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Aspects of French Theoretical Physics in the Nineteenth Century

  • J. W. Herivel

In France, as in other European countries, especially Britain and Germany, the nineteenth century was a period of great progress and achievement in science. This would still have been true if Claude Bernard and Louis Pasteur had been the only outstanding French scientists of the nineteenth century, whereas there were, of course, many others apart from an impressive number of brilliant French mathematicians. Nevertheless, although it was a great century for French science there was perhaps something rather disappointing about it, and something rather ingrowing about the attitude of French scientists towards scientific developments in other countries. For example, the French took it hard that the creator of the theory of evolution should have been an Englishman, remembering too late Darwin's predecessor Lamarck, and they certainly were very slow in accepting Darwin's theory of evolution.1 Again, the French may have felt that after the important contributions of French scientists such as Coulomb, Poisson, Biot and, above all, Ampère, the theory of electricity and magnetism which is today principally associated with the names of Faraday and Maxwell should have been created by a Frenchman. Once again this new theory was only accepted very slowly and hesitantly, and even unwillingly, in France—one thinks, for example, of the criticisms levelled at the theory by Pierre Duhem in his “The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory”.2 Of course it might be that if one knew how to weigh properly the various achievements of French scientists in different branches of science one would find that, allowing for her rather static population during the nineteenth century, the total contribution of France compared well with those of Britain and Germany. Nevertheless, in one case at least, that of theoretical physics, there seems to have been an unmistakable failure to live up to the promise of the beginning of the century. The purpose of this paper is to advance possible reasons to explain this failure.

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1 Thus Renan, , in his L'Avenir de la Science (Paris, 1890) preface, p. vii, referring to the tyranny exercised by the requirements of French for clarity and discretion, remarks: “Le français ne veut exprimer que des choses claires; or les lois les plus importantes, celles qui tiennent aux transformations de la vie, ne sont pas claires: on les voit dans une sorte de demi-jour. C'est ainsi qu'après avoir aperçu la première les vérités de ce qu'on appelle maintenant le darwinisme, la France a été la dernière à s'y rallier.”

2 For example, his criticism of Maxwell's introduction of the displacement current. See translation of Duhem's work by Wiener, P. (Princeton, 1954), pp. 7879.

3 To substantiate this guess it would be necessary to take full account of demographic factors. My attention has been drawn to an interesting study of scientific creativity in the light of demographic factors in an article by Yuasa in vol. i of Japanese Journal for the History of Science.

4 For details of the educational scene in France during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras I have depended mainly on d'Irsay, S., Histoire des universités françaises et étrangères des origines à nos jours, 2 vol. (Paris, 19331935), Liard, L., L'Enseignement supérieur en France, 1789–1889, 2 vol. (Paris, 1888, 1894), and two important articles by Williams, L. P., “Science, Education and the French Revolution”, Isis, xliv (1953), 311330, and “Science, Education and Napoleon I”, Isis, xlvii (1956), 369382. Williams's articles, hereafter referred to as Williams [I] and [II], have a particularly rich documentation, and form the inevitable point of departure for any future research on the subject of science and education in France in the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.

5 For an account of the educational plans of the idéologues under the Directory, see Williams [I], where reference will be found to various works on the subject such as those by Picavet, F., Les Idéologues (Paris, 1891), and by Van Duzer, C. H., Contributions of the Idéologues to French Revolutionary Thought (Baltimore, 1935).

6 The richest source of biographical material on J. B. Fourier is found in the Éloge of V. Cousin to the Académie Française (5 05 1831), and in the same author's Notes Biographiques … de M. Fourier (Paris, 1831).

7 For the history of the École Polytechnique during its first hundred years, see École Polytechnique, Le Livre du centenaire 1794–1834, 3 vol. (Paris, 1895).

8 Boutaric, A., Marcelin Berthelot, 1827–1907 (Paris, 1927), p. 13.

9 Williams, ‘II’, op. cit. (4), 376379.

10 For example, the scientist J. L. F. Bertrand was elected captain of the Garde Nationale of his locality in Paris. See Éloge of Bertrand in Darboux, G., Éloges Académiques et Discours (Paris, 1912), pp. 160.

11 In marked contrast to the existence in both Britain and Germany, for example, of a number of powerful, independent centres of scientific activity. There can be no doubt that the undue concentration in Paris of the foremost French scientific institutions had a markedly adverse effect on the general health of French science in the nineteenth century (and beyond). For one thing, it made possible the practice of the cumul by which one scientist held teaching positions in a number of different institutions; for another, residence in Paris made it all too easy for French scientists to follow the revolutionary tradition of involvement in politics. The resulting gains to teaching or politics were far outweighed by the inevitable loss to creative scientific research.

12 But a study of Carnot Savant remains to be written.

13 For an account of Fourier's part in the Egyptian campaign, see. Champollion-Figeac, J.J., Napoléon et Fourier (Paris, 1844).

