English 393.401


Instructor: Daniel Traister
Fall 1997

Tuesday-Thursday 3-4:30 P.M.
Tuesday: Williams 219; Thursday: Lea Library, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

Instructor's office: Special Collections, Van Pelt Library
Phone: 215 898 7088
E-mail: traister@pobox.upenn.edu

Here are several links relevant to the history of physics and the development of nuclear weapons, as well as links to some class-specific readings.

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 different kinds of stories concern the building and development of nuclear weapons in 1945. Some claim to be autobiographies or biographies, others claim to be histories, and still others call themselves fictions (some even seem to be poetry or plays). 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 presented in a variety of verbal and visual media.

It is not necessary to be a physicist to take this course. The instructor teaches literature, not physics.

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.


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. 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 paperback)--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 paperback)--How twentieth-century American physicists became professionalized; how their profession eventually obtained an important and organized public role

(3a) George Gamow, Mr. Tompkins in Paperback (Cambridge Canto paperback)

OR the much more mathematically sophisticated

(3b) Abraham Pais, Inward Bound (Oxford paperback)

OR any similar introduction for non-technically trained readers to twentieth-century nuclear physics


This course meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:00 to 4:30 P.M. On Tuesdays, we meet in Williams 219. On Thursdays, we meet in the Lea Library, on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. 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, also on the sixth floor of 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.

Students will be asked to prepare several responses to readings during the course. Their exact number will depend on the number of students in the class. Note that the syllabus calls for a brief response from every member of the class due at the third class meeting. The syllabus for other weeks suggests a variety of response topics. Responses will not be accepted after the class which discusses the materials they discuss: since classroom discussion will depend on them, the instructor promises to be dramatically unamused, indeed unpleasantly so, should you happen to miss a scheduled response for reasons short of death. Yours. Responses are NOT graded, although they must be turned in.

In addition, every member of the class must write and submit by December 16th a FINAL PAPER of some 15-20 pages in length. (There is no final examination; the instructor reserves the right to quizzes during the semester). 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. As already noted in a different connection, death (preferably yours) is the only acceptable excuse for lateness. "Radiation sickness" is not an acceptable excuse.

In general, the instructor appreciates good writing. He will look 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 lot. Do as much as you can. He hopes that relatively light writing and no exam requirements will help make the reading load a bit more palatable (and possible). If you can get an early start on Mosley's Hopeful Monsters, you will be glad you did so.

NOTE: Some material will be distributed in photocopy ("bulkpack"). Books to be purchased are available at the Pennsylvania Book Center, 3726 Walnut Street.


Week 1 (one meeting only this week)
4 September:
Introduction to the course

Week 2
9 and 11 September:
Being a physicist or some other sort of academic person

Week 3
16 and 18 September:
One way of defining the subject of this class

Week 4
23 and 25 September:
Another way of defining the subject of this class

Week 5
30 September and 2 October:
A third way of defining the subject of this class

Week 6
7 and 9 October:
The Manhattan Project variously viewed

NOTE: Most of the material for week 6 will be provided either in your BULKPACK or in original hard-copies (what we used to call "books") in the ROSENGARTEN RESERVE ROOM. Although he has specifically assigned only specific chapters or sections, the instructor, in a utopian mood, urges those of you with time, energy, interest, and sufficient reading speed to read as much of the rest of these books as you can. All of them are misrepresented by being sampled instead of read.

Week 7 (one meeting only this week)
16 October
: We catch our breath and catch up a bit

Week 8
21 and 23 October:

Week 9
28 and 30 October:
A voice from the past

Week 10
4 and 6 November:

NOTE: By now, you should at least have begun to read the LONG novel by Nicholas Mosley, Hopeful Monsters. You will be sorry if you do not start it sooner rather than later.

Week 11
11 and 13 November:
An English perspective


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.


Week 12
18 and 20 November:
Another English perspective


Week 13 (one meeting only this week)
25 November:
Mosley, continued


Week 14
2 and 4 December:
American melodramatists; and coda

16 December: FINAL PAPER DUE

Here is the reserve reading list for this class.

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.

Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.