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The Scientific Correspondence of H. A. Lorentz, Volume I

A. J. Kox. editor
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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The book under review provides a fascinating look at the inner circle of physicists working on relativity and quantum mechanics at the turn of the last century. Specifically, the interval from 1883 to 1927 is represented, with the influential Dutch physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (1853–1928, Nobel Prize in 1902) featured as the center of a network of correspondents ranging from Voigt and Boltzmann to Einstein, Planck, and Schrödinger. It is of special, if parochial, interest to us mathematicians that Poincaré makes a number of appearances in this long and scholarly book. It is also always a marvelous experience to read Einstein’s prose, particularly in the informal setting of a Breifwechsel.

Starting with a very nice (compact) biographical sketch of Lorentz, particularly welcome to this reviewer who spent six (school) years in the Netherlands, the book is an encyclopaedic collection of letters to and from Lorentz. These letters are primarily concerned with developments in physics in which the aforementioned scientists, and a number of others, played a role. Lorentz, who held court at the venerable University of Leyden, was a major force in the physics of that era, and with Planck and Einstein in the mix it cannot be otherwise than that seminal themes are discussed in these letters (and postcards) with some frequency. The pages of the book are indeed filled with “living physics” and, in places, the attendant mathematics. Wonderful ideas are discussed by the original explorers themselves, and we get invaluable glimpses of the struggles and breakthroughs that then lead to the emergence of theories of often seminal importance. In a real sense we are given a special look at the birth of modern physics itself. For any one with an interest in the history of science this is a great find.

Along more prosaic lines, the letters in The Scientific Correspondence of H. A. Lorentz necessarily also contains some material that is not expressly scientific. After all, many of the figures represented in the book were Lorentz’ personal friends, and the era they lived in includes nothing less than the unthinkable first world war. So this reality should be borne in mind, even though the prevailing thrust, throughout, is physics.

The reader is expected to be comfortable with German and French; there are also a few letters in (old) Dutch, which, however, come accompanied by an English translation. While this undeniably asks a lot of today’s audience, it is not inappropriate for this subject matter, particularly as it is in keeping with a Dutch academic tradition which was (is?) rooted in the practical and realistic observation that this tiny Holland, bordered by Germany and France (modulo Belgium), and only a short distance across the North Sea from England, could only hope to make its cultural mark if its higher educational system placed severe requirements on its ranks. Accordingly, and as recently as the 1960s, even so-called “betas” (secondary school pupils headed for a university specialization in one of the hard sciences) were required to study German, French, and English during the six years of the gymnasium, and this to the point of fluency. Thus polyglots were the rule rather than the exception among the scientific intelligentsia in the Netherlands; it is a nice touch that this perhaps somewhat anachronistic element spills over into the book under review.

All this having been said, the appeal of the book is bound to be somewhat narrow; this cannot be helped. It surely was not the editor’s goal to launch a bestseller. However, as a piece of historical scholarship The Scientific Correspondence of H. A. Lorentz has a great deal to offer.

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.


Preface.- Letters.- General bibliography.- Lorentz bibliography.- Index.