Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast

Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast

Initial conditions provide the context in which physics happens. Likewise, in Initial Conditions: a Physics History Podcast, we provide the context in which physical discoveries happened. We dive into the collections of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives at the American Institute of Physics to uncover the unexpected stories behind the physics we know. Through these stories, we hope to challenge the conventional history of what it means to be a physicist.

Episodes

September 21, 2022 40 min

Apart from his publications on gravity and optics, Newton was also a biblical scholar, religious mystic, and alchemist. In fact, a great deal of his work focuses on subjects that modern audiences might not consider to be scientific. You might be surprised to know how important the study of alchemy was to Newton. More than a pet interest, alchemy was an important part of Newton’s attempt to understand the nature of the divine. This ...

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This is the story of how a Pittsburgh steel worker became the lensmaker behind some of the most important experiments of 19th century physics. John Brashear fell in love with the night sky as a kid in the 1840s. Though he took a job as a millwright, in his free time, he and his wife dedicated themselves to making a telescope lens so they could view the stars. With only an elementary education (and the mentorship of Samuel Langley a...

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September 7, 2022 36 min

In June, after several technical mishaps, I flew down to Atlanta, Georgia, to meet Dr. Ronald Mickens and talk about his research on the history of African American physicists. In this episode, you’ll hear my interview with Dr. Mickens. He discusses his personal and professional backgrounds, how he became interested in studying the history of African American physicists, the factors that he considers to be most important in expandi...

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September 1, 2022 29 min

Based on the Ronald E. Mickens collection, this episode describes the history of the community of Black physicists in the United States. In 1999 the American Physical Society celebrated its centennial. In conjunction with the celebration, Dr. Ronald Mickens and his colleagues created an exhibit on the community of African American physicists and their contributions to the field during the twentieth century. In addition to providing...

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This episode will tell the stories of Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. It features an interview with Olivia Waite, who combines the two historic women in the protagonist of her regency, sapphic, romance novel The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet and artfully navigated the scientific world of the 18th and early 19th century to become one of the first paid women astr...

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August 17, 2022 49 min

What is pseudoscience? The answer to that question is more difficult than you might think. In trying to answer the question, we can learn a lot more about what science is, how it is practiced, and what goes into producing new scientific knowledge. Based on the work of historian of science Michael Gordin and several collections in the Niels Bohr Library & Archives, this episode examines pseudoscientific theories based on Einstei...

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August 10, 2022 49 min

 Inspired by David Kaiser's 2011 book, How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival, this episode will cover the discomfort many physicists experienced while grappling with quantum mechanics and how their unconventional methods led to quantum key encryption. Like many Americans of the 1960s and 70s, some physicists took part in questioning traditional institutions. They engaged in philosophica...

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This episode describes efforts undertaken by the Department of Energy in the late 1970s to study the environmental, economic, and social consequences of anthropogenic climate change. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon confronted a series of energy crises. Blackouts in major U.S. cities, natural gas shortages, and the 1973 OPEC oil embargo led to cold winters, hot summers, and long lines at the pump. In response, Nixon bega...

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 In this episode we discuss the efforts of three scientists–Svante Arrhenius, Guy Callendar, and Charles David Keeling–to figure out exactly what fossil fuel emissions might be doing to the atmosphere and the global temperature. Surprisingly, Arrhenius and other early climate scientists didn’t necessarily think that global warming would be…such a bad thing? But by the 1970s scientists began to push for more concerted efforts to res...

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Perhaps because she was a woman, or perhaps because she was American, Eunice Foote did not receive credit for her 1856 discovery of the heat-absorbing properties of carbon dioxide and water vapor. In this episode, we will tell the story of the once forgotten climate scientist, activist, and inventor, Eunice Foote, with help from Sir Roland Jackson of the Royal Institute and University College London. Though little is known about he...

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June 15, 2022 2 min
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