Revolution in Physics: Quantum, Relativity, and the Destruction of the Classical World

History 103S.003

Spring 2007
Instructor (text): 
2231 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
Wed 12-2
New Course Added 11/6.

This seminar covers the modern revolution in physics as well as the relationship between science and culture at the fin-de-siecle. Many of physics' fundamental principles, such as absolute concepts of space and time, mechanical explanation, determinism, and causality were under attack at the turn of the 20th century. Misgivings about the basic assumptions of science were widespread; they came from intellectuals in fields such as aesthetics, philosophy, and politics. Concerns about the limits of ";classical"; science and the meaning of modern developments, especially in physics, also came from scientists themselves. Relativity and quantum mechanics challenged the traditional scientific outlook and at the same time dovetailed with modern cultural movements. We will examine the history of physics in this tumultuous period, discussing for example, the conspicuous correspondences between Einstein's relativity and Picasso's cubism, between the development of Quantum Mechanics and the emergence of Fascism, and between the collapse of the mechanical world-view and the end of Europe's long century of peace. Physics' relation to broader cultural movements profoundly shaped the future of the discipline, as scientists' interaction with the non-scientific public evolved throughout the 20th century.

Readings will include selections by Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Ernst Mach, and Ludwig Boltzmann as well as historical studies by Gerald Holton, Paul Forman, John Heilbron, and Peter Dear. Students will be expected to participate actively in weekly discussion and to complete regular short assignments in preparation for a 10-12 page term paper on a related topic. Students who plan to write their theses in the general area will be introduced to basic primary sources and that they will be asked to write a non-binding ";pre-prospectus"; as part of their course work. Please contact the instructor, Kalil Oldham, at with any questions.