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H.C. Ørsted knew how to have good ideas

He was the discoverer of electromagnetism, had an adventurous life, and published as fast as anyone in the internet age

We think things go fast today. But they weren’t slow in the 19th century, at the time of scientist H. C. Ørsted. This can be seen in the just released ‘The Travel Letters of H. C. Ørsted’.

»Ørsted published his discovery of electromagnetism in June 1820, and the article was in Latin. Then, in less than three months, scientists in France and Switzerland confirmed the experiments and the laws of electromagnetism were formulated. And all without using the Internet!« says University of Copenhagen physicist Andrew Jackson. He translated and edited the letters with his wife Karen Jelved.

The Travel Letters of H. C. Ørsted are from eight grand tours, educational-research trips, that Ørsted made between 1801 and 1846. These journeys gave the eclectic scientist the chance to work with great scientists of his time like Faraday, Fourier and Gauss.

The letters, addressed mostly to family and friends at home, are written in a colloquial style that allows us to know Ørsted not only as a scientist, but also as a man.

Old version had no good stuff

Ørsted was interested in art, literature, philosophy and politics. During his journeys he met Victor Hugo, Goethe and other writers and novelists.

»On July 4th it was finally possible for me to see Walter Scott. I have often called on him in vain because he constantly moved between his country house, which he was having built, and his house in town. The servant suggested that I come very early in the morning, and then I met him,« he writes in 1823.

Before Jackson and Jelved started to translate the letters, they were only available in the version edited by Ørsted’s daughter Mathilde.

»In that version, all the good stuff was taken away. For example, when he started his first trip Ørsted was engaged to a woman in Copenhagen and then they broke up. Well, the letters shed light on this little known incident,« explains Professor Jackson.

Ørsted was a busy man: He taught up to 15 hours a week, wrote official reports – one he wrote on the advisability of allowing bakers to add copper sulphate to bread flour – and yet still found the time to do his research work. He knew that having multiple interests is essential to finding the inspiration for remarkable discoveries, Andrew Jackson explains.

Science for its own sake

»He did science because he liked it, and he didn’t think about the possible applications of what he was working on. He knew how to have good ideas!« says Jackson.

Nowadays, according to Jackson, most researchers prefer incremental improvements on previously tested ideas rather than developing brand new ones. If they are interested in career advancement, it is safer. Research has become more result-oriented, he says with a smile.

»With the current grant system, Ørsted would probably have invented a better candle rather than discovering the laws of electricity«.

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