The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive


signal masts on Citadel Hill

The history of physics is endless in depth and breadth, as are
verification procedures and legitimations of hypotheses. Here
I'm interested in the phenomenology of physics, in particular
what occurs before a turn towards the subatomic and quantum
mechanics. I've been reading Natural Philosophy for General
Readers and Young People, translated and edited from Ganot's
Cours Elementaire de physique by E. Atkinson, 8th edition, 1896;
this is one of numerous similar books that form the basis for
both popular and university texts. The experiments described, in
particular those associated with electrical phenomena, tend to
operate on the level of the anecdotal, much as early psychology
emphasized the patient's narrative, through Freud and beyond.
Fundamental principles are rarely described, although they
appear as frames; thus there are sections on various aspects of
Morse's telegraph, but only a mention of Maxwell. Experiments
might include a vibrating wire and Faraday's wheel; engineering
and physics are entangled, and demonstration replaces the
mathematical basis of electromagnetic elements. Even with a
limited mathematical apparatus, it's clear that the text must
operate on the level of the everyday; atomic and molecular
models are described, but the former seem to possess little if
any structure. The everyday asserts itself continually;
experiments with batteries and various forms of capacitors
involve the hand touching one or another wire, grounding the
structure, or applying current. Out of a book of 730 pages,
atoms are mentioned only on pp. 4 and 8; the rest occurs on the
level of the aural or visible. In other words, the physics
described here is body-centric, much as language, in Lakoff and
Lakoff, functions; the world may not appear anthropocentric, but
remains subtlely so. The idea of a basic alienness to the world
remains distant, and the troubling of the ether, for example, is
replaced by the curiosity. I should note this position is also
that of the religious fundamentalist, for whom the alien
threatens to shatter everything. The experiments described are
but one step from the parlor game or presentation, and indeed in
earlier texts there are examples of young ladies connected by
wire, or the electrocution of a dog by means of Leyden jars
coupled together. Further, all these phenomena in general are
seen, not as instances of principles, but as peculiarities that
indeed connect to the wonder of the world. Today, when every-
thing is simultaneously up for question and taken for granted,
when a malaise manifests itself in relation to the 'latest and
greatest,' it's difficult to realize that the nineteenth century
was, among other things, the last century of marvels, which
retain something of the mythic imagination.

Doesn't the signal mast itself operate among these worlds? On
one hand, it presents flags and flag-codes, which operate in the
register of the visible; on the other, it carries wireless
antennas already portending a new and uncomfortable era. It's of
interest that Halifax announces every noon hour with the firing
of a cannon, which simultaneously asserts nineteenth-century
temporality, and a tourist destination; everyone gathers around
for the precipitous event!

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