Stephen G. Brush

Stephen G. Brush

Fellow: Awarded 1999
Field of Study: History of Science and Technology

Competition: US & Canada

University of Maryland

Stephen G. Brush, a native of Orono, Maine, was one of forty finalists in the 1951 Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He received his A. B. in Physics summa cum laude at Harvard College (1955) and his D.Phil. in theoretical physics at Oxford University (1958). He held a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford (1955-58) and an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship at Imperial College, London (1958-59).

He was employed as a physicist at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (Livermore, California) from 1959 to 1965, doing theoretical research on the properties of matter at high temperatures and high pressures, and on the history of kinetic theory and statistical mechanics. Among his contributions to theoretical physics was the first computer calculation (“Monte Carlo” simulation) showing that an idealized classical plasma could condense to an ordered solid state. This result has been used in recent studies of stellar and planetary structure.

In 1965 Dr. Brush went to Harvard to participate in the development of the "Project Physics" course for high schools. This course was designed to attract students who would not become physics majors but, as citizens, would need to know something about science and might be more interested in a historical approach. He also held a part-time position at Harvard University as a lecturer on physics and history of science from 1966 to 1968.

In 1968 Dr. Brush came to the University of Maryland, College Park, as the first full-time historian of science there. He served as a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher in 1980-81, and in 1995 was named Distinguished University Professor, with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology . He helped to organize (in 1975) the Committee on the History and Philosophy of Science, which administered a graduate degree program in cooperation with the Departments of History and Philosophy, and served as Chairperson of the Committee for several years. He taught introductory and advanced courses and directed graduate work in the history of science, especially physical sciences and mathematics since 1500.

He has held visiting appointments at UCLA, the University of Minnesota, and the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton).

An outgrowth of the 1960s Harvard project was a historically oriented college textbook co-authored with Gerald Holton, Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science (1973), the second edition of a 1952 book with the same title by Holton. The third edition, titled Physics, the Human Adventure: From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond, was published in 2001. A reviewer in Physics Today (October 2001) wrote: “ … this book, in its three editions spanning half a century, is one of the great textbooks of our time… It offers a compelling account of the modern world view and a richly rewarding look at the place of physics in the Western intellectual tradition.” The following month, Dr. Brush was awarded the Joseph Hazen Education Prize of the History of Science Society, awarded each year “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the teaching of the history of science,” including influential writing or preparation of pedagogical materials as well as classroom teaching. The citation mentioned the recent publication of Physics, the Human Adventure, and other projects to enable teachers to use the history of science in their courses.

Dr. Brush has published five monographs on topics in the history of science. The Kind of Motion We Call Heat: A History of the Kinetic Theory of Gases in the 19th Century (two volumes, North-Holland, 1976) won the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society. Two others deal with related subjects: The Temperature of History: Phases of Science and Culture in the 19th Century (Franklin, 1978) and Statistical Physics and the Atomic Theory of Matter from Boyle and Newton to Landau and Onsager (Princeton, 1983). A three-volume work, A History of Modern Planetary Physics (Cambridge UP) was published in 1996; a review in Physics Today (January 1997) called it “a major work, splendid in execution.” A short monograph, Choosing Selection: The Revival of Natural Selection in Anglo-American Evolutionary Biography, 1930-1970, was published by the American Philosophical Society in 2009 and received that Society’s John Frederick Lewis Award. In 2004, he received the History of Geology Award from the Geological Society of America, primarily on the basis of the research reported in this work. Earlier publications on the history of planetary physics won the Pollock Award of the Dudley Observatory in 1987. In 2009, Dr. Brush won the Abraham Pais Prize for History of Physics, awarded by the American Physical Society.

Stephen Brush is co-author, editor, or translator of ten other books on physical science and its history. In more than 200 articles, notes, and book reviews, published in scientific and historical journals, he has discussed a variety of topics including kinetic theory, statistical mechanics, viscosity, superfluid helium, phase transitions, irreversibility, James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann, Ernst Mach, Hannes Alfvén, interatomic forces, the radiometer, the origin of the solar system and of the Moon, physical and chemical structure of the Earth’s interior, the age of the Earth, Comte’s positivism, Big Bang cosmology, Mendeleev’s Periodic Law, benzene, Morgan’s chromosome theory of heredity, and the relation between relative deprivation and collective violence. (A complete chronological list of publications may be found on his website,

Dr. Brush’s current research is a cross-disciplinary study, “How ideas became knowledge,” based on historical cases in which theories were accepted or rejected on the basis of empirical tests of predictions, or for other reasons. The project is also designed to find out whether scientists behave as philosophers say they should. Reports on ten of these cases (taken from astronomy, physics, chemistry, and social science) have been published so far. His research has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Brush was President of the History of Science Society in 1990 and 1991; he has chaired the Education Committee of this Society, served on its Council and the editorial board of its journal Isis, and has been its Washington Representative. He was founding editor of the History of Physics Newsletter. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) and served as a member of the APS Council, representing the History of Physics Division, of which he was a co-founder. He was a member of the APS Education Committee and helped to organize a program for high school physics teachers. He chaired the History of Physics Advisory Committee of the American Institute of Physics, and was a member of the committee to plan the centennial celebration (in 1999) of the American Physical Society. He is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a full member of the Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences.

In addition to his research, Dr. Brush published expository articles on three major themes of general interest: the use of history of science in science education; the creation-evolution controversy; and women in science. These articles led to numerous invitations to lecture at universities, teacher-training workshops, and churches.

At the University of Maryland, Dr. Brush served as President of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors in 1979-80, and during the following decade participated in the negotiations that led to the removal of the AAUP censure of the University. He also served as chair of the Faculty Council in 1982-83 and was elected to the Campus Senate to represent the History Department in 1991. He chaired the Human Relations committee of the Senate in 1991-92, 1993-94, and 2004-05.

As a faculty member, Dr. Brush actively participated in the campus-wide efforts to eliminate discriminatory practices, recognize cultural diversity, and improve undergraduate education. Through articles in The Faculty Voice and through the Campus Senate, he advocated policy changes such as dropping the mandatory use of the SAT in undergraduate admissions, increasing the funding for campus libraries, and developing upper-level certificate programs to fill a gap in general education offerings.

Dr. Brush retired in 2006 and was appointed Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of the History of Science.



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