The attitude of Todhunter to experiments

Arthur Schuster (1851-1934) delivered four lectures to the University of Calcutta during March 1908, in which gave cautious approval of Albert Einstein's theory of Special Relativity and Max Planck's early ideas about quantum theory. The lectures were published as The Progress of Physics 1875-1908 (Cambridge University Press, 1911). In this he gives some interesting comments about Isaac Todhunter's attitude to experiments:-

Clerk Maxwell, who possessed an innate desire to see what he could with his own eyes, had taken considerable trouble in cutting and grinding a plate out of a doubly refracting crystal to show conical refraction. The experiment is difficult, and delighted at its successful accomplishment Maxwell met one of the mathematical teachers of the University. "Would you like to see Conical Refraction?" asked Maxwell. "No," replies Todhunter, "I have been teaching it all my life, and I do not want to have all my ideas upset by seeing it." That this remark was not made jocularly is shown by a passage which occurs in an essay on the Conflict of Studies, in which Todhunter discusses the advisability of introducing experimental illustrations into the lessons given in schools. He declares himself as opposed to it on the ground, that an experiment which is not intended to bring out a new fact is useless, and proceeds as follows:
It may be said that the fact makes a stronger impression on the boy through the medium of his sight, that he believes it the more confidently. I say that this ought not to be the case. If he does not believe the statements of his tutor - probably a clergyman of mature knowledge, recognised ability, and blameless character - his suspicion is irrational, and manifests a want of power of appreciating evidence, a want fatal to his success in that branch of science which he is supposed to be cultivating.

Last Updated March 2021