Brainy Quote of the Day

Monday, July 25, 2016

Physics and History...

Galileo Galilei shows the doge of Venice how to use a telescope in this 1858 fresco by Giuseppe Bertini.
Citation: Phys. Today 69, 7, 38 (2016);
Topics: Civil Engineering, Economy, Education, History, Physics, Science, STEM

Spoiler alert: I'll sound parental, but hopefully not too pedantic.

A Skype conversation with my youngest son revealed two things: 1) he liked working at his now third Civil Engineering summer internship (he's completing a project for an airbase in Japan); 2) he wished he could just do THAT and not return to school for his last year in the fall. My wife and I of course, encouraged him to do just that and the goal would be to get a job after graduation so presumably he would enjoy that too.

He gave an observation I think I had at his age: "why do they have you take all these classes that are unnecessary?" As you'd guess right, the unnecessary classes are those that didn't apply to Civil Engineering.

I told him I appreciated the classes that weren't engineering or physics classes; that sometimes you need "a mental break" from having to do designs and differential equations. It was a respite for me at least.

Plus, part of the entire matriculation experience isn't what you'll GET at the end: it's what you're becoming, and the process of that journey changes you from how you started to how you complete at least the undergraduate leg opening you up to other possibilities. For example, as a Freshman I only had ear for one type of music: Parliament Funkadelic. As a junior studying Thermodynamics and after a "rude" awakening by Al Jarreau singing "Roof Garden," I suddenly developed an appetite and appreciation for Jazz music. Personal research revealed its origins in my own culture and the root art of many popular music forms we take for granted today. If not for art, literature and music we would be stiff and joyless automatons, fulfilling the whims of an employer only; creativity - the fuel of innovation and invention would be significantly lessened. For nothing else, the trifecta is the stuff of "Star Trek" and "Star Wars." I hope I influenced him to think further on his viewpoint.

This article in Physics Today is kind of related to our video conference, which up to being a young adult wasn't only impossible without sophisticated video equipment, it was the stuff of science fiction and "The Jetsons" Saturday cartoon show.

But of course, that in and of itself is an appreciation...of history.

Just as physics is not a list of facts about the world, history is not a list of names and dates. It is a way of thinking that can be powerful and illuminating.

Some things about physics aren’t well covered in a physics education. Those are the messy, rough edges that make everything difficult: dealing with people, singly or in groups; misunderstandings; rivals and even allies who won’t fall in line. Physicists often do not see such issues as contributing to science itself. But social interactions really do influence what scientists produce. Often physicists learn that lesson the hard way. Instead, they could equip themselves for the actual collaborative world, not the idealized solitary one that has never existed.

History can help. An entire academic discipline—history of science—studies the rough edges. We historians of science see ourselves as illustrating the power of stories. How a community tells its history changes the way it thinks about itself. A historical perspective on science can help physicists understand what is going on when they practice their craft, and it provides numerous tools that are useful for physicists themselves.

Physics is a social endeavor

Research is done by people. And people have likes and dislikes, egos and prejudices. Physicists, like everyone else, get attached to their favorite ideas and hang on to them perhaps long after they should let them go. A classic case is the electromagnetic ether, an immensely fruitful concept that dominated physics for most of the 19th century. Even as it became clear that ether theory was causing more problems than it solved, physicists continued to use it as a central explanatory tool—even for many years after Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity declared it superfluous. The history of physics is littered with beautiful theories that commanded great loyalty.

People come from places too, and physicists want to protect their homes as much as anyone else. It is easy to forget that 100 years ago during World War I, British scientists refused to talk to their German colleagues on the other side of the trenches. Even after the end of the fighting, Germans and their wartime allies were officially forbidden from joining international scientific organizations. During World War II, the specter of an atomic bomb in the hands of Adolf Hitler terrified Allied physicists into opening the Pandora’s box of nuclear weapons. Many of the scientists involved bemoaned their actions afterward, but war and nationalism make for a potent impetus.

Those incidents are not exceptions. Physicists are not disinterested figures without political views, philosophical preferences, and personal feelings. The history of science can help dismantle the myth of the purely rational genius living outside the everyday world. It makes physics more human.

Physics Today: Why should physicists study history? Matthew Stanley

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