Peter M. Schuster on History of Science

The late Dr. Peter M. Schuster was a physicist and historian of science. After a career in industry, he founded a laser technology startup. Recovering from severe illness, he sold his company and became an author, science writer, and historian. He founded echophysics – the European Center for the History of Physics – in Pöllau castle, Styria, Austria.


In 2019 he  gave a talk, about history of physics and its challenges for European physicists (Physikgeschichte – Eine Herausforderung für die europäischen Physikerinnen und Physiker). It might have been his last public talk – according to his German website.

He quotes Robert Oppenheimer (also an erudite scientist – well-known for quoting a sacred Hindu text, when watching the mushroom-shaped cloud rising above the Nevada desert):

We live today in a world in which poets and men of affairs are proud that they wouldn’t even begin to consider thinking about learning anything of science, regarding it as the far end of a tunnel too long for any wise man to put his head into.

Schuster says, this 1953 statement is still valid: The worlds of science and the world of art still do not have much of an intersection. He asks what we physicists did wrong. Science outreach has become edutainment: Science is presented as an adventure, yet there is no desire to truly understand science.

Historical perspective is key for Schuster. He encourages physicists to care for their discipline’s history – instead of abandoning it and leaving to historians without training in science. He is aware of already packed university curricula and early specialization in physics – and demands a historical perspective because of that:

Dazu hat sich die Physik derart rasant entwickelt, dass Studierende heute einfach zur Spezialisierung gezwungen sind, wollen sie an die vorderste Linie gelangen. Gerade das macht den historischen Zugang zur Physik heute so vordringlich.

Schuster wants to promote history of physics into a sub-discipline of physics, instead of forcing physicists interested in history to join the history department – where they basically serve as a technical expert, providing scientific subject matter expertise to the trained historians. Instead, some physicists should have the privilege to recede from work in the trenches of specialized research. As dilettanti of science, they should be allowed to take a backseat. They should still use the language of physics, but their field would relate to physics as literature studies relates to poetry:

Hoffen wir also auf das Jahr der Gnade, wenn es einen Lehrstuhl für unsere Physikgeschichte geben wird, wenn es eine personelle und kurrikulare Einbindung der Physikgeschichte in die Departments of Physics geben wird, wie in Minneapolis, Yale oder Stanford, und Physikerinnen und Physiker nicht mehr ausschließlich an der Front arbeiten müssen. Wenn einige von ihnen berechtigt sind, ihre Aufgabe als dilettanti der Physik in einer ruhigeren hinteren Reihe zu erledigen, so wie seit eh und je Literaturwissenschaftler – der Germanist, der Romanist – als Amateure der Dichtung, oder wie der Kunsthistoriker als Amateur der Kunst. Wenn diese Physiker, die uns über die Geschichte der Physik berichten, auch die Sprache der Physik in Betracht ziehen – wie der Philologe, der über die Sprache der Poesie spricht –, wird sich eine Interessengruppe der Physik bilden, wie die Interessengruppe der Künste, dieseit Jahrhunderten in unserer Gesellschaft existiert.

Peter Schuster uses some examples to carve out the physicist-historian’s task, opposed to what he considers the world of a generic historian of science who he believes to be more ideology-prone – more biased towards the latest fads in science, clinging to biographical anecdotes rather highlighting the important moments in scientific discoveries, or sticking to the most well-known historical figures, such as Newton or Galileo.

In his own historical work, Schuster focused on the hitherto opaque life of Austrian physicists, on an era when those were at the forefront of modern physics, before the involuntary exodus and brain-drain in 1938. His ideal is a trained scientist with a well-rounded education, a physicist familiar with a historian’s techniques. The exhibition(s) in Pöllau castle he founded had required the technical knowledge of physicists familiar with antique apparatuses:

Auch Echophysics in Schloss Pöllau konnte nur aufgebaut werden, da wir auf die wenigen Physikerinnen und Physiker zurückgreifen konnten, die noch mit den historisch wertvollen physikalischen Instrumenten vertraut sind. Historikern fehlt dieses Wissen.

When he – or scholars he quotes – talk about those measurement instruments, they seem to speak not only of tools of science but also of artifacts. I wonder, if scientists of the past also saw these artistic aspects – the steampunk-like appeal that antique volt meters and telephones have, viewed through a modern lens. Schuster was obviously reading wide and deep. He quotes scholars of the humanities who propose that poetry might help science because why shouldn’t scientific systems make poets sings as roses and nightingales had done before.

