Roger H. Stuewer
Department of Physics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA


Physicists always have valued their history. Libraries are replete with books on the history of physics written by physicists, from Ernst Mach's historical-critical studies on mechanics, heat theory, and physical optics, to Abraham Pais's history of matter and forces (Pais, 1986), not to mention Max Dresden's biography of H.A. Kramers (Dresden, 1987) and the many other biographies and autobiographies written by physicists. Journal articles and chapters of books, obituary notices of Fellows of the Royal Society and of members of the National Academy of Sciences add to the vast body of historical literature written by physicists. The allure is great; physicists continue to contribute to the historical literature at a high level, and a substantial number of historians of physics began their careers as physicists.

Physicists also have fostered historical studies by others. In some instances, historians of physics could not have secured a scholarly niche in colleges or universities without the support, both intellectual and financial, of physicists. The American Institute of Physics Center for History of Physics was established by physicists concerned about the preservation and study of their intellectual heritage, and the Center's nuclear physics, astrophysics, and solid- state physics projects, as well as the earlier Sources for History of Quantum Physics project, could not have succeeded without the full involvement and support of the physics community. Sections devoted to the history of physics have been created within the American Physical Society and the European Physical Society. Clearly, the history of physics continues to strike a deeply resonant chord among physicists.

The main attractive force is unquestionably the intellectual appeal of the history of physics. Every physicist who has written a review article or browsed in a good library and comes across a seminal article or book written by a physicist of an earlier age knows the thrill of historical discovery and experiences the desire to learn more about the life and times of its author. The link with the past is a powerful one. Far from the stereotypical image of the narrow scientist confined to his or her laboratory, many physicists, perhaps a majority, have broad intellectual interests, one of which traditionally has been the history of their own discipline.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that physicists have been vocal and staunch proponents of the idea of introducing history of physics into physics courses. Some have furthered their conviction by writing textbooks from a historical point of view. Others have helped to organize conferences on the role of history in physics teaching.

Still others - - the vast majority - - have found ways to use the history of physics in their physics courses for pedagogical purposes. In 1948, at a meeting of the History of Science Society, P.W. Bridgman expressed his rationale for doing so as follows:

it seems to me that the one most important thing to realize about science is that it is a human activity, and this can only mean the activity of individuals.... If science is taught with a large admixture of history this point of view will automatically be stressed. In so doing a purpose will be served that is increasingly important in our present day, namely to impart an adequate appreciation of the fundamental conditions under which science flourishes. (Bridgman, 1950, 66- 67; 1955, 346-

The historian, said Bridgman, would be compelled to show that scientific development seldom follows a purely logical course, and he then added:

The insight that the progress of science is often illogical is perhaps more important to the scientist himself than to the layman, and constitutes one of the reasons why the scientist is concerned with his history. This suggests that perhaps one of the most important fields of service of history of science is to the scientist.... Whatever concern the scientist has already had with history must often have disclosed to him the illogical progress of science in the errors of the past and the retraced steps. (Ibid., 70; 354- 355)

Bridgman has not been alone in seeing value in the history of science. In 1936 Lord Rayleigh lamented the loss of historical perspective when original memoirs are turned into textbooks, masking the personalities and lives of their creators. (Rayleigh, 1936, 217) Studying original memoirs of great scientists carries other benefits as well. In 1971 Peter Kapitza argued that it helps a group leader to learn how to "assess the creative potential of youth," (Kapitza, 1980, 275) while ninety years earlier Arthur Schuster felt that it might uncover a "faint prophetic glimmering of a modern theory," thus stimulating the researcher and also driving home the lesson that the acceptance of a theory depends as much on its audience as its creator. (Schuster, 1881, 20) "The young man who begins life with the idea of making a name as a scientific discoverer," wrote Schuster, "is like the little girl in Punch who intended to become a professional beauty. They may both be successful, but if so, it will depend as much on the ready appreciation of their contemporaries as on themselves." (Ibid., 23)

