Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (18
July 1853 – 4 February 1928) was a Dutch physicist who shared the 1902 Nobel Prize in Physics with Pieter Zeeman for the discovery and
theoretical explanation of the Zeeman
effect. He also derived the
transformation equations subsequently
used by
Albert Einstein to describe
space and time.
Biography
Early life
Hendrik
Lorentz was born in Arnhem, Gelderland (The Netherlands), the son of Gerrit
Frederik Lorentz (1822 – 1893), a well-off nurseryman, and
Geertruida van Ginkel (1826 – 1861). In 1862, after his
mother's death, his father married Luberta Hupkes. From 1866-1869
he attended the newly established high school in Arnhem, and in
1870 he passed the exams in
classical languages which were then
required for admission to University.
Lorentz studied
physics and
mathematics at the
University of Leiden, where he was
strongly influenced by the teaching of astronomy professor
Frederik Kaiser; it was his influence that
led him to become a physicist.
After earning a bachelor's degree, he returned to Arnhem
in 1872 to teach high school classes in mathematics, but he
continued his studies in Leiden next to his
teaching position. In 1875 Lorentz earned a
doctoral degree under
Pieter Rijke on a thesis entitled
" "
(On the theory of reflection and refraction of light), in which he
refined the electromagnetic theory of
James Clerk Maxwell.
In 1881 Hendrik married Aletta Catharina Kaiser, niece of Frederik
Kaiser.
She was the daughter of Johann Wilhelm
Kaiser, director of the Amsterdam's Engraving School and professor of Fine Arts, and designer of the first Dutch
postage stamps (1852). Later
Kaiser was the Director of the
National
Gallery of Amsterdam. Hendrik and Aletta's eldest daughter
Geertruida Luberta
Lorentz was to become a physicist as well.
Career
Professor in Leiden
In 1878, only 24 years of age, Hendrik Antoon Lorentz was appointed
to the newly established chair in theoretical physics at the
University of Leiden. On
January 25, 1878, he delivered his inaugural lecture on
"
" (The molecular theories in physics).
During the first twenty years in Leiden, Lorentz was primarily
interested in the theory of electromagnetism to explain the
relationship of electricity, magnetism, and light. After that, he
extended his research to a much wider area while still focusing on
theoretical physics. From his publications, it appears that Lorentz
made contributions to mechanics, thermodynamics, hydrodynamics,
kinetic theories, solid state theory, light, and propagation. His
most important contributions were in the area of electromagnetism,
the electron theory, and relativity.
Lorentz theorized that the
atoms might consist
of charged particles and suggested that the oscillations of these
charged particles were the source of light. When colleague and
former student of Lorentz
Pieter
Zeeman discovered the
Zeeman
effect in 1896, Lorentz supplied its theoretical
interpretation. The experimental and theoretical work was honored
with the Nobel prize in physics in 1902. Lorentz' name is now
associated with the
Lorentz-Lorenz
formula, the
Lorentz force, the
Lorentzian distribution, and the
Lorentz transformation.
Electrodynamics and relativity
In 1895, with the attempt to explain the
Michelson-Morley experiment,
Lorentz proposed that moving bodies contract in the direction of
motion (see
length contraction;
George FitzGerald had already
arrived at this conclusion, see
FitzGerald-Lorentz
Contraction). Lorentz worked on describing electromagnetic
phenomena (the propagation of light) in reference frames that moved
relative to each other. He discovered that the transition from one
to another reference frame could be simplified by using a new time
variable which he called
local time. The local time
depended on the universal time and the location under
consideration. Lorentz's publications (of 1895 and 1899) made use
of the term local time without giving a detailed interpretation of
its physical relevance. In 1900,
Henri Poincaré called Lorentz's local
time a "wonderful invention" and illustrated it by showing that
clocks in moving frames are synchronized by exchanging light
signals that are assumed to travel at the same speed against and
with the motion of the frame.
In 1899, and again in his paper
Electromagnetic phenomena in a
system moving with any velocity smaller than that of light
(1904), Lorentz added
time dilation to
his transformations and published what Poincaré in 1905 named
Lorentz transformations. It
was apparently unknown to Lorentz that
Joseph Larmor had used identical
transformations to describe orbiting electrons in 1897. Larmor's
and Lorentz's equations look somewhat unfamiliar, but they are
algebraically equivalent to those presented by Poincaré and
Einstein in 1905. Lorentz's 1904 paper includes the covariant
formulation of electrodynamics, in which electrodynamic phenomena
in different reference frames are described by identical equations
with well defined transformation properties. The paper clearly
recognizes the significance of this formulation, namely that the
outcomes of electrodynamic experiments do not depend on the
relative motion of the reference frame. The 1904 paper includes
adetailed discussion of the increase of the inertial mass of
rapidly moving objects. In 1905, Einstein would use many of the
concepts, mathematical tools and results discussed to write his
paper entitled " " (Electrodynamics) known today as the
theory of special relativity. Because
Lorentz laid the fundamentals for the work by Einstein, this theory
was called the
Lorentz-Einstein theory originally.
Albert Einstein and Hendrik Antoon
Lorentz, photographed by Ehrenfest in front of his home in Leiden
in 1921.
Source: Museum Boerhaave, Leiden
The increase of mass was the first prediction of special relativity
to be tested, but from early experiments by
Kaufmann it appeared that his
prediction was wrong; this led Lorentz to the famous remark that he
was "at the end of his Latin." The confirmationof his prediction
had to wait until 1908. In 1909, Lorentz published "Theory of
Electrons" basedon a series of lectures in Mathematical Physics he
gave at
Columbia
University.
