Sidoli, Nathan Camillo
Spring, 2021
Office hours: Thursday, 4th and 5th

Office: 11-1409
[email protected]


I will put announcements about the class in this space. Please check here periodically as the term progresses.

History of Modern Physical Sciences

Course Description

The physical sciences, such as physics, chemistry and astronomy, have had a huge impact on all aspects of modern life. All of our modern technology – atom bombs, computers, drugs and medicines, the GPS system, etc. – are all due to the advances of physics and chemistry in the 19th and 20th centuries. The physical sciences, however, have shaped our modern world in more ways than this. All modern intellectual activities have attempted to model the growth of the natural sciences by imitating their social and institutional structures. In this way, science training has been the driving force behind reforms in education and educational structures in all nations. In order to understand our modern world, and in order to work in the new global economy, it is essential that university students study how the growth of the physical sciences have shaped, and been shaped by, the world in which we live.

This course focuses on the rise of the physical sciences as independent, professional disciplines during the period 1700-2000, along with ways in which these sciences were developed by engineers to produce new technologies. During this period, practitioners in these fields managed to establish their sciences as indispensable to the industrialized nation state, invested with massive economic and social capital and productive of incredible results, both theoretical and practical. Moreover, the theories and technologies developed in these sciences had far-reaching consequences for the lifestyles and outlooks of the modern world. We will trace the development of physical sciences and technologies from the Enlightenment period to the development of the atomic bomb.

Required Texts

Please see below for the required texts. Each week, there will be readings that must be downloaded from this site. Almost all of the Levere and Morus texts will be required reading and I encourage students to read the whole thing.

  • Bowler, P.J., Morus, I.R., Making Modern Science (UCP: Chicago, 2005). (Selections, see below.)
  • Levere, T., Transforming Matter (Johns Hopkins UP: Baltimore, 2001). (Selections, see below.)
  • Morus, I.R., When Physics Became King (UCP: Chicago, 2005). (Selections, see below.)
  • Suggested Readings

  • Hankins, T., Science and the Enlightenment (CUP: Cambridge, 1985).
  • Nye, M.-J., Before Big Science (HUP: Harvard, 1996).
  • Heilbron, J. L., Dilemmas of an Upright Man (HUP: Cambridge, Mass, 2000).
  • Peter Galison, 2008, Ten Problems in the History and Philosophy of Science, Isis, 99: 111-124.
  • Grading

    Participation (and discussion questions) 20%
    Paper 30%
    Midterm exam 25%
    Final exam 25%

    General Format

    The class meets twice a week: once for a lecture, and once for a seminar. Students are expected to attend the lectures, participate in the seminars, write a paper, and submit a midterm and a final exam.


    Written assignment: Research paper or dialog, 2250-3000 words.

    Ideally, you should try to come up with your own idea for a final project that is based on the material we are studying. The best kind of project will be on a subject in which you are personally interested. The following is a list of possible project ideas. You may certainly use one of these if you like, but they are given here merely to give a sense for the kinds of projects that are possible.

      1) An academic essay on one of the following subjects:
        1a) Heisenberg and the Nazi project to build the atomic bomb.
        1b) The conditions of scientific research in Japan during the Tokugawa period.
        1c) The role of women in 19th century science. You may also choose to do a bibliographic study of a major female scientist from the period. It would be a good idea to read some of the Women's Studies literature on this subject.
        1d) Ideas about extra-terrestrial life in the Enlightenment.
        1d) The connection between Marry Shelly's Frankenstein and the scientific ideas of the Enlightenment.
      2) A dialogue between two or more people. You might include other people (historical or fictitious) in the conversation as well.
        2a) Laplace and C. S. Peirce on the nature of chance.
        2b) Einstein and Planck on the relationship between politics and science.
        2c) Dalton and Lavoisier on the function of the chemical elements.

    For examples of dialogues to use as models see Frayn’s Copenhagen, Brecht’s Galileo, Djerassi and Hoffmann’s Oxygen & Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations.