Students thus might learn a certain amount of humility: "Every age," Henri Poincaré observed, "has ridiculed the one before it, and accused it of having generalized too quickly and too naively.... No doubt our children will some day laugh at us." (Poincaré, 1946, 127) "For me, personally," said Anthony P. French, a recent Oersted Medalist of the American Association of Physics Teachers, "one of the most powerful reasons for injecting some history into a physics course is the very basic one of getting students to appreciate that physics does have a history.... [We] can at least convey a sense that physics is a living, growing subject and that it is the product of the accumulated endeavors of humans just like ourselves - though generally much smarter!" (French, 1989, 588) Louis de Broglie perhaps summarized it best when he wrote that, "A well-rounded education will be incomplete without the history of science and of scientific achievement." (Quoted in Seeger, 1964, 621)

These are eloquent testimonials, and they could be multiplied. Yet, an objective observer would agree, I think, with Max Jammer's rather blunt assessment:

Most teachers of physics at all levels of instruction fully acknowledge the desirability of including the history of physics in their teaching but, when actively engaged in their teaching, show a strong antihistorical bias so that their performances belie their declared convictions. (Jammer, 1972)

We are therefore confronted with something of a paradox: On the one hand, there is a natural intellectual alliance between physicists and historians of physics and their respective disciplines. On the other hand, the actual extent to which physicists and historians of physics join together to improve the teaching of physics seems remarkably small, despite sentiments to the contrary. I will try to analyze this paradox here, much in the spirit in which Niels Bohr grappled with paradoxes in physics, believing that through their analysis progress becomes possible. And just as Bohr found the resolution of some paradoxes in physics in his principle of complementarity, I too will argue that the same principle can serve as a guide for understanding the paradoxical behavior of physicists and historians of physics.


Physicists teaching today in colleges and universities have never been under more professional pressure. Quite apart from the demands of research, pressures to improve the teaching of physics have mounted in recent years. More young people, and especially more young women and minorities, must be attracted to physics as a career. In part to meet these challenges, there has been a substantial effort in the United States under the auspices of the American Association of Physics Teachers to reexamine the calculus-based introductory physics course. To me, however, as a historian of physics, the most remarkable feature of this entire effort has been its complete neglect of the history of physics. It appears that the history of physics will come into play only as it always has in the past, namely, anecdotally. The message seems clear: In designing a physics course, logical and not historical considerations dominate.

It could hardly be otherwise. Physics is problem oriented, from the most elementary to the research level, and when seeking a solution to a particular problem the novice taking an examination knows as well as the experienced research physicist that logic should pay off while history probably will not. There simply is no substitute for logical analysis. Professor Iain Stuart once compared a research problem to a fortress surrounded by defensive weapons of all kinds, and suggested that it is up to the researcher to determine logically how best to attack it, perhaps by striking at its foundations or its points of weakness, perhaps by drawing its defenders out onto unfamiliar ground, perhaps by a full-scale assault using every available weapon.

The ultimate goal is to gain deeper understanding of the physical universe by reducing that understanding to the smallest number of physical laws possible. The quest of the physicist, in other words, is one for simplicity. As Martin J. Klein put it:

It is, I think, characteristic of the physicist to want to get at the very essence of a phenomenon, to strip away all the complicating features and see as clearly and directly as he can just what is really involved. That is why we prize simple conceptual models so highly.... (Klein, 1972, 16)

The watch words of the physicist are logicality and simplicity.


The historian's task is very different. In the military metaphor above, the historian's job is to survey the battlefield, selectively examining fallen bodies in an effort to reconstruct the battle that took place some time ago. The remains - the historian's sources - include published books and articles, and unpublished correspondence, notebooks, and diaries - anything that can be found long after the event. And these remains reveal not only the victor, but the many skirmishes as well, the illogical progress of the battle, as Bridgman might say. Hermann von Helmholtz, who emerged victorious time and again, offered another analogy:

