Physics in Perspective

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 179–217 | Cite as

Writing the Biography of Hans Bethe: Contextual History and Paul Forman1

Article

Abstract

Some facets of the life of Hans Bethe after World War II are presented to illustrate how Paul Forman’s works, and in particular his various theses—on mathematics and physics in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany, on physics in the immediate post-World War II period, and on postmodernity—have influenced my biography of Bethe. Some aspects of the history of post-World War II quantum field theory, of solid state/condensed matter physics, and of the development of neoliberalism—the commitment to the belief that the market knows best, to free trade, to enhanced privatization, and to a drastic reduction of the government’s role in regulating the economy—are reviewed in order to make some observations regarding certain “top-down” views in solid state physics in postmodernity, the economic and cultural condition of many Western societies since the 1980s, the decade in which many historians assume modernity to have ended.

Keywords

Hans Bethe Paul Forman Weimar Forman theses postmodernity neoliberalism effective field theory nuclear theory mathematical physics physics summer schools Lamb shift Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) Nuclear Utilization Target Selection (NUTS) 

Introduction

In 1971, Paul Forman, then an assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester, published a long article on the relation between Weimar culture and acausality in quantum theory.2 In it, he argued that a sense of crisis had permeated all aspects of life—including science—in the economically impoverished, socially fickle, and politically riven Germany after its defeat in World War I. Widely read ideological treatises such as Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West made it acceptable to reject former commitments to rationality, to progress, and to modernist values. In this context, determinism and causality came under attack and intuition and irrationalism gained standing. Forman claimed that to accommodate themselves to this hostile environment a number of prominent mathematicians and physicists rejected or limited the validity of causality in physics and incorporated acausality in the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Forman’s thesis contradicted the then generally accepted belief (called “internalism”) that the conceptual framework of science was autonomous and did not depend on social conditions.3 If this Forman thesis has remained somewhat controversial in the specificity of its foci (Weimar Germany, physics, quantum mechanics), Forman’s more general thesis—that the cultural values prevalent in a given place and period can influence the direction of research and the conceptualization of the results of research within a scientific discipline—has become widely accepted when writing the history of science.

After he became a curator at the National Museum of American History in 1972, Forman published a second thesis concerned the military funding of research during the Cold War and how it affected the direction of the research carried out by physicists in the United States.4 According to Forman, physicists eagerly accepted money from the Department of Defense and from the Atomic Energy Commission—the agency responsible for the development of atomic weaponry—but their support altered the direction, and often the aims, of their research. Forman’s claim was that the physicists accommodated themselves to this environment by cultivating a false consciousness. As Heilbron put it succinctly: “They worried about their purity and autonomy and managed to obtain perhaps 5 percent of the military R&D budget for what they considered basic research; but they neglected to take into account the other 95 per cent, which supported their colleagues and students in applied projects of direct military interest.”5

A third Forman thesis deals with postmodernity and its manifestations, in particular, what he terms “the Preposterous Primacy of Science Relative to Technology Prior to Postmodernity,” interdisciplinarity, and neoliberalism.6 As Philip Mirowski formulated it: The fundamental tents of neoliberalism are that the market is an ideal information processor and that every successful economy is a knowledge economy. The market, though a collective artifact, knows more than any individual and can always provide solutions to problems, even to problems caused by markets in the first place. Similarly, corporations can do no wrong. Neoliberalism believes democracy to be the best state framework for an ideal market, yet wants it to have as little power as possible. It conceptualizes politics as if it were a market and it advances an economic theory of democracy by regarding citizens as customers of state services. Thus, for neoliberalism education becomes a consumer good, not the collective responsibility of molding students into able, informed, responsible, caring social beings. And most importantly, neoliberalism’s adherents believe that their vision of the good society will not come about “naturally” but only by concerted political effort and organization.7

All three Forman theses are concerned with the impact of the prevalent cultural and political values at a given time and place on the content and direction of science, and all three have influenced me in the writing of my biography of Hans Bethe (figure 1).
Fig. 1

Paul Forman at the Smithsonian Institution, 2003. Courtesy of Paul Forman

Nuclear Forces, the part of my biography of Bethe that covers his life until 1940, was published in June 2012.8 By virtue of the radically changed and changing context from 1940 on, the dramatic increase in the number and variety of activities Bethe became involved in, the range of issues that have to be addressed, my limited competence and my limited time, the second volume—qua contextual history—will be different from the first in content, in connections, and in scope. Nonetheless, I still want it to be an overview of the history of theoretical physics from the mid 1940s till the late 1970s—in part because Bethe’s metaphysics, as expressed in his contributions to the explanation of the Lamb shift, became the dominant outlook of the theoretical physics community at the end of the twentieth century. Thus, instead of dealing with the “pre-established harmony between physics and mathematics,” as had been the case in the first volume, the second will address the issue of quantum field theory becoming the language of theoretical physics. Similarly, where the first volume made observations about underlying local Jewish affinities, the second will be concerned with scientific universalism. Before 1940, Bethe was interacting scientifically only with other physicists and shunned politics, but after 1945 was a sought-after consultant to several industries and was deeply engaged politically both at the local and national levels. Therefore, the narration of the entanglement of all these activities—not to mention what was happening in his personal life—will have to be addressed differently than in the previous volume by virtue of scope and magnitude.9

To indicate the approach I have taken, I have chosen some episodes from Bethe’s life that resonate with aspects of Paul Forman’s three theses. I believe that investigating resonances between a given cultural, political, and social settings and the modes of explanations of physical phenomena within that context is a fundamental aspect of the narration of the history of science. Given that physics is primarily concerned with phenomena in systems that that can be isolated from their surroundings and that the success of physics stems from the fact that it is able to do so, it is important to extend investigations like Forman’s regarding Weimar culture and its role in shaping the development of quantum mechanics to later periods and other situations. Thus, except for some remarks concerning mathematics and physics in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany as they influenced Bethe’s later activities, I shall be principally concerned in the present article with physics in the immediate post-World War II period10 and with the third Forman thesis. Hence, I have presented an account of Bethe’s metaphysics as revealed in his Lamb shift calculation and an exploration of some of the enabling conditions—as reflected in institutions and disciplines—for the dramatic advances in theoretical physics after World War II. I conclude by making a claim concerning the impact of neoliberalism on the approaches of some leading theorists to problems in condensed matter physics in the post-1970 period.

The article is organized as follows: Section 1 briefly narrates some facets of the young Bethe’s life not mentioned in Nuclear Forces and highlights the post-1940 part of his life. Section 2 is concerned with post-World War II physics. Subsection 2.1 deals with the practice of “elementary particle” theoretical physics and adumbrates Bethe’s metaphysics by outlining his approach to the Lamb shift problem. Section 2.2 is concerned with the mathematical physics discipline, its formation and contributions. Section 2.3 deals with the self-image of physicists after World War II and Bethe’s transmutation from being an “elementary particle” to a nuclear matter theorist; section 2.4 explains “effective field theories.” Section 3 is concerned with Forman’s third thesis, and adumbrates the resonance between neoliberalism and the “top-down” views of condensed matter physics expounded by two leading condensed matter physicists. Section 4 highlights the final decades of Bethe’s life.

Some Biographical Background

Bethe was born in 1906 in Strassburg, when it was part of Germany (figure 2). At the time his father, Albrecht Bethe, was an Assistent to the Strassburg University physiologist Richard Ewald. His mother was the daughter of a professor of medicine at the university. Hans was the only offspring of the marriage; Bethe’s father stimulated and nurtured his interest in science. Having spent some time in the mid-1890s at the Naples Marine Biological Station under the influence of its director, Anton Dohrn, a student of Ernst Haeckel, Albrecht Bethe became deeply committed to an all-encompassing evolutionary view. Hans Bethe’s analysis and explanations of evolutionary, historical, physical processes—e.g., his researches on energy generation in stars, on nucleosynthesis, on stellar evolution, and those on the death throes of stars such as novae and supernovae11—were mathematical, quantified narrations of the processes involved12 and were focal points of his dual career as a physicist and as an astrophysicist. I attribute the stimulus for these interests and viewpoints to his father.13
Fig. 2

Hans Bethe in the mid-1950s. Credit: Rose Bethe

In 1915, Bethe’s father accepted the directorship of the animal physiology institute at the newly established Frankfurt University. Bethe attended Gymnasium in Frankfurt and in 1924 enrolled in Frankfurt University. Although Bethe had outstanding young mathematicians as instructors in his mathematics courses at Frankfurt University—in particular Carl Ludwig Siegel and Otto Szász—their courses convinced him that he didn’t want to major in mathematics. The way mathematics was being taught seemed to him to have no connection with the real world, and no connection with the sciences.14

One of his physics teachers at Frankfurt University, recognizing Bethe’s superior abilities, urged him to go to Munich to study with Arnold Sommerfeld.15 In the spring of 1926, just when Schrödinger’s seminal papers on wave mechanics were being published in the Annalen der Physik, Sommerfeld accepted the twenty-year-old Bethe to his seminar, then the outstanding school of theoretical physics in Europe.

