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How can physics tie into 20th century European history?

  1. Feb 24, 2015 #1
    Good evening,

    I am in a bit of a predicament. I am writing a paper for my 20th century European history class (ewwww). I get to choose a "topic of my liking". As a physics/math major, I'd really like to tie it into science somehow, but I haven't the foggiest idea how. If it were just history, it'd be easy, I could just talk about the "quantum revolution". But it has to tie into European history somehow, and frankly I don't know quite how to do it. I also considered writing on the impact of Communism on the scientific revolution, but I need ten sources, which would be difficult.

    Please, throw at me your ideas!
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 24, 2015 #2


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    There's some interesting history tied in with Einstein's life and the period between World War I and leading up to World War II. Something along those lines might be worth considering.

    An excerpt from Einstein's Wiki page:

    "He was visiting the United States when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and, being Jewish, did not go back to Germany, where he had been a professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences. He settled in the U.S., becoming an American citizen in 1940.[9] On the eve of World War II, he endorsed a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt alerting him to the potential development of "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" and recommending that the U.S. begin similar research. This eventually led to what would become the Manhattan Project. Einstein supported defending the Allied forces, but largely denounced the idea of using the newly discovered nuclear fission as a weapon. Later, with the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, Einstein signed the Russell–Einstein Manifesto, which highlighted the danger of nuclear weapons. Einstein was affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, until his death in 1955."


    edit - That may not exactly fit the bill for 'European' history, but it could be made to.
  4. Feb 24, 2015 #3


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    Consider the Jewish physicists who had to flee from Europe because of the rise of Naziism. Einstein is the most famous example. Another is Niels Bohr whose mother was Jewish; after Germany occupied Denmark, he became subject to arrest and had to escape to Sweden by being smuggled in a boat.
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2015
  5. Feb 28, 2015 #4
    Interesting that you guys both chose related topics. So for my paper, I'd like to examine the effects of the Holocaust on scientific progress. I should probably have three facets to my argument. So far, I have

    1) Nazi experimentation
    2) Expulsion of Jews from universities
    3) the institution of medical ethics in the Nuremberg trials.

  6. Feb 28, 2015 #5
    You could mention the "Space race" between Soviet Russia and the US during the Cold War days.
    You could also talk about Fritz Haber and his involvement in chemical warfare, but he was a chemist, not a physicist.
    If you wish to include mathematicians as well, you could talk about Alan Turing and the decryption of the Enigma.
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2015
  7. Feb 28, 2015 #6


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    Are you looking for how physics ties into 20th century European history, or science in general? The latter connection is much stronger. You say:
    and that's not just about physics, it's about the entire scientific revolution.

    It's also backwards, and not just because the scientific revolution preceded the 20th-century instantiations of communism. Much of 20th-century European history was driven by three ideologies (nationalist fascism, collectivist communism, secular democracy) competing to fill the gap created when the enlightenment and the scientific revolution displaced the old order. All three claimed to be supported by science and cherry-picked shamelessly from then-contemporary science to support this claim.
  8. Feb 28, 2015 #7


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    Theoretical? Applied? Misapplied? Wegener. Von Braun. Lysenko. Beria and the Soviet nuclear program. Radar. Operations research and the Battle of the Atlantic.
  9. Mar 1, 2015 #8
    Radar, sonar, radio communication, colossus.
  10. Mar 1, 2015 #9
    I'd start with Plank and end with Higgs.
  11. Mar 12, 2015 #10

    Coming from a former communist country I second the idea you mentioned here, namely the negative (overall) impact of the communist ideology on the development of Science. Lisenkoism is just one aspect here. For example when I was younger I skimmed through some books from the communist era (from the end of 1950s early 1960s, I do not remember now the titles, translations from Russian or German) where the Big Bang theory for example was considered a dead end and Copenhagen interpretation of QM was at best deemed 'metaphysical, idealist' thus inadequate (deBroglie-Bohm-Vigier more realist approaches were given basically all attention). All these because Lenin thought that the Universe was eternal and realism the only sensible philosophy in Science ('Materialism and Empirio-Criticism' by Lenin and other political dogmas were taken as the literal Truth). One needs to expand the subject no doubt (presenting also the positive parts as well) but I think it is one worth pursuing.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2015
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