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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).

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HSS Highlights, Pt. 1 November 24, 2008

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I’ve been on two trips since Pittsburgh (Ann Arbor to visit friends and see the Northwestern Wildcats manufacture a sloppy, soggy victory over Michigan–go ‘Cats!–and Maine for an oral history interview).  So, doing a recap of highlights of sessions I saw seems less like “hot news” than it might have been.  In fact, it seems like ancient history.  But I think a recap post is actually better with a slight time delay.  One, I promised some folks I wasn’t a conference insta-blogger, and, two, it reduces the ephemerality of the conference experience to come back to it a couple weeks later.

First off, while I’ve sometimes characterized conference presentations here as working along a “colloquium-journal-edited volume” axis of disconnected scholarship, this is more a general criticism of the form.  I think it’s OK to pick apart Isis articles from time to time, since it is the flagship journal of the history of science, after all.  But picking apart conference talks seems unfair to the tentative nature of the conference talk form, so we won’t be doing that.  I will, however, just briefly mention as a lowlight the weirdly rude non-reception given to the welcoming speech by Pitt’s provost.  What was up with that?

On highlights, the first thing I want to throw out there is the co-location with the Philosophy of Science Association conference.  I think it’s fair to say that for the past two or three decades, the history of science has been much more closely connected to the sociology of science than the philosophy of science, and I think it’s a good project to try and bring the philosophers back in.

I dropped in on some PSA sessions.  At a glance, I like the way the philosophers talk and argue: their linguistic precision and the degree to which they engage with problematic issues in a constructive fashion (more…)

Primer: Deutsche Physik August 20, 2008

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Our inaugural post in the Hump-Day History series is a subject that is a touchstone to those who have studied the history of physics, but that does not feature in the top tier of popular knowledge of the history of science. This is a short-lived but stinging moment in the history of physics in Germany from the 1930s known in English as “Aryan physics” but in German as deutsche Physik, or “German physics”. The reason “Aryan” tends to be used is because “deutsche” had a very ethnic connotation that served to distinguish this style of physics from what the proponents of deutsche Physik considered to be “Jewish” physics, by which they meant relativity and quantum mechanics, the subjects that had over the prior two decades catapulted German physics to a clear position at the forefront of the profession.

Philipp Lenard receives an honorary degree from Heidelberg University

Philipp Lenard receives an honorary degree from Heidelberg University. Credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Deutsche Physik proponents were generally physicists who sought to benefit from the takeover of the Nazi Party in 1933. They were led by Nobel laureates Philipp Lenard (Nobel, 1905) and Johannes Stark (1919). After the Nazis took power, new civil service laws banned most Jews from government service, which included research posts in universities and important institutions like the Kaiser Wilhelm (now Max Planck) Institutes. By painting the highly abstract and philosophically unintuitive nature of recent physical theory as characteristically Jewish, Lenard et al attempted to tar non-Jewish physicists who had been a part of the new wave (more…)