Taught by Cathryn Carson ( at the University of California at Berkeley, Spring 2003.
Course description

Reading materials

Course mechanics


Useful links

Course description (back to top)


The course studies the establishment of the ideas and institutions of modern physics, covering the evolution of the discipline over roughly the last century and a half. This period has witnessed some of the field's most dramatic developments, both intellectual and structural. We begin with the nineteenth-century organization of the discipline and the debates over the classical world picture (mechanics, electromagnetism and optics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics). We then follow the dramatic changes that undid the classical picture, from the discovery of radioactivity and x-rays, through Einstein's theories of relativity, on to the the creation of quantum mechanics and accompanying philosophical disputes. We consider the elucidation of atomic structure, the exploration of the nucleus, and the establishment of the field-theoretic description of natural phenomena. Alongside these conceptual upheavals we will be watching the transformation of the discipline from a small-scale, academic, largely European enterprise to a world-wide profession on an American model, carried out in reliance upon massive state funding and endowed with the power, through its creations (solid-state devices, the atomic bomb), to shape national and international destinies.
As a historical study of a scientific field, the course draws on approaches and materials from both history and science.  We deal in some depth with scientific concepts, though in a way that should remain accessible to non-scientists willing to put in a bit of effort.  In all this, however, emphasis is placed on the historical development, and one of the course's goals is to practice the skill of thinking historically.
The course is aimed at two groups of students. First, science and engineering majors will gain an understanding of the structure and functioning of a field they have studied. They should come away from the course with a sense for how modern physics works and hangs together. Equally, non-science/engineering students will get a historical introduction to this scientific discipline. This course fulfills the L&S breadth requirement in physical sciences. A decent high-school level course in physics or chemistry will be adequate preparation. Students concerned about their background should feel free to talk to me individually. All should expect to learn a good deal of science. In past years, the best students in the class have divided equally between science/engineering and non-science/engineering majors.

Reading materials (back to top)

This is a history course. There is something to read (usually short) for almost every class meeting, and the readings are required. For guidance in reading you can refer to two things:

  • The page of reading strategies .
  • Preparatory questions for each assignment, available in the reader and as links from the schedule.
You should complete each assignment before coming to class, as the lectures will presume your familiarity.

Many of the materials are primary sources written by scientists during the period we are studying. They are found in the reader , which is available for purchase from Copy Central, 2560 Bancroft Way, and on reserve in the Physics Library . Some of the materials in the course reader, marked as such on the schedule, are also available on the web.  Several further assignments, likewise marked on the schedule, can be completed only on the web.

Two required books (both works of fiction) are available in the bookstores and on reserve in the Physics Library.

  • Russell McCormmach, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist , Harvard, 1991, ISBN 0674624610, $19.95.
  • Michael Frayn, Copenhagen, Anchor Books, 2000, ISBN 0385720793, $12.00.
There is no single "textbook" for this course. However, the Physics Library also has on reserve a selection of relevant books . You are encouraged to browse or ask me for guidance. Two books recommended for students with physics backgrounds are:
  •  Robert D. Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century, Rutgers, 1997, ISBN 0813524423, $22.00.
  •  Helge Kragh, Quantum Generations, Princeton, 1999, ISBN 0691012067, $30.05.

Course mechanics (back to top)

The full schedule of assignments is available separately. You are responsible for keeping up with it.