I have read Schuster’s notable book on Christian Doppler’s life and work – a book that has also literary merit. Schuster uncovered Doppler’s place of death in Venice he personally. Back from excursions into poetry (in the quoted talk), he gives down-to-earth examples of Doppler’s influence, speaking about shock waves and gas dynamics.

Yet Schuster’s ‘defense’ of physics and history thereof goes far beyond the practical. He considers it pathetic, that physics seems to justify its existence by reciting the useful inventions spawned from its research, as nobody has doubts about their usefulness anyway. He misses the emphasis on the cultural impact of the foundations of science.

Ich mache der Physik den Vorwurf, dass sie ihre Berechtigung heute in der Gesellschaft stets durch ein Aufzählen der Produkte, die sie geschaffen hat, versucht nachzuweisen, was direkt hilflos wirkt, da keiner deren Bedeutung bezweifelt – dass sie aber nicht ihre kulturelle Bedeutung hervorhebt, die kulturelle Bedeutung ihrer Grundlagenforschung.

Schuster’s website tells us that he had been granted a one-year scholarship in literature after he had earned his PhD in physics. He also published poetry later in life. So I believe it is OK, if I try to create poetry from snippets of his talk.

I then let Google translate that poem to English:


Universal legend of the enchantment of the world

Fantasies of poets and dreamers
the relationship between theory and experiment
by and for physicists

the problem that has kept the best minds preoccupied since the Greeks

Start the machine
to open up an understanding of the nature of physics.
the smithy where all great thoughts were hammered.

Scientific and artistic thinking
how do you bring the two together constructively?

Physics has changed the face of the earth.
Physics is a cumulative process.

The universe of colors, tones and smells
that calls to be noticed.
Historians lack this knowledge.

Yesterday is not really there yet!

that starts with polishing and grinding lenses
how the news of the fall of Troy got to Mycenae
at constant speed on a curved path
aim the tube at the star to be examined
Maxwell also gave up on the problem

But what is it really like?
Like people who get caught in a data sheet,
under the auspices of the Professors of the History of Science
a philosophy that is anachronistic

move to great new deeds
happy coincidences, absurd wishes, seemingly foolish questions
in a quieter back row

no longer exclusively at the front
this first heroic series of theoretical physics
under professional pressure

the necessary, inevitable result
the “most beautiful equation in physics”
brought to life
however mostly not documented
It couldn’t be otherwise.


The original German version, snippets from Schuster’s text, randomly rearranged (but not edited).


Universallegende von der Verzauberung der Welt

Phantasien von Poeten und Träumern
die Beziehung zwischen Theorie und Experiment
von und für die Physiker

das Problem, das seit den Griechen die besten Geister beschäftigt hielt

Starten Sie die Maschine
das Verständnis der Natur der Physik zu öffnen.
die Schmiede, wo alle großen Gedanken gehämmert wurden.

Wissenschaftliches und künstlerisches Denken
wie bringt man die beiden konstruktiv zusammen?

Physik hat das Gesicht der Erde verändert.
Die Physik ist ein kumulativer Prozess.

Das Universum der Farben, Töne und Gerüche
das danach ruft, bemerkt zu werden.
Historikern fehlt dieses Wissen.

Das Gestern ist noch nicht wirklich da!

das beginnt mit dem Polieren und Schleifen von Linsen
wie die Nachricht vom Fall Trojas nach Mykene gekommen ist
mit konstanter Geschwindigkeit auf gekrümmter Bahn
das Rohr auf den zu untersuchenden Stern richten
Auch Maxwell resignierte vor dem Problem

Aber wie ist es in Wirklichkeit?
Wie Menschen, die in ein Datenblatt geraten,
unter der Schirmherrschaft der Professoren der Wissenschaftsgeschichte
eine Philosophie, die anachronistisch ist

zu neuen, großen Taten schreiten
glücklichen Zufällen, absurden Wünschen, töricht anmutenden Fragen
in einer ruhigeren hinteren Reihe

nicht mehr ausschließlich an der Front
diese erste heroische Reihe der theoretischen Physik
unter professionellen Druck

das notwendige, unausbleibliche Ergebnis
die „schönste Gleichung der Physik”
ins Leben gerufen
jedoch meist nicht dokumentiert
Es könnte kaum anders sein.


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