HISTORY OF PHYSICS
Center for Theoretical Studies, University of Miami
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
© 2007 by Michael A. S. Guth, Ph.D., J.D.
The following notes are almost verbatim reports of very informal lectures on History of Science in general, physics in particular. The chief purpose of these lectures was the stimulation of interest in the historical approach. Philosophy of science was discussed occasionally in the context of history.
As a start, I would like to point out to you a few things which might explain my interest in history and philosophy in general. You have all heard the slogan “Two Cultures,” the contrast and conflict between sciences on one hand and art on the other. However, in Hungary, where I come from, there was only “One Culture.” The Hungarian word for science is “tudomány.” It corresponds to the word “Wissenschaft” in German. These expressions designate one, all-embracing science, including everything from mathematics to music. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences has, at present, eight sections: languages, literary sciences, social and historical sciences, mathematics and physics, agricultural sciences, technical sciences, chemistry and biology, and a section on musical folklore under the well-know composer Zoltán Kodály, who recently visited this country and taught in a music summer school at Dartmouth College. Incidentally, we have also in our country at least one institution, the American Academy of Arts and Science, which emphasizes the union, rather than the contrast, between Arts and Science. However, as you know, this is an exception. Our National Academy of Science is concerned only with science, but not with the arts.
My interest in philosophy of science was kindled by Poincaré’s books. It was reinforced by the requirement for the Ph.D. degree in Vienna, which included philosophy. My finals consiswted of two one-hour exams in physics, which was my major, a single one-hour exam in mathematics, my minor, and two one-hour exams in philosophy. These requirements forced one to study philosophy and to consider science in general, physical and mathematics in particular, in a more general context.
I managed somehow to take both one-hour exams in philosophy of science, since I had a sort of allergy to some parts of traditional philosophy. Fortunately, a friend of mine, Herbert Feigl, who is now a distinguished philosopher of science himself (Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Minnesota) tutored me. This way I did not have to read voluminous books on traditional philosophy.
One of the philosophers who examined me was M. Schlick. He was the founder of the “Vienna Circle” of logical positivists, also called logical empiricists. This direction goes back to Hume, Comte, and Mach. The circle had weekly sessions on philosophy of science, which were very interesting, but sometimes quite baffling, to me then. For example, there was a discussion about a book by Herman Weyl, “Was ist Materie” (What is Matter). There was an expression “es gibt” (there is). I remember a spirited discussion about the possible meaning of that expression. Being a young student of science, I did not at that time appreciate the significance of such semantic discussions. Later on, I realized that the precise meaning of statements in philosophy can be very important. Still, I always remembered a saying by Goethe in “Faust”: “Wo die Begriffe fehlen, stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein” (When the concepts are missing, a word shows up). Clearly, a new word is no substitute for a new concept!
2. History of General History
After this bit of autobiographical introduction, I would like to discuss very briefly and in big historical jumps the “History of History” and the “History of History of Science.”
History may be defined as a methodical reconstruction of the past of mankind. From Herodotos to Thucydides, from Livius to Tacitus, there was a gradually increasing sophistication leading away from the naive, purely narrative type of history. However, even with some sophistication, history was only an uncritical description of separated human events (like battles) and actions (by kings or other leaders).
General history, taking account of the dynamic forces emanating from the structure of a society, started only in the eighteenth century and actually developed only in the nineteenth century. Voltaire’s “Siècle de Louis XIV” was, perhaps , the earliest general or cultural history. Gibbon, at least in some parts of his work, was another early bird. Sismondi, Thierry, and Michelet emphasized the role of communes and the rise of the “Third Estate” in medieval history. The British “Whig” historians, Hallam, Grote, and Macauley considered history as a successive unfolding of political liberty. Carlyle vainly tried to turn the clock back with his hero worship, as exemplified in his “History of the French Revolution.”
Influenced by the philosophers, Comte and Spencer, Taine and Buckle were, perhaps, the first cultural historians. They emphasize social factors, ideas, and idealogies. Hegel and Marx catalyzed the dialectic materialism style of history, with all its excesses. However, they rightly emphasized that in an age of quickly changing social and industrial development in particular, and even more generally, the sociological and industrial factors played very important roles in all human endeavors. Lecky, following Buckle, emphasized (in his “History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe” and in his “History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne”) the “practical, active, and social sides of history, in contrast to the “intellectual and speculative” side, as exemplified by Leslie Stephens’ “English Thought in the Eighteenth Century.” Of course, all these aspects of history are complementary and should enter together into a really general history.
