Hans Christian Oersted was born in Rudkobing, Denmark, in 1777. Orsted's early education was primarily through self-study, until he attended the University of Copenhagen in 1793. As was typical of the pre-industrial era, academia did not separate the disciplines of philosophy and natural science (e.g. Newton and Leibniz, though earlier in the century, were both philosphers and mathematicians). Oersted excelled in both "aesthetics" and physics, and subscribed to the Kantian philosophy that scientific theories of nature must be defined by principles that unify observed phenomena. After receiving his doctorate in 1799, and traveling through Europe to work with other scientists, Oersted eventually settled upon studying physics and took up a post at the Unversity of Copenagen in 1806.
Oersted's landmark accomplishment was the serendipitous discovery, and subsequent experimental characterization, of electromagnetism. In the early 1800s, methods of storing and using electricity were being developed (e.g. the first battery is credited to Alessandro Volta in 1800) and thus the physics of electricity was an area of intense study. In the portrait shown here, we see Oersted posing in his study with various instruments; prominently featured are a compass and wire in the foreground. The story goes that in 1820, Oersted was developing a lecture on electricity when he noticed that a compass that happened to be nearby was deflected by the battery appartus that would be used in his lecture. Upon further examination of this phenomenon over the next few months, Oersted observed that the direction of the needle could essentially be controlled by varying the position of the a wire carrying electricity, showing that electric current induces a magnetic field.
This experiment verified the generation of a magnetic field by electric current, and launched scores of investigations into the relationships between electricity and magnetism. Oersted's work is thought to have influenced Ampere in 1826 to develop the now ubiquitous formula (known as "Ampere's Law") for the relationship between a current-carrying conductor and its magnetic field. Ampere's law was later extended by Maxwell in 1861, and this extension is one of the Maxwell's four equations that now define classical electromagnetism. In retrospect, Oersted made a discovery that likely influences almost every aspect of our lives today. In particular, his discovery, along with interest in mechanical computation at the time (e.g. Babbage designed a calculator in the 1820s) anchor the field of modern computer science, which came into its own a little over a century later.
Role of Serendipity
Oersted's discovery was serendipitous, but also in some way timely. On the one hand, Oersted's discovery seems to be so happenstance as to have been sheer luck. He was simply preparing a lecture and was not explicity searching for a connection between electricity and magnetism. On the other hand, in a time when electricity was being studied for its potential application, the early 1800s seem to have been ripe for Oersted's discovery. (Indeed there is recently discovered evidence that the connection between electricity and magentism was being explored as early as 1806 by the Italian amateur scientist Romagnosi). Whether Oersted's discovery was lucky or inevitable, the distinguishing feature of his story is that Oersted followed this happenstance discovery and characterized his observations in a careful scientific manner, perhaps due to his beliefs on unifying principles in nature.
It is in this spirit that we launch JSUR, with the belief that serendipitous and unexpected scientific results merit exploration and discussion because they may lead to interesting scientific discoveries.