Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Subject Description

This course explores the changing roles of physics and physicists during the 20th century. Ranges from relativity theory and quantum mechanics to high-energy physics and cosmology. Examines the development of modern physics within shifting institutional, cultural, and political contexts, such as physics in Imperial Britain, Nazi Germany, US efforts during World War II, and physicists' roles during the cold war.

Subject Requirements

This is a Communications Intensive (CI-M) subject for physics majors. As a CI subject, there will be a heavy emphasis upon writing and oral communication. There will be three papers assigned for a total of 20-24 pages of writing over the course of the semester. Students will revise and resubmit their second papers, to give them an opportunity to work on specific writing skills before preparing the final paper. Details of the paper assignments will be circulated in class.


Paper 1 25%
Paper 2 30%
Paper 3 35%
Participation 10%


Introduction and Background
Week 1: The Nineteenth-Century Legacy 1 Introductory Lecture  
2 Maxwell, Electrodynamics, and Cambridge Wranglers  
Einstein: Relativity, Quanta, and the Philosopher-Scientist
Week 2: The Rise of Theoretical Physics 3 Mechanical and Electrodynamical World Pictures  
4 Special Relativity and the Ether  
Week 3: Philosophy, Experiment, and Special Relativity 5 Einstein and Experiment  
6 Reception of Special Relativity  
Week 4: From the Special to the General Theory 7 The Origins of General Relativity Paper 1 due
Week 5: First Stirrings of Quantum Theory 8 Rethinking Light  
9 Rethinking Matter  
Week 6: Emergence of Quantum Mechanics 10 Matrices and Uncertainty  
11 Waves and Probabilities  
Week 7: The Contexts of Quanta 12 Quantum Mechanics in Weimar Germany, Interwar US  
13 Bell's Theorem and Entanglement Paper 2 due
Oppenheimer: Physics, Physicists, and the State
Week 8: Bomb Physics, Here and There 14 Physics under Hitler: Deutsche Physik and the bomb  
15 Film: The Day After Trinity  
Week 9: Physics on the Front 16 Wartime physics in the US: Radar and the Bomb  
17 Secrecy and security in the nuclear age  
Week 10: Cold War Physics 18 From "atomic secrets" to the anti-ballistic missile debate  
19 Film: The Decision to Build the H-Bomb Paper 2 revision due
Week 11: Big Science 20 The Rise of Big Science  
Feynman and Postwar Theory
Week 12: Particles and Fields 21 The Conservative Revolution: QED and Renormalization  
22 The Challenge to Field Theory  
23 Quarks, Gauge Fields, and the Rise of the Standard Model  
Week 13: Standard Models 24 The Birth of Particle Cosmology  
Week 14: Cosmology and Unification 25 Inflation and Superstrings  
26 Course summary Paper 3 due