I must compare myself to a mountain climber, who without knowing the way climbs up slowly and laboriously, must often turn around because he can go no further, discovers new trails, sometimes through reflection, sometimes through accident, which again lead him forward a little, and finally, if he reaches his goal, finds to his shame a Royal Road on which he could have traveled up, if he would have been clever enough to find the right beginning. (Helmholtz, 1892, 54)

The gaining of the summit is there for all to see, but the false byways and retreats along the way are not, and uncovering them is at the center of the historian's craft. "I see the main purpose of historical studies," wrote Otto Neugebauer, "in the unfolding of the stupendous wealth of phenomena which are connected with any phase of human history and thus to counteract the natural tendency toward oversimplification and philosophical ignorance." (Quoted in Klein, 1972, 16- 17) The watch words of the historian are illogicality and complexity.


The physicist and the historian thus have very different objectives in their research, use very different sources, employ very different analytical tools, and are guided by very different principles in their search for solutions to their research problems. In all of these respects, research in the two disciplines seems complementary, almost mutually exclusive, like wave and particle. A scholar cannot be constrained by logic and strive for simplicity and at the same time give full weight to illogicality and strive to portray complexity. The logical skills so essential to research in physics can not be relied upon to yield an accurate historical picture.

The complementary nature of research in physics and history enables us to understand why the results often are so different when physicists and historians write history. Physicists tend to follow the Royal Road from the base of the mountain to its summit - the more or less linear path from one historical event to another, as seen in retrospect. Such history, sometimes pejoratively called "Whiggish history," is by no means valueless in my opinion; it often serves, for example, as a useful guide in identifying achievements of crucial significance in a particular development. Still, few would deny that such history is inadequate - that by failing to follow the false trails, a misleading historical picture emerges. To uncover them requires a desire to master historical skills, and a willingness to devote the time required to locate and analyze all of the available documentary evidence, both published and unpublished. These qualities are not too common among scholars who see themselves primarily as scientists. As the organic chemist and Nobel laureate Richard M. Willstäter once remarked, "I have noticed that my fellow scientists, who determine melting points conscientiously to half a degree, apply a much less stringent standard to their historical writing." (Willstätter, 1965, 181 ) Of course, historians are not infallible; they can scientific or historical errors themselves; they also can be mislead if they lack sufficient scientific intuition to distinguish good work from bad.

The tendency of physicists to write linear history - - which meshes so well with their logical skills - has certain consequences. One is that physicists generally confine themselves to the history of theoretical ideas or experimental developments - "internal history" in the historian's jargon. Physicists often discuss social or "external" questions in private, but they hesitate to discuss them in public or in print. A prevailing feeling among physicists seems to be that social influences on physics, whether institutional, economic, or political, tend to adversely affect its quality. Consequently, the less said about them the better.

The community strictures imposed by physicists upon themselves are even more stringent in regard to personal matters. Most physicists would acknowledge, I believe, that the personal life of a physicist can influence his or her research, although precisely how and why is difficult to say. Abraham Pais recalled, for instance, that Hermann Weyl once remarked to him that Erwin Schrödinger "did his great work during a late erotic outburst in his life." (Pais, 1986, 252) We now know what Weyl meant from Walter Moore's revealing biography of Schrödinger. (Moore, 1989) But most physicists, although they are willing to discuss such questions privately, rarely discuss them in public or in print, even when the subject has been dead for many years. A prominent exception is Max Dresden's courageous biography of H. A. Kramers. (Dresden, 1987) In general, because physics is a strongly hierarchical discipline in which one physicist knows pretty accurately the position occupied by another (with those at the very top being objects of great admiration, even awe), it is difficult for one physicist to write candidly about another; it is far easier to emphasize objective scientific results and to underplay subjective personal factors, even when writing biographies or obituary notices. Personal matters are felt to be irrelevant at best and in bad taste at worst, the net result in either case being that they are not usually discussed in print. I. I. Rabi remarked with tongue in cheek that before the second world war he used to tell his friends and students that

the history of a physicist's life was very simple. He was born; he became interested in physics in some way...; he wrote his thesis and received his Ph.D. degree; he died. The rest and the essential part of this biography could be read only in the scientific journals.... (Rabi, 1960, 1- 2)

There are two common ways in which physicists use history of physics. First, some textbook authors include historical introductions or chapters, the intention being to give the reader, usually an undergraduate student, some appreciation for the effort that went into establishing the subject under discussion and to stimulate interest in it. Second, physicists while lecturing often tell anecdotes, for example about physicists who have had an equation or effect named after them. The fundamental question - to which I will return below - is whether these common uses of history by physicists do physicists more harm than good.


