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Q: Disbanding Physics ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   6 Comments )
Subject: Disbanding Physics
Category: Science
Asked by: michael1776-ga
List Price: $15.00
Posted: 01 Jan 2006 08:19 PST
Expires: 31 Jan 2006 08:19 PST
Question ID: 427820
I remember reading something to the effect that toward the end of the
19th century, the head of an international association of physicists
proposed that the organization be disbanded as everything that could
be discovered, had already been discovered.  I am looking for the
details of that situation; who said it, when, where and the conditions
that lead to that assumption.

Clarification of Question by michael1776-ga on 04 Jan 2006 07:43 PST
I am aware of a similar alledged statement by Charles Duell of the US
Patent Office, but this statement was made specifically in respect to
Subject: Re: Disbanding Physics
Answered By: hedgie-ga on 05 Jan 2006 02:43 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Closest to your statement is mentioned in bigraphy of Max Planck:

"..The Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised him against
going into physics, saying, "in this field, almost everything is
already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes."

In the era before 1900, before the 'revolution in physics' created
the 'modern physics : Quantum Mechanics and Relativity it seemed to many
that 'classical physics' can explain everything.

 It was an era of 'calm before a storm';

However, it was never a universal feeling that 'all was dicovered'.
 Lord Kelvin (whose name was used to name a unit of temperature) was
aware of problems which lead to that revolution:

"On 27th April 1900, Lord Kelvin gave a lecture to the Royal
Institution of Great Britain.  The title of the lecture was
Nineteenth-Century Clouds over the Dynamical Theory of Heat and Light.
 Kelvin mentioned, in his characteristic way, that the "beauty and
clearness of theory" was overshadowed by "two clouds".  He was talking
about the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment and the
problems of blackbody radiation.  In fact, these "two clouds" were to
herald the early 20th century revolution in theoretical physics with
the emergence of relativity and quantum theory..."

There are good books in history of physics written by Stephen G. Brush:

michael1776-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $3.00
Excellent!  This is exactly what I was looking for.  Good work and fast.

Subject: Re: Disbanding Physics
From: eternal21-ga on 02 Jan 2006 15:38 PST
Are you sure it was about Physics?  Because I heard the same story
from the same time, about closing the Patent Office, because all the
inventions have already been invented.
Subject: Re: Disbanding Physics
From: ansel001-ga on 02 Jan 2006 17:51 PST
I heard the comment in reference to the patent office also.  Here are
the two versions of that:

In 1899, the head of the United States Patent Office, Charles Duell,
was credited with arguing to close the Patent Office because
"everything that could have been invented, has been invented."

Not everyone agrees.  Some think he never said that.

Although we find the statement patently absurd, it sure does pop up
everywhere. But it appears to be yet another legend.
The story that's most often told is that in 1899 the head of the U.S.
Patent Office sent his resignation to President McKinley urging the
closing of the office because "everything that could be invented has
been invented." It's been told and retold so often that even President
Reagan used it in a speech.

The "quote" is often attributed to Charles H. Duell, who was
Commissioner of Patents in 1899. However, according to The Great Idea
Finder, Duell was far from pessimistic about the future of new
inventions and patents. He even encouraged Congress to improve the
patent system.

The Skeptical Inquirer agrees, adding information on another Patent
Office commissioner whose statements may have been taken out of
context. In a 1843 letter to Congress, Henry L. Ellsworth emphasized
the rapid growth in the number of patents and stated that he expected
patent activity to increase. Somehow, his statements may have been

So why is the statement so widely quoted, er, misquoted? Maybe because
it illustrates so well the inaccuracy of predictions or the
limitations of the imagination. And that could also be said of those
who use it.
Subject: Re: Disbanding Physics
From: siliconsamurai-ga on 04 Jan 2006 10:04 PST
Since there were a lot of very interesting problems facing physicists
at about the time you refer to, I seriously doubt the claim.

I CAN imagine a government bureaucrat making such a dumb statement
about patents, but doubt that even a bureaucrat would suggest closing
his own agency. If he did, he was probably the first in history to try
and talk himself out of an easy government job. (Yes, I know there are
some hard government jobs also.)

I suspect both statements are legendary.
Subject: Re: Disbanding Physics
From: doctorscott-ga on 15 Apr 2006 11:28 PDT
Not so fast! There were some quotes to that effect from around that
time. Some are collected at:

The quote you are thinking of may be Michelson's quote given at the
dedication of a new laboratory at the University of Chicago in 1894.
That quote is sometimes listed as arising from 1899 or 1903; I suspect
he reused it, but the 1894 dedication speech is the earliest
attribution I can find:

"The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science
have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that
the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new
discoveries is exceedingly remote . . . Our future discoveries must be
looked for in the sixth place of decimals."

Or you may be thinking of Lord Kelvin's quote from 1900:

"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that
remains is more and more precise measurement."

I am uncertain as to the provenance of this quote, although it is
widely reported. It may well be that it is from the same lecture of
Kelvin's that Hedgie cited...I've been unable to find a transcript
online. If so, this quote of Kelvin's is generally taken far out of

Nevertheless it was indeed the case that some late nineteenth century
physicists could be simultaneously aware of serious anomalies and yet
claim that fundamental physics was nearly complete.

Subject: Re: Disbanding Physics
From: hedgie-ga on 16 Apr 2006 00:10 PDT

   Thanks for an interesting reference.

However, regarding 
" It may well be that it is from the same lecture of
Kelvin's that Hedgie cited.. "

I can say, it is not. The famous lecture was published in proceedings
of the Royal Society. I have a reprint of that paper and there is
nothing like that
in it. The spirit of the whole paper is just the opposite. Kelvin presented
a whole list  (this is from his Collected Works) of unsolved problems
in physics, for example

The energy balance of the Sun:

How can Sun radiate so much energy - for so long- undiminished? 
Is it comming from meteorites which are falling in?
That problem was solved only in 1942 by russian-american physicist Gamov

Kelvin has a whole list of such questions, none of them being an issue of 
 sixth decimal. I do not think that Kelvin was ambigous about this, so the
statement about "sixth place of decimals" is certainly miss-attributed.
Subject: Re: Disbanding Physics
From: doctorscott-ga on 16 Apr 2006 11:02 PDT
The "sixth place of decimals" quote is well-documented, and is from
Michelson, not Kelvin.

I am unable to reconcile the Kelvin quote with his other work; I would
guess that it was taken out of context or misattributed.


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