Göttingen (and its preeminent mathematician, David Hilbert) had been responsible for the formal nature of the mathematics Bethe was taught in his mathematics courses in Frankfurt. Another aspect of the Göttingen spirit deeply influenced Bethe, namely Sommerfeld’s views concerning the special connection between physics and mathematics that been instilled in him by Felix Klein, on the one hand, and by Hilbert and by Hermann Minkowski, on the other. One facet of Klein’s “pre-established harmony between physics and mathematics” considered mathematics a tool that was created, sharpened, and expanded when used in formulating physical theories and models. In a beautiful article on the construction of knowledge, Timothy Lenoir pointed to Klein’s views that physical concepts and theories are strongly coupled to the instruments and practices through which phenomena are produced and stabilized.16 Klein believed that the distinction between pure and applied science and between science and technology was unfounded and unwarranted. Thus, the various institutes of applied science that Klein founded at Göttingen were brought together under one roof. This outlook molded Sommerfeld, who also embodied Hilbert’s and Minkowski’s versions of the Kleinian “pre-established harmony between physics and mathematics.” For Hilbert, pre-established harmony came to mean a pre-established unity of mathematics and the possibility of stipulating a set of axioms from which all of mathematics would be derivable. For Minkowski, it came to mean the existence of invariance principles that constrain all physical theories. In his famous 1905 paper on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, Einstein had realized that two observers in relative motion with respect to each other needed to agree on some parameters in order to be able to transfer information between them. He made light, i.e. the electromagnetic field, the carrier of information and made the velocity of light a universal constant. The Lorentz transformation, which guaranteed that the speed of light would be the same for all observers, was introduced as the transformation connecting any two observers. The Lorentz group is also the invariance group of Maxwell’s equations. It need not be the case that the transformation group used for changing frames of reference be the same as the symmetry group of physical laws. Einstein stipulated that the laws governing the dynamics of light and those governing the dynamics of material particles manifest the same symmetry group and adhere to the same transformation group for changing frames of reference.17 Minkowski fully recognized the power of Einstein’s insight and made it a general principle, an expression of the “pre-established harmony between physics and mathematics,” namely that symmetry, i.e. invariance, dictates the form of the equations. In his general theory of relativity, Einstein made a further, and deeper, contribution, that locality together with the symmetry of general covariance dictate the form of the gravitational interactions. This became the basis of the great advances in physics during the second half of the twentieth century.

Sommerfeld inculcated all his students with this dual metaphysics: on the one hand, the value of mathematics in the physicist’s toolkit and on the other, seemingly, its great content of physical reality.18 Given Bethe’s particular abilities and inclinations, he saw mathematics as an all-important component in his toolkit as a theoretical physicist—the Kleinian rather than the Einsteinian view of the pre-established harmony between mathematics and physics—and was less concerned with mathematics as a guide to the representation of physical reality.

Bethe’s off-scale ability to absorb and analyze huge amounts of complex data and synthesize the materials into useful knowledge with the help of transparent, readily understandable models was first demonstrated in the two encyclopedic Handbuch der Physik articles he published in 1933.19 In them, he gave a masterly exposition of the application of quantum mechanics to atomic, molecular, and solid state physics. Each was written in less than a year and reflected his uncommon energy, his extraordinary powers of concentration, and his great ambition. These articles set standards for subsequent contributions to these fields and have remained classics to this day.

In 1933, after Hitler came to power, Bethe lost his position as an assistant professor in Tübingen because his mother came from a Jewish family and had converted to Protestantism as a young woman. Sommerfeld helped him obtain a fellowship in England. In February 1935, he joined the physics department of Cornell University, where he stayed until the end of his life.

During the 1930s the frontier of physics shifted to nuclear physics. Bethe became an acknowledged leader in this field, co-authoring with Stanley Livingston and Robert Bacher three lengthy articles in the Reviews of Modern Physics that became known as the Bethe Bible of nuclear physics.20 His mastery of nuclear physics made it possible for him to put forward in 1938 the explanation of energy generation in stars for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1967.

Bethe’s experiences during World War II transformed his life. He was the paradigmatic example why theoretical physicists proved to be so important in the war effort and the early stages of the Cold War. It was his ability to translate his technical mastery of the microscopic world—i.e. the world of nuclei, electrons, atoms, and molecules—into an understanding of the macroscopic properties of materials and into the design of macroscopic devices such as radar junctions and atomic bombs that rendered his services so valuable at the Radiation Lab and at Los Alamos.

In 2003, in a retrospective assessment of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos, the 97-year-old Bethe stated that the T-Division’s most important scientific contributions during the war were the introduction and use of electronic computers and the elucidation of the physics of implosions and explosions. The punch-card-fed electromechanical IBM computers that Eldred Nelson, Stanley Frankel, and Richard Feynman assembled made possible the extensive, complex computations required to solve the complicated physical and technical problems they were dealing with, such as the use of uranium hydride instead of uranium metal or the design of explosive lenses. John von Neumann, a consultant to the division, observed the efficient work of the IBM machines and decided that “We must use them more generally and they must work electronically.” Bethe concluded his retrospective article with the statement that “the successful work of T-Division during the war was the seed of modern computers.”21

As the head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos, Bethe acquired managerial and entrepreneurial skills that proved valuable when he was to return to Cornell. In discussions with Ezra Day, the president of Cornell at the time, he and Robert Bacher negotiated the creation of the Laboratory of Nuclear Studies, whose mission was “to investigate the particles of which atomic nuclei are composed and to discover more about the nature of the forces which hold these particles together.” It was to be strictly a disciplinary enclave dedicated to pursuing high energy physics for its own sake, with possible applications of nuclear studies excluded.22 Thus, in contrast to other laboratories of nuclear studies established at American universities after the war, such as the ones in Chicago, Iowa, and MIT, the Cornell Newman Lab did not include biologists, chemists, geologists, metallurgists, or nuclear engineers. This reflected Bethe’s “modernist” views of what a university was about and his determination that the researches within the physics department at Cornell be “pure.”23 Possible by-products of physics research would be the province of Cornell’s applied science and engineering departments.

By establishing this laboratory, Bethe became involved in the administration of physics activities at Cornell. As at many of the other premier American universities, Cornell’s physics department after the war split into two semi-independent subdivisions: the high energy, big science, Newman Laboratory with its synchrotron and Bacher its director, and the solid state component with the chair of the physics department, Lloyd P. Smith, nominally its director. Given the tensions between the two directors and between the fields they represented, an administrative committee had to be set up to oversee the operation of the department, in particular, its teaching responsibilities and its appointments. The committee consisted of the two directors and Bethe, who as the “holy ghost” made sure that the channels of communication between the two directors remained open.24

What had been obvious to others at Los Alamos, namely, that his contributions to making the bomb projects successful were exceptional and that no one besides Oppenheimer had played as significant a role, only became apparent to Bethe somewhat later.25 Thereafter, creating peaceful applications for nuclear power became an obsession for Bethe. In the decade after the war, besides being an extremely productive physicist, Bethe became a consultant to General Electric’s Knolls Laboratory to help them design safe nuclear reactors, to the Nuclear Development Corporation of America to develop shielding for nuclear reactors, and to Detroit Edison to explore the feasibility of breeder reactors. Similarly, to make the world safe from the use of nuclear weapons, Bethe devoted great efforts to have the Lilienthal-Oppenheimer plan adopted as official United States policy. The adoption of the Baruch plan to represent the United States position26 made it clear to him that something like MADness (Mutual Assured Destruction) would become the modus vivendi after the Soviet Union would develop its own atomic weapons.

