Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feynman:
Physics in the 20th Century

Spring 2001 taught by David Kaiser, M.I.T. 

Einstein sitting and talking with Zvi Gezari, backyard of Princeton home, telescope in background.

Course Description
Lecture Schedule and Reading Assignments

 

L-R: Critchfield, Richard Feynman, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Los Alamos.


Course Description: (back to top)
Instructor:
Professor David Kaiser
E-mail: dikaiser@mit.edu
E51-296G; 452-3173

Subject Description: During the 20th century, both the ideas and the contexts of physics changed dramatically.  In this class we will study some of the changing ideas within modern physics, ranging from relativity theory and quantum mechanics to solid-state physics, nuclear and elementary particles, and cosmology.  At the same time, we will situate these ideas within shifting institutional, cultural, and political contexts.  The overall aim will be to understand the changing roles of physics and of physicists over the course of the twentieth century.

Reading Assignments: Required books for the subject are available for purchase at the MIT COOP, 3 Cambridge Center in Kendall Square, 499-3230.  There is also a packet of readings for the subject, available on-line through the Hayden Library EReserves.  The books are also on reserve at the Hayden Library Reserve Room.  Reading assignments from the packet are marked with an asterisk (*) in the syllabus; these readings should be completed before each lecture.  The following three books are required:

  1. Russell McCormmach, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1991).

  2. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (New York:  Anchor Books, 2000).

  3. Lawrence Badash, Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons:  From Fission to the Lmited Test Ban Treaty, 1939-1963 (Atlantic Highlands:  Humanity Press, 1995).


Lecture Schedule and Reading Assignments (back to top)

I. Introduction and Background

Week 1: Course Organization and Introduction

  • Wednesday, 7 February: Introductory Lecture
  • Begin reading Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, to be completed by 14 February.

Week 2: The Nineteenth-Century Legacy

  • Monday, 12 February: Maxwell, Electrodynamics, and Cambridge Wrangler
    1. James Clerk Maxwell, Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, 3rd ed (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892), volume 1, pp. v-xii, 155-68.
    2. Bruce J. Hunt, The Maxwellians (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 73-107.
  • Wednesday, 14 February: Mechanical and Electrodynamical World Pictures, and
    the Rise of Theoretical Physics
  • Finish reading Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist.

II. Einstein: Relativity, Quanta, and the Philosopher-Scientist

Week 3: The Origins of Special Relativity: Physical, Philosophical, Experimental

  • Tuesday, 20 February: Special Relativity and the Ether [Note special day!]
    1. Isaac Newton, "Scholium," in Newton: Texts, Backgrounds, Commentaries, edited by I. Bernard Cohen and Richard Westfall (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), pp. 231-3.
    2. Ernst Mach, The Science of Mechanics (LaSalle: Open Court, 1960), pp. 271-5.
    3. Albert Einstein, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," translated and reprinted in Arthur I. Miller, Albert Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity: Emergence (1905) and Early Interpretation (1905-1911) (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1981), pp. 392-6.
  • Wednesday, 21 February: Einstein and Experiment
    1. Gerald Holton, "Mach, Einstein, and the Search for Reality," in Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973 [1988]), pp. 237-77.
    2. Arthur I. Miller, "The Special Theory of Relativity: Einstein's Response to the Physics of 1905," in Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives, edited by Gerald Holton and Yehudah Elkana (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 3-26.

Week 4: From the Special to the General Theory

  • Monday, 26 February: The Reception of Special Relativity
    1. Andrew Warwick, "Cambridge Mathematics and Cavendish Physics: Cunningham, Campbell, and Einstein's Relativity, 1905-1911. Part I: The Uses of Theory," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 23 (1992): 625-56.
  • Wednesday, 28 February: The Origins of General Relativity

** Paper 1 (4-5 pp.) due in class**

  1. Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis (New York: Dover, 1952 [1900]), pp. 72-5.
  2. Albert Einstein, "What is the Theory of Relativity?," in Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, edited by Carl Seelig (New York: Crown Publishers, 1954), pp. 227-32.
  3. David Kaiser, "General Relativity Primer," unpublished manuscript (© 1998).
  4. Loren Graham, "The Reception of Einstein's Ideas: Two Examples from Contrasting Political Cultures," in Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives, edited by Gerald Holton and Yehudah Elkana (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp.107-36.

Week 5: From Quantum Theory to Quantum Mechanics

  • Monday, 5 March: Radiation, Quanta, and Atoms, 1900-1913
    1. Emilio Segrè, From X-Rays to Quarks: Modern Physicists and Their Discoveries (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1980), pp. 61-77.
    2. John L. Heilbron, "Bohr's First Theories of the Atom," in Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume, edited by A. P. French and P. J. Kennedy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 33-49.
  • Wednesday, 7 March: Matrices and Waves
    1. Werner Heisenberg, "Quantum-Theoretical Re-Interpretation of Kinematic and Mechanical Relations," translated and reprinted in Sources of Quantum Mechanics, edited by B. L. van der Waerden (New York: Dover, 1967), pp. 261-6.
    2. Walter Moore, Schrödinger: Life and Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 191-200.

