American Physics and the Cold War Bubble

by David Kaiser (University of Chicago Press, in preparation)

Chapter Outline

Watch a lecture based on the book
CWBcover     American Physics and the Cold War Bubble presents a cultural history of life and thought in American Cold War universities.  The book traces relationships between enrollments and epistemology, between infrastructure and the world of ideas.  Elucidating these links, and how they have evolved in the recent past, may hold clues for the future of teaching and research in the post-Cold-War world.

    At the heart of the book is a massive experiment in social engineering that unfolded in the United States during the decades after World War II, in what might be called the credentialing of America.  Higher education was booming, thanks to programs like the G. I. Bill.  Graduate-level enrollments in English and history departments skyrocketed, doubling every three years, as they did in economics and sociology departments as well.  Amid the runaway growth, however, one field led the pack:  graduate enrollments in physics grew nearly twice as quickly as all other fields combined.  Yet the fantastic growth proved unsustainable.  By the early 1970s -- years into the slog of Vietnam, combined with détente, economic recession, and massive cuts in defense and education spending -- enrollments across the board entered a steep decline.  Once again physics served as a bellwether, its enrollments plummeting faster and deeper than any other field.  Rising fastest and dropping hardest, physics set the trend both in good times and bad for larger transitions in American higher education.  The physicists' enrollment curve, so eerily symmetrical in its rise and fall, serves as the leitmotif for the book.  (See fig. 1.)

Fig. 1.  Number of physics Ph.D.s granted by U.S. institutions per year, 1945-1980.  Also shown are the total number of U.S. Ph.D.s granted in all fields per year, normalized to the number of physics degrees in 1945 (to show relative rates of growth); and the portion of the U.S. population between the ages of 25 and 29.  To convert the normalized Ph.D.s to total Ph.D.s, multiply by 38.0.  Based on data from the National Research Council, Century of Doctorates (1978); National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Degrees, 1966-2001 (2004); and United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects (2004).

    The sudden swings in student ranks triggered all manner of transformations in American academic life; their effects were felt in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences alike.  Yet they were often felt first and at their most extreme by the nation’s physicists.  The frenzied periods of growth spawned rampant bureaucracy, fears of specialization and its challenges to intellectual and social cohesion, even generational conflicts over the mores and motivations behind scholarly work.  They also helped determine what would be taught:  auditorium-sized classrooms called for different pedagogical approaches than intimate seminars.  When enrollments faltered a quarter century later, academics in all fields faced a new round of questions about the relevance of their work and the goals of higher education.

    Throughout this period, university leaders across the country often treated physicists as synecdoche for the university as a whole, taking lessons from the physicists' example for how scholars should handle large class sizes, fund their research, communicate their findings, and share their expertise with various patrons.  They quickly received help from physicists themselves:  by the late 1950s, more deans came from the physical sciences than from any other specialty.  For better and worse, the physicists' model -- itself forged under extreme pressures of student numbers -- spread to most departments on the nation’s campuses.  It is still the model we inhabit today.

Chapter Outline for American Physics and the Cold War Bubble
    Chapter 1, The Standing Army of Big Science.  Politics and pedagogy became intertwined in the atomic age, as politicians and pundits declared that the nation's "most precious resource" in the Cold War struggle was its "stockpile" of physics graduate students.  Policy began to reflect rhetoric, from the rewriting of draft deferment policies to the bankrolling of huge numbers of new federal fellowships.  Reports (of dubious quality) that the Soviets were training twice as many physicists and engineers as the United States only fanned the flames. 
Related material for chapter 1 may be found in:
   Kaiser, "Cold War requisitions, scientific manpower, and the production of American physicists after World War II," Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 33 (Fall 2002):  131-159.
   Kaiser, "The physics of spin:  Sputnik politics and American physics in the 1950s," Social Research  73 (Winter  2006):  1225-1252.
    Chapter 2, Suburbanization.  Not everyone was happy with the huge enrollments; values, norms, and identities were at stake.  Senior physicists complained that the hordes of new recruits seemed bent on a physics career rather than a scientific calling.  Compounding the issue, more physics students sought jobs in industry than the academy for the first time.  The teamwork skills of the "organization man" seemed pitted against individual initiative.  In questionnaires and correspondence, meanwhile, many students blithely invoked high salaries, "fat fees" from consulting, and the comforts of suburban living to justify their reasons to study.  Soon the message became self-reinforcing, as employers trumpeted the middle-class "normal living" associated with their jobs in hundreds of advertisements aimed at physics students.  Amid the changes, physicists assessed themselves and their students through the idiom of suburbanization.
Related material for chapter 2 may be found in:
     Kaiser, "The postwar suburbanization of American physics," American Quarterly 56 (December 2004):  851-888.
    Chapter 3, Information Overload.  More than just salaries were at stake.  With each graduate student expected to publish some original research, journals exploded faster than publishers could handle the load.  Interwar assumptions about academic publishing came in for immediate reappraisal; increasingly bureaucratic instruments were needed to handle the maze of paperwork between authors, reviewers, and editors, none of whom could be expected to know each other any more.  The numbers of new practitioners and publications likewise challenged older ideas about the field's intellectual coherence.  Bureaucracy and specialization bred wild ideas about how to handle scholarly communication, inspiring biting editorials and even a murderous shooting spree.  Lost amid the sea of print, many feared, was a sense of belonging or unity, of physics as a special community. 

