Science and Hypothesis

Chapter 13: Electro-Dynamics

Henri Poincaré

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THE history of electro-dynamics is very instructive from our point of view. The title of Ampère's immortal work is, Théorie des phénomènes electrodynamiques, uniquement fondée sur expérience. He therefore imagined that he had made no hypotheses; but as we shall not be long in recognising, he was mistaken; only, of these hypotheses he was quite unaware. On the other hand, his successors see them clearly enough, because their attention is attracted by the weak points in Compares solution. They made fresh hypotheses, but this time deliberately. How many times they had to change them before they reached the classic system, which is perhaps even now not quite definitive, we shall see.

I. Ampère's Theory —In Ampère's experimental study of the mutual action of currents, he has operated, and he could operate only, with closed currents. This was not because he denied the existence or possibility of open currents. If two conductors are positively and negatively charged and brought into communication by a wire, a current is set up which passes from one to the

(226) other until the two potentials are equal. According to the ideas of Ampère's time, this was considered to be an open current; the current was known to pass from the first conductor to the second, but they did not know it returned from the second to the first. All currents of this kind were therefore considered by Ampère to be open currents—for instance, the currents of discharge of a condenser; he was unable to experiment on them, their duration being too short. Another kind of open current may be imagined. Suppose we have two conductors A and B connected by a wire AMB. Small conducting masses in motion are first of all placed in contact with the conductor B, receive an electric charge, and leaving B are set in motion along a path BNA, carrying their charge with them. On coming into contact with A they lose their charge, which then returns to B along the wire AMB. Now here we have, in a sense, a closed circuit, since the electricity describes the closed circuit BNAMB; but the two parts of the current are quite different. In the wire AMB the electricity is displaced through a fixed conductor like a voltaic current, overcoming an ohmic resistance and developing heat; we say that it is displaced by conduction. In the part BNA the electricity is carried by a moving conductor, and is said to be displaced by convection. If therefore the convection current is considered to be perfectly analogous to the conduction current, the circuit BNAMB is closed; if on the contrary the convec

227) -tion current is not a " true current," and, for instance, does not act on the magnet, there is only the conduction current AMB, which is open. For example, if we connect by a wire the poles of a Holtz machine, the charged rotating disc transfers the electricity by convection from one pole to the other, and it returns to the first pole by conduction through the wire. But currents of this kind are very difficult to produce with appreciable intensity; in fact, with the means at Ampère's disposal we may almost say it was impossible.

To sum up, Ampère could conceive of the existence of two kinds of open currents, but he could experiment on neither, because they were not strong enough, or because their duration was too short. Experiment therefore could only show him the action of a closed current on a closed current or more accurately, the action of a closed current on a portion of current, because a current can be made to describe a closed circuit, of which part may be in motion and the other part fixed. The displacements of the moving part may be studied under the action of another closed current. On the other hand, Ampère had no means of studying the action of an open current either on a closed or on another open current.

2. The Case of Closed Currents.—In the case of the mutual action of two closed currents, experiment revealed to Ampère remarkably simple laws. The following will he useful to us in the sequel:—


(1) If the intensity of the currents is kept constant, and if the two circuits, after having undergone any displacements and deformations whatever, return finally to their initial positions, the total work done by the electro-dynamical actions is zero. In other words, there is an electro-dynamical potential of the two circuits proportional to the product of their intensities, and depending on the form and relative positions of the circuits; the work done by the electro-dynamical actions is equal to the change of this potential.

(2) The action of a closed solenoid is zero.

(3) The action of a circuit C on another voltaic circuit C' depends only on the " magnetic field " developed by the circuit C. At each point in space we can, in fact, define in magnitude and direction a certain force called "magnetic force," which enjoys the following properties:—

(a) The force exercised by C on a magnetic pole is applied to that pole, and is equal to the magnetic force multiplied by the magnetic mass of the pole.

(b) A very short magnetic needle tends to take the direction of the magnetic force, and the couple to which it tends to reduce is proportional to the product of the magnetic force, the magnetic moment of the needle, and the sine of the dip of the needle.

(c) If the circuit C' is displaced, the amount of the work done by the electro-dynamic action of C on C' will be equal to the increment of "flow

(229) of magnetic force " which passes through the circuit.

