A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter VIII
The conservation of energy
Lord Kelvin and the dissipation of energy
The gradual permeation of the field by the great doctrine of conservation simply repeated the history of the introduction of every novel and revolutionary thought. Necessarily the elder generation, to whom all forms of energy were imponderable fluids, must pass away before the new conception could claim the field. Even the word energy, though Young had introduced it in 1807, did not come into general use till some time after the middle of the century. To the generality of philosophers (the word physicist was even less in favor at this time) the various forms of energy were still subtile fluids, and never was idea relinquished with greater unwillingness than this. The experiments of Young and Fresnel had convinced a large number of philosophers that light is a vibration and not a substance; but so great an authority as Biot clung to the old emission idea to the end of his life, in 1862, and held a following.

Meantime, however, the company of brilliant young men who had just served their apprenticeship when the doctrine of conservation came upon the scene had grown into authoritative positions, and were battling actively for the new ideas. Confirmatory evidence that energy is a molecular motion and not an "imponderable" form of matter accumulated day by day. The experiments of two Frenchmen, Hippolyte L. Fizeau and Leon Foucault, served finally to convince the last lingering sceptics that light is an undulation; and by implication brought heat into the same category, since James David Forbes, the Scotch physicist, had shown in 1837 that radiant heat conforms to the same laws of polarization and double refraction that govern light. But, for that matter, the experiments that had established the mechanical equivalent of heat hardly left room for doubt as to the immateriality of this "imponderable." Doubters had indeed, expressed scepticism as to the validity of Joule's experiments, but the further researches, experimental and mathematical, of such workers as Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Rankine, and Tyndall in Great Britain, of Helmholtz and Clausius in Germany, and of Regnault in France, dealing with various manifestations of heat, placed the evidence beyond the reach of criticism.

Out of these studies, just at the middle of the century, to which the experiments of Mayer and Joule had led, grew the new science of thermo-dynamics. Out of them also grew in the mind of one of the investigators a new generalization, only second in importance to the doctrine of conservation itself. Professor William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) in his studies in thermodynamics was early impressed with the fact that whereas all the molar motion developed through labor or gravity could be converted into heat, the process is not fully reversible. Heat can, indeed, be converted into molar motion or work, but in the process a certain amount of the heat is radiated into space and lost. The same thing happens whenever any other form of energy is converted into molar motion. Indeed, every transmutation of energy, of whatever character, seems complicated by a tendency to develop heat, part of which is lost. This observation led Professor Thomson to his doctrine of the dissipation of energy, which he formulated before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1852, and published also in the Philosophical Magazine the same year, the title borne being, "On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy."

From the principle here expressed Professor Thomson drew the startling conclusion that, "since any restoration of this mechanical energy without more than an equivalent dissipation is impossible," the universe, as known to us, must be in the condition of a machine gradually running down; and in particular that the world we live on has been within a finite time unfit for human habitation, and must again become so within a finite future. This thought seems such a commonplace to-day that it is difficult to realize how startling it appeared half a century ago. A generation trained, as ours has been, in the doctrines of the conservation and dissipation of energy as the very alphabet of physical science can but ill appreciate the mental attitude of a generation which for the most part had not even thought it problematical whether the sun could continue to give out heat and light forever. But those advance thinkers who had grasped the import of the doctrine of conservation could at once appreciate the force of Thomson's doctrine of dissipation, and realize the complementary character of the two conceptions.

Here and there a thinker like Rankine did, indeed, attempt to fancy conditions under which the energy lost through dissipation might be restored to availability, but no such effort has met with success, and in time Professor Thomson's generalization and his conclusions as to the consequences of the law involved came to be universally accepted.

The introduction of the new views regarding the nature of energy followed, as I have said, the course of every other growth of new ideas. Young and imaginative men could accept the new point of view; older philosophers, their minds channelled by preconceptions, could not get into the new groove. So strikingly true is this in the particular case now before us that it is worth while to note the ages at the time of the revolutionary experiments of the men whose work has been mentioned as entering into the scheme of evolution of the idea that energy is merely a manifestation of matter in motion. Such a list will tell the story better than a volume of commentary.

Observe, then, that Davy made his epochal experiment of melting ice by friction when he was a youth of twenty. Young was no older when he made his first communication to the Royal Society, and was in his twenty-seventh year when he first actively espoused the undulatory theory. Fresnel was twenty-six when he made his first important discoveries in the same field; and Arago, who at once became his champion, was then but two years his senior, though for a decade he had been so famous that one involuntarily thinks of him as belonging to an elder generation.

Forbes was under thirty when he discovered the polarization of heat, which pointed the way to Mohr, then thirty-one, to the mechanical equivalent. Joule was twenty-two in 1840, when his great work was begun; and Mayer, whose discoveries date from the same year, was then twenty-six, which was also the age of Helmholtz when he published his independent discovery of the same law. William Thomson was a youth just past his majority when he came to the aid of Joule before the British Society, and but seven years older when he formulated his own doctrine of the dissipation of energy. And Clausius and Rankine, who are usually mentioned with Thomson as the great developers of thermo-dynamics, were both far advanced with their novel studies before they were thirty. With such a list in mind, we may well agree with the father of inductive science that "the man who is young in years may be old in hours."

Yet we must not forget that the shield has a reverse side. For was not the greatest of observing astronomers, Herschel, past thirty-five before he ever saw a telescope, and past fifty before he discovered the heat rays of the spectrum? And had not Faraday reached middle life before he turned his attention especially to electricity? Clearly, then, to make this phrase complete, Bacon should have added that "the man who is old in years may be young in imagination." Here, however, even more appropriate than in the other case - more's the pity - would have been the application of his qualifying clause: "but that happeneth rarely."





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.