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Ten Decades, Ten Physicists:
A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century
As Seen Through the Lives of Ten Outstanding Scientists

A Colloquium Presentation based on
PHYSICS: Decade by Decade
by Alfred B. Bortz, Ph. D.
(Facts On File, Twentieth-Century Science set, 2007, grades 6-12 and adult, ISBN#9780816055326)

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In the mid-1890s, physicists--scientists who study matter and energy--looked ahead to the 20th century with justifiable pride. The more they had studied the universe in the 19th century, the more orderly they had found it to be. Its behavior was thoroughly predictable through natural laws that they expressed in the precise language of mathematics. Though there were still a few important questions to be answered, most physicists were confident that the 20th century would be devoted to refining theories and making the critical measurements needed to complete the tapestry of their science.

They could not have been more wrong. Instead of tying up a few loose ends, physicists pulled on a few snags and watched the entire theoretical fabric of physics unravel. It would take most of the new century to reweave it. The process would redefine almost everything people thought they understood about matter and energy, space and time, and waves and particles.

Fred Bortz tells a full house about Ernest Rutherford,
scientist of the decade 1911-1920, at a library talk in 2007.
In one picture, Rutherford, known for his booming voice,
is standing under a sign that says, "Talk Softly Please."

Now in the early 21st century, relativity and quantum mechanics plus the standard model of particle physics seem to provide a nearly complete description of nature. Yet there are some nagging open questions that may be resolved by experimental and observational tools that will soon be coming on line. Those questions include:

This presentation will not answer those questions, but it will provide insight into how they have arisen and how they are currently being pursued. It will include a decade-by-decade timeline of 20th-century events and discoveries in physics plus a historical narrative of how those events played out as seen through the lives of ten "scientists of the decade." Those scientists have been selected not only on the basis of their achievements during those decades but also on the way their lives reflect the times in which they lived.

The themes of the ten decades and their featured physicists are:

If you are considering buying this book, the following two sample profiles are available on request in .pdf format:

Scientist of the Decade, 1920s, Wolfgang Pauli, which includes the following:
Choosing a featured scientist from among all the notable physicists whose work contributed to quantum theory is not an easy task, especially since many of them continued to contribute to physics in later years. However historical records and correspondence of that period leave little doubt that most physicists considered Wolfgang Ernst Pauli to be in a class by himself....

Pauli continued to live and work in Zurich until his death on December 15, 1958. Soon after that, physicists invented one last Pauli story. They described Pauli's first meeting with God, in which he asked for an explanation for the value of a particular physical constant....
Scientist of the Decade, 1930s, Lise Meitner, which includes the following:
If professional accomplishments alone were the criteria for choosing a featured scientist, the choice for the 1930s would be Enrico Fermi. But the work of science can affect and be affected dramatically by social, political, and historical factors. And among the top physicists of the 1930s, there is no one whose life better illustrates the influence of the times in which she worked more than Lise Meitner.

Meitner's story is not of the 1930s alone. In fact, by the time she and Otto Frisch developed the first theory of nuclear fission in 1938, she had passed her sixtieth birthday and had built a notable career in physics. And although the persecution she faced as a person of Jewish ancestry was part of a much larger horror that should never be minimized, it was not the only time in her life that she had to overcome discrimination to succeed. She was born female at a time, November 7, 1878, and in a place, Vienna, Austria, where the traditional expectations for women were enforced by societal norms and sometimes in the law.....

For the first eight years of the Nazi government's existence, Meitner had been protected by her Austrian citizenship. That changed when the Nazis took over the Austrian government in 1938. At that point, even though she had converted to Protestantism thirty years earlier, she was subject to the Nazi government's restrictions on Jews. She even lost her passport, which made arranging an escape particularly difficult....

She died on October 27, 1968, a few days before her ninetieth birthday, and was buried in a country churchyard near Cambridge, England, where she had retired eight years earlier to be near her nephew Otto Frisch. She did not live to see the naming of synthetic element number 109 Meitnerium in her honor....


Text copyright 2007-2009 by Alfred B. Bortz, all rights reserved
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