English 493/601--BANG! Tales from Modern Physics

Instructor: Daniel Traister
Fall 1994
Office: Special Collections, Van Pelt Library
Phone: 215 898 7088
E-mail: traister@pobox.upenn.edu

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You can check various links relevant to the history of physics and the development of nuclear weapons by clicking here.

Epigraph: The Newtonian conception of physics, for example, has been completely upset by Einstein, first, and then by the quantum theory. Nor will this be the end. Of one thing only can we be sure: What is today accepted as truth will tomorrow prove to be only amusing.
Many stories concern the building and deployment of nuclear weapons in 1945, autobiographies, biographies, and fictions. These stories and the ways in which they construct our understanding of "the" story are the subject of this course, which looks at how that part of the history of twentieth-century physics summed up as "the Manhattan Project" has been constructed in a variety of verbal and visual media.
The instructor will award a small prize to the student who first identifies the author and source of the epigraph above. It comes from a popular novel by an extremely well-known American writer and was published within the past decade.
A word of important advice

The instructor urges--"urges" is NOT equivalent to "requires"!-- students to read the following books, or as much of them as possible, before the start of the course (or during its first two to three weeks). They are readable although, unfortunately, they are also long. They provide contexts for thinking about some of the issues raised by the works to be read during the semester.

(1) Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Touchstone)--MOST IMPORTANT--TRY TO READ THIS BOOK! Then, IF you have time (you probably won't), you might ALSO read
(2) Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists (Harvard)--How twentieth-century American physicists became a profession with an important and organized public role
(3a) George Gamow, Mr. Tompkins in Paperback (Cambridge Canto) OR the much more mathematically sophisticated
(3b) Abraham Pais, Inward Bound (Oxford)--OR any similar introduction for non-technically trained readers to twentieth-century nuclear physics

Course mechanics

This course meets on Monday evenings from 6:30 to 9:10 (Bennett Hall 225). We may occasionally reschedule or relocate in order to accommodate the showing of movies or tapes.

The instructor's office is in the Department of Special Collections, sixth floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. You can reach him by telephone (215 898 7088) or in person at that location. Call before showing up. You can communicate with him as well by e-mail.

Members of the class must submit three "response" papers, each 1 to 2 pages in length and no more. The syllabus for the first week calls for a response from every member of the class. The syllabus for other weeks suggests a variety of response topics. Choose ANY TWO and submit them at the class for which they are relevant (responses will not be accepted after the class which discusses the materials they discuss). Responses are NOT graded, although they must be turned in.

In addition, every member of the class must write and submit by December 12th (the last class) a FINAL PAPER of some 15-20 pages in length. (There is no final examination). This essay should consider some materials not otherwise read in this class and use primary materials of some sort in doing so. DO NOT CHOOSE A TOPIC FOR OR WRITE THIS PAPER WITHOUT FIRST DISCUSSING IT WITH THE INSTRUCTOR. Please follow MLA or Chicago format rules in the preparation of this paper. Death (preferably yours) is the acceptable excuse for lateness. "Radiation sickness" is not acceptable.

In general, the instructor appreciates good writing and looks with disfavor upon essays--whether brief responses or full-fig final papers--that are poorly written. Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking.

This class will work through discussion rather than lectures. Your attendance will make a difference in its success--and your attendance and participation in your grade. Ground rules: talk; interrupt; open your mouths. Be polite; do not let politeness get in the way of making your points. NOTE: The instructor is eager but not lunatic; he has noticed that he has asked you to read a whale of a lot. Do as much as you can. He hopes that light writing and no exam requirements will help make the reading load a bit more palatable (and possible). Weeks 5, 6, and 7, are particularly heavy--but fall break comes between weeks 6 and 7 to help ease things for you at least a bit. If you can also get an early start on Mosley's Hopeful Monsters, you will be glad you did so.

Course books
NOTE: Much material will be distributed in photocopy ("bulkpack").

Books are available at the Pennsylvania Book Center, 3726 Walnut Street.

Required books

Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Physicists (Grove pb)
Richard P. Feynman, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Adventures of a Curious Character (Bantam Classics Spectra pb)
Todd Gitlin, The Murder of Albert Einstein (Bantam pb)
Peter Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (Fromm pb)
John Hersey, Hiroshima, rev. ed. 1986 (Bantam pb)
Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain (Bantam or Kodansha pb)
Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams (Warner pb)
Russell McCormmach, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist (Harvard pb)
Nicholas Mosley, Hopeful Monsters (Vintage pb)
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Touchstone pb)

Recommended books

Otto Frisch, What Little I Remember (Cambridge Canto pb)
George Gamow, Mr. Tompkins in Paperback (Cambridge Canto)
James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Vintage pb)
Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists (Harvard pb)
Martin Cruz Smith, Stallion Gate (Ballantine pb)
C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures (Cambridge Canto pb)

Reserve books

The instructor will distribute separately a list of books on reserve for this class in the Rosengarten Reserve Room (Van Pelt Library, basement level).

