How Physics is Rocked by the Waves of HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: history of science
Physicists like to think their job is to uncover truths about nature. It is a profession that thrives on abstract thought and, often, an other-worldly detachment from reality. But with his essay collection Quantum Legacies, David Kaiser reminds us that, up close, the business of doing science is a mess. Physics, like any human activity, is rocked by the waves of history — its busts and booms, fears and fashions.
Kaiser is a physicist and historian of science. Both sides of his expertise shine through the pages of Quantum Legacies, as in his previous books, such as 2011’s How the Hippies Saved Physics, about the field in the United States after the Second World War.
Here, 19 stand-alone essays, most of which have been published in some form before, are collected in sets loosely associated with the history of quantum mechanics; the role of physicists in US politics of the past century; the development of the standard model of particle physics; and cosmology. (Notwithstanding the title, much of the book does not deal with quantum physics. Perhaps the field’s biggest legacy —quantum computing — makes no appearance.)
Kaiser is at his best when he condenses decades of history into a few pages, bolstered by ample references to literature that few scientists would otherwise stumble upon. An essay about the threat supposedly posed to the United States by the high number of Soviet physics graduates during the cold war is a masterpiece of historical analysis. He narrates how US newspapers and politicians took statistics out of context for years, feeding fears of Soviet scientific supremacy and culminating — after the 1957 launch of the satellite Sputnik — in legislation that hiked the US capacity to train physical-sciences graduate students by 70%. This policy soon waned; by 1968, young physicists looking for jobs outnumbered advertised positions by nearly four to one. Kaiser’s sombre assessment: “scarcity talk looped from hype to amplification to feedback”.
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