Unearthing a Buried Memory: Duhem's Third Way to Thermodynamics. Part 1



Duhem considered himself as the upholder of a ‘third way’ to Thermodynamics. His generalized Mechanics/Thermodynamics aimed at encompassing all kinds of transformations, from spatial changes to the change of physical qualities. From 1886 until 1896 he undertook a demanding design for the unification of physics. He translated Thermodynamics into the language of Analytical Mechanics, and conversely founded Mechanics on the principles of Thermodynamics. Step by step he widened the mathematical and conceptual structure of Analytic Mechanics, in order to hold together ‘local motion,’ thermal phenomena, electromagnetic phenomena, and many kinds of irreversible transformations. At the same time, he tried to recast methods and interests from physics: from the reductionist tradition of Mechanics he let a new interest in the complexity of the natural world emerge. Modern science had had to fight against the old physics of qualities, in order to supplant it: the complexity of the physical world was set aside, and replaced by a simplified geometrical world. Duhem endeavoured to retrieve and take that neglected complexity into the wide boundaries of a generalized Mechanics-Thermodynamics. He aimed at widening the scope of physics: the new physics could not confine itself to ‘local motion’ but had to describe what Duhem labelled ‘motions of modification.