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Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

University of Sussex

Master of Arts
United Kingdom

Writing - Commentary

When Physics Became King




                        The title of the book might seem like an insult to biologists, chemists, and all scientists in other fields by stating that Physics is a superior subject. After reading the book, however, there seems to be no indication that this is the message the author had meant to invoke. Rather, to my understanding, the title refers to the rise of Physics in the 19th century, how it started out from being a part of Philosophy to an individual academic discipline, which is the actual subject of the book. It would probably be more instructive had the author chose a different title, but it does have its relevance.

Physics and Culture Influences Each Other

                        When Physics Became King, by Iwan Rhys Morus, follows the development of different aspects of Physics from the 19th century, with each explored individually in its own chapter. But unlike most history books on Physics, which would focus mainly on a scientific perspective, the author also wanted to show more of a less-explored side of Physics: How it evolved along with society and its culture. By examining what one might think of as the cultural history of Physics, one would be able to understand just how much of our current culture has been influenced by Physics, and just how much of Physics has been influenced by culture as well.

                        After the introduction, the first chapter looks at the state of Physics in the early 19th century, which was actually a part of what was called ‘natural philosophy’ at the time. It also explores how Romanticism affected philosophy as a whole, and in turn Physics. Subsequent chapters describe the developments in Electricity, Thermodynamics, Astronomy, and Radiation, both scientifically and socially. There are also two chapters that look into the changes in physicists’ method of work: On how physicists used to exhibit their achievements to the public – usually in the form of inventions or machines, and also on the introduction of the laboratory. The last chapter covers the last years of the century and even a bit of the 20th century. And as we go through these chapters, we will start to see many examples of the main point that the author wanted to emphasis: Physics and Culture are constantly influencing each other.

                        For Physics affecting Culture, technology is an obvious example. Telegraphy, invented at the start of the century, fundamentally changed how people communicate with each other. More accurate maps of the heavens greatly improved maritime navigation for ships travelling to far-off colonies of many countries. But there were also more subtle ways for Physics to influence society and culture. The French Revolution, for example, was originally a movement by the French for societies with more emphasis on reasoning, although it eventually turned into a pure desire to conquer. But their ideals remained to a certain degree, as greater emphasis was placed on natural philosophical investigations, which continued to be carried out by the French.

                        Also, the state of nature, as described by Physics, was for a time taken as an indicator as to how social order should be structured. The nebular hypothesis stated that stellar gases can combine to form planets and other masses, which suggests that the heavens are constantly changing, and as such certain Liberals in Britain used the hypothesis to argue for more social reforms. As we can see, Physics has greatly affected our culture.

                        As for Culture affecting Physics, the most obvious case would be the process of creating Physics itself. There was no such thing as Physics before the 19th century. Men who were studied Physics either must be rich or had to produce something useful so that they might be able to persuade others to finance their work. They had to convince others that their work were important. As the century went by, physicists employed different ways to show the public the worth of their achievements and developments, mostly through lectures and later exhibitions, which might convince the public that it is justified to divert resources for their investigations. In short, physicists had to find a place in society and culture to accommodate them and their researches throughout the 19th century. The specific cultures of a country also affect how Physics is received in it, like how the discoveries in Physics fitted in with the Victorians’ eagerness for progress in Britain, or for the rush to industrialize Germany as she sought to compete with Britain.

                        There are also other examples as well. The introduction of laboratories to institutions and universities, which would prove to be crucial for physicists to tinker with nature more effectively, had to be fought for by certain physicists due to strong opposition from the directors of institutions. The reason was because the conditions of the laboratory were deemed too similar to those of a factory, and so are unfit for gentlemen. Also, women were literally barred from Physics – and science overall – because the conventional thinking of the time was that women have only limited energy available to them. And since energy is thought to be conserved, they should concentrate their efforts solely on domestic responsibilities. Of course, such reasoning has over time proved to be false and is now unacceptable.

                        With these examples, and many others as well as we go through each individual topic, the author repeats the message which he has mentioned to various extents at the conclusion of each chapter: Culture and Physics are constantly influencing each other. Indeed, he even goes as far as to state that Physics is a product of culture. This might seem strange, given that most would think of Physics as being something that is objective, while culture is subjective. But to me, there is no major conflict. In my opinion, culture can be defined as the consistent actions of a group of people over a period of time, and in this sense, Physics would be just as cultural as religion: a group of people working endlessly to increase their understanding of the mechanisms of nature is a kind of culture, just like the rituals that villagers of a rural tribe may perform.

                        Many aspects of Physics, either technological or otherwise, are constantly affecting the cultures of human society and vice-versa. However, there is one part of Physics which I think, to an extent, must be off-limits to cultural influences. That is the process of scientific inquiry and investigation. The case where women were deemed unsuitable to work on Physics was in my opinion an example of a breach in the objectivity of such the processes. Previous perceptions, cultural or otherwise, had been given priority over impartial observation and logic. This is the part of Physics that I think must be separate from culture in order to preserve its objectivity. It is easy to fool yourself into thinking that what you have discovered agrees with what you think. But apart from this exception, I agree with the author’s argument.

Scientists' Role in Decision-making Processes

                        Given the argument that Physics is a product of culture, it also reminded me of the current status of Physics – and science overall - in society. While it has proven to be a very critical part of our modern society, its admission into the political structures of societies has been surprisingly slow. In many countries, the level that most physicists and other scientists can contribute to certain decisions that governments make are usually limited to report facts, but they do not actually participate in national policy-making. Scientists, however, can - and should – play a more active role in this decision-making process, given their scientific knowledge - whether they are natural science or social science.

                        Fortunately, in recent years there are signs that changes are made in this direction, and I hope that the day will come when scientists are routinely involved in decision-making processes at governmental levels. That is the culture I hope Physics and the other fields in science will become in the future.

                                                                                                                                                                  Mike Ko
                                                                                                                                                                  ( 1,320 words )


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