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Quantum generations : a history of physics in the twentieth century
Kragh, Helge, 1944-
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

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xiv, 494 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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At the end of the nineteenth century, some physicists believed that the basic principles underlying their subject were already known, and that physics in the future would only consist of filling in the details. They could hardly have been more wrong. The past century has seen the rise of quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology, particle physics, and solid-state physics, among other fields. These subjects have fundamentally changed our understanding of space, time, and matter. They have also transformed daily life, inspiring a technological revolution that has included the development of radio, television, lasers, nuclear power, and computers. In Quantum Generations , Helge Kragh, one of the world's leading historians of physics, presents a sweeping account of these extraordinary achievements of the past one hundred years.

The first comprehensive one-volume history of twentieth-century physics, the book takes us from the discovery of X rays in the mid-1890s to superstring theory in the 1990s. Unlike most previous histories of physics, written either from a scientific perspective or from a social and institutional perspective, Quantum Generations combines both approaches. Kragh writes about pure science with the expertise of a trained physicist, while keeping the content accessible to nonspecialists and paying careful attention to practical uses of science, ranging from compact disks to bombs. As a historian, Kragh skillfully outlines the social and economic contexts that have shaped the field in the twentieth century. He writes, for example, about the impact of the two world wars, the fate of physics under Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, the role of military research, the emerging leadership of the United States, and the backlash against science that began in the 1960s. He also shows how the revolutionary discoveries of scientists ranging from Einstein, Planck, and Bohr to Stephen Hawking have been built on the great traditions of earlier centuries.

Combining a mastery of detail with a sure sense of the broad contours of historical change, Kragh has written a fitting tribute to the scientists who have played such a decisive role in the making of the modern world.

Author Notes

Helge Kragh is Professor of History of Science at Aarhus University, Denmark.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

In the 1890s, the leading lights of physics believed that the essential physical laws had been uncovered, and that type of consensus prevails in the physics community of the 1990s. But what a revolutionary difference between the Newtonian and the quantum mechanical/relativity scientists! Danish science historian Kragh's amble through the revolution both identifies the significant discoveries and conveys the perplexity with which new phenomena often were initially viewed. This tactic makes Nobel Prize^-like proclamations that "J. J. Thomson discovered the electron" more nuanced. Typically, the community of physicists examined and argued about an experimental result before agreeing what it revealed. The tactic also forms Kragh's theme of the hundredfold growth in the number of physicists in the past century and their part in history--namely, in releasing nuclear energy, the granddaddy project of Big Science. Compared with the popular-interest books on physics, such as those by physicists Martin Rees, Steven Weinberg, or Stephen Hawking, Kragh presents appreciably more technical detail, and his estimable overview will appeal better to the active physics student. Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

