People

Cameron Lazaroff-Puck

Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow (Jul 2022-Dec 2022)

During his time in the Department, Cameron Lazaroff-Puck researched and expanded upon his work on James Clerk Maxwell, submarine telegraphy, and the British Empire, as well as clarifying and rewriting it. The culmination of this work will be presented in a paper “Empire-laden Theory: The Technological and Colonial Roots of Maxwell’s Theories of Electromagnetism,” now submitted for publication. Cameron was able to access certain works on gutta-percha harvesting via MPI digital access. Godfrey’s Submarine Telegraphy and the Hunt for Gutta Percha served as a jumping off point from which he was introduced to a number of much more obscure primary texts on gutta-percha. Together they allowed him to settle questions about indigenous gutta-percha harvesting techniques, the treatment of collectors by colonials, and the effects of the gutta trade on indigenous communities in Southeast Asia. These same resources helped Cameron to finally arrive at what he hopes is the most accurate assessment of the number of trees cut down to supply the gutta percha trade during the nineteenth century and understand its current conservation status. He has similarly researched the relationship between telegraphy and empire, getting a clearer sense of which why certain lines were laid when they were so that he might understand which political desires were shaping physics through the telegraph. Similarly he was able to clarify technical points about specific cables, construct a deeper history of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon), and better understand the slow death of the submarine telegraph industry during the early twentieth century.

Looking through Faraday’s experimental diaries enabled a clarification of Faraday's thought process when he was working on residual change/electric absorption, especially given his sparse published comments on the topic. The complete Faraday correspondence also helped rule out conversations on electric absorption before a critical point in Cameron's narrative. The three volumes of Maxwell’s letters and papers helped him to find two discussions of electric absorption he had previously overlooked, one of which gave definitive proof that Maxwell was still thinking about submarine cables as he investigated electric absorption in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (as opposed to only explicitly mentioning cables in his “Dynamical Theory”).

Finally, his research in the Department led to the discovery of a European lineage of theories of electric absorption after Maxwell, collected and described in an obscure collection of lectures from the 1920s. These theories were ultimately undermined by their own greedy ontological commitments and mediocre empirical fit; however, they illustrate a continuing interest in electric absorption even after the rise of electron theory. The exception to this trend proved to be Wagner, who had expanded Maxwell’s theory of electric absorption to cover alternating currents in addition to producing an explanation of his own (based on conductors suspended in a homogenous dielectric vs. Maxwell’s inhomogeneous dielectric). More recent rare technical volumes on dielectrics and ceramics from the mid-twentieth century revealed that Wagner’s explanation received wide enough acceptance among practitioners that the hyphenate “Maxwell-Wagner” theory became common parlance.