The Rise of Physics
When Physics Became King. Iwan Rhys Morus. xii + 303 pp.
University of Chicago Press, 2005. Cloth, $60; paper, $25.
Over the past three decades an increasing number of scholars have
proffered histories that explain the content of science by drawing
on its sociocultural context. These works typically concentrate on
rather specific episodes, often detailing a very limited time span.
Iwan Rhys Morus's When Physics Became King draws on scores
of such studies in the history of 19th-century physics, tying them
together in order to depict the metamorphosis of the discipline from
the late 18th to the early 20th century. Morus accomplishes this
feat by dividing up the book into a series of historical themes,
including the revolutionary aspects of natural philosophy; physical
experiments and showmanship; the importance of skill, labor and
mechanization to experimentation; physics and imperialism; and the
social aspects of precision measurement.
Although Morus covers France and Germany, the majority of the book
is dedicated to the analysis of 19th-century British physics. For
example, he discusses how a dozen upstart mathematics students at
the University of Cambridge during the 1810s, including John
Herschel, Charles Babbage and George Peacock, adopted the new
mathematical analysis of the French and founded the Analytical
Society. These lads wished to wrestle British science away from the
grasps of aristocratic gentlemen—epitomized by the president
of the Royal Society of London, Sir Joseph Banks—in order to
reform both science and society. They maintained that meritocracy,
rather than nepotism, was required for physics and the economy to
flourish. Babbage and Herschel were committed to maximizing the
efficiency of both mental labor and British manufacturing.
Efficiency was applicable to both physics and business, or as Morus
argues, "Efficiency was the name of the game in both cases, and
efficiency was best achieved by due attention to, and proper
application of, the laws of nature and the operations of the mind."
Mathematics was believed to discipline the mind. The Analytical
Society wanted to revolutionize the mathematical Tripos at Cambridge
by having it cover French analytical calculus. Peacock eventually
became one of the university's examiners and accomplished this
expansion of scope. By the middle of the 19th century, the
Tripos had been overhauled, rendering it much more rigorous, with
grueling written tests after the third year. Only those with a sharp
mind, combined with physical stamina and the assistance of a good
tutor (referred to as a "coach"), could survive. Posh
accents (indicative of good breeding), which in the 18th century had
been noted approvingly in oral exams, could no longer assist those
who were ill prepared.
Morus also offers his readers a fascinating cultural history of
electricity. On the one hand, electricity was a critical component
of physics in the 19th century. Any self-respecting university in
Europe or the United States needed a laboratory that included
electrical instruments. On the other hand, electrical experiments
were exciting and stimulating; they appealed to a general audience
thirsty for good performances. Many "electricians" found
themselves happily catering to what some saw as the crass whims of a
public fascinated by physical forces. Thus electricity was perched
precariously on a precipice, threatening to tip over into the abyss
of the curiosity of the "vulgar masses." Not all
physicists, however, were concerned with the public's fascination
with electricity. They realized that some commercially relevant
objects, such as the cable telegraph, offered a model to help
physicists understand how electromagnetic waves propagated
throughout the ubiquitous, yet elusive, ether that had been posited
by British physicists (including James Clerk Maxwell and Oliver Lodge).
Another case in point is that the development of 19th-century
physics owed much to the rise of the steam engine during the
Industrial Revolution. James Watt's machine not only powered the
U.S. and European economies, during the 1840s and 1850s it served as
a model for investigating the new science of heat, thermodynamics.
Sadi Carnot, James Prescott Joule and James and William Thomson
(later known as Lord Kelvin) busied themselves with this new
science, contributing critical works on such topics as the
mechanical equivalent of heat, the conservation of heat and an
engine's efficiency. The Thomson brothers were well aware of the
moral implications of the notions of work and waste during an era
when toiling was a Victorian value and waste was deemed sinful.
Over the course of the book the reader becomes convinced that the
history of physics is a story not of isolated geniuses disengaged
from society in ivy-covered towers, but rather of a collection of
individuals from diverse walks of life working together in concert.
In short, When Physics Became King is a masterfully written
historical analysis. Morus's bibliography is comprehensive and
provides readers who wish to investigate a particular theme in
further detail with an extremely useful resource. The book, which
fills most admirably a huge gap in the secondary literature, is a
"must read" for undergraduates. I also highly recommend it
to historians of science and technology; to general historians, for
the understanding it offers of the importance of physics to
19th-century economies and notions of nationalism; and to
scientists, for the sense it provides of the importance of
sociocultural context to scientific content.
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