About MIT Physics

 

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Department of Physics, 4-304
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
tel: 617.253.4800
fax: 617.253.8554
email: physics@mit.edu

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Department of Physics, 4-315
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
tel: 617.253.4841
fax: 617.258.8319
email: physics@mit.edu
Undergraduate email:
physics-undergrad@mit.edu
Graduate email:
physics-grad@mit.edu

Big Physics at MIT : 1946-1970

LESSONS FROM THE WAR

Department Chair John C. Slater (left) watches Associate Professor Melvin A. Herlin (right) and a technician in the low-temperature laboratories of the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), 1949.
Department Chair John C. Slater (left) watches Associate Professor Melvin A. Herlin (right) and a technician in the low-temperature laboratories of the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), 1949.

The Second World War had a massive effect on the MIT Physics Department. The Department had already begun to grow into a major research wing under Karl Compton's presidency in the 1930s, but the expansion in students, faculty, and funding, it experienced then was minor compared to what happened in the years after the war. At MIT and elsewhere, research in physics shifted from the solitary pursuit it had been to a model based on the achievements of the Radiation Laboratory: groups of researchers given considerable freedom of investigation, in contact with one another to allow for maximal cross-fertilization, and with close connections between theorists, experimentalists, and engineers. Thus, when the Rad Lab was disbanded an independent, interdepartmental laboratory, the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), headed by Julius A. Stratton, was created in its place.

Though MIT had played host to the Rad Lab during the war, and had been able to recruit numerous new staff from it, it had not been a major participant in the Manhattan Project. Fortunately, however, one of the Department's new recruits from the Rad Lab -- Jerrold Zacharias, who had experience in both microwave physics and nuclear physics -- was sent to the secret Los Alamos laboratory for a few months just before the end of the war. While there, he was able to recruit a number of physicists to MIT who had not yet committed themselves elsewhere.

Among those recruited were proven physicists like Bruno Rossi and Victor Weisskopf -- who had both played major roles int he bomb project -- as well as a dozen younger physicists. In order to consolidate and concentrate the Department's strengths in nuclear physics, another interdepartmental laboratory was created: the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering (LNSE), headed by Zacharias. MIT would become an international center not only for microwave physics, but for nuclear physics as well.

After the launch of Sputnik, physics classrooms at MIT flooded with new students. Here Associate Professor Uno Ingard lectures a crop of students at the Karl Compton Laboratories in 1958.
After the launch of Sputnik, physics classrooms at MIT flooded with new students.

THE POSTWAR PHYSICS BOOM

Within a short time, the MIT Physics Department became unrivalled as the largest department in the country. Through much of the first half of the Cold War, more Ph.D.s in physics came from MIT than from any other institution in the country. In the mid-1950s, Physics was by far the largest department in the School of Science, with twice as many students and faculty as the Chemistry Department, three times as many as Math, and five times as many as Biology; on the whole it was responsible for almost 10% of all doctoral level degrees in physics in the country. In 1956 -- still a year before a second physics boom in the wake of the successful Sputnik launch by the USSR -- almost one out of every four freshmen entering MIT had indicated their intent to major in physics.

The post-war growth in faculty and students was accompanied by new equipment and new machines. In 1950, a 300-MeV electron synchotron and a 12-MeV electrostatic generator went into operation; in 1958, MIT had its own experimental nuclear reactor; in 1962, the joint Harvard-MIT electron synchotron provided both universities with accelerator energies of up to 6-GeV. Each large machine pushed the barriers of research, while providing the tools for enhanced teaching capabilities of a next generation of physicists. Almost all of the funding that encouraged this growth came from the federal government in the form of defense contracts or National Science Foundation grants.

Technicians inspect the 300 GeV electron synchotron at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering.
Technicians inspect the 300 MeV electron synchrotron at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering.

During the early Cold War, MIT as a whole became the largest non-industrial defense contractor in the nation, and much of the funding went to its interdepartmental laboratories like the LNSE, the RLE, and Lincoln Laboratory (which grew out of the RLE, moving off campus in 1954). But most of the work done by physicists was not directed towards specific military goals. The defense funding was largely for fundamental research because it was recognized that scientists left to their own devices could often find useful things in unexpected places, and that simply having a well-funded and well-educated reserve of scientists on hand could prove useful in ways that could not always be anticipated.

PLAYING A NATIONAL ROLE IN EDUCATION

While physics had caught the eye of policymakers and the public as a whole, physics pedagogy at lower levels of education was viewed as rather weak by many scientists in the MIT Department. As the baby boomers became school-age children, public schools became flooded with new students while funds for teaching decreased. After the 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union, policymakers and scientists alike worried that American scientific education was being outpaced, meaning that any technical advantage the US had developed during World War II would be ephemeral.

Jerrold Zacharias on the set, filming an installment in the Physical Science Study Committee's physics movies for high school students.
Jerrold Zacharias on the set, filming an installment in the Physical Science Study Committee's physics movies for high school students.

The MIT Physics Department revised its own teaching methods and materials to included more of the modern physics that had revolutionized the field over the course of recent decades. MIT physicists then began to appy their pedagogical work outside of the Department as well.

Jerrold Zacharias began by developing a series of physics demonstration films to be distributed to high schools. The films would not only show novel physics experiments, but also show physicists, not as white-haired savants but as regular, hard-working, inquisitive human beings. The NSF provided funding for Zacharias to launch a broader investigation into physics curricula, known as the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), where Zacharias and a host of other physicists and scientists -- many of them from MIT -- would attempt to "solve" the problem of physics education in the United States.

They quickly realized that films alone would not be sufficient, and instead ended up developing an entire set of course materials including a textbook (of which over a million copies were eventually produced), a teacher's guide, and a set of recommend experiments. The PSSC curriculum would, in the 1960s, be distributed across the country, and become a major part of many high school students' educational experience.

Bibliography

For a bare-bones account of the 1930-1948 period from the point of view of the department head, see John C. Slater, "History of the MIT Physics Department, 1930-1948," unpublished m.s. [1948], Box 171, Folder 1, Records of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Office of the President, 1930-1959 (A4), Institute Archives, MIT.

For accounts of the use of federal funding at MIT in the Cold War, see Silvan S. Schweber, "The Mutual Embrace of Science and the Military: ONR and the Growth of Physics in the United States after World War II," in Everett Mendelsohn, Merritt Roe Smith, and Peter Weingart, Science Technology and the Military, vol. 1 (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988): 3-45; and Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

.For the account of the boom-and-bust of physics PhDs in the Cold War, see David 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, no. 1 (2002): 131-159.

For the definitive account of Zacharias and the Physical Science Study Committee, see John L. Rudolph, Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education (New York: Palgrave, 2002).