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American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After

9 Imperial Physics On 17 December 1907, William Thomson, long since knighted and then ennobled as Baron Kelvin of Largs, died. His death symbolized the end of an era in European physics. He was buried next to Newton in West- minster Abbey. The ceremonial surrounding his funeral was a tangible demonstration not only of his own stature as a man of science but of the high place physics by then occupied in British and European culture. His first biographer, the physicist Silvanus P. Thompson, writing only a few years later remarked how the occasion “brought together

) attributed to the materialists. Tyndall’s opponents sought to undermine ma- terialism by claiming that the nature of matter was not properly understood. For them, matter itself was mysteri- ous, and thus offered no suitable foundation for the kind of materialism that sought to eliminate mind and purpose from nature. The key to this nonmechanistic physics was the ether, that mysterious substratum that permeated the material universe and served as the vehicle and coordinating agent for all physical action. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the most innovative

155 chapter 6 stabilizing physics The determination of time . . . happens at the order of 1/10 of a second; the persistence of retinal impressions is of the same order. alfred cornu, physicist By the turn of the century the tenth of a second appeared at the center of some of the most important debates in physics. In heated discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of the prevailing division of time in terms of day, hours, minutes, and seconds, this unit appeared tied to nature as no other. The physicist Alfred Cornu, professor of physics at the

C h a p t e r 9 PHYSICS AND HISTORY Steven Weinberg I am going to discuss the uses that historical and scientific knowledge have for each other, but first I want to take up what may be a more unusual topic: the dangers that history poses for physics, and physics for history. The danger in history for the work of physics is that, in contemplating the great work of the past—great heroic revolutions like relativity, quan- tum mechanics, and so on—we develop such respect for them that we become unable to reassess their place in a final physical theory. General

105 VOLUME EDITOR’S IN TRODUCTION This set of selections comes from Du Châtelet’s major work of natu-ral philosophy, the Foundations of Physics, published in Paris in 1740 when she was just thirty- four. “Natural philosophy” is a phrase coined in seventeenth- century England. Like Du Châtelet, the “natural philosopher” sought to describe not only the mechanics of the natural world but also the fi rst causes of phenomena such as motion and gravity, and the role of God. The French used three words to describe those who excelled in this kind of knowledge