History of Physics at the IoP

This week saw a most enjoyable conference on the history of physics at the Institute of Physics in London. The IoP has had an active subgroup in the history of physics for many years, complete with its own newsletter, but this was the group’s first official workshop for a long while. It proved to be a most enjoyable and informative occasion, I hope it is the first of many to come.


The Institute of Physics at Portland Place in London (made famous by writer Ian McEwan in the novel ‘Solar’, as the scene of a dramatic clash between a brilliant physicist of questionable integrity and a Professor of Science Studies)

There were plenty of talks on what might be called ‘classical history’, such as Maxwell, Kelvin and the Inverse Square law of Electrostatics (by Isobel Falconer of the University of St. Andrews) and Newton’s First Law – a History (by Paul Ranford of University College London), while the more socially-minded historian might have enjoyed talks such as Psychical and Optical Research; Between Lord Rayleigh’s Naturalism and Dualism (by Gregory Bridgman of the University of Cambridge) and The Paradigm Shift of Physics -Religion-Unbelief Relationship from the Renaissance to the 21st Century (by Elisabetta Canetta of St Mary’s University). Of particular interest to me were a number of excellent talks drawn from the history of 20th century physics, such as A Partial History of Cosmic Ray Research in the UK (by the leading cosmic ray physicist Alan Watson), The Origins and Development of Free-Electron Lasers in the UK (by Elaine Seddon of Daresbury Laboratory),  When Condensed Matter became King (by Joseph Martin of the University of Cambridge), and Symmetries: On Physical and Aesthetic Argument in the Development of Relativity (by Richard Staley of the University of Cambridge). The official conference programme can be viewed here.

My own talk, Interrogating the Legend of Einstein’s “Biggest Blunder”, was a brief synopsis of our recent paper on this topic, soon to appear in the journal Physics in Perspective. Essentially our finding is that, despite recent doubts about the story, the evidence suggests that Einstein certainly did come to view his introduction of the cosmological constant term to the field equations as a serious blunder and almost certainly did declare the term his “biggest blunder” on at least one occasion. Given his awareness of contemporaneous problems such as the age of the universe predicted by cosmologies without the term, this finding has some relevance to those of today’s cosmologists who seek to describe the recently-discovered acceleration in cosmic expansion without a cosmological constant. The slides for the talk can be found here.

I must admit I missed a trick at question time. Asked about other  examples of ‘fudge factors’ that were introduced and later regretted, I forgot the obvious one. In 1900, Max Planck suggested that energy transfer between oscillators somehow occurs in small packets or ‘quanta’ of energy in order to successfully predict the spectrum of radiation from a hot body. However, he saw this as a mathematical device and was not at all supportive of the more general postulate of the ‘light quantum’ when it was proposed by a young Einstein in 1905.  Indeed, Planck rejected the light quantum for many years.

All in all, a superb conference. It was also a pleasure to visit London once again. As always, I booked a cheap ‘ n’ cheerful hotel in the city centre, walkable to the conference. On my way to the meeting, I walked past Madame Tussauds, the Royal Academy of Music, and had breakfast at the tennis courts in Regent’s Park. What a city!

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Walking past the Royal Academy on my way to the conference


Views of London over a quick dinner after the conference


Filed under History and philosophy of science, Institute of Physics

10 responses to “History of Physics at the IoP

  1. In the book The Philosophy of Cosmology, Barrow remarks that Einstein used the term “biggest blunder” or something similar for something completely different (perhaps the Manhattan Project letter) which, concludes Barrow, makes it unlikely that he would have used it to describe his introduction of the cosmological constant.

    On the other hand, your slides are interesting.

    Perhaps we will never know. It is interesting historically, but not cosmologically. What annoys me is when people say “Even Einstein admitted it was a bad idea” as if this were some sort of evidence that lambda must be zero. The laws of nature are independent of the winding roads we have travelled to discover them.

    • Mario Livio makes the same argument in his book. As we point out in our paper, it’s an irrelevant point, because it conflates a political blunder with a scientific one

      • Based on your second sentence, I assume that “the same argument” means the one that it is irrelevant scientifically, not the one made by Barrow.

        I’ve reviewed The Philosophy of Cosmology.

      • ? Barrow and Livio make the same argument, one I find specious. I don’t care what AE said about his bomb letter; it has no bearing on what he may (or may not) have said about what he considered a scientific error, We have this in our paper on the subject the ArXiv

      • OK, right. In addition to that, whether Einstein thought he made a mistake regarding lambda has no bearing on the existence of lambda. :-)

  2. Say hello if we happen to be at the same conference. The next on my list are:

    https://indico.cern.ch/event/736594/ (Dubrovnik)

    https://www.lhc-epistemologie.uni-wuppertal.de/news-events-publications/events/dm-mg.html (Aachen)

    https://www.port.ac.uk/research/texas-2019 (Portsmouth)

    My ego was boosted at a high-profile conference when someone I didn’t know introduced himself to me. It then turned out that he knew of me from blog comments. :-|

    • Sigh. They all look really interesting. I have a lot of teaching, so I only generally go to 1-2 conferences a year now, and only if I’m speaking. That said, the Texas symposium is at a good time – are you speaking?

      • I also go to only 2 a year or so. I used to go to 5 or 6. However, it is rarely the case now that there are more than 2 I want to go to. I don’t think that the total number of conferences has decreased, probably just the number which interest me, and that probably because things have become more specialized.

        I am down for a poster in Dubrovnik. As for Aachen and Portsmouth, it’s too early, I have something I could discuss in Aachen; I’ll send in an abstract (deadline is the end of October) and they can decide whether to give me time for a talk (I don’t know if there will be a poster session). As for Portsmouth, that’s more than a year from now and registration isn’t even open yet. I am sure that I could have something worthwhile to say there; hopefully I’ll get time for a talk. (I gave talks at the Texas Symposia in 1994 and 2015 and had a poster in 2017. I went but had no presentation in 1998, 2002, and 2013.)

        They do all look really interesting!

        Note that the Texas Symposium is a week later in the year than is normally the case, so the winner of the Nobel Prize can attend without having to miss going to Stockholm (or, more probably, wouldn’t have to miss the Texas Symposium in order to collect his prize.) The one in Aachen is only three days.

        Why do you go only if you are speaking?

        I once had breakfast at a conference with a rather well known colleague. He asked me how I decide which conferences I attend. I replied that I go to ones which look interesting. What other criterion could there be? He sighed, looked a bit forlorn, and said that he goes not when he could just speak (necessary but not surfficient) but only if he gets invited, as in all fees covered. He is in the enviable position that he does get invited, but I sensed a bit of disappointment in that he realized that he wasn’t calling the shots. Of course, I’m sure that he could get funding to go even if not invited, whether or not he is speaking, and could even pay it out of his own pocket if necessary. But maybe it would look bad to show up as just a regular attendant, though that hasn’t stopped Jack Steinberger from coming to the Moriond cosmology meeting. :-)

      • Re “Why do you go only if you are speaking?”, yes it’s a question of cost and time. I used to go to 3-4 conferences a year as an observer, but I have a heavier teaching load now. Plus, travel costs can really mount up. Like most place, my college might reimburse some travel expenses if I am speaking, none if not and it really hits the pocket after a while

  3. Sounds interesting Cormac. I’ve been doing some serious digging into the history of physics, see for example http://physicsdetective.com/quantum-electrodynamics-in-the-1920s/. There’s some amazing stuff in the old papers. Talking of papers, I’ve read most of the Einstein digital papers, and the big thing for me isn’t his greatest blunder, it’s his variable speed of light. I wish you’d cover it and give it some publicity.