Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph

views updated May 17 2018

Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph

(b. Oberramstadt, near Darmstadt, Germany, 1 July 1742; d. Göttingen, Germany, 24 February 1799)


Lichtenberg was the seventeenth child— the fifth to survive— of a Protestant pastor. From his father he received his early schooling, including mathematics and natural science, for which subjects he developed an early predilection. A permanent spinal deformity in his childhood perhaps enhanced his propensity for scholarly work. Upon graduation from the secondary school at Darmstadt, Lichtenberg was accorded the patronage of his sovereign, Ludwig VIII the duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, and he continued his studies at the University of Göttingen.

At the university Lichtenberg studied a wide range of subjects, particularly literature under Christian Gottlob Heyne, history under Johann Christoph Gatterer, and natural sciences under the witty Abraham Gotthelf Kiistner. He studied avidly and with such thoroughness that he frequently found himself digressing into cognate fields. As he himself put it: “… I have covered the path which leads toward science like a dog accompanying his master on a walk …. I have covered it over and over again in all directions....” As a result he became the leading German expert in a number of scientific fields, including geodesy, geophysics, meteorology, astronomy, chemistry, statistics, and geometry, in addition to his foremost field and prime interest—experimental physics. To all these areas he contributed respectably for his time, gaining the admiration and friendship of such contemporaries as Volta, F. W. Herschel, Kant, Goethe, Humboldt, and George III of England, with whom he became well acquainted during one of his visits to that country. Lichtenberg was appointed professor extraordinarius at the University of Göttingen in 1769 and was made professor ordinarius in 1775. He was given the title of royal British privy councillor in 1788 and in 1793 was elected to membership in the Royal Society (London) and in 1795 to membership in the Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

In geodesy Lichtenberg carried out a precise determination of the geodetic coordinates of Hannover, Stade, and Osnabrfick. These measurements were performed at the request of George III (who, besides being the king of England, was also elector of Hannover) for purposes of military cartography, and also to help verify the concept advanced by Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton that the earth is an oblate spheroid.

Lichtenberg was particularly interested in volcanology. Among his writings on the subject is a calculation of the volume of lava ejected from Vesuvius during its eruption of 1784.

Also concerned with meteorology, Lichtenberg in 1780 was the first to erect in Germany a correct version of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod. (A year earlier a lightning rod had been installed at Hamburg by the physician J. A. H. Reimarus, but without the essential connection between rod and ground.) In 1796 Lichtenberg wrote a brilliant monograph in defense of Jean André Deluc’s theory of rain formation.

Along with Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Lichtenberg was one of the last notable holdouts against the “French and new chemistry” of Lavoisier. Convinced in the end that Lavoisier was right, Lichtenberg capitulated by admitting that the new chemistry was a “magnificent structure.” A fusible metal of 50 percent bismuth, 30 percent lead, and 20 percent tin, having a melting point of 91.6°C, is known as Lichtenberg’s alloy.

In mathematics Lichtenberg attempted to clear up the controversy between Daniel Bernoulli and d’Alembert regarding the probabilities in the “St. Petersburg problem.”1 He sided with the former but admitted that an element of paradox remained in the solution. It was not until 1928 that an acceptable resolution of this paradox was suggested by Thornton C Fry. This resolution was formalized in 1945 by William Feller, who cleared up the question of what constitutes a “fair” game and showed the Petersburg game to be “fair” in the classical sense.

Lichtenberg edited and published works of the great German astronomer Johann Tobias Mayer, the founder of the astronomical observatory of Göttingen. He also prepared for engraving and published Mayer’s detailed map of the moon, which was highly appreciated by contemporary astronomers. In 1795 he published a biography of Copernicus. Himself an active observer, Lichtenberg sighted and described a comet, studied the fall of meteorites, and observed the transit of Venus on 19 June 1769. In 1807 the astronomer Johann Hieronymus Schröter gave to a feature on the moon the “unforgettable name of the great naturalist Lichtenberg.” Later the selenographer J. H. Mädler reassigned the name of Lichtenberg to a much more prominent feature—a first-order ring plain north of the Ocean of Storms (–67° 5′3″’ long.,+31° 25′20″ lat.).2