Class meetings

Lectures will provide the framework within which the readings will make sense. Do not assume that you already know the history of physics (from your physics class, popular reading, or television specials) and so can get by without the lectures. For each class meeting, a brief outline and a list of names and terms will be posted as a link from the schedule. These will also be projected, along with the presentation, during the class. They are designed to supplement, not substitute for, notetaking. I will try to make them available before class. If I cannot, they will be posted afterwards.
Discussion section
There is no discussion section. If you are looking for classmates to compare notes, please contact me.
Informal worksheets will help you consolidate your grasp of the scientific material. These will not be graded, and you will not turn them in, but we will briefly discuss them in class. It will be to your advantage to complete them. The exact timing will depend on our progress through the semester, but I anticipate the following (rough) completion dates: Mechanics and thermo 1/31, EM 2/7, new phenomena 2/24, the quantum 2/28, special relativity 3/7, old QT 3/17, QM 3/31, QFT and particle physics (1) 4/7, bomb physics 4/23, QFT and particle physics (2) 5/7.
Writing assignments
You will have four short writing assignments, two based on books and two based on research. You must do all four .
  • McCormmach, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist (3 pp.): Write a short essay (questions are given) on this work of historical fiction about a turn-of-the-century theoretical physicist. Due Monday, February 10.
  • Physical Review assignment (3 pp.): Examine the early years (pre-1910) of the first American physics journal, the Physical Review, and submit a group report. Due Wednesday, February 26.
  • Frayn, Copenhagen (3 pp.): Write a response (questions are again given) to the Tony-Award-winning play about a World War II meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Due Wednesday, April 16.
  • BAS assignment (3 pp.):  Analyze two articles of your choice from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists between 1945 and 1952, suggesting what they reveal about physicists' concerns after World War II. Due Friday, April 25 .
Written assignments may not be submitted by e-mail or in any other electronic form. Papers are due in class, and late papers will be penalized: each day (or fraction thereof, starting at 11:00 a.m.) that a paper is late will reduce its grade by 2/3 of a mark (e.g., A to B+, B- to C). You have been forewarned.

If you choose, instead of the four short writing assignments, you may make a special arrangement with me to write a 10-12 page research paper. This is recommended only for history majors (looking ahead to the History 101 thesis, for instance) or students with experience with college-level research papers. If you are considering this option, you must come talk with me. You may not pursue it without my approval. You must make your decision no later than Wednesday, February 26, and inform me in an e-mail. I will be happy to help you brainstorm. If you end up doing the first short writing assignment and then deciding to write a research paper, the first short writing assignment will count as extra credit.

  • The midterm (50 minutes, in-class) is scheduled for Monday, March 10. It covers the first two units of the syllabus. Study questions will be available.
  • The final exam is scheduled (according to Exam Group 6) for Monday, May 19, from 8:00-11:00 a.m. It covers the entire semester and counts twice as much as the midterm. Study questions will again be available.
My exams tend to emphasize questions requiring answers one paragraph in length; sometimes I add a few longer options. I generally give you a choice of which questions to answer.  I include a section of short-answer identifications, generally worth about a quarter of the exam.
Reading journal option
If you choose, you can skip the midterm and take a reduced version of the final (fewer paragraph-answer questions and no identifications). In exchange, you must keep a reading journal. This is a series of responses to the reading assignments, kept in a notebook or (preferably) on your computer. You must write at least three entries per syllabus unit and turn them in on the last day of each unit. You must decide whether to take this option no later than Friday, February 14, when the first unit's entries are due in class. Obviously, you will make it easier for yourself if you write the entries as each assignment comes up.

Each entry should be 300-400 words (about 1 to 1 pages typed, double-spaced). If you choose, you may use the reading questions for each assignment to guide your responses. If there is more than one text in a single day's assignment, you may respond to the entire assignment or any part of it, but you cannot do more than one entry per day. Entries may be tentative or exploratory, but the writing should be polished. The entries will be graded. If you do more than three entries in a single unit, you will get extra credit; three extra entries over the course of the semester count as a single extra credit assignment.

Final grades will be assigned according to the following weighting:
Night Thoughts assignment 1 part
Physical Review assignment 1 part
Copenhagen assignment 1 part
BAS assignment 1 part



Midterm and final exam 6 parts (2 parts plus 4 parts)
Reading journal and reduced final 6 parts (4 parts plus 2 parts)
Any work not completed will count as an F. In individual cases (e.g., marked improvement over the course of the semester) I may choose to deviate from this scheme.

Several extra credit options are available. Any two extra credit assignments count as much as one short writing assignment. Extra credit work can only improve your grade.

