AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXV , No. 1, Spring 2003


Moments of Discovery home pageNew Web Exhibits Probe Moments of Discovery

T he intimate details of a scientific discovery hold a special
fascination for the public, and still more for science students and scientists themselves. To help everyone understand better how science gets done, the Center for History of Physics presents a major addition to its award-winning Web site. Two separate units, The Discovery of Fission and A Pulsar Discovery, dig deep into important discoveries, using the scientists’ own words. A special appeal is made to physics teachers with detailed Teachers’ Guides and supplementary materials, suggesting how the units can be used in the classroom. The units can be seen online at

The Discovery of Fission is a narrative incorporating more than two dozen excerpts from the Niels Bohr Library’s matchless collection of oral history interviews and tape recordings. As visitors read the text they can listen to the actual voices of Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Otto Hahn, John Wheeler, Otto Frisch, Enrico Fermi and others as they describe how uranium fission was discovered, debated in the physics community, confirmed and put to work. Alongside the text are photographs and diagrams to provide faces and explanations. The discovery is presented chiefly as a social process involving many scientists, embedded in its momentous historical context.

A Pulsar Discovery centers on an extraordinary tape recording. When a pair of young astronomers set out to make their first observation, they ran a voice channel on their tape recorder, accidentally catching their hesitations and excitement as they realized that they had made the first observation of a pulsar in visible light. These actual moments of discovery are framed in a lively narrative by Phil Morrison, including excerpts from interviews with the astronomers. The discovery is presented chiefly as an intellectual process, in which we see scientists struggling through unexpected problems to find what they are looking for, then working to convince themselves that it is not an artifact of wishful thinking. Again, photographs and diagrams provide a rich visual context.

Teachers’ Guides, prepared by the noted secondary-school physics teacher Arthur Eisenkraft, explain how the units can be used in the classroom or for individual study. The many suggested questions show how each unit can be used to enhance secondary-school or beginning college physics instruction, as well as how each can illuminate both the social and the intellectual process of discovery. Supplementary materials include copies of original scientific papers and documents, bibliogaphies and Web links.

The exhibits are based on modules employing tape recordings and slides developed by the Center for History of Physics under a National Science Foundation grant in the 1980s. Of four modules created and tested in classrooms, these two proved highly successful, winning praise from teachers and students. Unfortunately, economic factors made it impossible to market them broadly. Thanks to the Web, after extensive reformatting and updating, the units can now be provided free to everyone.

A CD-ROM containing both units is available at cost for those whose internet connection makes listening to the voices too slow, or who want the units in a more portable format. The CD-ROM may be bought for $12.00 from Moments of Discovery, Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740 U.S. (you can also order online with a credit card from the secure exhibit Web site). The original units were developed by Joan Warnow with Lillian Hoddeson, Spencer Weart and Charles Weiner; the Web adaptation was edited and enhanced by Patrick McCray and designed by Linda Wooliever.

Return to Newsletter Table of ContentsRETURN to Spring 2003 Newsletter Table of Contents

AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843