The Quantum Century:
A History of 20th Century Physics

Taught in Winter Quarter 2002-03, by Michael Riordan at Stanford University


Course description

Reading materials

Schedule and outlines

Good History of Physics Websites


Course Description

HISTORY 140/340 / HPS 104 / STS 220
The Quantum Century: A History of 20th Century PhysicsCourse Syllabus
Winter Quarter 2002-03
Copyright © 2000-2 by Michael Riordan

Physics played an important role in the history of the twentieth century, strongly influencing the course of World War II, the ensuing Cold War, and the birth of the Information Age. It has also impacted other sciences — astronomy, biology and cosmology — utterly changing the way we think about Nature and the Universe.

Physics is also an intrinsic part of the wider human culture. As such, its evolution is influenced by events and intellectual currents occurring beyond its proper domain. The revolutionary theories of relativity and quantum mechanics — two cornerstones of modern physics — emerged from a speculative European culture in the decades bracketing World War I. Pragmatic American physicists then transformed these insights into such age-defining artifacts as the laser, the transistor, and nuclear weapons.

We will explore these currents and developments, paying special attention to the practiceof modern physics — how its evolution can be affected by beliefs and cultural prejudices of individual practitioners. The course begins with an overview of relativity, quantum mechanics, and atomic physics, which emerge largely in Europe during the early decades of the century. The center of gravity then shifts across the Atlantic during the 1930s and 1940s, as Nazism and World War II drives physicists out of the Continent to Britain and the United States, where key applications of nuclear and solid-state physics begin to occur. We finish by discussing the flowering of "Big Science" during the Cold War, leading to U.S. dominance in particle physics during the third quarter of the century. In the final week we examine the reaction against Big Science and evaluate the nature of scientific revolution, trying to assess what can be learned about this process from the history of twentieth-century physics.

This course will be an interactive learning experience based on reading assignments and in-class discussions. Students are strongly encouraged to go beyond the required readings and explore their own interests in the additional recommended and suggested readings, bringing their individual insights to the discussions. If elected, grades will be based on class participation, a short essay assigned early in the quarter, a mid-term examination, and a term paper due at the end of the course.

Reading Materials

Required Reading

Holton, Gerald, The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein,  2nd edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), $19.50 paper.

Kevles, Daniel, The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America, 2nd edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), $17.95 paper.

Riordan, Michael, and Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), $15.00 paper.

History 140/340 Course Reader, $28.25

Recommended Reading (on reserve at Green Library)

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), $12.00 paper.

Nye, Mary Jo, Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics, 1800–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), $18.95 paper.

Rhodes, Richard, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), $20.00 paper.

Suggested Additional Reading (* indicates book on reserve at Green Library)

Brown, Laurie, and Lillian Hoddeson, eds., The Birth of Particle Physics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Brown, Laurie, Max Dresden, and Lillian Hoddeson, eds., Pions to Quarks: Particle Physics in the 1950s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Brown, Laurie M., Abraham Pais, and Sir Brian Pippard, Twentieth Century Physics, in three volumes (New York: American Insitute of Physics Press, 1995).

Buchwald, Jed Z., and Andrew Warwick, eds., Histories of the Electron: The Birth of Microphysics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

*Cassidy, David C., Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1992).

Crease, Robert P., Making Physics: A Biography of Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1946–1972 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Crease, Robert P., and Charles C. Mann, The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics (New York, Macmillan, 1986).

*Einstein, Albert, Relativity: The Special and General Theory, 15th edition (New York: Crown Publishers, 1961).

Einstein, Albert, and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics: The Growth of Ideas from Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961).

Everdell, William R., The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Franklin, Allan, The Neglect of Experiment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Frayn, Michael, Copenhagen (London: Methuen Drama, 1998).

Fraser, Gordon, ed. The Particle Century (Bristol, UK: Institute of Physics, 1998).

*Galison, Peter, How Experiments End (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Galison, Peter, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Galison, Peter, and Bruce Hevly, Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992).

Goldberg, Stanley, Understanding Relativity: Origin and Impact of a Scientific Revolution (Boston, Birkhauser Publishing Co., 1984).

Greenberg, Daniel, The Politics of Pure Science, 2nd edn. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Greenberg, Daniel, Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Hacking, Ian, Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Heilbron, J. L., The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck as a Spokesman for German Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Heilbron, J. L., Historical Studies in the Theory of Atomic Structure (New York: Arno Press, 1981).

Heilbron, J. L. and Robert W. Seidel, Lawrence and his Laboratory: Nuclear Science at Berkeley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

Hermann, Armin, The Genesis of the Quantum Theory (1899-1913), translated from German by Claude W. Nash (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971).

Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

Hoddeson, Lillian, et al., eds., The Rise of the Standard Model: Particle Physics in the 1960s and 1970s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Hoddeson, Lillian et al., Critical Assembly: A Technical History of Los Alamos during the Oppenheimer Years, 1943–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Hoddeson, Lillian et al., eds., Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters in the History of Solid-State Physics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Horgan, John, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1996).

Hughes, Thomas P., American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm (New York: Penguin Books, 1990).

Hughes, Thomas P., Rescuing Prometheus (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998).

Kragh, Helge, Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Kuhn, Thomas S., Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912, 2nd edition (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Leslie, Stuart, The Cold War and American Science (New York, Columbia University Press, 1993).

Lindley, David, Boltzmann’s Atom: The Great Debate That Launched a Revolution in Physics (New York: The Free Press, 2001).

*March, Robert H., Physics for Poets, 3rd edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992).

McCormmach, Russell, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

Millikan, Robert Andrews, The Electron: Its Isolation and Measurements and the Determination of Some of Its Properties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1917

*Pais, Abraham, Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Pais, Abraham, Niels Bohr’s Times, In Physics, Philosophy and Polity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Pais, Abraham, Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

Pickering, Andrew, Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

Pickering, Andrew, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency & Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Rhodes, Richard, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

*Riordan, Michael, The Hunting of the Quark: A True Story of Modern Physics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

Riordan, Michael, and David N. Schramm, The Shadows of Creation: Dark Matter and the Structure of the Universe (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1991).

Roberts, J. M., Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901–2000 (New York, Viking Penguin, 1999).

*Segrè, Emilio, From X-Rays to Quarks: Modern Physicists and Their Discoveries (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1980).

Snow, C. P., The Physicists: A Generation That Changed the World (London: Macmillan, 1981).

Stachel, John, ed. Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

Suplee, Curt, Physics in the 20th Century (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999).

Traweek, Sharon, Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High-Energy Physicists (Cambrdige, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Trefil, James, From Atoms to Quarks: An Introduction to the Strange World of Particle Physics, revised edition (New York: Anchor Books, 1994).

Weinberg, Steven, The Discovery of Subatomic Particles (New York: Scientific American Books, 1983).

Weinberg, Steven, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992).

Weinberg, Steven, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, 2nd edition (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

Weiner, Charles, ed., History of Twentieth Century Physics (New York: Academic Press, 1977).

Zachary, G. Pascal, Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (New York: The Free Press, 1997}.

Schedule and Outlines

Week 1: Physics at the Turn of the Century

Thursday, January 9

Holton, chapter 1: "The Thematic Imagination in Science," pp. 31-52.

Holton, chapter 3: "Thematic and Stylistic Interdependence," pp. 75-98.

J. L. Heilbron, "Fin-de-Siècle Physics," CR.

Suggested additional reading:

Kevles, chapters 1-2: "The Many Wants of Science," pp. 3-13; and "Ennobling and Purifying the Mind," pp. 14-24.

Nye, chapters 1-2: "Disciplinary Organization in Nineteenth Century Chemistry and Physics," pp. 1-27; and "Dalton’s Atom and Two Paths for the Study of Matter," pp. 28-56.

*Martin Klein, "Mechanical Explanation at the End of the Nineteenth Century," Centaurus 17 (1972), pp. 58-82.

Week 2: The Theory of Relativity

Tuesday, January 14

Holton, chapter 6: "On the Origins of the Special Theory of Relativity," pp. 191-236.

Kevles, chapter 3: "The Flaws of American Physics," pp. 25-44.

Suggested additional reading:

Holton, chapter 9: "On Trying to Understand Scientific Genius," pp. 371-98.

Nye, chapter 3: "The Electromagnetic View of Nature and a World of Ether, pp. 57-87.

*Peter Galison, "Einstein’s Clocks: The Place of Time," Critical Inquiry 26 (Winter 2000), pp. 355-89.

Thursday, January 16

Holton, chapter 7: "Mach, Einstein and the Search for Reality," pp. 237-278.

Holton, chapter 8: "Einstein, Michelson and the ‘Crucial’ Experiment," pp. 279-370.

Suggested additional reading:

Kevles, chapter 4: "Pure Science and Practical Politics," pp. 45-59.

*Albert Einstein, Relativity, Part 1: "The Special Theory of Relativity," pp. 1-55.

NB: "CR" indicates History 140/340 Course Reader; "Crystal" is Crystal Fire, by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson; "HO" indicates class hand-outs. Suggested additional reading items marked by an asterisk (*) are intended for more advanced students or term-paper projects.

Week 3: Cutting the Uncuttable

Tuesday, January 21

Kevles, chapter 5: "Research and Reform," pp. 60-74.

