- ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science, and: Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein
No one will come away from these exciting new books on thermodynamics, energy, and power without being convinced that nineteenth-century physics not only radically changed the lives of Victorians, but also captivated their imaginations. These books are welcome and timely. At a time when humanity is considering its own dependence on forms of energy that now seem both finite and destructive, it is crucial to understand the history of human reliance on power and the competing ideas that literary writers and scientists alike had about energy and the future of the earth.
Both ThermoPoetics and Pursuing Power and Light are preoccupied with the paradoxical pulls of the first and second laws of thermodynamics as articulated by [End Page 142] James Joule, William Thomson, Rudolf Clausius, and other scientists in the mid-nineteenth century. The first law, known more commonly as the conservation of energy, states that within a closed system (such as the universe) the total amount of energy remains constant. The second asserts that entropy (which involves the dissipation of usable energy) tends toward a maximum. As Barri J. Gold explains, “while the energy of the universe does remain constant, that by no means ensures our continued access to it” (6). Both books offer a nuanced history of interrelated terms that attach to these laws: energy, power, work, force, vis viva, heat, electricity, and light on the one hand, and entropy, dissipation, diffusion, depletion, degradation, devolution, heat death, and waste on the other.
Part of Johns Hopkins’s series of introductory studies in the history of science, Bruce J. Hunt’s history of power and light is packed with information. It provides a comprehensive overview of developments in harnessing energy and understanding it theoretically. Rather than putting forth a narrow argument, he synthesizes a wide array of scholarship on the trajectory from engines, work, and kinetic energy to telegraphs, field theory, the discovery of the electron, and Albert Einstein’s mixing together of “electric and magnetic fields, mass and energy, and even space and time” (166).
Pursuing Power and Light reminds us how recent our dependence on external sources of energy is and how quickly that dependence increased over the course of the nineteenth century. While the principles of thermodynamics were first observed in competing forms of the steam engine, it was not until midway through the nineteenth century that scientists began to formulate the reasons underlying heat’s behavior in these engines. Thus the laws of thermodynamics were noticed empirically long before they were understood scientifically. Like many historians of science, Hunt pushes hard against the tendency to separate out theoretical and practical science. His most salient examples involve the ways in which the steam engine inspired scientists to understand heat as a form of motion and how “the development of electrical technologies, first for communications and later for power and light, was closely tied to the rise of electrical science, culminating in the formulation of Maxwellian field theory and the discovery of the electron” (68). He concludes with Einstein’s childhood exposure to his uncle’s electrical inventions and his work at the Swiss patent office, reminding us that while Einstein was seen as a “holy man of science, . . . his most important insights were rooted in the spinning coils and magnets of ordinary dynamos and motors” (167).
In crystal-clear chapters, Hunt moves from the steam engine to competing models of energy and heat loss, electricity and electromagnetism, systems of electrical lighting, and finally the analysis of photons, atoms, and radiation. The story he tells of how certain questions arose, were apparently figured out, and then in turn produced new questions gives this book some qualities of Richard...