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Dictionary of the History of Science

Dictionary of the History of Science

by William F. Bynum

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The dictionary of the History of Science is the first dictionary devoted to the history of scientific ideas. Organized alphabetically by concept, it contains more than 700 entries explaining the origins, meaning, and significance of the chief theories and ideas that have contributed to the development of science, including medicine, mathematics, and human sciences.


The dictionary of the History of Science is the first dictionary devoted to the history of scientific ideas. Organized alphabetically by concept, it contains more than 700 entries explaining the origins, meaning, and significance of the chief theories and ideas that have contributed to the development of science, including medicine, mathematics, and human sciences.

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Princeton University Press
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Dictionary of the History of Science

By William F. Bynum, E. Janet Browne, Roy Porter


Copyright © 1981 Macmillan Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-08287-5



abacus.See calculating machines

abduction. Used by C S Peirce (1839–1914) to describe the process of inventing theory to explain observed facts Peirce was clear that this is an essentially creative process, distinct from simple * induction from observation to generalizations and expectations, but he also believed that although the process is creative, the hypotheses derived could be assessed rationally In particular he anticipated K Popper (b 1902) in stressing that a good hypothesis will enable us to deduce consequences which can be tested Peirce denied we can measure the probability of hypotheses which are formed by abduction he had enough sympathy with the * range theory of probability to see that this would demand knowledge of the proportion of the possible states of affairs left open by our evidence in which the hypothesis holds, he had enough sympathy with long-run * frequency theories to see that it would demand knowledge of the proportion of cases in which a particular kind of abduction leads to truth We cannot know these things But as a * pragmatist he also described other merits of good hypotheses in particular * simplicity, and ease of emendation in the face of contrary evidence


aberration of light. The alteration in the observed position of a star due to the movement of the Earth-borne observer around the Sun In 1725 Samuel Molyneux (1689–1728) and James Bradley (1693–1762) set up a specially constructed * telescope to confirm or disprove the claim of Robert Hooke (1635–1702) to have measured the annual parallax of a star that passed overhead at London [* stellar distances] They found that the star did not alter position in the way expected, and after a careful investigation Bradley established the true pattern of behaviour of this and other stars The explanation is said to have occurred to him when he noticed how a vane at the mast of a sailing ship altered direction as the ship altered course In 1729 he explained how the observed position of a star is affected by the direction of movement of the observer Bradley's discovery was the first physical proof of the motion of the * Earth [* Copernican revolution], it ushered in the era of observations of high accuracy, now that a major source of error had been recognized, and his inability to detect annual parallax enabled him to estimate, from a knowledge of the accuracy of his observations, the minimum distance of the stars he had studied

See also electricity


absolute atomicity.See atomicity

absolute differential calculus.See differential geometry

absolute idealism.See idealism

absolute infinite.See infinity (mathematics)

absolute space and time. The theory that the existence and properties of space and time are independent of anything else and intrinsic, it is opposed to the theory of * relative space and time The theory states that space is an extended entity containing all objects and events and time, a process encompassing all other processes It may further state that the * topology, metric etc, of space and time are intrinsic to them Isaac Newton (1642–1727) argued, against G Leibniz (1646–1716), that dynamics defined a unique reference frame for rest and motion not constituted by any body or group of them, and argued that time was irreducible to any physical processes Thus the debate fell within the ambit of physical science Though classical physics and special relativity define acceleration independently of relations among bodies, they permit an infinite class of reference frames each in uniform motion with respect to the others Much of the point of the debate about motion was removed by Minkowski's (1864–1909) discovery in 1908 of * space–time and by Einstein's (1879–1955) exploitation of it in general * relativity The problem thereafter concerned whether or not space-time is absolute That general relativity permits a well-defined structure for space–time in the absence of matter may be considered a strength of the absolutist position


absolute temperature.See cryogenics, heat and thermodynamics, temperature, thermometer

absorption lines.See spectroscopy

accelerator. In the late 1920s, study of the structure, excitation, and disintegration of the * nucleus awaited new technology Encouraged by George Gamow's (1904–68) calculations based on the new * wave mechanics indicating that protons of relatively low energy could penetrate the * potential barriers of light nuclei, John Cockcroft (1897–1967) and Ernest Walton (b 1903) achieved proton-induced disintegration of lithium nuclei with a conventional voltage multiplier in 1932 The energy limits of their apparatus (1 25 MeV) were bettered by Robert Van de Graaff's (1901–67) belt-charged, electrostatic generator, which also provided a steadier, parallel stream of particles with uniform energy (from 1930) But the operating-voltage requirements of both machines made it impossible to produce proton beams with * energy and intensity sufficient to probe even moderately heavy nuclei

