Paper 2

Due date: Friday of Week 8

Length: 6–7 double-spaced pages. You should use standard margins (1-inch to 1.25-inches on each side of the page) and a 12-point font. Acceptable file formats include .doc, .docx, and .pdf.

Grade: Your grade on Paper 2 will contribute 20% of your final course grade.


For paper 1, you completed a close reading of a primary source. For paper 2, you will engage with questions about physics and its institutions. Such institutional arrangements may include specific types of research centers, sources of funding, modes of training new researchers, communication networks among colleagues, and so on.

Using several sources, you will evaluate the relationships between a particular set of ideas and the institutions in which they were embedded. You should select one of the following topics and compose an essay of 6–7 double-spaced pages.

  • Option A: General Relativity and the Ivory Tower
  • Option B: Institutions and the Quantum Revolution

While preparing your essay, you should consider at least three of the readings listed below. Use them as resources to help you articulate and defend a specific argument. The goal of the assignment is not to summarize the readings or merely paraphrase the authors’ arguments, but rather to articulate your own position and defend it using specific examples and evidence from these readings.

A good way to craft an argument or thesis statement is to frame it as the answer to a specific question. Consider the difference between these two candidate thesis statements: (a) “The French Revolution was a time of important changes in society.” (b) “Though often described as a radical departure from previous social and political conditions, the French Revolution ultimately had more in common with the Ancien Régime than with modern democratic societies.” The first example would likely be followed by summaries of information. The second example presents a specific argument that requires supporting evidence and documentation within the body of the paper.

When drawing on readings, use standard footnote conventions and include a bibliography of sources cited at the end.

Readings for Option A: General Relativity and the Ivory Tower

Prominent textbooks often present general relativity as an abstract pursuit, developed in “ivory tower” isolation within academia, separated from concerns of everyday life. But was it so?

Using at least three of the sources listed below, evaluate to what extent and in what ways the pursuit of Einstein’s general relativity was connected to or isolated from the demands of the outside world. What (if any) religious, cultural, political, or technological contexts might have played a role?

Excellent papers can be written adopting all kinds of positions on the question. We are interested in how well you articulate your thesis and defend it using specific evidence and examples. 

  • Jean Eisenstaedt, “The low-water mark of general relativity, 1925–1955,” in Einstein and the History of General Relativity, ed. Don Howard and John Stachel (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1989), 277–292.
  • Matthew Stanley, “‘An expedition to heal the wounds of war’: The 1919 eclipse and Eddington as Quaker adventurer,” Isis 94 (2003): 57–89.
  • Loren Graham, “Do mathematical equations display social attributes?,” Mathematical Intelligencer 22, no. 3 (2000): 31–36.
  • Joshua Goldberg, “US Air Force support of general relativity, 1956–1972,” in Studies in the History of General Relativity, ed. J. Eisenstaedt and A. J. Kox (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1988), 89–102.
  • David Kaiser and Dean Rickles, “The price of gravity: Private patronage and the transformation of gravitational physics after World War II," Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 48 (2018): 338–379.
  • Dan Kennefick, “Gravitational waves and the renaissance of general relativity,” in Kennefick, Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 105–123.
  • Benjamin Wilson and David Kaiser, “Calculating times: Radar, ballistic missiles, and Einstein’s relativity,” in Science and Technology in the Global Cold War, ed. Naomi Oreskes and John Krige (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 273–316.

Readings for Option B: Institutions and the Quantum Revolution

Participants in the “quantum revolution” often described the emergence and consolidation of quantum theory as a story of unfolding ideas. But new and unusual ideas rarely take hold in a vacuum. How did specific institutional arrangements affect the development and spread of quantum theory?

Using at least three of the sources listed below, discuss what roles particular institutions played in the emergence, consolidation, and spread of quantum theory. “Institutions” may include specific places (such as Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen) as well as more general institutional arrangements, such as how and where various physicists could get jobs, secure research funding, visit with colleagues, attract and train students, and so on.

Excellent papers can be written adopting all kinds of positions on the question. We are interested in how well you articulate your thesis and defend it using specific evidence and examples.

  • John Heilbron, “The earliest missionaries of the Copenhagen spirit,” Revue d’Histoire des Sciences 38, no. 3 (1985): 194–230.
  • David Cassidy, “Heisenberg, uncertainty, and the quantum revolution,” Scientific American 266 (May 1992): 106–102.
  • A. Kozhevnikov and O. Novik, “Analysis of informational ties dynamics in early quantum mechanics (1925–1927),” Acta Historiae Rerum Naturalium Necnon Technicarum 20 (1989): 115–159.
  • Helge Kragh, “Quantum jumps,” in Kragh, Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 155–173.
  • Silvan Schweber, “The young John Clarke Slater and the development of quantum chemistry,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 20 (1990): 339–406.
  • Stanley Coben, “The scientific establishment and the transmission of quantum mechanics to the United States, 1919–1932,” American Historical Review 76 (April 1971): 442–466.
  • Kenji Ito, “The Geist in the Institute: The production of quantum physicists in 1930s Japan,” in Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 151–183.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2020
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Lecture Videos
Written Assignments