Yet it was in physics that Lichtenberg produced his greatest scientific achievements. First and foremost he was a teacher. The first German university chair of experimental physics was established for him. As professor at the University of Göttingen, he was enormously popular with students, and his lecture-demonstrations attracted an extremely large number of auditors. Along with the scrupulous presentation of facts, Lichtenberg offered his students a view of physics which would not be out of tune with the attitudes of the twentieth century. He combined bold imagining with radical scientific skepticism and left a legacy of maxims, many of which are as valid today as they were in his time. He wrote: “Almost everything in physics must be investigated anew, even the bestknown things, because it is precisely here that one least suspects something new or incorrect.” Accordingly, he was among the first to question the validity of the postulates of Euclidean geometry, in particular the postulate that only one straight line can pass through two points. He questioned the usefulness of the concept of ether because of the absence of any measurable effects that could be attributed to it. At the same time he recognized the importance of “experimenting with ideas,” provided they are based on fact and the resulting theory is verifiable experimentally. He was contemptuous of dogmatists and scornful of those who confuse “facts” and “dreams.”

Lichtenberg saw as the purpose of his teaching the “coherent exposition of physical relationships as preparation for a future science of nature.” He used hypotheses very much as we use “models” in physics of the twentieth century. He wrote, “I see such hypotheses in physics as nothing else but convenient pictures that facilitate the conception of the whole.” The interconnectedness of things, the wholeness of nature, was a postulate that guided all his work. In his quest for the “conception of the whole” Lichtenberg expressed some ideas which must have sounded rather farfetched to his contemporaries. For example, commenting on the controversy concerning the Huygens-Euler undulatory theory and the Newton-Kant corpuscular theory of light, Lichtenberg wrote, “Wouldn’t one perhaps accomplish most by unifying the two theories … considering the limitation of our knowledge ; both deserve respect, and both may indeed be right.3 In addition to his penetrating philosophical insight, Lichtenberg displayed an experimental skill and thoroughness of the highest order. Guided by the precept that “repeating an experiment with larger apparatus is tantamount to looking at the phenomenon through a microscope,” Lichtenberg constructed a gigantic electrophorus and, while experimenting with it, discovered in 1777 the basic process of xerographic copying. In the words of Chester F. Carlson, the inventor of modern xerography, “Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, professor of physics at Göttingen University and an avid electrical experimenter, discovered the first electrostatic recording process, by which he produced the so-called ‘Lichtenberg figures’ which still bear his name.”

Lichtenberg must be considered the most significant early observer of the subconscious. Concepts of repression, compensation, subconscious motivation, and sublimation are all in his writings. Lichtenberg is quoted over a dozen times by Sigmund Freud. In particular, Lichtenberg examined the interrelation between moods and facial expressions and gestures. The term “pathognomy” which he coined to describe outward signs of emotion—is still used in psychology of expression. At the same time Lichtenberg combated the mystical aspects of Johann Kaspar Lavater’s “physiognomic theory” fashionable in those times—which maintained that anatomical structure was the outward expression of the soul.4

Lichtenberg’s insight into human nature, coupled with an elegant and lucid style, made him a leading literary figure and earned him a secure place in German literature. His aphorisms and his commentaries on the engravings of Hogarth are unsurpassed. This facet of Lichtenberg is even more impressive than his scientific work. It is for his role as a “heretic” and an “antifaust,” who in his superb satiric and aphoristic writings stood out strongly against “metaphysical and romantic excesses,” that Lichtenberg is known best.


1. A player pays the “bank” an entrance fee of X dollars. A coin is then tossed until heads shows up, say at the n-th toss. The player is now paid by the bank the amount of 2n dollars. Example: Suppose the entrance fee is 7 dollars. If heads shows up at the first toss (n = I) the player gets 2 dollars, losing 5 dollars. If heads shows up at n = 2, the player gets 22 = 4 dollars, losing 3 dollars. If heads shows up at n = 3, the player gets 23 = 8 dollars, winning 1 dollar. If heads does not show up until the 8th toss, the player gets 28 = 256 dollars, winning 249 dollars. The problem is to determine what the “fair” entrance fee should be. Classical theory of probability gives

which is not only paradoxical but absurd as well.

