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

Course No. 1220
Professor Steven L. Goldman, Ph.D.
Lehigh University
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Course Overview

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by the end of the 20th century, nearly every 19th-century theory of natural and social phenomena would be overthrown or superseded.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
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 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
    Culture—History
    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
    Culture—Linguistics
    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
    Society—Sociology
    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
    Society—Economics
    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

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Your professor

Steven L. Goldman

About Your Professor

Steven L. Goldman, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 72.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Catch up on 100 Years of Science I found this course highly informative, enjoyable to listen to and, in parts, quite challenging. The first 10 or so lectures, on physics, were the hardest for me. I'd taken physics in high school, but apparently we did only classical physics and didn't make it as far as Einstein and relativity, much less quantum theory. I probably understood no more than 70-80 percent of that section of the course. Beyond that point, I understood almost everything. I enjoyed the way he from time to time brought in philosophical issues without over-emphasizing them. Almost all of the figures and concepts in the social science portion of the course were familiar to me, but I found the professor's overview of developments in anthropology, linguistics, psychology and economics insightful and illuminating. A number of facts he cited in this section surprised me, such as the fact that Carl Jung prepared psychological profiles of Nazi leaders for the Allies and that Thomas Kuhn had been charged with showing the logical continuity and progress of the history of science, yet his seminal work "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" ended up demonstrating the exact opposite. I was also surprised to learn that anyone had ever considered history a science, since to me it so obviously belongs in the humanities. Here are a few of the points or themes emphasized in the course that will stay with me: * Unexpected parallels between developments in physics and in the social sciences * The upshot of the thousands-years-old debate over how mathematics relates to the material world * The substantial extent of experimental support for many "way out there" claims in physics and cosmology * Reasons for the growth of the discipline of engineering in the US * Historical changes in the social and cultural context for science Professor Goldman has an energetic and enthusiastic speaking style that remains conversational even when he's talking about abstruse topics. He has a few pronunciation quirks, such as "evolyOOOtion" for "evolution" but he obviously knows French and German and did well with the names of scientists in those languages. I recommend this course for any non-scientist who wants to fill in their knowledge of the sciences in the 20th century and who is willing to be challenged.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A must for the educated citizen Author takes listener through some very complex subjects in a careful and clear way. One should recognize after hearing this course that the average layman is merely a bystander to the most profound developments of the past 150 years. Since much has happened since this was published, an updated edition is needed.
Date published: 2019-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well structured and delivered Dr. Goldman does a great job of covering all areas of science and presenting insights that will make you think deeply about each field and how they relate to each other. I highly recommend this series to anyone with an interest in science or engineering.
Date published: 2019-01-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I am disappointed I have enjoyed probably two hundred Great Courses over the last 20 years, but this was the first time that I found a course with such blatant factual errors in the first few lectures, such as Niels Bohr winning an Olympic Medal, or Fermi's nuclear pile being constructed under the football field (rather than the squash courts). I realize that these issues are not germane to the topic of the course, but they are still extremely distracting.
Date published: 2018-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Real food for thought! Goldman is certainly worth studying. His three courses are a complete education in themselves. His milieu is the philosophy of science hence, he teaches how to integrate scientific thinking into one's social life. He is an iconoclast, breaking the myths of discovery. He changed my perspective on science from one of belief to skepticism. I now look at scientific progress with a more critical eye. I listened to 96 of his lectures on audio, 48 hours, and was never bored.
Date published: 2018-08-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from noy able to understand i should have previewed before I bought it. I will try another science course on a similar subject
Date published: 2018-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More Than Hard Science This is the third of three, non-connected courses on the history of science, the other two being “The History of Science: Antiquity to 1700” and “History of Science: 1700-1900”, both of which I have listened to and reviewed. Of the three this is the one with which I had the most familiarity with its contents. Even so, there were surprises. For example there were eight lectures devoted to topics labeled “Culture”, “Society” and “Mind”. Given that there are only 36 total lectures and three of them are devoted to introductory and summary issues, I was reasonably surprised to note the emphasis on the soft sciences (I do not mean this to be pejorative about any of these topics). Knowing far less about sociology (very little), linguistics (almost nothing) and many other of these disciplines than I do about physics or chemistry, for example, I found it a treat to have time devoted to them. Of course, as in any survey course, especially one as far ranging as this, detail is sacrificed to presenting a broad view. Were it otherwise, this course would be massive and repetitive with many other courses. In general I was most impressed with Professor Goldman’s encyclopedic knowledge and his ability to move from the concepts of one discipline to its use in another (particle physics to medicine, to cite only one example). I also loved his discussion on history as regards it being a science and while I am not qualified to have a considered opinion, I now have the beginnings of an informed one. To be sure some reviewers have found what they consider to be factual errors in the material presented. If there are indeed a few factual errors, I pretty much consider that part and parcel that can happen to anyone who is broadly familiar with an area, but is not truly an expert in that area. For me Dr. Goldman gets a pass, if he has indeed made some minor errors. It is clear from his presentation and delivery that Professor Goldman is excited about his topic and believes that we should be also. In this, at least for me he secedes.
Date published: 2017-12-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not quite perfect... Excellent lecturer - style, delivery etc... 100% The first half of the course, on physics, was perfect. The last half on all the other hard sciences and social sciences seemed like a rushed tour of names, dates, and concepts. Probably needed another 12 lectures to make this perfect.
Date published: 2017-11-26
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