A. Joffe, Sc.D., LL.D.

Physics and Technology


Written: 1931;
Source: Science at the Crossroads: Papers Presented to the International Congress of the History of Science and technology Held in London from June 29th to July 3rd, 1931 by the delegates of the U.S.S.R, Frank Cass and Co., 1931;
Online Version: For marxists.org May, 2002.


There is a very close relationship between physics and industry. The truth is that all forms of industry are nothing but various sections of physics or chemistry applied and exploited on a large scale. But it is also true that most conceptions of physics are discovered as the result of consideration of technical problems. The realm of technique is grateful enough to remember the origin of the methods employed by engineers, but the pure scientist usually forgets the manner in which any particular problem found its way into the primers of physics. He begins the history of any problem at the stage where it is already formulated as a scientific problem.

Everybody knows that dynamos and motors owe their existence to Faraday's fundamental discovery of induction, that Maxwell's ideas and Hertz' experiments with electromagnetic waves led to wireless. It is also well known that Lord Kelvin's and R. Clausius' work on thermodynamics laid the basis for the development of thermal technique. The technical bases of the energy and entropy-law clearly formulated by Carnot are often referred to, but the development of thermodynamics since Kelvin is represented as though the thermal technique, metallurgy, and especially the working of steel and alloys, had no influence upon and were independent of the scientific conception of thermodynamic potentials, the theory of phases, and of the surface state.

It is instructive to see how the scientific investigation of spark discharge was stimulated by the spark generators in wireless technique, how the wireless valves reacted on the development of our ideas on electrical emission, on surface structure, on the theory of atoms, their excitation and ionisation, and led finally to a new theory of metallic states. The growing importance of vacuum techniques and the various applications of photoelements opened up a wide field of investigation which appears to be in a fair way to becoming highly important to our ideas on molecular forces and the mechanism of the transmission of electric charges.

We also note that the most fundamental of problems pass into oblivion when they cease to have technical importance. Electrification by friction was dropped when galvanic cells were invented.

No new types of cell were invented once industry had replaced them by dynamos, despite the fact that the principles of both the friction and the galvanic cells were not fully understood.

Such mutual stimulation is undoubtedly of great benefit both to science and to industry. The unfortunate fact is that it is neither admitted nor even generally desired by scientists. The number of facts we investigate and speculate upon is in reality very limited. Ever since physics made a choice of problems worth studying and continues to bring them within the orbit of a general theory. This limitation has had some unfortunate results. We do not choose the correct theory applicable to a large field of heterogeneous phenomena, but choose the phenomena from the aspect provided by our current theory. We could perhaps avoid many difficulties and disappointments in the theory of light and matter, in statistical mechanics, in the conception of ether, if we adopted both methods for the progress of science.

The physical phenomena presented by the large industries and agriculture are especially adapted to an enlargement of the field of scientific investigations. The great benefit resulting from the smallest improvement, even by a new method of presentation, on the one hand, and the precisely defined conditions and the large scale of the resulting processes on the other hand, are highly favourable to scientific study. Millions of workers, who are familiar with these processes, could be employed in such investigations, and these could be connected up with education and controlled by the scientists of colleges and scientific institutions. We come up against a problem which seems to promise to open up new roads to the progress of science, but those roads cannot be pursued except in a land of Socialism, such as we are trying to build in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

If the relation between science and industry were clearly understood we could expect that science would consciously prepare a basis for the development of technique. There is however no sign of investigations being directed to a solution of the fundamental difficulties of technique. I shall specify a few of the problems forgotten by physicists yet of importance to technique.

1. A reversible oxydation of coal could three or four times increase the energy available for technical purposes.

2. The primary source of all energy, the sun, is exploited only to a ridiculous extent, to a small number of waterfalls. We should develop photochemistry and photoelectricity much more than it is at present. We should also use the energy of sun rays both for the raising of low temperatures and for high temperatures, concentrating the light. The energy store of the soil should be not only studied but also controlled, using the great difference in wave-length between the rays of the sun and the radiation of the earth.

3. Physics could not account for the lack of interest in the study of thermo-electricity by its restriction to metals only. As a direct method of deriving electrical energy from thermal sources the thermo-electrical phenomena have to be studied far more closely.

4. New methods of heating buildings are neglected. The idea of using a kind of refrigerator as a heating system propounded by Lord Kelvin could have far more successful application now that the efficiency of our centrals has been raised from 15 to 30 and more per cent. Buildings with few outside walls and with a majority of rooms inside without windows might be discussed and have some application.

5. The problem of illumination. Our windows are a very unfortunate method of using the light coming from beyond the earth. We chiefly use the diffused light reflected by the house opposite, which is far from satisfactory. The brilliant reflector signs used in advertising, which are illuminated by light falling from above, show clearly what we lose in our living rooms. We still use glass in our windows and electric lamps which cut off the highly important ultraviolet rays.

6. Powerful beams of high-speed electrons or protons and concentrated electro-magnetic waves could find considerable application within the chemical and electrical industries.

7. The limiting stresses which a physical body can stand were found to be much in excess of the limits actually reached. For instance, we are able to state that an electrical breakdown could be prevented up to a field of over one hundred million volts per centimeter, while we still use a field of forty thousand volts. We have also increased the mechanical strength of crystals many hundreds of times. We have succeeded in discovering substances with an electric constant of over 20,000, while no more than ten are used. An extensive field of investigations is awaiting exploration in order to make the results available to technique.

8. The sensitiveness of the methods developed by physics and chemistry is very striking. We can detect a single electron and proton, and less than one hundred photons of ultra-violet and even visible light. X-Rays and electron rays analysis reveal the finest details of structure. Wireless waves can be detected after they have travelled a hundred thousand miles. Why have we not adapted these methods to use in everyday life?

There are innumerable other such problems. I am convinced physicists are wrong in neglecting them. Not only would their investigations be of practical use, but they would lead to the development of new problems, would lay bare new features of phenomena known to us only under one aspect. Thus set to work, our interest would lead to a further theory and thence to further experiments, all regarded from one aspect supplied by its origin. New light would be thrown on the old problems and new points of view could be expected as the result of an independent course of research.

We are glad that in our own country we have removed all obstacles to an undisturbed development of science closely bound up with the building of a new future. We have some two thousand physicists. We hope to have the co-operation of millions of workers who are enthusiastic about improvement in their industry and about learning. We do not pursue the policy of keeping the population from science by giving them alcohol, by keeping them 75 per cent. illiterate, by working them so hard that they have no reserve force, as was the case in pre-war days. The more we proceed with improvements in the standard of living, in shortening the hours of work, in increasing the interest in science and art, the more real will become the co-operation of millions of workers in science and technique. By building up the industry of to-day science will simultaneously be working on the great problems of the future. We do not have to fear any resistance from the contradictory inter-play of private interest. All means leading to a higher culture, to better technique, to new knowledge, will be used in order to create a life free from all the burdens of sadness and injustice, borne to-day by the majority of mankind. Science could have no nobler task than that of co-operation in this work.