Doubting Newton

 Texts by Dr. Antonio Moreno González

Ernst Mach (1838 - 1916), the Austrian physicist and philosopher, contributed to the mathematical formalisation of optical and mechanical phenomena and above all certain phenomena related to wave propagation, such as his study on the Doppler effect and the propagation of sound. But where he exercised the greatest influence was as a philosopher, falling into what was known as the "positivist" school for whom only that which we know through sensorial perception has any had scientific validity; his work Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations (1886) was widely read.

He rejected absolute concepts of space and time, which were basic to Newtonian mechanics, considering them to be metaphysical concepts, which were inadmissible for the principle of "economy of thought" which should, in his opinion, underpin any scientific activity. Einstein himself said that Mach's ideas had inspired his first steps towards the theory of relativity, although he soon distanced himself from them. He did not share Mach's beliefs on the fulfilment of the general laws of physics as simple generalisations of experimental results. Rather, he held that these laws, although they can be verified experimentally, have their origin in the mental faculties of individuals, thus positioning himself closer to the philosophy of Kant. His favourite philosopher, however, was David Hume for whom science was constructed on experience and logical/mathematical deduction.

Mach also had an influence on those who rejected the concept of force, as in Newton's dynamics, and the atomism of matter, considering such hypotheses unnecessary and impossible to prove at that time. His followers preferred a concept of energy which had different manifestations, governed by a principle of conservation and by the fact that they could be measured. This challenge to Newtonian mechanics was led by Wilhelm Ostwald (1853 - 1932), at the head of the self-styled energists , who manifested their radical opposition to atomism with the categorical, quasi-Biblical phrase: "Thou shalt use neither images nor similes".


Wilhelm Ostwald (1853 - 1932)