Grand synthesis in history cannot be practiced without analytic specialization. As a matter of fact, analytic specialization is a pre-condition for a successful cultural synthesis. The great attention to innumerable details, documented by a large number of footnotes, was the style set by Ranke and, perhaps to a lesser extent, also by Mommsen, who for his monumental “History of the Roman Empire” received the literary Nobel prize. Detailed treatments of shorter epochs on history have been previously pioneered by Voltaire and Gibbon and developed by Macauley (famous third chapter of “History of England”), Taine (“Ancien Regime”), de Coulange (“La Cité Antique”), Dill (“Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius”), although these cannot compete with Ranke in the number of footnotes!
Of course, a detailed study of any aspects in history is justified only if it can be used in the grand synthesis. Details which cannot be woven into the canvas of general history are clearly not significant. In other words, the details of any specialized historical study must be “embeddable” in the whole picture one attempts to paint, like apiece of mosaic is “embeddable” in the whole.
This “principle of embedding” is valid for any human endeavor and activity. Any human activity is the more important the more it interacts with and is related to other human activities. The abstract form of this principle goes back, perhaps, to Protagoras of Abdera, one of the first relativists. More concretely and recently, it has been applied by Felix Klein, David Hilbert, and John von Neumann to a relative valuation of different branches of mathematics and very recently by Alvin M. Weinberg to a relative valuation of different sciences.
The grand synthesis can be characterized also, again as all human endeavor, and more generally as all the nature around us, as a result of an evolution. This view is, of course, only valid if one “averages” over a longer time period. Over a short period, evolution looks more like the envelope or average of revolutions.
Historical evolution entered also philosophy and social sciences, like economy and political science, and law. The chief purpose of these efforts was, however, not the study of history for its own sake but for the utilitarian purpose of “learning from the past.” Moreover, such historical studies of, for example, law or economy have often been written by lawyers and economists and not by historians. The dissatisfaction of historians with such accounts is perhaps partially responsible for the negative attitude of most, or at least many, historians toward the achievement of scientific thinking and their failure to explore the possibilities which a scientific approach has to offer. This “tension” between historians and social scientists is an interesting topic in itself, but would lead us far away from our main topic.
Incidentally, a historical approach developed gradually, encompassing all arts and letters, literature and languages, art and music; all have been studied in a historical manner. Again, however, this started as a work of specialists interested in the history of their topics. Pioneers like Winckeman, Dr. Burney, Tiraboshi, and Victor Cousin intended with their books to deepen and broaden the appreciation and understanding of the student of art, of music, or literature, and of philosophy. The emphasis on the historical environment was taken up only later by more or less professional historians.
I return now to the contrast between the Hero-Worship attitude of Carlyle and the modern general history of Ferrero, two authors who influenced me greatly in high school, as I mentioned before. Ferrero’s “The Greatness and Decline of Rome” is perhaps not as well-known in the United States as it should be. Ferrero was also an early believer in, and wrote a little book about, the “Unity of the World.” (Willkie’s book, “One World or None” came ten years later.)
Since a lot of you, I am sure, have not heard about Ferrero before, let me tell you what the distinguished American historian, Charles A. Beard, says about him in a Foreward to that little book: “It is a small book about a great subject by a distinguished thinker. Such combinations are not common, and it is written with an artistic flair which delights the reader by whirling him in time and space, challenging him and informing him.”
In the Preface of the American edition of his history of Rome, he displays an attitude which can be applied to the history of contemporary United States. “I have studied the history of Rome from the point of view of the transformation of man, of the increase of luxury, and of the standard of living from generation to generation.” This attitude is less dated than that of Mommsen, for example, whose books “were written from the special point of view that interested the majority at that time, the conflict between the public and the monarchy.”
Ferrero also wrote a very interesting volume called the “Women of the Ceasars.” This is a topic which is sometimes not considered adequately. People talk about “the man behind the throne,” and we should consider the “women behind the men.” The women behind the men play a much more important role, for instance, for politicians, than a lot of people think. This was true about the Caesars and it also is true about scientists. I could mention several cases. Quite a few scientists who were great became even greater, because they had the proper wives, and scientists who could have been equally great were retarded by not quite so good a choice.
