When solid state physics formed in 1940s America, it was unusual. It violated the
longstanding convention that physics should only be subdivided according to natural
classes of research problems or consistent sets of techniques. Instead, solid state
incorporated a wide range of concepts and methodological approaches that had only the
most superficial similarities. The unifying force behind the field was the explicit
professional goal of bringing academic and industrial researchers into closer dialogue. The
non-traditional manner in which solid state formed was symptomatic of a sea change in the
American physics community as some physicists in the 1940s began thinking about
professional and institutional structures as tools with which they could actively define and
maintain the scope and mission of physics.
This shift had consequences both for solid state, and for American physics as a whole.
Solid state was initially defined in terms of 1940s professional challenges, and so was
forced to continually reimagine itself as the context changed around it. Eventually, it
fractured into subgroups with divergent perspectives about the field’s goals and how best to
address them. One of these, condensed matter physics, has typically been understood as a
simple renaming of solid state physics. A close examination of the process by which
condensed matter emerged, however, indicates that it represented an intentional return to
defining a sub-disciplinary on the basis of natural phenomena and investigatory
techniques. Condensed matter physics grew from pointed reactions against the segment of
solid state that was closely aligned with industry. It crafted an identity that emphasized the
intellectual puzzles physical studies of complex systems could address. As broadly conceived
fields like solid state physics established themselves and grew, both in population and in
influence, physics as a whole became a broader enterprise. Research areas that might
otherwise have branched off into engineering or become independent specialties were
offered a place in sub-disciplines like solid state physics. Additionally, other elements of the
physics community adopted solid state’s mode of discipline formation, making the
definition of “physics” more fluid and responsive to contemporary professional pressures.
The evolution of solid state physics was guided throughout by a philosophical debate over
the nature of fundamental knowledge. The disagreement persisted mostly between solid
state physicists, who advocated the stance that fundamental knowledge could be found at
any level of complexity, and high energy physicists, who restricted fundamental knowledge
to the theories and concepts that governed the smallest constituents of matter and energy.
The progress of this debate was driven by professional concerns about funding and
intellectual prestige, and the philosophical positions physicists developed helped, in turn,
to shape the field’s professional infrastructure.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2013. Major: History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Advisors: Michel Janssen, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt. 1 computer file (PDF); ix, 368 pages, appendices A-B.
Martin, Joseph Daniel.
Solid foundations: structuring American solid state physics, 1939–1993.
Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,
Content distributed via the University of Minnesota's Digital Conservancy may be subject to additional license and use restrictions applied by the depositor.