Initial conditions provide the context in which physics happens. Likewise, in Initial Conditions: a Physics History Podcast, we provide the context in which physical discoveries happened. We dive into the collections of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives at the American Institute of Physics to uncover the unexpected stories behind the physics we know. Through these stories, we hope to challenge the conventional history of what it means to be a physicist.
Bonus: Initial Conditions Off Mic
1:17:58Justin, Maura, and Allison reflect on the creation of Initial Conditions and speak to some of the other staff at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and the Center for History of Physics. They share their favorite episodes, the episodes they wish they had made, and the difficulties of making a podcast from scratch. With guests Joanna, Corinne, Audrey, and Jae, they emphasize the collaborative nature of the project, reminisce, and chat about science history, archival work, and lots of icebergs.
Bonus: Live from PhysCon!
1:05:33In this episode, Justin and Maura interview speakers and students who attended the 2022 Society for Physics Students Physics Congress. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell shares the story of her 1967 discovery of radio pulsars and her omission from the Nobel Prize awarded for that discovery. Nobel Laureate, Dr. John Mather explained the importance of learning about the early universe and the potential of the James Webb Space Telescope. Other guests include Dr. Julianne Pollard-Larkin of MD Anderson Cancer Center, a medical physicist who uses physics to study cancer cures; K Renee Horton, former president of the National Society of Black Physicists and airworthiness deputy at NASA; Dr. Sarah Horst, a planetary scientist who models properties of exoplanets and moon and works with educators to make planetary science accessible to students; and former congressman, Rush Holt Jr. who applies skills acquired from his physics training to inform public policy-making. We also hear from students about what they study, their favorite parts of physics, and the joy of being a member of SPS!
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Hawai'i and the Thirty Meter Telescope
1:10:53Featuring a discussion with experts Samantha Thompson and Kalewa Correa from the Smithsonian Institution, this episode is about the history of Hawai’i and the controversy surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The TMT Corporation’s Board of Directors selected Maunakea as its preferred site in 2009. The 2014 groundbreaking for the TMT site was met with fierce, but peaceful, opposition by Native Hawaiians and environmentalists for whom the mountain is both a sacred religious and cultural site, as well as home to rare species. Disagreements manifested at the mountain where protectors of Maunakea assembled to block the road and in the courts where they halted the project through legal proceedings. The Supreme Court of Hawai’i halted the project until 2018, at which point protectors once again assembled and delayed construction. In the media, the battle over Maunakea and the Thirty Meter Telescope was often portrayed as a conflict between science and religion, but as our guests point out, that is not the case. This episode contextualizes the battle as part of a larger history of science, colonization, and the sovereignty of Native Hawaiians.
The Legacy of Ptolemy’s Almagest
49:03This episode dives into the story of the oldest book in NBLA’s Wenner Collection: a 1528 Latin translation of the Almagest. Claudius Ptolemy wrote the Almagest, originally titled Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, in the 2nd century CE. In the Almagest, Ptolemy proposed a mathematical model to explain and predict the motions of celestial objects. Though his geocentric model was debunked by the 16th century, the text facilitated the great observations and models produced by medieval Arabic astronomers. This episode follows the Almagest throughout its 1500 years of influence, focusing on its importance during the rise and spread of Islam in the 7th century and the text’s eventual fall from popularity in sixteenth century Europe. This episode features interviews with prominent scholars, George Saliba (Director of the Farouk Jabre Center for Arabic & Islamic Science and Philosophy at the American University of Beirut) and John Hessler (Curator at the Library of Congress and author of A Renaissance Globemaker's Toolbox: Johannes Schöner and the Revolution of Modern Science 1475-1550).
The Newton You Didn't Know
40:20Apart from his publications on gravity and optics, Newton was also a biblical scholar, religious mystic, and alchemist. In fact, a great deal of his work focuses on subjects that modern audiences might not consider to be scientific. You might be surprised to know how important the study of alchemy was to Newton. More than a pet interest, alchemy was an important part of Newton’s attempt to understand the nature of the divine. This episode uses the story of Newton’s alchemy to ask basic questions about the Scientific Revolution and the history of science in the seventeenth century. How scientific was the Scientific Revolution? If Newton was motivated by religious inclinations can we still call him a scientist? How does knowledge about the beginning of the Scientific Revolution shape how we understand the practice of science today?