(Here is something which is not directly related to our topic. Some of you may not know the “Women of the Caesars.” At that time, the women already had greater freedom when Rome became the master state of the Mediterranean Area. There were different types of legal marriages – one was “manus,” which ws the older form where all the goods of the wife passed to the ownership of the husband, so that she could no longer possess anything in her own name. And there was the marriage without “manus,” in which only the dowry became the property of the husband, and the wife remained mistress of all her other belongings and all that she might acquire. This is not the modern way where she keeps hers and she gets his.)
Among modern historians, let me discuss very briefly Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose books some of you may have read. Schlesinger is a follower of Carlyle, a romantic historian. He considers history made by “men in buff coats and breeches, with color in their cheeks, with passions in their stomachs, and the idioms, features and vitalities of very men.” This type of history is in contrast to the unromantic, “scientific” approach of Ranke, which emphasized thoroughness and impartiality at the expense of readability. Sometimes the text was almost drowned in footnotes!
Schlesinger is an adherent of the “confusion theory” of history. He believes in the “role of chance, the contingency, the sheer intricacy of situations, the mark of battle.” This is in contrast to the “conspiracy theory,” according to which “if something happened, somebody planned it.” Schlesinger also disagrees with the “prophetic historians,” like Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee, who use “one big hypothesis to explain a variety of small things.” All these diverse attitudes in history in general show up also in the history of science.
3. History of History of Science
Let us start here with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Histories of individual sciences were written emphasizing the facts, rather than the development of ideas. Montucla’s “Histoire de mathématiques,” Delambre’s work on the history of astronomy, and Joseph Priestley’s books were oriented toward the scientific reader. The Göttingen books, Gmelin’s “Geschichte der Chemie,” Kästner’s “Geschichte der Mathematik,” and Fischer’s “Geschichte der Physik,” were intended, to some extent, as introductions to these topics. It is interesting that at this early time it was already felt that each branch of science would be introduced historically.
The latter books by Cantor in mathematics, Poggendorff in physics, Thomson and Kopp in chemistry were written in the same manner. Both the unity of scientific approach and its cultural background were missing. Even Whewell’s “History of the Inductive Sciences” is not yet a general history of science, but a history of sciences. Moreover, he emphasized in this work the “facts”; the “ideas”
he attempted to discuss separately in his “Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences.”
Historians (even such wide-ranging ones as Burckhardt) generally neglected the history of science. Buckle’s “History of Civilization in Englad” was a notable exception. He tried to include the history of science into his picture of modern culture.
The general concept of the history of science as a history of scientific thought, notions, and ideas was influenced by Comte, but it is generally credited to the mathematician Paul Tannery. This direction was greatly developed by Duhem, Burtt, and Kyré, on the one hand, and Sarton, on the other hand, to name just a few outstanding scholars reaching over into our age.
In the history of science, there is sometimes still a great tendency to an attitude similar to Carlyle’s. Everything is ascribed to a few great geniuses and most of the other contributors are forgotten. It is certainly true that great men like Newton and Einstein pushed the frontiers of physics forward tremendously, but let us recall Newton’s acknowledgment of his debt to his predecessors. He saw further, he said, because he was “standing on the shoulders of giants.” True, he mentions just giants, but at any rate he gave credit to his predecessors.
Let me give you a few examples of “forgotten” discoveries. Maxwell’s equations, to some extent, though not completely, were anticipated by the Irish mathematical physicist MacCullagh. His work was much more speculative and hypothetical than Maxwell’s. It is also sometimes difficult to tell what influence he did have on Maxwell, in particular, and on the development of electromagnetic theory, in general. We know from our own experience that when we read a book, not just a scientific book but any book, we read, understand, and remember things we want to read, understand, and remember. We give a sort of interpretation to everything we read.
Another example of a “forgotten man” enters the history of Wien’s radiation law. All of you know of that law, but probably none of you know that almost the same radiation law was proposed by a man named Michelsen. Wien quotes him, but much later authors just quote Wien, because he contributed so much more. Michelsen was, however, on the right track, suggesting an analogy of the radiation law to Maxwell’s distribution of velocities.
