John Herivel: French Theoretical Physics
In France, as in other European countries, especially Britain and Ger- many, 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. Again, the French may have felt that after the important contributions of French scientists such as Coulomb, Poisson, Biot and, above all, Ampere, 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". 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.
The history of French theoretical physics in the nineteenth century is thus at the end of the day all of a piece with the history of France herself. Since the time of Vercingetorix her history has mirrored more closely than that of any other European country those alternations between splendour and misery, victory and defeat, elation and despair which make up man's condition. When we recall the achievements of theoretical physicists like Thomson, Clausius and Maxwell in the second half of the nineteenth century, let us therefore also remember not only that these achievements were largely built on the earlier achievements of the French mathematicians and theoretical physicists of the turn of the century, but also that the history of theoretical physics in the second half of the century might itself have been very different from what it actually was if it had not been for the tragic deaths of Carnot and Fresnel. To paraphrase Newton on Cotes: "if they had lived we might have seen something."
JOC/EFR April 2015
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