History and Philosophy Of Science | The Mind & the Atom
X521 | 15576 | D. Hofstadter


The Mind & the Atom

Course titles have to be short and pithy ¬— otherwise I would have
called this cognitive-science/history & philosophy of science
seminar something like “The Human Mind in Search of the Elusive
Atom” or perhaps “Mind, Atom, Mystery, Insight”.  In any case, the
idea of this course is to talk about the tumultuous events of the
latter half of the nineteenth century and the first third of the
twentieth century, in which the ancient and vague philosophical
concept of the atom slowly emerged out of an incredibly thick fog
and became increasingly precise and scientific, thanks to the
incredibly flexible and daring minds of a few physicists, among whom
some of the most central figures were James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig
Boltzmann, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, Niels
Bohr, Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Max
Born, P. A. M. Dirac, and Wolfgang Pauli.  (There are of course many
more; this short list is far from exhaustive.)

The purpose of the course is not merely to chart the intellectual
history of the atom, although that's certainly a major part of it,
but to attempt to “get into the head” of each of the major players
and to see how the fog looked from their personal perspective at
their unique moment in history and geography.  The point is that
there are two intertwined but very different and equally fascinating
intellectual stories involved here.  Firstly, there is the story of
the purely physical findings of that era, which are truly magical
and mysterious, but secondly, no less magical and mysterious are the
amazing mental machinations by which highly limited human beings
somehow managed to imagine the unimaginable, to conceive the
inconceivable, to converge slowly on right ideas by intuitively
using cues borrowed from a pile of wildly wrong or only slightly
right ideas, making analogy after analogy, irrationally blending
incompatible ideas left and right, constantly flailing about in the
fog, boldly positing self-contradictory ideas, and somehow making
collective headway nonetheless.

In short, the physical secrets uncovered in those eighty or so
years — most especially from 1900 to 1930 — constitute one of the
most magnificent collective accomplishments of humanity.  The
picture of the atom that emerged back then remains today one of our
most amazing and mysterious triumphs — mysterious because no one
really can understand what went on in the minds of those pioneers —
it's all too shrouded in a different kind of fog, the fog that seems
always to surround acts of true genius. Nonetheless, we shall do our
best to at least speculate how certain ideas came to certain key
figures, and how they had the audacity to boldly overlook all the
internal contradictions that riddled their guesses, and were somehow
able to move forward despite the nonsense they were blatantly
espousing.  This was the period, after all, in which the notion that
any proposed new law of physics must necessarily seem utterly crazy
in order to have the slightest chance of being right became a
standard idea, which today has become nearly a cliché.

This seminar will not presume a deep knowledge of physics on the
part of students, but it would of course help to have taken at least
a year’s worth of physics in college or high school.  (Calculus will
not be used or needed.) The course will presume, on the other hand,
a deep interest in the building blocks of the universe and
simultaneously a deep interest in how the human mind works.
Undergraduates will be warmly welcomed, as will graduate students in
various fields.  The overriding hope is to bring this dramatic era
truly to life, and this necessarily will involve talking about a
number of subtle ideas of physics but it won't involve a great deal
of intricate mathematics.  In summary, the seminar’s central goal is
to understand the fantastic and mysterious mental leaps made by some
of the greatest physicists of all time during what was surely the
most amazing period of physics of all time.

The texts we will use will include:
“The Atom in the History of Human Thought” by Bernard Pullman
Oxford University Press, 1998.  ISBN 0-19-511447-7
“Niels Bohr’s Times” by Abraham PaisClarendon Press Oxford, 1991.
ISBN 0-19-852049-2
“Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel” by Banesh Hoffmann
The Viking Press, 1972.
“Inward Bound: Of matter and forces in the physical world” by
Abraham PaisOxford University Press, 1986,  ISBN 0-19-851997-4

Students are responsible for ordering their own books. The books are
available from various 	sources.  Additional hand-outs will be made
available.

The course will involve active student participation in the sense
that it will be a discussion between instructor and students, with
students strongly encouraged to ask questions and explore ideas on
their own.  There will be no exams, but at the end of the semester,
students will write a term paper of five to ten pages exploring some
specific aspect of the story of the gradual growth of humanity’s
collective understanding of the atom.  Typically, a paper would
focus on how a certain physicist’s thoughts evolved, or perhaps on
how two particular physicists influenced each other.

For additional information please contact Helga Keller
(htkeller@indiana.edu / Tel. 812.855.6965)