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Canonical: Jungnickel and McCormmach November 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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I wanted to consider the canonical cases for Matters of Exchange and Christa Jungnickel and Russell McCormmach’s two-volume Intellectual Mastery of Nature: Theoretical Physics from Ohm to Einstein (1986) back-to-back.  Even though the two works are on starkly different topics, they make for excellent comparison simply because stylistically they are almost polar opposites.  Jungnickel and McCormmach is anything but elegant, and would be almost unreadable to a popular audience.  It is also an absolutely indispensable resource for anyone who plans to do any scholarly work in the history of 19th-century German physics.  (“German” or “Germany” are nowhere in the title, but the book’s focus on German university physics is explicit.)

I would divide the books into three parts: chapters 1 and 2; chapters 3 to 23, and chapters 24 to 27.  Unless readers have a firm background in the history of physics from the late 1700s and early 1800s, I would advocate moving very quickly through the first two chapters, because their object seems to be to set up the story to come and so they make constant references to people, ideas, experiments, and instruments with little-to-no explanation of who or what they were.  This tendency continues only somewhat abated throughout the two volumes, with explanations veering well into the skeletal when dealing with the contributions of those from outside the German-speaking world.  However, the narrative does slow down long enough once you hit the 1830s or so, so as to at least allow readers to familiarize themselves with the key actors and their various concerns.  Let those not familiar with physics be forewarned.

The bulk of the book concentrates on a very thorough set of discussions about particular people who employed mathematics in the development of physical theory and the institutions in which they worked.  Where Cook’s Matters of Exchange uses singular, finely-detailed narratives to introduce readers to various kinds of practices, in this book the details have a more obvious significance in and of themselves.  Most basically, Jungnickel and McCormmach care about informing readers which players were where, and when, and what they did while they were there.

So Intellectual Mastery of Nature is pretty dry reading, and when you get to the tenth or so detailed discussion of the progress of this or that university’s search for a physics professor, one might be inclined to consign the volumes to the shelf as pure reference material. And the book is essential reference material, providing a compendium of subjects taught in various places at various times, the typical contents of physics journals, the holders of various chairs in physics.  This book is the map of 19th-century German physics, and that alone warrants canonical status.  As with all maps, you generally only need a fraction of it at any given time.  Accordingly, skipping around will reward the casual reader.

But the casual reader should also resist the urge to just put the books on the shelf.  The details are also significant, because the growth of theoretical physics in Germany was pushed quite consciously by a fairly confined set of individuals who struggled to carve out a space for themselves in an academic environment where experimental investigations were deemed more important.  Jungnickel and McCormmach pay close attention to first, the few pre-1850 German physicists to foster theoretical concerns, then, to the establishment of “extraordinary” professorships in theoretical physics, and then to the establishment of a few elite “ordinary” professorships in theoretical physics.  The leaders of the theoretical physics movement were, by and large, also its most prestigious names, among them: Carl Friedrich Gauss, Wilhelm Weber, Hermann Helmholtz, Rudolf Clausius, Ludwig Boltzmann, Gustav Kirchhoff, Heinrich Hertz, and Max Planck.  Universities competed fiercely to obtain these names, and, often unable to obtain them, lamented that there were no other suitably qualified individuals.

Institutions are a crucial part of the story: technical colleges, physics seminars, lectures, journals (especially the Annalen der Physik, which was controlled by Johann Poggendorff from 1824 to 1876), textbooks, and, of course, the aforementioned university chairs and the “research institutes” the elite chairs commanded.  Although often gloriously mired in detail, Jungnickel and McCormmach do relent long enough at appropriate points to elucidate the significance of each toward the development of theoretical physics within the broader physics culture.  I have to at least mention the fairly brief discussions of the constraints extraordinary professors of theoretical physics could fall under given their relationship to the higher level director of the local “research institute” in experimental physics, and the way Jewish physicists could get stuck in extraordinary professorships of theoretical physics, thereby accounting for their disproprotionate numbers in the sub-discipline (Vol. 2, pp. 286-7).  I’m still traumatized by having missed this in my general exam preparations and having it come up!

Beginning with chapter 24 through to the end (which includes the discussion just mentioned), the pace picks up, and the “map-like” function of the books drops away somewhat in favor of a more familiar linear intellectual narrative encompassing the establishment of new foundations in physics, such as the establishment of atoms and electrons as fundamental units, and the introduction of Planck’s quantum.  Then, of course, there is the saga of Einstein’s quantum and relativity theories (helpfully placed into the context of a sustained research program), and the triumphant culmination in the work of the Göttingen theorists Max Born and his student Werner Heisenberg.  After a several hundred pages, this story acts more like a jaunty (if extended) epilogue, the emergence of entirely new kinds of practices from the traditions that the book more thoroughly chronicles.  My unresearched feeling is that this part of the book is McCormmach’s doing, since the overall air of the departure from the old ways of doing things is reminiscent of his 1982 science novel, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, which tends to get assigned in intro history of physics classes.

Intellectual Mastery of Nature is my choice over that book for a scholarly must-read, but it helps to have some notion going in of what one can expect to get out of it.  Also, as usual, one should give the relevant chapters of Nye’s Before Big Science or some similar book a good read before jumping in, just to make sure you’re up on what the physics is generally about.  I’d also recommend Kathryn Olesko’s Physics as a Calling on the Königsberg seminar, but I’m not sure it’s a canonical must-read for general history of science audiences.

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