APL Colloquium

October 27, 2000

Colloquium Topic: Why Was Relativity Accepted?

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, published 1905-17, challenged well-established principles and concepts of physics, yet was widely accepted by 1930 (although doubts about the validity of the general theory persisted for decades). What were the reasons for its mostly-favorable reception by physicists, astronomers, and mathematicians? Was it the sensational confirmation of Einstein's prediction of a new phenomenon -- the bending of starlight by the Sun's gravitational field -- or just an accumulation of experimental facts that could not be explained by any other theory? (Does predicting a new fact count more than explaining an old one?) Was it a case of "social construction of scientific knowledge"? Or was the theory so beautiful it had to be true?

Colloquium Speaker: Stephen G. Brush

Dr. Stephen G. Brush earned his A.B. in physics summa cum laude at Harvard College (1955) and his Ph.D in theoretical physics at Oxford University (1958) where he was a Rhodes Scholar (1955-58). At the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (1959-65), he performed the first computer calculation showing that idealized classical plasma would exhibit a phase transition to an ordered solid state, a result that has been used in recent studies of stellar and planetary structure. In 1965 Dr. Brush participated at Harvard in the development of the "Project Physics" course designed to attract students who, as citizens, would need to know something about science and the role of science in society. An outgrowth of the project was a college textbook, Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science (1973), the 2nd edition of a 1952 book by Gerald Holton. The 3rd edition, titled Physics, the Human Adventure: From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond, by Brush and Holton, is being published by Rutgers University Press in 2001. Dr. Brush came to UMCP in 1968, as the first full-time historian of science. His current title is Distinguished University Professor of the History of Science, with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology. He has held visiting appointments at UCLA, the University of Minnesota, and the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton) and has published four monographs: The Kind of Motion We Call Heat: A History of the Kinetic Theory of Gases in the 19th Century (1976) which won the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society; The Temperature of History: Phases of Science and Culture in the 19th Century appeared in 1978, Statistical Physics and the Atomic Theory of Matter from Boyle and Newton to Landau and Onsager in 1983 and a three-volume book, A History of Modern Planetary Physics,s published in 1996. He is co-author, editor, or translator of 10 other books on physical science and its history, and of more than 100 articles and book reviews on topics including statistical mechanics, phase transitions, the use of history in science education, the creation-evolution controversy, and women in science. Dr. Brush's current research is a cross disciplinary study of the dynamics of theory change in science based on historical cases in which theories were accepted or rejected on the basis of empirical tests of predictions. His research has been supported by grants from NEH, NSF and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Dr. Brush was President of the History of Science Society in 1990 and 1991, has chaired its Education Committee, served on its Council and the editorial board of its journal Isis. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society a co-founder of its History of Physics Division, and first editor of its History of Physics Newsletter. He has been a member of the APS Education Committee, the APS Centennial Celebration Committee, and the History Advisory Committee of AIP. He currently chairs a committee to advise Physical Review on preservation of, and future access to, its referee reports. Dr. Brush is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a corresponding member of the Academie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences.