Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 220
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    As the twentieth century ended, computers, the Internet, and nanotechnology were central to modern American life. Yet the physical advances underlying these applications are poorly understood and underappreciated by U.S. citizens. In this overview, Cassidy views physics through America’s engagement with the political events of a tumultuous century.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06274-0
    Subjects: Physics, History of Science & Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    Physicists were in a celebratory mood at the turn to the twenty-first century. Nearly every year of the decade straddling 2000 brought celebrations of discoveries and breakthroughs that had revolutionized physics and transformed the world in which we live. The hundredth anniversaries of the discoveries of X-rays (1895), radioactivity (1896), the electron (1897), the idea of the quantum (1900), and Albert Einstein’s “year of miracles” (1905) fell during the years from 1995 to 2005.

    Those years also encompassed the seventy-fifth anniversary of the breakthrough to quantum mechanics (1925), the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Manhattan Project (1942), the...

  4. 1 Entering the New Century
    (pp. 6-24)

    The discoveries emerging from the European powerhouses of physics during the 1890s heralded the approach of the new century and helped set the stage for the future century of physics. Taking advantage of recent advances in electromagnetic theory and precision instrumentation, Cambridge University physicist J. J. Thomson discovered the first subatomic particle, the electron. In Paris, Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity, and soon Marie and Pierre Curie uncovered new radioactive elements that would win them and Becquerel Nobel Prizes. In the Netherlands, H. A. Lorentz developed a new theory of electromagnetism, and Pieter Zeeman discovered the Zeeman Effect, the magnetic separation...

  5. 2 American Physics Comes of Age
    (pp. 25-51)

    The outbreak of war in Europe raised important new challenges and new opportunities for physicists on both sides of the conflict. The introduction of poison gas warfare drew chemists into what became known as the chemists’ war. But physicists were soon involved as well. Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, American physicists and chemists began preparations for war as soon as the first shots were fired. This brought physics into a closer alliance with industry, government, and the military. The physicists’ strategies for promoting their profession during the war carried over into the postwar decade...

  6. 3 Surviving the Depression
    (pp. 52-71)

    Ernest Orlando Lawrence arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1928. Six months later, he reportedly hit upon the basic idea for an invention that would revolutionize nuclear research, a device for accelerating subatomic particles and smashing them into atomic nuclei, producing untold riches in new knowledge about the nucleus and its constituents. It was soon learned that if these particles could be smashed into matter at even higher energies, they would produce new and exotic elementary particles, providing clues even about the most fundamental forces of nature. Lawrence later called the device he had envisioned a “cyclotron,” for the...

  7. 4 The Physicists’ War
    (pp. 72-89)

    On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein signed a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in which he stated:

    Sir: Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration.

    Quick action might be necessary, Einstein continued, because

    this new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and...

  8. 5 Taming the Endless Frontier
    (pp. 90-105)

    The stunning successes of the Manhattan Project, the MIT Radiation Laboratory, and the many other research and development efforts during the war convinced the nation’s leaders of the crucial importance of fundamental discoveries achieved through what was now called basic research. The close collaboration of the military with scientists and engineers working in the highly technical disciplines of nuclear physics, electromagnetic theory, and electronics had produced the war’s “winning weapons.”

    As victory approached, President Roosevelt asked his top science administrator Vannevar Bush to reconnoiter the contours of the postwar relationship between science and the federal government. In his well-known and...

  9. 6 The New Physics
    (pp. 106-123)

    World War II and the postwar aftermath brought striking changes to the structure of the physics discipline and to the nature of its work. Not only did the high demand for physicists during the war continue after the war, but also, with money flowing, big projects, big teams, and big budgets became common—a relection in many ways of the mass production characteristic of the postwar consumer society. As funding increased the number of researchers and the outpouring of their research, the lone researcher tinkering in a laboratory or sequestered in an office with a pad of paper and a...

  10. 7 Sputnik: Action and Reaction
    (pp. 124-143)

    The man who presided over a nation confident of its century-defining stature in military, economic, and cultural matters could hardly believe what he heard on the evening of October 4, 1957. The president of the United States learned that evening that the Soviet Union had used the occasion of the International Geophysical Year, a period of international geophysical research of planet Earth, to launch into orbit the world’s first artificial satellite. It was a sphere weighing about 184 pounds (84 kg), encircling Earth every 96 minutes at a speed of nearly 16,000 miles per hour while emitting a radio frequency...

  11. 8 Revising the Partnership
    (pp. 144-170)

    The public critique of physics and the challenges of the Nixon years severely strained the partnership between physics and the federal government. As the economy struggled under debt and inflation, and as the nation struggled with the loss in Vietnam and the president’s resignation, total federal funding for research and development (R&D) declined by 1974 to amounts adjusted for inflation not seen since 1962. Federal funds for education also decreased from 1968 through 1974, as did jobs for physicists. The annual number of physics PhDs conferred dropped by nearly half from the record high of 1,625 in 1971 to 862...

  12. Appendix: Tables
    (pp. 171-176)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 177-200)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 201-202)
  15. Index
    (pp. 203-211)