Archive for the 'History of science' category

Whittaker breaks the irony meter (1910/1953)

Sep 11 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science, Physics

I'm currently working my way through E.T. Whittaker's monumental A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (1910), among other things.  Whittaker's book is a very comprehensive study of electricity and aether that stretches back from the seventeenth century up to the beginning of the twentieth, and it really is excellent -- I've already learned a lot, and am only 20 pages into it!  (I loved a fascinating tidbit about the first experimental measurement of magnetic field lines, demonstrating the poles of the magnet -- I'll come back to this in a future post.)

However, as I've blogged about previously, there is one glaring weakness in Whittaker's treatment.  In his second volume of the 'History, released in 1953,  he almost completely discounted Einstein's contribution to the theory of special relativity!  While discussing the "relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz," his primary statement regarding Einstein's work is:

In the autumn of the same year, in the same volume of the Annalen der Physik as his paper on the Brownian motion, Einstein published a paper which set forth the relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz with some amplifications, and which attracted much attention.

Whittaker is much more generous towards Einstein's general theory of relativity, and gives him the credit, but his dismissal of Einstein's contribution to special relativity is puzzling.  I've speculated that Whittaker was perhaps a bit miffed that his life's work on the aether was made obsolete in 1905 by Einstein before it was even published; it may also be that Whittaker genuinely didn't completely grasp the philosophical implications of Einstein's contribution.

So what is the irony in this?

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R.W. Wood's lecture demonstrations (1897-1905)

Sep 10 2010 Published by under History of science, Physics

With all the concerted efforts into popularizing science that goes on these days, it is quite easy to forget that some of the best scientists throughout history put a lot of effort into making their knowledge accessible both to students of  the arts and laypeople alike.  Physicists in particular are often viewed as "keepers of secret knowledge" who study phenomena outside the ken of mortals and who are unwilling or unable to make this knowledge accessible to others.

A perfect counterexample to this perception is the great physicist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) , who over the course of many years presented the Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution,  targeted at nonspecialists and young people.  Two of these lectures, "The Forces of Matter" and "The Chemical History of a Candle", have been reprinted and are still available today; I will be blogging about them in detail in the near future (hopefully). Faraday in fact put much effort and thought into his public presentations; long before he was a recognized scientist and had any opportunity to speak to an audience, he observed other lecturers and took elaborate notes on the "do's" and "don't's" of lecturing.

Another example of a distinguished scientist working very hard on presentation is Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955).  Wood is best known today for his work in optics, particularly in the study of infrared and ultraviolet light.  As we have seen previously on this blog, however, Wood was also active in popularizing science: he co-authored two science fiction novels, The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915) and The Moon Maker (1916).  He also was quite skilled at setting up simple demonstrations of optical effects; I've previously discussed his 1902 illustration of a simple form of invisibility.   Between the years 1897 and 1905, Wood in fact published a number of short articles suggesting simple lecture hall demonstrations of a variety of physical phenomena; in this post, we'll take a short look at these demonstrations.

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Physical Review Letters gives a WARNING!!! (1958)

Though scientific knowledge has increased by leaps and bounds throughout the course of human history, human nature itself hasn't changed very much!  Looking through the old scientific journals, one can find arguments and conflicts that are still in some form still playing out today.  A few months ago, I described an 1804 paper titled, "On the decline of mathematical studies, and the sciences dependent upon them," which laments England's loss of competitiveness due to lack of comprehensive mathematics education; the arguments in the paper might have been written today.

A week ago, I was browsing the archives of Physical Review Letters, which is in essence the most prestigious physics-only journal in existence.  (Papers in Nature and Science are considered more prestigious, but those journals cover all scientific topics.)  Getting a paper into PRL is considered a great achievement -- it supposedly indicates that your research is a significant scientific advance of very broad importance that should be published rapidly.  The prestige is so great, in fact, that it is very tempting for researchers to submit work that is not quite appropriate for PRL, on the off-chance that it can be "snuck in".  This results in an excessive amount of papers being submitted to the journal, overwhelming its editors and its peer-reviewers, and can be a real hassle.

I suspect the top journals in every field see this sort of problem, but surely this wasn't a problem for PRL in the heyday of physics, when the journal was first initiated, right?

