Discoveries at the Dibner


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This past summer, our quantum thermodynamics research group had the wonderful opportunity to visit the& Dibner Rare Book Library& in D.C. Located in a small corner of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, tucked away behind flashier exhibits, the Dibner is home to thousands of rare books and manuscripts, some dating back many centuries.

Our advisor,& Nicole Yunger Halpern, has a special connection to the Dibner, having interned there as an undergrad. She’s remained in contact with the head librarian, Lilla Vekerdy. For our visit, the two of them curated a large spread of scientific work related to thermodynamics, physics, and mathematics. The tomes ranged from a 1500s print of Euclid’s Elements to originals of Einstein’s manuscripts with hand-written notes in the margin.

The print of Euclid’s Elements was one of the standout exhibits. It featured a number of foldout nets of 3D solids, which had been cut and glued into the book by hand. Several hundred copies of this print are believed to have been made, each of them containing painstakingly crafted paper models. At the time, this technique was an innovation, resulting from printers’ explorations of the then-young art of large-scale book publication.

Another interesting exhibit was rough notes on ideal gases written by& Planck, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics. Ideal gases are& the& prototypical model in statistical mechanics, capturing to high accuracy the behaviour of real gases within certain temperatures and pressures. The notes contained comparisons between& Boltzmann,& Ehrenfest, and Planck’s own calculations for classical and quantum ideal gases. Though the prose was in German, some results were instantly recognizable, such as the plot of the specific heat of a classical ideal gas, showing the& stepwise jump& as degrees of freedom freeze out.&

Looking through these great physicists’ rough notes, scratched-out ideas, and personal correspondences was a unique experience, helping humanize them and place their work in historical context. Understanding the history of science doesn’t just need to be for historians, it can be useful for scientists themselves! Seeing how scientists persevered through unknowns, grappling with doubts and incomplete knowledge to generate new ideas, is inspiring. But when one only reads the final, polished result in a modern textbook, it can be difficult to appreciate this process of discovery. Another reason to study the historical development of scientific results is that core concepts have a way of arising time and again across science. Recognizing how these ideas have arisen in the past is insightful. Examining the creative processes of great scientists before us helps develop our own intuition and skillset.

Thanks to our advisor for this field trip – and make sure to check out the Dibner next time you’re in DC!&