There is probably less difference between the methods of a physicist and a mathematician than is generally supposed. The most striking among them seems to me to be this, that the mathematician is in much more direct contact with reality. This may perhaps seem to you a paradox, since it is the physicist who deals with the subject-matter to which the epithet ‘real’ is commonly applied. But a very little reflection will show that the ‘reality’ of the physicist, whatever it may be (and it is extraordinarily difficult to say), has few or none of the attributes which common-sense instinctively marks as real. A chair may be a collection of whirling atoms, or an idea in the mind of God. It is not my business to suggest that one account of it is obviously more plausible than the other. Whatever the merits of either of them may be, neither draws its inspiration from the suggestions of common-sense.
Neither the philosophers nor the physicists themselves have ever put forward any very convincing account of what physical reality is, or of how the physicist passes, from the confused mass of fact or sensation from which he starts, to the construction of the objects which he classifies as real. We cannot be said, therefore, to know what the subject-matter of physics is; but this need not prevent us from understanding the task which a physicist is trying to perform. That, clearly, is to correlate the incoherent body of facts confronting him with some definite and orderly scheme of abstract relations, the kind of scheme, in short, which he can only borrow from mathematics.
A mathematician, on the other hand, fortunately for him, is not concerned with this physical reality at all. It is impossible to prove, by mathematical reasoning, any proposition whatsoever concerning the physical world, and only a mathematical crank would be likely now to imagine it his function to do so. There is plainly one way only of ascertaining the facts of experience, and that is by observation. It is not the business of a mathematician to suggest one view of the universe or another, but merely to supply the physicists with a collection of abstract schemes, which it is for them to select from, and to adopt or discard at their pleasure.
The most obvious example is to be found in the science of geometry. Mathematicians have constructed a very large number of different systems of geometry, Euclidean or non-Euclidean, of one, two, three, or any number of dimensions. All these systems are of complete and equal validity. They embody the results of mathematicians’ observations of their reality, a reality far more intense and far more rigid than the dubious and elusive reality of physics. The old-fashioned geometry of Euclid, the entertaining seven-point geometry of Veblen, the space-times of Minkowski and Einstein, are all absolutely and equally real. When a mathematician has constructed, or, to be more accurate, when he has observed them, his professional interest in the matter ends. It may be the seven-point geometry that fits the facts the best, for anything that mathematicians have to say. There may be three dimensions in this room and five next door. As a professional mathematician, I have no idea; I can only ask the Secretary, or some other competent physicist, to instruct me in the facts.
The function of a mathematician, then, is simply to observe the facts about his own hard and intricate system of reality, that astonishingly beautiful complex of logical relations which forms the subject-matter of his science, as if he were an explorer looking at a distant range of mountains, and to record the results of his observations in a series of maps, each of which is a branch of pure mathematics. Many of these maps have been completed, while in others, and these, naturally, the most interesting, there are vast uncharted regions. Some, it seems, have some relevance to the structure of the physical world, while others have no such tangible application.