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When Physics Became King

As recently as two hundred years ago, physics as we know it today did not exist. Born in the early nineteenth century during the second scientific revolution, physics struggled at first to achieve legitimacy in the scientific community and culture at large. In fact, the term "physicist" did not appear in English until the 1830s.

When Physics Became King traces the emergence of this revolutionary science, demonstrating how a discipline that barely existed in 1800 came to be regarded a century later as the ultimate key to unlocking nature’s secrets. A cultural history designed to provide a big-picture view, the book ably ties advances in the field to the efforts of physicists who worked to win social acceptance for their research.

Beginning his tale with the rise of physics from natural philosophy, Iwan Morus chronicles the emergence of mathematical physics in France and its later export to England and Germany. He then elucidates the links between physics and industrialism, the technology of statistical mechanics, and the establishment of astronomical laboratories and precision measurement tools. His tale ends on the eve of the First World War, when physics had firmly established itself in both science and society.

Scholars of both history and physics will enjoy this fascinating and studied look at the emergence of a major scientific discipline.

288 pages | 30 halftones, 12 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2005

History of Science

Mathematics and Statistics

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


"Morus sets out to provide a new ’Big Picture’ of nineteenth-century physics that is more in tune with the insights of recent work in the history of science, this time by focusing on the cultural history of physics and on the question implicit in his title: How and when did physics become king of the sciences? How did it emerge as a discipline and acquire the great cultural authority it possessed by the end of the nineteenth century? Very few good histories of nineteenth-century physics have been published, and none takes quite the approach Morus does here. In short, there is currently no book even closely equivalent to this."

Bruce J. Hunt, author of T he Maxwellians

"Morus is to be congratulated on writing an account of the rise of physics that is not only accessible to scientists, students, and the general reader but of major interest to scholars studying nineteenth-century European history. From French mathematics to German romanticism, from the precision laboratory to spiritualism, When Physics Became King explores the concepts, skills, institutions, and societies through which a new and international discipline was forged. The rise of the physical sciences should henceforth be integral to any general history of modern Europe."

Andrew Warwick, author of Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics

"This is a story about the ascendance of physics as viewed by the public and, more importantly, by government and industry. As
Morus puts it, physics became ’the ultimate authority in nature’. It is a fascinating story, well told and mostly based on the latest
research by professional historians of science."

Stephen G. Brush | Nature

 "In a beautifully written and engaging synthesis, Morus sheds new light on familiar topics and people .... The result is by far the best history of 19th-century physics that is now available."

Jeff Hughes | Physics World

"This delightfully written book traces the evolution of the subject from the relatively obscure world of 18th century
Natural Philosophy to the end of the 19th century with Physics established as a University discipline requiring proper training, having a well-defined career structure, and imposing research obligations on working physicists....The book is informative, well structured and a joy to read. It ought to appeal not only to the relatively narrow audience of science historians, but to working physicists and to the general public."

A. Calogeracos | Contemporary Physics

"A masterfully written historical analysis. . . . The book, which fills most admirably a huge gap in the secondary literature, is a ’must read’ for undergraduates. I also highly recommend it to historians of science and technology; to general historians, for the understanding it offers of the importance of physics to 19th-century economies and notions of nationalism; and to scientists, for the sense it provides of the importance of sociocultural context to scientific content."

Myles W. Jackson | American Scientist

"Iwan Rhys Morus’s excellent history of physics in the 19th century, When Physics Became King, considers the field in an age when physics and physicists came to play a prominent role in the culture. . . . A few good histories of physics during that remarkable age exist—but none as readable or comprehensive as Morus’s superb book."

Robert M. Brian | Physics Today

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Queen of the Sciences
2. A Revolutionary Science
3. The Romance of Nature
4. The Science of Showmanship
5. The Science of Work
6. Mysterious Fluids and Forces
7. Mapping the Heavens
8. Places of Precision
9. Imperial Physics
Bibliographic Essay

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