Friday, 6 October 2009
Two Challenges for the Unification of Electromagnetism and Optics
Lydia Patton (Visiting Fellow), Virginia Tech, Department of Philosophy
12:05 pm, 817R Cathedral of Learning
::: photo album
Abstract: I will identify two challenges for James Maxwell's proposed unification of electromagnetism and optics, which were tackled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first is detecting stable experimental values for the velocity of EM wave propagation and of light, and finding a secure basis for their comparison. This led to a second challenge, establishing the contribution that variables describing the dynamic properties of the ether should make to the interpretation of the Maxwell-Hertz equations. I will argue that Hertz meets the first challenge by removing experimental barriers to the unification of EM and optics, and Einstein meets the second by removing a further barrier put up by Hertz's 1890 theory. I will conclude that the unification was based on establishing stable parameters in experiment, and on formulating the scope of the warrant these observed data give for theoretical claims.