How did modern physics get from Rutherford and radioactivity to Heisenberg, Hiroshima and Stephen Hawking? Whose discoveries led to what theories, and why? How were physics and physicists affected by the micro- and macro-politicsÄfrom institutional rivalries to totalitarian movementsÄso visible throughout our century? Kragh (Dirac; Cosmology and Controversy), a historian of science at Aarhus University in Denmark, offers a hefty account of experiments and theories, experimental scientists and theoreticians, from the 1890s (marked by the rise of "electrodynamic models" as against mechanical ones) to the 1990s, when Grand Unified Theories (GUTs) promised to explain a forest of charmingly named elementary particles. In between, he covers debates about atomic structure; "the slow rise of quantum theory"; cryogenics; Einsteinian relativity (and its misinterpretations); the political, military and economic roles of physicists in and between the world wars; the Bomb; the meson, the boson, et al.; the Big Bang; superconductivity; and the perpetually frustrating dances between scientists and the organizations that fund them. Unable to cover all the physics there is, Kragh focuses on the best-known and most influential parts: on nuclear and subatomic physics, on relativity and cosmology and on European and American scientists. He concludes that, despite the surprises of quantum mechanics, 20th-century "physics... [has] resulted in new and much-improved theories, but that these have been produced largely cumulatively and without a complete break with the past." Neither a specialized academic work nor a mere popularization, Kragh's tome exhibits the kind of synthetic, deeply detailed and carefully explained survey more common in military or art history than in the history of science. It's an impressive reference work, and a serious, rewarding read. 22 b&w illus., 34 tables. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Kragh, a Danish historian of science, has written many important works on this subject, among them Cosmology and Controversy: the Historical Development of Two Theories of the Universe. His new book is a brief, condensed, and selective description of physics in the 20th century. Hragh does an exceptional job of trying to cover in a single one volume one of the most prolific sciences of this century, concentrating on its major developments while sketching out some important applications such as materials science and medical physics. A complementary reading is Robert D. Purrington's Physics in the Nineteenth Century (Rutgers Univ., 1997). Recommended for public and academic libraries and would be a nice addition to history of physics, history of science, and Western civilization history collections.ÄNestor Osorio, Northern Illinois Univ. Libs., Dekalb (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Despite Kragh's professed goal, this is a scholarly work whose main audience will probably not be the lay public. The book will instead serve as a good overview for students and scholars in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science who desire an introduction to 20th-century physics. Trained physicists may also appreciate the technically accurate descriptions of the interplay between theory and experiment, between established wisdom and new revelations, and between basic and applied science. The book is divided into three chronological eras: 1890-1918, 1918-45, and 1945-present. Within each era, Kragh (Aarhus Univ., Denmark) devotes chapters to single topics: some scientific (low temperature physics; particle physics) and some historical (the Weimar Republic; military applications). There is a thorough bibliography of secondary sources that can lead the interested researcher to studies of greater depth on specific topics. The presentation, however, is sufficiently dry and technical that it is not likely to appeal to general audiences. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. D. B. Moss; formerly, Boston University

