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Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey

Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey

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Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey

Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey

Course No.  1220
Course No.  1220
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  29 minutes per lecture

As the 19th century drew to a close, the age-old quest to understand the physical world appeared to be complete except for a few minor details. "It seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established," said Albert Michelson, the first American scientist to win a Nobel Prize.

But when Michelson made that prediction, he never dreamed that one of the "details"—his own curious discovery that the speed of light is constant no matter how fast an observer is moving—would soon be explained by a revolutionary theory that redefined the very concepts of space, time, matter, and energy.

The author of that theory, called relativity, was Albert Einstein. He would also lay the foundation for a strange new picture of the atom, which would eventually lead to quantum mechanics and a succession of startling discoveries driving physicists to ever more bizarre theories of the ultimate nature of the universe.

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As the 19th century drew to a close, the age-old quest to understand the physical world appeared to be complete except for a few minor details. "It seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established," said Albert Michelson, the first American scientist to win a Nobel Prize.

But when Michelson made that prediction, he never dreamed that one of the "details"—his own curious discovery that the speed of light is constant no matter how fast an observer is moving—would soon be explained by a revolutionary theory that redefined the very concepts of space, time, matter, and energy.

The author of that theory, called relativity, was Albert Einstein. He would also lay the foundation for a strange new picture of the atom, which would eventually lead to quantum mechanics and a succession of startling discoveries driving physicists to ever more bizarre theories of the ultimate nature of the universe.

Imagine Today's Science from a Turn-of-the Century Perspective

Scientists in 1900 had no inkling of the other mind-boggling developments that lay in wait: plate tectonics, genetic engineering, space probes, nanotechnology, Big Bang theory, electronic computers, nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, and many other astounding products of the human mind.

Indeed, by the end of the 20th century, nearly every 19th-century theory of natural and social phenomena would be overthrown or superseded.

A philosopher and historian of science, Professor Goldman (Ph.D., Boston University) has been researching the growing power and influence of science in modern society for nearly 40 years.

"For me," he says, "there's tremendous intellectual satisfaction from seeing how the ideas of 19th-century science were transformed in the 20th century into new kinds of theories that have much greater explanatory power, predictive power, and control power."

A Course in Ideas

"Transformation" is key—because 20th-century science is less revolutionary than evolutionary, in the sense that it built on crucial 19th-century concepts such as energy, natural selection, atoms, fields, and waves.

Professor Goldman is fascinated with such connections, which makes this more than a traditional history course.

Einstein himself was drawing on the known principles of waves and fields to reach the unexpected conclusions of the theory of relativity.

Throughout these 36 lectures, you learn the distinctive ideas that characterize 20th-century science, among them:

  • Science is a unity that encompasses the "hard" sciences of physics and chemistry, and the "soft" sciences, such as economics and sociology.
  • Modern science is a cultural phenomenon that has an inside, intellectual dimension, and an outside, social relationship dimension.
  • Concepts change: The terms space, time, matter, energy, the universe, Earth, gene, language, economy, culture, and society no longer mean what they did a century ago.
  • Reality is ultimately describable in terms of information, relationships, and processes.

The course is organized into five major themes: matter and energy, the universe, Earth, life, and humanity. The last theme, humanity, encompasses the social sciences, an area that is often omitted from histories of science.

Professor Goldman remedies that oversight to bring you the most significant ideas in anthropology, archaeology, history, linguistics, sociology, political science, economics, psychology, and cognitive science—alongside the major developments in physics, chemistry, mathematics, earth science, and biology.

Capstone of a 4,000-Year Quest for Knowledge

This course represents the capstone of a 4,000-year quest for knowledge that originated in the ancient Near East and is covered in The Teaching Company Courses, The History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 and The History of Science: 1700 to 1900.

Some of the key figures you discuss are household names: Albert Einstein, Watson and Crick, Sigmund Freud, and Stephen Hawking.

Many are less well known: Franz Boas was a major influence on all of the social sciences in the first half of the 20th century; John Maynard Keynes is arguably the Einstein of economics; and an American geologist named Harry Hess came up with the theory of seafloor spreading, which led to plate tectonics.

