Stephen Brush Awarded the 2009 Pais Prize

By Paul Halpern, Chair, Pais Prize Selection Committee

Stephen Brush

2009 Pais Prize winner Stephen Brush of the University of Maryland

The American Physical Society and the American Institute of Physics have selected Stephen G. Brush, a physicist and historian of science, to receive the 2009 Abraham Pais Prize for the History of Physics “for his pioneering, in-depth studies in the history of nineteenth and twentieth-century physics.”

Brush joins an impressive list of previous Pais Prize winners including Martin J. Klein (2005), John L. Heilbron (2006), Max Jammer (2007), and Gerald Holton (2008).

Born on 12 February 1935 in Bangor, Maine, Brush received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University in 1955. A Rhodes Scholar, he pursued graduate study at Oxford University, earning a doctorate in theoretical physics in 1958. From 1959 to 1965, he worked as a researcher at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California, where he studied plasmas using Monte Carlo simulations and explored theories of viscosity. His discovery, using early computer simulations, that classical plasmas undergo phase transitions to solid states proved important for models of stellar and planetary structure.

Brush’s interests soon turned to the history of science. He wrote a comprehensive history of molecular-lattice models in statistical physics, tracing their origins back to the work of Wilhelm Lenz and Ernst Ising in the 1920s. Entitled “History of the Lenz-Ising Model,” his often-cited paper was published in Reviews of Modern Physics.

In the mid-1960s, Brush participated in developing the “Harvard Project Physics” course, in a program led by Holton, F. James Rutherford, and Fletcher Watson that was funded by the National Science Foundation and several private foundations. Designed for high-school students, this innovative curriculum used books, films, demonstrations and other materials to weave history and philosophy into the framework of physics education.

In 1968 Brush joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, where he was appointed Associate Professor in the History Department as well as at the Institute for Fluid Dynamics and Applied Mathematics (later the Institute for Physical Science and Technology). The University’s first full-time historian of science, he became Professor in 1971 and Distinguished Professor of the History of Science in 1995.

In 1999 Brush was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a research project titled “A comparative study of theory evaluation in different sciences.” Using case studies from astronomy, biology, chemistry and physics, he examined the standard assumption that scientific theories are accepted as a result of their successful prediction of new phenomena. On the contrary, he found, several important theories (such as quantum mechanics) became accepted for other reasons—for example, because they provided explanations of previously mysterious phenomena.

Brush has not shied away from provocative topics. In his 1974 paper, “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?” he examined issues involving the use of historical anecdote in teaching science. He wondered whether traditional presentations of scientists as objective, emotionless observers serving as the vanguard of progress contributed to public apprehensions about their role in modern life. Brush speculated that more realistic portrayals could improve popular appreciation and understanding of science. Indeed, his call for realism seems to have had an impact. Recent decades have witnessed a trend toward more nuanced biographies of scientists, depicting their personal struggles and doubts rather than just their triumphs and accomplishments.

The subjects of science education, science popularization, and the history of the introduction of scientific ideas have continued to serve as major themes in Brush’s work. In 2001 he was awarded the Joseph Hazen Education Prize of the History of Science Society “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the teaching of the history of science.”

A prolific researcher and writer, Brush has published more than 320 works, including books, book chapters, and articles. He authored four noted monographs on the history of science. In 1976 he published The Kind of Motion We Call Heat: A History of the Kinetic Theory of Gases in the 19th Century, a two-volume historical study of statistical physics and the properties of gases. This innovative history used referee reports and other unconventional sources to cast light on questions about the development of the field. For this book, he received the prestigious Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society.

Brush’s other historical monographs include The Temperature of History: Phases of Science and Culture in the 19th Century (1978), Statistical Physics and the Atomic Theory of Matter from Boyle and Newton to Landau and Onsager (1983), and A History of Modern Planetary Physics, a three-volume set published in 1996. He is also the editor, translator, or co-author of ten other books about physical science and its development. With Holton, Brush co-authored an influential textbook (a revised edition of an earlier Holton work) that incorporated historical themes, Physics, the Human Adventure: From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond.

Among his many other achievements, Brush served as President of the History of Science Society in 1990–1991, and was the founding Editor of the “History of Physics” newsletter. A Fellow of the American Physical Society, he helped organize the Forum on the History of Physics and has served on the APS Council. He has been a visiting researcher or faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Minnesota. Upon retiring from the University of Maryland in 2006, he was named Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of the History of Science.

Note Added: This article represents the views of the author, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.