Julius Plücker receives the Copley Medal

General Sir Edward Sabine (1788-1883) was an astronomer, physicist and explorer who was president of the Royal Society of London from 1861 to 1871. He made the award of the Copley Medal, the Royal Society's highest honour, to Julius Plücker on 30 November 1866. The text of his address is given in a number of different publications but one place is the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London XV (1867), 278-280:


I proceed to the award of the Medals.

The Copley Medal has been awarded to Professor Julius Plücker, Foreign Member of the Royal Society, for his researches in Analytical Geometry, Magnetism, and Spectral Analysis.

To an audience not exclusively mathematical it is obviously impossible to enter into details of researches which deal with geometrical questions of no ordinary difficulty. Amongst these, however, may be indicated, as especially appreciated by those who are interested in the progress of analytical geometry, his theory of the singularities of plane curves as developed in the "Algebräische Curven," with its six equations connecting them with the order of the curves: the papers on point and line coordinates and on the general use of symbols, may also be noticed as establishing his claim to a position in the department of abstract science which is attained by few even of those who give to it their undivided attention. But Professor Plücker has high merits in two other widely different fields of research, viz. in Magnetism and Spectrology: and to these I may more freely invite your attention.

Shortly after Faraday's discovery of the sensibility of bodies generally to the action of a magnet and of diamagnetism, Professor Plücker, in repeating some of Faraday's experiments, was led to the discovery of magnecrystallic action, - that is, that a crystallized body behaves differently in the magnetic field according to the orientation of certain directions in the crystal. The crystals first examined were optically uniaxal, and it was found that the optic axis was driven into the equatorial position; (that is, of course, assuming that the magnecrystallic action is not masked, in consequence of the external form of the body, by the paramagnetic or diamagnetic character of the substance). New facts, discovered both by Faraday and by Plücker himself, led him to a modification of this law, to the effect that the optic axis was impelled, according to the nature of the crystal, either into the equatorial or the axial position. This subject was afterwards followed out by Professor Plücker into the more complicated cases in which the conditions of crystalline symmetry are such as to leave the crystal optically biaxal; and after having recognized the insufficiency of a first empirical generalization of the law applicable to crystals of the rhombohedral or pyramidal system, and accordingly to uniaxal crystals, he was led to assimilate a crystal to an assemblage of small ellipsoids, capable of magnetic induction, having for their principal planes the planes of crystalline symmetry where such exist; and to apply Poisson's theory. The result of this investigation is contained in an elaborate paper read before the Royal Society in 1857, and published in the Philosophical Transactions for the following year. In this paper Professor Plücker has deduced from theory, and verified by careful experiments, the mathematical laws which regulate the magnecrystallic action. These laws have not necessarily involved in them the somewhat artificial hypothesis respecting the magnetic structure of a crystal from which they were deduced; and at the close of his memoir Professor Plücker recognizes the theory of Professor Sir William Thomson, with which he then first became acquainted, as a sound basis on which they might be established. The laws, however, remain identically the same in whichever way they may be derived.

Another subject to which Professor Plücker has paid much attention is the curious action of powerful magnets on the luminous electric discharge in glass tubes containing highly rarefied gas. In this case the luminous discharge is found to be concentrated along certain curved lines or surfaces. He has succeeded in obtaining the mathematical definition of these curved lines or surfaces, by a simple application of the known laws of electromagnetic action, regarding an element of the discharge as the element of an electric current. With regard to the blue negative light, for instance, starting from a point in the negative electrode, he has shown that there are two totally distinct paths, one or other of which, according to circumstances, it may take, going either within the enclosed space along a line of magnetic force, or else along the surface of the glass in what he calls an "epipolic curve," which is the locus of a point in which the inner surface of the vessel is touched by the line of magnetic force passing through that point.

Angstrom appears to have been the first to notice that the spectrum of the electric spark striking between metallic electrodes through air on another gas at ordinary pressures is a compound one, consisting of very bright lines varying with the metal, and others, usually less bright, depending only on the gas. Under the circumstances which presented themselves in his experiments, the latter can frequently be but ill observed; and the diffused light of a rarefied gas in a wide tube is but faint, and does not form very definite spectra. But Plücker found that by employing tubes which were capillary in one part, brilliant light and definite spectra were obtained in the narrow part. These spectra were observed by him with great care, and were found to be characteristic of the several gases and to indicate their chemical nature, though the gases might be present in such minute quantity as utterly to elude chemical research. It further appeared that compound gases of any kind were instantaneously, or almost instantaneously, decomposed; at least the spectra they offered were the spectra of their constituents.

In a recent memoir, which has only just been published in the Philosophical Transactions, Professor Plücker has investigated the two totally different spectra frequently afforded by the same elementary substance according as it is submitted to the instantaneous discharge of a Leyden jar charged by an induction-coil, or rendered incandescent by the simple discharge of the coil, or else, in some cases, by ordinary flames. The two spectra show a remarkable difference in character, and are not merely different in the number and position of the lines which they show. Some phenomena which he had previously noticed receive their explanation by this twofold spectrum.

This difference of spectra is attributed by Professor Plücker, with the greatest probability, to a difference in the temperature of the flowing gas when the two are respectively produced. The discovery opens up a new field of research, the exploration of which may throw much light on the correct interpretation of celestial phenomena, especially in relation to the physical condition of nebular and cometary matter.


JOC/EFR November 2014

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