Weart honored with Pais Award

Spencer R. Weart
Christian Bibas

Spencer Weart

Spencer R. Weart has been awarded the 2015 Abraham Pais Prize for the History of Physics, “for foundational contributions to the intellectual progress, institutional underpinnings, and public impact of the history of physics, from nuclear physics to condensed matter to climate change.”

Weart has exerted a profound influence on the history of physics. Shaping the field for more than four decades, his outstanding scholarly achievements have opened new perspectives within the history of physics as well as new disciplinary areas of research. The path-breaking analysis presented in Physics circa 1900 (co-authored with Paul Forman and John L. Heilbron, 1971) remains central to historians’ assessment of the physics discipline.

His foundational studies in nuclear history, Scientists in Power (1979) and Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (1988, and its follow on The Rise of Nuclear Fear, 2012), have tracked the ramifications of the discovery of nuclear fission, defining frameworks within which other historians have long continued to work. As co-author of Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters from the History of Solid State Physics (1992), Weart gave key impulses to a new historiography that has since expanded manifold.

His broad reach across the physical and into the environmental sciences is on view in his book The Discovery of Global Warming (2003, expanded edition 2008, now translated into five languages). The clarity, precision, and dispassionate presentation so characteristic of Weart’s scholarly work have enabled it to exert a profound influence in multiple domains: on science education, on the discussion of contemporary policy issues, and on the general public’s perception of physics.

Weart has contributed importantly to defining expectations for the web-based presentation of intellectually rigorous scholarship, as his own website on the history of climate change research displays. Weart’s achievements stand out, moreover, in the context of developing the unique and crucial AIP Center for History of Physics, along with the Niels Bohr Library. Under his thirty-five year leadership, these facilities have not only encouraged, but also in many instances made possible, a broad range of scholarly research and its public presentation across the entire spectrum of the history of physics. Weart has helped lead major project documenting the development of astronomy, geophysics, lasers, condensed matter, and high-energy physics that have served a host of other researchers.

Along with his role as a researcher and mediator, Weart has had a significant impact, finally, through mentoring a cohort of younger historians.

Weart received a BA in physics from Cornell University in 1963 and a PhD in physics and astrophysics from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1968. He did postdoctoral work at the California Institute of Technology, supported as a Fellow of the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. He then undertook graduate training in history at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1974 to 2009 Weart directed the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics and its Niels Bohr Library, institutions dedicated to preserving and making known the history of physics, astronomy, geophysics, and allied fields.

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