Volume 1, issue 1 of Physical Review Letters came out on July 1st, 1958; in the February 1st, 1959 issue of PRL (vol. 2, p. 80), an editorial appeared with the very ominous title, "A WARNING".  The text of this editorial is presented in its entirety below.

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Alan Hirshfeld's The Electric Life of Michael Faraday

In my blogging on the history of science, I tend to focus on the details of classic experiments -- the how, why, and what of scientific history -- and don't dwell as much on "who" actually does the work.  The personalities that drive the research, however, say as much about how science gets done as the actual techniques, and I've been trying to deepen my understanding by learning a bit more about the famous figures of science.

To this end, I've started reading a number of biographies of famous physicists.  Until I started looking, I was unaware that many of these biographies existed!  The first on my list was Alan Hirshfeld's biography of my favorite scientist of all time, Michael Faraday*, titled The Electric Life of Michael Faraday (2006):

I thought I'd share a few impressions about the book, and about Faraday in general!

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Tolman goes silly for similitude! (1914)

This post is for the special "fools, failures and frauds" edition of The Giant's Shoulders.

The early 20th century was clearly an exciting time to be a physicist. In 1905, Einstein published his special theory of relativity, radically revising human concepts of space and time. In the same year, and the same issue of the Annalen der Physik, Einstein really sparked the "quantum revolution" with his explanation of the photoelectric effect, an explanation that would scramble existing preconceptions of the nature of light and matter and would eventually shake the deterministic foundations of physical theory.

By the teen years of the 1900s, it must have seemed to many physicists that no idea was too crazy to possibly be true!  Furthermore, the simplicity and elegance of Einstein's relativity must have suggested to scientists that the secrets of the universe remaining to be discovered would be of the same sort of "beautifully obvious" form.

One researcher who was  seduced by this sort of thinking was Richard C. Tolman.  In 1914, he published a paper on a new physical principle that he referred to as "the principle of similitude".  In Tolman's own words, his principle represented a new form of "relativity of size", which "provides a very simple and general method for obtaining conclusions as to the form of functional relations connecting physical magnitudes."

Tolman's theory was bold, it was powerful... and it didn't really work out.  It is a great example of a failed theory, and even more fascinating because its proponent was no crackpot, and its insights turned out to have some practical use in the end.  There's even a whiff of a conspiracy surrounding similitude, which I will describe at the end of the post!

This post is closely related to the idea of dimensions in physics; if you're not familiar with this concept, check my earlier post here.

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The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part II

The following guest post by Eric Michael Johnson is part of the Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter. If this is your first time visiting Skulls in the Stars make sure to browse some of the other posts on the blog. The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part I can be found at Cocktail Party Physics. Thanks. - EMJ

How Europe's Most Notorious Anarchist Came to Challenge England's Most Distinguished Man of Science.

Artist depiction of the bombing during an anarchist rally at Haymarket Square,
May 4, 1886 / Harper's Weekly

If you read the English-language press at the time, you would know that Peter Kropotkin was a dangerous man. As a self-proclaimed anarchist he was condemned as "a malignant fungoid growth...on the body politic" and his philosophy was nothing but "another name for organized crime." Kropotkin and his ilk were "a pack of bloodthirsty and ferocious criminals who prey upon their fellows for their own gain," and his published writings were not "a document of contemporary politics," but rather a disturbing "matter for the pathologist of disease." He had already spent years in Russian and French prisons after being convicted for crimes against the State, he had known associations with dangerous radicals and revolutionaries, and he wouldn't be satisfied until anarchy reigned throughout Europe. He was also a Prince, an internationally respected naturalist who wrote regularly for the journal Nature, and was as likely to be found in attendance at a London scientific conference as a clandestine political meeting. [1]

Kropotkin's notoriety as a political radical was equaled only by the high esteem held for his scientific and scholarly achievements. The discoveries he had made of glacial formations during the Quaternary Period in Russia were received with international acclaim and earned him invitations to join the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a Cambridge University endowed chair in geology (which he turned down because it came with the stipulation that he give up his political work). Kropotkin gave lectures on biology and geology throughout Europe, England, and North America and was an outspoken proponent of an ecosystems worldview in which nature was never static but remained constantly in flux. He was a devoted Darwinian from the first publication of On the Origin of Species, and it was this scientific background that he held as the basis for a politics of individual liberty and the necessity of social change.

