Development of Modern Physical Science
from Newton to Einstein
History 402

Spring 2001 class taught by W. Patrick McCray at the University of Maryland, College Park

Tribute to Newton Einstein

Lectures: Tu and Th, 9:30-10:45AM, in 1104, Journalism Building (back to top)

Office Hours, phone and e-mail (back to top)

I will have regular office hours after class from 10:45-11:30 (FS Key 3123). I can be reached by phone at my AIP office – 301.209.3168 and by e-mail: Because I receive a heavy volume of other e-mail, I ask that you put "HIST 402" in the Subject line of your messages so I can respond to these quickly.

Course Description (back to top)

HIST 402 presents a systematic exploration of the development of the physical sciences – physics, primarily, with attention also paid to astronomy, geophysics, planetary science, mathematics, and chemistry. The time period covered is (generally) from the mid-17th to the mid-20th century. During this period, Newtonian mechanics was established as the dominant paradigm in science and was applied to a variety of problems and topics. In the 19th century, new discoveries, both experimental and theoretical, provided the basis for a revolution in the physical sciences. This revolution, most notably led by Albert Einstein, led to quantum theory and relativity during the first decades of the 20th century. At the same time, developments in fields such as astronomy were changing our perceptions of our place in the universe. These theories had a tremendous impact on the world – witness the atomic bomb, the discovery of new particles, the development of the transistor, and the promulgation of the Big Bang theory. In this class, we will examine the history of scientific ideas, their reciprocal relation with the cultures in which they developed, and the technology, institutions, and organizations essential for the revolutions in science witnessed during this period. While not a science course, more than a passing familiarity with math, physics, and chemistry is strongly suggested as a prerequisite. Familiarity with college-level physics (PHYS 117 or higher) and math (MATH 110 or higher) is suggested.

Required Texts (back to top)
    1. Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd or 3rd ed.)
    2. Dobbs and Jacob, Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism
    3. Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century
    4. Nye, Before Big Science
    5. Cassidy, Einstein and Our World

Books on Reserve

    1. Brush, History of Modern Science
    2. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940
    3. Kevles, The Physicists
    4. Kragh, Quantum Generations
    5. Whitney, Discovery of Our Galaxy

In addition, selected articles will either be passed out to you in class or placed on reserve in the library for you to copy (please return these for others to use!).

Approach and materials (back to top)

As a historical study of a scientific field, the course will draw on approaches and materials from both history and science. In particular, we will be dealing in some depth with scientific concepts, though in a way that should remain accessible to non-science majors willing to put in a bit of effort. In all this, however, the emphasis will be placed on the historical development, and one of the course's goals will indeed be to illustrate the process of thinking historically. In line with the course's historical orientation, there will be a substantial amount of reading, and you will need to keep up with the reading to do well in the course. The lectures will supplement the readings and will sometimes cover material not contained in them, so attendance at lectures will also be necessary.

Use of WWW Materials (back to top)

The web can be a very useful source of information. It can also be a source for information that is misleading or simply wrong. Therefore, you are welcome to use web-based resources in your papers and assignments with the following conditions imposed: If you choose to use a web resource over a "conventional" published document, you must provide a short paragraph of why this site is reliable and how you know the information found there is accurate. You also must provide a URL address so that I can check the site myself in the same manner that I may check citations from books, journals, etc.. Happy hunting.

Examinations and Assignments (back to top)

The course grade will be based primarily on two examinations (mid-term and final) and a term paper. The mid-term will be on March 15 during the regular class period; the final will be held at the time and place the University has arranged. The exams will consist of essay questions and short-answer; no multiple choice. The class period before each exam will have a review session and examples of representative questions will be discussed. There will also be some short assignment, usually in preparation for class discussion sections.

Check your final exam schedule to make sure you have no conflicts with other exams as some instructors may have deviated from the schedule. If you have such conflicts, it is your responsibility to resolve them before the exam day. You cannot take the final on a different day because of such a conflict or because you have too many other tests that day. Remember: A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.

The term paper should be about 12-15 pages long (~ 3000 words, not counting long quotes, bibliography, notes, etc..) Detailed instructions about the paper will be passed out later. Please make an appointment to see me to discuss your paper topic before Spring Break. A complete and detailed outline must be turned in by April 5; it will examined by the instructor, and returned to you so that you continue work on your final version and it counts for 10% of your final grade. The final version is due by noon on May 10. Late papers will not be accepted. You are responsible for saving your computer files, etc…excuses such as the system crashed and ate my paper are not acceptable.

