19th Physics as a socio-cultural phenomenon

A review of Iwan Rhys Morus’ When Physics Became King, in The American Scientist.

[T]he majority of the book is dedicated to the analysis of 19th-century British physics. For example, he discusses how a dozen upstart mathematics students at the University of Cambridge during the 1810s, including John Herschel, Charles Babbage and George Peacock, adopted the new mathematical analysis of the French and founded the Analytical Society. These lads wished to wrestle British science away from the grasps of aristocratic gentlemen—epitomized by the president of the Royal Society of London, Sir Joseph Banks—in order to reform both science and society. They maintained that meritocracy, rather than nepotism, was required for physics and the economy to flourish. Babbage and Herschel were committed to maximizing the efficiency of both mental labor and British manufacturing. Efficiency was applicable to both physics and business, or as Morus argues, “Efficiency was the name of the game in both cases, and efficiency was best achieved by due attention to, and proper application of, the laws of nature and the operations of the mind.”

Mathematics was believed to discipline the mind. The Analytical Society wanted to revolutionize the mathematical Tripos at Cambridge by having it cover French analytical calculus. Peacock eventually became one of the university’s examiners and accomplished this expansion of scope. By the middle of the 19th century, the Tripos had been overhauled, rendering it much more rigorous, with grueling written tests after the third year. Only those with a sharp mind, combined with physical stamina and the assistance of a good tutor (referred to as a “coach”), could survive. Posh accents (indicative of good breeding), which in the 18th century had been noted approvingly in oral exams, could no longer assist those who were ill prepared.