After the first Soviet bomb was detonated in late August 1949, 27 Bethe became deeply involved in formulating a response to the new threat. Initially, he was very much opposed to the crash program for building a hydrogen bomb that Truman had ordered, but after Stanislaw Ulam and Edward Teller proposed a mechanism that made fusion weapons plausible he became totally occupied with their feasibility. He spent the academic year 1951/2 at Los Alamos helping design the weapon because he believed that if the United States could build a fusion bomb, so could the Soviets—hence deterrence was the proper policy. Upon his return to Cornell, he had an office in one of the Federal buildings on the campus, where he and Frederic de Hoffmann devoted a good deal of their time to highly secret and classified fusion work. He later also became a consultant to the AVCO (AViation COrporation) research laboratory in Everett, Massachusetts, whose director was Arthur Kantrowitz, a former colleague at Cornell, and there helped solve the ablation problem connected with the reentry of ballistic missile payloads into the atmosphere.28

In addition to all these involvements, Bethe was also an active member of the American Physical Society and served as its president in 1954 during the critical period that witnessed the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. This action eliminated Oppenheimer as an advisor to the AEC and other governmental agencies. The ruin of Oppenheimer29 sent a clear message to American physicists about the limits of the roles they could play in shaping nuclear policy. Thereafter, in the hope of being able to keep in check the more extreme elements making recommendations or policy concerning nuclear weapons, Bethe became ever more occupied with national security issues as a member of some of the highest echelon governmental advisory committees by virtue of his expertise, his integrity, and the respect he commanded. In the early 1960s as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), Bethe played a crucial role in the negotiations with the Soviet Union that led to the treaty of 1963 that banned tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater and underground tests above a certain limit.30 As a member of PSAC, he also was instrumental in bringing about the large governmental support given to high energy physics and in making NASA a civilian agency.31

Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 marked a turning point in Bethe’s life. Bethe was a Democrat and this political identification meant that his advice and expertise were no longer sought by the government. This, however, freed him to start an extremely productive career as an astrophysicist32 and make major contributions to the elucidation of the structure of neutron stars, of supernovae and of binary star systems, and to the unraveling of the solar neutrino problem.33

Remarkably, in addition to these fruitful but demanding scientific activities, Bethe became deeply involved with energy policies after the energy crisis of 1973.34 He widely and forcefully argued for the reconsideration of nuclear power in the aftermath of the oil embargo the Arab states had imposed following the Yom Kippur war in 1973. And during that same period, as a consultant at AVCO, he was investigating the possibility of separating the uranium isotopes using lasers and designing high power “chirping” lasers for that purpose. Similarly, in 1983 and thereafter he collaborated with Richard Garwin, Kurt Gottfried, Henry Kendall, and other Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) members to challenge the claims President Reagan and Edward Teller were making for their Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) scenario.

Post-World War II Physics

Bethe’s peregrinations before coming to Cornell in 1935—doing physics in Munich, Stuttgart, Cambridge, Rome, and Manchester—made him aware of what Karin Knorr-Cetina succinctly stated about knowledge practices:

Epistemic cultures [are] those amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms—bonded through affinity, necessity, and historical coincidence—which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know. Epistemic cultures are cultures that create and warrant knowledge.35

Before the war, theoretical physics was practiced differently in Munich, Stuttgart, Cambridge, Rome, and Manchester: scientific knowledge was warranted differently in each of these places, though as results were reproduced, the community at large eventually arrived at a consensus on the value of the work. The same could be said more globally: for a host of reasons, physics was different and was practiced differently in France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States, if only because the sciences had become nationalized.36

Nonetheless, there was some general consensus about the accomplishments and aims of theoretical physics. The 1930s brought a quantum-field-theoretical demonstration that the electromagnetic interactions between charged particles could be explained as due to photon exchanges,37 along with Fermi’s theory of β-decay, and Yukawa’s suggestion that, in analogy to electromagnetic forces, the short-range nuclear forces could be generated by the exchanges of a hitherto unobserved massive particle.38 The ensuing conceptualization of physics became ever more important. It consisted in
  1. a)

    recognizing that the physical world—at the level of accuracy of possible physical measurements and the corresponding theoretical representations—could be considered hierarchically ordered into fairly well delineated realms39 and concerns: the cosmological—consisting of galaxies and their constituents, their evolution and dynamics; the macroscopic—consisting of solids, liquids, gases, their structure, properties, and processes; the molecular and atomic realm; the nuclear; and the sub-nuclear.40

     
  2. b)

    stipulating that the aim of physics was to identify, classify, and characterize these various realms and their interrelations. The microscopic and submicroscopic levels became considered as more “fundamental” since it was believed that one could reconstruct the higher levels in terms of the knowledge of the properties and dynamics of the entities that populated the lower levels. Furthermore, it was the task of the theories representing the lower levels to account quantitatively for the empirically determined parameters that described the “elementary” building blocks of the higher levels.

     

Thus, in the case of an atom, the mass, charge, and magnetic moment of the electrons and of its nucleus enter as experimentally determined parameters in the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation. It is the task of nuclear physics to explain and determine the value of the nuclear parameters. In his 1937 articles on nuclear physics in the Reviews of Modern Physics, Bethe did just that in term of phenomenological inter-nucleonic potentials determined from proton-proton and neutron-proton scattering experiments. Subsequently, he and others attempted to derive these potentials from meson theories41 despite the fact that there was little confidence that quantum field theory was adequate to explain the nuclear domain in terms of subnuclear constituents.42

After World War II—for a while at least—the practice of much of cutting-edge experimental and theoretical physics became much the same all over the Western world.43 The new instruments developed during the war to enhance the effectiveness of radar transformed atomic and molecular physics. Similarly, the crystal growing techniques developed during the war to obtain pure samples of germanium and silicon and other metals transformed solid state physics. Transistors, masers, and lasers were among the devices made possible later by these advances.

The article Forman published in 1995 in the Reviews of Modern Physics entitled “‘Swords into Plowshares’: Breaking New Ground with Radar Hardware and Technique in Physical Research after World War II” provides the evidence to justify my assertion with respect to experimental physics.44 In this remarkably complete, well-organized survey, Forman reviewed the application in the years immediately following World War II to fundamental experimental physics research of the microwave instrumentalities developed during the war, now available as off-the-shelf equipment: in molecular beam magnetic resonance spectroscopy, molecular spectroscopy, radio astronomy, and the design of high energy accelerators. Forman’s examination of the postwar applications was preceded by a survey of the prewar physical research that depended on the availability of sources of electromagnetic radiation in the meter to submillimeter range.

The new experimental knowledge and practice in microwave technology (to which Bethe had contributed significant theoretical underpinnings at Cornell from 1940 until 1942 and later at the Radiation Laboratory at MIT during his stay there in 1942) became widely disseminated in the 27 volumes of the Radiation Laboratory Series that Louis Ridenour edited, whose first volume on radar system engineering appeared in 1947.45 These volumes allowed experimentalists to build—in an almost algorithmic fashion—accurate sources of constant voltage and constant current, fast amplifiers, pulse generators, high precision sources and detectors of microwave radiation, and by extension, high power klystrons. After the war, many of these devices could be acquired almost free of charge from the depots the U.S. War Department had set up to make available the surplus equipment to universities. The availability of these new pieces of equipment and of the new statistical methods to detect signals in the background of noise created new levels of precision and reliability in experiments, new standards in the reproducibility of experiments, and thus a new standard for experimental practice, a practice reinforced by the often parallel, competing experimentations.

