Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Scientific Legacy of Jožef Stefan

How many scientists have a law, a constant, a dimensionless variable and a problem named for them? And go on to be hailed as a great teacher of the subject? I know one. Jožef Stefan.
In 2009 I wrote a post on a paper that discussed about the scientific deeds of Jožef Stefan. The author of that paper, Prof. John Crepeau, after reading that post, invited me to write a chapter for an e-book on Stefan that he was editing. As he had already lined up several experts by then to write on specific contributions of Stefan, I was commissioned to write the last word -- chapter -- to summarize things in a chapter titled "The Scientific Legacy of Stefan".

Yesterday, that book Jožef Stefan: His Scientific Legacy on the 175th Anniversary of His Birth got published. Here is the preface. You can purchase separate chapters; write to me for a pre-print version of mine.

Scientific contributions of Stefan include, the accurate determination of thermal conductivity of gases using the diathermometer that he invented for that purpose, the empirical proposal of what is identified as the Stefan-Boltzmann law of radiation, first theoretical analysis of phase change to determine the melt-front velocity (how fast melting/freezing takes place) that introduced what is now identified as the Stefan number (and Stefan problem), prediction of the temperature of the Sun and so on. Here are some notes on these that I used to write the chapter: 1) Stefan and the Diathermometer 2) Stefan and the T to the fourth power law and 3) Stefan and the Polar Ice Caps.

What is less known even among academics is that Stefan was a great teacher. Boltzmann was his first PhD student. Sigmund Freud was another luminary who took his courses. Both have lavished praise on Stefan's teaching skills and passionate lectures. I shall post few paragraphs of my notes on Stefan as a teacher separately.

All these achievements of Stefan were done from within the humble confines of the University in Vienna, from which he never moved out. His ground-breaking publications were done mostly in the local journal. His laboratory was practically hand-built with the modest funds the University could attract.
Often in academia one hears about how teaching and research are two separate things and a person is seldom good in both and so on. Taken to an extreme, this also rears meta-detractors like whether one's work-place is a teaching or a research institute. One forgets history of science shaped by scientists like Stefan, and be condemned by it.

P. S. If we in India were to pursue similar book projects to trace the history of Indian science, who are the persons one should write about in detail first, I wonder. A recent book I bought Ancient Indian Leaps Into Mathematics, edited by B. S. Yadav and presented as an historical account by current math academicians, is a step in that direction. Such a project could be attempted for other science and engineering domains.