Purrington, Robert. D. Physics in the Nineteenth Century. xx + 249 pp., frontis., illus., index. New Brunswick, N. J./London: Rutgers University Press, 1997. $55.00 (cloth); $25.00 (paper).
In Physics in the Nineteenth Century, Tulane professor of physics, Robert D. Purrington, takes on the enormous task of tracing the "triumph of classical physics" in the nineteenth century. While he establishes the wider social context in the introductory chapters, Purrington’s primary concern is demonstrating how classical physics became clearly defined, in substance and methodology, reaching some level of "completeness" by the 1870s. As well, he stresses the unification and integration of physics throughout the century.
In the introductory chapters, The Century of Science (Ch. 1) and Nineteenth-Century Science in Context (Ch. 2), Purrington establishes the contexts in which physics evolved in France, Britain, and Germany. The impacts of the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Scottish Enlightenment, are touched upon, as are the crucial importance of scientific institutions and journals, educational systems, and government patronage. In addition, the author succinctly summarizes the influence of philosophical schools, the role of scientific analogy, and the interaction between theory and experiment. Though demonstrating that science does not evolve free from external forces, Purrington emphasizes exclusively internal developments in the remaining chapters.
Following an historiographical tradition of scientists-turned-historians, Purrington ultimately views physics as a cumulative and progressive endeavor. In this light, the bulk of his survey focuses on the evolution of Electromagnetism (Ch. 3), Heat and Thermodynamics (Ch. 4), Energy and the Energy Principle (Ch. 5), Atomism (Ch. 6), and Kinetic Theory of Gases and Statistical Mechanics (Ch. 7). The final chapter, Fin de Siècle (Ch. 8), addresses several "clouds" in the classical edifice which eventually led to the quantum revolution of the twentieth century. Throughout Purrington effectively stresses the importance of experiment and instrumentation as well as theory; this balance is the book’s greatest strength.
Like any survey, however, Physics in the Nineteenth Century has its share of pitfalls. The book's main weakness, which Purrington freely acknowledges in the preface, is covering too much material in limited space. Depth of coverage is sacrificed for breadth. Treatment is uneven, including brief descriptions of individual scientists, yet failing to incorporate them into the wider story. Many paragraphs and individual sentences are disconnected from those around them. As a result, the book often reads like a list of physicists and discoveries, rather than a coherent story of scientific development.
As were earlier historians of science trained in the sciences, Purrington is concerned with ascertaining proper credit for particular discoveries (e. g., pp. 77, 88). Frequently taking advantage of hindsight, his narrative often reads as an inevitable progression of scientific ideas. Several times Purrington hints that earlier discoveries were not recognized as such, thereby impeding the progress of physics (e. g., pp. 107, 126, 130, 159). As well, he compares ideas and measurements with their modern counterparts (e. g., pp. 84, 104, 126). Though emphasizing the need to take nineteenth-century physics on its own terms, Purrington's focus on the present goes against this claim.
For the general reader, Purrington assumes too great familiarity with the historical background and the technical details of his subject. Therefore, he restricts the prospective audience to physicists desiring a short history classical physics. Few scholars have successfully encompassed the scope of nineteenth-century physics. A more effective, sharply focused, synthesis is P. M. Harman's Energy, Force, and Matter: The Conceptual Development of Nineteenth-Century Physics (Cambridge University Press, 1982).
Regarding the concept of the conservation of energy, Purrington remarks, "vast breadth or scope is no guarantee of the validity or usefulness of an idea" (p. 103). A similar criticism aptly applies to Physics in the Nineteenth Century.
Robinson M. Yost