Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

iii
ELECTROMAGNETISM
Historical Synopsis

Our story must now follow a more zigzag chronology. (Those more comfortable with linear timelines may want to consult the chronology at the end of the book.) Part 2 followed the development of thermodynamics from Carnot in the 1820s to Nernst in the 1930s. The history now returns to the 1820s and 1830s, with the same scientific scenery that inspired the thermodynamicists, the topic of the day being the mysterious and intriguing matter of conversion processes. It was plain to the scientists of the early nineteenth century that the many interconvertible effects—thermal, mechanical, chemical, electrical, and magnetic—demanded unifying principles. Thermodynamicists concentrated at first on thermal and mechanical effects, and from them refined the concepts of energy and entropy and three great physical laws. Eventually, by the end of the nineteenth century, thermodynamicists had discovered that the language of their science encompassed all macroscopic effects— indeed, the entire universe.

There were other unities to be discovered at the same time. In 1820, Oersted observed that a wire carrying an electric current slightly disturbed the magnetic needle of a nearby compass: an electric effect produced a magnetic effect. Oersted's colleagues were not impressed, but an ambitious young laboratory assistant at the Royal Institute in London was; his name was Michael Faraday. In a string of brilliantly designed experiments, Faraday discovered many more “electromagnetic” effects, including those that make possible modern electric motors and generators. In one of the last and most difficult of these experiments, Faraday made the stunning discovery that polarized light is affected by a magnetic field. With that observation he brought light into the domain of electromagnetic phenomena.

Faraday was guided by his superb skill in the laboratory—he was the greatest experimentalist of the nineteenth century—and also by a revolutionary theory. He believed that magnetic, electric, and electromagnetic effects were transmitted through space along “lines of force,” which collectively defined a “field.” Once it was generated, the field could exist anywhere, even in otherwise empty

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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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