Week 1--12 September:

Week 2--19 September:
Being a physicist or some other sort of academic person

Jeremy Bernstein, The Life It Brings (Penguin)--BULKPACK complete
Terry Caesar, Conspiring With Forms: Life In Academic Texts (Georgia), chaps. 4 ("Croaking About Comp"), 5 ("Drifting Through the MLA"), and 8 ("On Teaching at a Second-Rate University")--BULKPACK

Response topic:
For the entire class: a short (1-2 page) response--which, you will recall, is ungraded--is due today:

Both Bernstein and Caesar teach at "second-rate" institutions. Only one of them appears to notice it. Who has the better job, Bernstein the physicist or Caesar the English professor, and why?
Week 3--26 September:
One way of defining the subject of this class (1)

John Hersey, Hiroshima
Paul Fussell, "Thank God for the Atom Bomb," in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and other essays (Summit), pp. 13-44--BULKPACK
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, chap. 19 ("Tongues of Fire")

Week 4--3 October:
One way of defining the subject of this class (2); and another way

Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain
Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Physicists

Response topics:

1. Compare and contrast the treatments of the Hiroshima experience provided by Hersey and Ibuse.

2. How convincing do you find Durrenmatt's Fraulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd? Does it matter?

Week 5--10 October:
The Manhattan Project variously viewed (1)

NOTE: Most of the materials for Weeks 4 and 5 will be provided either in your BULKPACK or in original hard-copies (what we used to call "books") in the ROSENGARTEN RESERVE ROOM. ALSO: although specific chapters or sections are assigned, the instructor, in a utopian mood, urges those of you with time, energy, and sufficient reading speed to read as much of the rest of these books as you can. One chapter, for example, hardly indicates the flavor of the very first book on this list. The rest are similarly misrepresented by being sampled instead of read.

An administrator's view: Arthur Holly Compton, Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative (Oxford), chap. 3 ("Work")
Military views: Leslie R. Groves, Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (Harper and Row), selections
Kenneth D. Nichols, The Road to Trinity (Morrow), selections
A wife's view: Laura Fermi, Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi (Chicago), chaps. 17-23
Physicists' views: Otto Frisch, What Little I Remember, complete if you can manage it
Rudolf Peierls, Bird of Passage: Recollections of a Physicist (Princeton), chaps. 7 ("War") and 8 ("Manhattan District")

The instructor has invited two physicists who were (and remain) personally acquainted with Manhattan Project par- ticipants to attend this class meeting.
Week 6--17 October:
The Manhattan Project variously viewed (2)

Physicists' views, continued: Emilio Segre, A Mind Always in Motion: The Autobiography of Emilio Segré (California), chaps. 6-7
Victor Weisskopf, The Joy of Insight: Passions of a Physicist (Basic), chaps. 6-8
Eugene P. Wigner, The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner, as told to Andrew Szanton (Plenum), chaps. 11-14
A younger physicist's view: Richard P. Feynman, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Adventures of a Curious Character, complete if you can manage it, but minimally part 3 ("Feynman, the Bomb, and the Military")
Some later views: James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, chap. 4 ("Los Alamos")
James Hershberg, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (Knopf), chaps. 7-14
Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists, chaps. 19-20


Week 7--31 October:

Peter Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds, complete
United States Atomic Energy Commission, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing Before Personnel Security Board and Texts of Principal Documents and Letters (MIT)--BULKPACK selections Heinar Kipphardt, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Hill and Wang)--BULKPACK

Response topics:

Oppenheimer (1) got screwed; (2) got what he deserved; (3) wasn't the issue.
Week 8--7 November:
A voice from the past

Russell McCormmach, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist

Response topic:

Is McCormmach writing as a historian of science or a novelist in this book? What might such a distinction mean?
Week 9--14 November:

Todd Gitlin, The Murder of Albert Einstein
Alan J. Friedman and Carol C. Donley, Einstein as Myth and Muse (Cambridge), chaps. 1, 4, and 6 minimally
William Carlos Williams, "St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils"--BULKPACK
Archibald Macleish, Einstein (Paris: Black Sun, 1929)--BULKPACK

Response topics:

1. Write a brief critical review of Friedman/Donley.

2. Write a brief critical review of Gitlin.

Week 10--21 November:
An English perspective

C. P. Snow, The New Men (Scribner's)--BULKPACK (unless you can find a used copy; the book is out of print)
C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures
F. R. Leavis, "Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow"--BULKPACK
John Halperin, C. P. Snow: An Oral Biography (St. Martin's), pp. 79-99, 126-139, 161-168--BULKPACK

Response topics:

1. Is Snow's thesis in TC as convincing in the mid-1990s as it seems to have been at the end of the 1950s?

2. What so excited public response to TC? What historical situation did Snow address, and out of what intellectual context? In what sense do these factors also affect response to NM?

3. "Snow not only hasn't in him the beginnings of a novelist, he is utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is, or why it matters."--sic F. R. Leavis. Comment, with reference to NM.

Cinematic interludes

Begin reading Nicholas Mosley's Hopeful Monsters for next week's class.

David Wolper, Ten Seconds that Shook the World
Joseph Sargent, Day One

Thanksgiving Pizza (with subatomic toppings) will be served.
Week 11--28 November:
Another English perspective

Nicholas Mosley, Hopeful Monsters

Week 12--5 December:
American melodramatists

Thomas McMahon, Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry [published in the UK as A Random State]--BULKPACK
Martin Cruz Smith, Stallion Gate--complete; or as much as possible

Week 13--12 December:

Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams


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