Profile

Paul Forman

Curator Emeritus
Research Specialties 

The history of physics, especially in relation to environing society and culture.

Projects 

Characterization of the modern/postmodern transition in science, society, and culture.

Awards, Honors, and Special Recognition 
  • 1988: Elected a Fellow of The American Physical Society "for his research on the history and cultural background of modern physics, and for his development of museum exhibits presenting physics to the public."
  • 1997: Elected a Fellow of The American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • 2007:  International conference, "The Cultural Alchemy of the Exact Sciences: Revisiting the Forman Thesis," University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC, March 2007.
  • 2011:  Weimar Culture and Quantum Mechanics: Selected Papers by Paul Forman and Contemporary Perspectives on the Forman Thesis, edited by Cathryn Carson, Alexei Kojevnikov, and Helmuth Trischler (Imperial College Press and World Scientific Publishing).
Professional Affiliations 
  • American Physical Society
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • American Historical Association
  • History of Science Society
  • Society for History of Technology
    Society for Social Studies of Science
  • Society for History in the Federal Government

Publications

“(Re)cognizing postmodernity: helps for historians -- of science especially,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 33 (2010), 157-175.

This paper resumes the argument of “The Primacy…” that faith in procedurism and a low valuation of technology (relative to science) were distinctive for modernity and demarcated it from postmodernity. It extends that argument by drawing attention to the demise of disinterestedness as cultural value in postmodernity. Further, it underscores the distinction between the reality that is postmodernity and the ideology and practice that is postmodernism by drawing attention to the fact that the postmodernists’ contention that contemporary personhood is essentially and characteristically fragmented is contradicted by our exaltation of the single-minded, rule-breaking entrepreneur above all other ideals of personhood, in particular above the open-minded but rule-following scientist.

"How Lewis Mumford saw science, and art, and himself," Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 38 (2007), 271-336.

Mumford saw himself as a scientist of a sort, a fact ignored by nearly every scholar writing about him in the past thirty years.  Mumford’s estimation of science, of physics especially, was far higher and far more constant than was his estimation of technology, which only during a short period in the late 1920s and early 1930s did he regarded as embodying affirmable values.  Although he deplored nuclear weapons, Mumford’s valuation of science as an element of culture, and of scientists as agents of social progress, rose in the postwar decades.  This was a result of Mumford’s rejection of contemporary art, for after the mid-1930s Mumford could no longer suppress the distaste he felt for abstract art, and could no longer sustain his earlier belief — a common faith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — that art and the artist were the agents by which new, socially salvific values were created.

"The Primacy of Science in Modernity, of Technology in Postmodernity, and of Ideology in the History of Technology" History and Technology, 23:1, 1 - 152.

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—is proposed as a demarcator of postmodernity from modernity. Ironically, that prior primacy of science is largely responsible for historians of technology having remained almost wholly unacknowledging of postmodernity’s epochal elevation of the cultural standing of the subject of their studies.
View Frontispiece

"From the social to the moral to the spiritual: the postmodern exaltation of the history of science" in Positioning the History of Science [Festschrift for S.S. Schweber], edited by Jürgen Renn and Kostas Gavroglu. ‘Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science , Vol. 248’ (Berlin and New York: Springer Verlag, 2007), pp. 49-55.

Some consequences for the writing of the history of science following from the demise in postmodernity of disciplinarity, and of every other form of social solidarity, are pointed out.  The rising interest in the moral dimension of history and history of science from the late 1960s through the 1980s, and the coincident decline of interest in the social dimension, is documented bibliometrically and asserted to be indicative of the onset of postmodernity.  The recently surging interest in spirituality is similarly documented and asserted to be indicative of our presently more fully realized condition of postmodernity.

"Schrödinger, Erwin." in The Oxford Companion to the History of Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. pp.733–34.

Brief biography of this early 20th -entury Austrian theoretical physicist with appraisals of his work, in particular disparaging his highly influential What Is Life? as of little value.

"Recent science: late-modern and post-modern." In The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology. Thomas Söderqvist, editor. (Harwood Academic Publications: London and Chur, 1997), pp. 179–213. Reprinted, with a few revisions, in Science Bought and Sold: Rethinking the Economics of Science. Philip Mirowski and E.-M. Sent, editors. (University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 109–148.

