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Oliver Heaviside (wikipedia.org)
100 points by z0a on Dec 26, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 25 comments

A real smart and determined person, more like hackers today than, prestigious academia of his time, he famously said " Am I to refuse to eat because I do not fully understand the mechanism of digestion?" to the academics of his time for giving him hard time for not having the mathematical background they had.

As I understood it, this was more in response to academics' frustration that he did not properly define operators he went on to use in his derivations. I can sympathise with this - mathematical proofs are difficult enough to follow without having to guess the action of the operators involved.

mathematical proofs are difficult enough to follow without having to guess the action of the operators involved.

What Heaviside did was the sort of fast-and-loose syntactic manipulation that makes mathematicians queasy and/or indignant [1]. He treats the derivative operator just like it were an ordinary number X. And then he infers that 1/X must mean integration.

Compare to the naive argument for the positive integers 1+2+3+... summing to -1/12 that gets mathbabe's panties in a twist [2].

More details in Ch. 10 of Nahin's book.

[1] http://myreckonings.com/wordpress/2007/12/07/heavisides-oper...

[2] http://mathbabe.org/2014/01/21/if-its-hocus-pocus-then-its-n...

That's why operator overloading is a bad idea, even if it gives you nice matrix operations in C++. The amount of times I came across abuse of this facility is much larger than the number of times where it actually made sense.

There's a great chapter on Oliver Heaviside in Clifford Pickover's book, Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives Of Eccentric Scientists And Madmen, which portrays his struggles with the scientific establishment in some detail. It includes an illustration by Heaviside of a modern looking recumbent bicycle, an invention not usually attributed to him. How can someone with Heaviside's vast influence be obscure, not at least as well known as Nikola Tesla? Most engineers I've known have no idea that Maxwell's field equations are not the same as the Maxwell's equations they know (and use).

Paul Nahin, emeritus of electrical engineering at U of New Hampshire, wrote a richly technical and also riveting biography about Heaviside.

The book doesn't pull any punches with the math nor the physics because equations are provided for the discerning reader whenever the discussion turns technical, which is every other page. But also on every other page is a picture of 19th century people and placesthat helps flesh out the dramatic race for electrical power.

Worth mentioning is the whole chapter given to dramatizing Heaviside's arch-nemesis, a Mr. William Henry Preece who's Chief Engineer at the British Post Office. At the end of the chapter, Nahin repeats Preece's analysis of the viability of residential electrical lighting, a problem then known as 'subdivision of light', and his conclusion that Edison is doomed to fail. The error turns out to be taking the wrong limits.

I can't resist including this excerpt: "It is almost impossible to understand why the 'subdivision of light' was so difficult to understand a mere century ago. Perhaps a century hence somebody will write the same about our present confusion over time-travel!"

"In later years his behavior became quite eccentric. According to associate B. A. Behrend, he became a recluse who was so averse to meeting people that he delivered the manuscripts of his Electrician papers to a grocery store, where the editors picked them up." --quote from OA

Does Prof. Nahin's biography mention PC Brock?


Footnote 104: "Bobby" was Constable Henry Brock, who went well out of his way to help Heaviside in his everyday activities, including the fetching of food. His daughter would occasionally help straighten up Homefield. Oliver wrote many letters to the Brock family, but none of them seems to have survived, Brock died in 1947.

A good library should have the biography.

Tesla isn't exactly a household name either, nor is Maxwell.

It may be a relatively unknown name for software people but he's one of the gods for ham radio enthusiasts.

Very well known (and respected) by physicists too.

The Heaviside ellipsoid is quite fascinating - basically it explains relativistic length contraction in terms of a foreshortened electric field in the direction of motion of a moving charge. ( http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Steady_Motion_of_an_Ele... )

This is fascinating, I wish I could work through the math in greater detail. I feel like old equations like this could reveal opportunities for linking electromagnetism and gravitation (for example how acceleration is analogous to gravity) without getting into so much of the quantum and multiple dimension stuff that I feel is sometimes a distraction.

Just went over the Heaviside step function at University before break. It's a strong contender for the most kick-ass name in Maths academia.

> Just went over the Heaviside step function at University before break.

Like luos (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8798638), I've always liked to pretend to my students that it is so named because there is a heavy side and a light side. (Of course, I do tell them it's a joke!)

EDIT: Actually, I realise that I'm not sure why it is so kick-ass. Is it the idea of having a simple concept named after you? If so, then I have respectfully to assert that nothing beats the Kronecker delta (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kronecker_delta). (Perhaps Abelian groups (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abelian_group) come close.)

Right up there with Picard's great theorem.

I assume OP shared this after watching Bret Victor's recent talk, "The Humane Representation of Thought"?

The following two books are a fascinating look at Heaviside's contributions and extraordinary life:



Faraday is a similar figure- experimentalist who invented fields, the electric motor and the dynamo. But with little math skills it remained until Maxwell to tie it all together in math.

Faraday's discoveries were quickly (or preemptively) "mathified" by Ampere, Coulomb, Gauss, (and Heaviside!). Maxwell got the equations named after him for "unifying" them, as it were, and on the basis of symmetry suggesting the displacement current term (which then leads to the wave equation, showing light is electromagnetic radiation).

After I learned signal processing at university I always thought that the Heaviside step function was named like that because the step is "heavy" or something in the signal.

I distinctly remember that there's a comment by Arthur C Clarke somewhere to the effect that Heaviside was the first person to write down E = m*c^2, which is consistent with him having worked on "electromagnetic mass". This may also be mentioned in David Bohm's book, which I have somewhere but not easily to hand.

If anyone can confirm this it would be extremely interesting.

Very inspirational! I did not know he was the one to reformulate Maxwell's Eqs. I had a feeling an English person was behind admittance, conductance, impedance, inductance, permittance, reluctance & permeability, but I suppose his naming convention can be forgiven.

definitions do not come first, but later is a great quote, well-put.


Yeah, looks like his biography is a crash course in electrical engineering

I didn't know this by that name http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telegrapher%27s_equations (just "transmission line equation" I guess the name is an anachronism)

Whoa! I didn't know the guy looked like Flattop.

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