Physics in Perspective

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 8–42 | Cite as

Playing with Quantum Toys: Julian Schwinger’s Measurement Algebra and the Material Culture of Quantum Mechanics Pedagogy at Harvard in the 1960s

  • Jean-François Gauvin


In the early 1960s, a PhD student in physics, Costas Papaliolios, designed a simple—and playful—system of Polaroid polarizer filters with a specific goal in mind: explaining the core principles behind Julian Schwinger’s quantum mechanical measurement algebra, developed at Harvard in the late 1940s and based on the Stern-Gerlach experiment confirming the quantization of electron spin. Papaliolios dubbed his invention “quantum toys.” This article looks at the origins and function of this amusing pedagogical device, which landed half a century later in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University. Rendering the abstract tangible was one of Papaliolios’s demonstration tactics in reforming basic teaching of quantum mechanics. This article contends that Papaliolios’s motivation in creating the quantum toys came from a renowned endeavor aimed, inter alia, at reforming high-school physics training in the United States: Harvard Project Physics. The pedagogical study of these quantum toys, finally, compels us to revisit the central role playful discovery performs in pedagogy, at all levels of training and in all fields of knowledge.


quantum toys Julian Schwinger pedagogy Harvard University Costas Papaliolios measurement algebra Harvard Project Physics 



I would like to warmly thank Aaron Wright, David Kaiser, Kimball Milton, Stephen Fulling, Walter Wilcox, Eric Heller, Joseph Martin, Robert Crease, and Peter Pesic for their careful reading and various comments on the initial manuscript. I dedicate this article to Sam Schweber, who was with me every step of the way toward publication. His extraordinary knowledge and kindness will be dearly missed.


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    Gerald Holton, letter to David Wheatland, June 19, 1980, HPA Box 16, Folder 6. See also Gerald Holton, letters to Paul Forman, June 19, 1980; October 22, 1980; November 24, 1980, HPA, Box 16, Folder 6. In other correspondence, we learn that Forman wanted to make an exhibition on the occasion of Bridgman’s centenary. It was never mounted. The presses and other equipment have inventory numbers 1980.0595.01 through 05 at the Smithsonian. I would like to thank Roger Sherman for providing me with this information.Google Scholar
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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Collection of Historical Scientific InstrumentsHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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