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A Physics Course Through Time: Students Retrace the Steps of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Many More

Think back to those fundamental physics classes you took in college. For most, those memories involve a large lecture hall, a chalk board decorated with numbers and letters and a voice explaining how they all connected. For a handful of other students, however, their memories are very different.

Left: Einstein’s summer house in Caputh near Berlin. 
Einstein used to spend the summer months working and receiving guests in this house. 
The group got a detailed tour of the house.
Right: An impromptu lecture on gravitational redshift at the Einstein Tower at the Potsdam 
observatory near Berlin. Soon after completion of this solar observatory it became 
obvious that the instrument precision was insufficient to detect the effect, 
yet the observatory remained an active research site for other solar physics for years. 
According to legend, Einstein had only one word to say about the architectural style: “organic.” 
After the Nazis forced the observatory to remove Einstein’s bust from the foyer of the building, 
instead of destroying the bust, physicist hid it in a safe location and replaced it by a 
small stone ("a stone" in German is "ein Stein").
Credit: All images and captions in this post are courtesy of Gerd Kortemeyer

In 2008, physicist Gerd Kortemeyer and historian of physics Catherine Westfall, associate professors at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, took a trip overseas with a group of undergraduate MSU students. Over the course of five weeks, the groups visited Germany, Switzerland and Denmark where they not only learned, but experienced first-hand the sights and sounds out of which modern physics grew. Kortemeyer and Westfall offered the course again in 2011.

Left: View of the River Aare in Berne, Switzerland. Einstein spent some of his most 
productive and happy years in this quaint capital of Switzerland. Berne is rich in Einstein 
sights, has an excellent museum exhibit on Einstein in its Historical Museum, 
and its beautiful surroundings offer a welcome opportunity to follow Einstein’s footsteps 
as an avid hiker.
Right: Einstein’s 1905 apartment in Berne’s Kramgasse. 
Einstein lived here with his young family while working 
as a patent clerk in the nearby patent office.

“I reflect on my experiences in Europe all the time,” said Joel Adelsberg, an astrophysics major at the time of the trip who took the course in 2008. He is now in his second year of medical school. “I made some great friends on the trip that I still keep in contact with and I always think of my time there and the experiences I had.”

Einstein was granted US citizenship in 1940
after immigrating from Germany -
one of the many original documents
at the Einstein Museum in Berne.
Between 1905 and 1945, scientific luminaries like Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and Max Planck forever changed the modern world of physics. The Bohr model of the atom, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and quantum theory -- these concepts matured while these men strolled down some of the same streets, lounged in the same apartments and lectured in the same rooms that the MSU students visited during their time in Europe.

“In many respects I think the undergrad physics classes that we’re giving we’re doing physics a little bit of a disservice,” said Kortemeyer earlier this month at the APS April Meeting in Savannah, Georgia. “We are conveying a lot of subject matter, we are talking about mechanisms formulas and laws, but we have not conveyed what physics is really about. There’s a human element to this and much of that can be conveyed, we think, through the history of physics.”

Left: An original manuscript by Bohr from 1912, leading up to the publication of his 
1913 trilogy on “The Constitution of Atoms and Molecules.” Our course was able to 
go down to the archives of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.
Right: Few lecture halls have seen a higher concentration of physics Nobel laureates 
than the one at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. It was a particular 
perk of the trip to be able to give a series of lectures on 
quantum mechanics using Niels Bohr’s blackboard.

The group in 2008 visited the cities of Munich, Bern, Zurich, Berlin and Copenhagen. In 2011, the group toured the same cities, but their last stop was Gottingen instead of Copenhagen. The history and physics concepts the students learned throughout the course was in some way connected with each city they visited.

Copenhagen, for example, is the birthplace of Niels Bohr and also home to the Niels Bohr Institute. Through his work on atomic structure, Bohr made significant contributions to quantum theory. So, it was only appropriate for Kortemeyer to recognize the Nobel laureate's efforts by lecturing the students on quantum mechanics using the same blackboard that Bohr had used so many years ago.

