It may appear singularly paradoxical that, in a chapter devoted to general views on the principles of physics, a few words should be introduced on the atomic theories of matter.
Very often, in fact, what is called the physics of principles is set in opposition to the hypotheses on the constitution of matter, particularly to atomic theories. I have already said that, abandoning the investigation of the unfathomable mystery of the constitution of the Universe, some physicists think they may find, in certain general principles, sufficient guides to conduct them across the physical world. But I have also said, in examining the history of those principles, that if they are to-day considered experimental truths, independent of all theories relating to matter, they have, in fact, nearly all been discovered by scholars who relied on molecular hypotheses: and the question suggests itself whether this is mere chance, or whether this chance may not be ordained by higher reasons.
In a very profound work which appeared a few years ago, entitled Essai critique sur l’hypothese des atomes, M. Hannequin, a philosopher who is also an erudite scholar, examined the part taken by atomism in the history of science. He notes that atomism and science were born, in Greece, of the same problem, and that in modern times the revival of the one was closely connected with that of the other. He shows, too, by very close analysis, that the atomic hypothesis is essential to the optics of Fresnel and of Cauchy; that it penetrates into the study of heat; and that, in its general features, it presided at the birth of modern chemistry and is linked with all its progress. He concludes that it is, in a manner, the soul of our knowledge of Nature, and that contemporary theories are on this point in accord with history: for these theories consecrate the preponderance of this hypothesis in the domain of science.
If M. Hannequin had not been prematurely cut off in the full expansion of his vigorous talent, he might have added another chapter to his excellent book. He would have witnessed a prodigious budding of atomistic ideas, accompanied, it is true, by wide modifications in the manner in which the atom is to be regarded, since the most recent theories make material atoms into centres constituted of atoms of electricity. On the other hand, he would have found in the bursting forth of these new doctrines one more proof in support of his idea that science is indissolubly bound to atomism.
From the philosophical point of view, M. Hannequin, examining the reasons which may have called these links into being, arrives at the idea that they necessarily proceed from the constitution of our knowledge, or, perhaps, from that of Nature itself. Moreover, this origin, double in appearance, is single at bottom. Our minds could not, in fact, detach and come out of themselves to grasp reality and the absolute in Nature. According to the idea of Descartes, it is the destiny of our minds only to take hold of and to understand that which proceeds from them.