Notwithstanding the errors they may lead to if carried to excess, both these doctrines render, as a whole, most important service. It is no bad thing that these contradictory tendencies should subsist, for this variety in the conception of phenomena gives to actual science a character of intense life and of veritable youth, capable of impassioned efforts towards the truth. Spectators who see such moving and varied pictures passing before them, experience the feeling that there no longer exist systems fixed in an immobility which seems that of death. They feel that nothing is unchangeable; that ceaseless transformations are taking place before their eyes; and that this continuous evolution and perpetual change are the necessary conditions of progress.
A great number of seekers, moreover, show themselves on their own account perfectly eclectic. They adopt, according to their needs, such or such a manner of looking at nature, and do not hesitate to utilize very different images when they appear to them useful and convenient. And, without doubt, they are not wrong, since these images are only symbols convenient for language. They allow facts to be grouped and associated, but only present a fairly distant resemblance with the objective reality. Hence it is not forbidden to multiply and to modify them according to circumstances. The really essential thing is to have, as a guide through the unknown, a map which certainly does not claim to represent all the aspects of nature, but which, having been drawn up according to predetermined rules, allows us to follow an ascertained road in the eternal journey towards the truth.
Among the provisional theories which are thus willingly constructed by scholars on their journey, like edifices hastily run up to receive an unforeseen harvest, some still appear very bold and very singular. Abandoning the search after mechanical models for all electrical phenomena, certain physicists reverse, so to speak, the conditions of the problem, and ask themselves whether, instead of giving a mechanical interpretation to electricity, they may not, on the contrary, give an electrical interpretation to the phenomena of matter and motion, and thus merge mechanics itself in electricity. One thus sees dawning afresh the eternal hope of co-ordinating all natural phenomena in one grandiose and imposing synthesis. Whatever may be the fate reserved for such attempts, they deserve attention in the highest degree; and it is desirable to examine them carefully if we wish to have an exact idea of the tendencies of modern physics.
Not so very long ago, the scholar was often content with qualitative observations. Many phenomena were studied without much trouble being taken to obtain actual measurements. But it is now becoming more and more understood that to establish the relations which exist between physical magnitudes, and to represent the variations of these magnitudes by functions which allow us to use the power of mathematical analysis, it is most necessary to express each magnitude by a definite number.