According to some recent data, in the United States, of the 3,000,000 high school seniors per year only about one- fifth (623,000) take physics and less than one- tenth (275,000) go on to take an introductory physics course in a college or university. At that point the attenuation is really startling: Of that one-tenth or 275,000 students, less than 2 percent or only 5,300 go on to receive bachelor's degrees in physics, and a mere 0.4 percent go on to receive doctor's degrees in physics. (Neuschatz, 1989, 35 [Figure 5]) Put another way, only 0.04 percent of the high school seniors in the United States eventually acquire first- hand experience in physics research at the doctoral level. A truly overwhelming 99.96 percent of the high school seniors graduating each year in the United States, and consequently almost the entire future citizenry of the country - even the educated citizenry, including lawyers, politicians, and businessmen - have no direct acquaintance whatsoever with physics at a creative, research level. This state of affairs has enormous implications for the future welfare of the nation and for the continued support of physics. My focus, however, will be much narrower; I wish to discuss the image of physics and physicists that is gained by the 275,000 students each year who actually do take an introductory course in physics but then for the most part do not go on to become professional physicists.

Part of that image is formed by the history of physics these students learn, and this is my principal concern here. Both textbooks and teachers typically treat the history of physics in the linear fashion noted above - a more or less straight-line development from one theoretical or experimental high point to another, the high points being associated with some of the greatest names in the past. Such linear history implicitly conveys at least two messages to students. First, it suggests that physics progresses in an almost programmed fashion: start the machine at any time, and in the near future it will have produced a new discovery; nothing can stop or impede it. Second, such linear history suggests that physicists are people - mostly white males, of course - of superhuman intellectual capacities; physics is not a discipline for ordinary mortals such as young and inexperienced students. These two messages combine to send a third: Physicists, those superhuman beings, can accomplish anything, can make any discovery - just feed them some money, point them at a target, and in no time at all they will score a bull's eye. That this public perception, at least in the United States, is not too wide of the mark may be gathered from the rapidity with which its citizens, from the president on down, became captivated by that futuristic fantasy, the Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars.

I hasten to add that linear history taught in introductory physics courses was probably not the only factor contributing to Star Wars. Nevertheless, such history does contribute to the public perception of physics and physicists. Certainly, it would be healthier if the public had a more accurate picture of the nature of scientific discovery, as encapsulated for example by the physical chemist Frederick Soddy:

though you may foster in a general way the discovery of new knowledge,... you cannot command the discovery of any new knowledge in particular. The attitude of the man of science is not that of the technologist or engineer. He sets forth into an unknown land not to discover anything definite, anything of use to anyone, but to discover what there is in the unknown to be discovered, however apparently commonplace and unimportant it may seem. The grander the discovery, the more trivial and utterly useless it often appears at first sight. (Soddy, 1920, 55)

Other benefits also would follow from an accurate historical portrayal of physics and physicists. I will give a few examples of what I have in mind. First, consider Albert Einstein's light-quantum hypothesis and its principal experimental supports, Robert A. Millikan's photoelectric effect experiments and Arthur Holly Compton's X-ray scattering experiments. The standard textbook and lecture account is that Einstein proposed his light-quantum hypothesis in 1905 as an explanation of the photoelectric effect, that Millikan's experiments of 1915 provided the first proof of Einstein's hypothesis, and that Compton's experiments of 1922 established it beyond doubt. The linearity and brilliance of this account are clear: The greatest physicist of the twentieth century boldly proposed an interpretation of a puzzling experimental result, a decade later an extraordinary experimentalist confirmed the prediction, and yet another seven years later another extraordinary experimentalist put the icing on the cake. There is not much room in this story for ordinary mortals or mistakes.