A new technique, which eventually solved both problems, came in 1929 with the invention of the cyclotron by Ernest Lawrence (1901–58) Based on an idea advanced by Rolph Wideroe (b 1902) (but originating with Gustaf Ising (1883–1960) in 1924), Lawrence's procedure was to accelerate * ions stepwise, using a uniform magnetic field to move the particles in a spiral path across an accelerating gap in the plane of the spiral and an applied, radio-frequency electric field, which alternated in phase with the orbital frequency of the ions, to accelerate the particles on each trip across the gap In 1930, Lawrence's students. Niels Edlefsen (1893–1971) and Stanley Livingston (b 1905), built the first cyclotrons, by 1932, Livingston's version of the accelerator achieved proton energies of 1 2 MeV with an operating potential of only 4000 V across the accelerating gap

Hans Bethe (b 1906) and M E Rose (1911–67) showed that a fixed-frequency cyclotron of the Lawrence–Livingston design has an upper proton-energy limit of about 25 MeV owing to relativistic mass increase of the ions, which destroys the resonance on which acceleration depends An escape was found independently by Edwin McMillan (b 1907) and Vladimir Veksler (1907–66), who proposed to sustain resonance by modulating the electric field so that it decreased in phase with the decreasing orbital frequency of the ions By 1954, machines with this design feature, synchrotrons, were producing protons of 6 2 GeV, an energy great enough, in conjunction with improved focusing techniques, to create a myriad of highly unstable * elementary particles By the 1970s, alternating-gradient synchrotrons achieved proton energies in excess of 400 GeV

Cyclic accelerators have also been used to produce high-energy * electrons which, though unsuitable as nuclear probes, are excellent sources of * X-rays Before being displaced by electron-synchrotrons, the most efficient cyclic electron accelerator was the betatron, which accelerated electrons in an electric field produced by a time-varying magnetic field All machines of a cyclic design, however, are limited in the energies they can achieve by the severe radiation losses an electron experiences when travelling in circular orbits at * relativistic velocities The linear accelerator (linac), descendant of the cathode-ray tube and the object of extensive development from 1925, proved the superior instrument for accelerating electrons Linacs use a constant, radio- or microwave-frequency electric * field across successive accelerating gaps, the separation between which increases so that the time required for a particle to traverse each space stays the same By 1966 electron linacs of 20 GeV capacity were in operation

accident.See Aristotelian physics

accommodation.See cognitive psychology

achromatic lenses.See cell theory, sex, spectroscopy, telescopes

acid. Acids have been re-defined so many times, in both * operational and essentialist terms, that histories of acidity must stress repeated shifts of meaning rather than convergence towards an unequivocal definition Mineral acids were known, though by other names, to the Mediaeval * alchemists of the West who particularly prized 'oil of vitriol' (sulphuric acid) and 'aqua regia' (mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids) for their power as solvents Improved methods of preparation are associated with A Libavius (c1560–1616) and J Glauber (1604–70), the latter preparing hydrochloric acid by treating common salt with sulphuric acid, followed by * distillation In his hands acids were used more generally than before in preparing a range of neutral * salts from * metals and their oxides By the mid-17th century, neutralization * reactions between acids and bases were sufficiently familiar, with their attendant effervescence, to inspire a new * ratrochemistry, in the work of F Sylvius (1614–72) and O Tachenius (c1620–90) During the 17th century, as the traditional * matter/ form duality succumbed to the mechanical philosophies, so theories of acidity reflected the change Both N Lemery (1645–1715) and R Boyle (1627–91) explained the tangible * properties of acids (bitterness and corrosiveness) in terms of sharp-pointed * corpuscles Under the influence of Isaac Newton (1642–1727), hypotheses about the shape of particles gave way to a new * ontology in which short-range * attractive and repulsive * forces were associated with * atoms Reactions between acids and bases could then be construed in terms of the neutralization of * affinity forces which were, in principle, quantifiable Reactions between metals and acids were prominent in attempts to construct affinity tables, and during the 1770s the rates at which different metals dissolved in acids were compared It was still common to regard the acids as different manifestations of a universal acid, but an alternative view was about to be developed by A Lavoisier (1743–94)

The 'Chemical Revolution' of the late-18th century is often identified with Lavoisier's rejection of the * phlogiston theory in favour of an oxygen theory of "combustion Actually, Lavoisier's oxygen theory was primarily a theory of acidity ('oxygen' means 'acid producer') since it was grounded in the experimental results that when sulphur, phosphorus etc were burned in air, they were converted into acids The notion that oxygen was the 'principle' of acidity shows that not even Lavoisier had emancipated himself from traditional concepts of chemical principles [* element], and, as C L Berthollet (1748–1822) suspected, the implication that all acids must contain oxygen was an over-generalization