2. Action of a Closed Current on a Portion of Current. —Ampère being unable to produce the open current properly so called, had only one way of studying the action of a closed current on a portion of current. This was by operating on a circuit C composed of two parts, one movable and the other fixed. The movable part was, for instance, a movable wire ab, the ends a and b of which could slide along a fixed wire. In one of the positions of the movable wire the end a rested on the point A, and the end b on the point B of the fixed wire. The current ran from a to ß—i.e., from A to B along the movable wire, and then from B to A along the fixed wire. This current was therefore closed.

In the second position, the movable wire having slipped, the points a and b were respectively at A' and B' on the fixed wire. The current ran from a to ß—i.e., from A' to B' on the movable wire, and returned from B' to B, and then from B to A, and then from A to A' —all on the fixed wire. This current was also closed. If a similar circuit be exposed to the action of a closed current C, the movable part will be displaced just as if it were acted on by a force. Ampère admits that the force, apparently acting on the movable part A B, representing the action of C on the portion ß of the current, remains the same whether an open current runs through ß,

(230) stopping at a and ß, or whether a closed current runs first to ß, and then returns to through the fixed portion of the circuit. This hypothesis seemed natural enough, and Ampère innocently assumed it; nevertheless the hypothesis is not a necessity, for we shall presently see that Helmholtz rejected it. However that may be, it enabled Ampère, although he had never produced an open current, to lay down the laws of the action of a closed current on an open current, or even on an element of current. They are simple:

(1) The force acting on an element of current is applied to that element; it is normal to the element and to the magnetic force, and proportional to that component of the magnetic force which is normal to the element.

(2) The action of a closed solenoid on an element of current is zero. But the electro-dynamic potential has disappeared — i.e., when a closed and an open current of .constant intensities return to their initial positions, the total work done is not zero.

3. Continuous Rotations.—The most remarkable electro-dynamical experiments are those in which continuous rotations are produced, and which are called unipolar induction experiments. A magnet may turn about its axis; a current passes first through a fixed wire and then enters the magnet by the pole N, for instance, passes through half the magnet, and emerges by a sliding contact and re-enters the fixed wire. The magnet

(231) then begins to rotate continuously. This is Faraday's experiment. How is it possible ? If it were a question of two circuits of invariable form, C fixed and C' movable about an axis, the latter would never take up a position of continuous rotation; in fact, there is an electro-dynamical potential; there must therefore be a position of equilibrium when the potential is a maximum. Continuous rotations are therefore possible only when the circuit C' is composed of two parts —one fixed, and the other movable about an axis, as in the case of Faraday's experiment. Here again it is convenient to draw a distinction. The passage from the fixed to the movable part, or vice versa, may take place either by simple contact, the same point of the movable part remaining constantly in contact with the same point of the fixed part, or by sliding contact, the same point of the movable part coming successively into contact with the different points of the fixed part.

It is only in the second case that there can be continuous rotation. This is what then happens:—the system tends to take up a position of equilibrium; but, when at the point of reaching that position, the sliding contact puts the moving part in contact with a fresh point in the fixed part; it changes the connexions and therefore the conditions of equilibrium, so that as the position of equilibrium is ever eluding, so to speak, the system which is trying to reach it, rotation may take place indefinitely.


Ampère admits that the action of the circuit on the movable part of C' is the same as if the fixed part of C' did not exist, and therefore as if the current passing through the movable part were an open current. He concluded that the action of a closed on an open current, or vice versa, that of an open current on a fixed current, may give rise to continuous rotation. But this conclusion depends on the hypothesis which I have enunciated, and to which, as I said above, Helmholtz declined to subscribe.

4. Mutual Action of Two Open Currents.—As far as the mutual action of two open currents, and in particular that of two elements of current, is concerned, all experiment breaks down. Ampère falls back on hypothesis. He assumes: (1) that the mutual action of two elements reduces to a force acting along their join; (2) that the action of two closed currents is the resultant of the mutual actions of their different elements, which are the same as if these elements were isolated.

The remarkable thing is that here again Ampère makes two hypotheses without being aware of it. However that may be, these two hypotheses, together with the experiments on closed currents, suffice to determine completely the law of mutual action of two elements. But then, most of the simple laws we have met in the case of closed currents are no longer true. In the first place, there is no electro-dynarnical potential ; nor was there any, as we have seen, in the case of a closed

(233) current acting on an open current. Next, there is, properly speaking, no magnetic force; and we have above defined this force in three different ways: (1) By the action on a magnetic pole; (2) by the director couple which orientates the magnetic needle; (3) by the action on an element of current.