Finally, there is an extensive amount of reading involved for this class. You are expected to do this reading in a timely manner and participate in class discussion. This is a part of your final grade as indicated below:

A = 90-100, B = 80-89, C = 70-79, etc.

Regardless of the number of points accumulated, no student will receive a grade unless he/she takes the midterm, final AND hands in a term paper. The standard University policies for Academic Dishonesty, Attendance, and Assessment (see the Undergraduate Catalog) apply. (Some of this information can also be found on the University's Web site.)

All students are expected to complete all assignments and papers on time and take exams at scheduled times. Please do no ask for make-up exams, etc. except in the case of a (documented with writing) medical emergency or other reason deemed serious by the instructor. According to UMCP, the mark of "I" is given only to students whose work has been satisfactory but have been unable to complete some portion of the class for reasons beyond the student’s control. In no case, will a student receive an "I" who has not finished the majority of the course requirements.

Lecture, Reading, and Assignment Schedule (back to top) (last updated 4/27/01)



Assigned Readings

Assignments due, etc.


Course Introduction; Studying the history of science

Read the syllabus carefully



Paradigms, revolutions, and norms in Science; René Descartes and natural philosophy

Read Kuhn, pp. 23-42; 52- 135



Isaac Newton – life and works (Principia and Opticks)

Read Dobbs and Jacob, pp. 1-60



Newtonianism and (Mis)-understanding Newton

Read Dobbs and Jacob, pp. 61-125



Experimental sciences in the 17th C.; Boyle and Hooke

Steve Shapin’s "Pump and Circumstance" article;

on reserve at library

Discussion of Shapin article


Guest Lecture (Olivia Walling): Science and religion in the 18th C.



Experimental physics in the 18th C., Laplacian physics



19th C. physics and atomism

Read Nye, Ch. 1 and 2; Purrington, Ch. 6



Electricity and magnetism: Faraday and Maxwell

Read Nye, Ch. 3; Purrington, Ch. 3



More electromagnetism: Hertz; the Michelson-Morley experiment



Heat and Energy in 19th C.

Read Nye, Ch. 4; Purrington, Ch. 4 and 5



Kinetic theory; J.W. Gibbs

Purrington, Ch. 7



Review for Midterm

Kerker, "Science and the Steam Engine" T&C v. 2, #4 (1961)

Discussion of Kerker piece on "Science and the Steam Engine"


No Lecture



3/20 3/22





Heat & Energy in 19th C.; the age of the earth

Read Nye, Ch. 4;
Purrington, Ch. 4 and 5



More 19th C. Heat & Energy

Purrington, Ch. 7

Paragraph due about paper topic


Boltzmann, statistical mechanics, and J.W. Gibbs

"Physics of J.W. Gibbs" from Physics Today, (9/90), on reserve



19th C.astronomy and the birth of astrophysics

Brush's "The Rise of Astronomy in America," on reserve



Physics c. 1900; The discovery of curious and spurious rays

Read Nye, pp. 147-158 DETAILED OUTLINE OF TERM PAPER DUE (10% of class grade)


Radioactivity: The Curies and Ruthorford   Discussion of the Curie legend via web pages


Atomic Architecture: Discovery of the electron & models of the atom

Read Nye, pp. 159-171  


Quantum theory: Planck and radiation


Purrington, Ch. 8  


Albert Einstein -- Biography

Cassidy, Chs. 1-5; Stern's "Einstein and Germany" from Physics Today (2/86), on reserve



Einstein -- science

Einstein's "How I Discovered the Theory of Relativity" from Physics Today (8/82), on reserve



Einstein -- cultural effects

Cassidy, Chs. 6-7



1920 - Astronomy's Great Debate



The Quantum Revolution: 1925-1928 and the Copenhagen interpretation

Nye, pp. 171-188



Physics and new tools in the 1930s: E.O. Lawrence

Nye, Ch. 8, Weiner's "1932 -- Moving into the New Physics" from Physics Today (5/72), on reserve



Final Exam Review



No Lectures



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