Sidoli, Nathan Camillo
Spring, 2023
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

    Reading summaries 20%
    Participation (discussions) 20%
    Midterm exam 30%
    Final exam 30%

    General Format

    The class meets twice a week: once for a lecture, and once for a seminar. Students are expected to submit study notes of the readings, attend the lectures, participate in the seminars, and submit a midterm and a final exam. (Students who want practice in historical scholarship, can also submit an optional paper.)

    Classroom Etiquette

    Please follow basic rules of decorum – do not sleep, eat, or carry on individual conversations in class. Finally, DO NOT use mobile phones, smart phones, or laptops in class. (Unfortunately, a large percentage of students use their laptops to do unrelated things during class, and this distracts both them and everyone behind them.)


    Reading summaries

    Each week all students should do both readings before class on Monday and make study notes and summaries of one of them, to be submitted online. Each student will be assigned to make summaries of one or another of the two readings. These notes should include at least five sentences or points of summary, followed by one substantial agreement with a position made by the author, and one substantial disagreement. (These should not be about trivial points of fact, but concerning one of the more substantial claims made by the author, or concerning some aspect of the author’s methodological approach.) See the examples below for summaries and discussion points for the first two readings.

    Written assignment (optional): 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.
        1e) 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 17 and 18

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

  • Reading: (1) K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, pp. 33-39; and (2) T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, selection I, selection II.
  • Example summaries and discussion points: Popper and Kuhn readings.
  • Introduction and Overview

    Week 2: Apr 24 and 25

    The legacy of 17th century science

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

    Week 3: May 1 and 2

    “Newtonianism” and Enlightenment science

  • Reading: (1) Levere chap. 4; and (2) Hankins chap. 3.
  • Suggested website: this site has images of a large number of reconstructed electrostatic machines.
  • Enlightenment Science

    Week 4: May 8 and 9

    New airs, and the chemical revolution

  • Reading: (1) Levere chap. 6; and (2) Bowler and Morus chap. 3.
  • The Chemical Revolution

    Week 5: May 15 and 16

    The contexts and ideas of 19th century science

  • Reading: (1) Morus chap. 2; and (2) chap. 3.
  • Contexts and Ideas of 19th Century Science

    Week 6: May 22 and 23

    19th century chemistry

  • Reading: (1) Levere chap. 7; and (2) chap. 9.
  • 19th Century Chemistry

    Week 7: May 29 and 30 (Midterm exam distributed, May 29)

    19th century thermodynamics

  • Reading: (1) Bowler and Morus chap. 4; (2) Morus chap. 5.
  • 19th Century Thermodynamics

    Week 8: Jun 5 and 6 (Midterm exam due, Jun 6)

    Electricity and the electromagnetic field

  • Reading: (1) Morus chap. 4; and (2) Nye chap.3.
  • Supplementary video: A description of the div and curl operations of Maxwell’s equations by 3Blue1Brown.
  • 19th Century Electromagnetism

    Week 9: Jun 12 and 13

    19th century astronomy

  • Reading: (1) Morus chap. 7; and (2) D. Kent, The North American Eclipse of 1869.
  • 19th Century Astronomy

    Week 10: Jun 19 and 20

    The transmission and development of modern science in Japan

  • Reading: (1) S. Nakayama, Japan (from Cambridge History of Science: vol. 4, The Eighteenth Century); and (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 26 and 27

    X-rays, radiation and the physical atom

  • Reading: (1) Morus chap. 6; and (2) chap. 8.
  • X-rays and Radiation

    Week 12: Jul 3 and 4

    The theory of relativity and 20th century cosmology

  • Reading: (1) Bowler and Morus chap. 11; and (2) chap. 12.
  • A flashlet demonstrating the Michelson-Morley experiment can be found on this website.
  • Relativity and Modern Cosmology

    Week 13: Jul 10 and 11 (Final exam distributed, Jul 10)

    Quantum theory and high energy physics

  • Reading: (1) D. Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics, chap. 2; and (2) chap. 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 (first half): Jul 18

    Science and war in the 20th century

  • Reading: See next week.
  • Suggested documentary (optional): The Day After Trinity (Movie, available on YouTube).
  • Science and War in the 20th century

    Week 14 (second half): Jul 24 (Final exam due, Jul 24)


  • Reading: (1) Bowler and Morus chap. 20; and (2) H. Kragh, From Uranium Puzzle to Hiroshima.