Guye, Charles-Eugène

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Guye, Charles-Eugène

(b. St. Christophe, Switzerland, 15 October 1866; d. Geneva, Switzerland, 15 July 1942)

physics, electromagnetism, molecular physics.

Guye was a member of a distinguished Swiss family. With his older brother, Philippe-Auguste (1862–1922), he pioneered in investigating phenomena on the borderline between physics and chemistry. Philippe-Auguste, primarily a chemist, was interested in electrochemical synthesis and is known for his precision studies of atomic weights. He was a founder of the Journal de chimie physique. Charles-Eugéne became primarily a physicist. Interested in electromagnetism and molecular size determinations. he gained recognition for his precise measurements of variation of the mass of electrons as a function of their velocity, and as director of physical laboratories at the University of Geneva. Together and separately, the two Guyes achieved distinction in their different disciplines by devising experimental means for analyzing interface phenomena in physical chemistry and chemical physics.

Four years after Philippe-Auguste, Charles-Eugène left his native town in the canton of Vaud for Geneva, where he began his scientific career in the 1880’s with experimental demonstrations of rotatory polarization in optically active crystals and liquids. Studying with Jacques-Louis Soret and Charles Soret, he obtained his doctorate with a thesis on this subject in 1889 at the University of Geneva. There both Guyes were active most of their lives. Significantly, in 1894 Charles-Eugène was called to a professorship at Zurich’s Polytechnique. Remaining there for six years, he achieved intellectual independence and was aroused to new scientific interests through teaching electrical engineering. At Zurich Guye’s research was in alternating currents, polyphasic generators, and hysteresis phenomena. Albert Einstein was one of his students.

In 1900 Guye returned to Geneva when offered a permanent professorship in experimental physics. He remained there through his retirement in 1930. Most active in the laboratory during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Guye studied electric arcs, their explosive potentials and spontaneous rotations. Bolometry, induction coefficients, and analysis of electrical’ measuring instruments were his specialties. By designing highly accurate instruments for such work, Guye found important new applications for his apparatus in determining the diameters of molecules and investigating the interior structures of solid-state materials.

With the advent of H. A. Lorentz’ theory of the electron and Max Abraham’s rival theory, Guye became interested in using his apparatus to test for evidences of the FitzGerald-Lorentz contraction hypothesis and transformation equations. It seemed to him that a crucial experiment ought to be possible to decide between Lorentz’ idea of a deformable electron with a shape dependent on velocity and Abraham’s notion of permanently spherical electrons. The opportunity seemed all the more inviting as Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which was based upon Lorentz’ work, began to stir controversy after 1905, while on the other hand, W. Kauffmann’s experiments appeared to support Abraham and contradict the predictions of Lorentz and Einstein.

For fully a decade after 1907 Guye carried through a series of increasingly elaborate experiments with charged particles moving through electromagnetic fields. Collaborating with M. Ratnowsky and Charles Lavanchy, Guye was able to develop very precise techniques for measuring particle deflections within carefully controlled electric and magnetic fields. In 1916 and 1921 Guye published these methods and pronounced results in favor of the Lorentzian formulas and Einsteinian theory. Thereafter his reputation rose as a most able experimenter among the world’s physicists, but the greater fame of his brother, whom he outlived by two decades, overshadowed Charles-Eugène.

Of French extraction, culture, and spirit, Guye served his profession and university long and well; first as dean of the Faculty of Sciences (1910–1914); then as consulting editor of Helvetica physica acta and editor of Archives de Genève (1919–1927). He served the Swiss government as a member of its Commission on Weights and Measures (1915–1931) and served as a member of the Solvay Institute of the University of Brussels (1925–1934). In 1927 he was honored to become a correspondent of the French Académie des Sciences, and many other French honors followed. The several small books that he published in later years on the evolution of statistical thermodynamics and on reductionism in physics and biology show the breadth of his interests and the vitality of his mind.


I. Original Works. Guye’s works include L’évolution physicochimique (Paris, 1922), trans. by J. R. Clarke as The Evolution of Physical Chemistry (London, 1925); and Les limites de la physique et de la biologie (Geneva, 1936). There is a bio-bibliography in Documents pour servir à l’historie de l’Université de Genéve, VI (1938), 69–71; IX (1944). 32 f.

II. Secondary Literature. An anonymous work about Guye is “Au Professor C. E. Guye à l’occasion de son soixante-dixième anniversaire,” in Helvetic physica acta, 9 (1936), 511–514. See also Émile Briner, “Ch.-E. Guye (1866–1942),” in Journal de chimie physique, 40 (1943), 1–4; Louis de Broglie, “Notice sur 1a vie et les travaux de Charles-Eugène Guye,” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des sciences, 215 (1942), 209–211; Historische-biographisches Lexikon der Schweiz, IV (Neuenburg, 1927), 25; and Poggendorff, IV. 986 f.; VIIa, 324.

Loyd S. Swenson, Jr.