All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”
— Aphorism



The quote above is often attributed (in error) to Ernest Rutherford, the physicist from New Zealand best known for demonstrating that most of an atom’s mass resides in a small, hard nucleus. The quote reflects an attitude that has been part of physics for a long time—the notion that it is the purist, the noblest, the most fundamental, the “queen of the sciences.” Today, we might smirk at such a sentiment; biology has become the most prestigious (and best-funded) science in the United States, and we now often consider physics—which the press often reports by discussing speculative research into string theory, the multiverse, and supersymmetry—to be weird and arcane, with little to do with how we live our daily lives. Historically, however, the sentiment that physics sits above all other scientific endeavors shaped how physicists searched out new knowledge, built their instruments, managed their institutions, and interacted with the societies that supported them.

This course revolves around the theme of prestige. It probes how physicists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries argued for the importance of their field. This includes examining the relationship between physics and technology, considering the nature of the knowledge physicists produced, considering physicists as celebrities and public figures, and probing the relationship between physics, politics, and society. You should finish the course with a more robust sense of physics both as a science and as a historical entity.



What I hope to do in this course:
• Familiarize students with major episodes in the history of physics
• Provide experience manipulating primary source material
• Sharpen students’ critical thinking, writing, research, and presentation skills

What you should be able to do by the end of the course:
• Explain the importance of major developments in the history of physics
• Apply an understanding of those perspectives to contemporary and historical issues
• Interpret primary source material with reference to other primary and secondary sources



• Hunt, Bruce, Pursuing Power and Light
• Frayne, Michael, Copenhagen
• Traweek, Sharon, Beamtimes and Lifetimes

Available Online
• A copy of this syllabus
• Required and supplementary readings for each week
• Sources for your final projects



20%  -  Participation/Attendance
20%  -  Weekly Reflections
15%  -  Take Home Exam 1
15%  -  Take Home Exam 2
30%  - Final Group Project

Assignments are graded on a 4.0 scale. Your final grade will be rounded up to the nearest .5. A detailed rubric is in Appendix B.

Participation (20% of your grade)
Participation will be based on your presence in class, and on active, conscientious involvement in discussions and activities therein. You should come to class with a copy of that day’s reading, prepared to discuss it. Your in-class contributions will be assessed based on whether they demonstrate critical engagement with the material. As a courtesy to your classmates, please silence cell phones before the beginning of class.

Weekly Reflections (20% of your grade)
Each week, you will complete a small assignment that ask you to critically engage the course material. Reflections will vary in format, but might include responses to specific questions about specific readings, free-form reaction pieces, or informal presentations. They will be collected or conducted in class on Wednesdays, unless noted otherwise. These assignments are graded on a √,√+, √– basis, where a √ or √+ earns you full credit and a √– half credit.

Take-Home Exams (30% of your grade)
I will distribute a take-home exam at the end of each of the first two course modules, which will be due two weeks later. Each exam will ask you to respond to two essay questions related to the material we covered in the course module.

Final Group Project (30% of your grade)
Your final project is a group research paper based on primary source material posted to D2L. See Appendix B of this syllabus for a detailed description, instructions, and project timeline.



Week 1: Course Introduction



Week 2: Knowledge and Power
Hunt – Introduction and Chapter 1
Morus – “The Queen of the Sciences"

Week 3: Energy and Entropy
Hunt – Chapter 2
Maxwell – Letter to John William Strutt
Hunt – Chapter 3

Week 4: Currents and Networks
Hunt – Chapter 4
Warwick – "Exercising the Student Body"

Week 5: Optics and the Aether
Hunt – Chapter 5
Fresnel/Arago ­– “On the Action of Light Rays Polarized Upon Each Other”

Week 6: Power and Light 
Hunt – Chapter 7
Movie: Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)



Week 7: Space and Time I
Norton – Excerpts from Einstein for Everyone
Einstein – “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”
Michelson/Morley – “On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Ether”

Week 8: Space and Time II
Missner – “Why Einstein became Famous in America”
Dyson et al. – “A Determination of the Deflection of Light by the Sun”

Week 9: Quantum Mechanics
Segrè – Excerpts from From X-rays to Quarks
Copenhagen (Act One)

Week 10: Quantum Mechanics
Copenhagen (Act Two)
Holton – “What Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen Tries to Tell Us”
Excerpts from the Bohr-Heisenberg Correspondence



Week 11: The Origins and Character of American Physics
Martin – “Nuclear, High Energy, and Solid State Physics”
Rowland – “The Highest Aim of the Physicist”
Assmus – “The Americanization of Molecular Physics”

Week 12: Building and Dropping the Bomb
Rhodes – The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Chapter 1 & 10
Franck, et al. – “The Franck Report”
Bush – “Science—The Endless Frontier” 

Week 13: High Energy Physics
Traweek – Prologue through Chapter 2
Movie: Particle Fever

Week 14: High Energy and Solid State Physics
Traweek – Chapter 3 through Epilogue
Anderson – “More Is Different” 

Week 15: The End of Physics?
Excerpts from Congressional Testimony, SSC Hearings
Barry – “Searching for Particles of Logic in the Collider”