Julia Menzel

Ph.D. Candidate,  Program in History; Anthropology; and Science, Technology, Society, MIT

2022 to 2023
Research Fellow

Enigmatic Nature: Absent Laws and Hidden Objects in Theoretical Physics, 1967-2004

This dissertation is a critical history of theoretical physics from 1967 to 2004. It argues that starting around 1970, physicists in multiple fields came to regard nature as enigmatic, in the sense of both demanding and resisting interpretation. Theorizing how nature might be shaped by laws that are only faintly or indirectly evidenced within it, these scientists came to regard the physical world as an imprint, artifact, or effect of some absent and yet-unknown ordering principles—principles which that world instantiates without exhausting or making fully manifest. This project tracks this shift in the character of scientific theory across five fields of physics—condensed matter physics, particle physics, astrophysics, cosmology, and black hole physics—and relates it to major changes in the political economy of the natural sciences in the United States and in the place of physics in American culture and public life at the end of the twentieth century.