Another example of a “fogotten man” is Waterston, who could and should have been one of the founders of the kinetic theory of gases. He sent his work to the Royal Society; however, two reviewers (reviewers are not the invention of our age!) did not understand his paper and recommended that it should not be published. The paper was not returned to the author but kept in the archives of the Society, where Rayleigh, just by accident and much later, discovered it and had it published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Society. Waterston developed several notions, which were later independently discovered by Clausius and others. He published only a short account of his work, which was largely overlooked.
Before we turn to some modern historians of science, I would like to discuss very briefly the historical work of two great scientists. The first is the famous mathematician, Felix Klein, who, as you all probably know, was the first to build up geometry on the basis of groups of transformations. In a way, he is one of the fathers of symmetry or, if not the father, he was certainly the grandfather. He was involved in a neck-to-neck race with Poincaré on complex functions. Then he gave up active work in mathematics and became interested in the teaching of mathematics in general (also in high school), in applied mathematics, and in the history of mathematics. He brought Hilbert to Göttingen and thus established the famous school of mathematics there. There is a collection of books (in German), which have yellow bindings and therefore used to be called “Gelbe Gefahr” (Yellow Peril), which contain his lectures. Klein’s lectures on the history of mathematics in the nineteenth century have been published in two volumes of this collection. Klein was a great man who could pull divergent views together and give a unified picture of what went on in mathematics. The second volume contains a discussion of the geometric foundations of the special theory of relativity, in which Klein was particularly interested. However, Klein also has assimilated at a comparatively late age the general theory of relativity and published interesting contributions to it.
With all his universality, Klein (and also Poincaré) was somewhat prejudiced against certain types of abstract mathematics, particularly the theory of sets! More about this in a later lecture!
Another great scientist who became interested in the history of science was the famous chemist Wilhelm Ostwald. He was about 50 years old around 1900 when he resigned his directorship of the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the University of Leipzig and turned to philosophy and history of science. He was a leader of the so-called “energeticists,” who didn’t believe in atoms until Brownian motion convinced them of their existence. So much about Ostwald’s negative side. On the positive side, he emphasized the importance of the conservation of energy, at a time when the significance of conservation laws was not as clear as it is today. True, he distinguished between too many different kinds of energy, which, as Planck pointed out to him, were essentially the same energy. This is, perhaps, just a minor blemish. Ostwald was particularly interested in great men in science. Thus, his way of looking at the history of science is somewhat akin to Carlyle’s. he looked for heroes in science. However, he was also interested in the biology and psychology of great men, with the objective of recognizing future great men in their youth and helping their development. He believed that it is a duty of society to learn how to pick out future great men and help them to develop.
Ostwald started a collection, “Grosse Manner” (Great Men), of which he wrote the first volume and which purported to study the biology of the genius. In his book he gave biographies of Davy, Robert Mayer, Faraday, Liebig, Gerhardt, and Helmholtz, together with extensive discussions of the occurrence of great men and their development in general.
Still another active scientist who later on worked on the history of physics was E. T. Whittaker. You all know of “Whittaker and Watson” and also that he introduced, for example, the Whittaker function which is defined somewhat more generally than the confluent hypergeometric function. Whittaker wrote the “History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity” in two volumes. The second volume also contains relativity and the development of quantum theory until about 1927. Being a mathematician, he was somewhat prejudiced in conneciton with the development of the special theory of relativity. He called it “the relativity theory of Lorentz and Poincaré,” he couldn’t quite see the overwhelming physical significance of Einstein’s work on the relatively of simultaneity and his whole new view of space and time. Still, in many respects, Whittaker’s work is very interesting and very scholarly. He was able to write the second volume of his book at an advanced age because, as he said himself, when he read a book or article he made notes and later was able to utilize those notes.
Let me turn now to a brief discussion of the work of a few contemporary historians of sciences. I am singling out, somewhat arbitrarily, a few who emphasize the genetic development of concepts.
M. J. Klein has written quite profound analyses of Planck’s and Einstein’s work on quantum theory. Moreover, he has written several articles about Ehrenfest, edited his “Collected Papers” and works on a full-fledged biography of Ehrenfest. Klein is a theoretical physicist at Case who works on the history of physics during summers.
N. R. Hanson has written two books, “Patterns of Discovery” and “The Concept of the Positron.” He is intentionally controversial to stimulate discussion. Hanson is professionally a philosopher and historian, but has a background in physics.
