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Physics LibreTexts

1.6: 19th Century

The zenith in development of the variational approach to classical mechanics occurred during the 19th century primarily due to the work of Hamilton and Jacobi. Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) was a German child prodigy who made many significant contributions to mathematics, astronomy and physics. He did not work directly on the variational approach, but Gauss’s law, the divergence theorem, and the Gaussian statistical distribution are important examples of concepts that he developed and which feature prominently in classical mechanics as well as other branches of physics, and mathematics.

Simeon Poisson (1781-1840), was a brilliant mathematician who was a student of Lagrange. He developed the Poisson statistical distribution as well as the Poisson equation that features prominently in electromagnetic and other field theories. His major contribution to classical mechanics is development, in 1809, of the Poisson bracket formalism which featured prominently in development of Hamiltonian mechanics and quantum mechanics. William Hamilton (1805-1865) was a brilliant Irish physicist, astronomer and mathematician who was appointed professor of astronomy at Dublin when he was barely 22 years old. He developed the Hamiltonian mechanics formalism of classical mechanics which now plays a pivotal role in modern classical and quantum mechanics. He opened an entirely new world beyond the developments of Lagrange.

Whereas the Lagrange equations of motion are complicated second-order differential equations, Hamilton succeeded in transforming them into a set of first-order differential equations with twice as many variables that consider momenta and the conjugate positions as independent variables. The differential equations of Hamilton are linear, have separated derivatives, and represent the simplest and most desirable form possible for differential equations to be used in a variational approach. Hence the name "canonical variables" given by Jacobi. Hamilton exploited  the d’Alembert principle to give the first exact formulation of the principle of least action which underlies the variational principles used in analytical mechanics. The form derived by Euler and Lagrange employed the principle in a way that applies only for conservative (scleronomic) cases. A significant discovery of Hamilton is his realization that classical mechanics and geometrical optics can be handled from one unified viewpoint. In both cases he uses a "characteristic" function that has the property that, by mere differentiation, the path of the body, or light ray, can be determined by the same partial differential equations. This solution is equivalent to the solution of the equations of motion.

Carl Gustave Jacob Jacobi (1804-1851), a Prussian mathematician and contemporary of Hamilton, significantly developed Hamiltonian mechanics. He was one of the few who immediately recognized the extraordinary importance of the Hamiltonian formulation of mechanics. Jacobi developed canonical transformation theory and showed that the function, used by Hamilton, is only one special case of functions that generate suitable canonical transformations. He proved that any complete solution of the partial differential equation, without the specific boundary conditions applied by Hamilton, is sufficient for the complete integration of the equations of motion. This greatly extends the usefulness of Hamilton’s partial differential equations. In 1843 Jacobi developed both the Poisson brackets, and the Hamilton-Jacobi, formulations of Hamiltonian mechanics. The latter gives a single, first-order partial differential equation for the action function in terms of the \(n\) generalized coordinates which greatly simplifies solution of the equations of motion. He also derived a principle of least action for time-independent cases which had been studied by Euler and Lagrange. Jacobi developed a superior approach to the variational integral that, by eliminating time from the integral, determined the path without saying anything about how the motion occurs in time.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was a Scottish theoretical physicist and mathematician. His most prominent achievement was formulating a classical electromagnetic theory that united all previously unrelated observations, experiments and equations of electricity, magnetism and optics into one consistent theory. Maxwell’s equations demonstrated that electricity, magnetism and light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely the electromagnetic field. Consequently, all other classic laws and equations of electromagnetism were simplified cases of Maxwell’s equations. Maxwell’s achievements concerning electromagnetism have been called the "second great unification in physics". Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in the form of waves, and at the constant speed of light. In 1864 Maxwell wrote "A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field" which proposed that light was in fact undulations in the same medium that is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. His work in producing a unified model of electromagnetism is one of the greatest advances in physics. Maxwell, in collaboration with Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), also helped develop the Maxwell—Boltzmann distribution, which is a statistical means of describing aspects of the kinetic theory of gases. These two discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics. Boltzmann founded the field of statistical mechanics and was an early staunch advocate of the existence of atoms and molecules.

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) was a French theoretical physicist and mathematician. He was the first to present the Lorentz transformations in their modern symmetric form and discovered the remaining relativistic velocity transformations. Although there is similarity to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, Poincaré and Lorentz still believed in the concept of the ether and did not fully comprehend the revolutionary philosophical change implied by Einstein. Poincaré worked on the solution of the three-body problem in planetary motion and was the first to discover a chaotic deterministic system which laid the foundations of modern chaos theory. It rejected the long-held deterministic view that if the position and velocities of all the particles are known at one time, then it is possible to predict the future for all time.

The last two decades of the 19th century saw the culmination of classical physics and several important discoveries that led to a revolution in science that toppled classical physics from its throne. The end of the 19th century was a time during which tremendous technological progress occurred, flight, the automobile, and turbine-powered ships were developed, Niagara Falls was harnessed for power, etc. During this period, Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) produced electromagnetic waves confirming their derivation using Maxwell’s equations as well as simultaneously discovering the photoelectric effect. Technical developments, such as photography, the induction spark coil, and the vacuum pump played a significant role in scientific discoveries made during the 1890’s. At the end of the 19thcentury, scientists thought that the basic laws were understood and worried that future physics would be in the fifth decimal place; some scientists worried that little was left for them to discover. However, there remained a few, presumed minor, unexplained discrepancies plus new discoveries that led to the revolution in science that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century