Profile profile for formanp
The history of physics, especially in relation to environing society and culture.
Characterization of the modern/postmodern transition in science, society, and culture.
- 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).
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An overview of the several types of atomic frequency standards with some attention to the historical sequence and context of their development.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
Describes concept and content of exhibition on the history of atomic clocks then in preparation, and on display until 1988.
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.
A narrative illustrated by dramatic photographs of the exhibition Atom smashers: fifty years, on display 1977-1988.