2. The selenographic longitudes are measured in the plane of the moon’s equator positive toward the west in the sky and negative toward the east in the sky. The reference axis (0o longitude) is the radius of the moon passing through the mean center of moon’s visible disk. The latitudes are measured from the moon’s equator positive toward the north in the sky and negative toward the south.

3. It may be of interest to compare this statement to one made by Niels Bohr in 1928 in a similar context: “However contrasting such phenomena may at first appear, it must be realized that they are complementary, in the sense that taken together they exhaust all information about the atomic object which can be expressed in common language without ambiguity.”

4. The differences between Lavater’s “physiognomic theory” and Lichtenberg’s “pathognomy” were best summarized by Franz H. Mautner (in his Lichtenberg Geschichte seines Geistes, Berlin, 1968, p. 188): “Lavater was concerned primarily about revelation, Lichtenberg about learning; Lavater about principle, Lichtenberg about practical applicability; Lavater about religion, Lichtenberg about science; Lavater mainly about symbolism, Lichtenberg about scientific phenomenologic research.”


I. Original Works. Collections of Lichtenberg’s writings are Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs vermischte Schriften, Ludwig Christian Lichtenberg and Friedrich Kries, eds., 9 vols. (Göttingen, 1800–1806); and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Schriften and Briefe, Wolfgang Promies, ed., 4 vols. (Munich, 1967–1972). A third collection, Lichtenberg: Schriften, Franz H. Mautner, ed., is to be published

Other writings and letters by Lichtenberg are listed in the following, along with rich biographical and secondary bibliographical material (presented chronologically): F. Lauchert, G. Chr. Lichtenbergs schriftstellerische Tätigkeit in chronologischer Übersicht dargestellt (Göttingen, 1893); Albert Schneider, G. C. Lichtenberg, precurseur du romantisme (Nancy, 1954); J. P. Stern, Lichtenberg: A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions (Bloomington, Ind., 1959); W. Promies, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in Selbstzeugnissen and Bilddokumenten, Rowohlt Monographien no. 90 (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1964); Franz H. Mautner, Lichtenberg Geschichte seines Geistes (Berlin, 1968); and Anacleto Verrecchia, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: L’eretico dello spirito tedesco (Florence, 1969).

Lichtenberg’s anonymous contributions to Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen are identified by Karl S. Guthke in Libri, 12 (1963), 331–340.

II. Secondary Literature. “Lichtenberg figures” are discussed in the following and in references therein (listed chronologically): Karl Przibram, “Die elektrischen Figuren,” in Handbuch der Physik, 14 (1927), 391–404; C. E. Magnusson, “Lichtenberg Figures,” in Journal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 47 (1928), 828–835; F. H. Merrill and A. von Hippel, “The Atomphysical Interpretation of Lichtenberg Figures and Their Application to the Study of Gas Discharge Phenomena,” in journal of Applied Physics, 10 (1939), 873–887; A. Morris Thomas, “Heat Developed and Powder Lichtenberg Figures and the Ionization of Dielectric Surfaces Produced by Electrical Impulses,” in British Journal of Applied Physics, 2 (1951), 98–109; J. M. Meek and J. D. Craggs, Electrical Breakdown of Gases (Oxford, 1953), 215–222; and Chester F. Carlson, “History of Electrostatic Recording,” in John H. Dessauer and Harold E. Clark, eds., Xerography and Related processes (London-New York, !965), 15–49.

