Russell McCormmach, 2010 Pais Prize Winner

Russell K. McCormmach

Russell K. McCormmach.

Last fall this newsletter reported that Russell K. McCormmach had been selected as the recipient of the 2010 Abraham Pais Prize for the History of Physics, "for the study of German science in the 19th and 20th centu­ries and a major biography of Henry Cavendish (with Christa Jungnickel, his late wife), and for founding the journal Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences." We promised at that time to offer additional notes on Professor McCormmach's work.

Professor McCormmach's work has had a profound influence in transform­ing the study of the history of physics from an activity of enthusiastic but untrained aficionados into an academic discipline worthy of a scholarly pro­fession. That transformation required not only exemplary models of scholar­ship, but also the development of the infrastructure so necessary to schol­arly discourse. Dr. McCormmach has been a key figure on both sides of the transformation.

Russell McCormmach was born in 1933 in Pendleton, Oregon. In 1959 he earned Bachelor's degrees from the Washington State University and Oxford University, and in 1967 the PhD from Case Western Reserve Uni­versity. He has taught physics, math­ematics, and the history of science at several institutions, including Wash­ington State University, San Francisco State University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, and Whitman College. He served as an assistant edi­tor of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the early 1960s.

Dr. McCormmach was the founding editor of the journal Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, editing Volumes I-III, and co-editing of Volumes IV-X.

A monumental history of German physics was forthcoming from Profes­sor McCormmach and his late wife, the writer Crista Jungnickel, in the two-volume Intellectual Masters of Nature: Theoretical Physics from Ohm to Einstein (University of Chicago Press, 1986). McCormmach and Jungnickel also brought Henry Cavendish out of rela­tive obscurity and misunderstanding with Cavendish (American Philosophi­cal Society, 1996) and Cavendish: The Experimental Life (Bucknell University Press, 1999). More recently, this was followed by McCormmach's Specula­tive Truth: Henry Cavendish, Natural Philosophy, and the Rise of Modern Theoretical Science (Oxford University Press, 2004).

McCormmach's well-known novel Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist (Harvard University Press, 1982) takes the reader into the mind of a fictional professor, Victor Jakob, an elderly physics instructor at a small German university in 1918. The sense of what "revolution in physics" meant to those who lived through it comes to life as we participate in Professor Jakob's struggles to cope as the permanency of his cherished scientific principles come crashing down all around him.

In an interview with Contemporary Authors (1 January 2004), Professor McCormmach said "When I want to understand something, I invari­ably look to see how it came about in time, that is, I study it through its history…I study not only how science has changed in time but also how the rest of the world has changed with it…I use different approaches: I write history to depict the working relation­ships of large numbers of scientists, biography to deal with the experience of a particular scientist, and fiction to get at the meaning of science in indi­vidual lives." More about Professor McCormmach can be found at

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