Mysterious Fluids and Forces

in When Physics Became King

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print March 2005 | ISBN: 9780226542010
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226542003 | DOI:
Mysterious Fluids and Forces

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This chapter discusses the ways in which electricity proliferated into a whole range of new forces and powers during the second half of the century, providing ammunition both for and against the increasingly dominant physics of energy and the ether. The new forces and energies that seemed to appear so effortlessly from the ether during the second half of the nineteenth century were in fact the products of considerable labor and ingenuity. These were the decades during which physics as a discipline was created and consolidated. This was a process that itself required concerted effort. New constituencies had to be persuaded of the benefits that physics could deliver before the laboratories from which these discoveries emerged could be established and supported. Physics' cultural authority—its claims to provide a better way of looking at and understanding the world—did not burst full-grown from Jupiter's head. It had to be argued for. The new discoveries were an important part of this process themselves. They provided hard evidence for the skeptics (of whom there were many) that physics really could deliver the goods. This was one reason why showmanship remained an integral part of physics throughout the century. Physicists had to show their skeptical audience that they had nature under control. Discoveries that could be made spectacularly visible and provide tangible evidence of the action of otherwise unseen forces were central to their success in securing their cultural niche.

Keywords: physics; electricity; force; power

Chapter.  13088 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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