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Five essential history of physics books

15 September 2016
A recent essay convincingly argues that scientists should make a habit of reading history books. The following books by historians of science are worthy of a place on your shelf.

In his thoughtful essay “Why should physicists study history?” (see Physics Today, July 2016, page 38), Matt Stanley makes a compelling case for adding history books to a scientist’s reading list. For those who haven’t seen the piece yet (and you really should read the original essay in full), Stanley argues that studying history carries many benefits for both students and practicing scientists. The history of physics opens our minds to new perspectives and new ways of thinking—and also illuminates the social and human factors that have shaped, and continue to shape, scientific work.

If you’re looking to read more about the history of physics, here are five books by historians of science that are worthy of a place on your bookshelf.

Leviathan and the Air Pump

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (Princeton University Press, 2011; originally published 1985).

If you want a history of science classic, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s study of the early days of the Royal Society of London is one of the most influential books in the modern history of science. Leviathan and the Air-Pump focuses on a debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes in the 1660s and 1670s. Boyle, the seventh son of the Earl of Cork, was an avid experimenter. He claimed that watching how things behaved under unusual circumstances—for instance, observing chemical reactions in a vacuum created by his air pump—could reveal important knowledge about the natural world. Hobbes, a philosopher best known for his promonarchist book Leviathan, viewed such experiments as unreliable, unnatural, and inherently secretive. The authors consider how Boyle's and Hobbes’s competing views of experiments reflected their fundamental attitudes toward natural knowledge—and how their positions related to social debates in Restoration England. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of experiments, early modern science, or the history of physics and chemistry.

Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics David Kaiser (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

For readers who prefer a lot of science with their history, David Kaiser shows off both historical flair and deep physics knowledge in his book about the history of Feynman diagrams. Drawing Theories Apart begins with the legendary Richard Feynman creating simple line drawings to streamline calculations in quantum electrodynamics. Kaiser then follows the diagrams as a string of graduate students and postdocs took Feynman’s method into new departments, new subfields, and new countries. Along the way, physicists adapted Feynman diagrams for a variety of problems, spreading their use far beyond quantum electrodynamics. Drawing Theories Apart offers an intricate look at the intellectual history of Feynman diagrams and a compelling tour through the landscape of postwar physics in the US. In a November 2006 review for Physics Today, Eugen Merzbacher called the book "a colorful and readable account of the earliest applications of the diagrammatic technique."

China and Albert Einstein

China and Albert Einstein: The Reception of the Physicist and His Theory in China, 1917–1979Danian Hu (Harvard University Press, 2005).

To learn something new about the history of relativity, readers should pick up China and Albert Einstein, a lively, readable account of the Chinese response to Einstein's theory. Danian Hu’s wide-ranging yet succinct book is also an excellent introduction to the history of Chinese physics. To trace the influence and reception of Einstein’s ideas, Hu begins with an overview of the development of Chinese science since the 17th century. He has a sharp eye for evocative anecdotes, and several fascinating characters emerge from his narrative. The book takes a sobering turn in its final chapters as Hu examines attacks on Einstein and his theory during the Cultural Revolution. Einstein’s image was later rehabilitated, but the revolution’s impact on Chinese scientific research was not so easily overcome. In his April 2006 review for Physics Today, Kenji Ito critiqued Hu's analytical framework but praised the "meticulously documented" research and called the book "an important step forward" in the history of Chinese science.

Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics, Andrew Warwick (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

If you want to read about the history of physics education, Andrew Warwick’s engaging book recounts the history of the 19th-century Cambridge mathematics tripos, a grueling examination that ended with Cambridge math students being publicly ranked according to their performance. Warwick’s account of tripos training is brimming with fascinating details; for example, Cambridge students used to wrap their heads in wet towels to prevent overheating during long study sessions. But Warwick also shows how Cambridge’s unique mathematical pedagogy affected the development of British physics. James Clerk Maxwell’s Cambridge training, for instance, strongly influenced his intricate arguments about electromagnetism. In a provocative final chapter, Warwick suggests that the Cambridge approach also predisposed many British physicists to reject Einstein’s theory of relativity. Historian Elizabeth Garber Masters of Theory as a "nuanced account of the beginning of relativity theory" that also raises thought-provoking questions about the role of pedagogy in preserving research communities.

Life Atomic

Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine, Angela N. H. Creager (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

For most laypeople, atomic science in the Cold War means arms races, bomb shelters, and nuclear fallout. In Life Atomic, Angela Creager offers a new perspective by exploring a different side of radiation science: the use of radioisotopes in laboratory science and medical research. During the early days of the Cold War, radioisotopes were hailed as a peaceful use of atomic science, a way to put fission products to use for everything from curing cancer to improving foreign relations. However, as public perception of radioactivity shifted, radioisotopes came to be seen as a potential poison. Creager deals deftly with atomic science, cultural debates, and Cold War politics to give us a fresh look at the atom’s fraught 20th-century history.

Melinda Baldwin is the new Books editor at Physics Today. She holds a PhD in history of science from Princeton University and is the author of Making "Nature": The History of a Scientific Journal, published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press.

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