PHYSICAL SCIENCE, NEWTON TO EINSTEIN

 

Taught by Ted Porter, University of California, Los Angeles, Fall 1999 
tporter@history.ucla.edu 
 
 Description and Requirements

 Course Reader

 Lectures and Discussion Questions



Description and Requirements

This class is about the development of the ideas and methods of physical science, and also about the relations of science to some of the most important events and processes of modern history.  Science has become immensely influential, but it is no less a product than a cause of historical change.  Some themes that will concern us throughout the course include:

 How natural science became a model of rationality, and what this has meant;
 The ties of science to technology, and its growing economic role;
 The troubled but often mutually supportive relations of science and religion;
 The interactions between natural and social science, science and philosophy;
 Relations between science and the state, particularly in regard to warfare;
 In what sense science is a part of culture.

You are encouraged to ask questions or raise problems during lecture.  You also are very much welcome to come by my office during office hours, or to talk after class, or to make an appointment to see me at another time.

Everyone in the class has been registered for a discussion section.  If you need to switch sections, you must have the approval of your TA.  Section participation is mandatory.  That means you must finish the required reading in advance of your section, and come to the section meeting prepared to discuss it.  Attendance at lecture is also required.  We will not take roll at lectures, but you will be asked to discuss lectures and sometimes to write about them in section.  The discussion questions listed for each week pertain mainly to the reading, and are included to give some direction and purpose to your reading.  They are not the only topics that will come up, but they are important ones. 

 Exams (short and long essays): midterm exam Thursday, 4 November, 12:30-1:45; final exam (see exam schedule). 

 Papers: short essay (5-7 typed pages) on topic to be assigned, due Tuesday, 23 November.

 Grading: section assignments and discussion 30%; midterm exam 20%; essay 20%; final exam, 30%.



Course Reader

 Required books
  Voltaire, Letters on England

  A. L. Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry

  Theodore M. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900

  John L. Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man

  Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Course Reader (by Academic Publishing, in bookstore)

 1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Farbenlehre (Theory of Color) (1808), from Goethe: The Collected Works, vol. 12, Scientific Studies, ed. and trans. by Douglas Miller (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 158-178, 266-278.

 2. Hermann von Helmholtz, "On Goethe's Scientific Researches" (1853) and "On the Aim and Progress of Physical Science" (1869) in Helmholtz, Science and Culture, David Cahan, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, 1-17 and 204-225.

 3. Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1795), trans. by F.W. Truscott and F.L. Emory (New York: Dover, 1951), 1-19.

 4. James Clerk Maxwell, "Molecules," Nature (1873), 437-441.

 5. James Clerk Maxwell, "On Faraday's Lines of Force" (1855-56), from The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, W.D. Niven, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1890).

 6. Ludwig Boltzmann, "The Second Law of Thermodynamics" (1886) and "Model" (1902), in Boltzmann, Theoretical Physics and Philosophical Problems, Brian McGuinness, ed. (Dordrecht/Boston: Reidel, 1974), 13-32 and 213-222.

 7. Ernst Mach, "The Economical Nature of Physical Inquiry" (1882), in Mach, Popular Scientific Lectures, T.J. McCormack, trans. (Chicago: Open Court, 1910), 186-213.

 8. Karl Pearson, The Grammar of Science (1892), from third ed., 1911, 1-25.

 11. Werner Heisenberg, "Goethe's View of Nature and the World of Science and Technology" (1967), in Heisenberg, Across the Frontiers, Peter Heath, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 122-141.

 12. Leo Szilard, "Reminiscences," in Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn, ed., The Intellectual Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), 94-141. 
 



Lectures, Readings and Discussion Questions

 30 Sept.: Thinking about science in history

  5-7 Oct.: Thomas Kuhn’s scientific revolutions and “the” scientific revolution

  Kuhn, Structure, preface and 1-91

  Reading questions: Can science be called rational, if we accept Kuhn’s characterization of it?  Is it a good model for social, political, religious, or philosophical thought?

 12-14 Oct.: Mechanical science and enlightened politics.

  Voltaire, Letters on England, 7-19, 53-91, 111-119.
 Kuhn, Structure, 92-173. 

  What did Voltaire like about English natural philosophy?  What did he take to be its relation to English society generally?  Did he approve Newton's religious views? Would he have liked Newton's alchemy?

 19-21 Oct.: (1) The revolution of chemistry: alchemical and algebraic languages.

  Lavoisier, Elements, preface, 1-53, 97-108, 173-190.

  Was Lavoisier's chemistry Newtonian?  Did he want chemistry to be part of physics?  Why did he assign so important a role to the imponderable caloric?  Does he look like a plausible leader of a Kuhnian revolution?

 26-28 Oct.: The boundaries of science.

  Course Reader, Goethe, Theory of Color (1808); Helmholtz, "On Goethe's Scientific Researches" (1853).

  What features of science as practiced in the Newtonian tradition did Goethe reject?  What did he expect of good science?  Did he think science should be objective?  Did Helmholtz share these ideals?

2 Nov.: From force to energy.

 Course Reader, Helmholtz, “The Aim and Progress of Physics” (1869).

 How did Helmholtz see the relations between physics and economic progress? 

 4 Nov: MIDTERM EXAM
 

9-11 Nov.: Statistics and factuality: between physics and sociology.

  Porter, Rise of Statistical Thinking, 3-88.
  Course Reader: Laplace, Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1795). 

  Did Laplace think events in nature occur (sometimes) by chance?  Why did he think we need probability theory?  Was Quetelet in agreement on these questions?

 16-18 Nov.: Physics and atomism, models and chance.

   Porter, Rise of Statistical Thinking, 91-127, 193-208.
  Course Reader: Maxwell, "Molecules" (1873); Boltzmann, “On the Second Law of Thermodynamics” (read only through his p. 24).

  Did the kinetic theory reduce the phenomena of heat to mechanics, or merely rely on a mechanical model?  Did chance enter this picture because the phenomena are really random, or as a consequence of imperfect knowledge?  What were the relations in these developments between social science and physics?

23 November: Due date for 5--7 page essay.

23 Nov.: Physics and philosophy

  Course Reader: Maxwell, “On Faraday’s Lines of Force” (1855-56); Boltzmann, "Model" (1902); Mach, "The Economical Nature of Physical Inquiry" (1882); Pearson, The Grammar of Science (1911).
 Heilbron, Dilemmas of an Upright Man, 1-60.

  Did Mach and Pearson believe that the laws of physics are really true, or that entities (like molecules) really exist?  Did Planck? What did these philosophical scientists think science is good for?

 30 Nov-2 Dec.: A new physics and a time of troubles

Course Reader: Werner Heisenberg, "Goethe's View of Nature" (1967); Leo Szilard, "Reminiscences" (1969).
  Heilbron, Dilemmas of an Upright Man, 60-86.

  How did these scientists assess the relationship between science and its technological applications?  Were Heisenberg and Szilard troubled by military uses?  Was Planck?  Did they think these uses compromised the value or purity of science? 

 7-9 Dec.: Big physics or a military tool?

  Heilbron, Dilemmas of an Upright Man, 87-203

 Why did Planck stay in Germany after Hitler came to power?  Was there any serious sense in which twentieth-century science was able to stay free of politics?
 


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