Irving Langmuir

January 31

Irving Langmuir (1881)

It was on this date, January 31, 1881, that American chemist Irving Langmuir was born in Brooklyn, NY. He was educated in the US and France, and graduated as a metallurgical engineer from Columbia University in 1903. He was awarded his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at Göttingen in 1906, but studied physics and engineering as well.

Langmuir is chiefly remembered for coining in 1923 the physics term "plasma" to describe a fourth state of matter, distinct from solid or liquid or gas and present in stars and fusion reactions, such as that which powers the sun. He was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

A true scientist, Langmuir was deeply skeptical of shortcuts to knowledge. Consequently, he formulated "Irving Langmuir's Symptoms of Pathological Science," a list of six characteristics common to pseudoscience:

     (1) The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
     (2) The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
     (3) Claims of great accuracy.
     (4) Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
     (5) Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
     (6) Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.
Irving Langmuir died on 16 August 1957. When asked about his inattention to religion, Langmuir once responded, "Never believe anything that can't be proved."*

* Albert Rosenfeld, `The Quintessence of Irving Langmuir+, Oxford, NY: Pergamon Press, 1966.

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Franz Schubert (1797)

It was also on this date, January 31, 1797, that Austrian composer Franz Peter Schubert was born in Vienna. He studied the violin from age eight and the pianoforte after that, composing his first piano duet before he turned 14. Two of his songs so impressed Antonio Salieri, that the composer sought out Schubert and taught him harmony. But probably Schubert's most popular work, after his songs "The Erlking" and "The Wanderer," remains incomplete: the Unfinished Symphony in B-Minor (No. 8, D.759).* Schubert also wrote an unfinished oratorio, Lazarus, and 17 unmemorable operas, but a great body of religious music. These included three Masses among other sacred music.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, always eager to claim Catholic inspiration for art, makes much of Schubert's service to church music. The writer of the article waxes enthusiastic about the raptures of faith hat must have inspired Schubert's Mass in C, Mass in G, Mass in A flat, Benedictus, Stabat Mater and Salve Regina. In truth, like Beethoven and Mozart, Schubert was a skeptic. Sir George Grove, in his standard Dictionary of Music and Musicians, says, "of formal or dogmatic religion we can find no trace,"** in Schubert's short life. Of creeds and churches he quotes Schubert saying, "Not a word of it is true."

Franz Schubert died in Vienna on 19 November 1829, but his reputation increased posthumously through advocacy by Liszt, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Even if Schubert had "no external connection with the Church," as his Catholic biographer admits, what of his incomparably beautiful Ave Maria? As another biographer pointed out, "One might as well say that all the artists who painted beautiful Venuses must have believed in the goddess."

* The Unfinished Symphony gave some anonymous wag occasion to criticize managed health care in the US:

     "A managed care company president was given a ticket for a performance of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. Since she was unable to go, she gave the ticket to one of her managed care reviewers. The next morning she asked him how he had enjoyed it. Instead of a few observations about the symphony in general, she was handed a formal memorandum which read as follows:
     "1. For a considerable period, the oboe players had nothing to do. Their number should be reduced, and their work spread over the whole orchestra, avoiding peaks of inactivity.
     "2. All 12 violins were playing identical notes. This seems an unneeded duplication, and the staff of this section should be cut. If a volume of sound is really required, this could be accomplished with the use of an amplifier.
     "3. Much effort was involved in playing the 16th notes. This appears to be an excessive refinement, and it is recommended that all notes be rounded up to the nearest 8th note. If this were done it would be possible to use para-professionals instead of experienced musicians.
     "4. No useful purpose is served by repeating with horns the passage that has already been handled by the strings. If all such redundant passages were eliminated then the concert could be reduced from two hours to twenty minutes.
     "5. The symphony had two movements. If Mr. Schubert didn't achieve his musical goals by the end of the first movement, then he should have stopped there. The second movement is unnecessary and should be cut.
     "In light of the above, one can only conclude that had Mr. Schubert given attention to these matters, he probably would have had time to finish the symphony."
** George Grove, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. by J.A. Fuller Maitland, New York: Macmillan, 1904-1910, 5 vols., vol. IV, p. 634.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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