be any meaning in saying that the earth turns round ? If there is no absolute space, can a thing turn without turning with respect to something; and, on the other hand, how can we admit Newton's conclusion and believe in absolute space? But it is not sufficient to state that all possible solutions are equally unpleasant to us. We must analyse in each case the reason of our dislike, in order to make our choice with the knowledge of the cause. The long discussion which follows must, therefore, be excused.

Let us resume our imaginary story. Thick clouds hide the stars from men who cannot observe them, and even are ignorant of their existence. How will those men know that the earth turns round? No doubt, for a longer period than. did our ancestors, they will regard the soil on which they stand as fixed and immovable! They will

(115) wait a much longer time than we did for the coming of a Copernicus; but this Copernicus will come at last. How will he come? In the first place, the mechanical school of this world would not run their heads against an absolute contradiction. In the theory of relative motion we observe, besides real forces, two imaginary forces, which we call ordinary centrifugal force and compounded centrifugal force. Our imaginary scientists can thus explain everything by looking upon these two forces as real, and they would not see in this a contradiction of the generalised principle of inertia, for these forces would depend, the one on the relative positions of the different parts of the system, such as real attractions, and the other on their relative velocities, as in the case of real frictions. Many difficulties, however, would before long awaken their attention. If they succeeded in realising an isolated system, the centre of gravity of this system would not have an approximately rectilinear path. They could invoke, to explain this fact, the centrifugal forces which they would regard as real, and which, no doubt, they would attribute to the mutual actions of the bodies—only they would not see these forces vanish at great distances—that is to say, in proportion as the isolation is better realised. Far from it. Centrifugal force increases indefinitely with distance. Already this difficulty would seem to them sufficiently serious, but it would not detain them for long. They would soon imagine some very subtle

116) medium analogous to our ether, in which all bodies would be bathed, and which would exercise on them a repulsive action. But that is not all. Space is symmetrical —yet the laws of motion would present no symmetry. They should be able to distinguish between right and left. They would see, for instance, that cyclones always turn in the same direction, while for reasons of symmetry they should turn indifferently in any direction. If our scientists were able by dint of much hard work to make their universe perfectly symmetrical, this symmetry would not subsist, although there is no apparent reason why it should be disturbed in one direction more than in another. They would extract this from the situation no doubt — they would invent something which would not be more extraordinary than the glass spheres of Ptolemy, and would thus go on accumulating complications until the long-expected Copernicus would sweep them all away with a single blow, saying it is much more simple to admit that the earth turns round. Just as our Copernicus said to us: " It is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round, because the laws of astronomy are thus expressed in a more simple language," so he would say to them: "It is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round, because the laws of mechanics are thus expressed in much more simple language. That does not prevent absolute space—that is to say, the point to which we must refer the earth to

117) know if it really does turn round — from having no objective existence. And hence this affirmation: "the earth turns round," has no meaning, since it cannot be verified by experiment; since such an experiment not only cannot be realised or even dreamed of by the most daring Jules Verne, but cannot even be conceived of without contradiction; or, in other words, these two propositions, "the earth turns round," and, "it is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round," have one and the same meaning. There is nothing more in one than in the other. Perhaps they will not be content with this, and may find it surprising that among all the hypotheses, or rather all the conventions, that can be made on this subject there is one which is more convenient than the rest? But if we have admitted it without difficulty when it is a question of the laws of astronomy, why should we object when it is a question of the laws of mechanics? We have seen that the co-ordinates of bodies are determined by differential equations of the second order, and that so are the differences of these co-ordinates. This is what we have called the generalised principle of inertia, and the principle of relative motion. If the distances of these bodies were determined in the same way by equations of the second order, it seems that the mind should be entirely satisfied. How far does the mind receive this satisfaction, and why is it not content with it? To explain this we had

