Prof. David I Kaiser

Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science
Associate Dean for Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC)
Professor of Physics

Primary DLC

Program in Science, Technology, and Society

MIT Room: E51-179

Areas of Interest and Expertise

History of Modern Physics
Particle Cosmology
Pedagogy and Science Conference

Research Summary

History of Science: Professor Kaiser's historical research focuses on the development of physics in the United States after World War II, looking in particular at how the postwar generation of graduate students was trained. His first book, Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics (University of Chicago Press, 2005), traces how the American physicist Richard Feynman's idiosyncratic approach to quantum physics entered the mainstream. Ubiquitous today throughout nearly every branch of modern physics, the diagrams did not enter physicists' toolkit overnight. Personal mentoring and extended face-to-face contact proved crucial for putting the diagrams into circulation. Once they did begin to circulate, physicists crafted a dizzying array of uses and interpretations for them, far beyond anything Feynman had imagined. Drawing on insights from sociology and art history, the book scrutinizes what it takes for strange new tools to become "second nature."

More recently Kaiser has been working on a book about physics and the Cold War. American Physics and the Cold War Bubble (University of Chicago Press, in preparation) examines a massive experiment in social engineering that unfolded in the United States during the decades after World War II, in what might be called the credentialing of America. Higher education was booming; the classrooms of American colleges and universities bulged as never before, thanks to programs like the G.I. Bill. Enrollments in nearly every field grew exponentially. Yet graduate enrollments in physics grew fastest of all, at almost twice the rate of all other fields combined. Twenty-five years later, enrollments across nearly all fields in the United States underwent a major contraction. Physics again led the way, falling faster and deeper than any other field. Rising fastest and falling hardest, physics set the trend for larger transitions in American intellectual life, both in good times and bad. Unprecedented enrollment pressures -- and their equally unprecedented disappearance -- changed the nature of what it meant to be a physicist, from the rise of bureaucracy, to the specter of specialization, to a shift in the guiding epistemology behind cutting-edge research. The physicists' case stands as a cautionary tale -- highlighting the promise as well as the special challenges inherent in runaway growth -- as fields such as genomics and nanotechnology undergo their own frantic expansion today.

Recent Work