Many other influential investigators are featured, including:

  • Philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell who, in the early 20th century, refuted the long-standing project of Gottlob Frege to reduce all of arithmetic to logic by posing a famous paradox.
  • Astronomer Fred Hoyle who, in the 1950s, ridiculed the hypothesis that the universe expanded from an infinitely dense point by labeling it the "big bang" theory. The name stuck—and the theory ultimately triumphed.
  • Physicist Leon Lederman, who was encountered by Professor Goldman in 1978, moments after a telegram confirmed Lederman's historic discovery of the top quark. Goldman asked him, "Do you think quarks are real, or is this another intellectual construct?" Lederman replied, "Well, when [Murray] Gell-Mann thought there were three, I thought they were real. When he said there were four, that was also okay. If I'm right and there are five, then there have to be six. Six are too many, so there must be something more fundamental than quarks." Goldman adds, "I don't think he has that opinion today."
A Grand Tour of the Sciences

Professor Goldman discusses many different aspects of science, among them:

  • Science and society: A turning point in the growth of U.S. science came in 1862, when Congress passed the Merrill Land Grant Act, giving large tracts of federal land to any state that would create an engineering college. This created an academic community that would later help spawn the unparalleled scientific advances of the 20th century
  • Physics: In developing the special theory of relativity, Einstein was driven by a profoundly simple question: what does it mean to say that two events happen at the same time?
  • Mathematics: Mathematicians live with a peculiar, unresolved problem: what is the nature of mathematical objects? Do they exist independently of the human mind?
  • Psychology: The Stanford-Binet IQ test was developed during World War I to screen out recruits who were not intellectually capable of functioning in the U.S. Army. It was not intended to be an index for ranking intelligence at all levels. Nonetheless, it became the basis for what is still a preoccupation with testing.
  • Cosmology: In the 1950s, most scientists were sympathetic to the steady state theory that held the universe has always existed. For science, absolute beginnings are a problem.
  • Telecommunications: Today, fiber optic cables and communications satellites make long distance phone calls routine. However, at the time of Sputnik in 1957 there was just one undersea telephone cable connecting the U.S. with Europe, carrying a grand total of 36 simultaneous calls.
  • Meteorology: The atmosphere transports insects, seeds, pollutants, sand, bacteria, and viruses between continents. Sand from the Chinese desert routinely rains down on the west coast of the U.S. bringing microbes with it.
  • Archaeology: Archaeologists increasingly use techniques borrowed from other disciplines. Recently, textile experts were able to identify Celtic weaving patterns in cloth discovered in western China, dating from 2000 B.C.E. This establishes a heretofore-unknown ancient link between Europe and Asia.

You will find this course filled with ideas, anecdotes, and insights. As Professor Goldman says at the outset of the first lecture, "Welcome to an intellectual odyssey that I hope will be as fantastic and exciting to you as Homer's Odyssey, without keeping you away from home for 20 years."