14 Cousin, V., Notes Biographiques (n. 6 above), p. 35.

15 Arago was Ampère's natural successor in France in the fields of electricity and magnetism.

16 The subsequent biographical details on Gay-Lussac are taken from an obituary notice prepared by J. B. Biot and read before the Royal Society of London at their annual commemoration meeting on 30 November 1850. Biot tells us that the then president, Lord Rosse, who asked for the notice of Gay-Lussac, had been responsible “for the happy notion of making these annual obituary notices into veritable scientific memoirs assessing the achievements of the scientist in question” (see Journal des Scavans, 1850, for the remarks of Biot and a French version of the obituary notice).

17 For some biographical details of Arago, see preface by von Humboldt to Arago's Oeuvres (13 vol., Paris, 18541862).

18 Loc. ignot.

19 Hamilton's application to analytical dynamics of concepts drawn from wave theory provides an obvious example of creative work in the subject both intrinsically, and for its later influence on the development of the wave mechanical version of Quantum Mechanics.

20 Involving, that is, a full application of probability theory as opposed to the earlier work of Joule and Krönig.

21 As opposed to a competent, and even original, theoretical physicist such as Lamé, G. (17951870).

22 This and subsequent details relative to Verdet are taken from the biographical notice by de la Rive, A. A. in Vol. i of Oeuvres de E. Verdet, publiés par les soins de ses élèves, 8 vol. (Paris, 1872).

23 Williams, [II], op. cit. (4), 372373.

24 de Lamartine, A., Des Destinés de la Poésie in Oeuvres Complètes, tome i (Paris 1862), pp. 2628.

25 Related in Picard, E., Éloges et Discours Académiques (Paris, 1931), p. 79.

26 The play in question “Arthur de Bretagne”, was published after Bernard's death in 1886. Girardin was professor at the Sorbonne. See Foster, M., Claude Bernard (London, 1889), pp. 89.

27 Newton and Laplace provide the obvious examples, as opposed, for example, to Maxwell and Einstein.

28 Williams, [II], op. cit. (4), 376379

29 I cannot accept Koyré's view of the altogether secondary role of experiment in the development of Galileo's kinematical views. Galileo's reference in his letter of 16 October 1604 to Paolo Sarpi (quoted in Koyré, A., Études Galiléennes (Paris, 1939), p. 78) to the experiments he had observed on falling bodies raises a serious difficulty for the extreme idealist attitude towards Galileo. In fact, it seems entirely possible that the main reason why Galileo succeeded where Descartes failed was the former's experimentally-based certainty of the true law, as opposed to Descartes' intentional disregard of any experimental findings on the grounds that the phenomenon of falling bodies was hopelessly complicated by the presence of a resisting force not susceptible of an exact treatment.

30 Maxwell, J. C., A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (3rd edition, Oxford, 1892), p. viii.

31 This was certainly true before the present century. But theories such as Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, or Dirac's Electron Theory, open up the possibility of aesthetic considerations playing an increasingly important role in future advances in theoretical physics.

32 For an illuminating account of Newton's attitude to hypothesis, see Crombie, A. C., “Newton's Conception of Scientific Method”, Bulletin of the Institute of Physics (11 1957), pp. 350362.

33 Largely contained in the first two volumes (especially the second) of his Cours Philosophique Positiviste (Paris, 1830, 1835).

34 See, particularly, the preface to Ampère's Mémoire.

35 Laplace, P. S., Essai Philosophique sur les Probabilités (3rd edition, Paris, 1816), p. 2.

36 Berthollet, C. L., Essai de Statique Chimique (Paris, 1803).

37 For a good exposition of Fourier's views see the preliminary discourse to his Théorie Analytique de la Chaleur (Paris, 1822).

38 Comte, A., Cours Philosophique Positiviste, vol. ii (Paris, 1835), p. 435.

39 Ibid., p. 648.

40 Ibid., p. 429.

41 For a very interesting historical synopsis of the history of the kinetic theory of gases, see the letter from Maxwell to Kelvin reproduced by Bernstein, H. T. at pp. 210–213 of his “J. Clerk Maxwell on the History of the Kinetic Theory of Gases”, Isis, liv (1963), 206216.

42 Arago, , Oeuvres, Notices biographiques, vol. ii, p. 107.

43 Institut de France, Académie des Sciences, Funerailles de M. Regnault (Paris, 1878).

44 Biot, , op. cit. (Journal des Scavans, 1850, 710). A rather different view is given by Crosland, M. P., “The Origins of Gay-Lussac's Law of Combining Volumes of Gases”, Annals of Science, xvii (1961), 126, especially pp. 1113.

45 Leçons sur la Philosophie Chimique (Paris, 1837).

46 For biographical details on Bertrand, see Darboux, , op. cit. (n. 10 above).

47 Op. cit. (22), p. xvi.

48 For this and subsequent details see preface by Picard, E. to Oeuvres de Charles Hermite, 4 vol. (Paris, 19051917).

* Slightly emended version of a paper read to the Society on 22 November 1965. The research on which this paper is based was carried out in Paris in 1964 with the aid of a Bourse de Marque awarded by the French Government through their Embassy in London, and with a grant from the Research Committee of the Academic Council of the Queen's University, Belfast.

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