Kevles, chapter 6: "Joining the Revolution," pp. 75-90.

Abraham Pais, "The Discovery of the Electron," CR

Suggested additional reading:

Nye, chapter 6: "A New Chemistry, a New Physics," pp. 147-64.

Rhodes, chapter 2, "Atoms and Void," pp. 29-52.

*J. L. Heilbron, "Lectures on the History of Atomic Physics," parts I and II, in C. Weiner, History of Twentieth Century Physics, pp. 40-63.

Thursday, January 23

Emilio Segre, "H. Becquerel, the Curies, and the Discovery of Radioactivity," CR

Emilio Segre, "Rutherford in the New World: The Transmutation of Elements," CR

Emilio Segre, "Sir Ernest and Lord Rutherford of Nelson," CR.

Suggested additional reading:

Kevles, chapters 8-10 on the activities of American physicists during WWI, pp. 102-54.

*J. L. Heilbron, "The Scattering of Alpha and Beta Particles and Rutherford’s Atom," Historical Studies in the Theory of Atomic Structure, pp.  85-145.

—> Short writing assignment due Tuesday, January 28

Week 4: The Birth of Quantum Mechanics

Tuesday, January 28

Crystal, chapter 3: "The Revolution Within," pp. 28-53.

Cathryn Carson, "The Origins of the Quantum Theory," CR

Michael Riordan, "Down the Rabbit Hole," CR.

Suggested additional reading:

Robert March, "The Atom and the Quantum," CR.

*M. J. Klein, "The Beginnings of Quantum Theory," in C. Weiner, History of Twentieth Century Physics, pp. 1-39.

Thursday, January 30

Holton, chapter 4: "The Roots of Complementarity," pp. 99-145.

Holton, chapter 5: "On the Hesitant Rise of Quantum Physics Research," pp. 147-87.

Kevles, chapter 11: "The Impact of Quantum Mechanics," pp. 155-84.

Additional reading:

Rhodes, chapter 3, "Tvi," pp. 53-76.

*R. A. Millikan, "Atomic Theories of Radiation," Science 37 (24 January 1913), pp. 119-33.

*Paul Forman, "Weimar Culture, Causality and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927," Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 3 (1971), pp. 1-115.

Week 5: From Europe to America

Tuesday, February 4

Kevles, chapter 12: "Popularization and Conservatism," pp. 170-84.

Thomas Hughes, "No Philanthropic Asylum for Indigent Scientists," CR.

Percy Bridgman, "The New Vision of Science," HO.

Suggested additional reading:

Rhodes, chapter 5, "Men from Mars," pp. 104-33.

*Paul A. M. Dirac, "The Origin of Quantum Field Theory," in Brown and Hoddeson, The Birth of Particle Physics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 39-55.

Thursday, February 6

Kevles, chapter 13: "Making the Peaks Higher," pp. 185-99.

Kevles, chapter 14: "A New Center of Physics," pp. 200-21.

Suggested additional reading:

Nye, chapter 7, "Nationalism, Internationalism and the Creation of Nuclear Science, 1914-1940," pp. 211-224.

*S. S. Schweber, "The Empiricist Temper Regnant: Theoretical Physics in the United States, 1920-1950," Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 17 (1986), pp. 55-98.

—> Mid-Term Exam — in class (final hour)

Week 6: The Depression Years

Tuesday, February 11

Kevles, chapter 15: "Miraculous Year," pp. 222-35.

Kevles, chapter 16: "Revolt Against Science," pp. 236-51.

Crystal, chapter 4: "Industrial Strength Science," pp. 55-70.

Suggested additional reading:

Rhodes, chapters 6-7, "Machines," and "Exodus," pp. 134-97.

Thursday, February 13

Kevles, chapter 17: "The New Deal and Research," pp. 252-66.

Kevles, chapter 18: "Recovery in Physics," pp. 267-87.

Crystal, chapter 5: "The Physics of Dirt," pp. 71-87.

Suggested additional reading:

Rhodes, chapters 8-10, "Stirring and Digging," "An Extensive Burst," and "Neutrons," pp. 198-317.

Carl D. Anderson, "Early Work on the Positron and Muon," CR.

*Carl D. Anderson, "Unraveling the Particle Content of Cosmic Rays," in L. Brown and  L. Hoddeson, The Birth of Particle Physics, pp. 131-54.

—> Written proposals for term papers due

Week 7: The Physicists’ War

Tuesday, February 18

Kevles, chapter 19: "Organizing for Defense," pp. 287-301.

Kevles, chapter 20: "A Physicist’s War," pp. 303-23.

