- Physics and Politics: Research and Research Support in Twentieth-Century Germany in International Perspective
This book is a product of a conference convened as part of a project on the history of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) from 1920 to 1970. As such, it displays the strengths and weaknesses of many edited collections: it has some excellent articles, but it is not a very coherent and systematic review of either the history of the DFG or of physics and politics in the mid-twentieth century in comparative perspective. The editors do make an effort to try to impose what coherence they can. Helmuth Trischler’s introduction reviews physics’s interaction with politics in the twentieth century internationally, and Mark Walker gives a most useful overview of the evolution of the DFG and its innovative contribution to research funding—peer-reviewed grants instead of money given directly to institute directors to pursue programs—during the prescribed time period.
Somewhat surprisingly, Walker’s is the only paper that covers the Third Reich, perhaps because there are other conferences and volumes on that topic. With the exception of Alexander von Schwerin’s article on the origins of biophysics in late Imperial and Weimar X-ray work by physicists and physicians, all of the papers on Germany are on West Germany from post-war reconstruction to the 1970s. East Germany is entirely missing. The five papers on West Germany, however, do form a somewhat coherent whole: Gerhard Rammer on denazification of physics, Richard Beyler on the “ideology of non-ideology” among physicists, Cathryn Carson on nuclear physics and West German participation in CERN, Martin Strickmann on the comparative role of physicists as public intellectuals in nuclear debates in France and West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, and Helmuth Albrecht on laser research in the 1960s. They collectively give a picture of the reconstruction of West German physics from the aftermath of National Socialism to the ascendancy of nuclear physics in the sixties.
Physics and Politics also has three non-German case studies, none of them, as the editors note, about the traditional objects of comparison, the United States and Western Europe. Paul Josephson, Yury Ranyuk, Ivan Tsekhmistro, and Karl Hall discuss the history of the Ukrainian physics [End Page 649] institute in Kharkiv under Stalin, Morris Low looks at the role of physicists as policymakers in Japan after World War II, and Zuoyue Wang describes physics in Communist China from 1949 to 1976. The Chinese and Ukrainian cases have much in common, namely the often-repressive intervention of their respective Communist Party states in scientific institutes and disciplines, and the partial protection created by nuclear weapons programs that made physicists more useful than dispensable. Low’s article on Japan works better as a comparative case to West Germany, and he does briefly discuss the parallels of two ex-Axis countries where physics had to be reconstructed out of the ashes of a humiliating defeat that left military research permanently tainted. But the most effective work in comparative history in this volume is Strickmann’s on France and West Germany, the only one that systematically compares two countries.
What can historians of technology get out of this book? If the history of physics is not one of your interests, the honest answer is not very much. The technology of scientific instrumentation in X-rays, nuclear accelerators, and lasers does come up of course, but only Albrecht’s paper on lasers discusses the somewhat fraught relations between physicists and engineers in an emerging technology on the boundary between the two disciplines. Wang’s article on China is probably the most technological, because the physical sciences grew massively under Mao only as applied programs to develop nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and satellites. On the other hand, if you are interested in physics in the countries presented, this book’s sound case studies may well be of value.
Dr. Neufeld is a curator in the Space History Division...