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As the 19th century drew to a close, the age-old quest to understand the physical world appeared to be complete except for a few minor details. “It seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established,” said Albert Michelson, the first American scientist to win a Nobel Prize.

But when Michelson made that prediction, he never dreamed that one of the “details”—his own curious discovery that the speed of light is constant no matter how fast an observer is moving—would soon be explained by a revolutionary theory that redefined the very concepts of space, time, matter, and energy.

The author of that theory, called relativity, was Albert Einstein. He would also lay the foundation for a strange new picture of the atom, which would eventually lead to quantum mechanics and a succession of startling discoveries driving physicists to ever more bizarre theories of the ultimate nature of the universe.

Imagine Today’s Science from a Turn-of-the Century Perspective

Scientists in 1900 had no inkling of the other mind-boggling developments that lay in wait: plate tectonics, genetic engineering, space probes, nanotechnology, Big Bang theory, electronic computers, nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, and many other astounding products of the human mind.

Indeed, by the end of the 20th century, nearly every 19th-century theory of natural and social phenomena would be overthrown or superseded.

A philosopher and historian of science, Professor Goldman (Ph.D., Boston University) has been researching the growing power and influence of science in modern society for nearly 40 years.

“For me,” he says, “there’s tremendous intellectual satisfaction from seeing how the ideas of 19th-century science were transformed in the 20th century into new kinds of theories that have much greater explanatory power, predictive power, and control power.”

A Course in Ideas

“Transformation” is key—because 20th-century science is less revolutionary than evolutionary, in the sense that it built on crucial 19th-century concepts such as energy, natural selection, atoms, fields, and waves.

Professor Goldman is fascinated with such connections, which makes this more than a traditional history course.

Einstein himself was drawing on the known principles of waves and fields to reach the unexpected conclusions of the theory of relativity.

Throughout these 36 lectures, you learn the distinctive ideas that characterize 20th-century science, among them:

  • Science is a unity that encompasses the “hard” sciences of physics and chemistry, and the “soft” sciences, such as economics and sociology.
  • Modern science is a cultural phenomenon that has an inside, intellectual dimension, and an outside, social relationship dimension.
  • Concepts change: The terms space, time, matter, energy, the universe, Earth, gene, language, economy, culture, and society no longer mean what they did a century ago.
  • Reality is ultimately describable in terms of information, relationships, and processes.

The course is organized into five major themes: matter and energy, the universe, Earth, life, and humanity. The last theme, humanity, encompasses the social sciences, an area that is often omitted from histories of science.

Professor Goldman remedies that oversight to bring you the most significant ideas in anthropology, archaeology, history, linguistics, sociology, political science, economics, psychology, and cognitive science—alongside the major developments in physics, chemistry, mathematics, earth science, and biology.

Capstone of a 4,000-Year Quest for Knowledge

This course represents the capstone of a 4,000-year quest for knowledge that originated in the ancient Near East and is covered in The Teaching Company Courses, The History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 and The History of Science: 1700 to 1900.

Some of the key figures you discuss are household names: Albert Einstein, Watson and Crick, Sigmund Freud, and Stephen Hawking.

Many are less well known: Franz Boas was a major influence on all of the social sciences in the first half of the 20th century; John Maynard Keynes is arguably the Einstein of economics; and an American geologist named Harry Hess came up with the theory of seafloor spreading, which led to plate tectonics.

Many other influential investigators are featured, including:

  • Philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell who, in the early 20th century, refuted the long-standing project of Gottlob Frege to reduce all of arithmetic to logic by posing a famous paradox.
  • Astronomer Fred Hoyle who, in the 1950s, ridiculed the hypothesis that the universe expanded from an infinitely dense point by labeling it the “big bang” theory. The name stuck—and the theory ultimately triumphed.
  • Physicist Leon Lederman, who was encountered by Professor Goldman in 1978, moments after a telegram confirmed Lederman’s historic discovery of the top quark. Goldman asked him, “Do you think quarks are real, or is this another intellectual construct?” Lederman replied, “Well, when [Murray] Gell-Mann thought there were three, I thought they were real. When he said there were four, that was also okay. If I’m right and there are five, then there have to be six. Six are too many, so there must be something more fundamental than quarks.” Goldman adds, “I don’t think he has that opinion today.”

A Grand Tour of the Sciences

Professor Goldman discusses many different aspects of science, among them:

  • Science and society: A turning point in the growth of U.S. science came in 1862, when Congress passed the Merrill Land Grant Act, giving large tracts of federal land to any state that would create an engineering college. This created an academic community that would later help spawn the unparalleled scientific advances of the 20th century
  • Physics: In developing the special theory of relativity, Einstein was driven by a profoundly simple question: what does it mean to say that two events happen at the same time?
  • Mathematics: Mathematicians live with a peculiar, unresolved problem: what is the nature of mathematical objects? Do they exist independently of the human mind?
  • Psychology: The Stanford-Binet IQ test was developed during World War I to screen out recruits who were not intellectually capable of functioning in the U.S. Army. It was not intended to be an index for ranking intelligence at all levels. Nonetheless, it became the basis for what is still a preoccupation with testing.
  • Cosmology: In the 1950s, most scientists were sympathetic to the steady state theory that held the universe has always existed. For science, absolute beginnings are a problem.
  • Telecommunications: Today, fiber optic cables and communications satellites make long distance phone calls routine. However, at the time of Sputnik in 1957 there was just one undersea telephone cable connecting the U.S. with Europe, carrying a grand total of 36 simultaneous calls.
  • Meteorology: The atmosphere transports insects, seeds, pollutants, sand, bacteria, and viruses between continents. Sand from the Chinese desert routinely rains down on the west coast of the U.S. bringing microbes with it.
  • Archaeology: Archaeologists increasingly use techniques borrowed from other disciplines. Recently, textile experts were able to identify Celtic weaving patterns in cloth discovered in western China, dating from 2000 B.C.E. This establishes a heretofore-unknown ancient link between Europe and Asia.

You will find this course filled with ideas, anecdotes, and insights. As Professor Goldman says at the outset of the first lecture, “Welcome to an intellectual odyssey that I hope will be as fantastic and exciting to you as Homer’s Odyssey, without keeping you away from home for 20 years.”

Visit Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey (The Great Courses) to read more...


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