Left: The historical instrument collection at the physics department of the 
University of Göttingen, Germany. While the instruments predate the time period of the 
course, a tour provided insights in the discovery of charges and radiation.
Right: The historical library of the University of Göttingen, Germany. 
Of particular interest is the original sorting scheme of the library, which has the
 shelves on physics right next to the shelves on witchcraft. If was exciting for students
 and faculty to browse the 1713 second edition of Newton’s Principia.

For Matt Dandois, one of the students who took the course in 2008, the museums were one of the most memorable learning experiences. Dandois graduated in 2010 and is now in his third year at MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“I definitely think that this study abroad trip helped me understand the concepts of physics, probably more than anything else could. Being immersed in the environment and culture where these brilliant scientists did their work put an amazing perspective on these concepts,” Dandois said. “Going to museums like the Deutsches Museum in Munich especially was amazing. They had an extensive science exhibit which had a lot to do with what we were learning.”

Left: Original components from Hahn, Meitner and Straßmann’s original 
experiment on nuclear fission, one of the many exhibits at the 
Deutsches Museum relevant to our course. We were able to spend more than
 one “night in the museum,” as we were able to secure quarters at the 
Kerschensteiner Kolleg inside of the museum complex.
Right: “Hands-On” exhibit on the photoelectric effect at the 
Deutsches Museum in Munich. The museum provided ample
 opportunities for miniature lectures on relevant physics topic, like this 
experiment whose 1905 explanation resulted in both
 Einstein’s Nobel Price and the birth of quantum mechanics. 

Because the students were always on the move from one historic sight and city to the next, most of their work was completed as written assignments when they returned to MSU. However, they kept journals of their experiences during the trip so that they could draw upon that material for their work. Some of the topics for their written assignments included "The Bohr-Einstein debates", "How come so many people overlooked fission?" and "Gravity and quantum mechanics: What's the problem here?".

Only a few of the students in each group were physics majors. Most were studying other scientific fields or were premedical. And it is non-majors who Kortemeyer said this kind of class could significantly benefit.

Left: We were able to visit the laboratories of the
 Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich. 
Both Albert Einstein and his first wife Mileva studied at the ETH, alas, 
the physics laboratories meanwhile moved to a newer building.
 It was exciting for our students to do the time
 warp to the present and see where quantum mechanics is 
today, like here in the quantum optoelectronics laboratory of Prof. 
Jérôme Faist. Students also learned more about graduate studies in physics.
Right: The Café Bar Odeon in Zurich, one of Einstein’s favorite coffee shops 
while studying at the ETH. Einstein set a bad example for our students, 
as legend has it that he spent more time here than in the lecture halls.
“Students come out of the [traditional physics] classes with a lot of mechanics and there’s an impression, particularly [from] non-majors, that you just find the right formulas and plug some numbers into that and you come out with other numbers and that’s physics,” he said. “And that makes you wonder, ‘Why would anyone do that to themselves?’.”

In 2009, Kortemeyer and Westfall combined surveys from students who took the physics course abroad and students who took a class they taught in a traditional classroom setting on MSU campus. The results suggested that the students who toured Europe felt like they had a more expert-like view of physics than students who completed the course on campus.

Kortemeyer said that he and Westfall hope to offer more courses abroad in the future.

For more details on the tours and how Kortemeyer and Westfall conducted the course check out "History of Physics: Outing the hidden curriculum?" and "The Physical Tourist: A European Study Course."


  1. Great trip . I think every University should try to arrange for such trips. My salute to the organizers of the trip.

  2. Wow, its amazing experience to learn physics with the real invention of the great scientists. The modern way of learning where one found the great memories of the astrologers and their things.

  3. We manufacture and export physics lab equipment / instruments for school, college and teaching laboratory since 1954.We are based in more

  4. This is really so informative and I am so pleased to get the idea Einstein’s history. Actually I am so pleased to get this information and can say that it would come to help us more. Take it up and inform like this.

  5. I'm always so inspired when I read about such smart and promising young students. I always want to achieve something myself after that.

  6. My graduation subject is physics and I am looking difference source for knowing about physics. I definitely think that this study abroad trip helped me understand the concepts of physics, probably more than anything else could. This is a good post forever and I am so pleased to get it here. Take it up.
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