I am the co-editor-in-chief (with Richard Staley and Robert P. Crease) of Physics in Perspective. Founded in 1999 by Roger Stuewer and John S. Rigden, Physics in Perspective is dedicated to all things history of physics, and maintains an audience of both professional historians and practicing physicists. If you are interested in contributing to the journal, email me at the address listed on the contact page. We accept submissions from all areas of the history of physics, broadly understood.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working with Physics in Perspective is co-authoring quarterly editorials with Robert P. Crease and Peter Pesic (2016–2018), and Robert P. Crease and Richard Staley (2019–). These essays explore historiographical issues and highlight matters of current moment in the history of physics. They are available open access; to read any one of the editorials listed below, click on its title.
What We Talk about When We Talk about Physics
Physics in Perspective 21, no. 1 (2019)
As Physics in Perspective enters its third decade, it brings much that is new. We introduce a new editorial team; Peter Pesic is stepping aside after five years of assiduous service to the journal and Richard Staley joins Robert P. Crease and Joseph D. Martin as co-editor-in-chief. All three of us aspire to carry forward the exemplary acuity and care that Peter brought to his editorial work. This volume also inaugurates the practice of publishing the previous year’s Pais Prize lecture. The Abraham Pais Prize for History of Physics, awarded annually by the American Physical Society, recognizes outstanding scholarly achievements in the history of physics. Last year’s winner, Oregon State University’s Mary Jo Nye, used the occasion of her lecture to remark on the changes she has seen in the history of physics over her career and to offer observations on how they have (and haven’t) reflected changes in physics itself. We can think of no better touchstone for setting out our editorial vision.…
Decolonizing Physics: Learning from the Periphery
Physics in Perspective 21, no. 2 (2019)
Should the academy be decolonized? Can the sciences be decolonized? What would decolonized science look like? These questions have become increasingly pressing as many disciplines and institutions have tried to reckon with how they have been shaped by colonial practices. Working groups, reading groups, seminars and public lectures have been organised in sociology, history, English literature, physics, and the history and philosophy of science—to pick out just a handful of the decolonisation groups currently active in the University of Cambridge, which has also undertaken to understand the extent to which the university has profited from the slave trade. Facing this simultaneous call across such diverse offers an unusual opportunity, even if it raises very different issues for researchers, teachers, and students in radically different institutional homes with such different backgrounds and concerns.
Physics Is Its History
Physics in Perspective 20, no. 4 (2018)
Here is a radical view: in the final analysis, physics cannot be separated from “the history of physics.” Physics is its history. This claim appears radical because physicists of each generation inherit a set of problems that they are told urgently need addressing, a set of concepts and instruments with which to address them, and an idea of how to move forward. Physicists are occupied with that task of moving forward and might see no pressing need to understand exactly how they got the set of problems, concepts, and instrument that points the way forward.…
On "Minor" Scientists
Physics in Perspective 20, no. 3 (2018)
‘‘No character is minor.’’ So a playwright friend of ours tells his drama students. It is, after all, unnamed servants who save Gloucester at the end of act 3 of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and are thus integral to the rest of the play. Tom Stoppard underscored the point by putting two of Hamlet’s supposedly minor characters front and center in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.…
When Science and Politics Collide
Physics in Perspective 20, no. 2 (2018)
Francis Bacon had a terrific idea. Enough of learning about nature by happenstance or mere trial and error! What if each country created a community of scientists who would interrogate nature systematically? What if these countries then used the findings of such systematic inquiry to guide their actions? Would the effect not be to help human life flourish? Bacon thought so, and his vision animates his posthumously published parable, New Atlantis.…
Physicists at Play
Physics in Perspective 20, no. 1 (2018)
A much-circulated photograph shows Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr crouching side-by-side, fixated on a small spinning top. It is a tippe top, a simple toy that raises some not-so-simple physical questions. When spun with sufficient angular momentum, it will invert itself and start spinning on its stem, raising its center of mass (and so its potential energy) in the process. But where does that extra energy come from? Has one of our most sacred conservation laws been defeated by a mere toy? Few physicists can resist such a stumper, as indicated by the rapt and slightly bemused expressions of Pauli and Bohr.…
What Is Still Neglected about Experiment?
Physics in Perspective 19, no. 4 (2017)
Allan Franklin’s The Neglect of Experiment appeared over three decades ago. The book sprang from the observation that theory-besotted historians and philosophers of science, when they did not ignore experiment outright, depicted it principally thorough crude myths—Galileo thumbing his nose at Aristotle from atop a Pisan tower, Michelson and Morley signing the luminiferous ether’s death warrant. Franklin asked what we could learn about the epistemology of theory choice by confronting the historical practice of experiment in all its messy detail. His paper in this issue of Physics in Perspective, which extends that fruitful line of research, occasions us to ask how historical and philosophical study of experiment have fared in the three decades since he remarked on its neglect.…
Physics in Perspective 19, no. 2 (2017)
“Gonzo” describes a style of nonfiction in which authors abandon normal expectations of objectivity or distance and put themselves directly in their narratives. Both that style of writing and the term were popularized by the American writer and journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose books and articles contained extravagantly detailed descriptions of himself, his experiences, and his judgments. In gonzo journalism, in fact, the personality of the author is central to the unfolding of the tale itself.…
Where Is the Physics Frontier?
Physics in Perspective 19, no. 3 (2017)
The historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued that the Western frontier defined the early American state and that the ideals and necessities of frontier life were therefore etched into the American psyche. Physics provides ample evidence that Turner’s Frontier Thesis can be a useful way to think about American science. The frontier holds unimagined phenomena that can lead to new insights, and so it enchants American physicists in much the same way it enchanted the American writers Owen Wister and Willa Cather, whose novels propagated a romantic vision of pioneer life. Basic researchers view the frontier as a kind of Great Attractor—it is the place to head for; any other district is déclassé.…
Physics in Perspective 19, no. 1 (2017)
To study the history of physics is to study migrations. Physics has historically thrived on robust international exchange and collaboration. Today, it depends on it. Central to scientific collaboration is and has been the movement of people, who bring with them new ideas and approaches that combine in useful ways with those of their adopted lands.…
Physics in Perspective 18, no. 4 (2016)
In the last issue of Physics in Perspective, we wrote about the New Big Science, an important transformation in the climate of large-scale physics in which research environments have come to resemble ecosystems, with complex and evolving interactions between individuals, institutions, and external developments. An article in this issue illustrates another transition in large-scale physics, having to do with transformations specifically in high energy physics experiments.…
Meeting the Challenge of the New Big Science
Physics in Perspective 18, no. 3 (2016)
In 1953 Leland Haworth, the director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, sent the Atomic Energy Commission a proposal, shortly thereafter approved, for a 25 GeV, $20 million accelerator to be called the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron. The proposal was five single-spaced pages long (one of which is almost entirely a table), plus an additional five pages of supporting material. This was among the first of the ambitious postwar initiatives that have become known as Big Science, and the scale of just about everything associated with such projects—the size, cost, number of collaborators involved in its facilities and instruments, and the length of the proposals—kept soaring. Today, proposals for large-scale facilities and the experiments to take place at them contain thousands of pages, with exhaustive descriptions of every mechanical aspect, detailed outlines of the scientific projects to be undertaken in them, and listings of every budget item. The path from an idea to the concrete realization of a physics experiment has grown progressively more time-consuming and complex.…