As he wrote in his essay "Revolutionary Studies":

Everything changes in nature, everything is incessantly modified: systems, wages, planets, climates, varieties of plants and animals, the human species -- Why should human institutions perpetuate themselves! ... What we see around us is only a passing phenomenon which ought to modify itself, because immobility would be death. These are the conceptions to which modern science accustoms us.

Kropotkin lived in a time when the human environment was indeed undergoing radical change. A previously stable ecosystem had been upended and the scramble for a new niche had already begun in force. Modern economic realities were changing the structure of feudal society and those who had previously been on the edge were now being pushed over it. As was often the case (and largely still is today) the comfortable sought justification for these changes by looking to laws of nature or by excusing them as a manifestation of God's will. But others saw them as a warning. Unless the marginalized and oppressed became organized, they argued, there would never be any justice.

G.D.H. Cole wrote about the growing popular movement during this period in his British Working Class Politics:

Wherever the workers are voteless, or the right of political agitation is not granted to them, working-class political movements are bound, if they exist at all, to take a revolutionary form.

After years of attempting to get their concerns heard in Parliament through The People's Charter, the poor were tired of being told to work within a system that didn't work with them. A laborer in the north of England expressed the sentiment that many felt when he said, "There is not a labouring man here, from 16 to 60, who has not signed the petition, and there is a pike for every signature." But the aristocracy rejected The People's Charter outright. Secretary at War Thomas Babington Macaulay announced before the House of Commons that he believed giving poor people the right to vote would be "fatal to all purposes for which government exists." For members of the landed gentry such as himself and most ministers in Parliament, the very concept was a threat to their high station and was thought to be "incompatible with the very existence of civilization." Voted down by a tally of 235 to 46, the movement that had developed as a political reform now took on a revolutionary direction. The following decades would see an explosion of political activity among the poor as those now familiar concepts -- socialism, communism, and anarchy -- sought to challenge a stagnant and corrupt system. [2]

Coronation of Tsar Alexander of Russia. Three generations would be targeted for assassination by Russian radicals with Alexander II dying in a bomb attack.

However, as a young man in the court of Tsar Alexander II, Peter Kropotkin's idea of rebellion was to follow in the footsteps of Darwin and embark on a five-year expedition of Siberia rather than follow in his family's military legacy. Born into the Russian nobility, Kropotkin grew up in household of just eight family members but attended by no fewer than fifty servants at their Moscow estate. As Kropotkin described in his memoir, these included four coachmen to attend the horses, three cooks, a dozen men to wait upon them at dinner ("one man, plate in hand, standing behind each person seated at the table") and innumerable maidservants to attend them in their chambers. Then, of course, there were the serfs who made the Kropotkin family's wealth possible.

Wealth was measured in those times by the number of "souls" that a landed proprietor owned. So many "souls" meant so many male serfs: women did not count. My father, who owned nearly twelve hundred souls, in three different provinces, and who had, in addition to his peasants' holdings, large tracts of land which were cultivated by these peasants, was accounted a rich man.

However, among the serfs, "human feelings were not recognized, not even suspected," by members of his class. Kropotkin recalled stories of husbands and wives torn from their families because they'd been lost in a hand of cards or to be exchanged for a pair of hunting dogs. Peasant children could be sold on a whim or flogged in the stables "with unheard-of cruelty." As to the poverty, "no words would be adequate to describe the misery to readers who have not seen it."

Graduating first in his class in the Corps of Pages, and personal attendant of Tsar Alexander II himself, Kropotkin had his choice of military stations. But it was his desire to escape from courtly life and pursue the calling of a scholar and naturalist that set a course which would later define his life. Kropotkin's writings during his Siberian expeditions evoke a harsh landscape where life was under constant struggle for survival. Terrible snow-storms that would descend without warning, torrential rains from the summer monsoons "resulting in inundations...and swamping, on the plateaus, areas as wide as European States." Kropotkin witnessed entire communities of animals wiped out under these brutal conditions and he came to understand natural selection as fundamentally a struggle against the elements.

Enthusiastic to observe Siberia's animal life through an evolutionary lens, Kropotkin and the respected zoologist I.S. Poliakov looked in vain for the intraspecific competition that Darwin described from his explorations in the tropics. "We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling," Kropotkin recalled, but it was "very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies." What Kropotkin found most often was mutual aid and cooperation between members of a group.

