Energetics debate

Energetics debate (players)
An overview of the players, schools, and sides taken in the famous 1895 energetics debate.
In debates, energetics debate, or "energetics controversy" (Deltete, 1983), was a famous and very heated debate, which erupted at the 1895 meeting of the German Society of Scientists and Physicians, on the validity of new energetics movement, which opposed the newly derived atomic theory based statistical mechanics version of thermodynamics. The debate, in overview, was a debate between two near similar, but subtly different schools of thought: the energetics school and the Berlin school, with Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann (Vienna school) caught in the middle.

The roots of the energetics debate seem to have originated in what is sometimes called the “Mach-Boltzmann controversy”. In 1873, Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann joined the University of Vienna as professor of mathematics and there he stayed until 1876. In 1893, Boltzmann succeeded his teacher Joseph Stefan as professor of theoretical physics at the University of Vienna. Boltzmann, however, did not get along with some of his colleagues in Vienna, particularly Ernst Mach, a strong objector to the molecular hypothesis (used by Boltzmann in his statistical derivation of the second law), who became a professor of philosophy and history of sciences in 1895. Thus, in 1900, owing to the tension, Boltzmann went to the University of Leipzig, on the invitation of German physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald. After the retirement of Mach due to bad health, Boltzmann came back to Vienna in 1902.

On a second front, Ostwald, having read American engineer Willard Gibbs papers on thermodynamics, was convinced, being influenced by Gibbs’ work, that he could outline a program of energetics, advancing it as an alternative to the program of atomism—a model which he outlined in his inaugural lecture at the University of Leipzig in 1887. [3] The stakes in this preliminaries to this debate were quite high indeed, involving deep roots.

Lübeck meeting
The debate was launched at the September 1895 meeting of the German Society of Scientists and Physicians, Lubeck, Germany, during a special symposium on the new energetics movement. The topic of the 1895 Lübeck meeting was chosen by a commission consisting of Boltzmann, Lang, Quincke, and Eilhard Wiedemann, at the previous year's meeting the year prior; no doubt guided by Boltzmann’s growing irritations with Mach and with the premise of the energetics school as a whole. In the physics section of the meeting, German mathematical physicist Georg Helm was invited to give a report on the current state of energetics, and following the example of the British Association, Boltzmann asked Helm to prepare it for publication before the meeting.

Following Helm’s report, in his own words, there was a “stiff fight”, where he, and his only supporter in the debate, Ostwald, battled Boltzmann, the Gottingen mathematician Felix Klein, Walther Nernst, Ostwald’s Leipzig colleague Arthur Oettingen, Arnold Sommerfeld, among others. What actually occurred in the debate, as summarized by American science historian Philip Mirowski, was that: [1]

“Ostwald was violently attacked by Boltzmann and raked over the coals by Klein and Nernst”.

The attack was led off by Boltzmann, accusing the energeticists of being nothing more than a classification, a mere “natural history” of the various types of energies. The well-attended debate on energetics was sufficiently lively that it was continued after a two-day interruption.

The debate concluded with an ovation for Helm, but the real debate, it might be said, carried out in the journals to follow, with Boltzmann and Planck (who never took part in the actual Lubeck debate) publishing in the Annalen der Physick; Ostwald publishing rebuttals; and Helm publishing a second treatise Die Energetik nach ihrer Geschichtlichen Entwickelung (The Energetics of their Historical Development), conceived in the strife of the great debate. [3]

German physical chemist Walther Nernst, as mentioned here, seems to have thus sided with his close associate German physicist Max Planck.

In their followup critiques, the two, Boltzmann and Planck, were said to have derided errors in Ostwald’s mathematics, of which, according to Mirowski, there were many to choose from. [1] In what Planck considered to be the coup de grace, he complained: [2]

Energetics achieves the apparent and surprising simplicity of its proofs by the simple process of pushing the content of the laws back to be demonstrated (which must always be shown in advance) backwards to their definitions.”


Boltzmann would eventually sink into a great unrecoverable depression and committed suicide (September, 1906) and Ostwald, in 1909, would latter recant his denial of the existence of atom, one of the main objections in his original argument, in the fourth edition of his Grundriss der Allgemeinen Chemie (Fundamentals of General Chemistry), supposedly following new empirical demonstrations of the existence of the atom (Jean Perrin, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy, and J.J. Thomson, in the period 1902-1906). The energetics movement, as a subject, was, in one part, relegated to a peculiar area of thermodynamics history, as a sort of peculiar appendage, and, in a second part, the cogent aspects of the energetics argument were incorporated or rather integrated into the newly forming subject of physical chemistry, in unwritten subtle ways.

Discussion | Analysis
In 1983, American philosopher and energetics historian Robert Delete dis his PhD dissertation The Energetics Controversy in the Late 19th Century Germany: Helmholtz, Ostwald, and Their Critics, which according to American physical economics historian Philip Mirowski, is said to be the best source in English on the energetics movement, which focuses particularly on the works of Georg Helm, Willard Gibbs, Wilhelm Ostwald, and Ernst Mach, among others. [1]

1. Mirowski, Philip. (1989). More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (pg. 56-57). Cambridge University Press.
2. (a) Planck, Max. (1896). “Article”, Annalen der Physick.
(b) Lindsay, Bruce R. (1976). Applications of Energy: Nineteenth Century (pg. 361). Dowden, Huthchinson, and Ross.
3. Jungnickel, Christa and McCormmach, Russell. (1990). Intellectual Mastery of Nature: Theoretical Physics from Ohm to Einstein, Volume 2: The Now Mighty Theoretical Physics: 1870-1925 (§: Energetic Foundations of Physics, pgs. 217-26; energetics debate, pg. 222). University of Chicago Press.
4. (a) Deltete, Robert John. (1993). The Energetics Controversy in the Late 19th Century Germany: Helmholtz, Ostwald, and Their Critics, Volume 1. PhD thesis. Yale University.
(b) Deltete, Robert John. (1983). The Energetics Controversy in the Late 19th Century Germany: Helmholtz, Ostwald, and Their Critics, Volume 2. PhD thesis. Yale University.

Further reading
● Hiebert, Erwin N. (1971). “The Energetics Controversy and the New Thermodynamics”, in Perspectives in the History of Science and Technology (pgs. 67-86), Roller, Duane H. (ed.). Norman.
● Everdell, William R. (1997). The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-century Thought (energetics debate, pgs. 169). University of Chicago Press.
● Deltete, Robert. (1999). “Helm and Boltzmann: Energetics and the Lübeck Naturforscherversammlung [Scientific Conference]” (abs), Synthese, 119(1-2): 45-68.

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