Negotiating Progress: Promoting 'modern' physics in Britain, 1900-1940

  • Imogen Clarke

    Student thesis: Phd


    The first four decades of the twentieth century was a period of rapid development in physics. The late nineteenth century discoveries of X-rays, Becquerel rays and subatomic particles had revealed new properties of matter, and the early twentieth century quantum and relativity theories added to the notion that the discipline was undergoing a fundamental change in thought and practice. Historians and scientists alike have retrospectively conceived of a sharp divide between nineteenth century and twentieth century physics, applying the terms 'classical' and 'modern' to distinguish between these two practices.However, recent scholarship has suggested that early twentieth century physicists did not see this divide as self-evident, and in fact were responsible for consciously constructing these categories and definitions. This thesis explores the creation of the terms 'classical' and 'modern' physics in Britain, and the physicists responsible. I consider how these terms were employed in 'public' arenas (lectures, books, newspapers, museums) influencing the wider reception of 'modern' physics. I consider not only the rhetorics employed by 'modern' physicists, but also those we would now consider to be 'classical', revealing a diverse range of potential definitions of 'modern' physics. Furthermore, even within the 'modernists' themselves, there was considerable disagreement over how their work was to be presented, as industrially applicable, or of value simply as intellectual knowledge in and of itself. There were also different notions of how scientific 'progress' should be portrayed, whether knowledge advanced through experimental refinement or theoretical work.Early twentieth century 'modern' physics appeared to discard long held theories, rejecting much of the discipline's past. As such, physicists' connection to the legacy of Newton was under threat. Furthermore, the instability of science more generally was revealed: if physicists had shown the old theories to be wrong, then why should the new ones be any different? This had severe implications as to how the public placed 'trust' in science. I explore how physicists carefully managed the 'public' transition from 'classical' to 'modern' physics, regaining public trust during a period of scientific 'revolution' and controversy.
    Date of Award31 Dec 2012
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • The University of Manchester
    SupervisorJeff Hughes (Supervisor) & David Kirby (Supervisor)


    • Royal Society
    • science communication
    • popular science
    • science museum
    • oliver lodge
    • twentieth century
    • history of physics

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