An accurate historical account would present a rather different picture. Einstein did not arrive at his light-quantum hypothesis in 1905 in response to an experimental puzzle, but from general theoretical considerations grounded in the statistical interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics; the photoelectric effect was only one of three possible experiments that promised confirmation. By 1915, following a long series of experiments, Millikan and his students finally confirmed the predicted linear relationship between the frequency of the incident radiation and the maximum energy of the ejected photoelectrons. However, Millikan categorically rejected Einstein's light-quantum hypothesis as an interpretation of his experiments - despite his own words to the contrary in his later, self-aggrandizing autobiography. (Millikan, 1950, 101- 102) Compton in fact began his postdoctoral career in 1916 in an atmosphere of virtually universal skepticism toward Einstein's light-quantum hypothesis. His struggles over the next seven years built partly upon the work of well known people such as C. G. Barkla, but also partly upon that of lessor lights such as D.C.H. Florance and J. A. Gray. Then, as Compton's own X-ray scattering experiments progressed, he rejected one interpretation after another, misread his experimental data, then read it correctly, and in general struggled on his own to the extent that Einstein's name does not appear once in Compton's published papers. In the end, moreover, Compton was nearly scooped in his discovery by Peter Debye, who by contrast was directly influenced by his knowledge of Einstein's light-quantum hypothesis.

Hearing this story instead of the standard account, students would receive a rather different impression of physics and physicists. First, they would learn that the relationship between theory and experiment in physics is far from simple and depends upon the particular historical circumstances at a given time. They would see physics as an open-ended quest for knowledge, a lesson whose importance has been emphasized by Yehuda Elkana. (Elkana, 1970, 32) "A great discovery," said J. J. Thomson, "is not a terminus, but an avenue leading to regions hitherto unknown." (Quoted in Rayleigh, 1942, 264) Second, students would see that even an experimental physicist as great as Millikan could be dead wrong in his theoretical views - and then could try to mask his error much later in life by presenting a patently false historical account in his autobiography. Third, students would learn that progress in physics depends upon a great many people, and not simply upon the giants of a particular age. Fourth, they would see that even Compton, one of the greatest experimentalists of this century, could misread his experimental data and could propose incorrect theoretical interpretations of it - an insight that has come as a great relief to students when I have talked about this story. Finally, students would come to understand that research in physics is highly competitive, and consequently that simultaneous discoveries are not so uncommon and do not imply, for example, any unethical behavior such as plagiarism.

This example deals largely with "internal" history of physics; a second one, involving an intense controversy between researchers in Cambridge and in Vienna during the 1920s on the artificial disintegration of elements, brings in psychological and institutional factors as well. Here there really is no standard textbook or lecture account; instead, there usually is just the bald statement that Ernest Rutherford in 1919 (just before leaving Manchester for Cambridge to succeed J. J. Thomson as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics) bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles, producing an isotope of oxygen and a proton, thereby proving for the first time that he had artificially disintegrated the nitrogen nucleus. From a historical point of view, this statement represents quite a remarkable compression of events, entirely eliminating almost a decade of history that offers great insight into the nature of scientific activity.

