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Introduction: Reversibility And Irreversibility.
Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen: The cordial invitation, which the President of Columbia University extended to me to deliver at this prominent center of American science some lectures in the domain of theoretical physics, has inspired in me a sense of the high honor and distinction thus conferred upon me and, in no less degree, a consciousness of the special obligations which, through its acceptance, would be imposed upon me. If I am to count upon meeting in some measure your just expectations, I can succeed only through directing your attention to the branches of my science with which I myself have been specially and deeply concerned, thus exposing myself to the danger that my report in certain respects shall thereby have somewhat too subjective a coloring.
From those points of view which appear to me the most striking, it is my desire to depict for you in these lectures the present status of the system of theoretical physics. I do not say: the present status of theoretical physics; for to cover this far broader subject, even approximately, the number of lecture hours at my disposal would by no means suffice. Time limitations forbid the extensive consideration of the details of this great field of learning; but it will be quite possible to develop for you, in bold outline, a representation of the system as a whole, that is, to give a sketch of the fundamental laws which rule in the physics of today, of the most important hypotheses employed, and of the great ideas which have recently forced themselves into the subject. I will often gladly endeavor to go into details, but not in the sense of a thorough treatment of the subject, and only with the object of making the general laws more clear, through appropriate specially chosen examples. I shall select these examples from the most varied branches of physics.
If we wish to obtain a correct understanding of the achievements of theoretical physics, we must guard in equal measure against the mistake of overestimating these achievements, and on the other hand, against the corresponding mistake of underestimating them. That the second mistake is actually often made, is shown by the circumstance that quite recently voices have been loudly raised maintaining the bankruptcy and, debacle of the whole of natural science. But I think such assertions may easily be refuted by reference to the simple fact that with each decade the number and the significance of the means increase, whereby mankind learns directly through the aid of theoretical physics to make nature useful for its own purposes. The technology of today would be impossible without the aid of theoretical physics. The development of the whole of electro-technics from galvanoplasty to wireless telegraphy is a striking proof of this, not to mention aerial navigation. On the other hand, the mistake of overestimating the achievements of theoretical physics appears to me to be much more dangerous, and this danger is particularly threatened by those who have penetrated comparatively little into the heart of the subject. They maintain that some time, through a proper improvement of our science, it will be possible, not only to represent completely through physical formulae the inner constitution of the atoms, but also the laws of mental life. I think that there is nothing in the world entitling us to the one or the other of these expectations. On the other hand, I believe that there is much which directly opposes them. Let us endeavor then to follow the middle course and not to deviate appreciably toward the one side or the other.