Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/September 1903/Scientific Literature

Scientific Literature.


We had occasion to note recently the severe losses of mathematical physics in the deaths of those to whom this most fundamental of the sciences is deeply indebted.

Henry A. Rowland.

Stokes in England and. Gibbs in the United States were given time for a full life's work, but Rowland and FitzGterald were prematurely cut down, each at the age of about fifty years. The Johns Hopkins University has recently published the 'Physical Papers' of Rowland, edited by a committee of which Professor Ames was the responsible member, and the Dublin University Press has published the 'Scientific Writings' of FitzGerald, edited by Dr. Joseph Larmor. These memorial volumes should be in the hands of many who are not physicists by profession. It is true that some of the papers contain mathematical formulas and technical statements not comprehensible to those without special training. But each volume also includes a number of masterly addresses revealing the progress of physical science, and the researches give an excellent introduction to the fundamental concepts of modern physics. They show science in the making in a way that is in many respects more attractive than a systematic treatise.

Professor Rowland's Dividing Engine.

Rowland was by common consent the leading experimental physicist of his generation in this country. In one of his addresses he could only mention four American physicists of note—| Franklin, Rumford, Henry and Mayer. Fundamental as the work of Franklin and Rumford proved to be in the history of science, it was in a way amateur in character, incidental to more absorbing activities; and Rumford's work can scarcely be credited to America. Henry's investigations were also fundamental, but they were in large measure fragmentary and unpublished. Mayer's ingenious experiments can scarcely be regarded as of great importance. Rowland may thus be regarded as the greatest experimental physicist that America has produced. He himself attributed our lack of productivity in pure physics to the counter attraction of invention and money-making; and in one of his addresses spoke very bitterly of the university professor who prostituted his chair to such uses. It is, however, not clear why a group of able inventors and experts should not lead to pure science as well as away from it. Rowland himself patented important inventions, as his application of alternating currents to rapid telegraphy, and acted as expert for engineering enterprises, as the electrical development at Niagara Falls.

Rowland's researches fall into three main groups—magnetism and electricity, heat and light—and in each he made contributions of great importance. His early work on magnetic permeability attracted the attention of Maxwell, and his subsequent research on the magnetic effect of moving electrostatic charges was fully appreciated by Helmholtz, in whose laboratory it was carried out. Sixty-three papers on magnetism and electricity are included in the memorial volume. The research on the mechanical equivalent of heat was somewhat routine in character, determining with the most painstaking accuracy one of the most important physical constants. The photographic map of the normal solar spectrum and the determination of absolute wave-lengths were also the results of long-continued and careful detailed work, but they were made possible by the important work on screws, the construction of the famous dividing engine, and the great discovery of the use of a concave grating.

Geo. F. FitzGerald.

Rowland was fortunate in being called to the Johns Hopkins University at its organization, where for the first time in America the value of original research was fully appreciated and opportunity for research freely granted, and the university was fortunate and wise in calling a man who added so greatly to its reputation and influence. It is told of Rowland that when, in a suit over the value of his services, he was asked who was the greatest living physicist, ho replied that he was. On being asked afterwards if this did not seem rather egotistical, he answered: 'I had to tell the truth, I was testifying under oath.' His personality was attractive to those who knew him well and understood his supreme absorption in his own work. To others he doubtless seemed self-centered, somewhat unsympathetic and undemonstrative. FitzGerald appears to have had exactly the opposite characteristics. Physiognomy is extremely illusive, but the portraits here given seem to indicate the individualities of the two men. FitzGerald was unselfish and self-sacrificing almost to a fault. Dr. Mendenhall tells us in his commemorative address that Rowland did not know even approximately how many students he had, and on being asked what he would do with them, replied: 'Do with them?—I shall neglect them.' But he adds: 'To be neglected by Rowland was often, indeed, more stimulating and inspiring than the closest personal supervision of men lacking his genius and magnetic fervor.' FitzGerald sacrificed his research work to teaching, to administration and to helping others; he was always ready to give his ideas to students and to his friends. He took no interest in questions of priority and scientific credit. Rowland spoke of 'professors degrading their chairs by the pursuit of applied science.' FitzGerald said that it was a small matter whether the human race got to know about the ether now or fifty years hence, but that it was a vital matter that present scientific ignorance should not continue for a generation.

FitzGerald tended to devote himself more and more to human affairs, giving much time to the Irish Education Board and visiting this country to observe our schools; but the memorial volume containing his collected papers shows that he did contribute greatly to our knowledge of the ether. He was almost the first to appreciate fully Maxwell's work and to carry it forward, his memoir 'On the Electromagnetism of the Reflection and Refraction of Light,' presented before the Royal Society in 1888, being accepted as a classic. Many of his other papers contain important contributions and suggestions, and the addresses should be of interest to all those who are able to appreciate the great forward advance in our views on the nature of electricity and the constitution of matter. It may be noted as of incidental interest that FitzGerald did not go to school as a boy; his father was an eminent bishop, and his mother a sister of the mathematical physicist. Professor Johnstone Stoney.

John Ericsson.