Vortex atoms in 19th century physics

In 1914 Wyndham Lewis announced the vortex of art in Blast:

Long live the great art vortex sprung up in the centre of this town! (‘Long Live the Vortex!’, Blast 1, 1914)

With our Vortex the Present is the only active thing.
Life is the Past and the Future.
The Present is Art
Our Vortex insists on water-tight compartments.
There is no Present — there is Past and Future, and there is Art.

This is a great Vorticist age, a great still age of artists.

Our Vortex is proud of its polished sides.
Our Vortex will not hear of anything but its disastrous polished dance.
Our Vortex desires the immobile rhythm of its swiftness.
Our Vortex rushes out like an angry dog at your Impressionistic fuss.
Our Vortex is white and abstract with its red-hot swiftness.1 (‘Our Vortex’, Blast 2, 1915)

Long before this, starting in the 1860s and continuing in vogue until almost the end of the century, the vortex had been proposed in physics as nothing less than the structure of the atom. Here is the great figure of William Thomson (Kelvin), in a presentation to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1867:

After noticing Helmholtz’s admirable discovery of the law of vortex motion in a perfect liquid — that is, in a fluid perfectly destitute of viscosity (or fluid friction) — the author [Kelvin] said that this discovery inevitably suggests the idea that Helmholtz’s rings are the only true atoms. For the only pretext seeming to justify the monstrous assumption of infinitely strong and infinitely rigid pieces of matter, the existence of which is asserted as a probable hypothesis by some of the greatest modern chemists (…) [— and] urged by Lucretius and adopted by Newton — [is] that it seems necessary to account for the unalterable distinguishing qualities of different kinds of matter. But Helmholtz has provided an absolutely unalterable quality in the motion of any portion of a perfect liquid in which the peculiar motion which he calls “Wirbelbewegung” has been once created. Thus any portion of a perfect liquid which has “Wirbelbewegung” has one recommendation of Lucretius’s atoms — infinitely perennial specific quality. To generate or to destroy “Wirbelbewegung” in a perfect fluid can only be an act of creative power. Lucretius’s atom does not explain any of the properties of matter without attributing them to the atom itself. Thus the “clash of atoms,” as it has been well called, has been invoked by his modern followers to account for the elasticity of gases. Every other property of matter has similarly required an assumption of specific forces pertaining to the atom. [But] it is [as] easy (…) to assume whatever specific forces may be required in any portion of matter which possesses the “Wirbelbewegung” as in a solid indivisible piece of matter; and hence the Lucretius atom has no prima facie advantage over the Helmholtz atom.

The vortex was, however, not only no less plausible than “a solid indivisible piece of matter” as “the true atom”. It also had the inestimable advantage, as Helmholtz had shown in regard to the vortex in a perfect liquid, that it had definable structure and was subject to mathematical specification. This meant that investigations could relate empirical findings to transformations of the hypothetical structure and to mathematical calculations in a way that could not be done taking atoms as solid lumps.

Furthermore, as Kelvin pointed out in his talk, the vortex atom theory seemed closely related to contemporary research into electricity and magnetism.  As Kelvin predicted in his presentation: “the velocities [of the vortex circles] at different points are to be in proportion to the intensities of the magnetic forces in the corresponding points of the magnetic field”.

Hence, although the vortex theory ultimately proved untenable, its focus on specifiable structure and mathematical modeling contributed mightily to the nobel prize winning discovery of the electron in 1897 by  J.J. Thomson and to the associated gradual understanding of the true structure of the atom.  Indeed J.J. Thomson’s master’s paper, Treatise on the Motion of Vortex Rings (1884), had no other goal than to describe the motions of Kelvin’s vortex atoms.

