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God's Gift

Bruce Hunt

The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain. Crosbie Smith. 416 pp. University of Chicago Press, 1998. $25 (paper).

In a well known lecture in 1959, C. P. Snow cited the inability of his literary friends to identify the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an index of the gap between what he dubbed "the Two Cultures." It was an old issue: In 1873 the physicist James Clerk Maxwell warned his friend P. G. Tait, coming to Cambridge to deliver the annual Rede Lecture (as Snow would more than 80 years later), that "to speak familiarly of a 2nd Law as of a thing known for some years, to men of culture who have never even heard of a 1st Law, may arouse sentiments unfavourable to patient attention." Crosbie Smith has now produced a richly contextual history of the establishment of those two laws, and of the underlying concept of energy, that will amply repay the attention of scientists and humanists alike.

Many readers will be surprised when, after a brief introduction, Smith plunges into a detailed account of 19th-century Scottish Presbyterianism. What could the theology of Thomas Chalmers, the "Disruption" of 1843 or the rise of an "incarnationalist" view of Christ have to do with the science of energy? Quite a lot, as Smith soon shows. The science of energy was largely created by a circle of Scottish scientists and engineers, led by William Thomson, Maxwell, Tait and Macquorn Rankine, who were deeply imbued with Presbyterian doctrines. Smith argues persuasively that their ideas about energy and its dissipation were shaped by a characteristically Presbyterian belief that amid a fallen and decaying physical world, men had a responsibility to take God's gifts and use them well. Their new science of energy would provide a middle path between Biblical literalism and evolutionary materialism; it would be Christian yet progressive and well in tune with the rising industry of Glasgow and Manchester.

Building on his own earlier studies of Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Smith draws on the best recent scholarship to produce a satisfying synthetic account of the history of thermodynamics, molecular physics and electromagnetism. He shows not only how each of these subjects developed and was transformed by the rise of the concept of energy, but also how the received history was itself deliberately shaped by the "scientists of energy." In particular, he shows how and why Tait, in a series of publications in the 1860s and 1870s, heaped credit for establishing the laws of thermodynamics on James Joule and William Thomson while denying it to the Germans Robert Mayer and Rudolf Clausius.

Smith stresses what he calls the "spiral of credibility": the way the scientists built up their own standing and that of their ideas by forming strategic alliances and carefully investing "intellectual capital" they had accumulated through earlier work. The success of the British scientists of energy in enlisting Hermann Helmholtz as their principal German ally is a good example, as is the way they used the British Association for the Advancement of Science as a forum to advance their views, notably through its Committee on Electrical Standards. But Smith focuses far more on how his protagonists pitched their ideas to various audiences than on why those audiences responded as they did. We can see how Presbyterianism shaped Thomson and Maxwell’s thoughts about energy and its dissipation, but why did people who shared none of their religious values nonetheless come to accept their formulation of the laws of thermodynamics? How did beliefs generated in specific local circumstances come to win universal assent? This is the perennial question facing almost all attempts at contextual history of science, and to say that Smith has not completely solved it is a very mild criticism. The Science of Energy provides a rich and lively account of a dauntingly complex subject and will stand as a model of how to integrate science with its cultural context.—Bruce J. Hunt, History, University of Texas at Austin

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