University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

Phys 4121W.001

History of 20th-Century Physics

Session: Spring 2015 (1/20-5/08)
Instructor: Michel Janssen (e-mail: janss011 @
Time: 1640 T
Location: Phys 210

This course is an introduction to the work of historians and philosophers of science trying to trace the conceptual development of 20th-century physics. Our main focus will be on the development of relativity theory (both special and general) and quantum theory in the first quarter of the century. Special attention will be paid to the contributions of Albert Einstein. We will also study some episodes in the further developments of these fields: in nuclear physics in the 1930s, in particle physics in the 1970s, in both cases with special attention to the interplay between theory and experiment. Finally, we will look at the development of big bang cosmology and its marriage with particle physics in inflationary cosmology. Readings are taken from a variety of sources. General surveys are used to get us started on a particular topic. That will prepare us for more specialized literature in history and philosophy of science. We will also read (passages from) some of the seminal texts written by the physicists we will study, both to get some of the flavor of their work and to evaluate interpretations and reconstructions of these texts offered in the historical and philosophical literature. The course is aimed at upper-level undergraduate and graduate students in physics, history of science, and philosophy of science, but should be of interest to other students with a strong interest in 20th-century physics as well.

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