Department of History, University of British Columbia
2023 to 2024
Knabenphysik: Cultural Crises, Postdoctoral Revolt, and Social Contexts of the Quantum Revolution
The project builds upon my recently published book that used approaches from cultural and social histories of science to understand the twentieth-century quantum revolution. The completed part focused on the nascent quantum discipline—predominantly young, multinational, and multicultural group of two hundred postdoctoral and graduate students, whose informal Copenhagen network invented the revolutionary theory of quantum mechanics circa 1925. The current project extends the scope beyond Europe into the 1930s, by following itinerant postdocs who built quantum-mechanical communities in North America, the USSR, and India, and explores how the new theory adapted to diverse cultures and societies, while maintaining its aura of universality. In the era of socio-economic crises, postdoctoral researchers survived precariously on temporary appointments and fellowships, but managed, on occasions, to acquire certain independence from senior professors. Some of the most radical and fundamental conceptual changes came about as a result intellectual emancipation, a revolt of the postdoc.