Natanson, Władys

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(b. Warsaw, Poland, 18 June 1864; d. Cracow, Poland, 26 February 1937)


Natanson, a son of Ludwik Natanson and Natalia Epstein, came from a distinguished literary and scientific family. His father, a physician, wrote papers on medicine and edited a medical journal. While attending school in Warsaw from 1874 to 1882, he wrote his first memoirs, collaborating with his older brother Edward. In 1882 he began to study mathe- matics and physics at the University of St. Petersburg. During vacations, in a laboratory in the family home in Warsaw, Wladyslaw and Edward carried out experiments on the dissociation of nitrogen tetroxide— one of the first experimental confirmations of the law of mass action. In 1886 Natanson completed his studies at St. Petersburg and went to England, where he worked for a time in the Cavendish Laboratory, then directed by J. J. Thomson. In 1887 he received a master’s degree in science after presenting “Über die kinetische Theorie unvollkommener Gase”at the University of Dorpat, where the physics department was directed by A. von Oettingen. Here too in 1888 he presented his thesis, “Über die kinetische Theorie der Jouleschen Erscheinung,” and was awarded a doctorate. In 1891 Natanson received the veniam legendi at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and became a professor there, occupying the chair of theoretical physics until his retirement in 1935. In 1911 he married Elzbieta Baranowska.

A member of the physical societies of London, Berlin, and Paris, Natanson was a founder and first president (1920) of the Polish Physical Society. From 1893 he was a corresponding member, and from 1900 a member, of the Academy of Sciences at Cracow (later the Polish Academy of Sciences). In 1925 he was elected vice-president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. Rector of the Jagiellonian University in 1922, Natanson received an honorary Ph.D. from that university in 1930.

After the experiments on the dissociation of nitrogen tetroxide that he had carried out with his brother, Natanson worked on the kinetic theory of gases. His “Über die kinetische Theorie unvollkom- mener Gase”contains, for example, a proof that the aggregate of molecules of a gas, however great, underlies both Maxwell’s law of distribution and the law of the equipartition of energy—a statement important for the theory of Brownian movement, although the paper was not seen then in this light. Beginning in 1891 Natanson published several papers on thermodynamics. The most important are “On the Laws of Irreversible Phenomena”(1896) and “Sur les propriétés thermocinétiques des potentiels thermody- namiques”(1897). Considering the thermodynamics of his time to be mere thermostatics, Natanson sought a way to achieve genuine thermodynamics, examining the function of energy dissipation and introducing a generalization of Hamilton’s principle. For postulating this principle of many applications and general scope (sometimes called Natanson’s thermokinetic principle), Natanson is considered a pioneer in the thermo- dynamics of irreversible processes.

Natanson later worked on the hydrodynamics of viscous liquids and on such related phenomena as the double refraction of light in moving viscous liquids. Inspired by Lorentz’ works, he published several papers on the optical properties of matter. In “On the Elliptic Polarization of Light Transmitted Through an Absorbing Naturally-Active Medium”(1908) Natanson gave a theory of Cotton’s phenomenon and a rule governing it (known in the French literature as the règle de Natanson). In 1929–1933 he worked on Fermat’s principle in relation to wave mechanics.

Natanson published five volumes of lectures and essays on scientists, writers, and philosophers, as well

as on intellectual and religious trends. He was also an author and a coauthor of university and secondary school textbooks.


I. Original Works. German, English, and French versions of Natanson’s works are in Wiedemann’s Annalen der Physik und Chemie (1885–1891); Philosophical Magazine (1890–1933); and Bulletin international de l’Académie polonaise des sciences et des lettres de Cracovie (1891–1933). Lists of his publications are in the articles by Weyssenhoff and Klecki (see below).

His articles include “Über die Dissoziation des Unter- salpetersäuredampfes,”in Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 24 (1885), 454, and 27 (1886), 606, written with E. Natan- son; “Über die kinetische Theorie unvollkommener Gase,”ibid., 33 (1888), 683; “On the Laws of Irreversible Phenomena,”in Philosophical Magazine, 41 (1896), 385; “Sur les propriétés thermoctnétiques des potentiels thermodynamiques,”in Bulletin de l’Acadélmié des sciences de Cracovie (1897), 247; “On the Elliptic Polarization of Light Transmitted Through an Absorbing Naturally- Active Medium,”ibid. (1908), 764; and “Fermat’s Principle,”in Philosophical Magazine, 16 (1933), 178. Natanson’s autobiography was published in Post̨py fizyki, 9 (1958), 115.

II. Secondary Literature. See the following, listed chronologically: J. W. Weyssenhoff, in Acta physica polonica, 6 (1937), 295, an obituary in English and Polish with a bibliography of Natanson’s works; L. Klecki, in Prace matematyczno-fizyczne, 46 (1939), 1, an obituary in French with a bibliography without titles; and articles by J. W. Weyssenhoff, A. Piekara, and L. Infeld, in Postepy fizyli, 9 (1958).

See also Armin Teske, “Sur un travail de Ladislas Natanson de 1888,”in Actes du VIIIe Congrès international d’histoire des sciences, II (Florence, 1958), 123; and K, Gumiáski, “O pracach termodynamicznych Wladyslawa Natansona”(“Wladyslaw Natanson’s Works on Thermo- dynamics”), in Postepy fizyki, 17 (1966), 101.

Andrzej A. Teske