It’s a play: ‘Trusting Atoms: the Last Trials of Ludwig Boltzmann’, a tragic science play, no less. Locked in a conflict over the existence of atoms, 19th century physics and philosophy become personal, like all other human endeavour.
I first encountered Ludwig Boltzmann during my physics A level, when I came acrossan image of his tombstone, engraved with his famous equation, S = k ln Ω, and the few words given about his life – and death – left me with a fascination that still remains today. During my second year at university, I encountered Andrew Maczek’s book on Statistical Thermodynamics, a science text book so well written that I read the thing from cover to cover just because of the beauty of the writing. I was hooked. And so this year I wrote and produced ‘Trusting Atoms’ as a play with the help of an RSC grant, 7 talented actors and a director. It’s an outreach project for the school of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham, telling the story of the last 15 years of Ludwig Boltzmann’s life, between about 1890 and 1905, when he hangs himself whilst on holiday in Trieste. Boltzmann was an atomist: he believed atoms existed, and in the 1880s and 1890s, scientists decided to move on from that old-fashioned, unenlightened theory and develop new theories of energy. Since all Boltzmann’s work, his famous equation and kinetic theory of gases, rested on atomic theory, he fought furiously to have it accepted. In 1905, Einstein measured the size of atoms, but for Boltzmann, who was believed to be an undiagnosed manic depressant, it was not enough. Because sometimes your demons come from within, not without.
Appreciated by a small but enthusiastic audience, full of ideas about what to do to it or with it next, the play ran for just 55 minutes, during which time Ludwig Boltzmann showcased a plethora of emotions and spiralled inevitably out of control. He says it himself:
“[T]hink, perhaps, of the natural increase in entropy as a tragic hero tending towards destruction. Somebody must act and sustain their efforts to save him from his destiny, or else he will be conquered by it – inevitably, and the universe will dispose of all his components. It will be as if he never existed.”
There is more to this than creating an analogy for entropy. Like all literature, there is more than one story – which is why I fell for it. Ludwig Boltzmann is entropy, the mysterious measure of chaos – that is what is so fascinating about him, what fascinated me about him since I first discovered him.
“Some men are like their dogs, Henriette: do you think some scientists are like their theories?”
Another story is the story of pioneering women in science, in particular Henriette Boltzmann and Lise Meitner, the wife and student of Ludwig Boltzmann, respectively. I liked Lise’s story: setting her first foot on her future track, longing and finding acceptance and inspiration, made necessarily what it is because of how it intertwines with the stories of Ludwig and Henriette.
“You taught me science isn’t a cold, objective study, but a passionate, intellectual venture: a battle for ultimate truth, clouded and, at the same time, driven by human judgement.”
What is she actually saying here? That science isn’t objective? Another running theme throughout the play is the concept of objectivity.
“It is not possible to find a theory free of its creator: there is no love without lovers, no music without musicians, no theory without theorists: even yours, Mach”
Boltzmann insists, echoing words deliberately lifted from Henriette, his wife, earlier in the play, as I seek to bring out their connectivity and the influence that so many scientists wives had over science in this part of history. The tricky part about science is that it’s so entwined with humanity, but the challenge is to unentwine it: the holy grail of science, as it were. Even Ernst Mach, Boltzmann’s chief rival and strong believer in objectivity confuses his own career with his own science. In the end, it is Max Planck who is the detached voice of reason, and goes on to be the better remembered, whilst wishing to be less.
“He fights for himself, not for scientific advance. He argues for notoriety, not passion.”
says Boltzmann of Mach.
You may not have heard of Boltzmann and Mach, but if you’ve studied physics in school you may have heard of Newton versus Huygens and wave particle duality (maybe I will be writing about them next). Scientists have been perpetually bashing each other over the head for individual notoriety, which is why we can think of “Great Scientists”, mostly historic ones, but not so many now. Thank god we mostly produce our modern results in research groups.
“Maths is immortal – they are not.”
Jack Richardson (Lugwig Boltzmann)
Provence Maydew (Henriette Boltzmann)
Matilda Bott (Lise Meitner)
John Cattell (Lugwig Boltzmann)
Bob Joyce (Max Planck)
John Pritchard (Chair, Erwin)
Jon Wood (Maxwell)
With special thanks to my husband, Guy Fletcher-Wood, for his invaluable assistance in producing the play.