In the first place, Rutherford did not believe in 1919 that he had produced an isotope of oxygen; instead, he believed that the incident alpha particle struck and expelled a proton circling like a satellite inside the nitrogen nucleus, leaving an isotope of carbon behind. This satellite model guided Rutherford and James Chadwick's researches at the Cavendish Laboratory throughout most of the 1920s. However, both Rutherford and Chadwick's experiments and Rutherford's satellite model were attacked strenuously by two physicists working in the Institut für Radiumforschung in Vienna, Hans Pettersson and Gerhard Kirsch. Pettersson and Kirsch concluded from their own experiments that instead of alpha particles being able to disintegrate only some light elements, as Rutherford and Chadwick believed, they could disintegrate all of them. Furthermore, instead of expelling proton satellites, they argued that the incident alpha particle triggered an explosion inside the target nucleus, thereby releasing protons. This controversy - which pitted researchers in two prominent laboratories against each other - was not resolved until the end of 1927, when Chadwick visited Vienna and discovered that Pettersson and Kirsch had subtly biased their assistants who were actually observing the scintillations that were being produced by the disintegration protons - they had fallen prey to a psychological effect, as in the earlier and more famous case of René Blondlot and his N Rays. (Nye, 1980; 1986, 33- 77) This finally brought home to Rutherford and Chadwick and their contemporaries the necessity of replacing human observers with electrical counting techniques. Ironically, while Rutherford and Chadwick triumphed in their controversy with the Vienna researchers, within a year Rutherford's theory came under attack once again, this time by George Gamow wielding the weapon of quantum mechanics, and Rutherford was indeed forced to abandon it.

Students learning about this episode in the history of physics might glean several insights from it. First, they would see that even Rutherford, who is often regarded as the greatest experimental physicist of this century, was deeply concerned with theory and in fact never divorced theory from experiment in his own mind - an outstanding illustration of just how intimately theory and experiment are bound up with each other. Second, students would learn that competition can be a powerful motivating force in physics, and that not only individual reputations but also institutional reputations can be strongly affected by the outcomes of intense scientific controversies. Third, this story shows that subjective psychological factors can play a role in scientific observations and lead to error. Fourth, students would learn that progress in physics is strongly tied to technical innovations, in this case techniques for counting charged particles, and that one goal of physicists is to make these as objective and reliable as possible.

A final example offers still other insights into the nature of scientific activity. To understand how it was possible for Lise Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch to interpret Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann's discovery of nuclear fission correctly in December 1938 on the basis of the liquid-drop model of the nucleus, I examined the development of that model in detail. (Stuewer, 1994) I found that it occurred in two distinct stages, from 1928- 1935 as a result of work by George Gamow, Werner Heisenberg, and C. F. von Weizsäcker, and from 1936- 1938 as a result of work by Niels Bohr and his collaborators. The earlier stage focussed on the application of the liquid-drop model to mass-defect calculations - static features of the model - while the later stage focussed on its application to nuclear excitations - dynamic features of the model. Meitner was embedded in the former tradition in Berlin, while Frisch was embedded in the latter tradition in Copenhagen. Then, in July 1938, Meitner was forced to flee Berlin, and over the Christmas holidays in late December 1938 she met her nephew Frisch in Kungälv, Sweden, thus bringing these two traditions together during their discussions and producing an entirely new application of the liquid-drop model - the correct interpretation of nuclear fission.

In the first place, this story could convey to students something of the nature of scientific creativity. We recall Arthur Koestler's analysis of the creative act, in which he argued that it lay in the merging of what he called different "matrices" of thought. (Koestler, 1964, 207) It appears that something of this sort occurred here: Meitner and Frisch brought to their meeting very different conceptual frameworks pertaining to a particular nuclear model, and they found that they could combine them in an entirely novel way. Second, as in the earlier examples, students could learn here about the extraordinary personal lives of some physicists. Third, this story shows just how strongly political events can influence the development of science, because both Frisch and Meitner were forced into exile by the brutal racial policies of the Nazis, Frisch soon after the promulgation of the Nazi Civil Service Law in April 1933, Meitner soon after the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938. Students, as future citizens, should understand that the laws, policies, and actions of their government can impinge directly on the scientific health of their country: Science, in common with all of the highest cultural achievements of a nation, cannot be taken for granted but is a delicate plant that requires constant nurturing and support.


The complementarity of objectives, sources, tools, and principles of the physicist and the historian in research thus carries over to teaching. The physicist designs and teaches courses based upon logical considerations; he or she primarily teaches results - the principles, laws, and concepts that are the culmination of centuries of intellectual effort. The historian designs and teaches courses that focus primarily on the intellectual, social, and political contexts in which those principles, laws, and concepts were discovered, and on the personalities and lives of their discoverers. The physicist is more or less constrained to reduce history to vignettes or anecdotes. The historian also enjoys vignettes or anecdotes, but is not satisfied with the picture of physics and physicists they convey.

