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Ernst Waldfried Josef Wenzel Mach

Ernst Waldfried Josef Wenzel Mach (/ˈmɑːx/; German: [ˈɛɐnst max]; February 18, 1838 – February 19, 1916) was an Austrian physicist and philosopher, noted for his contributions to physics such as the Mach number and the study of shock waves. As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism, American pragmatism[5] and through his criticism of Newton, a forerunner of Einstein's relativity.


Ernst Waldfried Josef Wenzel Mach was born in Brno-Chrlice (German: Chirlitz),Moravia(then in the Austrian empire, now part ofBrnoin theCzechRepublic). His father, who had graduated fromCharlesUniversityinPrague, acted as tutor to the noble Brethon family in Zlín, eastern Moravia. His grandfather, Wenzl Lanhaus, an administrator of the estate Chirlitz, was also master builder of the streets there. His activities in that field later influenced the theoretical work of Ernst Mach. Some sources give Mach's birthplace as Turas/Tuřany (now also part ofBrno), the site of the Chirlitz registry-office. Peregrin Weiss baptized Ernst Mach into the Roman Catholic Church in Turas/Tuřany. Despite his Catholic background, he later became an atheist.[6]

Up to the age of 14, Mach received his education at home from his parents. He then entered a Gymnasium in Kroměříž (German: Kremsier), where he studied for three years. In 1855 he became a student at theUniversityofVienna. There he studied physics and for one semester medical physiology, receiving his doctorate in physics in 1860 and his Habilitation the following year. His early work focused on the Doppler effect in optics and acoustics. In 1864 he took a job as Professor of Mathematics inGraz, having turned down the position of a chair in surgery at theUniversityofSalzburgto do so, and in 1866 he was appointed as Professor of Physics. During that period, Mach continued his work in psycho-physics and in sensory perception. In 1867, he took the chair of Experimental Physics at theCharlesUniversity,Prague, where he stayed for 28 years before returning toVienna.

Mach's main contribution to physics involved his description and photographs of spark shock-waves and then ballistic shock-waves. He described how when a bullet or shell moved faster than the speed of sound, it created a compression of air in front it. Using schlieren photography, he and his son Ludwig were able to photograph the shadows of the invisible shock waves. During the early 1890s Ludwig was able to invent an interferometer which allowed for much clearer photographs. But Mach also made many contributions to psychology and physiology, including his anticipation of gestalt phenomena, his discovery of the oblique effect and of Mach bands, an inhibition-influenced type of visual illusion, and especially his discovery of a non-acoustic function of the inner ear which helps control human balance.

One of the best-known of Mach's ideas is the so-called "Mach principle," concerning the physical origin of inertia. This was never written down by Mach, but was given a graphic verbal form, attributed by Philipp Frank to Mach himself, as, "When the subway jerks, it's the fixed stars that throw you down."

Mach also became well known for his philosophy developed in close interplay with his science.[7] Mach defended a type of phenomenalism recognizing only sensations as real. This position seemed incompatible with the view of atoms and molecules as external, mind-independent things. He famously declared, after an 1897 lecture by Ludwig Boltzmann at the Imperial Academy of Science inVienna: "I don't believe that atoms exist!"[8] From about 1908 to 1911 Mach's reluctance to acknowledge the reality of atoms was criticized by Max Planck as being incompatible with physics. Einstein's 1905 demonstration that the statistical fluctuations of atoms allowed measurement of their existence without direct individuated sensory evidence marked a turning point in the acceptance of atomic theory. Some of Mach's criticisms ofNewton's position on space and time influenced Einstein, but later Einstein realized that Mach was basically opposed toNewton's philosophy and concluded that his physical criticism was not sound.

In 1898 Mach suffered from cardiac arrest and in 1901 retired from theUniversityofViennaand was appointed to the upper chamber of the Austrian parliament. On leavingViennain 1913 he moved to his son's home in Vaterstetten, nearMunich, where he continued writing and corresponding until his death in 1916. His current living descendant is Marilyn vos Savant (her father was Joseph Mach).

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