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.
LRB 20 February 1986 | PDF Download