Physically similar systems: A history of the concept

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Sterrett, Susan G.

Sterrett, Susan G., Physically Similar Systems -- A History of the Concept. In L. Magnani and T. Bertolotti (eds.), Springer Handbook of Model-Based Science, Springer, Switzerland, 2017 (forthcoming)


The concept of similar systems arose in physics, and appears to have originated with Newton in the seventeenth century. This chapter provides a critical history of the concept of physically similar systems, the twentieth century concept into which it developed. The concept was used in the nineteenth century in various fields of engineering (Froude, Bertrand, Reech), theoretical physics (van der Waals, Onnes, Lorentz, Maxwell, Boltzmann) and theoretical and experimental hydrodynamics (Stokes, Helmholtz, Reynolds, Prandtl, Rayleigh). In 1914, it was articulated in terms of ideas developed in the eighteenth century and used in nineteenth century mathematics and mechanics: equations, functions and dimensional analysis. The terminology physically similar systems was proposed for this new characterization of similar systems by the physicist Edgar Buckingham. Related work by Vaschy, Bertrand, and Riabouchinsky had appeared by then. The concept is very powerful in studying physical phenomena both theoretically and experimentally. As it is not currently part of the core curricula of STEM disciplines or philosophy of science, it is not as well known as it ought to be.

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