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Book Review: David Cassidy’s Short History of Physics in the American Century November 10, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Isis 103 (September 2012): 614-615.

© 2012 by The History of Science Society, and reprinted here according to the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press.  In-text links have been added by the author, and were not included in the original text.

David C. Cassidy. A Short History of Physics in the American Century. (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine.) 211 pp., tables, app., index. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. $29.95 (cloth).

William Thomas

David Cassidy styles this book “a very brief introductory synthesis of the history of twentieth-century American physics for students and the general public.” As such, it “is not intended to offer a new analysis of that history or to argue a newly constructed thesis.” Nor does it “drift far from the standard, often currently definitive literature on its subject—as far as that literature goes” (p. 5).

This last phrase might be read to suggest that that literature has not come very far since the last such synthesis, Daniel Kevles’s The Physicists (Knopf, 1977). If so, it would not be off the mark. This book begins promisingly enough, with a discussion of the strong connections between physics and industry at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, from mention of Henry Rowland’s “Plea for Pure Science” onward, the narrative is informed by shopworn tensions, such as those between basic and applied research and between scientists’ intellectual independence and their financial dependence. Such blunt tools make for awkward synthesis: the physics community seems to lose and regain its political innocence several times over the course of the century. But, despite decades of industrious research, historians have not effectively established more satisfactory frameworks.

Like some other recent synthetic histories aimed at nonhistorians, this book also cloaks itself in a discomfiting historiographical mythology. Cassidy alleges that scientists’ accounts of their own work are mainly triumphalist narratives informed by a self-interested “ideology of pure science” (p. 163). Fortunately, we are told, professional historians can transcend this ideology. (In fact, Paul Forman actually appears inside the historical narrative as an important iconoclast.) But the posture belies the fact that the history here traffics in commonplaces from influential scientists’ journals, such as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Moreover, the book fails to escape the clichés that often do inhabit scientists’ accounts. Cassidy’s discussions of scientific and technological work mainly rehearse such famous episodes as the development of accelerators, the Standard Model, transistors, and lasers.

Regrettably, even as a digest of standard accounts, it is difficult to recommend this book over the latest edition of The Physicists (Harvard, 1995). New material on the last third of the century and industrial physics is barely wedged into a narrative dominated by familiar stories from the century’s first six decades. Thus, while detailed attention is paid to the biography of Robert Oppenheimer and the history of the Manhattan Project, there is no account of any physics research done in the 1980s. Happily, significant attention is paid throughout to the shifting demographics of the physics community.

The book’s utility is undermined by indifferent organization and editing. In places the text swings radically back and forth through decades, while sixty pages (of a 169-page book) separate the problem of the infinities in perturbative quantum electrodynamics (QED) from the introduction of renormalization. Despite its brevity, the narrative is repetitive: Spencer Weart is quoted remarking that the physics community no longer resembled a village on page 107 and again on page 138.

There are also too many contradictions and factual errors. For example, Melba Phillips is described as Oppenheimer’s first doctoral student; two sentences later she joins a group of students working under him. Carl Anderson is depicted as having discovered the positron with Oppenheimer (presumably the “mesotron” discovery is meant). Freeman Dyson’s contributions to QED are portrayed as extending to the strong and weak forces. The Frisch-Peierls memorandum is conflated with the MAUD report. A “breeder” reactor is built at Hanford during the war.

We need more scholarly syntheses along these lines, but collectively we also need to elevate the craftsmanship of the genre.

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1. Will Thomas - November 10, 2012

As an addendum, I have to say it was disappointing and surprising to me that this book didn’t turn out better as Cassidy is a really great historian. Please check out Uncertainty, his biography of Werner Heisenberg — an essential work in the historiography of physics, and an exemplar of serious scientific biography. Also check out his 2009 update, Beyond Uncertainty.

A couple of other notes:

Cassidy’s remarks about physicists’ narratives is a textbook example of what I call the conflict of interest between STS and the history of science, which systematically portrays past ideas as existing at odds with those of the professional historian or STS scholar (in this case, the insistence that physicists have been consistent purveyors of an “ideology of pure science” — a repetition of the sociological Mulkay-Gieryn thesis — when surely their portraits have been much more diverse and often sophisticated). As I say, this has the implicit effect of placing the historian in a heroic role at the end of history. The insertion of Paul Forman into the narrative is an unusually explicit manifestation of this. The pervasiveness of this conflict is evident given that Cassidy isn’t even a historian whose work I would consider to be much inflected by STS. Again, having a conflict of interest does not mean that the relationship cannot be productive — it needs to be. Rather, the conflict should be recognized and managed.

Also, it would also be misleading to say that Oppenheimer and Anderson discovered the mesotron (muon), but it’s at least a defensible statement. I found many statements in this book that, if interpreted charitably, could be defended as sort-of true. For my examples above, I selected only ones that were indefensibly false. I spent altogether too much time trying to figure out whether the wartime Hanford reactor could conceivably be called a “breeder” reactor even if it’s not the typical connotation of the term.


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