Riding the Wave

Matt Springer at Built on Facts has a nice little post on a crucial experiment proving a surprising prediction in the history of the wave theory of light in the 19th century that is well worth reading. However Matt and his commentators are a little bit shaky on the historical development of this theory so I thought I would post a brief chronicle on the subject here.

Some historian see a prototype of the wave theory in Aristotle’s theory of vision but on the whole this seems to be a case of over interpretation and backwards projection. However there is a grain of truth in the claim as both theories are so called mediumistic theories.

Again some historians, in particular Italian ones, see the wave theory of light in some of Leonardo’s notes on the propagation of light in the Codex Atlanticus, also in my opinion an over interpretation. The first real exponent of a wave theory was Grimaldi who used a wave theory to explain his discovery of diffraction.

The first real wave theory publication was Robert Hooke in his Micrographia in 1665 although his explanation of the theory was somewhat rudimentary.

In 1672 Isaac Newton published his theory of colour and included in his paper his belief that this theory provided proof for his own particle (corpuscular) theory of light. Hooke interpreting this to mean that Newton’s theory of colour was dependent on a particle theory of light rejected it because as he claimed he had demonstrated that light is propagated in waves. In his reply Newton showed that his theory of colour worked equally well with a wave theory and at the same time produced the strongest formulation of the wave theory in the 17th century.

In 1690 Huygens’ published his version of the wave theory that differed from those of both Hooke and Newton and was not compatible with Newton’s theory of colour, a major disadvantage. In 1704 Newton published his Optics, a masterpiece in the history of the discipline, and although he demonstrated his discoveries independent of any theory of the nature of light in Query 28 at the end of the book he undertook a blistering demolition of the wave theory; for the time being Newton carried the day.

In the middle of the 18th century Leonard Euler the leading mathematical physicist of the age supported the wave theory but the generality accepted Newton’s particle theory. In 1802 Thomas Young published his version of the wave theory supported by his own now legendary two slits experiment but ran foul of the Newton lobby. In the 1820s Fresnel and Argo extended the work of Young and placed the wave theory on a solid empirical experimental footing however it was only when George Airy threw his considerable weight behind Young and Fresnel and the wave theory that the particle theory of Newton was final dethroned.

I for one find it amusing when people use this development in the history of optics to crow about the great Newton being wrong given the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century the wave theory was in its turn dethroned by the particle theory of Planck and Einstein.

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