Testing Universal Gravitation in the Laboratory, or the Significance of Research on the mean Density of the Earth and Big G, 1798-1898: Changing Pursuits and long-term methodological-experimental Continuity

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Ducheyne, Steffen
preprint description
This paper seeks to provide a historically well-informed analysis of an important post-Newtonian area of research in experimental physics between 1798 and 1898, namely the determination of the mean density of the earth and, by the end of the nineteenth century, the gravitational constant. Traditionally, research on these matters is seen as a case of ‘puzzle solving.’ In this paper, I show that such focus does not do justice to the evidential significance of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century experimental research on the mean density of the earth and the gravitational constant. As Newton’s theory of universal gravitation was mainly based on astronomical observation, it remained to be shown that Newton’s law of universal gravitation did not break down at terrestrial distances. In this context, Cavendish’ experiment and related nineteenth-century experiments played a decisive role, for they provided converging and increasingly stronger evidence for the universality of Newton’s theory of gravitation. More precisely, I shall argue that, as the accuracy and precision of the experimental apparatuses and the procedures to eliminate external disturbances involved increasingly improved, the empirical support for the universality of Newton’s theory of gravitation improved correspondingly.