No naturalist will doubt that the idea of struggle for life carried on through organic nature is the greatest generalization of the century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions "by which arms is the struggle chiefly carried on!" and "who are the fittest in the struggle!" will widely differ according to the importance given to the two different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among separate individuals, and the struggle which Darwin described as "metaphorical" - the struggle, very often collective, against adverse circumstances.

This mutual aid that Kropotkin found amongst Siberia's fauna from beetles and land crabs to birds, deer, and antelope he also witnessed amongst the indigenous peoples he lived with in remote reaches of the empire. These experiences revealed to him "the complex forms of social organization which they have elaborated far away from the influence of any civilization." Having been raised in a society steeped in discipline, hierarchy, and the glories of conflict, Kropotkin's experience in Siberia planted the seed of inspiration. [3]

As Johns Hopkins University historian Daniel P. Todes observed:

Kropotkin's Siberian experience played a similar role in the development of his ideas about evolution and ecology as had Darwin's Beagle voyage in his. Just as Darwin came to doubt the fixity of species, so did Kropotkin, already an evolutionist, become skeptical of the importance of intraspecific competition.

It was also during his expeditions that he discovered the brutality inflicted on Russia's peasants by agents of the Tsarist government. Workers in the Lena gold mines were slaves in all but name, he witnessed district police who "robbed the peasants and flogged them right and left," and a culture of impunity that allowed officials to "plunder the natives free of any control." Moved to take action against such injustice, Kropotkin also saw the futility of working within a system that was built on exploitation.

I soon realized the absolute impossibility of doing anything really useful for the mass of the people by means of the administrative machinery. With this illusion I parted forever.

It was this commitment to political change that sealed his fate and set him on the path of a radical. Upon his return Kropotkin received great acclaim for the scientific papers he wrote during his travels in Siberia and he was subsequently awarded a gold medal from the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. In March 1872, after delivering a paper on the origins of the Ice Age, Kropotkin was nominated to chair the Society's section on physical geography. Hours later he was arrested and imprisoned along with other members of the Chaikovtsky Circle, an organization of Russian scholars to which he belonged who translated radical literature from Europe and disseminated it amongst the peasantry. Imprisoned for four years, Kropotkin was eventually able to escape from a prison hospital and found refuge among the underground network of subversives scattered throughout Europe. It was only then, after having experienced first hand the abuses of dictatorship, that he committed himself to the life of a revolutionary.

Chased from one country to the next Kropotkin challenged authority wherever he could put pen to paper. He also drew a practical lesson from his experience as a naturalist in Siberia: when living in a hostile environment the most successful strategy is to cooperate with other members of your group against a common threat. But, for Kropotkin, this mutual aid had to be voluntary and any force or coercion -- even if it was believed that the end justified the means -- had to be resisted as an affront to individual liberty. As a political thinker, Kropotkin was as likely to be criticized by Socialists and Marxists for his individualism and rejection of orthodoxy as he was by members of the aristocracy for pointing out the abuses of their class. However, it was in 1888, soon after fleeing Continental Europe to escape political persecution, that he challenged the famed naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley when the latter was engaged in a political project of his own.

The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part III will conclude next week at Deborah Blum's Speakeasy Science following a stop at Carin


[1] Quotes come from (in order) The Gentleman's Magazine, The Daily Mail, Evening News, and The Spectator. See: Haia Shpayer-Makov (1987). "The Reception of Peter Kropotkin in Britain, 1886-1917," Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 19(3): 373-90.

[2] Patricia Hollis (1973). Class and Conflict in Nineteenth-Century England, 1815-1850, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Preston Williams Slosson (1916). The Decline of the Chartist Movement, New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

[3] Daniel P. Todes (1989). Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought, London: Oxford University Press.


Update by Dr. SkySkull: Thanks to Eric for this awesome post! Be sure to follow future stops on his exile tour at Primate Diaries in Exile, through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter.

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Attack of the giant squid! (1874)

Last week, I ventured outside of my usual areas of expertise to discuss a paper I had stumbled across in a volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, dated 1790, "letter relative to the kraken". This prompted Sarah of The Language of Bad Physics to ask,

I love the articles you find for these. It got me looking, can you find the actual sources for NfL sightings? The 1873 "attack"?

