“British physics” – A Lesson from History

The other day I came across the following tweet

The link is to an excellent piece about the history of European science which I recommend reading; as I do with this one.

I won’t pretend to be a historian but I can’t resist a comment from my perspective as a physicist. I am currently teaching a course module called Theoretical Physics which brings together some fairly advanced mathematical techniques and applies them to (mainly classical) physics problems. It’s not a course on the history of physics, but thenever I mention a new method or theorem I always try to say something about the person who gave it its name. In the course of teaching this module, therefore, I have compiled a set of short biographical notes about the people behind the rise of theoretical physics (mainly in the 19th Century). I won’t include them here – it would take too long – but a list  makes the point well enough: Laplace, Poisson,  Lagrange, Hamilton, Euler, Cauchy, Riemann, Biot, Savart, d’Alembert, Ampère, Einstein, Lorentz, Helmholtz, Gauss, etc etc.

There are a few British names too  including the Englishmen Newton and Faraday and the Scot Maxwell. Hamilton, by the way, was Irish. Another Englishman, George Green, crops up quite prominently too, for reasons which I will expand upon below.

Sir Isaac Newton is undoubtedly one of the great figures in the History of Science, and it is hard to imagine how physics might have developed without him, but the fact of the matter is that for a hundred years after his death in 1727 the vast majority of significant developments in physics took place not in Britain but in Continental Europe. It’s no exaggeration to say that British physics was moribund during this period and it took the remarkable self-taught mathematician George Green to breath new life into it.
I quote from History of the Theories of the Aether and Electricity (Whittaker, 1951) :

The century which elapsed between the death of Newton and the scientific activity of Green was the darkest in the history of (Cambridge) University. It is true that (Henry) Cavendish and (Thomas) Young were educated at Cambridge; but they, after taking their undergraduate courses, removed to London. In the entire period the only natural philosopher of distinction was (John) Michell; and for some reason which at this distance of time it is difficult to understand fully, Michell’s researches seem to have attracted little or no attention among his collegiate contemporaries and successors, who silently acquiesced when his discoveries were attributed to others, and allowed his name to perish entirely from the Cambridge tradition.

I 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 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; he 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. Lacking independent finance, Green could not go to University until his father died, whereupon he leased out the mill he inherited to pay for his studies.

Extremely unusually for English 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). Whittaker remarks upon this:

Green undoubtedly received his own early inspiration from . . . (the great French analysts), chiefly from Poisson; but in clearness of physical insight and conciseness of exposition he far excelled his masters; and the slight volume of his collected papers has to this day a charm which is wanting in their voluminous writings.

Great scientist though he was, Newton’s influence on the development of physics in Britain was not entirely positive, as the above quote makes clear. 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. This renaissance reached one of its heights just a few years later with the publication of a fully unified theory of electricity and magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell.

In a very real sense it was Green’s work that led to the resurgence of British physics during the later stages of the 19th Century, and it was the fact that he taught himself from French books that enabled him to bypass the insular attitudes of British physicists of the time. No physicist who has taken even a casual look at the history of their subject could possibly deny the immense importance of mainland Europe in providing its theoretical foundations.

Of course science has changed in the last two hundred years, but I believe that we can still learn an important lesson from this particular bit of history. Science moves forward when scientists engage with ideas and information from as wide a range of sources as possible, and it stagnates when it retreats into blinkered insularity. The European Union provides all scientific disciplines with a framework within which scientists can move freely and form transnational collaborations for the mutual benefit of all. We need more of this, not less. And not just in science.

15 Responses to ““British physics” – A Lesson from History”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’d like to make three points that are all related to what Peter has said but largely unrelated to each other:

    1. Britain was not in the EU when those continental geniuses did their work, but their innovations nevertheless crossed the Channel without hindrance.

    2. George Green was (also) a genius. However…

    3. I am not convinced that it is his work that kick-restarted British physics. The wonderful book Masters of Theory by Andrew Warwick (2003) is about the decline in 18th century British physics and how it got going again in the 19th century, and the key innovation was the shift to the continental model of having written rather than oral examinations in mathematics/theoretical physics.

    • telescoper Says:

      Of course the EU did not exist in the 18th and 19th centuries, but I think the continental innovations would have been communicated more rapidly if it did.

  2. telescoper Says:

    There were also many conflicts In Europe during that period.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes, and scientific results easily crossed front lines, while the absence of war in Western Europe in the last 70 years is a fine achievement of NATO.

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    We can manage with good old British physics when we vote to quit Europe – just good old Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism, electrons and neutrons. None of that fancy foreign relativity, quantum mechanics or neutrinos. And we don’t need to trade with Europe – we can set up a Mid-Atlantic free-trade alliance with St Helena and the Cape Verde Islands.

    To be serious, of course, science is international. Of course, science needs to build on sound research from all cultures and backgrounds. This probably creates an instinctive feeling among research scientists in favour of international cooperation, including in affairs far beyond science. That is possibly one reason why the scientific community in Britain is so supportive of the United Kingdom remaining within the European Union. And that feeling is absolutely correct.

  4. Reblogged this on Disturbing the Universe and commented:
    Newton doesn’t mean that British Physics can survive without the EU, despite what Brexiters might claim.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      You think that British physics won’t survive outside the EU? Don’t you think that that might be pitching it a little strongly?

      • telescoper Says:

        It will survive, but will be greatly diminished. Many physicists currently in the UK will lose their jobs and whole departments may well close. I am deeply worried.

      • telescoper Says:

        The Swiss did participate in the EU programmes until recently. Their withdrawal has caused a lot of unhappiness, especially among physicists and astronomers.

      • That may be true, but is it a fair comparison? Would you say that the UK (possibly without Scotland, if they leave because we leave) is comparable to Switzerland?

        That the Swiss do well in research outside of the EU may be fact, but that doesn’t mean that we can apply it to the UK. We’ve got a pretty significant observation that we benefit from access to EU science.

        That means a lot to me.

      • telescoper Says:

        The Swiss certainly fund their own science better than the UK does…

  5. […] In The Dark: “British Physics” – A Lesson from History […]

  6. […] it may sound like battle over notation is a fight for its own sake, it has been argued that Newton’s notation was indeed inferior and made English mathematics less competitive with […]

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