The Cosmological Views of Nernst: an Appraisal

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Scientific Paper
Title The Cosmological Views of Nernst: an Appraisal
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Author(s) Peter F Browne
Keywords remembering Walther Nernst, thermodynamics, quantum theory, properties of the ?ther
Published 1995
Journal Apeiron
Volume 2
No. of pages 4
Pages 72-78

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Walther Nernst is best known for his contributions to thermodynamics, and in particular for the third law of thermodynamics, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1920. His work at the time when quantum theory was developing rapidly had cosmological implications which he explored in 1937 in a paper which has been overlooked. The cosmological work of Nernst has been brought to my attention by A.K.T. Assis and C.R. Keys because of the similarity of Nernst's ideas with my own ideas, some of which were published in earlier issues of this journal (Browne 1994a,b). Helped by translations of Nernst's papers by Peter Huber and Gabriella Moesle (see other essay in this issue), I review now how the separate lines of thought come together. The character and properties of the aether provide a direct connection between thermodynamics and cosmology. How Nernst's work integrated with the ideas prevalent in the years 1906-1916 is made particularly clear by Whittaker (1951) in his two-volume study A History of the Theories of the aether and Electricity. In the preface to the second volume, Whittaker writes: As everyone knows, the aether played a great part in the physics of the nineteenth century; but, in the first decades of the twentieth century, chiefly as a result of failure to observe the earth's motion relative to the aether, and the acceptance of the principle that such attempts must always fail, the word 'aether' fell out of favour, and it became customary to refer to the interplanetary space as 'vacuous'; the vacuum being conceived as mere emptiness, having no properties except that of propagating electromagnetic waves. But with the development of quantum electrodynamics, the vacuum has come to be regarded as the seat of ?zero-point? fluctuations of electric charge and current, and of a 'polarization' corresponding to a dielectric constant different from unity. It seems absurd to retain the name 'vacuum' for an entity so rich in physical properties, and the historical word 'aether' may fittingly be retained.