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Canonical: Nye, Warwick, Smith June 18, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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Today’s canonical entries in the history of 19th century physics:
1. Mary Jo Nye, Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics, 1800-1940 (1996)
2. Andrew Warwick, Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (2003)
3. Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (1998)

Every good field needs an “orientation” text, and, in my experience, for this corner of history, Nye is it. Read chapters 1, 3, and 4 before Warwick and Smith, if you’re not familiar with the territory. Taking some advanced electricity and magnetism helps, too, to get a little “Fingerspitzengefuehl” in how physicists came to use mathematics in this period.

Warwick and Smith basically cover what has to be the most important shift in the history of physics in the 19th century, which is the importation of 18th century analytical techniques use in what was called “rational mechanics” primarily to study orbits (but also ordinary mechanics and hydrodynamics), as the route to the creation of valid theories. The primary entry point for analysis into non-mechanical physics is the science of energy, which established the fields of thermodynamics and electricity and magnetism. These two books, read in this order, will pretty much tell you everything you need to know about this shift, at least in Britain (German physics will be coming up).

Warwick is in my top 3 favorite history of science books of all-time, and is an excellent account of the cultural and intellectual shifts necessary to make physics into the heavily mathematical science that it has since become. Very few authors ever discuss the uses of mathematics, let alone the experience of using them. Warwick does both in a way that illustrates the watershed shift in what it meant to be a physicist, and what it meant to offer a physical theory, that took place in this period.

Smith (which I’ve actually never read before now) discusses the “program” that provided the entry point for this new kind of physics, the “North British” idea of energy, which drew on Continental engineering theory and the experimentation of James Joule, recruited little-known work by Mayer and Helmholtz on conservation of “Kraft”, systematized it in the fairly new Cambridge mathematical tradition, jibed it with geological theories about the history of the earth and the sun and attendant religious sensibilities, thereby creating an intellectual and social program (we should talk about this word “program” in the future; I find it very useful, but exploring its connotations would be worthwhile) that was capable of cementing a new scientific tradition.

Both works incorporate recent concern for social context in enlightening and highly specific ways. Both are extremely informative narrative accounts of topics of immense importance. Both concentrate largely on Britain, so we’ll need to supplement them with works addressing what was taking place on the Continent (I really would like to find a good source on 19c. French physics–any suggestions?). Still, these books beautifully illustrate what one could argue to be the most important change in physics over the course of the century, and if you had to choose just two books to read on the history of physics in this period, I think you could make a case that these would be the two to read. We’ll look at some good supplements in future posts.



1. OSU Special Collections - July 1, 2008

Greetings from the PaulingBlog!

Mary Jo Nye is a member of the Oregon State University faculty. Terra Magazine, an OSU publication, recently posted an online article and a video tour regarding the OSU Special Collections, which deals primarily with the history of science in the 20th Century. Mary Jo Nye is one of the interviewees. You can find the article at: http://oregonstate.edu/terra/2008summer/features/pauling.php?page=1

The OSU Special Collections is home to the Linus and Ava Helen Pauling papers. To make the public better aware of our collection, we have developed The PaulingBlog, which is updated twice weekly with various information on the collection. We are currently developing a blogroll and would be pleased to host your link if you would be willing to do the same for us.

Please visit us at http://paulingblog.wordpress.com/


– OSU Special Collections Staff

2. Will Thomas - July 5, 2008

Thanks PaulingBlog!

We’re very interested in this sort of thing at the AIP, since at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives we also have a lot of resources we want to make better known, and are always looking for ways to improve our online presence.

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