T. S. Kuhn was originally a theoretical physicist, a student of von Vleck and of Harvey Brooks. Then, under Conant’s influence, he turned to history of science. He has written books about “The Copernican Revolution” and “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” He is, at present, a historian of science at Princeton University. He was also Director of the AIP project on history of quantum theory. Within this project many of the original contributors have been interviewed. This material is deposited in Philadelphia, Berkeley, and Copenhagen. A detailed index of these interviews was published, taking up about 500 pages!
All this material is very useful. However, it is important to emphasize that first and foremost a historian of science should rely on the published papers. Reminiscences and anecdotes can be important, but they can also be misleading.
As an example of how people might forget important links in the chain of their own development, let me mention Planck’s article on the the history of his theory, published in 1943 when he was 85 years old. I think he showed remarkable freshness of his memory! However, he forgot to mention the important part played by Wien’s displacement law in his discovery of the quantum of action. He also misnamed Gibbs (John instead of Josiah). Now, Planck was very familiar with Gibbs. He discovered some of Gibb’s work on thermodynamics independently. However, when Gibbs’ work became known in Germany (through Ostwald), Planck did not get much credit, according to his own testimony, for his own work. I am commenting on this trivial item only to emphasize that here we have a lapse of memory, because the young Planck was very familiar with Gibbs.
Let me give you now an example of information one might hear in a lecture, but not in the published writings. How did Schrödinger get the idea of “Quantization as an Eigenvalue Problem?” Well, I heard directly from Schrödinger that this idea came to him while leafing through Courant and Hilbert, “Methods of Mathematical Physics.” (Of course, he got this idea of eigenvalues after he studied de Broglie’s introduction and Einstein’s use of matter waves.) That book was just published in 1924, and its emphasis on functional analysis and eigenvalue problems lefts its mark on theoretical physics in general, quantum mechanics in particular.
4. Significance of the History of Science
I discussed previously the significance of the history of science, following the evolution of history in general, history of science in particular. However, it might be useful to marshal some specific arguments for the great significance of this field of inquiry. It is always good to start a discussion with a statement of Einstein, this time about the general impact of science:
“It stands to the everlasting credit of science that by acting on the human mind it has overcome man’s insecurity before himself and before nature.” Thus, Einstein vividly described the impact of scientific discoveries on man’s outlook toward the universe. The progressive development of scientific concepts and theories can best be understood historically. The same is true for the development of science’s daughter, technology, which in turn, led to the rise of civilization.
In the arts, including music and literature, the craftsman learns by exposure to the work of other artists, mainly earlier artists. Textbooks have only a secondary role. In fields like history, philosophy and social sciences, textbook literature has a greater significance. Moreover, texts usually are supplemented by readings in “classics” of the field.
Education of a student of any natural science takes place mainly by means of texts, in contrast to arts and letters. This is generally true until the third and fourth year of graduate work, when a student starts his own research. Such a time-honored procedure is, in fact, quite economical for the training of a practitioner of an established discipline like Newton’s Mechanics or Faraday-Maxwellian Electricity. Indeed, why should a student study Newton’s “Principia,” Faraday’s “Researches,” or Maxwell’s “Electricity and Magnetism” when most of the knowledge he needs is digested for him more briefly and more systematically in a number of modern textbooks?
However, textbook study is not the best preparation for disciplines which are the frontiers of science. It does not prepare men for a fresh approach. In the preface of the first edition of his classic “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism,” Maxwell movingly emphasized the significance of history and of original sources in science:
“I have confined myself almost entirely to the mathematical treatment of the subject, but I would recommend the student, after he has learned, experimentally if possible, what are the phenomena to be observed, to read carefully Faraday’s “Experimental Researches in Electricity.” He will there find a strictly contemporary historical account of some of the greatest electrical discoveries and investigations, carried on in an order and succession which could hardly have been improved if the results had been known from the first, and expressed in the language of a man who devoted much attention to the methods of accurately describing scientific operations and their results.
It is of great advantage to the student of any subject to read the original memoirs on that subject, for science is always most completely assimilated when it is in the nascent state . . . .”
Newton said that he saw further because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. Einstein as a student studied “classics” rather than texts. Dirac discusses the evolution of concepts in physics.
