The Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics

Edited by:
  • Jed Buchwald &
  • Robert Fox
OXFORD UNIV. PRESS: 2013. 960 pp. £95

What can physicists expect from a 900-page tome on the history of their field? Haven't we heard them before, those stories from the glorious days, of things falling from campaniles and fruit trees, and of the subsequent giant leaps into ever new ages? Aren't the 'practising physicists' the ones who, after all, know best and can most fully appreciate their own areas of research, the protagonists and heroes, and their contributions?

As Jed Buchwald and Robert Fox note in their introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics, writing “a satisfactory history has come to require a sensitivity both to the content of a physicist's individual contribution and to the cultural, institutional, and economic context in which the contribution was made”. And such context is what this book delivers. Buchwald and Fox have edited a collection of 29 papers authored by historians of science who were asked to select 'leading themes' in their research fields and give accounts on the state of the art in those areas of the historiography of physics, spanning the period from the seventeenth century — when the 'scientific revolution' took off — to our day.

Of course, today everyone can readily find a wealth of information online, on basically every aspect of, well, any subject, including the history of, and developments in, your favourite branch of physics. The scooped-up pieces of information, however, are bound to remain fragments, pieces of a puzzle. All the more refreshing and insightful it is to read texts, such as those in this handbook, that give a structure to these bits and help us discover a fuller picture. And even if the individual chapters rarely explicitly refer to one another — or maybe precisely because of the redundancy and changes of perspective that thus ensue — there are several intriguing narratives that run through the book, including the gradual but rapidly progressing mathematization of physical phenomena, the role of experiment and experimental apparatus, and the influence (and interference) of national and international politics. Starting from different corners, the authors weave a tight fabric that reflects, and to a degree makes tangible, what defines the field of physics as we know it now.

Some chapters are true gems, such as those on instrument making, in particular the one on the period between 1550 and 1700, by Anthony Turner. He beautifully sketches how in the late sixteenth century makers of mathematical instruments, of compasses and of balances, started to become suppliers also to that handful of savants interested in 'experimental natural philosophy', investigating magnetism, optics, acoustics and other areas of natural phenomena. Only few craftsmen had the required expertise, skills and access to good raw materials. A crucial development, Turner notes, was “the realization that instruments used to discover and validate the tenets of the new philosophy could also be used to demonstrate and so communicate them.” Experimental demonstrations started to be integrated into the teaching of physics, at least in some universities, such as Leiden, whereas others — Cambridge and Oxford among them — took somewhat longer.

Experimental demonstrations had the potential to awe much broader audiences, too. The power of demonstrations would soon became a hallmark in a discipline in which, with the ever-greater sophistication of mathematical tools, the explanatory power of models “was weakened [...] by the abstraction of symbolism”, producing “results almost inaccessible to laymen”, as Niccolò Guicciardini writes in his chapter on what may be called the 'mathematical revolution'.

The thread of entertainment as a method of access to the sciences is later taken up in Larry Stewart's greatly enjoyable chapter 'Physics on Show: Entertainment, Demonstration and Research in the Long Eighteenth Century', in which he tells the story of James Dinwiddie, a Scottish teacher whose fascination with scientific instruments “turned him into a peripatetic philosopher” — and brought him to the edge of bankruptcy. But, undeterred, he wandered from town to town, showing off his expensive instruments, captivating audiences first in Britain and Ireland, and later at the Court in Peking and in Calcutta, always adhering to a “necessity of public encouragement” as would befit a man of the age of Enlightenment. More profanely, these shows were also a vehicle for promoting scientific instruments and their makers, which in the mid-nineteenth century started to move out of workshops and into more industrial (or, industrial–military) settings, as Paolo Brenni describes in a dedicated chapter, which includes an insightful discussion of how the precision-instrument industry developed in various countries and how these developments made a difference during and after the First World War.

These are but a few examples of how the chapters of this book do much more than link bits and pieces. Rather, they interweave story-lines. This is not to say that the quality of the individual chapters does not vary. It does, quite substantially so. But this barely distracts from the overall reading pleasure. Also, don't expect a complete history. Especially as we approach 'modern physics', the topics become increasingly selective. This is understandable, given the ongoing diversification and degree of specialization, but I certainly was puzzled that I could not find names like Lev Landau, Enrico Fermi or Richard Feynman in the name index (although some of their contributions are at least mentioned in the texts). Alas, this is a handbook, not an encyclopaedia, even if I would have hoped it was one, given the overall level of writing and careful research that went into individual chapters.

So it's not so much that the reader is guided through the history of physics, but rather that a wider scene is set in which the protagonists act, be they named or not. Also, many well-known historical tid-bits appear in rigorous contexts. Admittedly, the historiographical approach and its language might sometimes be foreign. Discussions like those — whether there was a 'scientific revolution' or whether a division into 'classical' and 'modern' physics makes sense — are intriguing in their own way. All in all, the textbook does well in providing, as the editors hope, “a flavour of scholarly contributions that have tended to be dispersed in journals and books not easily accessible to the general reader”. And for us physicists this means seeing a wealth of information, context and connections that may help sharpen the sense of how our field came to be.