|Selected Papers HOME||PREFACE||AFTERWORD|
American physics is second to none in the world. It was not always so. This volume, issued by The American Physical Society to celebrate the American Bicentennial, contains representative and readable selections of the papers of great American physicists which illustrate the rise of American physics from colonial days through the early years of the twentieth century. This is primarily a commemorative volume with no scholarly pretensions other than fidelity to the original form in which physicists saw the works of their contemporaries. In these reproductions of original papers we are brought closer to the past of our profession and our country.
The roll call is impressive, Franklin, Henry, Gibbs, Rowland, Michelson, Millikan, Compton; a signer of the Declaration of Independence and first great American physicist, a founder and second President of the National Academy of Sciences, the first great American theoretical physicist, the first President of The American Physical Society and the first three American Nobel Prize winners in Physics. The selections stop short of the last fifty years since choices involving living people and their deceased colleagues are difficult to make.
Many American physicists, including all whose papers appear in this volume, studied in Europe or benefited from close personal contacts with European colleagues. In this and many other ways, American physics owes a great debt to the old countries. In providing sanctuary in time of war and strife to many physicists from these and other countries, America has repaid its debt. Most important of all, American physicists join with their colleagues throughout the world in the support of free and untrammeled research and teaching and the advocacy of uncensored international exchange of new knowledge in physics and other sciences.
The important role played by applied physics, or "practical" physics in earlier terminology, is a central theme in the early research. Franklin's work on lightning led him immediately to invent and study the lightning rod, while Henry helped put his own discoveries to work. Meanwhile research in pure physics gradually attained adequate support in America; never have more pithy arguments for intellectual enterprise per se been put forward than in Rowland's "The Highest Aim of the Physicist".
Practicality and pure research were leavened, then as now, by good humor. There is fascination and delight in Franklin's "magical picture of the KING (God preserve him)" and hilarity in his description of the electric "party of pleasure on the banks of the Skuylkil." That physics is fun is not a new discovery of our more ebullient contemporaries Henry devotes a paragraph in his article "On Electro-Dynamic Induction", reproduced here, to physique amusante, albeit with some apology and reticence. It is hoped that others, and young people in particular, will come to share with those of us in physics the fascination, delight and fun of our profession as well as its intellectual satisfaction and practical contributions.
Our knowledge of the physical world is the result of the efforts of many physicists, not just that of the great physicists. It might have been appropriate to select an important paper by a relatively unsung physicist, but this has not been done. We are human in paying our homage primarily to our heroes. Even so there is great satisfaction in knowing that the selected papers in this volume rest on the foundation of the work of many like ourselves.
The American Physical Society has played a growing role in the affairs of physics over the last 77 years. Its traditional function of holding meetings and publishing journals has been augmented in recent years by an increasing involvement in relating physics to public affairs. This involvement will continue to grow during the third century of the Republic. In this Bicentennial year we look back with pride and some nostalgia to the work of our predecessors and at the same time we look forward to the future of our profession as both an intellectual enterprise for the individual and as a practical enterprise for society.
William A. Fowler
The American Physical Society
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