Essays identifying the features that distinguish knowledge production in postmodernity from the modern era, stressing the overproduction of all cultural goods, and the acceptance of bound and interested knowledge as fully legitimate knowledge. Direction of knowledge production by moral considerations is thus likewise legitimated, with ‘responsibility’ then appearing to gain primacy as normative category.

"What the Past Tells Us about the Future of Science" in La ciencia y la tecnologia ante el tercer milenio. José Manuel Sánchez Ron, ed. Madrid: Sociedad Estatal España Nuevo Milenio, 2002. pp. 27–37.

The future of science cannot be predicted by extrapolating current scientific concepts but can, 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.

"In the Era of the Earmark: the Recent Pejoration of Meritocracy—and of Peer Review" in Recent Science Newsletter, v.2, nr 3 (Spring 2001), pp. 1, 10–12.

The modern/postmodern transition as reflected in the changing connotations of the word ‘meritocracy’ and in the recent turn away from expert peer review, formerly regarded as the optimal way to allot funds for scientific research.

"Researching Rabi's Relics: Using the Electron to Determine Nuclear Moments before Magnetic Resonance, 1927–1937." Artefacts: Studies in the History of Science and Technology. vol.2: Exposing Electronics. Bernard Finn, editor. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000. pp. 161–174.

An overview of the technique of magnetic deflection of molecular beams employed by Columbia University physicist I. I. Rabi to determine spins and magnetic moments of atomic nuclei in the years before he invented the technique of nuclear magnetic resonance.

"Tunnels!' —A talk through the exhibition." In Going Underground: Tunneling Past, Present, and Future. Jeffrey K. Stine and Howard Rosen, eds. (Public Works Historical Society: Kansas City, Mo., 1998), 142–49.

An overview of the exhibition in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Dibner Gallery in the Museum, August 1993 to May 1994. The last exhibition to be curated by Ellen Wells, it traced the history of tunneling technology, from antiquity to the present, with particular emphasis on the 19th century.

"Lock-in detection/amplifier." Instruments of science: an historical encyclopedia. Robert Bud and D. J. Warner, eds. (Garland Publishing Co.: New York and London, 1998), pp.359–361.

Consideration of the signal/noise ratio became widespread, indeed mandatory, in physical research only in the years following World War II, largely as a result of analyses and techniques developed to detect a ‘real’ signal in the noisy output of a radar receiver. "Lock-in detection,” most influentially embodied in R. H. Dicke’s microwave radiometer, 1943, is a procedure for noise reduction through subtraction of inputs followed by frequency specific amplification and detection.

"Clocks, atomic." Instruments of science: an historical encyclopedia. Robert Bud and D. J. Warner, eds. (Garland Publishing Co.: New York and London, 1998), pp. 118–121.

An overview of the several types of atomic frequency standards with some attention to the historical sequence and context of their development.

"Molecular beam measurements of nuclear moments before magnetic resonance: I. I. Rabi and deflecting magnets to 1938. Part I." Annals of Science, v.55: 111–160 (1998).

A close examination of the earliest phases of I. I. Rabi’s scientific life and work, through his postdoctoral research at Hamburg University with Otto Stern, 1927-29, and of the techniques for magnetic deflection of molecular beams employed by Stern and Rabi in that laboratory.

"P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, and M. W. Lewis, eds., The flight from science and reason" Science, 276: 750–53 (1997).

Essay review of the proceedings of a conference called to refute postmodern intellectual positions, pointing out how ineffective the contributions are in doing so, and how largely the contributions themselves give evidence of the postmodernization of contemporary thought, including that of scientists.

"Into quantum electronics: the maser as 'gadget' of Cold-War America." In Paul Forman and José M. Sánchez-Ron, eds. National Military Establishments and the Advancement of Science and Technology: Studies in Twentieth Century History (Kluwer Academic Publ.: Dordrecht, 1996), pp. 261–326.

A close examination of the origins of the ammonia beam maser within the military-sponsored Columbia Radiation Laboratory in the early 1950s, together with an examination of the term ‘gadget’ in the parlance of American physicists of that era as indicative of the uneasy relation between their disciplinary self-image and their laboratory practice.

"Swords into ploughshares': breaking new ground with radar hardware and technique in physical research after World War II." Reviews of Modern Physics, 67: 397–455 (1995).

