Friday, 4 December 2009

The Influence of Newton and Goethe on Nineteenth Century Physics

In The Experiment As Mediator between Object and Subject, Goethe argued that it is not possible to use a single experiment to arrive at a conclusive result regarding the truth of a theory.  Goethe proposed that the issue was in the determination of the link between these phenomena.  He warned of the dangers of human creativity in devising theory choices and encouraged a holistic approach that was characteristic of German Naturphilosophie. Goethe expounded the notion of “a series of contiguous experiments derived from one another”[1] that would serve better than Newton’s “crucial experiment” in the determination of the theory behind observable phenomena.  “An experiment would be “crucial” only if it conclusively eliminated every possible set of explanatory premises save one.”[2] In contrast, a series of experiments would be more effective than because more information about the phenomena could be shown.  Each experiment within the series would lead to the next, and taken all together, would provide a greater theory.

In the nineteenth century, a lot of scientific experimentation was carried out in the areas of optics, electricity and magnetism.  Where scientific research in this century began with light, electricity, and magnetism considered as separate phenomena, it culminated in the development of the theory of electromagnetism which unified the three.[3] The experimental work of Thomas Young, Augustin Jean Fresnel, and Dominique Francois Jean Arago aimed for and saw the victory of the undulatory [wave] theory of the nature of light over the corpuscular [particle] theory, its only competitor.  The experimental work of Hans Christian Oersted, Andre Marie Ampere, and Michael Faraday led to the connection between electricity and magnetism, and the idea of the field.  Oersted was known to be strongly influenced by Goethe, and Ampere by Kant’s metaphysics.[4] Although Michael Faraday’s commitment to experimentation was not as explicitly attributable to Goethe’s influence as Oersted’s, we could argue that it mimicked it.  In this paper, I will argue that 19th century experimentalists in optics and electromagnetism were inspired by both Newton’s “crucial experiment” and Goethe’s “series of experiments.”  Overall, there was no one more prevalent than the other.  Experiment design, and the interpretations of it followed both streams.

Experimentation in the study of optics during the early part of the nineteenth century was conducted on the premise that light either had a wave nature or a particle nature.  Huygens advocated the undulatory [wave] nature of light, and Newton, the corpuscular [particle] theory.  The prevailing view going into the century was that of Newton’s, and was based on his experimentation with a prism.[5] It was under this climate that Thomas Young (1773-1829) advanced his wave theory (1801) that was based on his famous 2-slit experiment.  Then in 1816, Francois Arago took what was originally evidence for the particle theory of light –its polarization – and showed how it was possible under a wave model.   Again, with the assumption that light had to either have a wave nature or particle nature, as of this point in time, the two theories were empirically equivalent.  There was phenomena exhibited experimentally that could be explained under both models.  The infamous “blow to the corpuscular theory … in 1819 [when Arago’s] experiment confirmed the prediction based on Fresnel’s wave theory that there should be illumination at the center of the diffraction pattern of a small opaque disc”[6] can then be regarded as a “crucial experiment”.  These experiments were conducted under the premise that there were only two options, and an experiment was devised with the understanding that it would show that one of those options was superior.  Such was the case.

At the start of the nineteenth century, electricity and magnetism were considered separate phenomena, and did not have a history of thorough investigation.[7] The experiments carried out by a number of scientists, notably Hans Christian Oersted, Andre-Marie Ampere, and Michael Faraday contributed towards the understanding of the relationship, and thus the theory, between electricity and magnetism.   In 1820, Hans Christian Oersted showed the link between magnetism and electricity.  He found that a magnetized needle twitched when near an electric-current-carrying copper wire.

“Oersted was an exponent of naturphilosohie – a Romantic philosophy of nature particularly prevalent in German-speaking lands at about the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Followers of naturphilosophie, such as the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, believed in the fundamental unity of nature.  […] Rather than being taken as separate objects of study, the various phenomena and powers of nature were to be understood as different manifestations of a single underlying and all-embracing cause. […] Coming from this perspective, Oersted was convinced that a link between electricity and magnetism must exist in nature.”[8]

Oersted’s result came after Coulomb’s statement that such interaction between magnetism and electricity were impossible.[9] Goethe’s conception of holism guided Oersted’s research, but his experiment was repeated by August de la Rive and Francois Arago to conclusively answer the question: is interaction between magnetism and electricity possible?  In this sense, it served as a crucial experiment between the theory that interaction was not possible (Coulomb, Ampere), and the theory that interaction was possible (Oerstead, Arago).

