The Shadow of Newton

Yesterday I overheard some Electrodynamics students talking about the fact that all the famous names attached to pioneering laws or theorems in that subject seem to be either French (Biot-Savart, Laplace, Poisson..) or German (Gauss, Helmholtz…). Why are there no British names in this list?

Well, there was Faraday, of course. But Michael Faraday was primarily an experimentalist rather than a theorist, which sets him apart from the others already mentioned. So why is it that British theoretical was behind continental Europe in the early part of the 19th Century when all this important work on electricity and magnetism was being done.

There was also Maxwell, but he came along a bit later; he published his theory of electromagnetism in 1861/2. So why were the British so slow to enter this field?

Well, my theory of this is that it’s all the fault of Isaac Newton. I came to this conclusion when reading about the work of British mathematician and physicist George Green, who lived from 1793 until 1841, and who left a substantial legacy for modern theoretical physicists, in Green’s theorems and Green’s functions. George Green is also credited as being the first person to use the word “potential” in electrostatics. Green was the son of a Nottingham miller who, amazingly, taught himself mathematics and did most of his best work, especially his remarkable Essay on the Application of mathematical Analysis to the theories of Electricity and Magnetism (1828) before starting his studies as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge (which he did at the age of 30, after his father died, and he leased out the mill he consequently inherited, to pay for his studies).

Extremely unusually for British mathematicians of his time, Green taught himself from books that were published in France. This gave him a huge advantage over his national contemporaries in that he learned the form of differential calculus that originated with Leibniz, which was far more elegant than that devised by Isaac Newton (which was called the method of fluxions).

Great scientist though he was, Newton’s influence on the development of physics in Britain was not entirely positive. Newton was held in such awe, especially in Cambridge, that his inferior mathematical approach was deemed to be the “right” way to do calculus and generations of scholars were forced to use it. This held back British science until the use of fluxions was phased out. Green himself was forced to learn fluxions when he went as an undergraduate to Cambridge despite having already learned the better method.

Unfortunately, Green’s great pre-Cambridge work on mathematical physics didn’t reach wide circulation in the United Kingdom until after his death. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, found a copy of Green’s Essay in 1845 and promoted it widely as a work of fundamental importance. This contributed to the eventual emergence of British theoretical physics from the shadow cast by Isaac Newton which reached one of its heights just a few years later with the publication a fully unified theory of electricity and magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell.

6 Responses to “The Shadow of Newton”

  1. telescoper Says:

    Of course Maxwell was Scottish, as was Kelvin..

    it’s definitely Maxwell’s equations too…

    • Andrew Liddle Says:

      Actually Kelvin was Irish (from Belfast), though he moved to Glasgow aged 9.

      One of his most important results is known as, er, Stokes’ theorem (careful with that apostrophe).

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Much on this in the fine book “Masters of Theory” by Andrew Warwick. A crucial innovation was written rather than oral examinations in mathematics and physics, and perhaps the Continent made this change earlier.

  3. Another self-taught English EM pioneer, not quite as famous, was Oliver Heaviside (of the step function and the layer). I didn’t realise this until yesterday, but it was Heaviside, not Maxwell, who wrote down the vector form of Maxwell’s equations that we all teach today. Among a whole bunch of other things, he invented the coaxial cable. He also appears to have been slightly barmy, but nobody’s perfect.

  4. […] wasn’t aware of this analysis previously, but it re-iterates something I have posted about before. It stresses the enormous historical importance of British mathematician and physicist <a […]

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