Carson/History 181B-1

History 181B:  Modern Physics:
From the Atom to Big Science
Spring 2001, MWF 11-12
2 Le Conte Hall
CCN 39430, Exam Group 7 
Prof. Cathryn Carson 
Office:  2413 Dwinelle Hall (office wing)
Office hours F 12:15-2:00, or make an appointment
Course description
Reading materials
Course mechanics
Schedule and outlines
Road maps
Useful links
Reading strategies
Books on reserve

Final grades are available by e-mail from Prof. Carson.

Course description  
  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 the 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.  The course traces these developments, laying out their origins, ramifications, and interconnections.

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 students will get a historical introduction to this scientific discipline.  A decent high-school level course in physics or chemistry will be adequate preparation, but all students should expect to learn a good deal of science.  Students concerned about their physics background should feel free to talk to me individually.  In past years, the best students in the class have divided equally between science and non-science majors.  This course fulfills the L&S breadth requirement in physical sciences.

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-science majors 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 process of thinking historically.

Reading materials  
  Two books 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.

In addition, a course reader is available for purchase from Odin Readers, 2146 Center St., and a copy will be placed on reserve.  Some of the materials in the course reader, marked as such in the schedule, are also available on the web.  Two further assignments, again marked on the schedule, can only be completed on the web.

The Physics Library also has on reserve a selection of books relevant to the course.  You are encouraged to browse or ask me for guidance.

Course mechanics  
  Short research assignments:  You will have two short assignments involving historical research.  You must do both.

Before 1922 Wednesday, March 7
1922-51 Wednesday, April 4
After 1951 Wednesday, May 2

  • Nobel assignment (3 pp.):  You will research and report on one Nobel Laureate or Prize (in physics, of course).  When the assignment is due depends on when the prize was awarded:
  • BAS assignment (3 pp.):  You will examine two articles of your choice from the Bulletin of the atomic scientists between 1945 and 1952, then summarize them and suggest what they reveal about physicists' concerns after World War II.  Due Wednesday, April 18.

Longer research assignment:  You may do either

  • A longer paper (7-8 pp.) on a subject of your choice, due on Monday, May 7, or
  • An in-class group presentation (15-20 min.) selected from a list of possible topics and dates.


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 1/26, E&M 2/2, new discoveries 2/16, the quantum 2/23, special relativity 2/28, old QT and QM 3/16, QFT and particle physics 4/25, condensed matter and cosmology 5/4.


  • The midterm is scheduled for the 7th week of classes.  It has two components:  a short take-home essay assignment, which you will receive on Monday, February 26, and return at the beginning of class on Monday, March 6;  and a 50-minute in-class section, which you will complete during the class period on Friday, March 2.  Study questions are available.
  • The final exam is scheduled (according to Exam Group 7) for Monday, May 14, at 12:30 p.m.  It too has two components:  a longer take-home essay assignment, which you will receive on Wednesday, May 2, and return on Monday, May 14, at 12:30 p.m.;  and a 50-minute in-class section, which you will complete beginning at the start of the scheduled exam period.  The essay component covers the entire semester, while the in-class section covers Units 3 and 4 of the syllabus.
  • During the semester I will give 1 or 2 pop quizzes.  These will deal with very basic information immediately relevant to that week's work.  They are meant to encourage you to keep up with the course.

Grading:  Final grades will be assigned according to the following weighting:

Nobel assignment 2 parts
BAS assignment 2 parts
Longer research assignment 5 parts
Midterm exam 4 parts
Final exam 6 parts
Quizzes 1 part (at my discretion)

Any work not completed will be counted as ZERO.  In individual cases (e.g., marked improvement over the course of the semester) I may choose to deviate from this scheme.

Further notes

Written assignments:  The essay components of the tests and the written research assignments are to be typed, double-spaced in normal-sized fonts with reasonable margins.  They may not be submitted by e-mail or in any other electronic form.  Proper writing (grammar, organization, citation format) definitely counts.  Papers are due at the beginning of class and late papers will be penalized:  each day (or fraction thereof) 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.

Reading:  The course requires a substantial amount of reading.  You should complete each assignment before coming to class, as we will often refer to or discuss the reading selections.