The Unexpected Hero of Light
45:26This is the story of how a Pittsburgh steel worker became the lensmaker behind some of the most important experiments of 19th century physics. John Brashear fell in love with the night sky as a kid in the 1840s. Though he took a job as a millwright, in his free time, he and his wife dedicated themselves to making a telescope lens so they could view the stars. With only an elementary education (and the mentorship of Samuel Langley at the Allegheny Observatory), John became one of the world’s preeminent opticians. His lenses were commissioned for telescopes, spectrographs, and, most significantly, for the famous Michelson-Morley Experiment which failed to detect the luminiferous aether. The dismissal of the aether may have set up Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and modern physics. Not only was John Brashear a talented lensmaker, he was also dedicated to making the stars and the night sky accessible to all. He gave free astronomy lectures, visited schools and churches, and even a prison to ensure that regardless of someone’s situation, they could appreciate the beauty of the stars. Through his optical devices and outreach, John Brashear facilitated better access to celestial objects.
An Interview with Dr. Ronald Mickens
36:35In June, after several technical mishaps, I flew down to Atlanta, Georgia, to meet Dr. Ronald Mickens and talk about his research on the history of African American physicists. In this episode, you’ll hear my interview with Dr. Mickens. He discusses his personal and professional backgrounds, how he became interested in studying the history of African American physicists, the factors that he considers to be most important in expanding the community of African American physicists during the twentieth century, and how the community has changed in the twenty-three years since his exhibit at the American Society for Physics centennial (for more on that, check out episode 7).
The African American Presence in Physics
29:25Based on the Ronald E. Mickens collection, this episode describes the history of the community of Black physicists in the United States. In 1999 the American Physical Society celebrated its centennial. In conjunction with the celebration, Dr. Ronald Mickens and his colleagues created an exhibit on the community of African American physicists and their contributions to the field during the twentieth century. In addition to providing a history of the African American presence in physics, this episode will also highlight several items in the Mickens collection.
Historical Romance and LGBTQ+ Representation
48:04This episode will tell the stories of Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. It features an interview with Olivia Waite, who combines the two historic women in the protagonist of her regency, sapphic, romance novel The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet and artfully navigated the scientific world of the 18th and early 19th century to become one of the first paid women astronomers. Mary Somerville was potentially the most successful scientific writer of all time. Self-taught and charming, she grasped complex concepts in all physical sciences and communicated them to the world in her many books. But learning about the lives of these scientific women does not provide understanding of what their lives felt like. Often, women who contributed to science are left out of history or parts of their identity have been erased. To rectify this gap in the traditional historical narrative, historical fiction and romance writers depict vivid and realistic stories of the lives that rarely make history books. In her interview, Olivia Waite shares how she researches and writes historical romance and the importance of this genre to showcase LGBTQ+ identities.
Was Einstein Wrong??
49:36What is pseudoscience? The answer to that question is more difficult than you might think. In trying to answer the question, we can learn a lot more about what science is, how it is practiced, and what goes into producing new scientific knowledge. Based on the work of historian of science Michael Gordin and several collections in the Niels Bohr Library & Archives, this episode examines pseudoscientific theories based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Some of the pseudoscientists included in the collection think that Einstein was flat-out wrong–that he missed some vital information or that his theory is simply too confusing and unintuitive to understand. If physicists largely agree that the theory of relativity isn’t quite intuitive, then maybe it makes sense to hear out these anti-Einsteinians to get a sense of how they understand science. Other individuals included in these collections agree with Einstein but push relativity in interesting directions. One tries to make a case for a 6,000 year old universe. Another tells us how to build a time machine to help Muhammad Ali meet Thomas Edison. We conclude with Ralph Hartley, a practicing and accomplished scientist. Hartley was born eight years after Einstein and never accepted his ideas about the universe, offering instead a much older explanation of how gravity works. Through these stories we’ll learn about what constitutes legitimate science. Unsurprisingly, real science meets the tests that scientists set for legitimacy.