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Canonical: Buchwald on the Wave Theory of Light February 28, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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I’m a little hesitant to include Jed Buchwald’s Rise of the Wave Theory of Light (1989) in my physics canon, not because of any flaws in the book—it very nicely accomplishes what it sets out to do—but because it’s so focused on its argument concerning the rise of the wave theory.  This means it focuses tightly on people directly involved with the rise of the wave theory, notably Augustin Jean Fresnel, and leaves some other important figures, Thomas Young for example, at the margins.

Since we haven’t done the Canonical series in a while, it’ll be useful to refresh the point of the exercise.  It is not to offer a “best of” in history of science writing or argumentation; rather it is books one can concentrate on to get a good, sophisticated overview of what happened in history.  Thus, reading Buchwald’s book, one should be aware that one is getting an explanation for the rise of the wave theory, not a history of the wave “idea”, or a tour of early 19th-century optics, which would be most useful from the “Canonical” perspective.  But, seeing as I know of no other book that covers the subject in a detailed and sophisticated way, canonical Rise of the Wave Theory of Light shall be.  We can always go back and replace it, or supplement it with a journal article or two, at a later date.

The bulk of the action in the book takes place between 1810 and 1830, which, readers should be aware, stretches across a fault line in the history of physics (i.e., read Warwick and early chapters of Jungnickel & McCormmach first; and (more…)

Primer: Augustin Jean Fresnel February 11, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Augustin Jean Fresnel (1788-1827) was a French engineer and physicist who was a key figure in the move from an “emission” theory of light to a “wave” theory of light in the optical physics of the early-nineteenth century.  Where a “ray” of light was generally taken to be a physical, if imperceptible, thing, which could (in theory) be counted, the new wave theory took a ray to be only a geometrical construct connecting a luminous source with a point on a wave front as it traveled through an ethereal medium (ether wave propagation!).

Fresnel was the son of an architect who, having a penchant for mathematics, began training at the new Ecole Polytechnique in Paris at the age of seventeen, where he received extensive instruction in methods of mathematical analysis, chemistry, and physics—an education that gave him both a background in natural philosophical conceptualizations as well as in practical technique.

Eager to make a “discovery” of any sort, he bounced between fields early on.  After he left the Ecole in 1806, he worked as an engineer with the elite Corps des Ponts et Chausées (Bridges and Roadworks Corps) for three years, and in 1810 he (more…)