Shifting Trends in Modern Physics, Nobel Recognition, and the Histories That We Write

  • Mary Jo NyeEmail author


Since the late-nineteenth century, scientists have been labeled with disciplinary fields and scientific achievements have been identified largely with heroic individuals. Reward systems such as the highly visible Nobel Prizes have reinforced such a view of science. This paper examines long-term trends in Nobel Physics awards since 1901 and asks whether the awards have registered the increasing specialization, collaboration, and transdisciplinary research that mark the course of modern physics. A second major question is the extent to which, in turn, histories of physics since the 1960s have reflected trends in physics or in Nobel recognition. Historians of physics appear to have favored accounts of particle physics and relativity theory over other areas of physics, with biography remaining a strong tradition in the history of physics, even while institutional and social history has become significant. Concluding remarks address hierarchies of prestige in science, the accessible and emotional appeal of heroic and revolutionary accounts of science, and the perennial appeal of fundamental questions, like reductionism and emergence.


Biography collaboration condensed matter physics history of physics Nobel Prizes particle physics 



This paper is a revision of my “Abraham Pais Prize Lecture: Shifting Problems and Boundaries in the History of Modern Physics,” which is posted at the online website of the APS March Meeting 2017, Bulletin of the American Physical Society62, no. 4 (2017),, and of my longer Lyne Starling Trimble Science Heritage Public Lecture, September 12, 2018, at the American Institute of Physics. I thank Henri Jansen and Kenneth Krane for comments on the first draft of the Pais Prize Lecture, and Bretislav Friedrich for suggestions on the Trimble Lecture text, along with Robert Nye and Lesley Nye for general critiques. I am grateful for perceptive questions brought up at the AIP lecture from Gregory Good, Lindley Darden, Will Thomas, Andrew Brown, and others, and I am indebted to Joseph D. Martin and Richard Staley for their encouragement and for editorial comments.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of History, Philosophy, and ReligionOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA

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