Report from the Chair

Using History of Physics in Education

By David C. Cassidy, Forum Chair

Twenty-five years ago, in April 1983, the U.S. Department of Education published a landmark report titled “A Nation at Risk.” The report sent shock waves rippling through American society, painting a bleak picture of American education and warning of dire consequences for the nation’s competitiveness. “Our concern goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce,” the report went on to say. “It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society.”

Many of the report’s assessments and warnings remain valid and are not limited to the United States. They spawned a number of education reform efforts, especially in science, that continue to this day. Although American students and even well-educated adults still display a disturbing lack of scientific literacy, gradual improvement has resulted. One of the most important and influential factors in this reform has been not a particular initiative but an educational approach. This approach originated most directly from one of the leading members of the commission that produced “A Nation at Risk”—Gerald Holton. In a fitting coincidence, almost exactly on the 25th anniversary of this report, Holton received the 2008 Abraham Pais Prize for the History of Physics during the April 2008 APS meeting. As noted in the citation, “His writing, lecturing, and leadership of major educational projects introduced history of physics to a mass audience.”

We are delighted to be able to publish in this newsletter Holton’s elegant and insightful Pais Prize address, “Of What Use is the History of Science?”. Without giving too much away, I would like to underscore what has been a hallmark of his reform approach, as presented in this address. He argues that one of the most important uses of the history of physics is in physics education, by providing students with a unifying perspective on the discipline and a sense of the grand adventure—the human drama of struggle and success—that has brought us to our current understanding of nature. Without distorting or oversimplifying the past, history can lend an excitement and a purpose to the study of physics, while uniting into a meaningful whole the isolated technical details of problem-solving, individual principles and diverse topics.

Together with other ongoing physics education initiatives, the historical approach pioneered by Holton for half a century has proved enormously influential and successful in such efforts as the famous Project Physics Course as well as in nearly every recent standards initiative in science education, such as those by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the National Academy of Sciences. I congratulate Gerald Holton warmly on this award.

I am also pleased to report a number of exciting developments. For the first time in Forum history, the Executive Committee, after careful consideration and a unanimous vote, will welcome an elected student among its members. This is the result of changes in our membership. According to the most recent count, the Forum has 3929 members, constituting 8.5 percent of APS; of these members, 26.4 percent are students. We are very pleased to welcome students of all levels to the Forum, and I would like to emphasize that we strongly support and encourage a greater voice for students and young people in Forum affairs. In view of my above remarks, we are of course delighted at this student interest in the history of physics. The Executive Committee has asked the Nominating Committee (chaired by Bill Evenson) to put forth student candidates for one of the two open three-year Member-at-Large positions in the spring 2009 election. The Nominating Committee welcomes recommendations of graduate students suited for this position. It also welcomes nominations for the other Member-at-Large position, as well as for Vice Chair and for Forum Councilor. Self-nominations are welcome, too.

While student numbers have grown, membership in two other categories is below desired levels: female members, who represent only 9.8 percent of Forum members for whom gender is known; and working historians and philosophers of physics. Suggestions of ways to encourage either or both are welcome.

The Forum website is a valuable source of information on members and activities. George Zimmerman ( has volunteered to help us realize its full potential. As our first Webmaster, he is working closely with APS staff on giving the site a needed facelift, enhancing it with multimedia materials from our program sessions, and making it more useful and accessible.

Our sessions at the March and April APS meetings continue to draw excellent speakers (both contributed and invited) and large audiences, as you will see from the meeting reports on pp. 8-13 of this newsletter. Please plan to attend the 2009 March meeting (March 16–20 in Pittsburgh) or the “April” meeting (May 2–5 in Denver), and perhaps contribute a paper to our contributed sessions (see p. 8). Students are especially encouraged to offer contributed papers; limited travel support for them is available. In this regard, the Forum continues to solicit donations in memory of physicists to be used in support of students giving contributed papers and of invited lecturers. For more information, please contact Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Miller (

Zimmerman and Robert Arns ( are continuing the effort initiated by David Jackson to encourage physics departments to help foster the history of physics by recording their histories, preserving important documents, and asking retiring scientists to provide a short record of their work and future plans. Copies of these materials will be deposited at the AIP Center for History of Physics. For more information, see the article on p. 4 or contact either of these two physicists.

Please consider nominating a deserving colleague for the Abraham Pais Prize and for APS fellowship through the Forum. Female candidates are especially welcome. Currently only 29 of the 602 fellows in the Forum are women. More information on either distinction may be found on p. 3 of this issue and on the Forum website.

Special thanks are due Past Chair Bill Evenson for his excellent leadership and smooth running of Forum affairs. And a warm welcome to those who were elected to the Executive Committee (whose terms began after the April 2008 APS meeting): the new Vice Chair Daniel Kleppner (MIT); and Francis Everitt (Stanford University) and Robert Arns (University of Vermont), both elected to three-year terms as Members-at-Large.

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