Humphry Davy (1778–1829) destroyed Lavoisier's theory in three respects firstly, by showing that oxygen was a component of the alkalies, soda and potash, secondly, by demonstrating that * halogens could support combustion as well as oxygen, thereby depriving it of its unique status, and, thirdly, by emphasizing that there was no oxygen in hydrogen chloride – a conclusion derived from his work on the elementary nature of chlorine Although Davy associated the acidity of chloric and iodic acids with the hydrogen they contained, he did not develop this insight into a coherent theory

There were several reasons why a hydrogen theory of acidity took so long to emerge Paramount was the * electrochemical * dualism of J J Berzehus (1779–1848) which interpreted the expanding numbers of vegetable acids by analogy with inorganic oxacids such as sulphuric (SO3 + H2O) The effect was to promulgate the notion that the majority of acids were themselves dualistic in composition an acid plus water, the latter acting as base The term acid was thus applied to what we call the acid anhydride and, since some of these contained no hydrogen (oxalic acid was written C2O3), a hydrogen theory was inconceivable The 'anhydride plus water' model was not, however, sterile, for it allowed Thomas Graham (1805–69) to articulate the concept of polybasicity by reference to different * equivalents of water, replaceable by a base, in a series of phosphorus acids In the late 1830s, J von Liebig (1803–73) reasoned that all acids were hydracids – a contention which, when coupled with the theory of * substitution and the concomitant emphasis on double decomposition, permitted a definition of acidity in terms of hydrogen displaceable by a metal The 'anhydride plus water' model received a further blow when C F Gerhardt (1816–56) proved that the anhydride of acetic acid required two * molecules of the acid for its formation (1853)

By the mid-19th century acids were increasingly defined by reference to displaceable hydrogen, but neither Liebig nor Gerhardt developed a consistent account of the origin of acidic properties Only with advances in physical chemistry, especially the theory of ionic * dissociation proposed by S Arrhenius (1859–1927), was further refinement possible That acids were essentially donors of hydrogen * ions was suggested by A Lapworth (1872–1941) – a view that was systematized by J N Brønsted (1879–1947) who, in 1923, related acids to bases by reference to proton transfer acid [??] H+ base Since hydrogen-ion concentrations could vary from about 1 gram ion per litre in a 'normal' solution of strong acid to 10-14 gram ions per litre in a solution of alkali, the negative logarithm scale, introduced in 1909 by S P L Sorensen (1868–1939), soon found general favour With pH defined as – log [H+], it followed that for a neutral solution (in which the concentration of both hydrogen and hydroxyl ions is 10-7 gram ions per litre) the pH value would be 7 Sørensen had been investigating an e m f method for determining hydrogen-ion concentration and was particularly interested in the effects of a change in pH on the precipitation of proteins A yet broader definition of acidity is associated with G N Lewis (1875–1946) who, in accord with his idea that a shared pair of * electrons could constitute a chemical bond [* valence] regarded an acid as an electron-pair acceptor and a base as an electron-pair donor Through this redefinition, electronic theories mediated between concepts of acidity and basicity on the one hand, and concepts of oxidation and reduction on the other

See also digestion

acoustics. In Antiquity natural philosophers studied the relation of pitch and length in vibrating strings, the musical scale, and the nature of sound Pythagoras (c560–480 BC) was said to have determined ratios of the lengths of strings vibrating in octave, fifth and fourth, but later writers, such as Eudoxus of Cnidas (c400–347 BC), showed only a qualitative understanding of the relation Several writers, particularly Hero of Alexandria (fl AD 62) and Vitruvius (fl 1st century BC), stated that sound consists in the propagation of a compression or impulse The acoustics of auditoria were studied by Vitruvius, who tackled among other difficulties reverberation and interference The Latin Middle Ages produced treatises on music, scales and musical notation, otherwise acoustics did not attract the attention of many Mediaeval or Renaissance natural philosophers

Around 1600 the relation between pitch and frequency was discovered by Giovanni Benedetti (1530–90), Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), and Galileo (1564–1642) Mann Mersenne (1588–1648) established the relation by counting the vibrations of very long strings, and found an empirical formula of the dependence of frequency on the physical characteristics of the string (Harmome Universelle (1636)) Extensive studies of the relation of frequency and pitch were carried out at the beginning of the 18th century by Joseph Sauveur (1653–1716), who first suggested the term 'acoustics' Sauveur showed that strings can vibrate simultaneously at a fundamental frequency and at integral multiples he called 'harmonics', he described beats and used them to calculate the frequencies of the tones producing them


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