A review of the many different areas of physical research in which the electronic hardware and the microwave techniques developed in World War II radar programs were fruitfully applied after the war. Special attention is given to the question of continuity vrs discontinuity in research directions from pre- to post-war as test of disciplinary autonomy. Some 500 references given.

"Truth and objectivity. Part 1: Irony. Part 2: Trust." Science, 269: 565-567, 707–710 (1995).

An essay review of A. Megill, ed., Rethinking objectivity (1994); J. Appleby, L. Hunt, and M. Jacob, Telling the truth about history (1994); S. Shapin, A social history of truth (1994);T. Porter, Trust in numbers (1995). It makes the point that as challenges to belief in truth and in objectivity have escaped from academic discussion, becoming axioms of popular culture, many scholars who previously contributed to undermining that belief are becoming alarmed at the consequences of wholesale voluntarism.

"Inventing the Maser in Postwar America," Osiris, 7: 105–134 (1992).

A critical examination of the concepts and assumptions regarding radiation fields and their interaction with matter underlying the invention of the ammonia beam maser by Charles Townes and his collaborators at Columbia University in the early 1950s, emphasizing particularly that the merits of the device as ‘atomic clock’ were not anticipated, and that until it actually worked the maser was not a priority project in Townes laboratory.

"Behind quantum electronics: national security as basis for physical research in the United States, 1940–1960." Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 18: 149–229 (1987). Reprinted in Science and Society: The History of Modern Physical Science in the Twentieth Century. Peter Louis Galison, Michael Gordin, and David Kaiser, editors. 4 vols (New York : Routledge, 2001).

Gives various measures of the expansion of physical research in and following World War II and makes a broad case that it had the purpose and the result of reorienting that research toward refined and magnified effects, toward technique rather than toward concept, as this was where lay the interests of the national security agencies sponsoring that research.

"The First Atomic Clock Program: NBS, 1947–1954," Proceedings of the 17th Annual Precise Time and Time Interval Applications and Planning Meeting, 1985 Dec.3–6 (NASA: Washington, D.C., 1986), 1-17.

Illustrated narrative account of the broadly conceived program to develop several types of atomic clocks built up by Harold Lyons as head of the Microwave Standards Section of the National Bureau of Standards’ (now NIST) military-controlled Central Radio Propagation Laboratory—the first such program, from which also came the first atomic clock.

"Atomichron®: The Atomic Clock from Concept to Commercial Product," Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, 73: 1181–1204 (1985).

Illustrated narrative account of the concept and realization of atomic frequency standards, 1873–1953, and, in greater detail, of development, 1953–56, of the first commercial atomic frequency standard. This device, tradenamed Atomichron®, incorporating the first vacuum-sealed cesium beam tube, resulted from the collaboration of MIT physicist Jerrold Zacharias, and his student R.T. Daly Jr, with the National [Radio] Company of Malden, Mass.

"Atomic Clocks': Preview of an Exhibit at the Smithsonian," Proceedings of the 36th Annual Frequency Control Symposium (U.S. Army Signal Research and Development Command, 1982), 220–22.

Describes concept and content of exhibition on the history of atomic clocks then in preparation, and on display until 1988.

"The Fall of Parity." The Physics Teacher, 20: 281–88 (1982).

Illustrated narrative account, elaborating the descriptive labels in a like-named Museum exhibition, 1981–82, in which was displayed the apparatus used in 1956 by Ernest Ambler and collaborators at the National Institute of Standards and Technology to confirm experimentally the theoretical prediction by C.N. Yang and T.D. Lee of the non-conservation of parity in some nuclear processes (“weak interactions”).

Einstein: a Centenary Exhibition with Paul A. Hanle. (Smithsonian Institution Press for National Museum of History and Technology, 1979), 48 pp.

Catalog of an special exhibition, 1979–80, in the Dibner Exhibition Gallery of the Museum featuring artists portraits of Einstein, manuscripts by him, and apparatus connected with tests of his special and general theories of relativity – notably a large torsion balance to test equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass constructed for Lorand Eötvös (lent by Museum for History and Science and Technology, Budapest), and a 1300 Kg aluminum cylinder deployed by Joseph Weber as gravitational wave antenna.

"The Atom Smashers," in The Smithsonian Book of Invention (Smithsonian Exposition Books, 1978), 132–139.

A narrative illustrated by dramatic photographs of the exhibition Atom smashers: fifty years, on display 1977-1988.

Pages