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How far would physics have progressed without electricity

  1. May 22, 2014 #1
    How far could the study of physics have advanced without the discovery/invention of electricity and electrical power?

    Or in other words, what fields and major breakthroughs could not have been achieved without the availability or knowledge of manipulation of electricity?
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  3. May 22, 2014 #2


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    James Clerk Maxwell linked electricity and magnetism into Electromagnetism and this played a great part in the development of relativity.

    The whole internet,computers and computer science would not have existed without electricity.

    In general,I can say that electricity is a part of our lives. I can't live without it(I don't know about you).
  4. May 22, 2014 #3


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    It probably would have progressed right up to the point of discovering electricity. Then it would have discovered electricity. :smile:
  5. May 22, 2014 #4
    There are the obvious implications of electricity, such as the invention of electrical equipment and computers. Modern physics would be unthinkable without these practical tools.

    But there has been many theoretical advances due to electricity in physics too. I think it is safe to say that physics without electricity would be the same as math without calculus.

    Of course there was physics before electricity, mostly classical mechanics. I don't think there was much else. Somebody may have to correct me on that.

    Then suddenly, electricity was discovered and geniuses like Faraday and Maxwell entered the picture. I highly recommend the Cosmos episode on Faraday, it's one of their best episodes yet.

    Maxwell's equations were then a direct influence on Einstein and others to develop the theory of relativity. A theory which (when extended to GR) solves an age old problem which was basically to explain why the orbit of Mercury could not be found by classical mechanics alone. So electricity had many influences, some of which explained phenomena which appear to have nothing to do with electricity.

    Another link is the nature of light and its link with electromagnetism. Was light made of particles or waves? Electricity again played a crucial role here.

    I'm not saying that relativity would never have been discovered without electricity, but it would have been much later. Then again, you could argue that the discovery of electricity was inevitable.
  6. May 22, 2014 #5

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    This is idle speculation to some extent because one could argue that the discovery of electricity was inevitable. But ... what if planetary differentiation had done an even better job than it did, and Jupiter had completely cleared the asteroid belt so there were no iron/nickel meteorites to rain down on the early Earth? There would be no accessible siderophilic elements, no magnets to puzzle the ancients.

    We would probably have a steampunk world. Tungsten, copper, and silver are not siderophilic; they would probably still be available to that steampunk world. Electricity would almost certainly still be discovered, but maybe later on in the development of technology, and maybe without that connection with magnetism. Discovering that connection was crucial in turning electricity from an interesting steampunk carnival trick to the dynamo (pun intended) that it is today.

    That connection between electricity and magnetism was also critical for the development of relativity. Explaining the schism between Maxwell's electrodynamics and Newton's mechanics attracted the best minds of the late 19th century. It's doubtful that relativity theory could have been developed without an understanding of electromagnetism.
  7. May 22, 2014 #6


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    I really liked that episode. It increased my respect for Faraday and Maxwell. Now Faraday is at the same level as Einstein for me! :rolleyes:
    P.S was this thread closed before?
    Last edited: May 22, 2014
  8. May 22, 2014 #7
    Einstein was a great physicist of course, so I can't really call him overrated. But for some reason the mainstream media portrays him as some kind of God of physics, while other great physicists are ignored. People like Maxwell and Faraday certainly deserve to be known by the great public as some of the best physicists alive, but for some reason, only Einstein (and to a lesser degree Newton) are really recognized for what they did.

    Einstein is also mostly known for his relativity theory and not so much for all the rest that he did which might even be more magnificent than his work on relativity!

    I really don't know where the fascination of the media with Einstein and his relativity theory comes from...
  9. May 22, 2014 #8

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    The scientist-hero?

    It is a bit strange that when non-physicists are asked to name the most influential physicist of all time they'll almost inevitably pick Einstein, but when physicists are asked to do the same they'll almost inevitably pick someone other than Einstein (oftentimes Newton). Will Einstein be in their top ten? Most likely. The very tippy-top? No.
  10. May 22, 2014 #9
    I've heard lots of very eminant physists (who are not just Cosmologists or General Relativists) claim that Einstein is the greatest of all time, perhaps second to Newton. Einstein was an amazing man and made enourmous contributions to almost every field he touched.

    In fact, I would go as far to say that any physicist who didn't have Einstein in the very tippy-top is full of it.
  11. May 22, 2014 #10
    Any names, links?

    Anybody who prefers Einstein over Newton is insane. Newton is perhaps the smartest person ever to have lived. He didn't even invent classical mechanics and thus physics, but he invented calculus on the side too. He revolutionized both physics and mathematics.
  12. May 22, 2014 #11


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    How far would physics have come without Einstein? Without Boltzmann? Without Maxwell? Without Newton? These aren't answerable questions in any reasonable sense. If history is any guide then someone will have made the discoveries eventually (perhaps with the exception of general relativity-that's just creativity and imagination taken to the extreme) but asking what physics would be like if these discoveries are to never be made is far too speculative a question to possibly warrant a useful answer.
  13. May 22, 2014 #12


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    Going back to the OP, it is unclear to when the poster dates the discovery of electricity.


    Electricity and electrical phenomena have been known for millennia. The Greek mathematician Thales made observations about static electricity in the seventh century B.C. The ancient Egyptians from an even earlier era were acquainted with electrical fish which lived in the Nile. Naturalists of the Roman era like Pliny were familiar with being shocked by such creatures and understood that electricity could travel through conductors.

    Leyden jars, a crude storage device for electric charge, were invented about 1745, shortly before Ben Franklin flew his famous kite during an electrical storm. The work of Galvani and Volta occurred toward the end of that century, and the whole of the 19th century was littered with empirical and theoretical investigations into electrical phenomena.


    So, the question remains, at what date do we say that electricity was 'discovered'?
  14. May 23, 2014 #13


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    The late 19th and 20th century was the golden age for physics. So many geniuses; Maxwell, Gauss, Boltzmann, Pauli, Einstein, Bohr, are just a few among many who made major contributions to modern physics. They all had one thing in common - an insatiable desire to distill truth from logic and superstition. Their weapon of choice was mathematics.
  15. May 27, 2014 #14


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    Last edited: May 27, 2014
  16. May 27, 2014 #15


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    The discoveries would have been done by mechanics.

    Hans Christian Ørsted (Danish: 14 August 1777 – 9 March 1851) - "On 21 April 1820, during a lecture, Ørsted noticed a compass needle deflected from magnetic north when an electric current from a battery was switched on and off, confirming a direct relationship between electricity and magnetism."

    Michael Faraday is generally credited with the discovery of induction in 1831.

    Let us also remember:
    Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (February 18, 1745 – March 5, 1827), who is credited with inventing the battery in the early 1800s.

    Note that Volta acknowledged the work of others.

    Luigi Aloisio Galvani (Latin: Aloysius Galvani) (September 9, 1737 – December 4, 1798)

    The point being that electricity and magnetism were discovered. The key was putting them together. Another part of the physics is the revelation of the elements and the periodicity mapped by the periodic table. Then there is the discovery of radiation, which could have been known, but not understood, without electricity.

    Those of us alive now are the benefactors of those brilliant minds over the centuries. Rather than dwell on what might not have been, how about dwelling on what might be 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, . . . years from now?

    What legacy will one leave to future generations?

    As an aside, Einstein was probably one of the first premier scientist celebrities, which is somewhat unfortunate. Yes he was brilliant, but he didn't work in isolation. He benefitted from the works of others, both predecessors and contemporaries. Unfortunately, the masses were unfamiliar with the works of others, since physics and history of science is the realm of a few.
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