Crystal, chapter 6, "The Fourth Column," pp. 88-114.

Suggested additional reading:

Rhodes, chapters 11-14, "Cross Sections," "A Communication from Britain," "The New World," and "Physics and Desert Country," pp. 318-485. 

Thursday, February 20

Kevles, chapter 21: "The Bomb and Postwar Research Policy," pp. 324-48.

Crystal, chapter 7: "Point of Entry," pp. 115-41.

Crystal, chapter 8: "Minority Views," pp. 142-67.

 Suggested additional reading:

Rhodes, chapters 15-18, "Different Animals," "Revelations," "The Evils of This Time," and "Trinity," pp. 486-678.

Vannevar Bush, Science: The Endless Frontier, CR

Week 8: The Cold War and American Physics

Tuesday, February 25

Kevles, chapter 22: "Victory for Elitism," pp. 349-66.

Kevles, chapter 23: "The Physicists Established," pp. 367-92.

Crystal, chapter 9: "The Daughter of Invention," pp. 168-94.

Crystal, chapter 10: "Spreading the Flames," pp. 195-224.

Suggested additional reading:

Rhodes, "Epilogue," pp. 749-90.

*Stuart W. Leslie, "Accelerating Physics," The Cold War and American Science, pp. 160-87.

Thursday, February 27

Crystal, chapter 11: "California Dreaming," pp. 225-53.

Crystal, chapter 12: "The Monolithic Idea," pp. 254-75.

Charles Townes, "The Light That Shines Straight," HO.

Michael Riordan, "The Particle Kingdom," HO.

Suggested additional reading:

Peter Galison, "Bubbles, Sparks, and the Postwar Laboratory," in L. Brown et al,  Pions to     Quarks: Particle Physics in the 1950s, pp. 213-251.

*Paul Forman: "Beyond Quantum Electronics: National Security as Basis for Physical   Research in the United States," Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 18 (1987),           pp. 149-229.

Week 9: Pure and Postmodern Physics

Tuesday, March 4

Kevles, chapter 24: "New Revolt Against Science," pp. 393-409.

Kevles, chapter 25: "A Degree of Disestablishment, pp. 410-26.

Alvin Weinberg, "Impact of Large-Scale Science on the United States," CR.

Philip Anderson, "More Is Different: Broken Symmetry and the Nature of the Hierarchical Structure of Science," CR.

Suggested additional reading:

Michael Riordan, The Hunting of the Quark, pp. 73-193.

*Michael Riordan, "The Discovery of Quarks," CR.

*L. Brown et al., "The Rise of the Standard Model, 1964-1979," in L. Hoddeson et al., The Rise of the Standard Model, pp. 3-35.

Thursday, March 6

James Trefil, "The Case for the Superconducting Super Collider," HO.

Kevles, preface: "The Death of the Superconducting Super Collider in the Life of American Physics," pp. ix-xlii.

Michael Riordan, "The Demise of the Superconducting Super Collider," CR.

Suggested additional reading:

Michael Riordan, The Hunting of the Quark, pp. 194-363.

*Silvan Schweber, "A Historical Perspective on the Rise of the Standard Model," in L. Hoddeson et al., The Rise of the Standard Model, pp. 645-84.

Week 10: Revolutions in Modern Physics

Tuesday, March 11

Steven Weinberg, "A Unified Physics by 2050?" HO.

Rocky Kolb, "The Quantum and the Cosmos," HO.

George Johnson, "Challenging Particle Physics as the Path to Truth," HO.

Suggested additional reading:

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 1-91.

Thursday, March 13

Steven Weinberg, "The Revolution That Didn’t Happen," CR.

Frank Wilczek, "The Persistence of Ether," HO.

Suggested additional reading:

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 92-173.

—> Term Paper due (if elected)

Good History of Physics Web Sites

AIP Center for History of Physics

The American Institute of Physics Center for History of Physics has a number of good web sites on the history of twentieth century physics, plus links to other good sites. Its home page is:

You can also go directly to web pages developed by the Center on several topics:

                   Albert Einstein’s many contributions

                   J.J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron

                       Marie Curie & discovery of radioactivity

              Werner Heisenberg & uncertainty principle

                 Ernest O. Lawrence and the cyclotron

In addition, you can read, download and print copies of selected papers of important early American physicists Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Henry, Albert Michelson, J. Willard Gibbs, Robert Millikan, and Arthur H. Compton at the following link:

In collaboration with the Public Broadcasting System, Twin Cities Public Television of Minneapolis-St. Paul produced a television documentary on the invention of the transistor that was an adaptation of Crystal Fire. They also developed a web site in connection with the program that has substantial material that is not in the book. It can be found at:

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