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    The Evolution of 20th-Century Science
    Professor Steven L. Goldman introduces the scope of the course and discusses the key features of 19th-century science that led to the extraordinary creativity and innovation of science in the 20th century. x
  • 2
    Redefining Reality
    The first of 10 lectures on the physical sciences covers Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, which undermined 200 years of physics and launched a wholly unexpected revision in our conception of the universe. x
  • 3
    Quantum Theory Makes Its Appearance
    A puzzling phenomenon called the "blackbody radiation problem" inspired a new theory of the atom that would ultimately redefine reality and rationality. Professor Goldman tells the story of the inception of this bold idea, called quantum theory. x
  • 4
    The Heroic "Old" Age of Quantum Theory
    Picking up the story of quantum theory in the 1920s, this lecture covers its growth into a mature system called quantum mechanics through key contributions by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and Werner Heisenberg. x
  • 5
    A Newer Theory—QED
    In the 1930s, quantum mechanics entered its "working" phase, called quantum electrodynamics (QED), with increasingly comprehensive—and often bizarre—explanations for the interactions of matter and energy. x
  • 6
    QED Meets Fission and Fusion
    As physicists began sorting out the structure of the atomic nucleus, an awesome source of energy came to light that found application in nuclear weapons and the first plausible theory of how stars work. x
  • 7
    Learning by Smashing
    In order to explore the inside of atoms, physicists invented "atom smashers" to break them apart. These developed from the original 5-inch-diameter cyclotron of the 1930s to today's mighty particle accelerators that are measured in miles. x
  • 8
    What Good is QED?
    QED was a fertile theory that not only guided the development of nuclear physics from 1930 to 1960 but also raised philosophical issues about the status of truth. QED also led to practical applications such as semiconductors, lasers, and superconductivity. x
  • 9
    The Newest Theory—Quantum Chromodynamics
    By the 1960s, the number of "elementary" particles created by atom smashers was in the hundreds and the need for a unifying theory was pressing. "Quarks" came to the rescue in a theory called quantum chromodynamics, proposed by Murray Gell-Mann. x
  • 10
    Unifying Nature
    The success of quark theory fueled the search for further unification, specifically in a theory that would unite the four fundamental forces of nature. That effort has spawned such strange ideas as loop theory and string theory, and involves picturing conditions at the instant of the Big Bang itself. x
  • 11
    Chemists Become Designers
    The final lecture on the physical sciences traces the revolution in chemistry due largely to Linus Pauling's quantum theory of the chemical bond in the 1930s, which together with the advent of supercomputers now makes it possible to create designer molecules. x
  • 12
    Mathematics and Truth
    Professor Goldman pauses in his tour of 20th-century science to explore the curious power of mathematics to explain nature. How can mathematical abstractions tell us anything about concrete experience? x
  • 13
    Mathematics and Reality
    Continuing his discussion of mathematics, Professor Goldman shows that 20th-century developments in mathematics were every bit as breathtaking as developments in the theories of matter, energy, life, Earth, and the universe. x
  • 14
    The Universe Expands
    The first of three lectures on the universe charts our evolving conception of the universe, from 1900 when the Milky Way was thought to be the only galaxy there was, to the discovery of an expanding universe of countless galaxies in the 1920s and the formulation of the Big Bang theory in the late 1940s. x
  • 15
    What is the Universe?
    Bolstered by the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in the 1960s, the Big Bang theory underwent a startling modification in the 1980s called inflation theory that radically enlarged the estimated size of the universe. Recent observations also show that the universe's expansion is accelerating, contrary to all expectations. x
  • 16
    How Do We Know What's Out There?
    This lecture spotlights the fascinating variety of instruments that have unveiled the universe in the course of the 20th century, from ground-based optical, radio, and neutrino telescopes to spacecraft that are surveying the cosmos at x-ray, gamma ray, infrared, and other wavelengths. x
  • 17
    From Equilibrium to Dynamism
    The first of three lectures on earth sciences contrasts the picture of a stable Earth that prevailed in 1900 with the dynamic planet that emerged from the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s, which was inspired by Alfred Wegener's rejected theory of continental drift from 1915. x
  • 18
    Subterranean Fury
    Plate tectonics was a "Copernican revolution" in our conception of Earth, which not only explained features that had long baffled geologists, but led to new insights about Earth as a complex system of relationships among the constantly changing atmosphere, oceans, core, mantle, and crust. x