Thus, students who receive their only exposure to physics and physicists through physics courses as commonly taught will gain an image of physics and physicists that departs significantly from reality. History of physics, accurately taught, can serve as a powerful corrective force: Through history, students can acquire an understanding of the nature of physics, as practiced by real physicists. Teaching in physics and in history also seem complementary; they are to a great extent mutually exclusive, but both are necessary, I would argue, to give students a full understanding of the nature of physics as an intellectual and human activity.


Everyone's best interest is served by promoting an accurate understanding of science. In particular, physicists are best served by promoting an accurate understanding of physics among non-physicists - a point convincingly made in a recent survey of high school physics teachers in the United States. That survey supported the finding of other studies, "that broadening physics literacy among all students and preparing future professionals for further work in the field are complementary rather than competing goals," that is, "there is a synergistic effect between physics education for the mass of nonscience students and physics education for future scientists." (Neuschatz, 1989, 34- 35 ) The better the one, the better the other; the better citizens in general understand physics, the better will be the cultural climate for physicists. Erwin Schrödinger years ago lamented the "tendency to forget that all science is bound up with human culture in general, and that scientific findings, even those which at the moment appear the most advanced and esoteric and difficult to grasp, are meaningless outside their cultural context." (Schrödinger, 1952, 3; 1984, 478)

Science is the most powerful and pervasive force affecting countries of the world today - their economic health, political stability, and cultural vitality. But force is exerted in both directions; physicists depend upon governmental support for their research and livelihoods. "We are in real danger," Carl Sagan warned, "of having constructed a society fundamentally dependent on science and technology in which hardly anyone understands science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster." (Sagan, 1989) Frederick Soddy put it more pithily when arguing that scientists should always be aware of the societal context in which they work: "Most fish," he wrote, "probably remain utterly oblivious to the existence of water until rudely hauled into the upper air." (Soddy, 1920, 3)

Physicists and scientists in general also would benefit if the public and their representatives in government thoroughly understood the profound difference between scientific fraud and error - to pick another topic of current concern in the United States. Physicists have a particular stake in clarifying this distinction because fraud in physics is virtually unknown. Error, by contrast, has been rather common, and indeed often has led to progress. But there is little room for honest error in a linear history of physics. Only if students and the general public come to understand that the course of physics is charted through many false byways will they come to appreciate the positive role played by scientific error.

The history of physics also offers lessons in another direction. In democracies there is a strong commitment to egalitarianism, to the belief that people deserve equal treatment as human beings no matter what their position in life might be. At the same time, class distinctions do exist among people occupying jobs of different social status. In this situation it might be well to point out that a good many physicists began life in humble socio-economic circumstances and yet reached the very pinnacle of their profession - one thinks immediately, for example, of Michael Faraday, J.J. Thomson, or Ernest Rutherford. The history of physics also shows that progress often has depended upon the close cooperation of technicians and physicists. Thomson and Rutherford, for example, thoroughly appreciated what every experimental physicist knows, namely, that the knowledge and skills of technicians are essential for success, and that when physicists and technicians work together toward a common goal a deep mutual respect develops. A physics laboratory, in some sense, is a microcosm of an egalitarian, democratic society, and as such might be an object of study by those who are concerned with the dynamics of human dignity.

