James Clerk Maxwell: Light in Nature and in Faith

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The Scotch physicist James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE (13 June 1831 in Edinburgh – 5 November 1879 in Cambridge) was one of the chief figures among 19th century physicists. His most notable achievement was formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism, and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon.  Maxwell’s equation for electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics” after the first equations by Isaac Newton. He saw great significance in a universe where the laws of nature fit together like pieces in a puzzle. In those links, he saw the existence and goodness of God and the mystery of the divine.

His Christian faith permeated his scientific work and, according to his own testimony, was at times a source of inspiration. One of his prayers was:

“Almighty God, Who hast created man in Thine own image, and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee, and have dominion over Thy creatures, teach us to study the works of Thy hands, that we may subdue the earth to our use, and strengthen the reason for Thy service; so to receive Thy blessed Word, that we may believe in Him Whom Thou hast sent, to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins. All of which we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

He favored a world-view which includes ideas like the ones in the modern chaos theory such as ‘sensitive dependence to initial conditions‘. In his 1873 lecture on determinism and free will, he says:

“The subject of the essay is the relation to determinism, not of theology, metaphysics, or mathematics, but of physical science,—the science which depends for its material on the observation and measurement of visible things, but which aims at the development of doctrines whose consistency with each other shall be apparent to our reason…

Lorenz_butterfly

Maxwell can be seen, together with Poincaré, as a forerummer of Lorenz’ Butterfly effect (1963) . Image credit

For example, the rock loosed by frost and balanced on a singular point of the mountain-side, the little spark which kindles the great forest, the little word which sets the world a fighting, the little scruple which prevents a man from doing his will, the little spore which blights all the potatoes, the little gemmule which makes us philosophers or idiots. Every existence above a certain rank has its singular points: the higher the rank the more of them. At these points, influences whose physical magnitude is too small to be taken account of by a finite being, may produce results of the greatest importance. All great results produced by human endeavor depend on taking advantage of these singular states when they occur.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

The man of tact says “the right word at the right time,” and, “a word spoken in due season how good is it!” The man of no tact is like vinegar upon nitre when he sings his songs to a heavy heart. The ill-timed admonition hardens the heart, and the good resolution, taken when it is sure to be broken, becomes macadamised into pavement for the abyss.

It appears then that in our own nature there are more singular points,—where prediction, except from absolutely perfect data, and guided by the omniscience of contingency, becomes impossible,—than there are in any lower organisation. But singular points are by their very nature isolated, and form no appreciable fraction of the continuous course of our existence. Hence predictions of human conduct may be made in many cases. First, with respect to those who have no character at all, especially when considered in crowds, after the statistical method. Second with respect to individuals of confirmed character, with respect to actions of the kind for which their character is confirmed.”

Enrico Fermi and an Umbrian Farmer

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2014-03-02-enrico-fermiEnrico Fermi (29 Sep 1901 in Rome, Italy – 28 Nov 1954 in Chicago, USA) is considered one of the greatest Italian physicists of his time. He had a remarkable capacity to join theoretical goals with ingenious experimentation. Fermi focused his studies on particle physics and quantum mechanics, receiving, in 1938, the Nobel Prize in Physics for his studies of neutron collision. He moved to the United States due to racial laws in Italy (his wife was Jewish) and turned his attention to the possibility of obtaining chain reactions that could start the production of neutrons for use as fission particles. The study of controlled chain reactions led him finally to the atomic bomb project, which he completed in collaboration with Oppenheimer. He faced his death serenely, suffering from an incurable illness that was diagnosed too late.

Little documentation exists regarding Fermi’s religious convictions, although the account of a profound moment in his life has been left to us [1]: Continue reading

Georg Ohm

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Georg Simon Ohm (16 March 1789– 06 July 1854) was a German physicist known for his statement of Ohm’s law (V=IR, voltage equals current times resistance) and its related forms. He was also credited with Ohm’s phase law in acoustics.

And he was a man of faith:

In 1849, Ohm published Beiträge zur Molecular-Physik, (in English: Molecular Physics). In the preface of this work he stated he hoped to write a second and third volume ‘and if God gives me length of days for it, a fourth.’ However, on finding that an original discovery recorded in it was being anticipated by a Swedish scientist he did not publish it, stating: ‘The episode has given a fresh and deep sense for my mind to the saying “Man proposes, and God disposes.” The project that gave the first impetus to my inquiry has been dissipated into mist, and a new one, undesigned by me, has been accomplished in its place.’ He died in Munich in 1854, and is buried in the Alter Südfriedhof. A collection of his family letters would be compiled in a German book, which shows that he used to sign some of his letters with the expression ‘Gott befohlen, G S Ohm,’ meaning ‘Commended to God.’ [1]

“The Renaissance Mathematicus” tells the story of Georg and his brother Martin:

This is the story of two brothers born into the working class in a small town in Germany in the late eighteenth century. Both of them were recognised as mathematically gifted whilst still teenagers and went on to study mathematics at university. The younger brother was diligent and studious and completed his doctorate in mathematics with a good grade. There followed a series of good teaching jobs before he obtained a lectureship at the then leading university of Berlin, ten years after graduating. In due course, there followed positions as associate and the full professor. As professor he contributed some small but important proofs to the maths cannon, graduated an impressive list of doctoral students and developed an interesting approach to maths textbooks. He became a respected and acknowledged member of the German mathematical community.

read on – it is worthwhile.

[1] “Georg Ohm.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web 16 March 2016.

Picture: Detail – The first record of Ohm’s law in Georg Simon Ohm’s lab book, today at the archives of the Deutsches Museum.

Physics, Philosophy, Free Will, Falsification, and Faith

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Physicist George Ellis Knocks Physicists for Knocking Philosophy, Falsification, Free Will

Horgan: At the conference where we met, Howthelightsgetsin, you were in a session called “The end of experiment.” What was that about?

