Article ID: CBB001321213

Paul Ehrenfest and the Dilemmas of Modernity (2013)


This essay considers the highly ambivalent attitude of the Austrian-Dutch physicist Paul Ehrenfest toward contemporary developments in both science and society. On the one hand, he was in the vanguard of the quantum and relativity revolutions, supported industrialization and economic planning based on mathematical models, and, in general, cherished technocratic ideals. The essay highlights several influences that shaped his attitude in these respects, from his ties with the Philips Physics Laboratory and his sojourns in the United States to the utopian visions of H. G. Wells. On the other hand, he was extremely worried about the harmful consequences of contemporary changes in science and society, such as specialization, the growing pace of city life, and the increasing dependence on modern technologies, be they material or mathematical. In this regard, he agreed with cultural critics such as Max Nordau, Henri Bergson, Ostwald Spengler, and Ludwig Klages. Rather than attempting to solve this paradox, the essay suggests that this kind of ambiguity characterized a great deal of innovative science in the period.

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Authors & Contributors
Pérez, Enric
Galison, Peter Louis
Gordin, Michael D.
Kaiser, David Isaac
Navarrho, Luis
Liu, Jian-hua
Archive for History of Exact Sciences
Guangxi Minzu Xueyuan Xuebao
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Kexue Jishu Zhexue Yanjiu (Studies in Philosophy of Science and Technology)
Middle Eastern Studies
Physics in Perspective
Princeton University Press
C. H. Beck
W. W. Norton & Co.
Columbia University Press
Quantum mechanics
Science and society
Science and culture
Mathematics and its relationship to science
Einstein, Albert
Ehrenfest, Paul
Bohr, Niels Henrik David
Planck, Max
Burgers, Jan M.
Riemann, Georg Friedrich Bernhard
United States
Paris (France)
Great Britain
20th century, early
19th century
20th century
20th century, late
21st century
18th century
Imperial College
Bell Telephone Laboratories

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