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Abbreviated Biographical Sketch of Walter Ritz

Latest update 10 Nov 2011

Prepared as an appendix in
Lorentz and Poincaré Invariance - 100 Years of Relativity,
Advanced Series on Theoretical Physical Science - Vol. 8

Jong-Ping Hsu, Yuan-Zhong Zhang,
Copyright © World Scientific, 2001, New Jersey, London, Singapore, Hong Kong.

Used with permission.

    Walter Ritz was born in Sion in the southern Swiss canton of Valais on February 22, 1878. His father, Raphael Ritz, a native of Valais, was a well-known landscape and interior scenes artist. His mother was the daughter of the engineer Noerdlinger of Tübingen Germany. After an all-to-short but brilliant career in physics Ritz died at age 31 in Göttingen Germany on July 7, 1909.
    As a specially gifted student, the young Ritz excelled academically at the Lycèe communal of Sion. In 1897 he entered the Polytechnic school of Zurich where he began studies in engineering. He soon found that he couldn't live with the approximations and compromises involved with engineering so he switched to more mathematically exacting studies in physics. (Albert Einstein was one of his classmates.)
    Following a severe bout with what may have been pleurisy he transferred to Göttingen Germany in 1901 to get away from the humid climate of Zurich. There his forming aspirations were strongly influenced by Voigt and Hilbert.
    Ritz's dissertation concerned a mathematical expression to predict the frequencies of the lines in atomic spectral series. His classical approach to the phenomenon involved elastic atomic vibrations. (In retrospect it should be noted that this approach could be considered as similar in spirit to our current ideas about the vibrational origin of molecular spectra.) His oral doctoral examination was passed summa cum laude.
    Ritz's work in spectroscopic theory eventually led to what is still known as the Ritz combination principle. His interpretation of the underlying mechanism was rejected but his 1908 mathematical formulation for the frequencies of the lines in a given spectral series

spectral series

multiplied by Planck's constant is the Rutherford-Bohr 1913 quantization rule for quantum mechanics.
    In the spring of 1903 Ritz visited Leiden to attend a series of lectures by H.A. Lorentz on electrodynamics problems and his new theory of electrons. In June that year he was in Bonn at the Heinrich Kayser institute where he found the hitherto undiscovered m=4 diffuse series line of potassium which was predicted in his dissertation. In November that year Ritz began work on producing infra-red photographic plates at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. In July 1904 his health failed and he returned to Zurich.
    During the following three years of unsuccessfully trying to regain his health Ritz was outside the scientific centers. It wasn't until 1906 that he began to publish again. This in spite of his poor health.
    In September 1907 he moved to his mother's home town of Tübingen, which was a center for spectral research.
    In 1908 he relocated to Göttingen where he qualified as a privat dozent (private lecturer) at the University. There he produced his opus magnum Recherches critiques sur l'Électrodynamique Générale.
    In the First Part of his "Critical Researches" Ritz delineated in depth his version of the shortcomings of the continuum-ether Maxwell-Lorentz electromagnetic theory and urged science to avoid the strange consequences associated with adopting Einstein's special theory of relativity. That theory had been formulated to bring the Maxwell-Lorentz partial differential equations into harmony with our failures to detect our motion through the ether. In the Second Part Ritz outlined a way to take Lorentz's ideas back to the classical electrodynamic theories of Gauss, Weber, Riemann, and Clausius by use of his time asymmetric finite-speed elementary interactions.
    Ritz warned his readers that his preliminary approach was flawed because in order to remain faithful to Lorentz's formulations he had adhered to the superposition theorem which amounts to action without reaction. In essence, Ritz's model, as enunciated in 1908, is not applicable to optics for macroscopic distances in dispersive media such as the Earth's atmosphere. Yet it may be found to be applicable on a microscopic scale (millimeters down to atomic dimensions) and for distances on the order of perhaps one light year in the vacuum of interstellar space. (See Fox's article in the sources below.)
    In 1908-1909 Ritz and Einstein held a war in Physikalische Zeitschrift over the proper way to mathematically represent black-body radiation (the radiation problem from the ultraviolet catastrophe) and over the theoretical origin of the second law of thermodynamics. The final paper in that series looks as though it could have been written by the journal editors. It's language judges in favor of Ritz. Six weeks after it's publication Ritz was in a higher court. (See Fox.)

Robert S. Fritzius
Starkville, Mississippi

Sources used.

Ritz, W., Gesammelte Werke - Oeuvres, Published by the Société Suisse de Physique, Gauthier-Villars, Paris, 1911.

Forman, P., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, XI, 475, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1975.

Fox, J. G., Am. J. Phys., 33, 1, 1965.


Additional Information

Below is a GoogleEarth image of a northern part of Sion showing the location of Ritz's family home. The picture of his four-story home (inset) was made in September 2009.

Location of Ritz home
in Sion Switzerland
Sion, Switzerland showing location of Ritz's home (North is to the left.)

Ritz was buried in Zurich, but in (either 1995 or 1997) the cemetary was bulldozed and his grave is no longer identifiable.

Map of Switzerland
Map of Switzerland Showing Locations of Zurich and Sion

Send comments/questions to Bob Fritzius at fritzius@bellsouth.net

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