Journal articles and book chapters
All articles and chapters linked below are the versions accepted by the relevant publishers and do not reflect changes made in copyediting and typesetting. In some cases, I have modified formatting for web display. Please refer to the published versions whenever possible.
When Condensed Matter Physics Became King
Physics Today 72, no. 1 (2019): 30–37. https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.4110 (pdf)
Condensed matter physics is huge. This surprises no one who has attended a March meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) or perused the society’s member rolls. The Division of Condensed Matter Physics has been the society’s largest for decades. But the prominence of condensed matter physics, at least by population, is recent. Before World War II, no such field existed. Only in the late 1940s would solid state physics—a precursor to condensed matter physics—emerge as a physical subdiscipline. In his superb book When Physics became King, Iwan Rhys Morus describes how physics itself, practically nonexistent in 1800, grew into the preeminent science by 1900. Condensed matter physics became king in another sense. Its rise reconfigured how the field of physics itself was defined and subcategorized. It reflected new ideas about what it meant to be a physicist and challenges to the cherished ideals upon which the American physics community had been founded.
Prestige Asymmetry in American Physics: Aspirations, Applications, and the Purloined Letter Effect
Science in Context 30, no. 4 (2017): 475–506. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0269889717000242 (pdf preprint)
Why do similar scientific enterprises garner unequal public approbation? High energy physics attracted considerable attention in the late-twentieth-century United States, whereas condensed matter physics—which occupied the greater proportion of US physicists—remained little known to the public, despite its relevance to ubiquitous consumer technologies. This paper supplements existing accounts of this much remarked-upon prestige asymmetry by showing that popular emphasis on the mundane technological offshoots of condensed matter physics and its focus on human-scale phenomena have rendered it more recondite than its better-known sibling field. News reports about high energy physics emphasize intellectual achievement; reporting on condensed matter physics focuses on technology. And whereas frontier-oriented rhetoric of high energy physics communicates ideals of human potential, discoveries that smack of the mundane highlight human limitations and fail to resonate with the widespread aspirational vision of science—a consequence I call “the purloined letter effect.”
Resource Letter HCMP-1: History of Condensed Matter Physics
American Journal of Physics 85, no. 2 (2017): 87–97. http://doi.org/10.1119/1.4967844 (pdf preprint)
This Resource Letter provides a guide to the literature on the history of condensed matter physics, including discussions of the development of the field and strategies for approach its complicated historical trajectory. Following the presentation of general resources, journal articles and books are cited for the following topics: conceptual development; institutional and community structure; social, cultural, and political history; and connections between condensed matter physics and technology.
Reflecting on how university research could meet the challenges of the early 1950s, University of Michigan provost James Adams suggested that future historians would consider the heady post–World War II years to be “an age of invincible surmise.” He regarded the era with an optimistic eye. More so than at any point in history, Adams maintained, troves of useful knowledge lay within human grasp; as US society sought to turn that knowledge to its advantage, universities held “a special responsibility for the guardianship of truth.” In the postwar years, the University of Michigan discharged that responsibility through a homegrown program exploring peaceful uses of nuclear science: the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project. In addition to producing notable research accomplishments, the project sparked systematic changes in the way the university supported research and it reshaped the university’s relationships with the alumni community and industry.
Nuclear, High Energy, and Solid State Physics
The Blackwell Companion to the History of American Science, ed. Georgina M. Montgomery and Mark A. Largent, 186-98. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2016) https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119072218.ch15
When Henry Rowland and 35 of his colleagues established the American Physical Society (APS) in 1899, the fields of nuclear, high energy, and solid state physics did not exist. Ernest Rutherford would not postulate the atomic nucleus until 1911, the cyclotron of Ernest Lawrence and M. Stanley Livingston would not accelerate its first particles until 1931, and no one would earnestly propose grouping physicists according to the phase of matter they studied until 1943. At the Society’s centenary in 1999 its membership topped 41,000 and these fields represented its largest and most powerful constituencies.
Fundamental Disputations: The Philosophical Debates that Governed American Physics, 1939–1993
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 45, no. 5 (2015): 703–57. http://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2015.45.5.703 (pdf preprint)
A philosophical debate between particle physicists and solid state physicists roiled as these subdisciplines competed for financial support, social approbation, and intellectual prestige through the second half of the twentieth century. Their disagreement hinged on the nature of fundamental research. The particle physics community adopted a reductionist approach, arguing that the fundamental physical laws were those governing the smallest constituents of matter and energy. Partly in response to this position, solid state physicists developed a range of more permissive perspectives on what type of physics could be fundamental, all of which stressed the importance of higher-level characteristics, maintaining that investigations at many levels of complexity might yield fundamental insight. This paper traces the dispute over fundamentality, which grew both from the specific problems physicists encountered while building their professional infrastructure, and from the demands of funding their research in Cold War America. Through an exploration of how physicists developed philosophical positions within institutional contexts and deployed those positions in their rhetoric, I argue first that professional pressures both motivated and exerted influence over the construction of such views, second that philosophical views had a reciprocal guiding effect on the institutional and professional development of Cold War physics, and third that these views were further bent, blunted, and reshaped when deployed in high-stakes rhetorical discourse. The case studies through which this story unfolds indicate that further attention to such philosophical commitments is warranted when examining the historical development of scientific institutions, communities, and hierarchies.
What’s in a Name Change? Solid State Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, and Materials Science
Physics in Perspective 17, no. 1 (2015): 3–32. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00016-014-0151-7 (pdf preprint)
When solid state physics emerged in the 1940s, its name was controversial. By the 1970s, some physicists came to prefer ‘‘condensed matter’’ as a way to identify the discipline of physics examining complex matter. Physicists and historians often gloss this transition as a simple rebranding of a problematically named field, but attention to the motives behind these names reveals telling nuances. ‘‘Solid state physics’’ and ‘‘condensed matter physics’’— along with ‘‘materials science,’’ which also emerged during the Cold War—were named in accordance with ideological commitments about the identity of physics. Historians, therefore, can profitably understand solid state and condensed matter physics as distinct disciplines. Condensed matter, rather than being continuous with solid state physics, should be considered alongside materials science as an outlet for specific frustrations with the way solid state was organized.
Evaluating Hidden Costs of Technological Change: Scaffolding, Agency, and Entrenchment
Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 19, no. 1 (2015): 1–25. http://doi.org/10.5840/techne201522325 (pdf preprint)
This paper explores the process by which new technologies supplant or constrain cultural scaffolding processes and the consequences thereof. As elaborated by William Wimsatt and James Griesemer, cultural scaffolds support the acquisition of new capabilities by individuals or organizations. When technologies displace scaffolds, those who previously acquired capabilities from them come to rely upon the new technologies to complete tasks they could once accomplish on their own. Therefore, the would-be beneficiaries of those scaffolds are deprived of the agency to exercise the capabilities the scaffolds supported. Evaluating how technologies displace cultural scaffolds can ground philosophical assessments of the cultural value of technologies.
Is the Contingentist/Inevitabilist Debate a Matter of Degrees?
Philosophy of Science 80, no. 5 (2013): 919–30. http://doi.org/10.1086/674003 (pdf preprint)
The contingentist/inevitabilist debate contests whether the results of successful science are contingent or inevitable. This article addresses lingering ambiguity in the way contingency is defined in this debate. I argue that contingency in science can be understood as a collection of distinct concepts, distinguished by how they hold science contingent, by what elements of science they hold contingent, and by what those elements are contingent upon. I present a preliminary taxonomy designed to characterize the full-range positions available and illustrate that these constitute a diverse array rather than a spectrum.