The general public, of course, views physics and physicists radically differently. E. E. Fournier d'Albe captured that public image in a biography of William Crookes published as long ago as 1924:

to the general public the man of science is a man of mystery, a man of inhuman and somewhat unaccountable tastes. Not everyone goes so far as to maintain that he is a freak because he indulges in an activity "with no money in it." But it seems to be generally agreed that the "scientist" is a being living outside ordinary human spheres, not amenable to ordinary human standards, a being who is usually harmless but may quite conceivable become dangerous.... (Fournier d'Albe, 1923, 2)

Norbert Wiener asserted in 1950 that to the average man in the street

the scientist is exactly what the medicine-man is for the savage; namely, a mysterious ambivalent figure, who is to be worshipped as the carrier of recondite knowledge and the agent of recondite powers; and who is at the same time to be feared, even hated, and to be put in his place. The medicine-man may be a power, but he is a very acceptable sacrifice to the gods. (Wiener, 1950, 215)

Spencer R. Weart has shown just how persistent the image of the physicist as a mad scientist has been. (Weart, 1988a, 1988b)

This image could hardly be otherwise if physics students and the general public learn nothing substantial about the personal lives of physicists in lectures or textbooks owing to a feeling that it is somehow improper to discuss such matters. It is hardly surprising, but quite remarkable nevertheless, that despite their high accomplishments and aesthetic sense, only rarely have physicists been portrayed as central figures or heroes in novels, while artists, lawyers, doctors, and politicians, for example, figure prominently in them. Even though physicists often have been compared to detectives, the number of physicists portrayed in popular literature is vanishingly small compared to the number of detectives. Novelists and writers apparently view people in many professions as sympathetic members of the human race, but physicists rarely qualify for inclusion; they are seen as coldly logical thinkers, unmoved by ordinary human emotions and passions. The history of physics reveals that this is hardly the case. "The life of a great scientist in his laboratory," wrote Marie Curie, "is not, as many may think, a peaceful idyll. More often it is a bitter battle with things, with one's surroundings, and above all with oneself." (Curie, 1926, 144)


History and science, and in particular history of physics and physics, I have argued, are complementary - they are to a considerable degree mutually exclusive, but both are necessary for students to understand the nature of physics. If there is some validity to my argument, the central question becomes how to bring the two together constructively. This is a difficult question, and one that has been around for a long time. I can offer no easy answers, but I can at least offer some observations.

Almost five decades ago, I. Bernard Cohen presented a paper entitled "A Sense of History in Science" at a meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in which he began with much the same premise as I have begun, namely, that history and science are words that are "often thought to be connotative of extremely different, if not mutually exclusive, disciplines." (Cohen, 1950, 343 ) A principal goal of Professor Cohen's paper was to bridge the two disciplines by acquainting physicists with books and articles in the history of physics, and offering pointers on how to distinguish the good ones from the bad. This was a valuable service, and a necessary one, because the history of science as a discipline was then in an embryonic stage: Professor Cohen could point to only three colleges or universities in the entire United States that then offered full-time employment in the history of science. (Ibid., 344) Five decades ago, about the only way to acquaint physicists with sources in the history of physics was through the written word.

Physicists today have an easier task. The history of physics has grown significantly as a discipline, and although the number of historians of physics in the universe is still small compared to the number of physicists, the former nevertheless are to be found today on the faculties of a fair number of colleges and universities, where they are available to provide information on historical sources, both published and unpublished, or answers to historical questions. It is quite possible today, as A. P. French urged in 1983, for physics teachers "to make use of scientific history as unearthed by professional historians." (French, 1983, 216) This points to an essential precondition for progress: Physicists and historians themselves have to be brought together in constructive ways to provide opportunities to develop mutual respect for each other as teachers and scholars. At times, professional isolation and even professional arrogance can impede communication, but these are expensive luxuries, and should not be encouraged. In some instances, historians have been appointed as members of physics departments, establishing a solid institutional basis for cooperation - by jointly teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, arranging historical colloquia, and the like. In other instances, physicists and historians have cooperated across departmental boundaries. In still other instances, physicists themselves - following a venerable tradition - have become expert in the history of physics. In general, just as Max Planck in 1909 mistakenly felt that accepting Einstein's light quanta meant rejecting Maxwell's electromagnetic waves, (Planck, 1909) so physicists and historians today should not make the mistake of rejecting each other. History and physics, although seemingly complementary disciplines, might be merged in ways that would greatly benefit students and ultimately the general public.


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