Class:  Regular attendance is necessary, as the lectures contain material not covered in the reading.  After each class, a brief outline and a list of names and terms will be posted on the webpage (available as a link of the schedule).  These are designed to supplement, not substitute for, notetaking in class.

Discussion section:  There is no discussion section.


Date Topics Assignments (for details see course reader)
Unit 1 Classical world pictures  
Course introduction
Creating a field:  Newton to the early 19th century
Mechanics, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics
Electromagnetism and light
World pictures and philosophical issues
Institutional homes
Joule, "On the mechanical equivalent of heat" 1/22
Maxwell, from "On Faraday's lines of force" 1/26
Mach, "The economy of science" 1/31
Klein, "Mechanical explanation" now 2/2
McCormmach, Night thoughts by 2/7
Unit 2 Challenges  
Discoveries:  x-rays, radioactivity, the electron
Quantum theory (1):  Planck on radiation
World War I and its consequences
Röntgen, "On a new kind of rays" (OR web) 2/9
Marie Curie and the science of radioactivity (ONLY web) 2/9
     Through "Radium Institute," side links optional
     Read "Radium and radioactivity" ("Further info")
Thomson, "Cathode rays" (OR web) 2/12
Carson, "The origins of the QT" (OR web) to p. 13 2/14
Einstein, "On the electrodynamics of moving bodies" 2/21
Heisenberg, "The theory of relativity" 2/23
Einstein, "Autobiographical notes" 2/26
Unit 3 The quantum mechanical era  
Quantum theory (2):  Bohr's atom
Making quantum mechanics
Quantum philosophy (1):  uncertainty, Copenhagen
Applying quantum mechanics
Quantum field theories and particle physics (1)
Nuclear physics in the 30s
Carson, "The origins of the QT" (OR web) -- remainder 3/5
Nobel option 1 due 3/7
Heisenberg, "QT and its interpretation" 3/7
Heisenberg, "Physical content of q kinematics and mechanics" 3/12
Bohr, "The Bohr-Einstein dialogue" 3/12
Brown/Hoddeson, "The birth of elementary-particle physics" 3/19
Frisch, "The interest is focussing on the atomic nucleus" 3/21
Hahn/Strassmann, "Concerning the existence" 3/23
Meitner/Frisch, "Disintegration of uranium" (OR web) 3/23
  Spring vacation  
Unit 4 World War II and beyond  
The rise of American physics, and of Berkeley
Science under Hitler
Scientific mobilization and the physicists' war
The Manhattan Project and its counterparts
Into the postwar world
Quantum field theories and particle physics (2)
Condensed matter
Astrophysics and cosmology
Quantum philosophy (2):  renewed debates
Physics in contemporary society
Nobel option 2 due 4/4
Lawrence and his laboratory (ONLY web) 4/4
     Through ch. 7
Physics and National Socialism 4/6
Frayn, Copenhagen 4/11
Weisskopf, "Working on the bomb" 4/13
Sakharov, "The Tamm group" 4/13
Roberts, "Take away your billion dollars" 4/16
BAS assignment due 4/18
Weisskopf, "The development of field theory" 4/23
Mattuck, Feynman diagrams in the many-body problem 4/27
Gamow, "Galaxies in flight" 4/30
Bell, "Six possible worlds of QM" 5/2
Nobel option 3 due 5/2
Longer paper option due 5/7
5/14   Final exam, 12:30-3:30 p.m.

Road maps  
  Classical world pictures
The quantum era
Useful links  
  History of physics on the web:
AIP Center for History of Physics
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:
Harcourt: AP dictionary of science and technology
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 sources on the history of physics:
History of Science Society Reading List (guide to printed resources, good starting point)
History of science and technology database (entry point from on campus)
Virtual Library for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine
Online Archive of California
Pathfinder(online UCB catalogue)

Library and research orientation:
UCB physics library
Introduction to the UCB libraries
Library instruction and tours
Library research guides
Guide to primary source research
Assistance from library reference staff
Introduction to citation styles (either MLA or Turabian is acceptable)
Student Learning Center drop-in writing tutoring

  Back to:
Prof. Carson's home page
History undergraduate course list
OHST course list

Last modified 25 April 2001
Copyright © Cathryn Carson 2001