Moreover, it should be pointed out—as Forman did—that although physicists in the United States had developed many of the new instrumentalities, they were not the first to apply them and reap the benefits from them. Their applications to accelerators took place first in Great Britain;46 radio astronomy was initiated in Australia.47

These instrumental advances had immediate repercussions in theoretical physics. The best-known and one of the most consequential was the response to Lamb and Retherford’s experiment on the fine structure of hydrogen and to Rabi, Nafe, and Nelson’s accurate measurements of the hyperfine structure of hydrogen announced at the Shelter Island Conference in June 1947.48 These experiments stimulated crucial calculations49 by Bethe and by Julian Schwinger that initiated the modern renormalization program and gave renewed faith to quantum field theory. The “modern era” of quantum field theory was initiated by that conference. Steven Weinberg assessed its importance concisely: “It was not so much that it forced us to change our physical theories, as it forced us to take them seriously.”50

At the Shelter Island Conference,51 Hendrik Kramers made a key presentation of his formulation of the Lorentz theory of an extended charge in which structural effects were encapsulated in the experimental mass of the particle. He indicated how to reinterpret the formalism so as to obtain finite answers when self-interactions are taken into account. Max Dresden in his biography of Kramers52 suggested that Kramers did not receive adequate credit for his contributions at Shelter Island. Bethe’s Shelter Island notes indicate that he was right.53 To Bethe, the pragmatist for whom numbers were always the criterion of good physics and who had just been so deeply and successfully involved in the war effort calculating numbers that translated into physical effects and measurable empirical data, the challenge was to get the numbers out and account for the magnitude of the 2S–2P level shift in hydrogen. Accounting for the empirical data would be explaining the data. Perhaps one reason that Bethe did not acknowledge Kramers was that Kramers’s approach was too model-dependent, too theoretical, and too far removed from calculating numbers. For Bethe, the value of a novel idea was gauged by whether it could help you calculate numbers that could be compared with empirical data.

Bethe did have a much simpler and straightforward way than Kramers to incorporate Kramers’s insight. He had noted that the quantum-electrodynamically calculated self-energy of a free non-relativistic electron could be ascribed to an electromagnetic mass of the electron, which, though divergent, should be added to the mechanical mass of the electron. The only meaningful statements of the theory involve the sum of the electromagnetic and mechanical masses, which is the experimental mass of a free electron. In contrast to Kramers’ approach, Bethe’s model-independent formulation of mass renormalization did not assume an extended charge distribution for the electron. In contrast to Schwinger and Weisskopf’s initial insight that a hole-theoretic calculation that computed the difference between the energies of two levels would be finite, Bethe formulated an unambiguous prescription of mass renormalization in the non-relativistic case that allowed computing the energy of each level.

After the conference was over, Bethe performed his famous non–relativistic calculation on the train ride from New York to Schenectady. The paper in which he proved that the level shift would be accounted for quantum electrodynamically was completed three days after the conference ended and thereafter circulated to the participants of the Shelter Island conference.

Post-World War II Theoretical Physics

After World War II, the practice of theoretical physics dealing with “elementary particles” became much the same over much of the western world. The following are some of the factors responsible for this homogenization:
  1. 1)

    The mimeograph machine and the ditto machine (with the characteristic smells of their inks) had come into their own. They allowed the cheap and rapid reproduction of lecture notes and preprints of papers. Thus, two separate sets of notes of the lectures Schwinger delivered at Harvard on nuclear physics during the academic year 1946-7 were written up and issued in mimeographed form by John Blatt and by Morton Hamermesh. Both sets were widely distributed and became the basis of numerous courses on quantum mechanics all over the United States. The same was true of Feynman’s 1949 Cornell lectures on advanced quantum mechanics and Dyson’s 1951 Cornell course on quantum field theory.54 Furthermore, and most importantly, the ditto machine allowed preprints of papers to be sent to physics departments all over the world at nominal cost— a process that the internet and the preprint depository arXiv now do much more efficiently and democratically.55

     
  2. 2)

    The broad governmental support given after the war and during the Cold War to the sciences (physics in particular) in the US, Europe, and the Soviet Union was certainly one of the enabling conditions responsible for the important, transformative, advances in physics from 1945 to 1955. In the US, governmental funding made possible much larger physics departments in which a wide spectrum of theoretical and experimental research activities were undertaken and that supported greatly increased numbers of graduate students, research associates, and postdoctoral fellows.56 A similar expansion of physics activities took place in the Soviet universities and research institutes.

     

Within this widely expanding doctoral and postdoctoral framework of physics education and overseen by a limited number of faculty members able to transmit the recent advances, summer schools became important institutions that allowed graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members—regardless of their institutional affiliation—to learn about recent developments in physics. Soon after World War II ended, the Michigan Summer Symposium resumed the important role it had played during the late 1920s and the 1930s when the most prominent physicists lectured on the latest advances in theoretical and experimental physics to graduate students from all over the US. In 1948, 1949, and 1950, Schwinger, Feynman, and Dyson, respectively, lectured there on their researches in quantum electrodynamics (QED). Mimeographed copies of their lectures became immediately and widely available. The French summer school Les Houches, located near Chamonix in the Alps, opened its doors in 1950. The Cargèse Summer School, in Corsica, began its operation in 1951. In Italy, the International School of Physics “Enrico Fermi” started holding annual summer schools in Varenna in 1953. In 1957, Brandeis University and the University of Colorado in Boulder started their summer school in theoretical physics.57 The proceedings of all these summer schools were published promptly and constituted comprehensive, valuable introductions to the advances in these fields. Their quick availability—in mimeographed form until 1960—shaped the teaching of graduate courses in theoretical physics all over the world.58

The French and Italian summer schools of the late 1950s and early 1960s played another important role: they brought outstanding Soviet theorists to lecture and thus informed their audiences of the important Soviet contributions to condensed matter physics and introduced the Soviet physicists to their counterparts in the West. Thus, the 1958 Les Houches Summer School devoted to the “Many Body Problem” included as one of the lecturers the Soviet theorist Spartak Belyaev—an important contributor to the introduction of the Feynman diagrammatic and the Schwinger field-theoretic methods to solid state and nuclear physics.59

  1. 3)

    When in the fall of 1946 Robert Oppenheimer became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (IAS) and a professor of physics there, he used the institution to implement his universalist vision of science.60 In 1948, he began inviting a host of foreigners to the Institute. Until 1952, these included: Faqir Auluck, Aage Bohr, Freeman Dyson, Léon van Hove, Res Jost, Nicolaas van Kampen, Toichiro Kinoshita, Maurice Lévy, Cécile Morette, Yoichiro Nambu, Abraham Pais, Giulio Racah, Abdus Salam, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Hideki Yukawa, John Ward, and Chen Ning Yang.61 The appointment of Cécile Morette in 1948 and that of Maurice Lévy in 1950 were particularly consequential. The success of the postwar Michigan summer school led Cécile Morette to have a similar school established in France. In 1950 she founded the Summer School of Theoretical Physics in Les Houches62; Maurice Lévy organized the school in Cargèse in 1951. These two summer schools were responsible for teaching the postwar generation of French physicists modern quantum theory63 and quantum field theory.

     

Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen was another institution that hosted and brought together theorists from various nations, including the Soviet Union. These efforts were greatly amplified by the European decision to built CERN and the basing of Nordita, its theoretical division, at the Bohr Institute until CERN began operating in Geneva in 1957.64

The Mathematical Physics Discipline

In his 2012 paper on the transition between modernity and postmodernity, Forman noted that: “By the middle of the twentieth century disciplinary production and curation of knowledge would become the most honored and emulated manifestation of modernity’s high valuation of discipline—a valuation that had been rising and spreading through Western societies for a full four centuries.”65 The formation of the modern, postwar discipline of mathematical physics had its beginning at the IAS shortly after Oppenheimer became its director. In 1948, three young theorists—Léon Van Hove, Res Jost, and Arthur Wightman—attended the lectures on C* algebras that John von Neumann was delivering at the Institute. Van Hove and Jost were fellows at the IAS; Wightman was at the time an instructor at Princeton University. Together with Cyril Domb, Rudolf Haag, Daniel Kastler, Arthur Jaffe, and others, they went on to establish mathematical physics as a recognized, institutionalized, sub-discipline of physics and mathematics. The discipline of mathematical physics—with its demand of rigor and proof—may indeed serve as a paradigmatic illustration of the role played by disciplinarity in modernity, one of the central issues Forman addressed.

