Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fjordman: The History of Optics, Part 6

Fjordman has posted the sixth and final installment of his history of optics at Atlas Shrugs. Some excerpts are below:

According to Michael Kennedy, “Max Planck, writing in 1931, stated that while neither Faraday or Maxwell ‘originally considered optics in connection with their consideration of the fundamental laws of electromagnetism,’ yet ‘the whole field of optics, which had defied attack from the side of mechanics for more than a hundred years, was at one stroke conquered by Maxwell’s Electrodynamic Theory.’ Planck considered this one of ‘the greatest triumphs of human intellectual endeavor.’ Heinrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s and Faraday’s work with experiments measuring the speed of light and electromagnetic waves. He showed that the electromagnetic waves behaved exactly like light in properties of reflection, refraction and polarization and that they could be focused. The Germans took Maxwell’s theory and subtracted some of his tortured ideas about how these forces acted at a distance. Gauss had already worked on the subject of static charges and the way that they act at a distance. One issue was the speed of propagation of electromagnetic forces along a wire, through a vacuum and through air. The old theory, based on Newton, was that these forces acted instantaneously. Maxwell believed that all the forces acted at the same rate, the speed of light. Hertz proved this to be true.”

Albert Einstein (1879—1955) later stated that “The most fascinating subject at the time I was a student was Maxwell’s theory.” One of the key findings of the late nineteenth century was the Michelson—Morley experiment in 1887, conducted by Albert Abraham Michelson (1852—1931), an American physicist born to a Polish-Jewish family, and the American scientist Edward Morley (1838-1923). Michelson was a master of precision optical measurement. The Oxford Guide to the History of Physics and Astronomy tells the tale:
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“His determination of the speed of light and the lengths of light waves were the best of his day, and his attempt of 1887 in collaboration with Edward Morley to detect the motion of the earth through the ether helped set the stage for Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. In 1907 Michelson became the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Born in Poland, Michelson emigrated to with his family while still a child. He grew up in gold rush towns in California and.Michelson and Morley’s null result seemed impossible to reconcile with the known facts of optics. George Francis FitzGerald in 1889 and Hendrik Antoon Lorentz in 1892 independently proposed a striking solution: perhaps motion through the ether slightly alters the forces between molecules, causing Michelson and Morley’s sandstone block to shrink by just enough to nullify the effect they had been seeking. The ‘FitzGerald-Lorentz contraction’ later became an important part of relativity theory. Although scholars have often exaggerated the influence of Michelson and Morley’s experiment on Einstein’s thinking, Einstein knew at least indirectly of their result and it certainly loomed large in later discussions of his ideas.”

George Francis FitzGerald (1851—1901), a professor at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in the 1890s hypothesized the Fitzgerald contraction — that distance contracts with speed — in order to account for the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment. The Dutch physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (1853-1928) hypothesized that mass increases with velocity as well. Lorentz shared the 1902 Nobel Prize in Physics with the Dutch physicist Pieter Zeeman (1865-1943) for the discovery and explanation of the Zeeman Effect, the splitting of lines in a spectrum by a magnetic field, later used to study the details of atomic structure. The experimental work of Hungarian physicist Loránd Eötvös (1848-1919) established the identity of gravitational and inert masses, which Einstein used for his general theory of relativity.

While it is certainly true that he benefited from the work done by others, the young Swiss bureaucrat Albert Einstein in the years before 1905 had no university affiliation, no access to a laboratory and was not at all a part of the mainstream of scientists, which makes his achievement all the more impressive. I have read conflicting accounts of his life, but it is likely that he knew about the Michelson-Morley experiment and some other developments.

Read the rest at Pamela’s place.

6 comments:

Fjordman said...

Thank you for posting. I started out with the intention of writing a history of optics of perhaps ten to fifteen thousand words. It will be well over 40,000 words. That happens to me a lot.....

Hopefully, it will be published in print at some point together with the history of medicine, the history of beer and chocolate, the history of mathematics and mathematical astronomy etc.

christian soldier said...

obfuscation is a liar's main tactic ...
C-CS

Fjordman said...

Baron, just so you know it, I am about to make some substantial additions to my history of optics before I re-publish it as a single document here at the GoV.

Robin Shadowes said...

Would be fun to read an essay(s) on the evolution of the computers as we wouldn't be here without them.

DP111 said...

Maxwell's prediction of the existence of electromagnetic waves is one of the greatest of all predictions in the history of science, if not the greatest. It is truly astounding.

It is regretful that other theories, such as Relativity and Quantum theory, and their begetters, get a lot of fame and publicity, while James Clerk Maxwell, gets scant attention. Much of what can be called modern physics, is based on Maxwell's em theory, even Quantum physics being a reaction to it. Besides its scientific elegance, Maxwells em theory set the foundation, and a solid one at that, for the birth of all electrical and electronic systems.

So it is nice to see Fjordman giving the man his due.

DP111 said...

Michael Faraday is another of those absolute wizards of physics, who does not get much of a mention. It is his quite ingenious experiments and insight, that sets the scene for James Clerk Maxwell. But our latter day popular writers seem to have heard of only Einstein, Bohr, Heizenberg. Einstein with his shock of hair and unkempt appearance, is of course a godsend to photo journalists, and their idea of what a scientist should look like.