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The Rise of Theoretical Physics

INTELLECTUAL MASTERY OF NATURE Theoretical Physics from Ohm to Einstein Christa Junnickel and Russell McCommach. University of Chicago, 1986, Vol. 1 The torch of Mathematics, 1800-1870. 378 pp. Bibliography, Index. $55. Vol 2 The Now Mighty Theoretical Physics. 1870-1925. 455 pp. Plates, Bobliography, Index. $65. At center stage in the current theater of history of science is the interaction of science with the societies that support it. The most promising and popular locus for study of this int

By | December 15, 1986

INTELLECTUAL MASTERY OF NATURE
Theoretical Physics from Ohm to Einstein Christa Junnickel and Russell McCommach. University of Chicago, 1986, Vol. 1 The torch of Mathematics, 1800-1870. 378 pp. Bibliography, Index. $55. Vol 2 The Now Mighty Theoretical Physics. 1870-1925. 455 pp. Plates, Bobliography, Index. $65.

At center stage in the current theater of history of science is the interaction of science with the societies that support it. The most promising and popular locus for study of this interaction is the scientific institution. In the study of these institutions historians of science have given more attention to the social forces at play than to the scientists at work. The authors of this two-volume tour through the physics institutes of Germany in the 19th and early 20th centuries declined to distort their subject in this way. They write that their plan was “to give an integrated ac count of the scientific work and its institutional setting.”

Intellectual Mastery of Nature
(the title is Helmholtz's definition of the goal of theoretical physics) is a unique, important and rich study, useful to both historians and scientists, drawn largely from archives, of the doings and sayings, the comings and goings, of the professors who made theoretical physics. This is a considerable achievement, though not the intellectual mastery that the authors promised.

The pluses and minuses of the book may be usefully illustrated by the first volume, “The Torch of Mathematics” (the title quotes Ohm, whose mathematics of the galvanic circuit illuminated the few minds of his time able to follow it). The volume gives a definitive ac count of the establishment of the institutions of German academic physics insofar as they depended upon negotiations between entrepreneurial professors and their universities and education ministries. The main achievements of German-speaking physicists who used higher mathematical methods during the period—Gauss, Ohm, Weber, Neumann, Boltzmann, Helmholtz—are set forth authoritatively, although necessarily through summaries that readers unfamiliar with the details of classical physics will not follow. The treatment does not integrate institutional and intellectual aspects of the history and scarcely touches on wider social forces and cultural values.

The shortfall in integration is seen in the book's organization: primary arrangement by institution over a short period, secondary arrangement by individuals who were then connected with the institution, and tertiary arrangement by the individual's work, sometimes considered paper by paper.

The title and content of the final chapter of volume 1, “Kirchhoff and Helmholtz at Heidelberg,” indicate the principle and the problem. So does the opening page of the second volume, “The Now Mighty Theoretical Physics” (a quotation from Wilhelm Wien, who thus endorsed his specialty around 1914), which disposes of the effects of the unification of Germany on the development of German physics in two sentences. The effects: the adoption of Prussian methods of administrative re porting by universities in states acquired by Prussia, delay in the construction of the Berlin institute, and the acquisition and improvement of the physics facilities of the University of Strasburg.

The more obvious consequences of unification—quickening of imperialism, both cultural and political, and rapid growth of high technology, both civilian and military—did have profound effects on physics. The authors attend to the effects of the effects; that is, to expansion of the institutes, establishment of new chairs in physics, and increase in re sources, without reference to the initial cause. They have nothing to say about the influence of the great political upheavals of 1848 or of established religion on the position of university science. Anti-Semitism comes up from case to case but not for systematic treatment.

The second volume, although arranged around the establishment of new chairs and professorial calls, achieves greater integration than the first by presenting intellectual history more thematically. Its surveys of articles published in the Annalen der Physik at 20-year intervals are necessarily organized across institutes. A single table gives systematic information about the state of the institutes in 1891. That suggests what might have been done had the authors chosen to collect and present systematic data on incomes, growth rates, enrollments, and the like. An epilogue treats reorganization after World War I and the quantum physics that then distinguished German theoretical physics. It adds little to existing literature.

Jungnickel and McCormmach present their story with great seriousness of purpose and solemnness of prose. They relay the complaints, proposals, desires, projects, theories, and maneuvers of their physicists in academic deadpan. Not a smile at the whimsical, not a laugh at the absurd, not a censure of the outrageous. Their stately re counting ultimately overwhelms annoyance with the detail, the poor arrangement, and the imperfect integration of their book and leaves the impression that they as well as their subjects engaged in a grand enterprise.

Heilbron is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, 94720.

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