  • 19
    Solar System Citizen
    This lecture considers our planet's place in the solar system and examines one of the most outstanding accomplishments of the 20th century: the exploration of Earth, the Moon, and planets by spacecraft. x
  • 20
    Science Organized, Adopted, Co-opted
    Professor Goldman begins a pair of lectures examining science from the "outside" by tracing the origin of the public commitment to big science in the U.S. From limited government support in the 19th century, science grew to an endeavor that consumed an estimated $1 trillion of public funds in the second half of the 20th century. x
  • 21
    Techno-Science and Globalization
    One of the most important of all scientific developments in the 20th century was the new relationship between science and society, with science increasingly being equated by the public with truth. At the same time, the scope and direction of scientific research was becoming increasingly subject to political influence. x
  • 22
    The Evolution of Evolution
    The first of five lectures on life sciences shows how Charles Darwin's version of evolution was rescued in the early 20th century by the discovery of radioactivity, which led to proof that Earth was billions of years old, and by the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's forgotten 1865 paper on inheritance in plants. x
  • 23
    Human Evolution
    Spectacular fossil finds in the 20th century provide a detailed picture of the evolution of our species. Recently, this picture has been greatly enhanced by a powerful new technique that uses DNA to trace prehistoric human migration. x
  • 24
    Genetics—From Mendel to Molecules
    Between 1900 and 1910, genetics emerged as the dominant theory of inheritance, sparking a quest to understand the nature of the gene and ultimately leading to the identification of DNA (originally considered "uninteresting") as the carrier of the genetic code. x
  • 25
    Molecular Biology
    The once-controversial idea that life can be explained by chemical phenomena triumphed in the 20th century with the astonishing success of molecular biology in unraveling the basic structures of living systems. x
  • 26
    Molecular Medicine
    Concluding the series on the life sciences, this lecture looks at the application of discoveries in microbiology and other physical sciences to medicine, highlighting advances in pharmaceuticals and medical imaging. x
  • 27
    Culture—Anthropology and Archaeology
    Beginning an eight-lecture series on the social sciences, Professor Goldman traces the development of different schools of anthropology and the shift in archaeology from collecting artifacts to explaining cultural development through material remains. x
  • 28
    Is history a science? This lecture follows the shifting fortunes of objectivity and relativism as historical methodologies. The latter culminated in the extreme form of relativism known as post-modernism, which attacked the foundations of science itself. x
  • 29
    Linguistics underwent a profound change in the 20th century, with the focus shifting from the historical study of languages to theories of how language works, developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Noam Chomsky, and others. x
  • 30
    What is a society? What distinguishes it, what keeps it together over time, and what are the laws of its functionality? 20th-century sociology moved from grand theories of society to the detailed study of social processes and institutions. x
  • 31
    Society—Political Science
    In exploring the relationships of power and authority that underpin society, Professor Goldman focuses on theories of what holds the fragmented, pluralistic American democracy together. x
  • 32
    In 1900, "the economy" did not exist as a concept, but as the 20th century unfolded a new breed of intellectuals called economists strove to explain and influence the intricate forces of supply, demand, production, distribution, and consumption. x
  • 33
    Mind—Classical and Behavioral Psychology
    The quest to understand human psychology spawned startlingly different approaches in the 20th century, including the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Gestalt psychology, and the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner. Since the 1970s, the mind-centered approach of cognitive psychology has dominated. x
  • 34
    Mind—Cybernetics, AI, Connectionism
    The final lecture on the social sciences examines the rapid progress since the 1940s in using computers to model the operation of the mind—an effort called artificial intelligence that raises the formidable question: What is mind? x
  • 35
    Looking Back
    Professor Goldman looks back on the previous 34 lectures, drawing provocative conclusions and asking probing questions, such as: Does the increasing explanatory and predictive power of science mean that science is drawing closer to the truth? x
  • 36
    Looking Around and Looking Ahead
    Where are the sciences headed? The forecasts of 19th-century thinkers about the 20th century could not have been more wrong, but Professor Goldman hazards a few informed and fascinating predictions about the 21st century. x

