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By Abigail Dove
Physics has a rich, centuries-long history, from Johannes Kepler’s description of the laws of planetary motion at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution to contemporary research on quantum computing, sustainable energy development, and physics beyond the standard model. The Forum on the History and Philosophy of Physics (FHPP) provides a home for philosophers and historians of physics, as well as anyone interested in the ways in which physics has shaped technology, education, and culture over time. Established in 1980, the unit includes nearly 3,500 members.
History and philosophy go hand in hand. As FHPP chair-elect Paul Halpern (University of the Sciences) explained, historians trace the development in fundamental physics research over the centuries, while philosophers seek to understand the nuances in interpreting the assumptions set forth in physical theory.
According to Halpern, many FHPP members are particularly interested in the 19th and 20th centuries, which saw revolutions in the understanding of general relativity and quantum theory from giants like Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, and Heisenberg. “One of the most amazing advances in physics was Planck's derivation of the black body radiation law in 1900,” noted Rudolf Tromp (IBM Watson Research Center), an FHPP member-at-large. “He did not realize exactly what he was doing or what it meant, but he rightly noticed that what he was doing worked. He certainly did not think 'quantum,' but nonetheless set the stage.” Understanding the thought processes underlying certain scientific advances points to the importance of philosophy. “We all learn the standard trope that science advances by posing a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis against an experiment. But Planck didn't have a hypothesis. He was just mucking around and hit the jackpot. But mucking around is a good thing—that way we stumble into things that we didn't know about, as long as we are alert enough to see them,” Tromp explained.
Teaching the history and philosophy of physics can help students appreciate the context in which science advances. “I find it necessary, in addition to convenient, to introduce a new topic by going over at least some of the history,” FHPP secretary/treasurer Ed Neuenschwander (Southern Nazarene University) remarked. “For example, one could logically begin teaching quantum mechanics by starting with the Schrödinger equation, but to begin there would be bewildering—where did this equation come from? It has a backstory that brings it to life.”
A deeper understanding of the history of physics may even help to counteract burnout and mental stress in academia. “Many students think that they must make a breakthrough discovery if they are to succeed in life, and the result is massive mental health problems in our student body,” argued Tromp. “The truth is that breakthrough discoveries come only once or twice in a century, and by far the most progress in science is not made by breakthroughs, but by systematic advances, little by little, over long periods of time. If we can instill this way of understanding science in our professors and our students alike, the academic world will be a much happier place.”
To bring greater awareness of physics’ fascinating history to APS at large, FHPP sponsors several sessions each year at APS March and April Meetings. “By attending events on the history of physics, APS members can learn about the true processes of insights and innovations that led to famous physics discoveries,” said FHPP vice chair Al Martinez (University of Texas at Austin). “They also learn about the fascinating lives and personalities of past physicists, both men and women, from many countries.” Previous topics have included 20th century physics in China, espionage in science, the women in the Manhattan Project, physics in India, philosophies of quantum mechanics, women pioneers in astronomy, the search for gravitational waves, computation in the history of physics, and more.
The forum additionally recognizes outstanding scholarship in the history of physics through the annual Abraham Pais Prize for the History of Physics. The 2022 honoree is distinguished science historian Patricia Fara (University of Cambridge), whose wide-ranging work has focused on under-recognized contributions of women to physical sciences in the 17th through 20th centuries. Previous awardees have included Hasok Chang (University of Cambridge), who focused on historical aspects of the interaction between physics and chemistry (2021), Dieter Hoffman (Max Planck Institute), a specialist in the history of scientific research under totalitarian regimes (2020), and Helge Kragh (University of Copenhagen), who cultivated the history of physical cosmology (2019).
For those not—or not yet—professionally engaged in the history of physics, FHPP sponsors a student essay contest. The winning essay (see Back Page) for the 2021 competition was written by Briley Lewis, a graduate student at UCLA, and details the life and work of Carolyn Shoemaker, pioneering astronomer who discovered a record-setting number of comets and asteroids despite a lack of formal academic training. Essays from past competitions have highlighted the under-recognized work of Lewis Latimer, Thomas Edison’s African American collaborator who helped invent the incandescent light bulb (2020), the evolution of the concept of “macroscopic” and “microscopic” worlds over the history of physics (2019), historical misconceptions about Einstein and Bohm (2018), and pioneering figures in fusion research (2017).
Additionally, all APS members can access FHPP’s biannual newsletter, History of Physics. In circulation since FHPP’s founding 40 years ago, the newsletter reviews notable sessions from recent APS meetings, highlights recent publications on the history and philosophy of physics, and provides a platform for physicists who wish to share their perspectives on these topics.
Overall, FHPP stands out as a valuable channel for APS members to gain a wider perspective on physics in the context of its centuries-long history, reminding us that there is much we can learn from the past. More information can be found at the FHPP website.
The author is a freelance writer in Stockholm, Sweden.
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