No actual measurement ... was required: Maxwell and Cavendish's null method for the inverse square law of electrostatics

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Abstract

In 1877 James Clerk Maxwell and his student Donald MacAlister refined Henry Cavendish’s 1773 null experiment demonstrating the absence of electricity inside a charged conductor. This null result was a mathematical prediction of the inverse square law of electrostatics, and both Cavendish and Maxwell took the experiment as verifying the law. However, Maxwell had already expressed absolute conviction in the law, based on results of Michael Faraday’s. So, what was the value to him of repeating Cavendish’s experiment? After assessing whether the law was as secure as he claimed, this paper explores its central importance to the electrical programme that Maxwell was pursuing. It traces the historical and conceptual re-orderings through which Maxwell established the law by constructing a tradition of null tests and asserting the superior accuracy of the method. Maxwell drew on his developing ‘doctrine of method’ to identify Cavendish’s experiment as a member of a wider class of null methods. By doing so, he appealed to the null practices of telegraph engineers, diverted attention from the flawed logic of the method, and sought to localise issues around the mapping of numbers onto instrumental indications, on the grounds that ‘no actual measurement … was required’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)74-86
Number of pages13
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Volume65-66
Early online date25 May 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2017

Keywords

  • Null methods
  • Coulomb's law
  • Electrostatics
  • Inverse square law
  • James Clerk Maxwell
  • Henry Cavendish

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