Now McLuhan took the vortex as the atomic structure of media and saw Poe’s Maelstrom as describing the peculiar difference between material and media atoms. Namely, media atoms have a kind of rider (like Poe’s mariner) who can detach from one medium in order to ride another — in Kelvin’s terms, “an act of creative power”? — but can also become so attached to a medium, like the mariner’s brother, that no alternative is available but to continue to ride it to certain doom.  (Such a rider apparently cannot dare to go “through the vanishing point” which is the only way between atomic media structures.) ‘Riding’ and ‘detaching’ and ‘reattaching’ in these ways are, McLuhan suggested, what it means to be a human being and are therefore central to its investigation.2 

Just before entering the maelstrom, Poe’s mariner experiences in anticipation what will take place there:

When a boat is well built, properly trimmed, and not deep laden, the waves in a strong gale, when she is going large, seem always to slip from beneath her — which appears very strange to a landsman — and this is what is called riding, in sea phrase. Well, so far we had ridden the swells very cleverly; but presently a gigantic sea happened to take us right under the [ship’s stern or] counter, and bore us with it as it rose — up — up — as if into the sky. I would not have believed that any wave could rise so high. And then down we came with a sweep, a slide, and a plunge, that made me feel sick and dizzy, as if I was falling from some lofty mountain-top in a dream.

The great questions are: what does it mean that humans are riders of forms?  and that forms are subject to radical change?

The boat did not seem to sink into the water at all, but to skim like an air-bubble upon the surface of the surge.

As he noted in his 1867 presentation to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Kelvin’s inspiration for his vortex atom theory came from Hermann von Helmholtz‘s 1858 paper: ‘Über Integrale der hydrodynamischen Gleichungen, welche den Wirbelbewegungen  entsprechen’. Kelvin’s friend and colleague, P.G. Tait, mentioned Helmholtz’s paper in a letter to Kelvin in 1862 and then in 1867 translated it as ‘On Integrals of the Hydrodynamical Equations, which Express Vortex-motion’.  Between these two events, Kelvin and Tait developed ways of illustrating the workings of vortex motion using smoke rings and Helmholtz himself visited them in Glasgow from Germany in 1863.

Strangely, Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom, which was originally published in 1841, and would become McLuhan’s inspiration in 1946, became available in German translation starting in 1846.3

It is possible that Poe’s story played central roles, 100 years apart, in unexpected developments of the physical sciences in the 19th century and, as yet unrealized, of the human sciences in the 20th and 21st centuries. It may have had some part in suggesting the study of ‘Wirbelbewegungen’ to Helmholtz, which led to Kelvin’s vortex atoms and to J.J. Thomson’s electrons. And it certainly had a part in suggesting to McLuhan how a Gestalt-switch in media is central to all human experience and communication.  Meanwhile, between these events, Lewis and Pound proclaimed vorticism.

  1. Lewis seems to have taken his description of the vortex here in large part from Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom: “Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon (…) streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.”
  2. Every human being comes to life in the medium of amniotic fluid (Cameron’s fluid) and is then born into the very different medium of the extra-uterine world.  The in-fant then learns to speak in another global Gestalt-switch whereby it leaves a world of instinctual communication and somehow comes to understand another sort of general communication based on sounds that can carry meaning to it and from it. Now understanding modern art, according to McLuhan, requires an analogous intro-duction or e-ducation into new learning: since late in the nineteenth century, artists, poets and musicians have been attempting to express insight into forms, or media, not content, or messages. As he wrote to Pound (July 16, 1952): “Your own tips are always exact. But they are of little help to the uninitiated. Once a man has got onto technique as the key in communication it’s different. But somehow the bugbear of content forbids that anybody be interested in technique as content” (Letters 231). McLuhan’s wider claim followed: the key to the investigation of human being, therefore to the survival of the species, depended on study of “the life and nature of forms” (‘Introduction’ to Innis’ The Bias of Communication, 1964).
  3. As specified at The Edgar Allan Poe Society website, between 1846 and 1858, when Helmholtz’s ‘Wirbelbewegungen’ paper appeared, Poe’s Maelstrom was translated into German at least 3 separate times: ‘Auf dem Maelstrom: Reiseerinnerungen aus Norwegen’, Frankfurter Konversationsblatt, Oktober 1846; ‘Der Mahlstrom’, Bremischer Beobachter, April 1852; ‘Eine Hinabwirbelung in den Maalstrom’, Deutsche Monatshefte, Dezember 1855.