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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - History of ideas


Why should a textbook on physics begin with history? Why not start with what is known now and refrain from all the distractions of out-of-date material? These questions would be justifiable if physics were a complete and finished subject; only the final state would then matter and the process of arrival at this state would be irrelevant. But physics is not such a subject, and optics in particular is very much alive and constantly changing. It is important for the student to study the past as a guide to the future. Much insight into the great minds of the era of classical physics can be found in books by Magie (1935) and Segré (1984).

By studying the past we can sometimes gain some insight – however slight – into the minds and methods of the great physicists. No textbook can, of course, reconstruct completely the workings of these minds, but even to glimpse some of the difficulties that they overcame is worthwhile. What seemed great problems to them may seem trivial to us merely because we now have generations of experience to guide us; or, more likely, we have hidden them by cloaking them with words. For example, to the end of his life Newton found the idea of ‘action at a distance’ repugnant in spite of the great use that he made of it; we now accept it as natural, but have we come any nearer than Newton to understanding it?

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