This month’s Photos of the Month features images related to six different episodes that will be featured in season one of Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast. Can you guess what each episode will be about based on the images and descriptions that follow below? To find out if you were right, be sure to tune into Initial Conditions starting this July!
John Tyndall was born around 1820 in Ireland and grew to become an influential physicist. After studying at the University of Marburg in Germany, under some of the best experimental physicists Europe had to offer, he rose to renown for his work in diamagnetism. Perhaps most notable were his experiments into radiant heat and his discovery of the Greenhouse Effect. Tyndall was also driven by his love of mountaineering and his experiences at high altitudes inspired much of his research. His scientific career was not without drama and he participated in many debates over scientific priority. Sadly, he died prematurely after accidentally overdosing on his insomnia medication.
John Tyndall is seen here, holding his place in a book with his finger, posing beside some of the most prominent scientific men of his era and among high tech experimental equipment. Tyndall’s likeness was captured in many portraits, and his experiments, public lectures, and journals immortalized his important work. Not all scientists were so fortunate, as we’ll learn in the first episode of Initial Conditions.
Steam engineer, tennis player, and weather watcher, Guy Callendar was a man of many interests. Son of physicist and inventor Hugh Callendar, Guy was encouraged from a young age to pursue his scientific interests. Guy never received an advanced degree, but he was highly regarded by steam engineers for his Callendar Steam Tables, which he prepared with his father and periodically revised throughout his life. The Steam Tables made it easier to understand the relationship between the properties of steam and the amount of energy a steam engine could produce.
In addition to his work on steam engines, Callendar also made significant contributions to the history of climate science. In 1937 he presented a paper to the Royal Meteorological Society of the United Kingdom that demonstrated that the average global land temperature had been increasing gradually since the nineteenth century. Callendar’s paper made a strong case for the role of fossil fuels in altering the composition of the earth’s atmosphere. By the time Callendar died in 1964, climate scientists were beginning to draw connections between increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increasing global temperatures.
Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein are pictured here chatting. Despite being friends and colleagues, they fundamentally disagreed on the interpretation of quantum mechanics. This field was a tremendous break from previous physics in its attempt to describe the behavior of the universe in the smallest scales. Niels Bohr was crucial in the development and advocacy of the “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum mechanics. Einstein, however, was uncomfortable with the unintuitive, probabilistic world quantum mechanics and the Copenhagen Interpretation and believed the theory was too incomplete.
Their famous feud was the result of the seemingly contradictory nature of the new field of physics and they were not alone in their struggle to grapple with quantum mechanics. Some physicists dealt with the philosophical questions that arose from the new field by ignoring them (the so-called, “shut-up and calculate” method). Others were dissatisfied with plug and chug mathematics and turned to more creative outlets to explore. Learn more about these “creative outlets” in episode 4 of Initial Conditions.
Who is that peeking from behind Dr. Ronald Mallett? This episode will explore truly bizarre theories in physics. Using a certain collection in the NBLA Archives—providing its name would give away the episode theme—Justin and Maura will explore Einstein’s theory of relativity and how various thinkers have understood it. Some refute it, others try (and fail) to improve it, but all of them offer some very interesting, if misguided, ideas.
As much as we tend to laud figures like Einstein and others for their genius, modern science requires that their theories are vetted by the community of scientists. Science is a social process; new ideas are independently tested, experimental results are compared and verified, and publications require peer review. This episode explores the social dimension of the production of scientific knowledge—and stakes a claim for its significance to the practice of science—by looking at aspiring physicists who tried to produce knowledge outside of the scientific community.
Dr. Ronald Mickens—Ron, once you get to know him—is the Fuller E. Callaway Professor Emeritus of Physics at Clark Atlanta University. Pictured above is Ron before he became Dr. Mickens standing on the quad after graduating from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Four years later he would earn his Ph.D. in physics from Vanderbilt University before accepting a postdoctoral appointment at MIT. He would go on to teach physics for several decades at Clark Atlanta University. Dr. Mickens is held in high esteem by both physicists and mathematicians. He also has a strong interest in the history of science, specifically the history of the African American presence in physics. He has curated exhibits and written books about the history of the community of African American physicists in the United States.
This image captures the who’s who of American science gathered to dedicate the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory in 1897. This observatory is sometimes called the “birthplace of modern astrophysics” because of its early adoption of new methods to observe the sky, using physics and chemistry to learn more about the light from celestial objects. The men and women standing together at this meeting are credited with increasing the profile of American astronomy and science.
The 40 inch refractor lens housed in this observatory was the largest telescope lens of its time. New technologies in optics around this period changed our understanding of light and the information we are able to extract from it. Lenses were not just growing in size, but in precision as well. The new technology enabled the formation of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. In Episode 8, we’ll tell the story about the person in this image who, despite humble beginnings, led the charge in precision optics.