Roughly speaking, the difference between mathematical physicists and theoretical physicists is the following: theoretical physicists are interested in obtaining explanations of physical phenomena, and in particular in accounting for experimental data. They value convincing intuitive arguments in favor of the interpretation of some physical fact. Mathematical physicists, on the other hand, are not primarily interested in “getting the numbers out.” Rather, their aim is to construct a mathematically rigorous, consistent representation of the phenomena based on physical postulates and models. Their work is to meet the highest standards of mathematical rigor. But a mathematically rigorous proof need not mirror physical intuition, nor be generative of further physical questions.

Traditions of mathematical physics had been in existence for a long time with its practitioners usually housed in mathematics departments. The one initiated by Klein, Minkowski, and Hilbert at Göttingen66 had been seeded in the United States, primarily at Princeton, through the immigration of Hermann Weyl, von Neumann, and Wigner in the early 1930s. With Hitler’s coming to power and the subsequent expulsion of Jewish scholars from their university posts, the Göttingen tradition became transplanted to the United States, primarily in what became the Courant Institute at New York University in New York. Another tradition, principally concerned with the mathematics of classical mechanics67 (out of which grew ergodic theory and rigorous probability theory) had been nurtured in France and later blossomed in the Soviet Union.68 In Japan, Ryogo Kubo, Tosio Kato, and others initiated a mathematical physics tradition concerned with statistical mechanics and operator theory.

Here, I am concerned with the prehistory of mathematical physics as a discipline to the extent of being able to characterize the focus and nature of the researches carried out in various countries in the post–World War II period.69 In the United States, the researches of Wigner and Valentine Bargmann on the unitary representations of the Galileo and Lorentz groups greatly influenced the works of Wightman and Jost. In Great Britain, Lars Onsager’s solution of the two-dimensional Ising model stimulated the researches on phase transitions carried out by Cyril Domb and his students. In the Soviet Union, the agenda was shaped by the important advances made in probability theory, statistical mechanics, and turbulence by Alexandr Khinchin, Andrey Kolmogorov, Nikolai Krilov, and others during the 1930s.70 Nikolay Bogoliubov, Israel Gelfand, Mark Naimark, and others invigorated the tradition during the 1940s and trained outstanding students such as Yacov Sinai, Roland Drobushin, Vladimir Arnold, and Ludvig Faddeev in the early 1950s. The foci of their researches—dynamical systems, approach to equilibrium, chaos, turbulence—became important components of mathematical physics.71

The young mathematical physicists who would mold the agenda in the West—Wightman, Jost, Haag, van Hove—were initially differentiated from their Soviet counterpart by their concern with relativistic quantum field theory, undoubtedly stimulated by what had been presented at the Shelter Island and Pocono conferences.72 All four had had close contacts with someone who had been associated with Hilbert, Sommerfeld, or both, and thus had been touched by the spirit of “the pre-established harmony of physics and mathematics.”73 All four had majored in mathematics as undergraduates and all four kept in close contact with mathematicians, but held appointments in physics departments.74

What van Hove, Jost, Wightman, and Haag were able to accomplish in the 1950s was to transform what had been primarily individual activities into a flourishing discipline. Rather than being concerned with problems close to applied mathematics, applied science, engineering, and technology as was the case in the Soviet Union, they and their students worked on problems in quantum mechanics (rigorous definition of the operators appearing in its formulation, scattering theory, existence of bound states, quantum logic, …), in quantum field theory (axiomatic and latter constructive field theory, algebraic approaches,…), and in statistical mechanics (thermodynamic limit, …); all subjects of great interest to physicists.75 Streater and Wightman’s PCT, Spin and Statistics, and All That, Res Jost’s The General Theory of Quantized Fields, and David Ruelle’s Statistical Mechanics: Rigorous Results (1969) are the paradigmatic examples of this approach.76

The growing influence of the discipline is made explicit by the fact that in 1960 the American Institute of Physics started publishing the Journal of Mathematical Physics devoted exclusively to mathematical physics. In 1965, Springer Verlag began publishing Communications in Mathematical Physics, a journal committed to even more rigorous expositions than the Journal of Mathematical Physics. Similarly, by the mid-1960s several summer schools in theoretical physics devoted part of their offerings either to axiomatic field theory or to rigorous results in statistical mechanics.

Mathematical physicists made important contributions to the elucidation of renormalization procedures in quantum field theory, the establishment of the notion of an effective field theory, the clarification of spontaneous symmetry breaking, and most importantly, to the explanation of the stability of matter.77 String theory, with its seminal contributions to pure mathematics78 and its influential role in providing mathematical techniques for solving strong coupling problems in quantum field theory when applied to condensed matter physics problems,79 is indicative of the latest influence of the discipline.

At the 1971 Battelle Seattle Rencontre, Andrew Lenard, an important contributor to the discipline, commented that “the maturing and growth of modern mathematical physics is one of the striking intellectual developments of the last two decades. Even more importantly, mathematical physics fosters a cooperative and unifying spirit between practitioners of different areas of expertise.”80

The Self-Image of Physicists81

The contribution of physicists to the war effort was an important factor in bringing about the homogenization of physics after the war. The war had engendered a symbiotic relationship between physicists and the state. The Cold War intensified this entanglement. The sciences, and physics in particular, became a means of nurturing and displaying national greatness. Accelerators in the West came to assume the role that cathedrals had played earlier, as did rockets in the Soviet Union. Physicists readily accepted their new role in the partnership with the state, and their hubris expanded accordingly.

For a while after the war, physicists saw themselves as being engaged in a collective endeavor to discover if not the ultimate, then what seemed to be immutable laws of physics and their consequences. All the subdisciplines of physics—solid state physics, nuclear physics, cosmic ray physics—were considered part of this epistemological enterprise.82 But the further chilling of the Cold War, the Korean war, the subsequent lavish governmental support of physics, the freeing of high energy physics from its dependence on cosmic rays for the interpretation of high energy processes by virtue of the operation of new high energy accelerators, the importance of solid state physics stemming from the “transistorization” of electronics, the introduction of efficient, cheap new modes of computation, and the growing size of these subdisciplines all contributed to the restructuring of physics into fairly well delineated, somewhat separated, subdisciplines.

Bethe initially throve in the new world that had emerged after World War II and made important contributions to quantum electrodynamics and nuclear physics. His Lamb shift calculation was one of the high points of the early phase of his postwar career, and the Matthew effect1 magnified the importance of his contribution as time went on, but the new environment also accentuated his limitations.83 Julian Schwinger’s appointment as professor of physics at Harvard in 1946, rather than Bethe, was indicative that a new generation was taking over.84

Great rewards were to be gleaned from determining what were the foundational theories describing the various subnuclear domains being unraveled by the new synchrotrons and linear accelerators. As mentioned, Bethe had been instrumental in establishing at Cornell the laboratory devoted to high energy studies. With the appointment in early 1948 of Robert R. Wilson as its director, the Newman Laboratory flourished and became an outstanding high energy laboratory. In 1950, its 300 MeV electron synchrotron began its operation, and Bethe tried to mold himself into a high energy physicist. In spring and summer 1952, he lectured on high energy physics at Los Alamos85 and during the academic year taught graduate courses on the subject at Cornell. Bethe’s efforts with Dyson and others from 1952 to 1954 to interpret the data that Fermi had obtained on the scattering of pi mesons on nucleons met with limited success.86 Two younger physicists, Geoffrey Chew and Francis Low, formulated a much more powerful and generative approach.87 Once again it was brought home to him that he was much better at applying foundational theories than at creating them even though he had recognized very early that what were considered to be fundamental theories—quantum electrodynamics, the various meson theories, the Fermi theory of weak interactions, and Einstein’s general theory of relativity—were only approximate theories, foundational88 for a particular class of phenomena delimited by range on the energy scale or by the model or idealization underlying them.

