Caltech Logo

The Impact of World War I on the Sciences

Thursday, October 3, 2019
6:30pm to 7:30pm
Add to Cal

Virgina Trimble presents this talk as part of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Lyne Starling Trimble Science Heritage Public Lecture Series.

The talk is free, but an RSVP via AIP's online form will be appreciated.

Join us before the talk for a reception beginning at 6:00 p.m.


World War II has been called the physicists' war - meaning radar, rockets, and the first fission bombs - and World War I the chemists' war - and you may well think of poison gases. In fact, of course, both wars made enormous changes across the entire face of science and society. I've picked "The Great War" to talk about partly because Andrew Gemant served in it (as a medical student, for Austria-Hungary), partly because of the recently-passed centenaries of the war and of general relativity, and also because no one now living remembers. In addition to poison gases, the German chemical community produced massive amounts of fertilizer via the Haber-Bosch process (which still feeds 60% or so of the world's population), new explosives, and the first detergents not requiring animal fat or vegetable oil. Stainless steel, duraluminum, and pyrex glass were new inventions. Medicine and dentistry learned new ways of transfusing blood, imaging injuries, fitting protheses, and repairing damaged faces. Damaged minds, then called shell shock, now post-traumatic stress disorder, were a much greater challenge, handled differently among the various combatant nations. Other items turn up in cryptography, geology, IQ testing, and pretty much anything you wonder about. Women went into labs and factories, onto the land, and in some cases out to the front lines, and came back with stronger desire (and arguably a stronger case) for voting rights. The nine million or more who died included poets, composers, artists, and, most likely to be remembered by scientists, Karl Schwarzschild (who worked out the first solution to the Einstein field equations while already in uniform) and Henry Moseley (who was in the process of sorting out the periodic table via X-ray scattering). Both were volunteers. Because I've been teaching the subject for four years, the accumulated images and examples overflow an office, let alone a 50-minute hour, but I'll try to pick out something you already know about, and something you don't.


Virginia Trimble is widely known in the international physics and astronomy communities. She has over 900 publications, including many outside traditional astronomy and physics. She received the National Academy of Sciences Award for Scientific Reviewing in 1986 and the AAPT Paul E. Klopsteg Memorial Award in 2001 for her book Cosmology: Man's Place in the Universe. In 2010 she received the George Van Biesbroeck Prize for her work in astronomy from the American Astronomical Society. She has held governance positions in the American Physical Society, the American Astronomical Society, the International Astronomical Union, and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. She has taught almost continuously since receiving her PhD, primarily at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Maryland. She is the 2019 recipient of the Andrew Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics.