Brian Pippard

Brian Pippard was the first President of Clare Hall, Cambridge from 1966 to 1973 and was Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge until 1982. His Response and Stability is due out in November.

Triple Life

Brian Pippard, 23 November 1989

In the last few years of the 19th century the world of the physicist began to undergo a revolution that ultimately affected much else beside physics. The discovery of the electron by Thomson, and of radioactivity by Becquerel, opened the attack on the mysteries of the atom which, through the genius of Rutherford, led within fifteen years to the nuclear model and Bohr’s quantum theory of the hydrogen atom. The quantum theory itself had been adumbrated by Planck at the very end of the century, and only five years previously Röntgen had discovered X-rays, which were to give important insights into atomic theory and to expose the paradoxes of the quantum. To see Schrödinger’s achievement in perspective we must appreciate the nature of these paradoxes, for if they had not been argued over in their manifestation by X-rays and light it is most unlikely that his great advance – a genuine paradigm-shift – would have aroused so little opposition.’

Magnetic Moments

Brian Pippard, 4 September 1986

It is only four years since we were treated to Abraham Pais’s authoritative study of Einstein, Subtle is the Lord, and now he presents an equally large and quite as impressive history of fundamental particle physics, in a style and at a price which calls for the warmest congratulations to him and to the Clarendon Press.

Goodbye to the Aether

Brian Pippard, 20 February 1986

Sir Edmund Whittaker’s History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity first appeared in 1910, and is mentioned at the very start of the book under review, though never again. The scope of Whittaker’s book is wide, its material densely organised, but it is a pleasure to read. Whittaker was a stylish writer and a distinguished thinker. Was it really necessary to go over part of this ground again in so much more detail? Unfortunately, there is good reason for doing so, if only because Whittaker did just this when, forty years later at the age of 78, he expanded his original history and added a second volume which was concerned with developments since 1900. The stylishness remains, but the reader’s mind is now alert to the possibility of misrepresentation – the account of the rise of relativity and quantum theory is deeply suspect. There is no suspicion of conscious falsification, rather that the teacher (and he was a great teacher) could not restrain himself from tidying up the arguments. It is with something of a sigh that we retrace the ground in the company of professional historians of science whose prose, it must be regretted, is not always as compelling as Whittaker’s. But their purpose is to tell it as it happened, and even in mathematical physics, whose final expression is so precise, the way truth is attained is by muddle and misconception. One could not believe a tale which unfolded itself too smoothly. I wish, however, that the editor, or one of the authors, had thought to include a critique of Whittaker’s reading of the story they tell, if only as a yardstick for those who will continue to consult him as the only comprehensive historian of a vast and complex phase of scientific thought.


Brian Pippard, 6 June 1985

Sixty years ago, when Alfred North Whitehead delivered the lectures that were published as Science and the Modern World, he was famous as a penetrating philosopher of mathematics, the teacher and later the colleague of Russell, a man of wide learning who had turned to metaphysics and developed a new system so profound that few dared criticise it; he was also an educational reformer and an upright man loved by his many friends. All in all, the very model of a Philosopher, academic indeed, but one for whom the epithet could only be a mark of the highest praise. This book was reprinted 11 times up to 1953, and at least twice since then. There can never have been such a tribute to pure thought. I won it as a school prize and was utterly defeated by it; 45 years later I find the argument difficult at all times, and in several chapters impenetrable by reason of its technical abstruseness. Apart from these, which I cannot judge, the fault does not lie in Whitehead’s style, which is lucid and sensitive – it is the density of the argument that makes demands on the reader. Of all those copies that were sold before, and doubtless will continue to be sold, very few can have been studied with such painstaking attention and pencilled emphasis as the copy of the 1953 reprint I have borrowed from the Cambridge University Library, and even in this case the original owner has faltered one-third of the way through and is lost without trace.’

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