HPS Lecture - Hasok Chang (University of Cambridge)

November 5, 2021 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm

“Has the Voltaic Contact Potential Died?” 

Abstract: Much of the long controversy concerning the workings of electric batteries revolved around the concept of "contact potential," originating from Volta in the late 18th century. Although Volta’s original theory of batteries has been thoroughly rejected and today’s electrochemistry hardly ever mentions the contact potential, the concept has made repeated comebacks through the years, and has by no means completely disappeared. I will discuss four salient foci of its revivals through history: dry piles, thermocouples, quadrant electrometers, and vacuum phenomena. I will also show how the contact potential has maintained its presence in some cogent modern scientific literature. Why has the death of the Voltaic contact potential been such an untidy affair? I suggest that this is because the concept has displayed significant meaning and utility in various experimental and theoretical contexts, while there has not been a successful unified account of it. Given that situation, I also suggest that it would make sense to preserve and develop it as a multifarious concept.

This colloquium will be held remotely. Register here: https://pitt.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_ersngZ5OTMCbS2in1DWAsA