Assessments
Poincaré (1902) said of Lorentz's theory of electrodynamics:
- The most satisfactory theory is that of Lorentz; it is
unquestionably the theory that best explains the known facts, the
one that throws into relief the greatest number of known relations
... it is due to Lorentz that the results of Fizeau on the optics of moving bodies, the laws of
normal and abnormal dispersion and of absorption are connected with
each other ... Look at the ease with which the new
Zeeman phenomenon found its place, and
even aided the classification of Faraday's magnetic rotation, which
had defied all Maxwell's
efforts.
Paul Langevin (1911) said of
Lorentz:
- It is the great merit of H. A. Lorentz to
have seen that the fundamental equations of electromagnetism admit
a group of transformations which enables them to have the same form
when one passes from one frame of reference to another; this new
transformation has the most profound implications for the
transformations of space and time
Lorentz and Emil Wiechert (Göttingen) had an interesting
correspondence on the topics of electromagnetism and the theory of
relativity, and Lorentz explained his ideas in letters to Wiechert.
The correspondence between Lorentz and Wiechert has been published
by Wilfried Schröder (Arch. ex. hist. Sci, 1984).
Lorentz was chairman of the first
Solvay Conference held in Brussels in the
autumn of 1911. Shortly after the conference,
Poincaré wrote an essay on quantum
physics which gives an indication of Lorentz's status at the
time:
- ... at every moment [the twenty physicists from different
countries] could be heard talking of the [quantum mechanics] which
they contrasted with the old mechanics. Now what was the
old mechanics? Was it that of Newton, the one which still
reigned uncontested at the close of the nineteenth century?
No, it was the mechanics of Lorentz, the one dealing with the
principle of relativity; the one which, hardly five years ago,
seemed to be the height of boldness.
Albert Einstein (1953) wrote of
Lorentz:
- For me personally he meant more than all the others I have
met on my life's journey.
While Lorentz is mostly known for fundamental theoretical work, he
also had an interest in practical applications.
In the years
1918-1926, at the request of the Dutch government, Lorentz headed a
committee to calculate some of the effects of the proposed Afsluitdijk (Closure Dike) flood control dam on other seaworks
in the Netherlands. Hydraulic engineering was mainly an
empirical science at that time, but the disturbance of the tidal
flow caused by the Afsluitdijk was so unprecedented that the
empirical rules could not be trusted. Lorentz proposed to start
from the basic
hydrodynamic equations
of motion and solve the problem numerically. This was feasible for
a "
human computer", because of the
quasi-one-dimensional nature of the water flow in the
Waddenzee. The Afsluitdijk was completed in 1933
and the predictions of Lorentz and his committee turned out to be
remarkably accurate. One of the two sets of locks in the
Afsluitdijk was named after him.
Personal life
In 1912
Lorentz retired early to become director of research at Teylers Museum in Haarlem, although he
remained external professor at Leiden and gave weekly lectures
there. Paul Ehrenfest
succeeded him in his chair at the University of Leiden, founding
the Institute for Theoretical Physics which would become known as
the
Lorentz Institute. In addition
to the
Nobel prize, Lorentz received a
great many honours for his outstanding work. He was elected a
Fellow of the
Royal Society in 1905.
The Society awarded him their
Rumford
Medal in 1908 and their
Copley
Medal in 1918.
Lorentz
died in Haarlem,
Netherlands. The respect in which he was held in the
Netherlands is apparent from O. W. Richardson's description of his
funeral:
- The funeral took place at Haarlem at noon on Friday,
February 10. At the stroke of twelve the State telegraph
and telephone services of Holland were suspended for three minutes
as a revered tribute to the greatest man Holland has produced in
our time. It was attended by many colleagues and
distinguished physicists from foreign countries. The
President, Sir Ernest Rutherford,
represented the Royal Society and made an appreciative oration by
the graveside.
Legacy
Richardson describes Lorentz as:
- [A] man of remarkable intellectual powers ...
. Although steeped in his own investigation of the
moment, he always seemed to have in his immediate grasp its
ramifications into every corner of the universe. ...
The singular clearness of his writings provides a striking
reflection of his wonderful powers in this respect.
.... He possessed and successfully employed the mental
vivacity which is necessary to follow the interplay of discussion,
the insight which is required to extract those statements which
illuminate the real difficulties, and the wisdom to lead the
discussion among fruitful channels, and he did this so skillfully
that the process was hardly perceptible.
M. J. Klein (1967) wrote of Lorentz's reputation in the
1920s:
- For many years physicists had always been eager "to hear
what Lorentz will say about it" when a new theory was advanced,
and, even at seventy-two, he did not disappoint them.
See also
References
- Papers of Lorentz
There are thirty-six complete papers by Lorentz (mostly in English)
that are available for online viewing
in the Proceedings of the Royal Netherlands Academy
of Arts and Science, Amsterdam.
- Other sources
- : n.p.. The quotation is from the English translation ( )
- :n.p.. The quotation in the article is from the English
translation: ( :n.p.)
- : n.p. The biography which refers to this article (but gives no
pagination details other than those of the article itself) is this
one:
- Sri Kantha, S. Einstein and Lorentz. Nature, July 13,
1995; 376: 111.(Letter)
- Endnotes
External links