In the case with which we are immediately concerned, not only are these three definitions not in harmony, but each has lost its meaning : —

(1) A magnetic pole is no longer acted on by a unique force applied to that pole. We have seen, in fact, the action of an element of current on a pole is not applied to the pole but to the element; it may, moreover, be replaced by a force applied to the pole and by a couple.

(2) The couple which acts on the magnetic needle is no longer a simple director couple, for its moment with respect to the axis of the needle is not zero. It decomposes into a director couple, properly so called, and a supplementary couple which tends to produce the continuous rotation of which we have spoken above.

(3) Finally, the force acting on an element of a current is not normal to that element. In other words, the unity of the magnetic force has disappeared.

Let us see in what this unity consists. Two systems which exercise the same action on a magnetic pole will also exercise the same action on an indefinitely small magnetic needle, or on an element

(234) of current placed at the point in space at which the pole is. Well, this is true if the two systems only contain closed currents, and according to Ampère it would not be true if the systems contained open currents. It is sufficient to remark, for instance, that if a magnetic pole is placed at A and an element at B, the direction of the element being in AB produced, this element, which will exercise no action on the pole, will exercise an action either on a magnetic needle placed at A, or on an element of current at A.

5. Induction. —We know that the discovery of electro-dynamical induction followed not long after the immortal work of Ampère. As long as it is only a question of closed currents there is no difficulty, and Helmholtz has even remarked that the principle of the conservation of energy is sufficient for us to deduce the laws of induction from the electro-dynamical laws of Ampère. But on the condition, as Bertrand has shown,that we make a certain number of hypotheses.

The same principle again enables this deduction to be made in the case of open currents, although the result cannot be tested by experiment, since such currents cannot be produced.

If we wish to compare this method of analysis with Ampère's theorem on open currents, we get results which are calculated to surprise us. In the first place, induction cannot be deduced from the variation of the magnetic field by the well-known formula of scientists and practical men;

(235) in fact, as I have said, properly speaking, there is no magnetic field. But further, if a circuit C is subjected to the induction of a variable voltaic system S, and if this system S be displaced and deformed in any way whatever, so that the intensity of the currents of this system varies according to any law whatever, then so long as after these variations the system eventually returns to its initial position, it seems natural to suppose that the mean electro-motive force induced in the current C is zero. This is true if the circuit C is closed, and if the system S only contains closed currents. It is no longer true if we accept the theory of Ampère, since there would be open currents. So that not only will induction no longer be the variation of the flow of magnetic force in any of the usual senses of the word, but it cannot be represented by the variation of that force whatever it may be.

II. Helmholtz's Theory.— I have dwelt upon the consequences of Ampère's theory and on his method of explaining the action of open currents. It is difficult to disregard the paradoxical and artificial character of the propositions to which we are thus led. We feel bound to think " it cannot be so." We may imagine then that Helmholtz has been led to look for something else. He rejects the fundamental hypothesis of Ampère—namely, that the mutual action of two elements of current reduces to a force along their ioin. He admits that an element of current is not

(236) acted upon by a single force but by a force and a couple, and this is what gave rise to the celebrated polemic between Bertrand and Helmholtz. Helmholtz replaces Ampère's hypothesis by the following: —Two elements of current always admit of an electro-dynamic potential, depending solely upon their position and orientation; and the work of the forces that they exercise one on the other is equal to the variation of this potential. Thus Helmholtz can no more do without hypothesis than Ampère, but at least he does not do so without explicitly announcing it. In the case of closed currents, which alone are accessible to experiment, the two theories agree; in all other cases they differ. In the first place, contrary to what Ampère supposed, the force which seems to act on the movable portion of a closed current is not the same as that acting on the movable portion if it were isolated and if it constituted an open current. Let us return to the circuit C', of which we spoke above, and which was formed of a movable wire sliding on a fixed wire. In the only experiment that can be made the movable portion b is not isolated, but is part of a closed circuit. When it passes from AB to A'B', the total electro-dynamic potential varies for two reasons. First, it has a slight increment because the potential of A'B' with respect to the circuit C is not the same as that of AB; secondly, it has a second increment because it must be increased by the potentials of the elements

