Physically Insignificant, Historically Noteworthy

A Study of Erich Bessel-Hagen’s “Über die Erhaltungssätze der Elektrodynamik”


  • Claire Murphy University of Notre Dame


History of Physics, General Relativity, History of Mathematics, Erich Bessel-Hagen


This article is a “biography” of a 1921 article by the German scholar Erich Bessel-Hagen, entitled “Über die Erhaltungssätze der Elektrodynamik” (On the Conservation Laws of Electrodynamics). Writing at the behest of his mentor Felix Klein, Bessel-Hagen used Emmy Noether’s now-famous theorems to derive conservation laws for electrodynamics that result from the conformal invariance of Maxwell’s equations. Though his article went almost entirely unnoticed in its time, its history provides a fresh look at the activities and relationships of the Göttingen scholars whose research drove the growth and refinement of general relativity. In addition, the steady increase in citations of Bessel-Hagen’s article over the past century offers a case study of the way that changing networks of scholars, and the resulting changes in conceptions of disciplinary boundaries, affect an article’s readership and impact.