Paul Ehrenfest and the dilemmas of modernity

F.H. van Lunteren, M. Hollestelle

    Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


    This essay considers the highly ambivalent attitude of the Austrian-Dutch physicist Paul Ehrenfest toward contemporary developments in both science and society. On the one hand, he was in the vanguard of the quantum and relativity revolutions, supported industrialization and economic planning based on mathematical models, and, in general, cherished technocratic ideals. The essay highlights several influences that shaped his attitude in these respects, from his ties with the Philips Physics Laboratory and his sojourns in the United States to the utopian visions of H. G. Wells. On the other hand, he was extremely worried about the harmful consequences of contemporary changes in science and society, such as specialization, the growing pace of city life, and the increasing dependence on modern technologies, be they material or mathematical. In this regard, he agreed with cultural critics such as Max Nordau, Henri Bergson, Ostwald Spengler, and Ludwig Klages. Rather than attempting to solve this paradox, the essay suggests that this kind of ambiguity characterized a great deal of innovative science in the period. © 2013 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)504-536
    JournalIsis. Current bibliography of the history of science and its cultural influences
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


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