237) AA' and B'B with respect to C. It is this double increment which represents the work of the force acting upon the portion AB. If, on the contrary, be isolated, the potential would only have the first increment, and this first increment alone would measure the work of the force acting on AB. In the second place, there could be no continuous rotation without sliding contact, and in fact, that, as we have seen in the case of closed currents, is an immediate consequence of the existence of an electro-dynamic potential. In Faraday's experiment, if the magnet is fixed, and if the part of the current external to the magnet runs along a movable wire, that movable wire may undergo continuous rotation. But it does not mean that, if the contacts of the weir with the magnet were suppressed, and an open current were to run along the wire, the wire would still have a movement of continuous rotation. I have just said, in fact, that an isolated element is not acted on in the same way as a movable element making part of a closed circuit. But there is another difference. The action of a solenoid on a closed current is zero according to experiment and according to the two theories. Its action on an open current would be zero according to. Ampère, and it would not be zero according to Helmholtz. From this follows an important consequence. We have given above three definitions of the magnetic force. The third has no meaning here, since an element of current

238) is no longer acted upon by a single force. Nor has the first any meaning. What, in fact; is a magnetic pole ? It is the extremity of an indefinite linear magnet. This magnet may be replaced by an indefinite solenoid. For the definition of magnetic force to have any meaning, the action exercised by an open current on an indefinite solenoid would only depend on the position of the extremity of that solenoid—i.e., that the action of a closed solenoid is zero. Now we have just seen that this is not the case. On the other hand, there is nothing to prevent us from adopting the second definition which is founded on the measurement of the director couple which tends to orientate the magnetic needle; but, if it is adopted, neither .the effects of induction nor electro-dynamic effects will depend solely on the distribution of the lines of force in this magnetic field.

III. Difficulties raised by these Theories. — Helmholtz's theory is an advance on that of Ampère; it is necessary, however, that every difficulty should be removed. In both, the name " magnetic field " has no meaning, or, if we give it one by a more or less artificial convention, the ordinary laws so familiar to electricians no longer apply; and it is thus that the electro-motive force induced in a wire is no longer measured by the number of lines of force met by that wire. And our objections do not proceed only from the fact that it is difficult to give up deeply-rooted habits of

(239) language and thought. There is something more. If we do not believe in actions at a distance, electro-dynamic phenomena must be explained by a modification of the medium. And this medium is precisely what we call "magnetic field," and then the electro-magnetic effects should only depend on that field. All these difficulties arise from the hypothesis of open currents.

IV. Maxwell's Theory. —Such were the difficulties raised by the current theories, when Maxwell with a stroke of the pen caused them to vanish. To his mind, in fact, all currents are closed currents. Maxwell admits that if in a dielectric, the electric field happens to vary, this dielectric becomes the seat of a particular phenomenon acting on the galvanometer like a current and called the current of displacement. If, then, two conductors bearing positive and negative charges are placed in connection by means of a wire, during the discharge there is an open current of conduction in that wire; but there are produced at the same time in the surrounding dielectric currents of displacement which close this current of conduction. We know that Maxwell's theory leads to the explanation of optical phenomena which would be due to extremely rapid electrical oscillations. At that period such a conception was only a daring hypothesis which could be supported by no experiment; but after twenty years Maxwell's ideas received the confirmation of experiment. Hertz succeeded in producing systems of electric oscillations which

( 240) reproduce all the properties of light, and only differ by the length of their wave—that is to say, as violet differs from red. In some measure he made a synthesis of light. It might be said that Hertz has not directly proved Maxwell's fundamental idea of the action of the current of displacement on the galvanometer. That is true in a sense. What he has shown directly is that electro-magnetic induction is not instantaneously propagated, as was supposed, but its speed is the speed of light. Yet, to suppose there is no current of displacement, and that induction is with the speed of light; or, rather, to suppose that the currents of displacement produce inductive effects, and that the induction takes place instantaneously —comes to the same thing. This cannot be seen at the first glance, but it is proved by an analysis of which I must not even think of giving even a summary here.

V. Rowland's Experiment.—But, as I have said above, there are two kinds of open conduction currents. There are first the currents of discharge of a condenser, or of any .conductor whatever. There are also cases in which the electric charges describe a closed contour, being displaced by conduction in one part of the circuit and by convection in the other part. The question might be regarded as solved for open currents of the first kind; they were closed by currents of displacement. For open currents of the second kind the solution appeared still more simple.