Schedule (back to top)

(in the reader unless bold or italics)
Unit 1: Classical World Pictures
Roadmap 1
W 1/22 Introduction and overview  
F 1/24 Natural philosophy and mechanical explanation  
M 1/27 New mechanical principles Joule, "Mechanical Equivalent"
W 1/29 Thermodynamics Clausius, "Second Law"
F 1/31 Electricity and magnetism Coulomb, "Electric Force"
M 2/3 Electromagnetism Maxwell, selections, and start on Night Thoughts
W 2/5 Making sense of Maxwell Duhem, "Physical Theory"
F 2/7 Classical world pictures (1) Mach, "Economy of Science"
M 2/10 Classical world pictures (2) McCormmach, Night Thoughts, and essay
W 2/12 Statistical mechanics and kinetic theory Klein, "Mechanical Explanation"
F 2/14 The world of a physicist Tables from "Physics circa 1900"
Unit 2: Challenges
Roadmap 2
M 2/17 HOLIDAY  
W 2/19 New radiations, new phenomena (1) Röntgen, "Rays," Curie, "Radium" and website
F 2/21 New radiations, new phenomena (2) Thomson, "Cathode Rays"
M 2/24 The quantum: Planck on radiation Carson, "Quantum Theory" through p. 13
W 2/26 Making sense of the quantum Physical Review essay
F 2/28 Einstein and relativity (1) Einstein, "Electrodynamics"
M 3/3 Einstein and relativity (2) Heisenberg, "Relativity" through p. 120
W 3/5 Einstein and relativity (3) Einstein, "Autobiographical Notes"
F 3/7 General relativity and beyond Heisenberg, "Relativity," p. 121 on
M 3/10 Midterm exam (review for midterm)
Unit 3: The Quantum Mechanical  Era
Roadmap 3
W 3/12 Atomic physics  
F 3/14 The old quantum theory of atomic structure Carson, "Quantum Theory" p. 13 on
M 3/17 Making quantum mechanics (1) Heisenberg, "Quantum Theory," 1st Nobel option
W 3/19 Making quantum mechanics (2) Heisenberg, "Physical Content"
F 3/21 Making sense of quantum mechanics Bohr, "Bohr-Einstein Dialogue"
M 3/31 Making use of quantum mechanics Pauli, "Exclusion Principle"
W 4/2 Fields and particles (1) Dirac, "Electrons and Positrons"
F 4/4 Particles and nuclei Brown and Hoddeson, "Elementary-Particle Physics"
M 4/7 The rise of American physics "Lawrence," ch. 1, and start on Copenhagen
W 4/9 Advancing physics at home "Lawrence," ch. 2 , ep. 1, 2nd Nobel option
F 4/11 Nuclear physics Frisch, "Nucleus," Hahn and Strassmann, "Existence," and Meitner and Frisch, "Disintegration"
M 4/14 The threats of the 30s "Physics and National Socialism"
W 4/16 Physics under National Socialism Frayn, Copenhagen, and essay
Unit 4: World War II and Beyond
F 4/18 The physicists' war "Lawrence," ch. 3 , ep. 2
M 4/21 Fission as a weapon Weisskopf, "The Bomb," Sakharov, "Tamm Group"
W 4/23 Physics, politics, and the state "Lawrence," ch. 4 , ep. 3, and Roberts, "Dollars"
F 4/25 The postwar expansion Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists essay
M 4/28 Rethinking quantum field theory Weisskopf, "Field Theory," to p. 77
W 4/30 Renormalization Dyson, "Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga"
F 5/2 Fields and particles (2) Weisskopf, "Field Theory," p. 77 on
M 5/5 Quantum field theories and the Standard Model Mattuck, "Feynman Diagrams," 3rd Nobel option
W 5/7 Astrophysics and cosmology Gamow, "Galaxies"
F 5/9 A new world picture? Anderson, "More is Different"
M 5/12 Where next? Bell, "Six possible worlds"
M 5/19 Final exam, 8:00-11:00 a.m.  

Road maps (back to top)

Classical world pictures
The quantum mechanical era

Useful links (back to top)

History of physics on the web

AIP Center for History of Physics
ECHO Science and Technology Virtual Center
Nobel e-Museum
Physics timelines (thermo/stat mech and E&M)
Selected classic papers from the history of chemistry (construed to include much physics)
Classic papers from the history of chemistry (and some physics too)
Physics reference and information
Usenet physics FAQs
Net advance of physics (alphabetical index to essays on advanced topics)
Physics and astronomy online education and reference
Science in the headlines
Locating written sources on the history of physics
History of Science Society reading list (guide to printed resources)
History of science reference sources
History of science and technology database (books and articles)
Library orientation
UCB Physics Library
Introduction to the UCB libraries
Pathfinder (online UCB library catalogue

Back to (back to top)

History 181B homepage
Prof. Carson's home page

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