PhD studentship available from September 2009

University of Manchester, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Negotiating ‘Progress’: Promoting ‘Modern’ Physics in Britain 1900-1940

Jointly supervised with the Science Museum, London, this AHRC Collaborative Doctoral studentship will explore the transition from ‘classical’ to ‘modern’ physics in early twentieth century Britain. 

Against a dominant account that sees this transition as inevitable, self-evidently progressive and therefore in need of no explanation, recent historical work has explored the complexities involved in transporting ‘modern’ experimental and theoretical physics from site to site and in establishing new practices as viable forms of knowledge-making activity in different institutional settings. Intellectually, the ‘modern’ physics of atoms, electrons, quanta and relativity was often counter-intuitive and was frequently contested. The project will draw on recent historiographical developments to explore through a series of case studies how early twentieth century physicists actively managed the transition from the ‘old’ physics to the ‘new,’ and how they constructed notions of ‘progress’ in doing so. 

In addition to the analysis of published primary sources (many textbooks and popular writings on ‘modern’ physics from across the period) the work will involve substantial archival research on the papers of early twentieth century British physicists (e.g. J.J. Thomson, G.P. Thomson and Rutherford (Cambridge), W.H. Bragg, W.L. Bragg and O.W. Richardson (London) and F. Lindemann (Oxford)). The research will analyse media coverage of ‘modern’ physics and its implications for scientific epistemology and authority (many newspapers and magazines now available online, Manchester Guardian archives at John Rylands University Library, Manchester, broadcast sources available via National Media Museum, Bradford and elsewhere). Media agendas and the roles of journalists and science popularisers will also be studied archivally (e.g. extensive J.G. Crowther papers, University of Sussex).

The overarching aim of the project is to understand how laypeople’s trust in scientists and belief in science has been affected by arguments between scientists by means of historical case studies. It will inform the development of a new Science Gallery planned to open at the ScienceMuseum in 2013.

The project will be supervised by Dr. Jeff Hughes (Manchester) and Dr. Robert Bud (ScienceMuseum). It will be based in Manchester, but it is expected that the student will spend substantial time at the ScienceMuseum during the course of the project.

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards include fees paid at Home/EU rates and an enhanced maintenance stipend for 3 years (full-time).

Applicants should normally have (or be about to complete) a Master’s-level qualification in history of science and technology, science studies or a related field.

For more information and informal enquiries, please contact Dr. Jeff Hughes on 0161 275 5857/5850 or email [email protected] as soon as possible.