An Awful Destiny of a Notable Scientist Ludwig Boltzmann
The world does not seem to be fair to anyone
Here is a story of one of the victims of this world whose efforts radically changed several branches of physics. He is majorly known for his work in the development of statistical mechanics and the statistical description of the second law of thermodynamics. He was one of the most important advocates of atomic theory at the time when that scientific model was highly argumentative.
Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann was a physicist and philosopher born in Vienna, Austria in 1844, the night between Carnival Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. He used to say in fun, that was the origin of his mood swings, which used to swing from the moments of sheer happiness to the terrible depression. He started his scientific journey at the age of 19, in 1863, as a student of physics and mathematics at the University of Vienna. He received his doctorate degree supervised by Josef Stefan with a dissertation focused on the kinetic theory of gases, only three years later, in 1866. At the age of 25, he became the full professor of mathematical physics at the University of Graz, on the recommendation of Stefan.
He was a restless soul, he moved from one job to the other continuously. After Graz, he joined the University of Vienna as a professor of mathematics in 1973. Serving there for three years he went back to Graz to the chair of experimental physics. In 1887, he accepted a chair in Berlin in theoretical physics, but later he changed his mind. In 1890, he joined as a professor of theoretical physics in Munich, Germany. In 1894, again in Vienna, to the chair which became vacant on the death of this supervisor and then in 1900 moved to Leipzig. According to his students, he was an outstanding teacher and honored by the scientific community as well.
He was one of the first to recognize the significance of Maxwell’s unification of electromagnetism. He obtained the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution in 1871. It was a probability distribution used for describing speeds of particles, moving freely inside the container with very low-cut collisions in which they interact with the thermal environment. The energies of such particles follow Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics.
He described the second law of thermodynamics based on the atomic theory of matter in the early 1870s. It states that the “entropy of the entire universe as an isolated system will always tend to increase.” He explained that this law is a statistical law, which can be derived from the principles of mechanics. He developed most of the structure of statistical mechanics, which was later carried on by Josiah Willard Gibbs. He formulated his famous entropy formula — the bridge between statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, between 1872–1875, which was later revised by Max Planck, in 1900.
He extended the work on black-body radiation based on Stefan’s law. Also, he made thorough calculations in the field of the kinetic theory of gases, used in the study of interstellar gases, stellar clusters, and non-relativistic plasma, etc.
Disputes with Ostwald and Mach
His work in statistical mechanics was utterly criticized by Wilhelm Ostwald, who based physical sciences exclusively on energy conditions. In 1895, Ostwald presented a paper in a scientific meeting in which he asserted, “The actual irreversibility of natural phenomena thus proves the existence of processes that cannot be described by mechanical equations, and with this, the verdict on scientific materialism is settled.”
Sommerfeld who was present in the meeting narrated the battle between Boltzmann and Ostwald as, “ … Boltzmann was seconded by Felix Klein. The battle between Boltzmann and Ostwald resembled the battle of the bull with the supple fighter. However, this time the bull was victorious …. The arguments of Boltzmann carried the day. We, the young mathematicians of that time, we're all on the side of Boltzmann …”. Ostwald along with many European scientists was unable to understand Boltzmann’s logic about the statistical nature of the universe and led the opposition against him.
He even left his position in Vienna because Mach was there as a professor of philosophy and history of natural sciences. He was never in polite terms with Mach.
His ideas were later supported by the discoveries in atomic physics, that begun shortly before 1900. For instance, Brownian motion (random movement of particles suspended in the fluid), which can only be demonstrated by statistical mechanics.
In 1909, Ostwald eventually accepted that he has been wrong, while Mach never backtracked. If only Boltzmann lived a few more years, he would have witnessed the true triumph of his efforts, his work was experimentally verified.
When he came back to Vienna, he had two chairs, one in Theoretical Physics and the other in Philosophy of Science. He taught a course namely “Methods and General Theory of the Natural Sciences” on the chair of natural philosophy, which was previously occupied by Ernst Mach. His lectures became very popular at that time, even though the largest lecture hall was not big enough to accommodate such several people, the people stood all the way down the staircase, including students, assistants, and professors. He received the emperor’s best wishes and gained a lot of recognition.
He was an evolutionist not only because Charles Darwin at that time had put forward a powerful theory for the most important area of science. Rather, he considered Darwin’s method as the key to the understanding of truth or falsehood of scientific theories. For him, his science and his philosophy were a unity. He indeed had a wish for collaboration between these two! he has an opinion that the combination of these two can solve many natural problems.
In historical reports, everyone who met Boltzmann has declared that he was a great man. Despite many scientific and philosophical disputes, he had good terms with his opponents personally.
He was a great teacher and had a good relationship with his students. He also used to invite a few of his bright students at home. He never judged his students based on the knowledge of physics but general character traits.
Music and art also have a special place in his life. He was an outstanding pianist. He was also blessed with an incomparable sense of humor.
Boltzmann’s Famous Quotations
- “A mathematician will recognize Cauchy, Gauss, Jacobi, or Helmholtz after reading a few pages, just as musicians recognize, from the first few bars, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert.”
- “Thermodynamics, correctly interpreted, does not just allow Darwinian evolution; it favors it.”
- “Available energy is the main object at stake in the struggle for existence and the evolution of the world.”
He spent most of his life defending his theories, but the attacks on his work continued and he began to feel that all his life’s efforts are about to collapse. Together with bad health and constant disputes with scientific opponents, he became unstable mentally. There is a made-up story that unfulfilled academic recognition has made him depressed. The truth is that his ideas were opposed by some, including Ostwald and Mach, but it is false that those ideas were considered certainly irrelevant.
On the holiday with his wife and daughter at Trieste, he committed suicide in 1906, at the age of 62. He hanged himself, while his wife and daughter were swimming in the pool. However, the cause of his suicide has been attributed to the lack of acceptance of his ideas, we will never know the real cause of his mental illness which led to severe depression.
Boltzmann’s tombstone bears the inscription of his famous entropy formula, as a tribute to the brilliance.