Lecture Titles

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Steven L. Goldman
Ph.D. Steven L. Goldman
Lehigh University
Dr. Steven L. Goldman is the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Lehigh University, where he has taught for 30 years. He earned his B.S. in Physics at the Polytechnic University of New York and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University. Before taking his position at Lehigh, Professor Goldman taught at The Pennsylvania State University, where he was a cofounder of one of the first U.S. academic programs in science, technology, and society studies. Professor Goldman has received the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award from Lehigh University. A prolific author, he has written or edited eight books, including Science, Technology, and Human Progress, and he has an impressive list of scholarly articles and reviews to his credit. He has been a national lecturer for the scientific research society Sigma Xi and a national program consultant for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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Rated 4.9 out of 5 by 42 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Understand the Rate, not Just the Technology Don't be fooled by the title. Most surveys are leisurely strolls along a path as someone points out interesting sites along the way. You end up with a map of the topic. I was expecting a map of technology, what I got was a speedometer. We are so accustomed to new technologies, new abilities in communications and transportation that we have lost our sense of awe at the speed of progress. This course nudges us back to the edges of that wonder. As a retired engineer with a couple of recent advanced degrees, I've considered myself current across a broad sample of technologies for a long time. I picked up this course just to fill in a couple of weak spots in my general knowledge. That's not what this course is about. Dr. Goldman's course, as he states, is a survey of the progress in the sciences between 1900 and the turn of the present century. It furnishes a look back at where we started, the high spots of the work across a really broad range of fields, and how fast we've come to this point. Dr. Goldman points out that words and concepts that we use daily have changed their meanings and their usage in the last 100 years. In one of his lectures, he gives us a list of words in common usage that have changed during this period. These concepts include atom, space, time, earth, economy, and language. For instance, most scientists of 1900 were not convinced of the existence of atoms. Today, the general population takes atoms for granted, and few of us doubt the existence even of photons. Prior to 1905 and Einstein, that concept didn't exist. The rapid maturation of concepts continues to this day. In my own time, I remember the debate over continental drift (How could THOSE move?). That seems settled now. The number of physicists that have died within my lifetime amazes me. My parents were concerned when Einstein died. Nobody mentioned the passing of Bohr, Schroedinger,De Broglie, Weiner. Watching Goldman review their work we are reminded that we have truly seen a progression of giants in our day. The lecturer carefully explains how society has changed its view of science and technology. New ideas are accepted more quickly than they used to be, and extended rapidly by new researchers. And the expression of those ideas as technology pushes us all ahead, even those of us who don't directly adopt the new thing. And it's not just physics. Psychology, biology, genetics, broad swathes of culture, society and the cognitive sciences have also pushed past the previous boundaries. For instance, consider the role of behavioral psychology, a field invented in the early twentieth century, in commerce and advertising. Science has moved solidly into systems, and into dynamical systems as opposed to those in equilibrium. Now we study networks and relationships like we used to collect butterflies and plants. I heartily recommend this course. If I had one thing to do differently, I would have bought the summary. I believe this course would make those notes valuable. The pace of the lectures is rapid. I often found myself backing up within lessons to see something that had passed by while I was considering another point. July 27, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fascinating! In these lectures, Professor Steven Goldman masterfully covers not only the evolution over the past century of natural sciences such as physics and geology but also of social sciences such as anthropology and economics. In the second to last lecture, he raises various fundamental questions that can only be dubbed philosophical. He concludes in lecture 36 with a sensible look towards the future. This series reaches a level of excellence that could be a model for all Teach12 productions: • it is wide-ranging, yet profound; • the amount of information covered is astounding, at a level that remains accessible for the non-specialist; • there are hardly any repetitions or non-pertinent personal anecdotes; • the lecturer not only perfectly masters the material but clearly has reflected upon it at length so that he conveys his own wisdom as a bonus _ though of course many listeners may not totally agree with all his personal views. This course is very warmly recommended to all who are curious-minded, not only those interested in the history of ideas and the progression of thought. May 18, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by An Intellectual Odyssey of 20th Century Science Dr. Goldman takes the student on a journey covering not only the events and personalities of 20th century scientific progress but also through the evolution of critical thinking itself over the last 100years. If you ever wondered: "How did they come up with that?" re: scientific discovery and theory, Dr. Goldman will answer the question. This course is not just about the science itself but the philosophical, historical, and societal context that enabled changes in scientific perspective. Dr. Goldman does a masterful job of explaining the science while portraying the context. While I thoroughly enjoyed the treatment of the physical sciences as those are my roots, I found it equally fascinating how Dr. Goldman demonstrated the adoption of similar thinking (e.g. reductionism) in the biological and social sciences while these areas developed their own philosophical frameworks. His lecture on History as a science was fascinating, as was his lecture on linguistics, an area I knew little about. In all, this course is a fascinating intellectual journey. Dr. Goldman's breadth and depth of knowledge in all fields of physical, biological, and social science coupled with his understanding of philosophy and history are overarching. I viewed the DVD where Dr. Goldman showed his enthusiasm and emphasis via his body language. But since this course dates to 2004, it has limited graphical or other visual aids compared to newer TGC courses. It is conceivable that the audio version would be nearly as effective. The course guide is outstanding. All the key points are contained in the lecture summaries though I found myself writing down many anecdotes in the margins. The timeline, glossary and biographical notes are very well done. I would certainly recommend this course to anyone interested in learning about how science got to where it is in the last century. I would also recommend it to anyone interested in 20th century history or the development of modern society as science and technology impacted the last century so profusely,. April 26, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Brilliance... Of the nearly 100 Great Courses I own, my top three are those taught by Professor Goldman. Without exaggeration, I must say that Professor Goldman's breadth and depth of knowledge is stunning. He is bordering on genius, and I do not use that word lightly. I am actually surprised he is not even more widely renowned than he presently is. The Great Courses are fortunate to have his work in their catalogue, and we as life-long learners are very fortunate to be able to learn from such an intellectual giant. My sincere hope is that The Great Courses will get Professor Goldman back in the studio to record more lecture series as soon as possible. This would be a true service to all those who love learning and knowledge. Put simply, this course will make you smarter. And as we know more, we can accomplish more. Professor Goldman is a teacher of the highest order. September 25, 2013
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