It seemed that if the current were closed it could only be by the current of convection itself. For that purpose it was sufficient to admit that a "convection current " — i.e., a charged conductor in motion —could act on the galvanometer. But experimental confirmation was lacking. It appeared difficult, in fact, to obtain a sufficient intensity even by increasing as much as possible the charge and the velocity of the conductors. Rowland, an extremely skilful experimentalist, was the first to triumph, or to seem to triumph, over these difficulties. A disc received a strong electrostatic charge and a very high speed of rotation. An astatic magnetic system placed beside the disc underwent deviations. The experiment was made twice by Rowland, once in Berlin and once at Baltimore. It was afterwards repeated by Himstedt. These physicists even believed that they could announce that they had succeeded in making quantitative measurements. For twenty years Rowland's law was admitted without objection by all physicists, and, indeed, everything seemed to confirm it. The spark certainly does produce a magnetic effect, and does it not seem extremely likely that the spark discharged is due to particles taken from one of the electrodes and transferred to the other electrode with their charge ? Is not the very spectrum of the spark, in which we recognise the lines of the metal of the electrode, a proof of it? The spark would then be a real current of induction.


On the other hand, it is also admitted that in an electrolyte the electricity is carried by the ions in motion. The current in an electrolyte would therefore also be a current of convection; but it acts on the magnetic needle. And in the same way for cathodic rays; Crooks attributed these rays to very subtle matter charged with negative electricity and moving with very high velocity. He looked upon them, in other words, as currents of convection. Now, these cathodic rays are deviated by the magnet. In virtue of the principle of action and re-action, they should in their turn deviate the magnetic needle. It is true that Hertz believed he had proved that the cathodic rays do not carry negative electricity, and that they do not act on the magnetic needle; but Hertz was wrong. First of all, Perrin succeeded in collecting the electricity carried by these rays —electricity of which Hertz denied the existence; the German scientist appears to have been deceived by the effects due to the action of the X-rays, which were not yet discovered. Afterwards, and quite recently, the action of the cathodic rays on the magnetic needle has been brought to light. Thus all these phenomena looked upon as currents of convection, electric sparks, electrolytic currents, cathodic rays, act in the same manner on the galvanometer and in conformity to Rowland's law.

VI. Lorentz's Theory. —We need not go much further. According to Lorentz's theory, currents

243) of conduction would themselves be true convection currents. Electricity would remain indissolubly connected with certain material particles called electrons. The circulation of these electrons through bodies would produce voltaic currents, and what would distinguish conductors from insulators would be that the one could be traversed by these electrons, while the others would check the movement of the electrons. Lorentz's theory is very attractive. It gives a very simple explanation of certain phenomena, ,which the earlier theories —even Maxwell's in its primitive form could only deal with in an unsatisfactory manner; for example, the aberration of light, the partial impulse of luminous waves, magnetic polarisation, and Zeeman's experiment.

A few objections still remained. The phenomena of an electric system seemed to depend on the absolute velocity of translation of the centre of gravity of this system, which is contrary to the idea that we have of the relativity of space. Supported by M. Crémieu, M. Lippman has presented this objection in a very striking form. Imagine two charged conductors with the same velocity of translation. They are relatively at rest. However, each of them being equivalent to a current of convection, they ought to attract one another, and by measuring this attraction we could measure their absolute velocity. "No!" replied the partisans of Lorentz. " What we could measure in that way is not their

(244) absolute velocity, but their relative velocity with respect to the ether, so that the principle of relativity is safe." Whatever there may be in these objections, the edifice of electro-dynamics seemed, at any rate in its broad lines, definitively constructed. Everything was presented under the most satisfactory aspect. The theories of Ampère and Helmholtz, which were made for the open currents that no longer existed, seem to have no more than purely historic interest, and the inextricable complications to which these theories led have been almost forgotten. This quiescence has been recently disturbed by the experiments of M. Crémieu, which have contradicted, or at least have seemed to contradict, the results formerly obtained by Rowland. Numerous investigators have endeavoured to solve the question, and fresh experiments have been undertaken. What result will they give? I shall take care not to risk a prophecy which might be falsified between the day this book is ready for the press and the day on which it is placed before the public.



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