Matter and Motion

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THE recent appearance of a swarm of elementary books on physics, some of which at least are written by well-known authors, leads to some very curious inquiries and speculations: for, though treating in the main of the same parts of the same subject as does the work we are specially dealing with, and addressed professedly to the same class of readers, they have comparatively little in common with it. To a certain, even a considerable, extent, this difference is of course due to the idiosyncrasies of the authors; but, after all allowance is made for these, there is still a most notable divergence. It will be both interesting and profitable carefully to consider in what this divergence consists, and what is its probable origin. For it is not too much to say that an intelligent reader of Clerk-Maxwell's book, had he no other source of information, would be utterly unable to answer any one of hundreds of questions which might be framed (without “dodge” or “trap”) by a qualified examiner, directly from the text of the others. It is true that such questions would be artificial rather than natural—bearing more upon old and cumbrous dogmatic fallacies than upon the actual facts of science. But if the reader of Clerk-Maxwell's book would be at a loss when examined from any of the others, the student who relies merely upon one (or even all) of these would hardly even understand the meaning of a question put directly from Clerk-Maxwell's. The main origin of this divergence is to be found, in the steady progress of knowledge in all departments of true science; even the most elementary. And, bearing this in mind, we may give an almost complete statement of the case by saying that Clerk-Maxwell's book properly belongs to the second half of the present century, while his rivals give us that of the first half only. These give us again the elementary “Mechanics” of our student days (more than a quarter of a century ago) very little changed—though where changed, often changed for the better—the first gives us what is emphatically the science of to-day. Possibly enough, in the beginning of the twentieth century even Clerk-Maxwell's book may appear a little antiquated; but it is hardly to be imagined that the text-book of that not very distant future will differ from Clerk-Maxwell's to anything like the extent to which that differs from its competitors. At least if there be anything like so a great difference it will depend upon some wholly new information as to the intimate nature of matter or energy, certainly not upon a mere difference in the mode of treatment.

Matter and Motion.

By J. Clerk-Maxwell. (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. London, 1876.)

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TAIT, P. Matter and Motion . Nature 16, 119–122 (1877) doi:10.1038/016119a0

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