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Boltzmann, Philosopher

I have heard this quote from philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend before:

The withdrawal of philosophy into a “professional” shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth — and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.

I haven’t read much of the original works of “the predecessors” – most of my knowledge of their work comes filtered through textbooks and lecturers. I suspect this is true of most physicists. There are some good reasons for this – old papers aren’t easy to get a hold of, are awfully typeset, use archaic notation, and most of their content is purely of historical interest.

One exception is a paper I read recently by the great Ludwig Boltzmann, which is titled: On Certain Questions of the Theory of Gases. Its a three page Letter to Nature, a well-known publication which a lot of visitors to this site are trying to find when they Google its name. Here are a few quotes for you to mull over, to see if the “philosophical depth” comes through.

[Even if we had the ideal physical theory], we should still be a long way off what Faust’s famulus hoped to attain, viz, to know everything. But the difficulty of enumerating all the material points of the universe, and of determining the law of mutual force for each pair, would only be a quantitative one; nature would be a difficult problem, but not a mystery for the human mind. (more…)

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