Volkmann, Paul Oskar Eduard

views updated


(b. Bladiau, near Heiligenheil, Germany, 12 January 1856; d. Königsberg, Germany [now Kaliningrad, R.S.F.S. ], 20 April 1938), physics, epistemology, history of science.

The son of a minister, Volkmann attended the Friedrichkollegium in Königsberg from 1864 to 1875. He began to study mathematics and physics in 1875 at the University of Königsberg, where his most important teachers were Heinrich Weber and Woldemar Voigt. He assited Voigt while still a student; after receiving the doctorate in 1880, he became Voigt’s regular assistant.

Volkmann remained at the University of Königsberg throughout his career. He qualified as a lecturer in 1882 and in 1886 succeeded Voigt as assistant professor of theoretical physics; he became full professor in 1894. Volkmann was assigned not only to teach theoretical physics but also to direct the laboratory of thermodynamics and optics that was part of the institute of theoretical physics. Besides providing an introduction to theoretical physics, Volkmann offered seminars in theoretical mathematical physics, practical laboratory periods in mathematical physics, and occasional sessions to perfect the manual skills required in the laboratory.

Volkmann’s early publications were devoted exclusively to theoretical and experimental physics; later they dealt increasingly with epistemology, the history of science, and pedagogy. Most of his publications on physics concerned the determination of the surface tension of water and aqueous solutions on the basis of their height in capillary tubes and between flat plates. His careful investigations on this topic found recognition in two papers by Niels Bohr (1909,1910), who pointed out the agreement between his own results—reached by a different method—and Volkmann’s earlier findings. Volkmann also studied the theory of physical systems of measurement, Green’s expression for the potential of the luminiferous ether, Maccullagh’s theory of the total reflection of light, the measurement of soil temperatures, and Ohm’s law.

Volkmann took a position on the atomic theory in the third thesis of his dissertation: “The acceptance of the absolute indivisibility of the atom is philosophically quite conceivable and leads to no contradiction,” In 1897, stimulated by Bolzmann’s “Ueber die Unentbehrlichkeit der Atomistik in der Naturwissenschaft,” he set forth his own moderate views in “Ueber notwendige und nichtnotwendige Verwertung der Atomistik in der Naturwissenschaft,” which was favorably received.

Volkmann considered axiomatics in “Hat die Physik Axiome?” (1894), in which he rejected the idea of axiomatizing physics but clearly grasped the essential aspects of the subject and recognized its importance five years before the publication of David Hilbert’s Die Grundlagen der Geometrie, through which this method first entered mathematics.

Volkmann presented his epistemological views in Erkenntnistheoretische Grundzüge der Naturwissenschaft…and Einführung in das Studium der theoretischen Physik … His theory states that because of man’s limited intellect and understanding, he necessarily has a subjective comprehension of experience. This comprehension is flawed by errors, which must be detected and eliminated; the goal is an objective knowledge of experience. The means to this end is the introduction of postulates, hypotheses, and natural laws, which permit the construction of a system of knowledge that transcends sense perception and enables man to use mathematics to solve physical problems. Once these foundations are laid, an “oscillation” begins between subjective perception and objective reality. There will always be a difference between the object and the subjective conception of it, but man seeks to narrow the gap by constantly reformulating and adapting his ideas.

In his studies on the history of science, Volkmann dealt most fully with Newton and Franz Neumann. Franz Neumann, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Wissenschaft (1896) contains abundant material on nineteenth-century physics and physicists. The essays “Kant und die theoretische Physik der Gegenwart” and “Studien über Ernst Mach vom Standpunkt eines theoretischen Physikers der Gegenwart,” both of which appeared in Annalen der Philosophie (1924), were Volkmann’s last publications.

In 1887, with Ferdinand Lindemann, Volkmann published Ratschläge für die Studierenden der reinen und angewandten Mathematik, a work that explicitly presumed four or five years of study by its readers. He also considered his Einführung in das Studium der theoretischen Physik as a contribution to the teaching of physics. In 1912 he instituted a refresher course for Gymnasium teachers, which led to the publication Fragen des physikalischen Schulunterrichtes, in which Volkmann advocated the principle of teaching by example.

Despite his interest in education, Volkmann exerted only a limited influence as a teacher. His reticent and careful manner offered little excitement to young physicists hoping to hear him discuss new theories and concepts. He found satisfaction in immersing himself in the fund of existing knowledge, so he had little to communicate to students like Hilbert and Sommerfeld. The limited impact of Volkmann’s teaching may well account for the fact that, following his death, none of his former students published an obituary of him or a tribute to his work.


I. Original Works. Volkmann’s writings are listed in Poggendorff, III, 1400; IV, 1578; V, 1317-1318; and VI, 2772. They include Ueber den Einfluss der Krümmung der Wand auf die Constanten der Capillarität bei benetzenden Flüssigmeiten (Leipzig, 1880), his doctoral dissertaion; Vorlesungen fiber die Theorie des Lichtes (unter Rücksicht auf die elastische und die electromagnetische Anschuung) (Leipzing-Berlin, 1891); Erkenntnistheoretische Grundzüge der Naturwissenschaften und ihre Beziehungen zum Geistesleben der Gegenwart (Leipzig-Berlin, 1896; ed., enl., 1910); Franz Neumann, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Wissenschaft (Leipzig-Berlin, 1896); Einführung in das Studium der theoretischen Physik, insbesondere das der analytischen Mechanik, mit einer Einleitung in die Theorie der phusikalischen Erkenntinis (Leipzig-Berlin, 1900; 2nd ed., 1913); and Fragen des physikalischen Schulunterrichtes, Vier Vorträge (Leipzig-Berlin, 1913).

II. Secondary Literature. There is a short biography in Deutsche Senioren der Physik (Leipzig, 1936), Karte 19, with portrait. See also B. Bavink, “Formalistisches und realistisches Definitionsverfahren in der Physik,” in Zeitschrift für den physikalischen und chemischen Unterricht, 31 (1918), 161–172; Niels Bohr, “Determination of the Surface-Tension of Water by the Method of Jet Vibration,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 209 (1909), 282–317, esp. 315–316; and “On the Determination of the Tension of a Recently Formed Water-Surface,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, A84 (1910), 395–403, esp. 402–403; L. Boltzmann, “Ueber die Unentbehrlichkeit der Atomistik in der Naturwissenschaft,” in Annalen der Physik, 3rd ser., 60 (1897), 231–247; and “Nochmals über die Atomistik,” ibid., 61 (1897), 790–793; A. Höfler, “Zur physikalischen Didaktik und zur physikalischen Philosophie,” in Zeitschrift für den physikalischen und chemischen Unterricht, 31 (1918), 1–9, 37–46; W. Lorey, Das Studium der Mathematik an den deutschen Universitäten seit Anfang des 19. Jahrhunderts (Leipzing-Berlin, 1916), esp. 262, 282, 299; and F. Poske, “Galilei und der Kausalbegriff,” in Archiv für die Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, 6 (1913), 288–293; “Das Ohmsche Gesetz im Unterricht,” in Aus der Natur (Leipzig), 14 (1917-1918), 49–59; and “Studien zur Didaktik des physikalischen Unterrichts,” in Zeitchrift für den physikalischen und chemischen Unterricht, 31 (1918), 191–193.

Hans Ramser