The failure of Bethe and Dyson’s approach to pion-nucleon scattering as compared to Chew and Low’s was the culmination of the “difficult” first half of the 1950s.89 During these years, Bethe had had to deal with McCarthyism; with the moral and technical aspects of building hydrogen bombs;90 with the Oppenheimer affair; and with the dramatically accelerating pace of research, particularly in quantum field theory and in high energy physics. By the end of 1954, he recognized that he no longer could keep up with the pace of developments in these fields, given his other involvements and commitments. Important—but not totally convincing—work in the nuclear many-body problem had then just been initiated by Keith Brueckner.91 Given the richness of the available post-war experimental data on nuclei and their structure, Bethe decided to concentrate his research efforts in nuclear physics. From the mid ‘50s until the early ‘70s, the nuclear many-body problem was the main focus of Bethe’s researches and that of his students.

In his 1937 Reviews of Modern Physics articles on nuclear structure,92 Bethe had attempted to understand why some properties of nuclei showed discontinuities when their protons or their neutrons numbered 2, 8, 50, and 82, just as was the case with the binding energies of the noble gases in atomic physics.93 These proton and neutron numbers were called “magic numbers.” In 1947, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Otto Haxel, Hans Jensen, and Hans Suess had given a phenomenological explanation for the shell structure of nuclei, more specifically for the appearance of these magic numbers, on the basis of an independent particle model.94 To establish the shell model, one needed to understand why it is possible to consider the nucleons moving in independent, single-particle orbitals and how such a viewpoint could be reconciled with the compound nucleus model of Bohr. In 1954, Keith Brueckner took the main step in this direction by applying techniques that Kenneth Watson had developed in scattering theory. Brueckner and his collaborators elaborated the Watson multiple-scattering formalism into a powerful “self-consistent” approach to handle many-body problems. They had difficulties, however, giving adequate proofs for the validity of the results they had obtained. As Bethe told Charles Weiner in his interview with him on May 8, 1972: “It seemed to work all right. It seemed to be plausible, but it had certain very definite flaws.”95 Although Bethe was not part of the mathematical physics community, Sommerfeld had impressed on him high standards of rigor and of mathematical consistency. Removing the flaws in Brueckner’s theory became the first problem he tackled. Bethe carefully went over all of Brueckner’s papers, and gave a more transparent, lengthy exposition of Brueckner’s approach, but one that still did not fully justify the method. He spent a sabbatical academic year 1955–6 in Cambridge concentrating on the justification of Brueckner’s theory. He was given two outstanding students to work with him: Jeffrey Goldstone and David Thouless. In the first of his lectures on Brueckner theory, Goldstone asked some pertinent questions that Bethe could not answer. Bethe put him to work on the theory and the result was that, shortly thereafter, Goldstone and Bethe solved the problem on how to handle the incorporation into the formalism of the effects of the hard-core repulsion between nucleons at very short distances, which was part of the assumed interaction potential.96 Thouless went back with Bethe to Cornell and obtained his PhD there in 1958, writing an important thesis that described how to calculate two-body correlations self-consistently.97

Goldstone was one the first theorists to introduce diagrams into many-body theory with his 1957 paper.98 1957 was a banner year for many-body theory, with the Bardeen, Cooper, Schrieffer (BCS) explanation of superconductivity in lead the outstanding advance 99 1957 also witnessed the experimental confirmation that parity was not conserved in the weak interaction, as had been intimated by Lee and Yang.100 By virtue of the conference that Louis Michel organized in Lille on Les problèmes mathématiques de la théorie quantique des champs, 1957 could also be considered the year that the mathematical physics discipline was founded.101 October 1957 marked the launching of Sputnik, which had wide repercussions in the United States. It was responsible for the creation of PSAC and for sizable increases in the government’s budgets underwriting research and development in the sciences and in technology, as well as the funding of science education.102

BCS became the point of departure for a reconceptualization of quantum field theory. It indicated that in systems with an infinite number of degrees of freedom, the state of lowest energy—the ground state—need not possess the (continuous) symmetry exhibited by the Hamiltonian that determines the dynamics of the system. This is what is meant by a “spontaneously broken symmetry.” The role that symmetry plays in quantum field theory was enlarged and greatly extended by BCS’s theory. This was the point of departure for establishing quantum field theories as the appropriate formalism for the representation of all the foundational theories as “effective field theories” describing the microscopic world down to distances of the order of 10−17 cm.103

Effective Field Theories

An effective field theory is a description of phenomena in a certain energy regime bounded by some energy (Λ) and in terms of wavelengths longer than some length scale (h/Λ). An effective field theory assumes that the physics in the domain in which it is valid can be given in terms of “elementary” entities out of which the composite entities that populate that domain are built. These “elementary” entities constitute the effective degrees of freedom appropriate to that scale. They depend on a more “fundamental” theory only through a small set of parameters that enter in the description of the dynamics of these entities.104

Relativistic quantum field theories implicitly make statements about arbitrarily short space–time distances, and thus about arbitrarily high energies and momenta, yet no conceivable experiment will be able to probe such distances. When calculating the predictions of a given theory, the contributions stemming from these high-energy, short-distance components are divergent, implying infinite results. The perturbative renormalization program to circumvent these divergences (developed by Weisskopf, Bethe, Schwinger, Feynman, and Dyson after World War II) was given a new and deeper interpretation by Kenneth Wilson and others105 in the early 1970s. Wilson was able to exhibit the effect of all possible modifications of a given theory beyond a certain cut-off energy as a re-parametrization of all possible interactions between the entities that are assumed to populate the low energy domain of that theory. Furthermore, he showed that, starting from any set of interactions at the cut-off scale, a low energy physics description at a given level of accuracy could be formulated that depended only on a few relevant parameters.

The great accomplishment of Wilson, Weinberg, and others was to demonstrate the universality of the low energy physics that resulted from the renormalization process, thus justifying the use of effective field theories. There is an important consequence of the justification of using effective field theories: as long as one does not probe beyond the energy and length scales in which they are deemed applicable, the description of the physics in their domain is not invalidated by discoveries at lower levels. The issue becomes answering the question: “To what extent can we reconstruct the world knowing the most ‘fundamental’ effective theory now known?” That issue was addressed Philip Anderson in an important article in 1971 entitled “More is Different.”106 Knowledge of the foundational theory does not imply that one can calculate or predict with the theory all the possible stable or quasi-stable structures that can be created by composition. There are limits imposed by computational complexity107 and limits in trying to translate the mathematical language of the foundational theory into a vocabulary adequate to describe geometrical conformations or informational transfers.

Epochal Break, Post-Modernity, and All That

It has been generally recognized that since the 1980s the sciences and technology have undergone a profound transformation, reflecting, on the one hand, deeply changed economic, political, and cultural contexts—and as a consequence the nature and sources of the financial support of scientific and technological activities—and on the other, a changed view of what constitute foundational theories, as well as vastly improved computational powers.108 Forman’s recent work is an attempt to characterize and assess this transformation.109

The explanation for the multifaceted tranformation have for the most part been concerned with the political, economic,110 and cultural factors, with less attention paid to cognitive factors internal to the various scientific and engineering disciplines, except for molecular biology and biotechnology. In the physical sciences, advances in quantum field theory in the mid-1970s justified a view of the physical world that segmented it into different levels, each having a foundational theory—its “effective” theory—that describes the dynamics of the entities that populate that level. These “effective” (field) theories explicitly take into account the range of energies in which the described systems can be probed and therefore the accuracy with which they can be represented. The excluded high-energy, small-distance effects are taken into account by appropriate local interactions that are calibrated by experimentally determined parameters. As noted above, what is all-important is that this highly accurate, robust, and stable description of the microscopic world is not destabilized by the incorporation of new small-distance effects provided by higher-energy—smaller-length-scale—findings.