The didactic value of the history of science, however, is not only of great importance to the student and practitioner of science. There is a growing conviction that science is best explained to a non-science student or the general layman by a historical approach. In fact, some of the best modern texts use such an approach.
There are now many universities where the history of science is taught, both on an undergraduate and graduate level. Several schools have departments devoted to the history of science. Although in these lectures I had in mind mostly the sciences, it might be of interest to state that more than twenty-five medical schools have chairs and even divisions for the history of medicine, and more than fifty schools offer courses on this subject.
More and more colleges in England – particulary the new universities – offer courses in the history of science. In Italy, a new one-year course in the history of physics is now compulsory for those physics majors who plan to teach in high schools. Maxwell’s plea for a historical approach in the study of physics, which I just quoted, is a strong argument for a (compulsory) course in the history of physics to be taken by every physics major.
Let me show you a few older and newer texts in physics which discuss historical developments. L.W. Taylor’s “Physics, The Pioneer Science” was originally published in 1941 and has recently been reissued by Dover in two volumes. It was used as a text at Oberlin College. Taylor himself did a considerable amount of study in the history of physics. He even visited the British Museum to be able to look up some rare old books there. Newer books are G. Holton and D. H. D. Roller, “Foundations of Modern Physical Science” (1958) and G. Holton, “Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science (1953). Holton and Roller are both actively working in the history of physics.
The American Institute of Physics has now a Center for History and Philosophy of Physics, directed by Charles Weiner. Jointly with the American Philosophical Society, AIP sponsored the project on history of quantum theory I mentioned to you before. AIP and AAPT very recently had joint meetings on history and/or philosophy of physics. At present, some conferences take place on the history of some special branches of physics, their instrumentation in particular. AIP’s Center now publishes a quarterly newsletter.
How can the history of science help us with the problems of the present time? The goal of historical scholarship is the reconstruction of the past, but the only past which we can reconstruct is that which we can see from the present. We can read history backward in terms of our present knowledge. Conversely, historical knowledge and analysis of the scientific past is very useful also in the discussion of our present problems. By distinguishing between the historically accidental and the logically essential elements in the progression of scientific systems, the reconstructed past throws light upon the present.
Let us use as an example the field of elementary particles. The present situation in this field is somewhat similar to the situation in atomic spectroscopy before the advent of quantum mechanics. Thus, by studying the history of the period, we might have a better background to appreciate our present problems. It is interesting, at least historically, that Heisenberg started quantum mechanics by considering a special model, e.g., anharmonic oscillator. This was more than forty years ago. For the last thirteen years he has been trying to develop a unified theory of elementary particles, against starting from the simple model of the anharmonic oscillator. It is true that in many cases the same trick doesn’t work twice, but it is certainly interesting to try and see. Another example is the heuristic power of Maxwell’s equations, which led in a roundabout way to Planck’s quanta, Einstein’s protons, and the de Broglie waves.
Finally, let us state an important difference between history in general and history of science. Maxwell’s equations or Boltzmann’s relation between entropy and probability will be valid in their domain of applicability ten thousand years from now, when other history concerning battles, kings, and politicians will be completely forgotten.
5. Significance of the Philosophy of Science
Here, I would like again to use Einstein as our eloquent witness. In his obituary essay for Mach, Einstein said: “How does a really talented research scientist come to conern himself with the theory of knowledge? Is there not in his field more valuable work to be done? I hear this from many of my professional colleagues, and I perceive in the case of many more of them that his is what they feel.
“I cannot share this opinion. When I think of the ablest students whom I have encountered in teaching – i.e., those who distinguished themselves by their independence of judgment, and not only by mere agility – I find in those cases that they had a live concern for epistemology [Erkenntnistheorie]. They liked to start discussions concerning the aims and methods of the sciences, and showed by the obstinacy in defending their views unequivocally that this subject seemed important to them.
“This is really not astonishing. For when I turn to a science, not for some superficial reasons such as money-making or ambition, and also not (or at least not exclusively) for the pleasure of the sport, the delights of brain-athletics, then the following questions must burningly interest me as a disciple of this science: What goal will and can be reached by the science to which I am dedicating myself? To what extent are its general results ‘true’? What is essential, and what is based only on accidents of development?” (Translated by G. Holton).
