17-19 Segment 2: The History of Physics

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The history of physics is a long and extremely interesting one, littered with the names of some of the most famous scientists in the world, like Galileo, Newton, Copernicus, Einstein, Curie, and others. We talk to a science historian about a few of the highlights throughout the long history of physics and astronomy.

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  • Tom Jackson, author of Physics: An illustrated history of the foundations of science – a Ponderables book

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The History of Physics

Peterson: Americans love science. Kids grow up trying fun experiments at home. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast Startalk Radio is a mainstay on most downloaded lists. Soon, Bill Nye will make his hotly anticipated return to our lives with Bill Nye Saves the World on Netflix; and the science-themed shows on Discovery Network are always fascinating. Among the most interesting of the shows are those that look back at scientific history. It’s amazing that ancient Greeks and others could even do science back in those days without telescopes, microscopes or even much of the mathematics we have now. Yet, the men and women who make amazing scientific discoveries today do so by standing on the shoulders of those scientists and thinkers who came before. That’s the idea of the Ponderables series of books.

Tom Jackson: That’s what we try to do in the Ponderables series. We break the subject, in this case physics, down into 100 steps. We start way back in the past in ancient Greek times generally and then you see how the modern understanding of physics arose after all of the work of 100 people who built on each other’s discoveries.

Peterson: That’s Tom Jackson, author of the Ponderables book titled Physics: An illustrated history of the foundations of science. It’s a tall order to choose only 100 people out of the entire pantheon of scientists who contributed to physics.

Jackson: There is a set of ideas that I wanted to be able to explain for the readers, so they’d understand the basics behind things like electricity and force and particle physics and quantum physics, introducing them all to those subjects. So I chose the figures that led towards those end points so in the later part of the book, where we’re getting into modern times, the reader has the full idea of those subjects. So there’s a question of choosing the people who did important stuff.  Fortunately, of course, a lot of people who feature in the book worked in all of the important areas so you could cover lots of different subjects at once.

Peterson: The first person featured in the book is an ancient Greek philosopher named Thales who lived in the 7th century BC. But how could anyone know about physics that far into the past?

Jackson: Well, physics just means nature in ancient Greek. It was the study of nature. The interesting thing about Thales was that he wasn’t going to take anyone else’s word for it, he wanted to explain things, have reasons for things that he could see the evidence for. He’s the first person we know who behaved in that way, and that’s why he’s described as the Father of Science. He didn’t know a great deal about physics, but he sort of set the ball rolling.

Peterson: Observing things first-hand was an important step in discovering how the world worked. So was thinking about how natural elements behave – even if you couldn’t see them – by using thought experiments the way Leucippus did back in the fifth century BC, when he developed a theory of atoms.

Jackson: Leucippus proposed that there were units in matter that couldn’t be divided in half, that were uncut-able — “atoms” means uncut-able in Greek– And that once you got down to this unit, it was impossible to break it down any smaller.

Peterson: Some of the biggest scientific discoveries came during the renaissance by names that we’re all familiar with: Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. Jackson says that Copernicus and Galileo documented some of the same astronomical events, such as determining that our solar system didn’t revolve around the earth but around the sun. But Copernicus was cautious not to step on the toes of the very politically powerful Catholic Church by spreading his theories. Galileo wasn’t.

Jackson: He was the first one to contradict the Church on scientific grounds while he was alive, really. Copernicus knew well enough not to do it. He’d come 30 or 40 years before, he knew well enough not to do it until he died. So he didn’t publish his book until he was on his deathbed, and he died about a week later, so they weren’t going to do anything to him. What Galileo had done was he’d contradicted Aristotle, so the Catholic Church had kind of given Aristotle a sort of a semi-prophet status because he’d predated Christ. They assumed that in some way – they’d gone through some rather convoluted thought processes – to say that what Aristotle said was also what God said about the universe. And so it’s fine you could follow science as long as all you were doing was just reformulating Aristotle’s work to better describe the universe. But if you do what Copernicus did and then Galileo did and said Aristotle has got it all wrong, that’s when you got in trouble.

Peterson: Jackson is quick to point out that religion didn’t always get in the way of scientific discoveries. In fact, in the Middle East, it was a driving force behind them…

Jackson: One of the central tenets of Islam is to read and to study and to learn. Lots of the traditions that we associate with Western science – the rigor, and the empiricism, you know measuring things carefully and recording your findings so they can be shared – comes from the Islamic tradition, and then that comes into Europe during the Renaissance. Before then, scientists in Europe were very much almost sort of “wizardy people,” they kept it all very quiet in there, in their lairs.

Peterson: How did someone back in, say Isaac Newton’s time, become a scientist? Were there university courses of study? Jackson says that although there were universities at the time, they didn’t have degree programs in physics. Scientists came from the ranks of well-to-do gentlemen who had private incomes and a talent for science. They did, however, form organizations where they debated theories and published papers…

Jackson: The scientific revolution of the 17th century, people like Robert Hook, and Isaac Newton and Renee Descartes, and people like that, some of worked for universities like Newton worked at Cambridge University, he was a math professor. But most of them formed these informal groups, they would meet and have discussions, and learn from each other and disseminate information and frequently steal it from each other and then argue about it afterwards. And those traditions come from France, and London, from Paris and London. Around the same time in the 1660s, they formed academies of science that came out of the informal gatherings and they became these formal bodies that would disseminate science and publish journals. And from that point on to be a scientist meant that you had to be associated with these groups and get your discovery printed in their journal and discussed at their meetings and, hopefully, you’d become a member yourself.

Peterson: Marie Curie is the only woman featured in the book, but it’s not surprising. Jackson says that back in the 1800s, there just weren’t many women who studied science at the highest levels. Curie was one of the exceptions. She found a place at the university of Paris, and worked hard to scrape the money together to pay her tuition. And it was in Paris where she met her husband, Pierre.

Jackson: Who was a slightly older and already established scientist. And then the two of them became leading figures in the field of radioactivity, which had only been discovered a couple of years before. Marie had the talent and the perseverance and the luck to become famous and to make great discoveries that ultimately killed her, actually. The radiation that she worked with ultimately killed her, she died from leukemia.

Peterson: She was the first woman to win two Nobel prizes – one in physics and one in chemistry – and only one of two people to win in two different fields. During the 20th century, discoveries in physics came fast and furiously. Perhaps the most famous physicist of the last century is theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, with his theory of special relativity. Jackson says that it’s thought that most discoveries in physics will be made, if not by the scientists who become famous for them, then by someone else shortly afterward. Einstein’s relativity theory, though, was something altogether different.

Jackson: Famous scientists that you can think of are just the lucky ones that were in the right place at the right time. If it wasn’t then, then maybe a year or two later the conditions were such that someone else would make that discovery. But what they say about Einstein is that maybe, even today, if Einstein hadn’t made his discovery just over 100 years ago, it was such an amazing leap of imagination, that maybe even today, we still wouldn’t have that theory, and physics would have take a very different course.

Peterson: Tom Jackson invites you to read more about Einstein’s contributions along with those by scientists from Ancient Greece to the present day, in the Ponderables series book Physics: An illustrated history of the foundations of science, available in stores and online. You can find out more about all of our guests on our website at viewpoints online.net. You can find us on Twitter @viewpointsradio. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook and Pat Reuter.  Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.


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