Ellis: Well this was just echoing what you have already said: many of the possible high-energy physics experiments and astronomy observations relevant to cosmology…

via Physics, Philosophy, Free Will, Falsification, and Faith — Luke 10:27

(taken from SA’s blog Cross Check)

Arthur Leonard Schawlow

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Arthur Leonard Schawlow (28 April 1921 – 5 May 1999) shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics with the Dutch-American physicist Nicolaas Bloembergen (b. 1920) and the Swedish physicist Kai Siegbahn (1918–2007) “for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy.” [1] He had studied at the University of Toronto and worked at Bell Labs, later teaching at Columbia University and Stanford University.

Prof. Schawlow was married to Aurelia Townes, younger sister of physicist Charles Hard Townes (1915–2015), with whom he was the father of three children. One son had been diagnosed autistic and Prof. Schawlow became committed to working toward treatments for this condition, working alongside Prof. Robert Hofstadter (1915–1990), whose son was also autistic, and helping establish an Autistic Treatment and Care Facility in Paradise, California, later named the Arthur Schawlow Center in 1999.

A devoted orthodox Christian, Schawlow had once stated “I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.” He was known to be a member of a Methodist Church in California. As an avid fan of traditional American jazz, he had amassed a considerable collection of LP’s and records.

“[T]he context of religion is a great background for doing science. In the words of Psalm 19, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork.’ Thus scientific research is a worshipful act, in that it reveals more of the wonders of God’s creation.” [2]

[1] A good description of laser spectroscopy is online at Hyperphysics (Carl Nave, U Georgia)

[2] Arthur Leonard Schawlow (1921–1999). Nobel Laureate in Physics (1981), quoted in “Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life and Homo Sapiens”, Ed. H. Margenau, R.A. Varghese (Chicago, La Salle, IL: Open Court Press, 1992), 105.
Image online: https://goo.gl/JSLxSk

SMF AL Schawlow

Jean-Antoine Nollet

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Jean-Antoine Nollet  (19 November 1700 -25 April, 1770) was a Catholic clergyman and a physicist who did groundbreaking work in the field of electricity.

In 1745 he developed a theory of electrical attraction and repulsion that supposed the existence of a continuous flow of electrical matter between charged bodies. Nollet’s theory at first gained wide acceptance, but met its nemesis in 1752 with the publication of the French translation of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity. Franklin and Nollet found themselves on opposite sides of current debate about the nature of electricity, with Franklin supporting action at a distance and two qualitatively opposing types of electricity, and Nollet advocating mechanical action and a single type of electric fluid. Franklin’s argument eventually won and Nollet’s theory was abandoned.

Nollet is said to be responsible for one of the most impressive and spectacular demonstrations of electricity up to that time.  As the story goes, Abbe Nollet first sent a discharge from a Leyden jar through a company of 180 soldiers holding hands.  This demonstration was before King Louis XV at Versailles.  The King was both impressed and amused as the soldiers all jumped simultaneously when the circuit was completed.  The King requested that the experiment be repeated in Paris.  In the second demonstration, 700 monks in a line received the same treatment.  Nollet is reputed to be the man who first applied the name “Leyden jar” – invented  by Pieter van Musschenbroek –  to the first device for storing electricity. Continue reading

Max Planck

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Portrait of Max Planck

Portrait of Max Planck (wikipedia)

Max Planck (23 April 1858- 04 Oct 1947) was a German theoretical physicist. Planck’s earliest work was on the subject of thermodynamics, an interest he acquired from his studies under Kirchhoff, whom he greatly admired, and very considerably from reading R. Clausius’ publications. He published papers on entropy, on thermoelectricity and on the theory of dilute solutions.

At the same time also the problems of radiation processes engaged his attention and he showed that these were to be considered as electromagnetic in nature. From these studies he was led to the problem of the distribution of energy in the spectrum of full radiation. Experimental observations on the wavelength distribution of the energy emitted by a black body as a function of temperature were at variance with the predictions of classical physics. Planck was able to deduce the relationship between the energy and the frequency of radiation. In a paper published in 1900, he announced his derivation of the relationship: this was based on the revolutionary idea that the energy emitted by a resonator could only take on discrete values or quanta. The energy for a resonator of frequency v is hv where h is a universal constant, now called Planck’s constant.

This was not only Planck’s most important work but also marked a turning point in the history of physics. The importance of the discovery, with its far-reaching effect on classical physics, was not appreciated at first. However the evidence for its validity gradually became overwhelming as its application accounted for many discrepancies between observed phenomena and classical theory. Among these applications and developments may be mentioned Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect.

In 1918, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his development of quantum theory. Planck’s constant is named for him, a foundation of quantum formulation.

He authored philosophical works and organized conferences, among them one titled Science and Faith (1930).

Planck was twice married. Upon his appointment, in 1885, to Associate Professor in his native town Kiel he married a friend of his childhood, Marie Merck, who died in 1909. He remarried her cousin Marga von Hösslin. Three of his children died young, leaving him with two sons.

Planck faced a troubled and tragic period in his life during the period of the Nazi government in Germany, when he felt it his duty to remain in his country but was openly opposed to some of the Government’s policies, particularly as regards the persecution of the Jews. He suffered a personal tragedy when one of his sons, Ernst Planck, who was active in the Nazi resistance, was executed for his part in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

He was revered by his colleagues not only for the importance of his discoveries but for his great personal qualities.

Sources: www.inters.org , Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

“Die Wissenschaft kann das letzte Geheimnis der Natur nicht erklären. Und zwar weil wir in letzter Analyse selbst Teil dieses Geheimnisses sind, das wir zu erklären versuchen.“

2014-04-23 max planck