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History of Physics in Prague

The beginning of science in the Czech territory is related to the founding of the Charles University in Prague by Emperor Charles IV in 1348. During the first centuries of its existence the lectures on physics and astronomy were held in the arts (now philosophy) faculty. The outstanding personalities were Christian of Prachatice (1366-1439), a close friend of Master Jan Hus, and Jan Ondrejuv called Sindel (1375-1454). They were concerned with astronomical observations. Sindel's measurements of the planets and the Sun were so accurate that they were still praised by Tycho Brahe two centuries later. The high level of science in Prague at that time is confirmed by sophisticated Prague Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Hall - the medieval planetarium. It was made according to Sindel's plans by the clockmaster Mikulas of Kadan in 1410.
During the religiously tolerant reign of Emperor Rudolph II (1576-1612) who was interested in science and arts, favourable conditions for the development of natural sciences were established. The personal physician of Rudolph II and astronomer Tadeas Hajek of Hajek (1525-1600) published his studies of a supernova in the constellation Cassiopea in 1572. Hájek was in frequent scientific correspondence with the recognized astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and played an important role in persuading Rudolph II to invite Brahe to Prague. Tycho Brahe came in 1599 and he began to form a circle of younger co-workers. In 1600, on Brahe's invitation, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) came to Prague where he spent twelve years. Brahe's high precision astrometric observations of the planets combined luckily with Kepler's theoretical knowledge and resulted in the discovery of laws of planetary motion, the most significant and famous scientific result of that time. The first two laws were published by Kepler in his treatise "Astronomia nova" (Prague, 1609).
At the very end of the Thirty Years' War, in 1648 in the book "Thaumantias Liber de Arcu Coelesti ... ", the professor and rector of the Charles University Marcus Marci of Kronland (1595-1667) published his optical observations. Twenty years before Newton, he thoroughly described rainbow colours, the spectral dispersion of light beams passing through a prism, the diffraction of light on a wire, edge and lattice, and colours of thin bubbles. He found that monochromatic rays do not change their colour by repeated refraction. He also performed experiments in mechanics related to the pendulum. Joseph Stepling (1716-1778), a member of the Jesuit Order at St Clement College, represented the new trend in science based on Newton's work and systematic experiments. In 1751 he also found the Clementinum Observatory. The regular meteorological and geophysical observations carried out there represent to-day one of the longest series of systematic observations in the world.
A higher level of physics in Prague was reached in the 19th century. Christian Doppler (1803-1853), professor of mathematics and practical geometry at the High Polytechnic School discovered and formulated in Prague the famous physical effect, now known as the Doppler principle. His paper "Ueber das farbige Licht der Doppelsterne" was published in 1842 in the Transactions of the Royal Bohemian Scientific Society. Ernst Mach (1838-1916), professor of experimental physics (and rector of the Prague University), spent 28 years in Prague between 1867 and 1895. He contributed to the development of several parts of physics. He also educated a whole generation of Czech physicists including Cenek Strouhal, August Seydler and Frantisek Kolacek.
Without any doubt, the most famous physicist who worked in Prague was Albert Einstein (1879-1955). From April 1911 to the end of July 1912 he held the position of professor of theoretical physics at the Prague German University. He lived at No.7 Lesnická Street and read his lectures in the Clementinum and in the Physical Institute in Viničná Street. His stay was very fruitful and represents an importatnt period on his way towards the formulation of the theory of gravitation. He published eleven papers during this time (on gravitation, thermodynamics, radiation theory and quantum physics). In his own words he found in Prague "the necessary concentration for giving a more precise form to the basic idea of the general theory of relativity".

© J.Podolsky, 26 Feb 1998, <podolsky (at) mbox.troja.mff.cuni.cz>