Physics in the Modern World

Copenhagen to Manhattan

Andrew Rex

Kent W. Hooper

Professor of Physics

Associate Professor of German

Thompson 116c

Library 255



Course Materials:

(available in the UPS bookstore)

Richard Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)

Allan Lightman: Great Ideas in Physics (2nd ed. 1997)

Mary Fulbrook: A Concise History of Germany (1990)

Wassily Kandinsky: Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911)

John Hersey: Hiroshima (1946/1985)

Lawrence Badash: Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons: From Fission to the Limited Test Ban Treaty 1939-1963 (1995)

Lisa Anderson: Critical Mass: America's Race to Build the A-Bomb (1996)

Catalog Description:

This course will examine the mutual interactions between physics and other forms of culture in the modern world, centering on the development of relativity and quantum theory. These great ideas of modern physics will be examined critically in light of the effects they have produced in the world at large, with particular attention to the building of the atomic bomb. A number of scientific, cultural, political, and philosophical themes leading up to the conception and building of the atomic bomb will be considered.

Science in Context:

Science in Context courses were added to the university curriculum after an extended faculty discussion of core requirements in 1991. The guidelines developed for these courses reflected the considered judgment of the faculty about the kind of intellectual experience that might make a fundamental contribution to liberal education. Science in Context courses must be interdisciplinary courses, including substantial work within the natural sciences and substantial work from other disciplines, seeking connections between the work of the sciences and a broader intellectual, political, social, or cultural world.

The Present Course:

Science in Context 345 is offered by different teams of faculty at different times. Each team may give its own flavor to the course through variations in particular reading assignments, through the teaching styles of the instructors, and through the day-to-day organization of the course. During this semester, professors Rex and Hooper will often lead the class during alternate weeks, allowing students to concentrate on developments in physics during one week and to turn toward social, cultural, and historical issues during the following week. Please recognize, however, that the instructors do not assume that "science" and "context" are separate spheres but that they are fully intertwined, as they are in the primary text for the course, Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Either instructor may be consulted about course issues at any time. On more technical questions about course materials, of course, students may take it as a function of good sense to carry their queries about quantum mechanics to the physicist and their questions about Kant or Kandinsky to cultural historian.


Written assignments for the course will include in-class quizzes, two papers, and a final examination.

Quizzes based on class reading and discussion will be given approximately every three weeks during the semester and will be announced several class periods ahead of time. A single quiz may place greater emphasis on "science" or "context" materials as the work of the course warrants. Together, the quizzes will account for 40% of the final course grade.

The two papers required for the course will be due in class at the end of the eighth week and at the end of the fourteenth week. For the first paper, students will be asked to work primarily from class sources and to confirm their topics no later than week seven. For the second paper, students will be asked to augment class materials by identifying and making use of at least two sources external to the course. Each student will submit a one-page précis and bibliography for the second paper no later than week twelve. Each paper will be approximately five pages in length. Together, the papers will account for 30% of the final course grade.

The final examination will be held in the time slot provided in the course schedule and will not be offered at any other time. The final examination will provide 20% of the final course grade.

Active participation in the course is expected of all students. In order to participate, students must be present and alert; a pattern of absences will indicate a decided failure to meet the requirements of the course. Perhaps students engage the course in the most obvious way when they contribute constructively to discussion, whether through an insightful comment, a telling observation, or a pertinent question. Yet students may demonstrate a positive involvement with the course in many other ways as well; through the interest and effort revealed in the papers, through consultation with the instructors when that is needed or helpful, or through supportive intellectual relationships with other students. The quality (not simply quantity) of a student's participation in the course will account for 10% of the final course grade.

All students are expected to be aware of university policies set forth in the academic handbook sections of The Logger. Those who have not recently read the discussion of academic honesty, for example, should do so.

Phase One:

European Intellectual History; Energy and Conservation Principles

Weeks 1 and 2

Mary Fulbrook: A Concise History of Germany, pp. 85-104, 137-54

Immanuel Kant: What is Enlightenment? (1784)

Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Defence of Poetry (wr. 1821)

Lightman: Great Ideas in Physics, chapter one, pp. 1-55

During the first two weeks of the course we will concentrate on what might be termed background material; beginning with an outline of the Enlightenment and reactions to it and leading to an examination of the ways in which the Newtonian program in physics began to crumble. Central to this study will be the development of thermodynamics and the unification of electricity and magnetism. Some crucial experimental work also belongs to this period, such as the discovery of x rays, radioactivity, and the electron.

Phase Two:

The Development of Relativity & Quantum Theory: The Early Years of WW II

Weeks 3 through 6

Lightman: chapter three, pp. 107-66; chapter four, pp. 167-226

Critical Mass: Science Basics, Rutherford, Bohr, Meitner, etc.

Kandinsky: Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911)

Fulbrook: pp. 137-72

Rhodes: chapters one through eleven, pp. 13-356

Leni Riefenstahl: Triumph of the Will (film-1936), art/propaganda/censorship (selected readings; distributed in class)

Relativity and quantum theory are the foundation for most of twentieth century physics, and they provide the critical underpinnings for the Manhattan Project. In relativity we will follow the development of the theory due to Einstein. We will then turn to quantum theory, from the discovery of the electron to Bohr's early atomic theory to the full wave/matrix theory of Schrödinger/Heisenberg. The Bohr/Einstein debates will be discussed as we ponder the nature of indeterminacy in quantum mechanics. International events including World War I, the rise of Nazism, and the early beginnings of the intrusion of governments into the arts but also into massive, industrialized, politically motivated scientific research will be integrated into the analysis of the evolution of physics.

Phase Three

The Manhattan Project, summer of 1942; Trinity

Weeks 7 through 12


Fulbrook: pp. 172-203

Rhodes: chapters twelve through eighteen, pp. 357-678

Critical Mass: Oppenheimer, Fermi, Los Alamos, Hanford, Oak Ridge, Archive

For these five weeks we will use Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Lisa Anderson's Critical Mass as our main texts. Necessarily, material glanced at in our study of the 1930s will feed into our discussion of World War II and the decision to assemble an international team of scientists at Los Alamos. This phase of the course will permit us to examine intellectual controversies, personal conflicts, political disagreements, and governmental involvement in science. This is an exciting subject because so much documentary and dramatic material exists for us to use. It will be easy to gain a sharp sense of the personalities involved in the struggle to get the atomic bomb before the Nazis did. We will continue the discussion of scientists' roles in public policy through the efforts and opinions of major players such as Szilard, Einstein, Lawrence, Teller, and Oppenheimer.

Phase Four:

Hiroshima; Nagasaki; The Aftermath

Weeks 13 through 16

Rhodes: chapter 19 through Epilogue, pp. 679-788

Badesh: Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons, pp. 54-114

John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946/1985)

The Day after Trinity (film)

Evening with Hans Bethe: German Atomic Bomb Project

Critical Mass: Beyond Trinity, Edward Teller, Popular Culture, etc.

Is the result of all this modern physics a net gain for society and culture, or a net loss? In the final four weeks we will examine this question. Since we are following in the footsteps of an extensive study of the atomic bomb, students will have some ammunition to begin to answer this question for themselves. We can also begin to look at the Cold War, as one specific outcome of World War II and the development of the atomic bomb.