    Chapter 4, Training Quantum Mechanics.  Within the bulging classrooms, the crush of students helped to shift what would count as teachable topics or appropriate research.  Staple graduate-level courses in departments across the country routinely drew one hundred students at a time; advanced seminars swelled to thirty or forty students.  The pedagogical fall-out is revealed in dozens of unpublished student notes and behind-the-scenes negotiations among textbook authors, editors, and publishers.  A kind of curricular arteriosclerosis set in, as physicists accentuated those elements that could be routinized into problem sets and exam questions while quietly dropping the last vestiges of "philosophy," "interpretation," or "speculation" that had long been a principal element of physicists' education.  Over and above military patronage and industrial contracts, pedagogical pressures re-shaped the discipline's guiding epistemology.
Related material for chapter 4 may be found in:
     Kaiser, "Turning physicists into quantum mechanics," Physics World 20 (May 2007):  28-33.
    Chapter 5, The Bubble Bursts.  The assumptions that had driven the enrollment boom eventually broke down.  As tensions with the Soviets cooled and resources dried up, military patrons began to question whether seemingly open-ended "basic" research -- which had funded, directly or indirectly, nearly all graduate training in physics -- was producing the best return on their investment.  Widespread protests against the Vietnam War and defense-related research on campuses often targeted physicists' facilities.  Changing draft regulations during the late stages of the Vietnam War removed long-standing exemptions for physics (and other) students, exacerbating the problem.  The demand for young physicists, having outstripped supply for nearly two decades, dried up fast:  989 physics graduates competed for 253 advertised jobs in 1968, while 1053 sought out just 53 jobs on offer in 1971.  A new generation of physics graduate students, meanwhile, labored to distinguish themselves from the caricature of stooges in the pocket of the Pentagon.  Amid shifting national priorities and vanishing funds, physicists' enrollments dropped fully one-third from their peak in just five years, falling to one-half by decade's end.
    Chapter 6, Physics After the Fall.  Chapter 6 follows physicists' intellectual adjustment to the new realities. During the decade after Sputnik, the number of Ph.D.-granting physics departments doubled in the United States. Like factories optimized to produce one kind of product, these departments suddenly faced a dramatic "overcapacity" when the student numbers fell so precipitously. Their pedagogical compasses so immediately unmoored, groups in many of these departments began to widen the space of "allowable" research topics. Only after the bubble burst did a sizeable fraction of American physicists devote attention (on their scratch pads and in their classrooms) to topics like the foundations of quantum mechanics -- which had been ruled out so definitively during the prior era of gigantism. Other "speculative" topics, such as black holes, the warping of spacetime, and the shape and fate of the universe, likewise began to make inroads now that the previous metric had been toppled. New pedagogical assumptions took root about what physics could be and what physicists should do.
Related material for chapter 6 may be found in:
      Kaiser, " When fields collide," Scientific American 296 (June 2007):   62-69.
    Chapter 7, A Second Bubble. Driven by the 1980s defense build-up under the Reagan Administration, combined with new fears of economic competition from Japan, physics enrollments shot up rapidly, matching the late-1960s peak; they fell sharply a decade later with the end of the Cold War.  Once again dire predictions of shortfalls in the scientific labor supply had been stupendously mistaken; once again physics marked the extremes of a general pattern throughout American universities.  Many of the challenges that had accompanied the first bubble returned with a vengeance; indeed, some still face the discipline.  Communication, specialization, and trust are no easier to manage today than they were during the 1950s and 1960s, as made clear by controversies over the centralized (and unrefereed) electronic physics preprint server, established in 1992.  A string of well-publicized frauds from the past decade likewise illustrates some of the lingering difficulties.  In their studies of the Renaissance, cultural historians have shown how frauds and forgeries can illuminate underlying assumptions and taken-for-granted practices within a community; after all, the forger must have some idea about what counts as "genuine" in order to craft his or her fake.  So, too, can we use recent episodes like the Schön case at Bell Labs, accusations of data-rigging in the search for superheavy elements at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the colorful Bogdanov brothers (who managed to publish not one but three nonsense articles in peer-reviewed physics journals, including one edited by physicists at MIT) to study what happens to a recently bloated field during a period of fast-declining resources.
    Epilogue, Bubbles and the Academy, will discuss how the physicists' enrollment bubbles illuminate comparable shifts in other fields across American higher education.  Disciplines as varied as computer science, literature, history, and psychology each went through boom-and-bust cycles during the postwar decades.  None was a carbon-copy of the physicists' example; they occurred later in time and remained smaller in magnitude.  But each demonstrates how the ebb and flow of student numbers can shape the contours of intellectual life, from challenges to the Western canon to the rise of social and cultural history.  The physicists' case likewise stands as a cautionary tale -- highlighting the promise as well as the special challenges inherent in runaway growth -- as fields such as genomics and nanotechnology undergo their own frantic expansion today.