16.287 trivial problems

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Tue Oct 22 2002 - 01:17:46 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 287.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

       [1] From: Norman Gray <norman@astro.gla.ac.uk> (40)
             Subject: Re: 16.283 trivial problems are all that remain

       [2] From: Brian Whatcott <betwys@DIRECTVInternet.com> (35)
             Subject: Re: 16.283 trivial problems are all that remain

             Date: Tue, 22 Oct 2002 06:10:45 +0100
             From: Norman Gray <norman@astro.gla.ac.uk>
             Subject: Re: 16.283 trivial problems are all that remain


    > Date: Mon, 21 Oct 2002 07:40:55 +0100
    > From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com>
    > >
    > Textbooks in physics that discuss relativity will typically say (if memory
    > serves) that just before Einstein changed things in 1905 it was commonly
    > thought that only a few relatively trivial problems remained to be solved.
    > Can anyone quote me chapter-and-verse, preferably by some respected figure?

    The most famous of these remarks is by Lord Kelvin [Philosophical Magazine
    (6) vol.2, p.1 (1901)]

          The beauty and clearness of the dynamical theory, which asserts heat
          and light to be modes of motion, is at present obscured by two clouds.
          I. The first involves the question, How could the earth move through
          an elastic solid, such as essentially is the luminiferous ether? II.
          The second is the Maxwell-Boltzmann doctrine regarding the partition
          of energy.

    The situation in physics at the end of the ninteenth century was
    not, in fact, quite as clear at this remark might suggest. Although
    Thermodynamics, Classical Dynamics and Maxwell's Electromagnetism are
    particularly successful theories, and we can now see that they can
    gracefully account for most of the observed physics of the ninteenth
    century, there were sufficient problems with them that there was no
    such consensus amongst physicists of the time; indeed there was not
    even an consensus that objects like atoms really existed. Nonetheless,
    the remark _does_ neatly illustrate the points where ninteenth century
    physical theories run out of steam, and it shows Kelvin to have been
    almost supernaturally prescient.

    The first of these problems concerned theoretical and practical
    difficulties with the assumed properties of the ether, which was
    assumed to exist in order to allow light waves (newly described by James
    Clerk Maxwell) to have a medium though which to propagate; a complex of
    problems related to this were only resolved by Einstein's special theory
    of relativity, first published in 1905.

    The second problem required quantum mechanics to sort it out.

    Best wishes,


    Norman Gray                        http://www.astro.gla.ac.uk/users/norman/
    Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow, UK     norman@astro.gla.ac.uk

    --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Tue, 22 Oct 2002 06:12:30 +0100 From: Brian Whatcott <betwys@DIRECTVInternet.com> Subject: Re: 16.283 trivial problems are all that remain

    "When I began my physical studies [in Munich in 1874] and sought advice from my venerable teacher Philipp von Jolly... he portrayed to me physics as a highly developed, almost fully matured science... Possibly in one or another nook there would perhaps be a dust particle or a small bubble to be examined and classified, but the system as a whole stood there fairly secured, and theoretical physics approached visibly that degree of perfection which, for example, geometry has had already for centuries." - from a 1924 lecture by Max Planck (Sci. Am, Feb 1996 p.10)

    From 1888: "We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy." - Simon Newcomb, early American astronomer

    From 1894: "The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals." - Albert. A. Michelson, speech at the dedication of Ryerson Physics Lab, U. of Chicago 1894

    From 1900: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement" - Lord Kelvin

    I seem to recall that the quote from Kelvin mentioned above, is shortened from an address that began, "Some people think that...."

    This list is due to Bill Beaty, bill@eskimo.com from his Science Hobyist URL: http://www.amasci.com/weird/end.html


    Brian Whatcott Altus OK Eureka!

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