Ampere’s experimentation led to the development of Electrodynamics.  He studied the force exerted between two current carrying wires.  Ampere’s “procedure was to “observe first the facts, varying the conditions as much as possible, … in order to deduce general laws based solely on experience, and to deduce therefrom, independently of all hypotheses regarding the nature of the forces … the mathematical value of these forces.”[10] Though he was not directly influenced by Goethe’s holism, or German Naturphilosophie, this procedure can be considered Goethean in nature in his attitude toward experiment.  Goethe warned against theories as born from “the creative power of the mind”[11] and encouraged development in how scientists gather and use empirical evidence.[12]

Michael Faraday is known as one of the greatest experimentalists in the history of physics.  In 1831, with the aid of large electromagnets, Faraday finally made the discovery that, while static currents or magnetic fields were not capable of inducing currents, currents were induced when a field was changed or.  “The discovery was less an accident than the outcome of a systematic program of experimentation.”[13] “Faraday possessed extraordinary mathematical intuition, and any reader of his great Experimental Researches in Electricity cannot escape the brilliance of his theoretical imagination and the extent to which it guided his experiments. … [He employed] analogies between electricity and magnetism and his sense of reciprocity or unity in order to design new experiments and predict their outcome.  … Faraday was never cautious or conservative in designing his experiments and generalizing from them.  … [He] had no use for hypotheses that were not fully grounded in the phenomena.

“Near the end of Experimental Researches in Electricity, he wrote: “I feel bound to let experiment guide me into any train of thought which it may justify; being satisfied that experiment like analysis, must lead to strict truth if rightly interpreted.”[14]

Michael Faraday’s experimentalism was Goethean in spirit.  He let his observation from experiment yield ideas for more experimentation for the purpose of developing the theory.  His basis for theory was based on a series of interconnected experiments.

Goethe said that “the greatest discoveries are made not so much by men as by the age. …  As worthwhile as each individual experiment may be, it receives its real value only when united or combined with other experiments.”[15] We see this in the development of the theory of Electromagnetism.  It was the culmination of the experimentation and theorizing carried out in the areas of optics, magnetism, and electricity.  The unification of these three types of phenomena can be considered Goethean: one sort of force manifesting in different forms and that is unified under one theory.  What I want to do is bring to light the equivocation on word “theory”.  We can’t equate “theory of nature of light”, or even Coulomb’s “two-fluid theory” with the “theory of electromagnetism”.  The latter is an interconnected system of ideas developed from dozens of experiments conducted by many scientists to come to understand more and more the electrical and magnetic phenomena that they were observing.  For former two were postulations on the nature of some particular phenomena – light, electricity, or magnetism.  As regards the particular nature of these phenomena, we saw that a “crucial experiment” was devised and conducted and the results were taken as decisive confirmation or disconfirmation of the theory of the nature of light, or electricity, or magnetism.  As regards the development of Electromagnetism overall, nothing could be more Goethean.   There was the work of Oersted which led to work by Ampere which led to work by Faraday to explore deeply into the interaction between magnetism and electricity, but there was also the work of the others.  Volta’s “voltaic pile”, Galvani’s “animal force”, as well as Fresnel’s wave optics.  All taken together, when Maxwell came to formulate his wave equations uniting electricity, magnetism, and light under on theory, the product was the cooperation of many scientists, where each person’s work entailed the need for another’s.  As we can see, then, both Newton and Goethe had influence on the science in the nineteenth century.

Bibliography


Bowler, P. J. (2005). In Morus I. R. (Ed.), Making modern science : A historical survey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Buchwald, J. Z. A Brief History of Electric and Magnetic Science (unpublished)

Fox, Robert (1969), “The rise and fall of Laplacian physics,” Historical studies in the physical sciences, 1 89-136

Goethe, J. W. v. (1987). In Miller D. (Ed.), Scientific studies. New York, N.Y.: Suhrkamp.

Great experiments in physics : Firsthand accounts from galileo to einstein(1987). In Shamos M. H. (Ed.), . New York: Dover Publications.

Losee, J. (2001). A historical introduction to the philosophy of science (4th ed. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Purrington, R. D. (1997). Physics in the nineteenth century. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.


[1] J. W. Goethe, Scientific studies . (New York: Suhrkamp, 1987), 16

[2] John Losee, A historical introduction to the philosophy of science (4th ed. ed.). (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 149-150

[3] Robert Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univeristy Press, 1997), 32

[4] Robert Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univeristy Press, 1997), 41

[5] Robert Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univeristy Press, 1997), 39

[6] Fox, Robert “The rise and fall of Laplacian physics,” Historical studies in the physical sciences, 1 (1969), 116

[7] Buchwald, J. Z. A Brief History of Electric and Magnetic Science (unpublished), 1-2

[8] P.J. Bowler Making modern science : A historical survey. ( Chicago: University,  of Chicago Press, 2005), 83

[9] Robert Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univeristy Press, 1997), 41

[10] Robert Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univeristy Press, 1997), 46

[11] J. W. Goethe, Scientific studies . (New York: Suhrkamp, 1987), 15

[12] J. W. Goethe, Scientific studies . (New York: Suhrkamp, 1987), 12

[13] Robert Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univeristy Press, 1997), 51

[14] Robert Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univeristy Press, 1997), 48

[15] J. W. Goethe, Scientific studies . (New York: Suhrkamp, 1987), 13
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