Light, Sound and Waves

Hertz’s useless discovery

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 IOP RESOURCES

Perhaps the physicist most closely associated with electromagnetic waves is Heinrich Hertz, who first provided empirical evidence for the waves predicted by James Clerk Maxwell. Despite the impact of his work, at the time, Hertz was less than enthusiastic about the value of his research. Following his discovery of radio waves, Hertz commented:

“I do not think that the wireless waves I have discovered will have any practical application.”

When prompted by his students to consider the usefulness of his experiment, Hertz responded:

“It’s of no use whatsoever. This is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right —we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye, but they are there.”

Unimpressed, when a determined student pressed Hertz on the implications of his discovery he shrugged and replied, “Nothing I guess.”

Hertz suffered badly from toothaches and, in 1889, had all his teeth removed in an attempt to reduce his suffering. However, the pain returned, this time in his nose and throat, causing him to stop his research and become depressed. Hertz attempted to carry on teaching but had to undergo several operations and died, before his 37th birthday, from an incurable form of vasculitis. Poignantly, in his final letter to his parents before his death, Hertz wrote:

“If anything should really befall me, you are not to mourn; rather you must be proud a little and consider that I am among the especially elect destined to live for only a short while and yet to live enough. I did not desire or choose this fate, but since it has overtaken me, I must be content; and if the choice had been left to me, perhaps l should have chosen it myself.”


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