Pierre Maurice Marie

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Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem

The French physicist, chemist, and historian of science Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem (1861-1916) published work in thermodynamics, physical chemistry, hydrodynamics, elasticity, electricity and magnetism, and the history and philosophy of science.

Pierre Duhem was born on June 9, 1861, in Paris. He entered the École Normale in 1882 and qualified for a teaching certificate in 1885. His first published paper on physical chemistry appeared in 1884. That year he also presented a doctoral dissertation in physics, which attacked the "maximum-work principle" of Marcelin Berthelot, a powerful figure in the French academic world. Berthelot succeeded in having the thesis rejected and is reported to have said that Duhem would never teach in Paris. The prediction came true.

Duhem stayed at the École Normale for another 2 years and in 1888 presented a doctorate in mathematics on the theory of magnetism. Meanwhile he published his first thesis and 30 articles on physics and chemistry. In 1887 he was named lecturer at Lille, but in 1893, after a fight with the dean of the faculty, he was transferred to Rennes and in 1894 to Bordeaux. There he remained for the rest of his life, deprived of the position at the Science Faculty in Paris to which his work would seem to have entitled him. He died at Cabrespine on Sept. 14, 1916.

Duhem believed that physical theories describe, condense, and classify experimental results rather than explain them. He also believed that physical theories evolve by successive changes to conform to experiment and thus gradually approach a "natural classification" that somehow reflects underlying reality. These philosophical ideas led him after 1895 to investigate the history of science, especially in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. His Studies on Leonardo da Vinci (3 vols., 1906-1909) revealed the works of medieval scholastics in physics and astronomy that Leonardo had used. He explored these works in The System of the World (10 vols., 1913-1959). Although Duhem approached his subject almost exclusively from the point of view of the ancient and medieval contribution to modern science, this history ranks him as the rediscoverer of medieval science.

As a chemist, Duhem contributed to the Gibbs-Duhem equation, which describes the relation between variations of chemical potentials. From 1884 until 1900 and after 1913 his work was predominantly concerned with thermodynamics and electromagnetism; from 1900 to 1906 he concentrated on hydrodynamics and elasticity. Trained before the discovery of radioactivity, Duhem opposed those scientists who sought a mechanical explanation of the universe through the use of atomic and molecular models. He believed that classical mechanics was a special case of a more general continuum theory and spent much of his career working on a generalized thermodynamics that would serve as a descriptive theory for all of physics and chemistry. He expressed his views most fully in his Treatise on Energetics (2 vols., 1911).

Further Reading

A study by Stanley L. Jaki of Duhem's life and work appears as the introductory essay to Duhem's To Save the Phenomena: An Essay on the Idea of Physical Theory from Plato to Galileo (trans. 1969). Armand Lowinger, The Methodology of Pierre Duhem (1941), is a full-length study of Duhem's work.

Additional Sources

Jaki, Stanley L., Scientist and Catholic: an essay on Pierre Duhem, Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1991.

Jaki, Stanley L., Uneasy genius: the life and work of Pierre Duhem, The Hague; Boston: Nijhoff; Hingham, MA: Distributors for the U.S. and Canada, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1984.

Martin, R. N. D. (R. Niall D.), Pierre Duhem: philosophy and history in the work of a believing physicist, La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1991. □

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