Looking beyond the ‘modernists’: Sir Oliver Lodge and the public face of 1920s physics

By Imogen Clarke

Studies of popular physics in the early decades of the twentieth century tend not to pay much attention to Oliver Lodge. This was a period that saw the development of quantum and relativity theories, and new ways of understanding the physical world. And it came not long after the late-nineteenth-century discoveries of X-rays, radioactivity and J. J. Thomson’s ‘corpuscle’ (later tied conceptually to the theory of the electron).1 The Times declared a ‘revolution in science’, Einstein became a celebrity, and Arthur Stanley Eddington and James Jeans wrote bestselling books on the ‘new physics’. How does Oliver Lodge, a Victorian scientist still deeply committed to the ether, fit into this narrative?

The answer, for many, is that he doesn’t, and Lodge’s role in twentieth century science, both popular and professional, has consequently been overlooked. Peter Bowler’s study of early-twentieth-century popular science describes Lodge as one of the country’s best known scientists, but Bowler is rather dismissive of the content of Lodge’s books and articles.2 While Lodge’s ubiquitous presence as a public figure is well known, he seems to be generally treated as an embarrassing anomaly. It is assumed that this relic of a bygone era is of no relevance to our accounts of early-twentieth-century science and culture.

Part of the reason why Lodge’s role as a twentieth-century populariser hasn’t really been addressed is because it doesn’t fit into the persistent narrative of a conflict between classical physics and modern physics, in which modern physics came out victorious. Lodge challenges this narrative, serving as a prime example of how classical and modern physics and physicists worked together in the early decades of the twentieth century. Crucially, despite his very vocal commitment to the ether, Lodge didn’t completely reject new developments like relativity and quantum theory; instead, he interpreted them within an ethereal framework. Where many of his peers were interested in breaking down matter to its smallest constituents, Lodge wanted to tie everything together. He believed matter and energy were ultimately continuous in nature, while recent developments appeared to be suggesting the opposite. As a result, Lodge saw the current state of physics as temporary, in a state of transition. He believed that physicists were waiting for a new Newton, somebody who would tie together nineteenth and twentieth century physics and create a new unified system.

This was Lodge’s interpretation of modern physics. Retrospectively, it seems like it would have been an embarrassment to his peers. But it was in fact often the opposite. For example, Lodge’s popular book Atoms and Rays, published in 1924, received positive reviews from physicists. This book, detailing current knowledge of matter, discussed the structure of the atom, quantum theory and the nature of energy. Everything, however, was ultimately explained in terms of the ether, the fundamental ‘cementing substance’. In this book about ‘modern physics’, the ether took centre stage. In addition, Lodge made quite a serious factual error, confusing alpha rays with X-rays.

However, a review by Edward Andrade, then Professor of Physics at the Artillery College in Woolwich, was mostly positive. Andrade did warn his readers that Lodge was ‘rather unorthodox […] in his constant reference of everything back to the ether’.3 He remarked that physicists had barely any knowledge at all about the ether, and knew simply that, as Einstein had shown, it ‘has not got any mechanical properties, which rather spoils its usefulness’. However, after advising the reader to be careful to differentiate ‘the certain’ from ‘the less certain’, Andrade praised Lodge’s book, applauding his ‘power of communicating the fascination of scientific research which no other author, perhaps, possesses to the same extent’. A second review, in Discovery (a magazine aimed at a general reader interested in the latest research, both scientific and non-scientific), was even more encouraging:

To the student of Physics, as well as to everyone who is interested in Physical Science, the appearance of a new publication by Sir Oliver Lodge is always a memorable event […]

In Sir Oliver Lodge we have a scientist whose teaching powers, as well as his teaching instinct, have seldom been equalled […]

Sir Oliver Lodge makes the atom as real and tangible a thing as the solar system […]

It is impossible to give any adequate idea of the full range of topics which Sir Oliver touches upon and illuminates in the course of this book. The general impression after reading it is, however, one of satisfaction that one has at last been able to see beyond and within the atom, and that although its essential features are no longer mysterious, they are none the less marvellous.4

This review was published anonymously, but it seems likely that it was if not written then at least approved by A. S. Russell, a reader in chemistry at Oxford, and scientific adviser at Discovery. Both Russell and Andrade had previously worked with Ernest Rutherford, in his cutting edge radioactivity research school. Andrade even wrote a textbook on the Structure of the Atom (1927) dedicated to Rutherford. Lodge’s reviewers had thus been trained in Rutherford’s particular experimental strand of ‘modern physics’, one which focused on microscopic particles and ignored the ether (although, with Rutherford also ignoring relativity and quantum theory, perhaps he was a more palatable ‘modern physicist’ than others). And yet they praised Atoms and Rays, promoting it as an excellent overview of the discipline.

