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Pierre Duhem

French physicist

Biographical Information

Name: Pierre Duhem
Full name: Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
Born on 10 June 1861 in , Ile-de-France, France, Europe
Deceased on 14 September 1916 in , Aude (11), Occitanie, France, Europe

Short biography of Pierre Duhem

Duhem studied physics at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. In his dissertation he applied thermodynamic concepts to chemistry and the theory of electricity and attacked theses that Marcellin Berthelot (1827–1907) – at that time the all-powerful secretary of the Paris Academy of Sciences and member of the Examinations Commission – had been working on for many years. That was too much for Berthelot, who declared that “this young man shall never teach in Paris" (Schäfer in:[Duhem, 1978, p. IX*]). And Duhem never did teach in Paris! His dissertation, which reveals him to be one of the co-founders of physical chemistry from the history of science perspective, was not acknowledged until much later. In a second attempt involving magnetism, Duhem proved to be the best doctor candidate of that year. Following short periods in Rennes and Lille, he worked as professor of theoretical physics at the University of Bordeaux from 1895 until his death. Physics was not the only subject in which Duhem was amazingly successful – his research into the history of science and scientific theory are also worthy of note. His works L’évolution de la méchanique [Duhem, 1903] and Les origines de la statique [Duhem, 1905/1906] are of extra- ordinary importance for the historical study of science in general and theory of structures in particular. In those works, Duhem single-handedly destroys the cliché originating from the Enlightenment that following the decline of the Hellenistic sciences, it was the Renaissance that brought liberation from the spiritual servitude of the Middle Ages and hence at the same time introduced the constitution of the sciences of the modern age. Duhem discovered the direct forefathers of the physicists of the 17th century in the shape of the impetus theory in the works of Nikolaus von Oresme (1330?–82), Albert von Sachsen (c. 1316–90) and Johannes Buridan (c. 1300–58?), rector of the Sorbonne around 1327. “Through researching these sources, Duhem lent the history of science a whole new momentum" (Schäfer in: [Duhem, 1978, p. IX*]). So his two works on the evolution of mechanics contribute to a deeper understanding of the historico-logical sources of the orientation phase of structural theory (1575–1700). The German translation (1908) of his monograph on scientific theory La théorie physique, son objet et sa structure (The aim and structure of physical theory, 1954) [Duhem, 1906] had a long-lasting influence on the logical empiricism of the Viennese circle around Rudolph Carnap (1891–1970), Otto Neurath (1882–1945), Philipp Frank (1884–1966) and Hans Hahn (1879–1934). Duhem’s work on the history of science was continued by Anneliese Maier (1905–71), Ernest Moody (1903–75), Alexandre Koyré (1892–1964), Marshall Clagett (1916–2005) and Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis (1892–1965) in their research into the period prior to the sciences of the modern age.

Main contributions to structural analysis:

L’évolution de la méchanique [1903]; Les origines de la statique [1905/1906]; La théorie physique, son objet et sa structure [1906]; The aim and structure of physical theory [1954]; Ziel und Struktur der physikalischen Theorien [1978] 

Source: Kurrer, Karl-Eugen The History of the Theory of Structures, Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn Verlag für Architektur und technische Wissenschaften GmbH, Berlin (Deutschland), ISBN 3-433-01838-3, 2008; p. 726/727


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