Week 6: Interpreting Quantum Mechanics

  • Monday, 12 March: The Einstein-Bohr Debate
    1. N. David Mermin, "Quantum Mysteries for Anyone," Journal of Philosophy 78 (1981): 397-408.
    2. Niels Bohr, "The Bohr-Einstein Dialogue," in Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume, edited by A. P. French and P. J. Kennedy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 121-40.
  • Wednesday, 14 March: The Contexts of Quanta: Weimar Germany, Interwar US
    1. Paul Forman, "Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment," in Darwin to Einstein: Historical Studies on Science and Belief, edited by Colin Chant and John Fauvel (New York: Longman, 1980), pp. 267-302.
    2. Alexi Assmus, "The Americanization of molecular physics," Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 23 (1992): 1-34.

Week 7: Shifting Topics and Centers

  • Monday, 19 March: Nuclear Physics in the 1930s; From Europe to America
    1. Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987 [1978]), pp. 222-35, 282-6
  • Wednesday, 21 March: In-class Midterm

Week 8: Spring Break: Begin reading Michael Frayn, Copenhagen.

III. Oppenheimer: Physics, Physicists, and the State

Week 9: The Physicists' War

  • Monday, 2 April: Physics under Hitler: deutsche Physik and the bomb
    1. The Farm Hall Transcripts, edited by Charles Frank (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 70-91.
    2. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen.
  • Wednesday, 6 April: Physics in the US: Radar and the Atomic Bomb
    1. Lawrence Badash, Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons, pp. 27-47.
    2. Robert Serber with Robert Crease, Peace & War: Reminiscences of a Life on the Frontiers of Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 121-44.

Week 10: The Bomb and Beyond

  • Monday, 9 April: Film: The Day After Trinity
    1. Henry DeWolf Smyth, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945), pp. 206-26.
    2. J. Robert Oppenheimer, "Speech to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists, November 2, 1945," in Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, edited by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 315-25.
  • Wednesday, 11 April: Film: The Decision to Build the H-Bomb
    1. Lawrence Badash, Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons, pp. 48-62, 80-88.
    2. Jeremy Bernstein, "The Need to Know," in Asymptotic Realms of Physics: Essays in Honor of Francis E. Low, edited by Alan H. Guth, Kerson Huang, and Robert L. Jaffe (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983), pp. xvii-xxiv.

Week 11: Physicists and the State

  • Monday, 16 April: school holiday, no classes
  • Wednesday, 18 April: McCarthyism and the Oppenheimer Hearing

** Paper 2 (6-7 pp.) due in class **

    1. Heinar Kipphardt, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Play Freely Adapted on the Basis of the Documents, translated by Ruth Speirs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967 [1964]), pp. 69-96.
    2. Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994), pp. 32-40, 210-14.
    3. Lawrence Badash, Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons, pp.63-79, 102-8.

IV. Feynman and Postwar American Theory

Week 12: Particles and Fields

  • Monday, 23 April: The Rise of Big Science
    1. S. S. Schweber, "The Mutual Embrace of Science and the Military: ONR and the Growth of Physics in the United States after World War II," in Science, Technology, and the Military, edited by Everett Mendelsohn, Merritt Roe Smith, and Peter Weingart (Boston: Kluwer, 1988), pp. 3-45.
  • Wednesday, 25 April: The Conservative Revolution: QED and Renormalization
    1. Richard Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 77-101.

Week 13: Conundrums and Conflict in Particle Theory

  • Monday, 30 April: The Challenge to Field Theory
    1. Geoffrey Chew, "Impasse for the Elementary-Particle Concept," in The Sciences Today, edited by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler (New York: Arno, 1977 [1974]), pp. 366-99.
  • Wednesday, 2 May: Quarks, Gauge Fields, and the Rise of the Standard Model
    1. Harald Fritzsch, Quarks: The Stuff of Matter (New York: Basic Books), pp. 47-87, 123-37.

Week 14: Solid-State Physics in the Lab and in the Factory

  • Monday, 7 May: Building a Solid-State Community
    1. Helge Kragh, Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 366-75.
    2. Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 55-70.
  • Wednesday, 9 May: Quantum electronics: The Transistor and the Maser
    1. Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 115-41.
    2. Joan L. Bromberg, The Laser in America, 1950-1970 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), pp. 13-31.

Week 15: Cosmology and Unification

  • Monday, 14 May: Big Bang v. Steady-State Cosmology
    1. Helge Kragh, "Big Bang Cosmology," in Cosmology: Historical, Literary, Philosophical, Religious, and Scientific Perspectives, edited by Norriss Hetherington (New York: Garland, 1993), pp. 371-89.
    2. Helge Kragh, "Steady State Theory," in Cosmology: Historical, Literary, Philosophical, Religious, and Scientific Perspectives, edited by Norriss Hetherington (New York: Garland, 1993), pp.391-404.
    3. Fred Hoyle, The Nature of the Universe (New York: Harper and Row, 1950), pp. 133-42.
  • Wednesday, 16 May: Superstrings and Summary
    1. Gerard 't Hooft, In Search of the Ultimate Building Blocks (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 157-64.

**Paper 3 (10-12 pp.) due on Friday, 18 May**


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