118) better take a simple example. I assume a system analogous to our solar system, but in which fixed stars foreign to this system cannot be perceived, so that astronomers can only observe the mutual distances of planets and the sun, and not the absolute longitudes of the planets. If we deduce directly from Newton's law the differential equations which define the variation of these distances, these equations will not be of the second order. I mean that if, outside Newton's law, we knew the initial values of these distances and of their derivatives with respect to time — that would not be sufficient to determine the values of these same distances at an ulterior moment. A datum would be still lacking, and this datum might be, for example, what astronomers call the area-constant. But here we may look at it from two different points of view. We may consider two kinds of constants. In the eyes of the physicist the world reduces to a series of phenomena depending, on the one hand, solely on initial phenomena, and, on the other hand, on the laws connecting consequence and antecedent. If observation then teaches us that a certain quantity is a constant, we shall have a choice of two ways of looking at it. So let us admit that there is a law which requires that this quantity shall not vary, but that by chance it has been found to have had in the beginning of time this value rather than that, a value that it has kept ever since. This quantity might then be called an accidental constant. Or again, let us

119) admit on the contrary that there is a law of nature which imposes on this quantity this value and not that. We shall then have what may be called an essential constant. For example, in virtue of the laws of Newton the duration of the revolution of the earth must be constant, But if it is 366 and something sidereal days, and not 300 or 400, it is because of some initial chance or other. It is an accidental constant. If, on the other hand, the exponent of the distance which figures in the expression of the attractive force is equal to -2 and not to -3, it is not by chance, but because it is required by Newton's law. It is an essential constant. I do not know if this manner of giving to chance its share is legitimate in itself, and if there is not some artificiality about this distinction; but it is certain at least that in proportion as Nature has secrets, she will be strictly arbitrary and always uncertain in their application. As far as the area-constant is concerned, we are accustomed to look upon it as accidental. Is it certain that our imaginary astronomers would do the same ? If they were able to compare two different solar systems, they would get the idea that this constant may assume several different values. But I supposed at the outset, as I was entitled to do, that their system would appear isolated, and that they would see no star which was foreign to their system. Under these conditions they could only detect a single constant, which would have an absolutely invariable, unique value. They would

120) be led no doubt to look upon it as an essential constant.

One word in passing to forestall an objection. The inhabitants of this imaginary world could neither observe nor define the area-constant as we do, because absolute longitudes escape their notice; but that would not prevent them from being rapidly led to remark a certain constant which would be naturally introduced into their equations, and which would be nothing but what we call the area-constant. But then what would happen ? If the area-constant is regarded as essential, as dependent upon a law of nature, then in order to calculate the distances of the planets at any given moment it would be sufficient to know the initial values of these distances and those of their first derivatives. From this new point of view, distances will be determined by differential equations of the second order. Would this completely satisfy the minds of these astronomers ? I think not. In the first place, they would very soon see that in differentiating their equations so as to raise them to a higher order, these equations would become much more simple, and they would be especially struck by the difficulty which arises from symmetry. They would have to admit different laws, according as the aggregate of the planets presented the figure of a certain polyhedron or rather of a regular polyhedron, and these consequences can only be escaped by regarding the area-constant as accidental. I have taken this particular

(121) example, because I have imagined astronomers who would not be in the least concerned with terrestrial mechanics and whose vision would be bounded — by the solar system. But our conclusions apply in all cases. Our universe is more extended than theirs, since we have fixed stars; but it, too, is very limited, so we might reason on the whole of our universe just as these astronomers do on their solar system. We thus see that we should be definitively led to conclude that the equations which define distances are of an order higher than the second. Why should this alarm us—why do we find it perfectly natural that the sequence of phenomena depends on initial values of the first derivatives of these distances, while we hesitate to admit that they may depend on the initial values of the second derivatives? It can only be because of mental habits created in us by the constant study of the generalised principle of inertia and of its consequences. The values of the distances at any given moment depend upon their initial values, on that of their first derivatives, and something else. What is that something else ? If we do not want it to be merely one of the second derivatives, we have only the choice of hypotheses. Suppose, as is usually done, that this something else is the absolute orientation of the universe in space, or the rapidity with which this orientation varies; this may be, it certainly is, the most convenient solution for the geometer. But it is not the most satisfactory for the philosopher, because

(122) this orientation does not exist. We may assume that this something else is the position or the velocity of some invisible body, and this is what is done by certain persons, who have even called the body Alpha, although we are destined to never know anything about this body except its name. This is an artifice entirely analogous to that of which I spoke at the end of the paragraph containing my reflections on the principle of inertia. But as a matter of fact the difficulty is artificial. Provided that the future indications of our instruments can only depend on the indications which they have given us, or that they might have formerly given us, such is all we want, and with these conditions we may rest satisfied.


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