Lodge was not an old man writing books about discredited theories to be read by an untrained public who just didn’t know any better. He was actively supported by many in the scientific community. And, as in the case of Russell and Discovery, often the scientific and publishing worlds intersected, to Lodge’s advantage. He had a good relationship with Peter Chalmers Mitchell, eminent biologist and scientific correspondent for The Times. Mitchell wrote a regular column, the ‘Progress of Science’, and wrote in 1924 that Lodge was the only physicist left who still cared about the ether. However, throughout the 1920s, Mitchell took Lodge as an authority on all matters of physics. Lodge was cited in articles on the transmutation of metals, on low temperature research, on hydrogen as the primitive element, and on radioactivity and the disintegration of matter. Mitchell even occasionally battled with his editors to get Lodge in the paper. In 1923, he happily told Lodge that he had successfully persuaded The Times to put in a small adaptation of part of Lodge’s recent lecture to the Rontgen Society.

Lodge didn’t have research experience in any of these areas, but his role as an expositor of modern physics was firmly established. In an era of relativity and quantum theories, a committed ether-physicist was the go-to scientist for teaching the public about these changes in the discipline. When in 1929 Discovery ran a series on the ‘future of the sciences’, Lodge was chosen to contribute on the subject of ‘pure physics’. And Lodge played an important role in the British Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley in 1924. This was an ambitious, state funded celebration of the craftsmanship, agriculture and trading and transport organisations of all of the territories of the British Empire. While science was featured throughout a designated Palace of Industry, it was also decided to have a central exhibit of ‘pure science’, organised by a committee chosen by the Royal Society. Initially Lodge was barely involved with the exhibit; it was much more of a Cambridge venture. (Although the exhibition did feature a couple of his X-ray tubes). But in 1925, the exhibition was reopened for an additional 6 months. This time, Lodge was appointed Vice-Chair of the organising committee. This was in spite of Lodge making it very clear on appointment that he wouldn’t be attending any of the committee meetings. And it was agreed that he wouldn’t be ‘troubled with the notices of the meetings or with other matters in connection with the work’.5 Lodge’s role was in fact not to help with the exhibition itself, but rather to write an introductory article for the publication Phases of Modern Science, which was being produced alongside the exhibition. Again, Lodge was being treated as the public authority on modern science.

Lodge’s scientific beliefs, combined with his eminence and the respect afforded to him by his peers, is somewhat at odds with the traditional picture of early-twentieth-century physics. The ether wasn’t the divisive theory, separating the classicists from the modernists, that we now think it is. Indeed it’s not evident if there was really a separation, and the terms ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ certainly weren’t clearly defined in this context. A physicist could be trained by Ernest Rutherford but appreciative of Oliver Lodge. And a thoroughly Victorian scientist was given the task of educating the public on modern physics.

Addendum

At the end of the workshop, there was a round-table discussion, during which the question was raised of why Oliver Lodge has been forgotten. Here are some of the possible reasons (I’m sure there are many more that weren’t mentioned or that I’ve forgotten):

  1. He messes up the simple narrative of classical vs. modern physics
  2. His psychical research became increasingly embarrassing to scientists, particularly after the Second World War
  3. He didn’t write any textbooks or have any equations named after him
  4. His retirement from the University of Birmingham in 1919 was not on good terms, resulting in no buildings being named after him (although there is an Oliver Lodge Laboratory in Liverpool)

Imogen Clarke

Notes

1‘Revolution in Science. New Theory of the Universe. Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.’, The Times, 7 November 1919, p.12. [back]
2Peter J. Bowler, Science for All: The Popularisation of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). [back]
3E. N. da C. Andrade, ‘Books of the Day: The New Physics’, Observer, 10 August 1924, p.5. [back]
4‘Reviews of Books: Atoms and Rays’, Discovery, 5 (September, 1924), p.228. [back]
5Thomas Martin (Secretary of the British Empire Exhibition) to Oliver Lodge, 21 October 1925, British Empire Exhibition 1924 Box 2, Royal Society Archives. [back]

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