One of the great men in this field was Poincaré. He wrote four books: “Science and Method,” “The Value of Science,” “Science and Hypothesis,” and “Last Ideas,” which greatly influenced the philosophy of science of his contemporaries and has continued to influence us.
Mach wrote both about epistemology and about physics from a historical and philosophical point of view. His influence on Einstein is well known.
Einstein made many statements about science, in general, and physics, in particular. However, it is his characteristic, as with all people who are active in research, that his general philosophical ideas changed. Because of this change, one cannot label them uniquely with a certain philosophical direction. For instance, one cannot say that Einstein was a positivist and Poincaré a conventionalist, although at a certain time in their careers such designations might have contained a grain of truth. Einstein, as he learned new things and worked in different fields, changed his philosophical ideas accordingly.
There exists an interesting contrast between the attitudes of scientists and of philosophers. Scientists are at the same time narrower in their aims, but broader in their philosophical outlook, than philosophers.
As Wigner put it in his Nobel lecture, “. . . physics does not endeavor to explain nature. In fact, the great success of physics is due to a restriction of its objectives: it only endeavors to explain the regularities in the behavior of objects. This renunciation of the broader aim, and the specification of the domain for which an explanation can be sought, now appears to be an obvious necessity. In fact, the specification of the explainable may have been the greatest discovery of physics so far.”
On the other hand, as Einstein vividly describes, a physicist is an “unscrupulous opportunist.” He does not adhere to any single “ism,” but to a whole spectrum of “isms.” Einstein continues: “To a ‘professional’ philosopher, a physicist . . . appears as a realist, insofar as he seeks to describe the world independent of the act of perception, as idealist insofar as he looks upon the concepts and theories as the free inventions of the human spirit (not logically derivable from that which is empirically given), as a positivist insofar as he considers his concepts and theories justified only to the extent to which they furnish a logical representation of realizations among sense experiences. He may even appear as a Platonist or Pythagorean insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research.”
Not only does a working physicist embrace such a multitude of “isms” simultaneously, but the degree of his adherence to any particular “ism” will be a function of time. Young Einstein’s philosophical outlook was different from that of his later epoch, when his supreme objective became a “Unified Field Theory.” Furthermore, science in general, physics in particular is cumulative: it attempts to approach the “truth” in successive approximations.
What is “truth” is generally agreed upon by scientists, although, in some cases, it may take a long time to reach a universal agreement. By contrast, in philosophy, there has been more disagreement than agreement, and, in the history of philosophy, it is hard to recognize anything corresponding to a steady advance. All or most of the great philosophers believed that their system contains the “final truth.” Today we take a more balanced and, perhaps, somewhat skeptical view of such beliefs. Philosophical activity has two complementary aspects; synthesis and analysis. In short, synthesis refers to the speculative or metaphysical theories about man and the universe, which are offered as bases for beliefs and guides for actions. Analysis refers to the critical classification of all such theories. Synthesis is based on broad experience and intuitive insight. Analysis purports to a critical investigation of all details for logical consistency. Only a very few philosophers, the greatest, combined synthesis and analysis. Most other philosophers somewhat followed the “fashions” prevailing at their time, which were either in favor of synthesis or of analysis.
Today, analysis is the prevalent fashion both in philosophy and in philosophy of science. In fact, M. Schlick and L. Wittgenstein advocate the view that philosophy is not a science, but an activity: “the logical clarification of thought.” Schlick adds, “I am convinced that our view of the nature of philosophy will be generally adapted in the future; and the consequence will be, that it will no longer be attempted to teach philosophy as a system. We shall teach the special sciences and their history in the true philosophical spirit of searching for clarity; and by doing this we shall develop the philosophical mind of future generations. This is all we can do, but it will be a great step in the mental progress of our race.”
Two of the strongest, perhaps the strongest contemporary philosophical directions are positivism and extentialism. In fact a short of union of these two “isms” seems to guide today’s philosophy of science. Still, it is our privilege as active scientists to follow Einstein’s view and adhere to a multitude of “isms,” but, perhaps, not too strongly to any particular “ism”!
Planck was, of course, always interested in the general philosophy of science. There was a somewhat violent discussion between Planck and Mach, Planck being a realist and Mach a positivist. Mach got quite upset when Planck quoted the Scripture and said that one should recognize the value of ideas on “the fruits they bear.” The reason Mach was upset was, apparently, because he was an agnostic and he thought using the Scripture against him was unfair.