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
Part 1 From Consolidation to Revolutionp. 1
Chapter 1 Fin-de-Siecle Physics: A World Picture in Fluxp. 3
Chapter 2 The World of Physicsp. 13
Personnel and Resourcesp. 13
Physics Journalsp. 19
A Japanese Look at European Physicsp. 22
Chapter 3 Discharges in Gases and What Followedp. 27
A New Kind of Raysp. 28
From Becquerel Rays to Radioactivityp. 30
Spurious Rays, More or Lessp. 34
The Electron before Thomsonp. 38
The First Elementary Particlep. 40
Chapter 4 Atomic Architecturep. 44
The Thomson Atomp. 44
Other Early Atomic Modelsp. 48
Rutherford's Nuclear Atomp. 51
A Quantum Theory of Atomic Structurep. 53
Chapter 5 The Slow Rise of Quantum Theoryp. 58
The Law of Blackbody Radiationp. 58
Early Discussions of the Quantum Hypothesisp. 63
Einstein and the Photonp. 66
Specific Heats and the Status of Quantum Theory by 1913p. 68
Chapter 6 Physics at Low Temperaturesp. 74
The Race Toward Zerop. 74
Kammerlingh Onnes and the Leiden Laboratoryp. 76
Superconductivityp. 80
Chapter 7 Einstein's Relativity, and Others'p. 87
The Lorentz Transformationsp. 87
Einsteinian Relativityp. 90
From Special to General Relativityp. 93
Receptionp. 98
Chapter 8 A Revolution that Failedp. 105
The Concept of Electromagnetic Massp. 105
Electron Theory as a Worldviewp. 108
Mass Variation Experimentsp. 111
Decline of a Worldviewp. 114
Unified Field Theoriesp. 116
Chapter 9 Physics in Industry and Warp. 120
Industrial Physicsp. 120
Electrons at Work, I: Long-Distance Telephonyp. 123
Electrons at Work, II: Vacuum Tubesp. 126
Physics in the Chemists' Warp. 130
Part 2 From Revolution to Consolidationp. 137
Chapter 10 Science and Politics in the Weimar Republicp. 139
Science Policy and Financial Supportp. 139
International Relationsp. 143
The Physics Communityp. 148
Zeitgeist and the Physical Worldviewp. 151
Chapter 11 Quantum Jumpsp. 155
Quantum Anomaliesp. 155
Heisenberg's Quantum Mechanicsp. 161
Schrodinger's Equationp. 163
Dissemination and Receptionsp. 168
Chapter 12 The Rise of Nuclear Physicsp. 174
The Electron-Proton Modelp. 174
Quantum Mechanics and the Nucleusp. 177
Astrophysical Applicationsp. 182
1932, Annus Mirabilisp. 184
Chapter 13 From Two to Many Particlesp. 190
Antiparticlesp. 190
Surprises from the Cosmic Radiationp. 193
Crisis in Quantum Theoryp. 196
Yukawa's Heavy Quantump. 201
Chapter 14 Philosophical Implications of Quantum Mechanicsp. 206
Uncertainty and Complementarityp. 206
Against the Copenhagen Interpretationp. 212
Is Quantum Mechanics Complete?p. 215
Chapter 15 Eddington's Dream and Other Heterodoxiesp. 218
Eddington's Fundamentalismp. 218
Cosmonumerology and Other Speculationsp. 221
Milne and Cosmophysicsp. 223
The Modern Aristoteliansp. 226
Chapter 16 Physics and the New Dictatorshipsp. 230
In the Shadow of the Swastikap. 230
Aryan Physicsp. 236
Physics in Mussolini's Italyp. 238
Physics, Dialectical Materialism, and Stalinismp. 240
Chapter 17 Brain Drain and Brain Gainp. 245
American Physics in the 1930sp. 245
Intellectual Migrationsp. 249
Chapter 18 From Uranium Puzzle to Hiroshimap. 257
The Road to Fissionp. 257
More than Moonshinep. 261
Toward the Bombp. 265
The Death of Two Citiesp. 269
Part 3 Progress and Problemsp. 277
Chapter 19 Nuclear Themesp. 279
Physics of Atomic Nucleip. 279
Modern Alchemyp. 283
Hopes and Perils of Nuclear Energyp. 285
Controlled Fusion Energyp. 290
Chapter 20 Militarization and Megatrendsp. 295
Physics--A Branch of the Military?p. 295
Big Machinesp. 302
A European Big Science Adventurep. 308
Chapter 21 Particle Discoveriesp. 312
Mainly Mesonsp. 312
Weak Interactionsp. 317
Quarksp. 321
The Growth of Particle Physicsp. 325
Chapter 22 Fundamental Theoriesp. 332
QEDp. 332
The Ups and Downs of Field Theoryp. 336
Gauge Fields and Electroweak Unificationp. 339
Quantum Chromodynamicsp. 344
Chapter 23 Cosmology and the Renaissance of Relativityp. 349
Toward the Big Bang Universep. 349
The Steady State Challengep. 354
Cosmology after 1960p. 357
The Renaissance of General Relativityp. 361
Chapter 24 Elements of Solid State Physicsp. 366
The Solid State Before 1940p. 366
Semiconductors and the Rise of the Solid State Communityp. 370
Breakthroughs in Superconductivityp. 375
Chapter 25 Engineering Physics and Quantum Electronicsp. 382
It Started with the Transistorp. 382
Microwaves, the Laser, and Quantum Opticsp. 386
Optical Fibersp. 391
Chapter 26 Science under Attack--Physics in Crisis?p. 394
Signs of Crisisp. 394
A Revolt against Sciencep. 401
The End of Physics?p. 405
Chapter 27 Unifications and Speculationsp. 409
The Problem of Unityp. 409
Grand Unified Theoriesp. 411
Superstring Theoryp. 415
Quantum Cosmologyp. 419
Part 4 A Look Backp. 425
Chapter 28 Nobel Physicsp. 427
Chapter 29 A Century of Physics in Retrospectp. 440
Growth and Progressp. 440
Physics and the Other Sciencesp. 444
Conservative Revolutionsp. 447
Appendix Further Readingp. 453
Bibliographyp. 461
Indexp. 481