What this implies is that a form of finalization has been given to the foundational theory that describes atoms, molecules, and solids which then allows various highly accurate models to be given for such entities as metals, insulators, superconductors, superfluids, ferromagnets, liquid crystals, two-dimensional graphite systems, optical lattices,…. People working in condensed matter physics, in photonics, in nanotechnology, on quantum computers,… are principally concerned with the creation of novelty—of entities or effects that did not previously exist in the world—or concerned with understanding the complexity and diversity that can emerge from composition and are no longer concerned with establishing the foundational theory that governs the interactions and determines the evolution of the structures that populate that domain. Thus, except for a very small component of the practitioners in these fields, the agenda is set by external factors, by the demands of specific novelty and complexity, by usefulness or efficiency, or by expectations—as is seen in nanotechnology, photonics, and quantum computation. It has become difficult to differentiate these activities from applied science, and in many cases from research and development in technology. In the physical sciences, the robustness and the precision of the foundational theories at the micro- and sub-microlevels are surely part of the reasons that the Bayh-Dole legislation has had such consequential impact on the restructuring of universities since the 1980s.111 Just as physics has been transformed, so has chemistry. Undoubtedly the biological and medical sciences have been most deeply affected by the technical advances in them: Crick and Watson, genetic codes, recombinant technologies, DNA-sequencing, genome projects, bioinformatics,… And it is in the biological sciences that the entrepreneurial aspects of the university are most visible.112

Forman has repeatedly emphasized that how the sciences evolved and expressed themselves was deeply conditioned by their cultural and social context. Although the evolution of science cannot be inferred by extrapolating current scientific concepts, Forman believes that it can be predicted “to some extent by considering the general social and cultural conditions under which scientific knowledge is being produced at present and is likely to be produced in the future.”113 Given the robustness of foundational theories and of the institutional frameworks in which they are created, Forman’s assertion seems to be valid at present. It seems likely that neoliberalism will continue to help shape the policies that govern the support of Western science and that corporate and private support will deeply affect the agenda of the science created there.

Like all his other historical works, Forman’s recent articles on the deep structural change we are witnessing are important, arresting pieces.114 These writings constitute a new Forman thesis that makes a case for the primacy of science in modernity and of technology in postmodernity, arguing that modernity entailed disciplinarity, postmodernity antidisciplinarity. This new thesis is global in scope. Like his long articles on acausality and Weimar Culture and those on the intellectual agenda of science in the US during the Cold War, these essays are generative, influential, and controversial.

As Forman has himself emphasized, his approach is exclusively cultural. Thus he demarcated postmodernity from modernity by “the abrupt reversal of culturally ascribed primacy in the science-technology relationship—namely, from the primacy of science relative to technology prior to circa 1980, to the primacy of technology relative to science since about that date.” At issue in this categorization is not the “actual, factual relations between science and technology, but only the putative, culturally presumed relations.”115 Forman does not address what today in postmodernity technology owes to science, and science to technology, nor what was the case four or five decades ago or a century ago in modernity, except to suggest that altered cultural presuppositions will likely continue to affect science in practice. Forman emphasizes that the cultural valuation of science was held high in the past by modernity’s “elevation of the public over the private and, more importantly still, the belief that the means sanctify the ends, that adherence to proper means is the best guarantee of a ‘truly good’ outcome.” In postmodernity, on the contrary, the approach is top-down: “technology is the beneficiary, and science the maleficiary, of our pragmatic-utilitarian subordination of means to ends, and of the concomitants of that predominant cultural presupposition, notably, disbelief in disinterestedness and condescension toward conceptual structures.”116

Even though Forman focuses primarily on the cultural dimension, he is, nonetheless, open to some qualifications. Traditionally, technology is intrinsically top-down in contrast to the traditional bottom-up approach of the sciences. Yet already in the 1960s, the microchip technology had assumed a bottom-up stance, and in recent years materials engineering and nanotechnology are assuming a similar position and see themselves as scientific disciplines because of their bottom-up approach. Bioengineering likewise, sees itself as a scientific discipline because of this. In fact, it is more accurate to characterize these fields as interdisciplinary hybrids of science and engineering.117

Concerning economic factors, there seems to be a consensus that neoliberalism has played a crucial role in effecting the profound transformation we are witnessing. I want to sketch—painting with very broad brushes—a parallel between the Forman’s Weimar and postmodernity theses. I would like to suggest that after 1975 in the United States the Vietnam War and the student protests of the 1960s and early ‘70s played the roles that World War I and the liberating Weimar culture did in Germany. If acausality was at the center of Forman’s Weimar paper, I would propose that information, uncertainty, and risk—the characteristics of the postmodern world—and their omnipresence, conception, and management—by whom and by what means—are central to the new Forman thesis. Similarly, Friedrich von Hayek and the thought collective that formulated neoliberalism play the roles in postmodern times that Spengler’s Decline of the West and Lebensphilosophie2 did in the Weimar period.

Neoliberalism entails a top-down view of the world as part of its metaphysics, with “top-down” resonating with the primacy of ends over means. Robert Laughlin’s recent book, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down illustrates that this ideology has infected physics as well. Laughlin is a condensed matter theoretical physicist who, together with Horst Störmer and Daniel Tsui, won the Nobel Prize for explaining the fractional Hall effects discovered by Klaus von Klitzing. The message of Laughlin’s book is that emergentism has triumphed over reductionism, with emergentism understood as asserting that the foundational theory of a given level cannot be deduced from that of a lower level, that the “reality” of a given level is more than the sum of the constituent elements of a lower level. Its central dogma is that macroscopic objects are the products of principle of organization and of collective behavior that cannot be reduced to the dynamics of their “elementary” constituents. Although I do not dispute that some form of emergentism has become part of the metaphysics of physics, one of the issues involved becomes what is taken as the foundational theory for a given level.118

Implementing von Hayek’s neoliberalism became part of Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s political agenda. Their election transformed the role of the government in the UK and the US. Reagan’s election had further profound consequences. I conclude addressing some of these by returning to Bethe.

The End

Bethe’s life ended on a somber note. Throughout his life, he had felt a heavy responsibility for his contributions to the creation of nuclear weapons; he invested huge efforts to constrain their developments and make nuclear energy have peaceful applications. He found justification and consolation for his participation in the development of fission and fusion bombs in the fact that the Soviet Union and the United States did not come to blows in the face of many provocations after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. MADness had worked.

Ronald Reagan changed that. In March 1982, when asked during a news conference whether a nuclear war was winnable, Reagan replied that there could not be any winners in such a war: “everybody would be a loser.” Yet, acting at Reagan’s request, Caspar W. Weinberger, his Secretary of Defense, and the Pentagon were at that very moment drawing up plans for the possibility of waging a protracted nuclear war. On May 20, 1982, Reagan signed the National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 32 stating that “the United States will enhance its strategic nuclear deterrent by developing a capability to sustain protracted nuclear conflict,” and that “the modernization of our strategic nuclear forces … shall receive first priority.” Further, on January 17, 1983, he signed NSDD-75, which, while stressing deterrence, promoted a massive nuclear build-up so that the outcome of a nuclear war with the USSR would be so devastating to it “that there would be no incentive for Soviet leaders to initiate an attack.”119 These directives led to regard the doctrine of Nuclear Utilization Target Selection (NUTS) as a viable alternative to the dogma of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).120 NUTS gave rise to considerations of the possibility of making preemptive attacks on the silos housing the Soviet nuclear weapons in order to destroy the weapons before they could be used. To be successful, a preemptive strike requires the possession of an overwhelmingly greater number of highly accurate nuclear weapons than the enemy, and the US seemingly embarked on implementing this viewpoint. The US commitment to NUTS can be inferred from the adoption at the time of a number of first-strike weapons, e.g., the Trident II and Minuteman III nuclear missiles, both highly accurate and able to destroy an enemy missile silo if so targeted. An additional indication of the extent to which NUTS became policy was the development of stealth bombers capable of carrying a large numbers of cruise missiles, missiles that can likewise be made “stealthy” and thus able to evade enemy radar detection. Moreover, cruise missiles, by virtue of the earlier successful design of small fusion bombs, could be “nuclear tipped.”121

