beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

Resounding into Eternity: Georg Lichtenberg's Bang

"A physical experiment which makes a bang
is always worth more than a quiet one.
Therefore a man cannot strongly enough ask of Heaven:
if it wants to let him discover something,
may it be something that makes a bang.
It will resound into eternity."

Statue of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Statue of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in Göttingen by Fuat N. Dushku. The orb he holds, inscribed with plus and minus symbols, celebrates his discovery of electicity's bipolarity. Photo by Holger Gruber.

Not long ago I was talking to Bert Hickman and Todd and Mary Lynn Johnson, who have put mighty efforts into creating beautiful Lichtenberg figures.

I already knew that Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) had been more than an electrical scientist. He was celebrated in German literature for his aphorisms. Bert mentioned that the quote above is beloved by high-voltage aficionados and other techies, but that he hadn't been able to verify it, nor track down exactly where it came from.

I told Bert that I love this sort of puzzle. And went hunting.

Lichtenberg accumulated entries in notebooks he called Sudelbücher or "waste books." A selection of these entries, The Waste Books, appeared in an English translation by R. J. Hollingdale; the version above is his work.

I went looking for German editions of the quote. Google Translate helped. Then I tried using Google Books to track the quote to its lair. I hit a bit of confusion.

B. Behr's Verlag published a series of books called "Deutsch Literaturdenkmale des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts" (German Literary Monuments of the 18th and 19th Centuries). The University of Wisconsin's library has some of these... but book #135 and #136 in the series, published in 1905 and 1906, are bound into a single volume, and this is what Google has scanned.

Thus, a glance at the Google Books scanned copy suggests that this book is Gedichte von Otto Heinrich Grafen von Loeben. However, zip down to page 197 of the PDF version, or scroll down about a quarter of the way in the Google Books Web page, and you will behold Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs Aphorismen. Flip to page 326 of THAT-- or page 528 of the PDF-- and there in bold Fraktur is Aphorism 1138 from Waste Book F:
Ein physikalischer Versuch der knallt
ist allemal mehr wert als ein stiller,
man kann also den Himmel nicht genug bitten,
[daß] wenn er einen etwas will erfinden lassen,
es etwas sein möge, das knallt;
es schallt in die Ewigkeit.
Judging by the dates in entries preceding and following, Lichtenberg appears to have written it between 11th October and 13th October 1778.* (The bracketed "daß" or "dass," meaning "that" or "because," was apparently added by an editor.)

I am reminded of Jon Singer (jonsinger), who once wrote in an e-mail:
The sharp, "Krac!"-type explosions don't do it for me,
and the big rumbly booms only partly do it,
but a good solid "KBAM!" just makes me fall over laughing.
Obviously Jon is a spiritual descendant of Herr Professor Lichtenberg.

*Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph, and Albert Leitzmann. 1906. Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs Aphorismen: nach den Handschriften. Drittes Heft, 1775-1779, p. 326.
Tags: history, lichtenberg figures, physics
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