Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ampère falling in love

André-Marie Ampère, dubbed the father of electrodynamics, was born 240 years ago today. A child of the enlightenment and Rousseau’s education principles, he became a great scientist without formal training. He left behind one youthful diary, a naive and charming account of his love and courtship of the woman who became his wife, but then died just four years later.

Ampère was born in Lyon, France, on 20 January 1775. His father was a prosperous businessman who admired the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau so much that, in line with Rousseau’s education ideas, he left his son to educate himself at the family home - with a well-stocked library - at Poleymieux-au-Mont-d'Or near Lyon. Although his father came to be called into public service by the new revolutionary government, he was guillotined in 1793 as part of the so-called Jacobin purges. Ampère, himself, found regular work as a maths teacher in 1799, which gave him enough income to marry his sweetheart, Julie Carron.

In 1802, Ampère was appointed a professor of physics and chemistry at the École Centrale in Bourg-en-Bresse, which meant leaving Julie, by then a sick woman, and his son in Lyon. In Bourg, he produced his first treatise on mathematical probability - Considerations on the Mathematical Theory of Games, which he sent to the Paris Academy of Sciences. Following the death of Julie, he moved to the capital and began teaching at the new École Polytechnique, where, in 1809, he was appointed professor of mathematics.

As well as holding positions at the École Polytechnique through to 1828, Ampère also taught philosophy and astronomy at the University of Paris for a while, and in 1824 was elected to the chair in experimental physics at the Collège de France. He engaged in all kinds of scientific enquiry, but, from 1820, when hearing of a Danish discovery which showed how a magnetic needle can be deflected by an electric current, he began developing theories to understand the relationship between electricity and magnetism.

It is for his work in understanding electromagnetism that Ampère is best remembered. He developed a physical account of electromagnetic phenomena, empirically demonstrable and mathematically predictive, and in 1827 published his major work, Memoir on the Mathematical Theory of Electrodynamic Phenomena, Uniquely Deduced from Experience. This work coined the name of a new science, electrodynamics, while Ampère also gave his name, in time, to Ampère’s Law, and the SI unit of electric current, the ampere, often shortened to amp. He died in 1836. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, NNBD, University of St Andrews’s MacTutor website or ITER. James R. Hofmann’s biography - André-Marie Ampère: Enlightenment an Electrodynamics - can also be previewed at Googlebooks.

Although Ampère is not known as a diarist, he did leave behind one published diary, a record of his courtship with his future wife. This was first published, in French, in 1869, as Journal et Correspondance de André-Marie Ampère (freely available in French at Internet Archive or this website which is dedicated to ‘Ampère et l’histoire de l’électricité’). An 1875 English review of the book can be found in The North American Review (Vol. 121, No. 249, Oct., 1875), viewable online at JSTOR. The reviewer, T. S. Perry, says the volume is ‘idyllic’ and ‘charming’, and though Ampère was ‘far from being a fool, he certainly shows how foolish an intelligent man can be in the privacy of his diary’. And Perry adds: ‘Although Ampère’s letters and diary lack the historical value of Pepys’s they have a far higher interest in the light they throw upon the private life and character of a great and good man.’ High praise indeed.

An English translation was published by R. Bentley & Son, a few years later, in 1873, with the title The Story of his Love: being the journal and early correspondence of of André-Marie Ampère with his family circle during the First Republic, 1793-1804. The print run must have been fairly limited since I can find no second hand copies readily available (through Abebooks, for example); and, unusually, Internet Archive has no scanned copy. However, the full text of the English version can be read online thanks to the West Bengal Public Library Network (from which the following extracts have been copied).

10 April 1796
‘I saw her for the first time.’

10 August 1796
‘I went to her house, and they lent me ‘Le Nouvelle Morali di Soave’.’

3 September 1796
‘M. Coupier had left the day before. I went to return ‘Le Nouvelle’ and they allowed me to select a volume from the library. I took Mme. Deshoulières. I was a few moments alone with her.’

4 September 1796
‘I accompanied the two sisters after mass. I brought away the first volume of Benardin. She told me that she should be alone, as her mother and sister were leaving on Wednesday.’

9 September 1796
‘I went there, and only Elise.’

14 September 1796
‘I returned the second volume of Bernardin, and had some conversation both her and Jenny. I promised to bring some comedies on the following day.’

17 September 1796
‘I took them, and began to open my heart.’

27 January 1797
‘At length she has arrived from Lyons; her mother did not come into the room at once. Apparently for the sake of looking at some vignettes, I knelt by her side; her mother came in and made me sit down by her.’

9 June 1797
‘I was prevented from giving a lesson on account my cough; I went away rather early, taking with Gresset, and the third volume of the Histoire de France. Julie shows me the trick of solitaire, which I had guessed the evening before; I seated myself near Julie, and remained by her till the end.

Incidentally, referring to some airs and songs, I left C’est en vain que la nature on the table. I ate a cherry she had let fall, and kissed a rose which she had smelt; in the walk I twice gave her my hand to get over a stile, her mother made room for me on the seat between herself and Julia; in returning I told her that it was long since I had passed so happy a day, but that it was the contemplation of nature which had charmed me the most; she spoke to me the whole day with much kindness.’

21 May 1803
‘Walk in the garden. Julie very ill.’

9 July 1803
‘Julie very ill in the morning. I begged M. Mollet to take my place at the Lyceum. M. Pelotin continued the same treatment, in spite of the new symptom.’

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