Lichtenberg’s other scientific activity is discussed in the following and in references therein (listed chronologically): Herbert Pupke, “Georg Christoph Lichtenberg als Naturforscher,” in Naturwissenschaften, 30 (1942), 745–750; P. Hahn, “Lichtenberg und die Experimentalphysik,” in Zeitzchrift für physikalischen und chemischen Unterricht, 56 (1943), 8–15; F. H. Mautner and F. Miller, “Remarks on G. C. Lichtenberg, Humanist-Scientist,” in Isis, 43 (1952), 223–232; D. B. Herrmann, “Georg Christoph Lichtenberg und die Mondkarte von Tobias Mayer,” in Mitteilungen der Archenhold-Sternwarte Berlin-Treptow, no. 72 (1965), 2–6; D. B. Herrmann, “Georg Christoph Lichtenberg als Herausgeber von Erxlebens Werk ‘Anfangsgründe der Naturlehre,’” in NTM, Schriftenreihe für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin, 6 , no. 1 (1970), 68–81, and 6 , no.2 (1970), 1–12; and Eric G. Forbes, “Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and the Opera Inedita of Tobias Mayer,” in Annals of Science,28 (1972), 31–42.

For a discussion of the “Petersburg game,” see Thornton C. Fry, Probability and Its Engineering Uses (New York, 1928), 197, and W. Feller, “Note on the Law of Large Numbers and ‘Fair’ Games,” in Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 16 (1945), 301–304; and his An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications, 2nd ed. (New York, 1957), 233–237.

Breakdowns of references on Lichtenberg according to his areas of activity (science, philosophy, literature, and so on) are in the bibliographical sections of the books by J. P. Stern and A. Verrecchia (see above).

A definitive bibliography is Lichtenberg-Bibliographic, prepared by Rudolf Jung, in the series Repertoria Heidelbergensia, II (Heidelberg, 1972).

Olexa Myron Bilaniuk

Wagenseil, Georg Christoph

views updated May 17 2018

Wagenseil, Georg Christoph

Wagenseil, Georg Christoph, Austrian composer and music theorist; b. Vienna, Jan. 29, 1715; d. there, March 1, 1777. He studied with J. J. Fux, and served as the music teacher of the Empress Maria Theresa and her children. In 1739 he was appointed court composer, remaining in the Imperial service until his death. He wrote many operas in Italian. Additionally, he publ. the following: Suavis, artificiose elaboratus concentus musicus, continens: 6 selectas parthias ad clav-icembalum compositas (1740), 18 Divertimenti di cembalo,opp. 1-3, Divertimento for 2 Harpsichords, 2 divertimentos for Harpsichord, 2 Violins, and Cello, op.5, 10 syms. for Harpsichord, 2 Violins, and Cello, opp. 4, 7, 8, and 6 violin sonatas with Harpsichord, op.6. Two syms. and a Trio Sonata are in Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich, 31 (15.ii); a Divertimento was ed. by Blume.


dramatic: OPERA (all 1stperf. in Vienna): La generosità trionfante (1745); Ariodante (May 14,1746); La clemenza di Tito (Oct. 15, 1746); Alexander der Grosse in Indien (July 7,1748); // Sime (Oct. 4, 1748); L’Olimpiade (May 13,1749); Andromeda (March 30, 1750); Antigone (May 13, 1750); Armida placato (Aug. 28, 1750); Euridice (July 26, 1750); Le Cacciatrici amanti (Laxenburg, June 1755); Demetrio (1760). OTHER: 3 oratorios; 30 syms.; 27 harpsichord concertos; organ works.


K. Horwitz, W. als Symphoniker (diss., Univ. of Vienna, 1906); J. Pelikant, Die Klavier-Werke W.s (Vienna, 1926); J. Kucaba, The Symphonies ofG.C. W.(diss., Boston Univ., 1967); H. Scholz- Michelitsch, G.C. W. als Klavierkomponist: Eine Studie zu seinen zyklischen Soloklavierwerken (diss., Univ. of Vienna, 1967).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

Wagenseil, Georg Christoph

views updated May 14 2018

Wagenseil, Georg Christoph (b Vienna, 1715; d Vienna, 1777). Austrian composer and pianist. Court composer, Vienna, from 1739, becoming mus.-master to Empress Maria Theresia. Wrote 16 operas (incl. La clemenza di Tito, 1746), at least 30 syms., hpd. concs., hp. concs., chamber mus.

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