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.


December 29, 2022 77 mins

Justin, Maura, and Allison reflect on the creation of Initial Conditions and speak to some of the other staff at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and the Center for History of Physics. They share their favorite episodes, the episodes they wish they had made, and the difficulties of making a podcast from scratch. With guests Joanna, Corinne, Audrey, and Jae, they emphasize the collaborative nature of the project, reminisce, and...

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In this episode, Justin and Maura interview speakers and students who attended the 2022 Society for Physics Students Physics Congress. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell shares the story of her 1967 discovery of radio pulsars and her omission from the Nobel Prize awarded for that discovery. Nobel Laureate, Dr. John Mather explained the importance of learning about the early universe and the potential of the James Webb Space Telescope. Other...

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October 6, 2022 70 mins

Featuring a discussion with experts Samantha Thompson and Kalewa Correa from the Smithsonian Institution, this episode is about the history of Hawai’i and the controversy surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The TMT Corporation’s Board of Directors selected Maunakea as its preferred site in 2009. The 2014 groundbreaking for the TMT site was met with fierce, but peaceful, opposition by Native Hawaiians and environmentalists...

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September 29, 2022 49 mins

This episode dives into the story of the oldest book in NBLA’s Wenner Collection: a 1528 Latin translation of the Almagest. Claudius Ptolemy wrote the Almagest, originally titled Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, in the 2nd century CE. In the Almagest, Ptolemy proposed a mathematical model to explain and predict the motions of celestial objects. Though his geocentric model was debunked by the 16th century, the text facilitated the great observ...

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September 22, 2022 40 mins

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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September 15, 2022 45 mins

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 8, 2022 36 mins

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 mins

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 18, 2022 49 mins

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 11, 2022 49 mins

 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 philosophic...

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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 mins
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