Pauli was another great physicist who was interested in the general problems of science. He was not only interested in general philosophy of science but also in some problems which really belong to psychology and psychoanalysis.
Incidentally, I would recommend to all of you who write papers and to those you who hope or plan to write articles on any topic, be it physics, philosophy, or history, to peruse and study Einstein’s and Pauli’s writings. They are characterized by simplicity and critical clarity; not a word too much, but not a word missing either!
There were, of course, great scientists whose writings are not so simple. An outstanding example is Bohr, who believed that clarity and truth are, perhaps, complementary. He could justly be called the Rembrandt of physics, displaying “claire obscure,” in his writings. Bohr, particularly in his epistemological work, wrote and rewrote many drafts before he was satisfied with his formulation. It is interesting that Bohr liked some of Schiller’s philosophical poems: “In der Abyss liegt die Wahrheit (In the Abyss Lies the Truth).” Goethe, in his “Conversations with Eckermann,” said that Schiller’s poems, generally, did not originate spontaneously (like his own poems) but took on their final form after many drafts and redrafts. Goethe could recite by heart most of his poems, while Schiller, naturally, could not.
Schrödinger shared, interestingly, with Bohr an admiration for Schiller. In fact, Schrödinger wrote lyrical poems (published in a little volume) muchin Schiller’s somewhat “heavy” style. Schrödinger’s non-poetic writings, however, displayed an artistic flair both in his German and English works. (I heard that Schrödinger had an English grandmother. This might help to explain why his mastery of English approached that of his mother language, German.) In his philosophical outlook on quantum mechanics, Schrödinger became an “antipode” to Bohr and Born. As early as 1922 in his inaugural lecture at the University of Zurich, he discussed seriously a suggestion by the Viennese physicist Exner on the possibility of a basic and irreducible indeterminism in physics. However, after he discovered that his wave equation “explained” quantization as an eigenvalue problem, he began to dislike quantum jumps.
A Few Books on History and Philosophy of Science
(Some books were mentioned in the text)
F. Cajori, History of Physics, 2nd Ed., Dover, 1962
Mr. Lane, History of Physics, Acad. Press, 1950
E. Mach, The Science of Mechanics, Open Court, 1942
W. F. Magie, A Source Book in Physics, Harvard, 1963
W. Dampier, A History of Science, Macmillan, 1942
Sedwick, Taylor, Bigelow, A Short History of Science, Macmillan, 1939.
H. T. Pledge, Science Since 1500, Harper T. B.
G. Gamow, Biography of Physics, Harper, 1961
G. Sarton, Ancient Science and Modern Civilization, Harper, T. B., 1959.
L. T. More, Isaac Newton, Dover, 1962
A. C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, Harvard, 1953
P. W. Bridgman, The Logic of Modern Physics
Ph. Frank, Philosophy of Science, Prentice-Hall, 1957
P. Caws, Philosophy of Science, van Nostrand, 1965
© 2007 by Michael A. S. Guth, Ph.D., J.D.
28 Apr. 1967
Your historical remarks at lunch the other day were, as always, fascinating to me; also the most interesting manuscript of your lectures. I was pleased that you’re planning to put papers together and do hope you’ll talk with Cliff Fair at Princeton University Press about it. If you’ll be visiting Princeton sometime soon, I’ll do my best to put you together with him.
John A. Wheeler
Department of Physics
Feb. 28, 1967
Prof. Eugene Guth
Oak Ridge, TN
Dear Professor Guth:
I have just gone through your “Lectures on History of Physics,” and to my surprise, I am quite impressed. I say surprised, because academic historians rarely feel that anyone except a product of American or British historical seminars can write acceptable history. Since you have squared the circle so o speak – and I have done 3 articles on history of science topics myself – I would like to have you talk next year to our history honorary society, Phi Alpha Theta. We can agree on the date this coming fall.
Betimes, if you have plenty of copies of the lectures, I would be happy to distribute 25 or 30 to historiography class and Phi Alpha Theta members.
Professor of History
January 7, 1974
Dear Professor Guth,
I have enjoyed listing to your incisive comments on science and scientists last week very much. Perhaps you should write an autobiographical essay; historians of science would be indeed grateful to you.
Lewis S. Feuer
Department of Sociology
University of Toronto