Reagan’s massive arms build-up reached its climax in March 1983 when he proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an anti-ballistic defense system that would use ground and space-based X-ray lasers to destroy incoming Soviet missiles armed with nuclear warheads. SDI focused on strategic defense and was to complement the strategic offense doctrine of NUTS. Shortly after hearing Reagan’s speech, Bethe went to Livermore to assess the capabilities of the X-ray laser developed there, on which the SDI proposal was based. Though impressed by the novelty of the X-ray laser, Bethe went away “highly skeptical [that] it would contribute anything to the nation’s defense.”122 He believed that a laser defense shield was not feasible. To develop, build, and operate any defensive system was very costly and easily rendered ineffective. Thus, the Soviets could easily send thousands of cheap decoy missiles to overwhelm the defensive system during a nuclear attack. Furthermore, Bethe believed that an anti-ballistic defense shield would be viewed as a threat by the Soviets because it would limit Soviet offensive capabilities but leave American offense capabilities intact. Bethe was convinced that the only way to stop the threat of nuclear war was through diplomacy; he did not believe that a technical solution to the Cold War existed. In these activities, he was helped keeping abreast of developments by his colleague and close friend, Kurt Gottfried—one of the organizers with Henry Kendall of the Union of Concerned Scientists in May 1968—and by other colleagues at Cornell and elsewhere, such as Richard Garwin, Henry Kendall, Franklin Long, and Judith Reppy. Thus, in March 1984 Bethe helped write a 106-page report on SDI issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists,123 whose conclusion was that “the X-ray laser offers no prospect of being a useful component in a system for ballistic missile defense.” Similarly, in 1988 he participated in the study conceived and initiated by Paul Bracken, Richard Garwin, Kurt Gottfried, and Henry Kendall that examined “the role of crisis as a precursor to nuclear war and the extent to which the US and the USSR could maintain control over such a chain of events.”124 These are but two among the many papers he wrote and the many discussions in which he participated regarding nuclear weapons and their containment, along with the prevention of nuclear war.125 Bethe’s anxieties concerning nuclear weapons culminated in 1995 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the leveling of Hiroshima with an appeal to scientists to take a Hippocratic oath not to work on weapons of mass destruction:

As the Director of the Theoretical Division of Los Alamos, I participated at the most senior level in the World War II Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic weapons.

Now, at age 88, I am one of the few remaining such senior persons alive. Looking back at the half century since that time, I feel the most intense relief that these weapons have not been used since World War II, mixed with the horror that tens of thousands of such weapons have been built since that time—one hundred times more than any of us at Los Alamos could ever have imagined.

Today we are rightly in an era of disarmament and dismantlement of nuclear weapons. But in some countries nuclear weapons development still continues. Whether and when the various Nations of the World can agree to stop this is uncertain. But individual scientists can still influence this process by withholding their skills.

Accordingly, I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons—and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.126

After George W. Bush became president in 2001, Bethe became additionally concerned that independent scientific and technological advice was playing an ever-smaller role in governmental policies. More specifically, he became very disturbed by the actions of the Bush administration in disbanding many governmental scientific advisory bodies and replacing a large fraction of the members of the still-existing ones with people who were either drawn from the industrial scientific community, whom he thought were less independent than scientists in the academy or whom he believed were ideologically committed to the Bush policies regardless of the scientific facts. With profound anguish, he observed the paths taken by the Bush administration when addressing issues relating to nuclear weaponry, test-ban treaties, the environment, and the dramatic increase in the information it stamped secret. Secrecy prevented people from knowing. Only if they had knowledge could they act rationally—and rationality was essential to Bethe. He decried the Bush administration’s involvement in Iraq and the secrecy involved in the justification for the military actions taken. And he lamented the fact that the Bush administration was giving political and military considerations priority over all other factors, including scientific realities, at a time when science and technology were of paramount importance in making possible the US’s economic and social well-being. He came to regret the role he had played earlier in making some of this possible. His despair stemmed from the fact that he had a drastically different vision of the aims and responsibilities of the United States in the world and of the role that science would play in its growth and evolution than the one projected by the George W. Bush administration. Perhaps most painful was that his faith in reason and rationality—which had given him hope, resilience, and buoyancy all his life—had been deeply shaken and undermined.127

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    The sociologist Robert K. Merton observed that if two scientists arrive at similar conclusions, the more eminent or famous scientist will often receive more credit. Merton coined the term "Matthew Effect" to describe the phenomenon, from Jesus' parable of the talents as told in Matthew 25:29: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath."

  2. 2.

    Lebensphilosophie (“philosophy of life”) emerged in Germany during the nineteenth century as a reaction to the emphasis on science and rationalism in philosophy. It emphasized the meaning and purpose of life and had a anti-rational, Romantic component in its outlook.

Notes

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to Jeffrey Goldstone, Kurt Gottfried, and Snait Gissis for very valuable and useful discussions; to Paul Forman for extended talks regarding the content of this article and for his critical reading of it and suggestions. The helpful recommendations by Peter Pesic and Robert Crease, the editors of Physics in Perspective, are likewise gratefully acknowledged.

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    This paper is based on an invited lecture delivered in November 2011 at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society and in December 2011 on the occasion of Paul Forman’s retirement at the Smithsonian Institution. It was a privilege to have been asked to deliver the lecture honoring Forman. We have been close friends for the past thirty years. We both come out of physics and have a special relationship to physics and physicists. I admire Paul Forman and his works greatly, and he has influenced me deeply. His integrity, his comportment, and his writings made, and continue to make, clear to me the responsibilities we have as historians. This paper is dedicated to him as a token of my admiration, affection and respect. When considering what Paul Forman has accomplished as a historian of science and as a curator, and keeps on accomplishing as a historian, many commendations can be made. John Heilbron, who has known Forman since his student’s days at Berkeley did so when commenting on Forman’s oeuvre as a historian at a conference in Vancouver in 2005 honoring Forman: John L. Heilbron, “Cold War Culture, History of Science and Postmodernity: Engagement of an Intellectual in a Hostile Academic Environment.” in Cathryn Carson, Alexei Kojevnikov, and Helmuth Trischler, eds., Weimar Culture and Quantum Mechanics (Singapore: World Scientific, 2011), 2–20. The editors’ introduction to the proceedings of the conference and Heilbron’s article therein detail the magnitude of Forman’s accomplishments as a historian of science and the respect he is held in as an outstanding scholar.Google Scholar
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    I am aware that at most I can write succinct, contextually sensitive, narrations selected from some of the important components of his life from 1940 to his death: Los Alamos; the Shelter Island conference; his consulting for the General Electric Knolls Laboratory, Detroit Edison, and later AVCO; his involvement with H-bombs; his sabbatical in Cambridge/England during the academic year 1955–6; his shift from high energy to nuclear physics; nuclear matter; his serving on PSAC; the Nobel prize in 1967; his involvement in the Cornell student rebellion 1968–71; his becoming an astrophysicist; neutrinos and supernovae; star wars.Google Scholar
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    However, the Cold War context was such that Robert R. Wilson (who had severed all his ties with making atomic weapons after he left Los Alamos, where he had been the head of the Nuclear Physics Division), in 1950, when he was the director of the Newman Lab, designed a mobile electron beam gun to destroy atomic bombs after he had learned of strong focusing. See Silvan S. Schweber, “Defending against Nuclear Weapons: A 1950 Proposal,” Physics Today 60, no. 4 (2007), 36–41.Google Scholar
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    In “Hacking the Quantum Revolution” (ref. 103), I take issue with Laughlin and Pines’s formulation of the foundational theory that is the point of departure for Laughlin’s assertions in A Different Universe. Robert B. Laughlin and David Pines, “The Theory of Everything,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97, no. 1 (2000), 28–31.Google Scholar
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    It should be noted that Forman’s view of the postmodern world is every bit as bleak as was Bethe’s. See Forman, “The Primacy of Science in Modernity” (ref. 6), n420. There Forman states: “If postmodernity, such as it is, continues its advance—and I can see nothing short of a catastrophic alteration of the life conditions on this planet as capable of altering the ever wider spread and deeper seating of this radically self-regarding individualism—then the consequent transformations of personality, culture and society will render the constructive endeavors of the past three centuries increasingly irrelevant and unintelligible. Among those endeavors, science is especially vulnerable. For if science is not regarded as separate and distinguishable from technology in some culturally highly valued ways, and if the fact of scientific laws is not regarded as a greater miracle than the fact that the machine works, then it is ‘curtains’ for the scientific enterprise.”Google Scholar

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© Springer Basel 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brandeis UniversityWalthamUSA

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