Research Projects

Instrumentation and the quantum foundations

The materialization of gedankenexperiments was one of the primary reasons for the rise of quantum foundations in the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it is still unclear how and when the instruments and techniques underlying that materialization came about. This project aims to clarify these questions for the main instruments and techniques used in Bell's inequality experiments, the first and most prominent foundational experiments. It traces back the origins and development of the sources of entangled photons, analyzers, and detection sets used in Bell's inequality experiments. Its central conclusion is that there is a recurring pattern in the history of those instruments and techniques: they appeared before the war, developed momentously during and after the war, and enabled groundbreaking research in various fields. To no small degree, the instruments and techniques that enabled testing Bell's inequality resulted from tendencies characteristic of the first postwar decade in physics.

A Nobel for Detente?

In collabotarion with Karl Grandin

The aim of the research is to understand the rationale underlying the decision the Nobel Committee and Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences of awarding the 1964 Nobel prize to Charles Townes, Alexander Prokhorov, and Nikolai Basov, placing that decision in the context of the Cold War. The prize was shared by the American and the two Soviet physicists for their fundamental works that led to the invention of masers and laser. As with most of the notable scientific inventions, masers and lasers resulted from the works of several hands and minds. The Nobel Committee and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, as it often happens, had to face the daunting challenge of choosing the most significant contributors to outstanding scientific achievement. Adding to that challenge, they had to weigh the political and diplomatic implications of their decisions, what makes the whole process of awarding the prize rather interesting from a historical perspective.

In the Cold War, the Academy was involved in politics as never before. The media, East and West, was eager to use the prize as simulacra of hostility or détente between the major powers. The Academy did well in resisting outside pressure, but they did some politics on their own. As the historical literature of the prize suggests, to comprehend the outcome of the prize we have to consider all stages of the selection process, from the selection of invitations to nominate to the announcement of the laureates. The records of those stages offer remarkable insights not only on the prestigious scientific award but also on the role of scientists as players on the stage of (inter)national policy.

We may already understand partially the decision of the Academy based on the nomination archive. Several major contributors were not nominated in 1964 and therefore, according to the bylaws, could not be considered for the prize. Besides the three laureates, only Arthur Schalow could be considered for the prize. As the Nobel prize cannot be awarded to more than three persons at a time, being left out of the prize meant that Schalow was ranked 4th in the list of candidates, what is coherent with the nomination data for 1964 and the overall nominations to laser physicists.

More revealing, however, is the distribution of nominations across the Iron Curtain. The database reveals that all Eastern nominations advanced a shared prize, while almost all the Western nominations suggested that Charles Townes should receive the prize alone. Does that reflect the mood of the Eastern and Western scientific communities in the period?

That raises interesting questions that are beyond the reach of the nomination database. Did Soviet scientists articulate to advance a joint prize for the Soviet Union and the USSR? If so, what kind of argument they used to advance that goal? How did the Nobel Committee and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences weigh the scientific, political and diplomatic factors in choosing the laureates? How did it respond to outside pressure?