Article ID: CBB001213355

The Nineteenth Century Conflict between Mechanism and Irreversibility (2013)


The reversibility problem (better known as the reversibility objection) is usually taken to be an internal problem in the kinetic theory of gases, namely the problem of how to account for the second law of thermodynamics within this theory. Historically, it is seen as an objection that was raised against Boltzmann's kinetic theory of gases, which led Boltzmann to a statistical approach to the kinetic theory, culminating in the development of statistical mechanics. In this paper, I show that in the late nineteenth century, the reversibility problem had a much broader significance---it was widely discussed and certainly not only as an objection to Boltzmann's kinetic theory of gases. In this period, there was a conflict between mechanism and irreversibility in physics which was tied up with central issues in philosophy of science such as materialism, empiricism and the need for mechanistic foundations of physical theories, as well as with concerns about the heat death of the universe. I discuss how this conflict was handled by the major physicists of the period, such as Maxwell, Kelvin, Duhem, Poincaré, Mach and Planck, as well as by a number of lesser-known authors.

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Authors & Contributors
Bordoni, Stefano
Hong, Sungook
Hayashi, Haruo
Campisi, Michele
Myrvold, Wayne C.
Brown, Harvey R.
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
Historia Scientiarum: International Journal of the History of Science Society of Japan
European Physical Journal H
Physics in Perspective
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
Journal for General Philosophy of Science
Edizioni ETS
Sentinel Open Press
The MIT Press
MIT Press
Experiments and experimentation
History of philosophy of science
Philosophy of science
Boltzmann, Ludwig
Mach, Ernst
Planck, Max
Kelvin, William Thomson, Baron
Duhem, Pierre
Maxwell, James Clerk
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
Prague (Czechia)
United States
Vienna (Austria)

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