Grants-in-Aid: The Life-Blood of the
Center for History of Physics
One of the most important means of making the Center a real locus for new work in history of physics is our Grants-in-Aid program. This program has been used since the 1980s to help scholars conduct historical research. These are not large grants, but they often encourage the start-up of new projects that later gain larger grants from NSF or other agencies.
Most projects involve research at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives using manuscripts, books, biographical material, etc., or they involve the conducting of new oral history interviews with prominent physical scientists.
Included on this page are three reports of research undertaken recently by recipients of Grants-in-Aid: two Ph.D. candidates and one science writer. The small grant to the science writer, Peter Byrne, ultimately turned into an article in Scientific American and a BBC/NOVA biographical feature!
We recently were pleased to read the following article by Tom Scheiding in a prominent academic journal, which was researched in part at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives on a Grant-in-Aid.
Tom Scheiding, "Paying for Knowledge One Page at a Time: The Author Fee in Physics in Twentieth-Century America," Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 2009, 39:219–247.
We also list here the Grants-in-Aid awarded in the Spring 2009 round. We expect to see these awardees leverage this support into important scholarship, too.
Jump to article:
- Nuisance to Nemesis: Nuclear Fallout by Mike Lehman
- The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III by Peter Byrne
- The Inter-disciplinarity of Solid State Physics by Joe Martin
- Grants-in-Aid Awarded in Spring 2009
Nuisance to Nemesis: Nuclear Fallout
With financial and archival support from the Center for History of Physics, I visited the Niels Bohr Library & Archives’ (NBLA) College Park facility in late June and early July 2009. This visit was made to conduct research at the Library & Archives in support of my doctoral dissertation, “Nuisance to Nemesis: Nuclear Fallout as a Secret, a Problem and a Limitation on the Arms Race, 1954–1964.”
Before traveling to College Park, I found, printed and preliminarily evaluated a number of oral history transcripts available online through NBLA. Thus I anticipated that a number of other items I located in the index of the NBLA collections would provide insights into scientific support for and political controversy related to the U.S. nuclear intelligence program, arms control policy, and the role of fallout in shaping national security policy. On arriving, I was very effectively assisted by the NBLA staff, which ably and promptly retrieved the items of interest to me. The finding aids were especially helpful. All this made my visit productive, in spite of reports of an H1N1 virus outbreak in the on-site daycare and minor flooding due to a plumbing problem in the floor above the archive!
The information I sought and found falls into three broad cat-egories. Most important were a series of oral history interviews conducted by Kai-Henrik Barth and others with Cold War era seismologists. These interviews explored the policy controversies that sprung from disputes over the capabilities of seismological monitoring systems necessary to enforce arms control agreements before and after the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963.
I also found interviews and other archival materials that addressed the biophysics controversies over the risks posed by fallout, several reports that suggested I needed to explore further the role of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Project Sunshine, and some reports issued by the Federal Radiation Council that supplement materials found in my earlier research on the FRC at the John F. Kennedy Archive. A key find for me was the Lauriston Taylor memoir in which he defended existing human radiation exposure standards, part of his life’s work at the National Bureau of Standards, against what he felt were overly dramatized charges that these standards were inadequate to protect populations against exposure to radiation.
Other areas of scientific and political controversy of use were the abundant insights across a number of interviews into the charges against Robert Oppenheimer and the role of Edward Teller into the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. I also found evidence of the role of transnational relationships between scientists during the Cold War that facilitated arms control through the medium of Pugwash conferences, among other insights into the social and cultural milieu within sciences in the postwar period.
I thank the Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives for supporting my Ph.D. research.
The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III
In 2004 the American Institute of Physics awarded me a $1,500 grant in aid to support researching the life of Hugh Everett III. Thus began a five year journey that resulted in my writing a profile of Everett for Scientific American and then, a full length biography of him for Oxford University Press, The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family, due to be published in March 2010. I also worked with the BBC and NOVA to produce a film on Everett, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives.
This year the National Science Foundation awarded myself and philosophy of science professor Jeffery A. Barrett of the University of California, Irvine a grant to support the publication of a compendium of Everett’s papers (with commentary) by Princeton University Press. A website of Everett’s work will accompany the book.
In the mid-1950s, Everett was a doctoral student in physics at Princeton University, studying quantum mechanics with Robert Dicke, Eugene Wigner, and John Wheeler. For his dissertation, Everett wrote a mathematical proof that there is an uncountable infinity of universes—each containing a different copy of every object and person. When the physics establishment initially rejected his strange idea, he went to work for the Pentagon designing the nuclear targeting plan for World War Three. He died in 1982, just as his “Many Worlds” theory was starting to become popular. Today, it is considered to be one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of physics and the philosophy of science—not to mention science fiction!
Everett is a compelling biographical subject because he was the quintessentially amoral (and super smart) Cold War technocrat. In addition to inventing the “relative state formulation of quantum mechanics,” he wrote a classic paper in the annals of game theory; he invented computer algorithms that revolutionized military and business operations research; and he did pioneering work in artificial intelligence. As a Cold Warrior specializing in finding “rational” solutions to complex problems, he designed software that modeled human behavior and, yet, he was largely oblivious to the emotional damage he inflicted upon his family as he gradually descended into an abyss of alcoholism and sexual addiction.
The biography relies upon a score of boxes of documents recently discovered in the Los Angeles basement of Everett’s rock star son, Mark Everett. The musty contents of the boxes reveal a fascinating record of his tortured life and the various tragedies that afflicted his nuclear family. His correspondence with the leading scientific minds of his era, such as Niels Bohr, Norbert Wiener, and Wheeler, illuminates the bitter, often politicized struggle over how to interpret the mystery of measurement which lies at the heart of quantum mechanics.
As a non-scientist—I am an investigative reporter—I was gratified by the faith that Spencer Weart evinced in me by awarding the AIP grant five years ago, and I hope this investment has been amply repaid by the results.
The Inter-disciplinarity of Solid State Physics
I am conducting research for my Ph.D. dissertation on the disciplinary development of American solid state physics. The American Physical Society created a Division of Solid State Physics in 1947, giving an institutional face to an informal network of physicists studying properties of solids.
This institutional development, which continued over the next few decades, belied the fields’ complexity. The diverse range of subject matter it examined—everything from elasticity to electro-optical effects—led to substantial overlap with chemistry, metallurgy, and engineering.
This project examines these fields’ contributions, alongside those from other areas of physics, as the solid state community matured. I’ve had my nose in the archives for just over three weeks, and have found the Niels Bohr Library’s collection of oral histories, physicists’ papers, and institutional records rich in relevant material.
Grants-in-Aid Awarded in Spring 2009
Mike Lehman, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Nuisance to Nemesis: Nuclear Fallout and Intelligence as Secrets, Problems, and Limitations on the Arms Race, 1954–1964." For research conducted at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.
Dr. Maria Rentetzi, Assistant Professor, National Technical University of Athens, Greece. "The Greek-American Connection: Queen Frederika and Nuclear Research in Post-War Greece." To conduct an oral history interview.
Dr. Dean Rickles, ARC Australian Research Fellow, University of Sydney, Australia. "The Development of Quantum Gravity." To conduct an oral history interview.
Indianara Lima Silva, Graduate Student, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil. "Arthur H. Compton: From the Classical Approach of X-ray Scattering to the Proposal of a Non-Classical Effect." For research conducted at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.
Dr. Zuoyue Wang, Hixon-Riggs Visiting Professor, Harvey Mudd College. "Atmospheric Physics and Global Change Research in China." To conduct oral history interviews with Chinese geophysicists and atmospheric physicists.