It was an awesome question, and I knew immediately what she was talking about!  For those who don't know, in 1873 a fisherman had a genuine battle with a giant squid off the coast of Newfoundland.  This battle, the only one of its kind I am aware of, was also momentous in that it resulted in the first giant squid specimen studied scientifically on land!

I was immediately intrigued, and went searching.  With my uber-internet search skills, I managed to find the paper within an hour!  The article is a letter by M. Murray, "Capture of a gigantic squid at Newfoundland," The American Naturalist 8 (1874), 120-124.¹

Though if I keep writing posts about ocean life, I'm going to bring down the wrath of the Southern Friend Science Network or Deep Sea News upon me, I can't resist discussing this paper.  Giant squid have been a topic of fascination for me for years, and this letter is too much fun!

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Release the kraken! (1790)

Jul 24 2010 Published by under General science, History of science

This is a science topic that isn't really my field, but it's just so charming that I had to post about it.  While browsing through the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 1790, I found a note titled, "letter relative to the kraken", which describes an alleged sighting of the beast!  I quote the short note in full:

At the same Meeting, a letter was read from John Ramsay L'Amy, Esq; one of the Justices of Peace for the county of Forfar, and Mr. John Guild, one of the Magistrates of Dundee, inclosing an affidavit made before them, of Jens Anderson, master, and Mads Jenson, mate of a Norwegian ship, relating to the appearance of a supposed kraken or sea-worm, on Sunday, August 5. 1786. about 15 leagues to the eastward of the coast of Scotland, in north latitude 56.16.  The appearance was that of three low islands or sand-banks of a grayish colour, within less than a mile's distance from the ship, and extending about three miles from the one extremity to the other.  It remained in sight about fifty minutes, and upon the springing up of a breeze, gradually sunk into the water.  The account contains no further particulars worthy of notice, and is perfectly consistent with the idea of this being nothing more than a fog-bank, of which the appearances are familiar to mariners.

Today, it is generally recognized that the legend of the kraken was inspired by actual sightings of the giant squid, genus Architeuthis, a deep ocean cephalopod that can reach over 40 feet in total length!  Giant squid are one of those rare natural phenomena that were widely believed in long before they were formally recognized by the scientific community (another example is the phenomenon of freak waves, which I discussed in a recent post).

Formal recognition of the giant squid only seems to have began in the mid-1800s, with the recovery of a partial carcass by the French warship Alecton in 1861, the characterization and naming of the species by Japetus Steenstrup in the 1850s, and a mass beaching that occurred in Newfoundland between 1870 and 1880 that provided many specimens.  It is not surprising, then, to see that the Royal Society of Edinburgh was skeptical of the 1786 sighting described above.

At least in this case, though, the Society was right to be skeptical -- whatever the mariners saw on their voyage, they certainly didn't see a 3-mile long giant squid!  It is somewhat odd to think that they simply saw a fog bank, however, as the Society itself notes, "of which the appearances are familiar to mariners."

I have no other comment about this letter, other than to say again that one can find really interesting stuff by browsing the old scientific journals!


"Letter relative to the kraken," Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinburgh 2 (1790), 16-17.

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Cerenkov sees the light (1937)

Jul 21 2010 Published by under History of science, Physics

This particular post serves a double purpose: highlighting an important event in the history of physics and highlighting an important moment of my personal interest in said history!

The event in question is the publication of a letter in the Physical Review in 1937, "Visible radiation produced by electrons moving in a medium with velocities exceeding that of light," by P.A. Cerenkov.  This was the first English paper published on the observation of what is now known as Cerenkov radiation, a discovery that has found numerous applications and made its discoverer a co-winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physics.

I've talked about Cerenkov radiation before, in a previous post about "reverse" Cerenkov radiation in metamaterials.  Though I touched upon the basics of the Cerenkov effect there, it seemed worthwhile to go back and look in more detail at how it was discovered!

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Welcome ThonyC as co-manager of The Giant's Shoulders!

Jul 17 2010 Published by under History of science, Science news

I've been thinking for a while that I would like to get some additional help and suggestions on how to keep The Giant's Shoulders history of science carnival going and come up with new ideas for it.  Well, I finally did something about it!

ThonyC of The Renaissance Mathematicus has graciously agreed to be a co-manager of TGS, and will be helping to plan future editions and occasionally posting over there.  Please give him a nice welcome!

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