    Before you begin writing, please read the general guidelines for written assignments.

    Lecture and Seminar Topics, Readings and Assignments

    Week 1: Apr 5 and 6

    Introduction to thinking about science in history
    Overview of the social role of science

  • Reading: K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, pp. 33-39; T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, selection I, selection II.
  • Introduction and Overview

    Week 2: Apr 12 and 13

    The legacy of 17th century science

  • Reading: Levere chaps. 1 and 2, B. Cohen, “The Newtonian Achievement.”
  • Legacy of 17th Century Science, Britain

    Week 3: Apr 19 and 20

    “Newtonianism” and Enlightenment science

  • Reading: Levere chap. 4, Hankins chap. 3.
  • Suggested website: this site has images of a large number of reconstructed electrostatic machines.
  • Enlightenment Science

    Week 4: Apr 26 and 27

    New airs, and the chemical revolution

  • Reading: Levere chap. 6, and Bowler and Morus chap. 3.
  • The Chemical Revolution

    Holiday: May 3 and 4

    No Classes

  • No Reading.
  • Week 5: May 10 and 11

    The contexts and ideas of 19th century science

  • Reading: Morus chaps. 2 and 3.
  • Contexts and Ideas of 19th Century Science

    Week 6: May 17 and 18

    19th century chemistry

  • Reading: Levere chaps. 7 and 9.
  • 19th Century Chemistry

    Week 7: May 24 and 25 (Midterm exam distributed, May 24)

    19th century thermodynamics

  • Reading: Bowler and Morus chap. 4; Morus chap. 5.
  • 19th Century Thermodynamics

    Week 8: May 31 and Jun 1 (Midterm exam due, Jun 1)

    Electricity and the electromagnetic field

  • Reading: Morus chap. 4 and Nye chap.3.
  • Supplementary video: A description of he div and curl operations of Maxwell’s equations by 3Blue1Brown.
  • 19th Century Electromagnetism

    Week 9: Jun 7 and 8

    19th century astronomy

  • Reading: Morus chap. 7; D. Kent, The North American Eclipse of 1869.
  • 19th Century Astronomy

    Week 10: Jun 14 and 15

    The transmission and development of modern science in Japan

  • Reading: (1) S. Nakayama, Japan (from Cambridge History of Science: vol. 4, The Eighteenth Century), (2) K. Ito, The question of research in prewar Japanese physics.
  • Supplementary reading (optional): C. Latimer, Kelvin and the Development of Science in Meiji Japan, in Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy, eds., R. Flood, M. McCartney and A. Whitaker (Oxford: 2008), 212-223.
  • The Development of Modern Science in Japan

    Week 11: Jun 21 and 22

    X-rays, radiation and the physical atom

  • Reading: Morus chaps. 6 and 8.
  • X-rays and Radiation

    Week 12: Jun 28 and 29

    The theory of relativity and 20th century cosmology

  • Reading: Bowler and Morus chaps. 11 and 12.
  • A flashlet demonstrating the Michelson-Morley experiment can be found on this website.
  • Relativity and Modern Cosmology

    Week 13: Jul 5 and 6 (Paper due, Jul 6)

    Quantum theory and high energy physics

  • Reading: D. Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics, chaps. 2 and 4, .
  • Supplementary reading (optional): D. Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics, chap. 1.
  • Suggested website: Photos of the Large Hadron Collider from the Boston Globe.
  • Quantum Theory and High Energy Physics

    Week 14: Jul 12 and 13 (Final exam distributed, Jul 12)

    Science and war in the 20th century

  • Reading: Bowler and Morus chap. 20; H. Kragh, From Uranium Puzzle to Hiroshima.
  • Science and War in the 20th century

    Week 15: Jul 19 and 20 (Final exam due, Jul 20)

    Movie and discussion, The Day After Trinity (Movie)

  • No Reading.